Are Tongues & Prophecy for Today?
October 9, 2022 Preacher: Kevin Godin Series: Growing in Grace
Topic: Spiritual Gifts Scripture: Hebrews 2:1-4
One of my favorite places to go as a kid was Cedar Point. That was a place filled with endless excitement and fun. Cedar Point is not that far from here. It is less than a 2 hour drive, but as a kid it seemed like it took forever to get there. I was so excited to go that it felt like we were driving halfway across the country whenever we went.
I guess a few of you have felt that way waiting for today’s message. As we worked our way through 1 Corinthians 12-14 I said that I didn’t think the gifts of tongues, which is speaking in unlearned language, or prophecy, which is proclaiming verbal revelation from God, are gifts generally operating in the church today. I wanted to focus on Paul’s main point as we looked at those passages, so I promised I would circle back later and explain why I said that. That is what I hope to do today.
I am going to do this by making a series of observations from biblical texts. I won’t have time to thoroughly explain all my interpretations, but I hope most will be obvious. At the very least, I hope to draw you deeper into the scripture as you work these things out in your own thinking.
I am also going to do something that I think often gets ignored, which is to offer a perspective on what these modern experiences are if they are not the gifts we see in the Bible. I will have even less time to develop those ideas but since so many people have these experiences, I think it is appropriate to offer a framework for understanding them.
We will begin with tongues and then move on to prophecy but first, let’s get a bit of vocabulary out of the way. Those who believe the gift of tongues and prophecy continue into the modern age are known as continuationists. These include people who identify as Pentecostal or Charismatics. Those who believe that these gifts do not continue are known as cessationists because they believe these gifts ceased. There is a wide spectrum of views within both groups.
My position is often called functional cessationism. That means that I do not say it is impossible for this to happen today, but I am convinced that it would be in very rare and spectacular situations that they do. So, I believe the function of the gifts in the regular life of the church has ceased.
I do not believe there is a definitive passage that teaches these gifts must end before Jesus comes back but they have a specific function that is no longer required. When we look at what are called the gifts today and how they are used, I see something different in their use and function than we find in the New Testament.
When interpreting scripture, we should allow the clearer passages to inform how we understand the less clear passages. We should also prefer the simplest explanation that accounts for all the relevant texts. That becomes especially important for tongues. The first example of tongues in the New Testament comes at Pentecost. Acts 2:4 says,
4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.
Then a few verses later in Acts 2:11 it says,
11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”
Luke mentions all these different groups heard the message in their own language. What we are dealing with here are clearly human languages that the Apostles had not learned but were able to speak. Many foreign speakers were present and the Apostles spoke directly to them by the Spirit.
The second time it is mentioned is when the first gentiles receive the Spirit in Acts 10:45–47. It says,
45 And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, 47 “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
Peter recognizes that it is the same gift that was in operation at Pentecost. In Acts 11:15, when Peter explains what had happened, he says,
15 As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning.
It is the same gift. That’s why it is credible to the Jewish believers. Later in Acts 19 when Paul is in Ephesus twelve of the followers of John the baptizer are converted and they speak in tongues and Luke gives no indication the gift is any different. It seems clear that in the book of Acts, the gift of tongues involves the speaking of unlearned human languages.
Many continuationists agree that the gift in Acts is human language but they claim that in 1 Corinthians 12-14 we see another kind of tongues. They believe that in Corinthians Paul is talking about ecstatic utterances of unintelligible language and/or a private prayer language. The same word is used for tongues in Corinthians and in Acts so if the passages in Corinthians make sense accepting the meaning from Acts, then there is no reason to think it is a different gift. The burden of proof is on those who think Luke and Paul are describing two different things with the same words.
The word is the Greek word γλῶσσα. It does refer to ecstatic utterances in literature describing worship at pagan temples but is not used that way in early Christian literature. Christian literature overwhelmingly supported tongues as human language for over 1800 years. The important question, however, is do Paul’s statements about tongues make sense if we assume it is human language as Luke describes. Let’s look.
1 Corinthians 14:2 says,
2 For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.
Some say in Acts they speak to men but here they speak to God and in mysteries so it is something different. But context is important. In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul is addressing people speaking in tongues in worship services when nobody was there to interpret. They were speaking to God because nobody else present could understand the languages they were speaking. They were uttering mysteries because what they were saying was hidden.
In fact, a few verses later when Paul explains why he is commanding them to stop he makes specific reference to human languages. 1 Corinthians 14:10–11,
10 There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, 11 but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.
A few verses later, Paul again makes specific reference to a human language that was unknown to the listeners when he says,
21 In the Law it is written, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” 22 Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers…
This is a reference to the Assyrian language. He is quoting Isaiah 28:11. God had spoken clearly through the prophet that He would give the people rest if they trusted in Him, but the people rejected the plain words of Isaiah and so now God was speaking to them in judgment through the foreign language of the Assyrians.
Some point to other examples, however, where they say Paul is clearly talking about spiritual language or a personal prayer language. For example, in 1 Corinthians 14:28 he says,
28 But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God.
But I don’t find this convincing because Paul is addressing disruption in the worship service caused by tongues, and one could very well pray in an unlearned language if the Spirit gave them the ability to express themselves in it. Paul isn’t teaching about what tongues are here, he is simply telling them not to share it out loud if there is no interpreter.
It is also claimed that the languages are not discernable because tongues are a form of angelic language. This comes from chapter 13 verse1, but again there is a much simpler way to read it. Paul says,
13 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
But Paul isn’t saying that people speak in this tongue. He is making an extreme comparison. He is saying that even if we could speak in tongues to such an exalted level that we could speak the language of angels, which nobody does, we are still nothing without love. We have a strong clue that this is what he is doing because he uses similar exaggeration in the other examples in that passage,
2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Would anyone claim to understand all mysteries? Would anyone claim a faith that could move mountains? What more extreme sacrifice can be made than that of one’s life? Paul is not saying tongues are angelic language, he is saying no spiritual gift of languages is superior to love.
The very idea of a spiritual gift with a private purpose is foreign to Paul’s way of thinking. Spiritual gifts are not gifts to individuals but to the church. They are delegated to individuals to equip them for ministry to others, not themselves. Paul is clear about this in 1 Corinthians 12:7,
7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
I don’t find the case that Paul is talking about something different from Luke convincing. I also do not think the modern practice of tongue speaking as unintelligible, ecstatic, or personal language fits what we see in the Bible. Let me quickly address a few other misunderstandings about tongues.
Those who teach that tongues must accompany the baptism of the Holy Spirit are clearly wrong because in 1 Corinthians 12:12-13 Paul plainly says that ALL believers have been baptized into the Spirit and all believers drink of one Spirit.
He says in Ephesians chapter 1 that we have received every spiritual blessing in Christ and are all sealed by the Spirit. WEdo not lack anything essential to the faith if we do not speak in tongues. In 1 Corinthians 12:29-30 Paul could not be more clear that not all speak in tongues.
What then is happening to people who do this? I don’t think it is the gift of tongues, but when exhibited by those who are truly believers as they pray, I think the best explanation is it is a form of psychological relaxation or meditation. Musicians and athletes often get into a zone when playing and I think similar things happen when we focus intensely in other ways. Some people apparently experience prayerful meditation in this way, but I am not persuaded this is the Spiritual gift of tongues.
There is a lot more we could say about tongues, but we need to shift to prophecy. The first relevant observation about prophecy is that we are repeatedly commanded to be discerning about it. The Bible is full of warnings about false prophets. The Law establishes inerrancy as the standard for evaluating prophets. Deuteronomy 18:21–22 says,
21 And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— 22 when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.
A person could not claim to speak God’s words through direct inspiration and be wrong. Virtually nobody who says they have the gift of prophecy today claims to meet that standard. Continuationists usually argue that New Testament prophecy is different from Old Testament prophecy. The idea is that in the new covenant, the gift still operates but its nature has changed and now prophets can be mistaken. That is a significant claim and I think a high burden of proof rests on those who claim that the gift in the New Testament is different than in the Old.
Continuationists point to verses like 1 Corinthians 14:29 which says,
29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.
The argument is that in the new covenant people are expected to sift through these prophecies so mistakes are anticipated. We are supposedly told in the New Testament to evaluate prophecies rather than prophets themselves as in the Old Testament.
This is unconvincing because weighing what was said seems no different to me than what happened in the Old Testament. The only way to judge a prophet is to evaluate their prophecies. A command to evaluate prophecies does not imply that a true prophet can be wrong. To claim that the nature of prophecy changed based solely on inference requires pretty convincing examples.
We would expect very clear examples from the New Testament of prophetic mistakes, but there just aren’t any. The best case continuationists can make comes from Acts 21 but I don’t think it works.
In Acts 21:4 Luke writes,
4 … having sought out the disciples, we stayed there for seven days. And through the Spirit they were telling Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.
We are told earlier Paul is led by the Spirit to go, then believers in Tyre tell him through the spirit not to go, but later a prophet Agabus says Paul will go and gives further details, which we will come back to in a moment. Well, Paul ends up going. Was he disobedient? Were these people mistaken in their speaking through the Spirit? I don’t think so.
The simplest way to read this is that the Spirit accurately revealed to the believers at Tyre that Paul would suffer in Jerusalem and because of their concern for him they were urging him not to go. We see the same thing again more clearly in verse 12 when after Agabus tells them what would happen they urge him not to go and Paul tells them they are breaking his heart. It was the response, not the prophet, who was wrong.
Some also claim that Agabus made mistakes in his details. Acts 21:10–11 says,
10 While we were staying for many days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. 11 And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’ ”
Agabus claims to speak for God. In verse 11 he says “thus says the Holy Spirit”. He says Paul will be bound and delivered to the Gentiles by the Jews in Jerusalem. As we read further, however, what happens is that a mob in Jerusalem was beating Paul and trying to kill him when he is rescued by the Roman soldiers and then taken into custody. Did Agabus get this wrong?
Paul didn’t think so. Listen to how he later describes it in Acts 28:17,
17 After three days he called together the local leaders of the Jews, and when they had gathered, he said to them, “Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans.
Paul uses the same language as Agabus to describe what happened to him. We must be careful not to insist on a mathematical standard of detail in prophecies. But there is a difference between levels of detail and being wrong. Suppose a prophet revealed to you that I was going to unexpectedly drive to Chicago tonight. If I call you tomorrow from Chicago, but I had taken a bus, I think we would all recognize that as a fulfillment. That is the equivalent of what happened with Agabus.
The arguments that prophecy in the New Testament is different are just not compelling enough to prove the case. The description of prophecy the apostle Peter gives in 2 Peter 1:20 doesn’t sound like something different.
20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
There are no examples from the New Testament that make me think the nature of prophecy is any different there than in the Old Testament and I just do not think what is called prophecy today is what we see in the Bible. I am also convinced that the role the New Testament gives to prophecy makes its continuation unlikely. In Ephesians 2:20-21 Paul says that the church, which is the fellowship of believers with Jesus and each other is
20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.
Through apostles and prophets God revealed the testimony about Jesus and as we saw with Agabus, guided the church as it was being established. That foundation has been laid. It is what Jude calls “the faith once for all delivered to the saints”, it is “the pattern of sound words” we read about in 2 Timothy 1:13. Therefore the apostle Peter, who saw the transfigured glory of Christ and heard the voice of God thundering from heaven, says we have something even better because we have a prophetic word more fully confirmed.
There can be no other foundation laid. Nobody builds a building and puts another foundation on the roof. Once it is there it is finished, solid, and supports everything else. The author to the Hebrews makes clear the foundational role of those who exercised Spiritual gifts such as tongues and prophecy. Hebrews 2:1-4 says,
2 Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. … 3 how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, 4 while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.
God bore witness to the testimony of the apostles and prophets through Spiritual gifts. The purpose of the prophetic gifts was to attest to the message of Christ and to bear witness to its power as the church was being established. This is done and we are told now to pay attention and not drift from that message that has been delivered, attested, and confirmed.
It is that message that we are called to point people. That we all fall short. We have all sinned and rejected God and therefore do not deserve glory or heaven. That we deserve punishment and are incapable of doing anything to rescue ourselves.
But that God is loving and merciful and sent His son Jesus to be a substitute for every sinner who would put their faith in him. That he was punished and died on the cross for sins that were not his, but ours. That on the third day, he was raised from the dead in power and is now with the Father, preparing a place for those who love Him. That he is coming again soon to bring those who believe in him and repent into his kingdom and to bring judgment on those who reject the grace he offers and choose to stand on their own works.
These are the truths that all the prophets point to and build from. This is the testimony of the church, and the testimony of every believer is that he died in our place to bring us to God. The New Testament prophets and apostles guided the early believers in establishing and authenticating that this testimony came from heaven itself.
So, what is going on with godly people who sincerely believe they have this gift today? I don’t deny they are experiencing a spiritual gift; I just don’t think it is prophecy. The Bible also talks about the gifts of discernment and of wisdom and I think that is often what these experiences are. I have heard many so-called prophesies and they tend to fall into one of three categories.
Some are clearly nonsense and so unbiblical they can be easily rejected. So, the first category is simply delusion and unfortunately, there is a lot of that going around. The second category is when people essentially share or apply things that are already clearly taught in the Bible.
I have had brothers tell me they have received a word that we should pray for someone or address a need, those kinds of things. Well, yes, the Bible already tells us to do those things. That is the Spirit bringing an already revealed word to mind and guiding a brother or sister in how it should be applied in a particular circumstance. I believe that is the gift of wisdom.
The third category is when people receive certain intuitions that are beyond ordinary experience. Have you ever walked into a place and just had a very distinct feeling you did not belong there? Or had a strong feeling that you should reach out to someone and when you do it was just the right timing? Maybe you had a clear sense about something going on with someone else, things like that.
There are times when some believers experience something beyond and more specific than natural intuition. I believe this is the gift of discernment rather than prophecy. We can be mistaken in these intuitions and cannot claim them as direct authoritative revelations from God. We don’t ignore them, but they do not have prophetic authority. We do not build lives or ministries upon them.
I do not deny a legitimate role for all these experiences, but they are not new verbal revelation. They are really a form of illumination where the Holy Spirit applies the truths of the already proclaimed word to produce wisdom and discernment in the life of believers. Our faith is a supernatural faith. The Holy Spirit orchestrates all our experiences and blesses us with insights, but the Spirit is always working with the word. The Word is the foundation upon which the other blessings are always anchored.
Does all this mean that a legitimate experience of tongues or prophecy cannot happen today? No, I would not say that. In 1 Corinthians 13:8–10 Paul says,
8 … As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.
I agree with continuationists that the “perfect” refers to the revealing of Jesus Christ and the establishment of the Kingdom in its fullness. All these gifts belong to the time of preparation that will end when Jesus returns. But Paul is comparing this era to that era and is not saying that every gift will be always in use. He is saying that when Jesus comes we won’t need any of these gifts anymore. After listing various gifts in Chapter 12 he says in verse 11,
11 All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.
I am not going to put God in a box. He sovereignly decides what he will do. I have no reason to think that it is impossible for these things to happen today. There may very well be circumstances, especially in missionary contexts, where these gifts would function similarly to what we see in the New Testament. I have heard reports of such things and have no reason to immediately dismiss them.
But when we look at the function of these gifts and how they are described, I don’t think they line up with what we mostly see happening today. Our ultimate standard and the foundation for all our teaching and ministry must be the clear revelation of God in his word rather than any experiences we have. What is called tongues and prophecy today, in my opinion, just does not match what we see in the Bible.
There are godly brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree with me on this and yet sincerely seek to be biblical. Several teachers and pastors I respect hold a continuationist view. We must not assume that everyone who believes the gifts continue is theologically irresponsible. Even so, there is a tidal wave of heresy and false teaching that appeals to prophetic continuation because it allows false teachers to manipulate people more easily.
My appeal to you, whatever your view, is to stay anchored to the Word. The Word of God is a more-sure word. It is sufficient to train us in righteousness and equip us for every good work. If a supposed revelation contradicts the Bible, it is to be rejected. If it conforms to the Bible, then it is unnecessary since it is a truth God has already given us.
Yes, something can be helpful without being necessary but just as Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 12-14, our focus should be on the building up of one another in love. We are called to proclaim the gospel and make disciples and if we have Christ and the word, we have everything we need to be faithful in doing that.
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