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By Roy Beaman, Th. D
     What you and I think matters not. A close study of the New Testament can alone tell us what is meant by "speaking with tongues."

     Different approaches may enrich our study. 1) One may look at the words of Jesus (Mark 16:17), the three instances in the book of Acts (At Jerusalem, at Caesarea and at Ephesus), and at the instance at Corinth. 2) Because of the prominence of Pentecost, one may compare all other instances with Pentecost. 3) One may study closely each word, phrase and clause. These include "speak," the word "tongues," and the adjective employed with "tongue" or language.

Mark 16:17
     Our Lord, Who most likely knew Hebrew as the literary language of His day, Aramaic as the local dialect and Greek in the cosmopolitan currents of His day, promised "tongues" only once (Mark 16:17). With the American Standard Version and most others, I accept this disputed passage as genuine and proceed to interpret it.

     He classed the miracle of "languages" as a sign, a miracle having accrediting or authenticating effect. Only when this effect is prominent is the speaking with languages genuinely practiced. Jesus' promise helps us to interpret the four NT instances.

     W-H [Westcott and Hort] put "new" in the margin; ASV in the text. It would mean "new" to the users without their study, a supernatural endowment without the long effort of learning a language sufficiently to converse in it. "Different in character" (Companion Bible).

Jerusalem - Acts 2
     2:4 "other" means "different" (heteros, not allos), a word more suitable to a real difference of language than of ecstatic experiences.

     "Tongues" stands for the Greek "glossa," whose basic meaning refers to the tongue as a member of the body, of men and animals. The main use of the tongue is to speak; thus the language spoken was by transference named from the member producing the speech. There is no instance in any phase of Greek which does not stem from these two meanings. There is no instance of "glossa" used of an ecstatic experience.

     The same two-foldness is seen in the Hebrew word "lashon" Exodus 11:17 refers it to the physical member of a dog; Genesis 10:31 illustrates the reference to language. It is translated "language" ten times and "tongue" ninety-eight times. Twice it figuratively refers to a "wedge" or tongue of gold. Three times it refers to a "bay," a tongue - like projection of water into the land.

     Besides, in Hebrew, sapah, probably originally meaning to lap, to lick, refers to the lip as a physical member of the body and then to the chief use of the lip, the language spoken thereby. See Genesis 11:1.

     The Aramaic cognate word "lishshan" refers to "language" (Daniel 3:4,7,31; 5:19; 6:26; 7:14). The Syriac, Arabic and Ethiopian words are similar.

     "Utterance" (Acts 2:4) stands for an infinitive meaning to speak forth, to speak out, to declare. The simple verb occurs in 4:18. The verb stresses clear speech or a language. 2:6, 8. The speakers both spoke a language and the hearers heard a language. "Glossa" appears in the NT fifty times. In these two verses a different word is introduced "dialektos," from which we get our word "dialect." The KVJ vacillated between "language" and "tongue;" the ASV used "language" uniformly. As the expression "in which we were born" and the words "each one" and "his own" and "our own" seem to indicate, "dialektos" may stress the peculiarities of language a bit more. At least, "dialektos" seems a bit more forceful here than the regular "glossa" would have been. 2:11 returns to "glossa" language.

     Our word "tongue" as language has become or is becoming obsolete to the man on the street. It is Anglo-Saxon, akin to the Teutonic word, akin to the Latin "lingua" and the Old Latin "dingua" from which our "language" comes, and has the twofold usage of referring to the physical tongue and the language spoken by the tongue. The Latin has the same twofold development of meaning. So the Romance Languages, as Spanish "lengua."

     Acts 2:9-11 enumerates the varied areas and therefore the varied linguistic patterns spoken by these miraculously endowed believers. The main thrust is that of approximate universality.

     The obvious purpose of the gift at Pentecost was missionary, to conquer a language barrier. It was a part of the accrediting work or sign of the Holy Spirit.

     Several scholars (as B. H. Carroll and F. F. Bruce) have seen Pentecost in part as a reversal of the curse of Babel. At least two linguistic miracles can be named:

     1) The Galilean dialect of the apostles, especially that of Peter, was noticeable. The loss of its peculiarities would be a striking accomplishment.

     2) Still more striking was the leaping of language boundaries into "different" languages. Only such a radical change accounts for the marvel on the part of the crowd at Pentecost.

Caesarea - Acts 10:46
     One argued that the gift of tongues had to be different since there was no language problem at Caesarea. Just the opposite is true. Caesarea was a port where many nationalities came. At Pentecost in Jerusalem, there may have been a greater medley of languages; but what we know about Caesarea, Ephesus and Corinth demonstrates a rather numerous gathering of languages.

     As before, note the verb "hear" and the noun "language." I translate the sentence, "For they were hearing them speaking with languages and magnifying God." The root of the second participle is the same as "wonderful works" or great things in Acts 2:11. The points of similarity are striking.

Ephesus - Acts 19:6
     Note the plural "languages" as before to meet the complex linguistic situation.

     In I Corinthians 12:10 prophesying is listed as another gift, but here speaking with languages and prophesying are tied together by "and." The gift of prophesying obviously refers to testifying or witnessing from Scripture about the Messiah. It must not be limited to foretelling future events; here the emphasis on edification seems not to make it necessary to include foretelling of future events in the gift of prophesying. For us who have not the supernatural endowment here specified, the lesson most likely is that of. witnessing for Christ or testifying about Him.

Corinth - I Corinthians 12-14
     A broad understanding of I Corinthians may help us to appraise properly the tongues movement at Corinth. For the general needs of the Christian life at Corinth, the indwelling Spirit is stressed, not the accrediting gifts which passed with the early decades of Christianity. Although other references to the Holy Spirit appear, most references center around two emphases - personal and individual (6:19) and corporate (3:16).

     Perhaps the best method for study here is to take each statement as it occurs in I Corinthians 12, 13 and 14. The diversity of opinion here should keep us from dogmatism and yet spur us to weigh carefully each word. A careful outline will help to set the ideas into proper correlation.

Spiritual Gifts, Their Use and Abuse (I Corinthians 12-14)
     I. Their Nature and Comparative Value (ch. 12).

     II. The More Excellent Gift of Love (ch. 13).

     III. The Gift of Languages Less than Prophecy (ch. 14).

I. Their Nature and Comparative Value (ch. 12).

     1. The Spirit-Prompted Confession (12:1-3)

     2. The Spirit's Differing Gifts (12:4-11). 12:10 Three spiritual gifts are to be observed here - prophesying and two on languages, both the speaking in languages and the interpretation of languages. The latter will come up in more detail in ch. 14.

     The new item here is "kinds of languages," stressing the plural and the same idea as in Acts 2 on "different" languages. "Divers" (KJV and ASV) and "various" (New Scofield) simply sharpen the term "kinds." The idea is implicit in the Greek and strengthens the view that the Corinthian situation dealt with a language problem, not an ecstatic one. The meaning of the term appears in 14:10. The same word (genos) for "kind" in 12:28 is rendered "diversities" (KJV) and "divers kinds" (ASV)

     12:28, 30. When enumerating spiritual gifts, Paul specifically does not make the gift of languages the most prominent or climaxing gift. Most of those who contend for the gift of languages today make it the capstone in consecration and demand it of every believer if he reaches the ideal set before him. It is at times made the all-determining mark of devotion to the Lord and endowment by the Holy Spirit. 12:31 definitively does not mark the gift of languages as the "best" or "greater" gift. I translate the pertinent clause of 12:30, "All do not speak with languages, do they?" The negative particle or adverb "me" (not) expects a negative answer and shows that not all believers were expected to have this special "charisma" (gift). Yet some claim that any Christian lives beneath his privilege who does not have this climaxing gift. The way of love in ch. 13 is the more excellent, way, a gift or endowment superior from the spiritual angle to the gift of speaking with languages.

II. The More Excellent Gift of Love (ch. 13)
     12:31 and ch. 13 give the great principle for governing the exercise of spiritual gifts. Love is superior to all gifts.

     13:8 in its entirety is a crucial passage. Three supernatural or miraculous gifts are treated alike. What right have we to concede that two are no longer possessed by believers while some claim that one is current? The force of the argument is that the three are accrediting gifts for the early days of the establishment of Christianity. Once that accrediting work was done, each of the three passed. Not one word is hinted about a reviving of one of them in the "last days."

III. The Gift of Languages Less than Prophecy (ch. 14)
     Paul compares spiritual gifts one with another, especially the one which the Corinthians tended to overvalue and to abuse. He stressed the superiority of prophecy over languages.

     14:1-5 stresses the former rating of prophesying as superior to the gift of languages. In these verses Paul makes some statement about the lesser gift which must be pondered,

     As the later statements show, verse 2 refers to one with the gift of languages who insists that he speak in a congregation which does not know the languages with which he has been supernaturally endowed. If I have the gift to speak Chinese and Japanese, I must desist from speaking in a congregation where no one understands these Far Eastern languages. One condition may change the situation. If someone can interpret the Chinese or Japanese, then arrangements may be provided for the one with the gift to speak.

     Otherwise, he may worship God freely and speak "mysteries" (revealed secrets) since he comprehends the languages which he is miraculously endowed to speak. In 14:5 Paul must refer to real languages, not ecstatic or unintelligible rhapsody, since throughout he stressed intelligent understanding.

     To translate "in tongues" as "in ecstasy" is to add one's own interpretation, not to translate. One should translate accurately. If one thinks that "in ecstacy" is the net result, such should be marked as his personal opinion, not as translation.

     14:6-12 stresses the importance of intelligible speaking. There is no profit unless one has one of the four means of clarification enumerated by Paul in 14:6. He emphasizes "easy to be understood" (14:9). Note "words." Paul never conceived of the exercise of the gift of tongues apart from words and words easy to be understood. In 14:12, the issue is not self-edification but edification of the listening congregation. This shows that the interpretation for which he is to pray (14:13) is with reference to the congregation.

     14:13-17 turns aside to a special case. Paul urges the one with the gift of languages in a congregation which does not understand him to pray for a second gift, that of interpretation. "Unknown" added by the translators in italics adds the sense of a language not "easy to be understood." Paul presents a hypothesis in 14:14. If Paul joined in prayer when he did not understand the words, his understanding would be "unfruitful." If the Spirit of God is anything, He gives light and understanding, not confusion and indistinctness.

     Paul, an adept in languages (14:18-19). Very likely Paul knew Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Latin; he may have known others. In any case, his number of languages exceeded theirs. They were, at least some of them, tempted to spiritual pride. Paul again stresses the importance that the language be comprehended by the assembly. "Than ten thousand words in an unknown language" means unknown to the people to whom the words should be spoken. In no sense does Paul refer to words incomprehensible to him. In no instance does he refer to a language unknown to the speaker but to the ones addressed. The gift of interpretation was not to interpret the language to the man who had the gift of languages, but to the listener who did not understand the language. Otherwise, the gift of languages would be, in the mind of the man possessing the gift, a matter of confusion. God never authors such confusion; whatever the gift brought to the one endowed, it could not bring an ecstatic state poorly perceived by the one possessing it.

     Regulating rules for those with gifts of languages -

     1. Not more than two or three in any gathering (14:27). How different this is from modern practice! Some urge that the more who speak the better.

     2. "By course" (14:27) means one at a time.

     3. One can desist or speak according to his choice (14:32). Some urge that one with this gift cannot keep from speaking. When the Spirit has absolute control, our personalities are not crushed in any wise but sharpened, intensified, elevated. If the Holy Spirit is light, the perceptions and feelings are sharpened but not obliterated, stultified, nor diminished.

     4. Other gifts are more valuable, as observed above.

Conclusions -
     1. The importance of translating the words for "tongues" into everyday English. Such would greatly clarify the situation.

     2. The force of "speak."

     3. The accrediting purpose of the gift of languages. By "accrediting" I mean initiation, strengthening and authentication of a new world movement.

     4. The effect of Paul's regulating rules.

     5. Why not in other places? Let me put it positively, "Why these?" There was a complex linguistic situation. It was a missionary thrust. It was an accrediting act before Christianity became generally established. If it is genuine today, it would further the thrust of the gospel where the language barrier is strong, not in a community where all speak and understand the same language.

     "Unknown" indicates a subjective sense - unknown to the hearers - not unknown objectively to the one endowed with the gift of languages.

     Paul took for granted that his readers would understand his shift from one viewpoint or perspective to the other. From lack of noting this shift of perspective, several have missed Paul's point of view. Paul quickly shifts from the man with the gift of languages when he is in the congregation to what he says of the man in his private devotions.

     Whatever abuses there were at Corinth, the rules which Paul gave would have corrected them. Those who oppose the view here adopted are bound by the Scriptures to observe carefully the rules or regulations which Paul taught.


[Dr. Roy Beaman, Professor, Mid-America Baptist Seminary, Memphis, TN. From a manuscript provided by the author to my son, James K. Duvall, 1980.]

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