Speaking in Tongues

This sermon first delivered at Pigeon Cove Chapel in Rockport, Mass, on August 20, 2006

Reading: 1 Corinthians 14:1-25

You may not be aware of it, but there is one major distinction between Valerie and me. Valerie is a milk guzzler. I like milk. I’m fond of milk, but I don’t really drink a lot of it. I like to put it *in* things. A little milk in my coffee. Some milk in my cereal… But I can almost never drink the stuff straight. If I’m going to drink a glass of milk, I have to put something in it… like Ovaltine. I love Ovaltine. Valerie just likes the taste of milk. She can just pour herself a whole glass of milk and just… drink it.

I also like to think that I’m pretty good with words. Words are my tool of choice in almost any situation. But these two basic realities came into conflict a few years ago, before Valerie and I were married. It was a pretty normal situation, really. She was with me at my apartment, sitting with a glass of milk. I was heading in the general vicinity of the kitchen, so she asked me to take her glass with me. The only problem was that her glass was still mostly full. The solution was simple: She tipped her head back, and finished off the glass – the entire thing – in a single pass.

I was appalled. The thought of drinking that much milk in on sitting was nearly nauseating to me. I decided I had to do something. I had to make a stand.

So I looked down my long nose at her and, putting as much disdain into my voice as was humanly possible, I said, “Milk guzzling is approbatious.” This failed to have the effect that I had anticipated. My fiancé was not properly mollified. She didn’t look even impressed.

“What?” she said.

“Milk guzzling… is… approbatious.”

“Okay. What does that mean?”

“It means… worthy of approbation,”

“And? What does that mean?”

“Scorn. Derision. Something like that… Um, I think.” I said, frantically scurrying. This was not turning out as I had planned.

“Uh huh.” She raised a quizzical eyebrow. “Why don’t you go look it up?”

So I did. This was the moment of truth for me. I had her cornered now. Once I read that definition, she’d be properly ashamed. I flipped it open, found the word: “Approbation… means ‘Approval.’”

I ducked my head and left the room to the sound of pealing laughter.

So, I’m here to tell you today that language is important. It’s especially important, though, to the church, which is a community formed by the word of God. The title of my message today is “Speaking in Tongues,” which you might have gathered from Valerie’s reading from 1st Corinthians 14, but before you get excited, you need to know that I’m not going to be talking about it the way that you might expect.

Hopefully we all know what “speaking in tongues” normally refers to: it’s a gift from the Holy Spirit that enables a person to speak in a language that they have never learned. It is clearly a very real gift that God gave to Christians in the early church as a sign that the Holy Spirit had been released among them.

You first hear about it in the 2nd chapter of Acts, where, on the day of Pentecost, 50 days after Jesus death on the Cross, all the disciples were gathered together in an upper room. The Holy Spirit fell on them in tongues of fire; there was a sound of a mighty rushing wind, and they all began praising God in any number of languages. They come out of the room, and they are surrounded by visiting Jews from all over the world, who are amazed to hear local Palestinians speaking in their native tongues. Peter gets up, preaches to them about Jesus, and about 3000 people are added to the church.

However, not everything that’s from God is appropriate all the time. As Paul says, “the spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets.” Just because God has given you a spiritual gift doesn’t mean he’s going to compel you to use it all the time. He expects individual Christians to act with discretion.

Now here is where I’m going to diverge a little bit from the normal sort of discussion on speaking in tongues. There has been a big debate the last few hundred years over whether tongues is a gift that God still gives to people. If you want my honest opinion on that, I’ll say that I believe God still gives the gift of tongues. I don’t see any evidence from scripture that God has taken any gift from the church, or that he will until he sends us something better: the completion of all things when Jesus Christ returns.

But I think there are some other things we can get from this text, and we’re going to dig into those today. In 1st Corinthians 14, Paul lays down the rules for how and when to speak in tongues, and I want to look at the guiding principles that he uses and see if those principles can apply to other ways that we work as Christians.

In the first paragraph here, Paul contrasts speaking in tongues with prophecy. The only difference, according to Paul, seems to be that when a person prophesies, they speak in a language that everyone understands. If you ask me, that’s a HUGE difference. “He who speaks in a tongue, edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church.” And that’s the first principle: The whole point of going to church is to build up the church.

A lot of people seem to believe that the point of going to church is to get built up yourself, but that’s just not the case. If the point of going to church was to build up yourself, then this passage would read, “He who speaks in tongues is greater than he who prophesies, because he who prophesies only builds up the church, while he who speaks in tongues builds up himself.” But it doesn’t say that. No, “He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues” because then the church will be edified.

So when I come to church, my primary concern should be what I can contribute, how I can build up everybody else. Of course, as I build up the church, I’m going to get build up, because I’m a member of the church. But to come to the church to build yourself up at the expense of everybody else… that would be evil!

Paul goes on to talk about how important it is to communicate clearly. He says, “I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.” This is more important than it sounds. Language is probably the most powerful thing that God ever created. Remember, it’s by the word of the Gospel that we are saved. James talks about how powerful the tongue is, that it can also curse and destroy, like a small spark setting an entire forest on fire.

Language is also the thing that separates people and brings them together. Remember the tower of Babel, how God looked down on the men building the tower and said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” And so he divided the people by confusing their language.

In Gethsemane, Jesus prayed for the church that was about to be created, that “they would be brought to complete unity to let the world know” that God had sent him, and that God loved us as much as He loved Jesus. Jesus prayer was symbolically fulfilled at Pentecost. Just as God confused the languages at Babel, he overcame the language barrier by giving the gift of tongues. Because of our unity in Christ, now it can be said of us, that “nothing will be impossible.” And tongues was a sign of this.

So watch Paul carefully when he says these things, because he’s actually turning the sign of tongues on its head: Starting from verse 9:

 Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me. So it is with you.

We have to be very careful about the language that we use, because speaking one language and being in unity is the sign that God is with us. If we talk in a way that people don’t understand, or if people misunderstand us, then we are turning that sign inside out: we are creating divisions in the church, and turning our fellow believers into “foreigners.” If unity is a sign that God is with us, what is division in the church?

This doesn’t just have to do with spontaneously speaking a foreign language in the middle of the service. I’ve moved a lot in my life, and I’ve gotten to be a part of a wide variety of Christian congregations, and I’ve discovered that a lot of Christians, though they are united in their basic beliefs, get divided pretty quick because they seem to speak a different language. When Valerie and I first met, it was a great relief to me that I could say the word “saved” around her, because at my school I had been surrounded by a group of Christians that was an evil word.

Ok. I’m going to need a volunteer to be my assistant.

My victim… uh, volunteer ascends.

All right, here’s how this works. I want you to hold up this microphone and we’re going to have a normal Christian conversation:

Me: So, I decided to go to that Benny Hinn Crusade downtown, my spirit was just yearning for the presence, so I got all prayed up and I went down there and I was just soaking during the worship. And then they started to pray, and BAM! God hit me and I was slain for over two hours! And you know it’s so good… God’s just been pouring out his oil on his people so much lately, and he is sending the new rain, and one day his spirit’s gonna blow and every one of us will catch on fire.

Volunteer: Wow.

Me: Young man, I have to ask, because it’s so important to your Christian walk: are you pre-trib or post-trib? Wait, don’t tell me you’re one of those amillenialists! The rapture is coming! Just look around you! Don’t you understand the importance of the Jews in God’s plan for the end of the age?!

Volunteer: Uh…

Me: Do you know Jesus loves you?

Volunteer: Yes!

Me: Okay.

Thanks very much. Give this guy a hand!

*Volunteer descends.*

So you see how just talking like a normal Christian can lead to all kinds of problems.

But if misunderstanding among Christians can cause problems, what can misunderstanding do to people who are totally outside the kingdom of God do? Remember, there are two different ways you can build the church. One is to encourage and bless other believers, the other is to help other people come to faith through the gospel. Paul says:

Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. In the Law it is written:

“Through men of strange tongues
and through the lips of foreigners
I will speak to this people,
but even then they will not listen to me,” says the Lord.

Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers. So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”

You can see how this would work with the spiritual gifts: an unbeliever walks into a Christian service, and somebody starts speaking in 15th century Elbonian. It’s going to sound like total gibberish, and the unbeliever says, “I’m sorry. I seem to have walked in on an insane asylum group therapy session.” And he goes on his way without having been changed by the word of God.

But what’s fascinating is the line “Tongues then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers.” If the unbeliever ends up thinking that you’re crazy, how has he received a sign? Well, when Paul says “tongues are a sign,” he’s actually giving an interpretation of the passage in Isaiah that he just quoted:

“Through men of strange tongues
and through the lips of foreigners
I will speak to this people,
but even then they will not listen to me,” says the Lord.

It’s from Isaiah 28. Let me read this passage to you. Isaiah is talking about the rabbis and false prophets and he says, starting in verse 9,

“Who is it he is trying to teach?
To whom is he explaining his message?
To children weaned from their milk,
to those just taken from the breast?

For it is:
Do and do, do and do,
rule on rule, rule on rule;
a little here, a little there.”

Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues
God will speak to this people,

to whom he said,
“This is the resting place, let the weary rest”;
and, “This is the place of repose”—
but they would not listen.

So then, the word of the LORD to them will become:
Do and do, do and do,
rule on rule, rule on rule;
a little here, a little there—
so that they will go and fall backward,
be injured and snared and captured.

There’s more, but if I tried to read the whole chapter, it would turn into a whole other sermon.

This is really powerful stuff! See this verse where it says, “Do and do, do and do, rule on rule, rule on rule, a little here, a little there.” He’s actually talking about the way the teachers of the law took what Moses gave them and turned it into this huge many-tiered edifice of rules to follow: Do and do, rule on rule.

But if you’ll look at the footnotes in the NIV, they give you the actual Hebrew of the text: “*Sav lasav sav lasav, kav lakav, kav lakav*.” That’s because it sounds like nonsense: “yadda yadda, bladda bladda, mumbo jumbo.” He’s saying that, while they think they’re doing this great spiritual work, to everyone else it sounds like the mutterings of a temple prophet in a back room somewhere. *It sounds like speaking in tongues.* It’s some other language that we can’t understand.

And God says, “Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues God will speak to this people.” Now, how does God usually speak with foreign lips and strange tongues to his people? He sends another country to conquer them. It’s a curse.

So when Paul quotes this text, what he’s saying is that when you speak to unbelievers about God in a language that they don’t understand, you’re pronouncing a curse over them. You’re basically telling them that God doesn’t want them to be saved. If they walk away thinking that you’re crazy, it’s a sign for them, not that you’re crazy, but that they are condemned to stay outside the kingdom of God.

“Stop thinking like little children,” Paul says: It’s not about being spiritual, or feeling good at church. The entire cause of the gospel is at stake. If they perceive that you’re talking nonsense, you’ve pronounced a curse over them that God did not intend.

Now, like I said before, I don’t believe these verses have just to do with the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues. We can be unintelligible to unbelievers while still speaking English. And if they don’t understand us, they won’t understand the gospel when we try to give it to them. They’ll think it’s just nonsense, and if that happens, we’ve just pronounced a curse over them. Essentially, we’ve barred the path to heaven for people by being hard to understand.

Part of how we can be hard to understand can come just from speaking Christianese: “Have you been bought with the blood? Are you sold out for Jesus?” But if stars in Hollywood can wear “Jesus is my homeboy” t-shirts, funny Christian words are probably not the biggest hindrance.

I think the biggest problem is how we relate *as a church* to the rest of the community. This is something that I think every church has to deal with, but it’s especially important in New England, where the Christian community is so small compared with the rest of the population. It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that Christianity is something that can be sort of “tacked on” to the rest of a person’s life, so we don’t bother to really investigate the culture that we’re immersed in.

Every culture has aspects that are in contradiction to the gospel and aspects that are in agreement. It’s the responsibility of the church to take these things into account, and to reach out with the gospel in a way that *fits* the surrounding culture. If we fail to adjust how we proclaim the gospel in such a way that people can understand how it applies to the way they live, then we have failed to proclaim the gospel.

Worse, we will have come to them with “foreign lips and strange tongues.” We may actually end up preventing people from turning to God because they will *think* they already know what this Jesus thing is all about.

Now, I don’t want this to be a heavy-handed kind of sermon. I’m not here to make you feel like you’re doing an awful job. But I would like to encourage you to *think* and to *pray*. One of the things that I really appreciate about Pigeon Cove Chapel is our attitude about missions. We are a mission oriented church. I don’t know of many churches this size that provide as much support to so many missionaries around the world.

But I want to ask you, do we have the same missionary attitude toward our local community? Are we as a church doing everything that we can to make sure that the gospel is being presented in Rockport in a way that they can really understand it? I think we can probably do better.

Paul says to make every effort to prophesy instead of speaking in tongues. I understand that there are a lot of churches that believe that the essence of prophecy has more to do with speaking a timely word from God than with receiving a supernatural revelation. I think there may be something to this idea.

If we can “speak in tongues” in both a natural and a supernatural sense, why can’t we also prophesy in both a natural and a supernatural sense? Let’s make every effort to leave off speaking in tongues, in the natural sense, and make every effort instead to prophesy.

Again, please understand: we are in an interim period at our church. Now is probably not the time to launch out into some big new program, but it is the time to reevaluate who we are as a church, and to ask the Lord if there are areas where perhaps we could refocus. As you leave today, and in the coming months, this is an area where I would strongly encourage you to pray about, and ask God how we can do it better.

Let’s pray…

Author: KB French

Formerly many things, including theology student, mime, jr. high Latin teacher, and Army logistics officer. Currently in the National Guard, and employed as a civilian... somewhere

5 thoughts on “Speaking in Tongues”

  1. The goal was mainly to mystify my poor assistant. What I really wanted to do was to provide a good example of Evangelical Christian mixed with economic liberalism, but I couldn’t come up with anything on short notice. A dispensationalist tirade was a poor substitue, I’m afraid.

    There was a Benny Hinn Crusade in Boston a few weeks ago, but I missed it. I was working on a lovely paper on domestic abuse. LeSigh…


  2. The dispensationalist tirade is cool. I was just kidding, anyway. I was pretending to be a narrow-minded, blinkered amateur theologian, which seems to come pretty easily.


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