“Indeed, He will speak to THIS people through stammering lips and a foreign tongue, He who said to THEM, ‘Here is rest, give rest to the weary,’ and, ‘Here is repost,’ but THEY would not listen.” (Isa 28:11,12 NASB)
The subject of speaking in a foreign tongue is one of the most controversial and often one of the most contentious subjects to be found today. Hopefully I can share some things that will help give understanding to the Biblical subject of speaking in other languages.
First let’s consider the above Scripture where the prophet Isaiah calls attention to speaking in a foreign tongue. Here are the terms we need to note:
- ‘He will speak to THIS people.’ The Isaiah prophecy is specific to a single people group, the Jews.
- “He who said to them, ‘Here is rest, give rest to the weary.’” Jesus is the one who called attention to God’s rest to be found in Him.
- ‘But they would not listen.’ Reflects on the leaders in particular rejecting Jesus Christ as Lord and Messiah of Israel.
Which brings us to Pentecost, 33 a.d.
Jews once again gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish pilgrim festivals. They came from many cultures and nations. They spoke many different languages.
However, this Pentecost would be different. It would be the ushering in of God’s new eternal covenant in Christ.
Suddenly a sound like a rushing wind filled the temple complex. A band of 120 men and women began speaking of the glory of God in the varied languages of the multitudes.
A question stirs through the crowd of worshippers,
“How is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born?’
Thus we see the miracle of speaking in foreign languages with the prophecy of Isaiah coming to pass. The speaking in tongues on that day of Pentecost had a defined purpose. The Rest Giver had come.
The Promised Rest Giver.
From long ages past there had been a deep hunger in the hearts of God’s people to find the promised rest from their painful labors. This longing is described in the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament as, ‘the desire of the nations.’
When Noah was born, they wondered if he was the Rest Giver.
“Lamech lived one hundred and eighty-two years, and became the father of a son. Now he called his name Noah, saying, ‘This one will give us rest from our work and from the toil of our hands arising from the ground which the LORD has cursed.” Gen 5:28-29 nasb
But Noah was not the Rest Giver. Only God could do that. We catch just a glimpse of this when Moses was speaking with the Lord God.
‘Now therefore, I pray You, if I have found favor in Your sight, let me know Your ways that I may know You, so that I may find favor in Your sight. Consider too, that this nation is Your people.’ And He said, ‘My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest.’“
Why is this language of, ‘I will give you rest,’ so hauntingly familiar? It is because we are hearing the voice of the Rest Giver. Now hear it from Jesus:
“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Mat 11:28-30
And so the purpose for speaking in other languages on the day of Pentecost was to call attention that Jesus Christ was the promised ‘Rest Giver.’
This day of Pentecost was a fulfillment to what had been written by the prophet Isaiah. The Messiah had come, died on the cross, was buried, resurrected, and ascended into heaven. When Peter stood up to preach, he drew attention to the ancient prophets in declaring that Jesus was the Christ of God.
Additional Background on Speaking in Tongues
It should be understood, however, that through the centuries the Church has placed little attention on speaking in tongues. The early church accepted tongues as one gift among many. But this still leaves us with unanswered issues concerning speaking in other languages. Here is where we can take time to understand some Greek terms that relate to speaking in foreign languages.
- The term ‘glossolalia‘ was introduced into English in 1879. It comes from glossais lelein, a term used in the New Testament, meaning “To speak in [with or by] tongues.” From this comes the expression, ‘the gift of tongues.’ The precise term ‘gift of tongues’ does not occur in the Scriptures.
- One early Christian writer used the Greek term ‘glossomania‘ to describe the insane speech of Greek philosophers. The philosophers would jabber and babble in a way that made no sense whatsoever.
- The Greek ‘akolalia‘ had to do with the perceived hearing of another language even when one was not spoken.
- ‘Echolalia‘ speaks of an agitated repetition of the words of another.
- ‘Idiolect‘ refers to a glossolalic dialect peculiar to an individual. Televangelists made this term popular by calling it a ‘prayer language.’
- Then we have ‘exnoglossia.’ This word was coined in 1905, to describe a spiritualist medium, who, in a trance, wrote in modern Greek, without having knowledge of that language.
Now we see that there is a problem that has to be addressed. The problem is that ‘speaking in tongues is not peculiar to certain Christian groups. Speaking in tongues is a known phenomenon from around the world. You find it in Mormon history. You find it with Hindus and Muslims. It is found it in African occultic religions.
Here is a quote from the Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, page 336;
“Spiritualistic glossolalia and related phenomena among spiritual mediums were among the first studied by psychologists near the beginning of the twentieth century. … Pathological glossolalia is known to medicine and psychiatry, the result of such causes as organic neurological damage, effects of drugs, or psychotic disorders. Schizophrenic disorders have furnished examples of glossolalia. Most relevant to Christian glossolalia are clearly reported cases of pagan glossolalia, both ancient and modern…. [Glossolalia] was used sparingly among American Indians but was widespread in African tribal religions.”
Paul likely ran into some of this pagan speaking in tongues. When he wrote the Corinthian Church, some of the background for the problems of this Church actually was pagan glossolalia. Less than 50 miles from Corinth, was Delphi. An inquirer would be brought into the presence of a young woman, a priestess of Apollo, who was said to possess a “pythonic spirit.” The priestess would speak in tongues and a male prophet would interpret. Paul may have had this in mind when he said,
“You know that when you were pagans, you were led astray to the mute idols, however you were led.” (1Co12:2)
Let’s consider the Biblical position.
There is no question that speaking in tongues on the day of Pentecost was a supernatural act of God. There have also been documented cases in Church history where missionaries have found themselves able to speak in the language of a primitive tribe, having had no knowledge of their language.
It is also possible that the Lord intended to bring this gift forward at different points in history to meet a purpose at the time. Paul seems to indicate such may be the case. He said,
“Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away.” (1Co13:8)
The Greek word for cease is pauo. This is where we get our English word pause. Pauo means to make cease, or to no longer be stirred, or to idle or unemployed. In context, Paul is using terms that point to a maturing factor.
Some say Paul is speaking of heaven. This may be the case, but it is odd that Paul’s entire teaching takes its center on ‘maturity.’ He may have been telling the Corinthian believers not to overly concern themselves with the Delphic oracles. He also tried to place speaking in tongues as a less important gift in comparison to other gifts. He says,
“When I was a child, I use to speak as a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.” (1Co13:11)
My encouragement for any child of God is not to take speaking in tongues beyond Scriptural precedents. When the apostles preached the gospel, they saw no need to put an emphasis upon speaking in tongues.
The Acts of the Apostles is conclusive in this regard. The three recorded times that people spoke in other languages, were all sovereign acts of God. They were in a group setting. And each time it was unexpected. And Acts covers over 35 years of early Church history.
In all this each believer needs to reach their own conclusions.
Finally a call for caution
A major study by K. G. Meador and other researchers reported in a monthly journal of the American Psychiatric Association, that the rate of major depression in Pentecostals was three times greater than in any other religious affiliation.
(Pentecostal is a general term for any group that places a great stress on esoteric experiences and in particular on speaking in tongues. The study covered several thousand cases.)
I have seen that when an undue emphasis is placed on speaking in tongues it can cause mental and spiritual disturbances in a person that is not healthy. Paul tried to warn the Corinthians about putting too much stress on the supernatural.
“But I am afraid that, as the serpent deceived Eve by is craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ.
“For if one comes and preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted, you bear this beautifully.” (2Co11:3,4)
What are we left with? Perhaps the way to deal with the gift of speaking in other languages is to make sure that we are following clear Biblical instructions. Paul said,
“All do not speak in tongues, do they?”
He then went on,
“But earnestly desire the greater gifts. And I show you still a more excellent way.” (1Co12:30,31)
What did he mean, ‘a still more excellent way?’ Paul went on to outline the walk of love. He said that when everything else fails, love will stand the test of time. He said,
“If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
Just some things to think about
Always in Christ,
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