Nearly two decades ago, I attended a conference hosted by a well-known evangelist, and I was stunned by what occurred only moments after the conference began. There was a pastor who traveled with the touring group and said he was happy to be there because he could feel the crowd’s spiritual energy. Shortly after, he began to speak in an unrecognizable dialect, so-called tongues, and the crowd erupted in cheer. Many people also began to utter obscure, meaningless words, and, at that point, I was ready to be like Elvis and leave the building.
That experience left me wondering, as a young Christian, if I lacked in my connectedness with God. It left me wondering how an arena full of people seemed so connected in the moment while I felt like someone standing on the outside looking in. It left me with this question in mind: What is the significance of speaking in tongues, and is it real? To answer my question, I focused on when such speaking first occurred in New Testament Scripture, the Day of Pentecost.
In Acts, the author, Luke, details the Holy Spirit’s arrival on the scene. An important point to make here is that the Holy Spirit is not an “it,” instead, the Holy Spirit is a “He,” and as the third member of the Holy Trinity, He is God. Luke uses the metaphors “rushing wind” and “tongues as of fire” to describe the Holy Spirit’s arrival. Notice that one symbol affects our sense of sight and the other our sense of sound. T. C. Smith explains that touching on those two senses at the same time made it hard for people to deny the reality of the supernatural event that took place.
Luke records, “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.” The people who saw this marvel heard what was said in their native tongue or, in other words, their native language. The divine gift of the Holy Spirit seen in this passage is not that of random mumblings of gibberish that no one can understand or gain enlightenment from hearing, such as the case with my experience at the Evangelist’s conference. Instead, it is the gift of speaking in other dialects that were not previously known or mastered by each speaker, which further shows the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.
To answer my question that seeks to know if the gift of speaking in tongues real, the Bible says yes, it is real. The significance of this spiritual gift in the early church was to share the message of Jesus Christ with all nations and do so in a dialect that people would understand. Now, is the gift of speaking in tongues used in the modern era? That is an age-old debate where some theologians say yes, others say no, and it will likely remain that way until the Second Coming of our Lord. Nonetheless, in our attempt to answer that question, we must first explore the biblical intent and application of speaking in tongues in the early church.
Perhaps, at some point, everyone has heard the phrase, “Keeping up with the Joneses.” The phrase often describes people who will go to great lengths to obtain that new cell phone, the same new car, or have the same job or title, and the list goes on. It is a compulsion driven by one person’s envy of another who has those things and by a lack of self-worth and appreciation for the things he or she does possess. When we roll back the pages of Scripture, we see that Apostle Paul had to address the issue of speaking in tongues with the Corinthian church.
The early church viewed signs, such as casting out demons, laying hands on the sick, and speaking in tongues, which is to say speak in another language, as visible indicators of God’s work in the world and the believer. Those and other signs are in keeping with the words of Jesus, who said such signs would accompany those who have believed (Mark 16:17-18). The Corinthian church held speaking in tongues above all other spiritual gifts, and many members, if not the majority, all claimed to possess the gift of tongues. They were all “Keeping up with the Joneses,” one might say.
One reason why speaking in tongues became so prominent in the Corinthian church is because one’s claim to possess the gift could not be easily disproven. Those who did not claim to have the gift were likely looked down upon by those who did. However, anyone in the church could utter words of gibberish and claim to have the gift. That falls in line with my experience at the Evangelist’s conference, an arena full of people mumbling words of empty gibberish that served no useful purpose other than a feel-good moment for themselves.
How did Apostle Paul approach the Corinthian church to deal with the internal issues surrounding spiritual gifts? We will tackle that question and more in part two of this two-part devotion.
Smith, T. C. (1970). Acts. Clifton J. Allen (Ed.) The Broadman Bible Commentary. (pp. 1-152). Nashville, TN, Broadman Press.