1 Corinthians chapters 12-14 mentions ecstatic spiritual gifts. Do these gifts still exist?
Some believe they do (continuationists). Others believe their purpose — authenticating God’s messengers before Scripture was completed — has passed (cessationists). Who’s right?
No Scripture verse explicitly states “tongues” have ceased. Yet, I can’t be certain one way or the other. I’m comfortable living in the tension: I trust in the sufficiency of Scripture and examine “ecstatic” gifts with great skepticism.
What does it mean to speak in tongues anyway? There are two main views: Tongues are either: (1) a foreign language or (2) a heavenly language known only to God and the interpreter. I think they are foreign languages for several reasons.
First, the term “tongues” (γλῶσσα) normally means a foreign language. Paul uses the term 21 times in 1 Corinthians 12-14 and three times elsewhere (Romans 3:13; Romans 14:11; Philippians 2:11) to refer either to (1) a foreign language or (2) the organ in the mouth. Never does he use it as a heavenly language. The other 26 NT occurrences (various authors), as well as all the occurrences in the Old Testament Septuagint, never refer to a mystical language.
Second, Paul clarifies his meaning in 1 Corinthians 14:10: “There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, 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.” He earlier said tongue-speakers utter mysteries (1 Cor 14:2) to the hearers because the hearers can’t interpret them.
Third, Paul’s quotation of Isaiah refers to foreign languages as a sign of judgment to the Jews. Isaiah: “For by people of strange lips and with a foreign tongue the LORD will speak to this people” (Is 28:11-12). Isaiah spoke of a time when God would judge the Jewish people. Most commentators agree this judgment began with the “tongues” episodes at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13) and with the Gentiles at Caesarea (Acts 10:44-48) and Ephesus (Acts 19:6-7). These episodes served as signs (14:22) to unbelieving Jews, as Isaiah predicted; the final judgment being
the destruction of the temple in 70 AD.
Finally, the historical context of Corinth helps clarify. Corinth was a multi-lingual trade city. It served as a gateway between Rome and the rest of the Eastern world. In fact, that is why Julius Cesar resurrected the city less than 100 years before Paul started a church there. It was strategically located to foster the economic flow of goods from Rome to the Eastern world. A multi-lingual city, the congregation likely was composed of those who spoke multiple languages.
A revealing tidbit: Paul didn’t address tongues with any other NT congregation. Paul, himself, claims he speaks in tongues more than all. This should surprise no one. He spoke at least three languages (perhaps more): Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic.
These reasons lead me to believe “tongues” are foreign languages. The Spirit chose not to tell us precisely what was happening in Corinth. Perhaps some were speaking in their native language without interpreting it for the benefit others. Or, perhaps the Spirit supernaturally gifted some to speak in a language they had never studied for the benefit of those from distant lands. Whichever, the gift had been hijacked for grandstanding and showmanship (14:4a). That is the larger point, isn’t it? If tongues exist today — as foreign languages or “heavenly” ones — they never should be used for self-promotion. I think if we agree on that, God will tell us who’s right in the sweet by and by!
Chipley Thornton is pastor of First Baptist Church-Springville.