Concerning Cessationism: The Gift of Tongues and Prophecy

Sermon preached on 1 Corinthians 14 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 3/4/2018 in Novato, CA.

Sermon manuscript

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
1 Corinthians 14

Concerning Cessationism: The Gift of Tongues and Prophecy

Today we complete a three-sermon miniseries advocating the biblical doctrine of cessationism. Cessationism is the doctrine that the extraordinary spiritual gifts such as tongues, prophecies, and healings ceased with the close of the apostolic age. In our first sermon we talked about the purpose for why certain people were gifted to perform miracles and saw that it confirmed the validity of the divine revelation that was being received and delivered. In last week’s sermon, we discussed the foundational role of apostles and new testament prophets and discussed how new revelation has now ceased. In both of those sermons we were directed to the benefits of the written Word of God that we have in the Bible. Today’s message then will deal especially with the gift of tongues, and to some degree the gift of prophecy.

So then, to introduce us to todays’ topic, the question becomes should we pursue today the spiritual gifts of tongues and prophecy? I ask this question because this passage starts and ends with a command to pursue prophecy and not to forbid speaking in tongues. I’ve heard it asked many times, doesn’t that answer the question for us? That we should seek these things out ourselves and support them being in the church today? Well, here’s where we need to remember the skill of application. Application is a skill, a craft, that you need to learn to do properly. We need to apply any passage to our own context and circumstances. We must not take every command in the Bible as if God were commanding that same thing of us. He might be for some commands, but we need to do proper application to come to that conclusion. Some commands do apply directly to us, like, you shall not steal. But other commands would be disastrous if we applied them directly to us. Like when God commands Israel at the time of the conquest to go and kill all the Canaanites and take over their land. God does not command that of us today. Application principles must be used to determine how a command in Scripture would apply to us today. So, in this passage, if Paul is telling them to pursue certain spiritual gifts that were available to them but have ceased to be available now, then obviously the command doesn’t directly apply. Yet, there are still applications that can be drawn even from a command that doesn’t apply to us anymore, like here about the principle of how spiritual gifts must be used to edify others. That’s the whole point of doing application. It’s a skill that must be learned and then properly executed. Many problems today stem from bad application.

So then with that introduction, let’s begin digging into today’s passage and considering what the gift of tongues is, according to the Bible. I’ll start with one non-charismatic interpretation that’s been given that I don’t agree with, but it is interesting to consider. It’s the view that everything described in this chapter is simply referring to having foreigners in the church who came to Corinth and were speaking their native tongues in the church service, and so people didn’t understand them. The idea here would be that Corinth was a hub for merchants from all over the world. Most of those people would know Greek as the common tongue but also their own native language. It’s been suggested that Paul says such people shouldn’t get up and start speaking in the church service in their native tongue unless someone can translate for them, because otherwise the rest of the congregation won’t know what they are saying. Now, I don’t agree with that interpretation in light of other passages elsewhere and even here that speak of speaking in tongues as supernatural and extraordinary. But I mention this view because it reminds us that in the Greek the way to talk about foreign languages is uses this wording of tongues. If you were to talk about someone speaking in a foreign language, you would say he spoke in a different tongue. So, I’m beginning with a lexical argument that when talking about the gift of tongues the Greek word is a word referring to languages.

That’s what I want us to recognize first here. The Bible presents the gift of tongues as an ability to speak in some language other than your own language. Part of what makes this supernatural is that the ability didn’t come from years of personal study. It was a supernatural work by the Holy Spirit that made that person able to communicate in another language. The point is that these were real languages, that if you natively knew that language, then you would understand the person as they spoke. Presumably in general, these are human languages too, though 1 Corinthians 13 does mention the possibility of angelic languages. But the context there doesn’t say that people with the gift of tongues actually did ever speak in angelic tongues. Rather, its usage there seems like a “how much more” argument to emphasize the priority of loving each other in how we use our gifts. Even if someone could speak in angelic tongues, still the same requirement would come; that using your gifts must be done in a way that loves and builds up your fellow believers. That being said, when we compare the gift of tongues here with it’s description in Acts, it’s clear in Acts that the tongues were in other known human languages in the world. Acts 2:4, “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Again, we can and arguably should translate tongues there as languages. They began to speak in other languages, by the Spirit. That’s confirmed in Acts 2, verses 6 and 8, where the text specifically says that the Jews from all over the known world were hearing the apostles speaking in their own native languages. There’s no good reason to think that the gift of tongues in Acts is any different than what is going on in 1 Corinthians. And in Acts, this is the clearest description of what went on. It enables the apostles to speak in other known human languages to tell them about the Lord. In Acts 2:11, it says, “We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”

This view is confirmed in our chapter for today. Verses 5, 13, and 27 says these tongues can be translated if someone has the gift of interpretation, which proves that these are actual languages. Also, in verse 10, it refers to the different human languages of the world, and that they each use different sounds to give meaning and significance. This is why in verses 14-17, we see how this gift of tongues could be used for things such as prayers, praise, and thanksgiving. That means that what was coming from these people’s mouths was not gibberish and meaningless. It was real communication with real content using a real language. In terms of its purpose, we see from the start in Acts that it was meant to communicate information. There’s no reason to think that later it would become just some meaningless babble, or even some secret code, only offered to God. It was meant to be truth communicated in other actual languages. Of course, that was the problem in the Corinthian church. They were using this gift with a bunch of people that didn’t know that other language, and thus it served no good purpose.

That leads us to our second point. We’ve established that the gift of tongues is the supernatural ability to speak in other actual languages in order to communicate information. Paul then admonishes them here for how they were using the gift of tongues in a way that didn’t serve its intended purpose. In short, it should have been used to edify the church. That’s our second point then, to consider how Paul says that the gift of tongues should serve the goal of edification. The instruction that he gives, constrains how they should make use of this gift in the context of a formal worship service of the church. This, of course, implies that the gift is under the control of the person. That tells us more about this gift; it’s not something that somehow overwhelms the person or makes them lose control of themselves. Otherwise, Paul couldn’t expect them to heed his exhortation. Paul’s words here imply that the gift of tongues was under the person’s control.

So then, Paul makes the point repeatedly that he’s concerned for the church’s edification. Four times that word appears in this chapter, verses 3, 5, 12, 26. We see the principle at the end of verse 26: “Let all things be done for edification”. Edification refers to the building up of believers. Paul says that if someone with the spiritual gift of tongues wants to use his gift in a worship service setting, then it should be done so as to edify others. His point is that if someone speaks in a tongue and that is left untranslated, then it does not help edify the church. He says in verse 2 no one will understand the person if they speak in a tongue. What’s surely implied here is they are speaking in a foreign language there that no one present actually speaks. It’s like if I got up and start preaching in Japanese, no one here would be able to understand me. Verse 4 says that in such a situation, only the speaker is edified, not the congregation. In verse 2, Paul says that such a person is only speaking to God at that point, because no one else understands. So, such speaking in tongues is really worthless in that case.

Actually, Paul says its even worse than that. Look at verses 21-22. Paul quotes a passage from Isaiah that spoke of how God would bring judgment upon his people under the old covenant. Basically, when they end up conquered and exiled in a foreign land, then they will hear the speech of their captors. Of course, they won’t understand their captors, because they’ll be speaking in a foreign language. That will then a sign from God to them; a sign of God’s judgment. The point in Isaiah and the point here with Paul is that such unknown language won’t help anyone grow. To clarify, when Paul says in verse 22 that tongues are a sign to unbelievers, he means that tongues left untranslated are a sign of judgment to unbelievers. In other words, unbelievers won’t be converted through such language because left untranslated, those words not bring any understanding to them, but rather confusion. It’s kind of like how Jesus says he speaks in parables so some won’t understand and thus won’t repent. The same is with untranslated tongues. Such babble would leave unbelievers unconverted. On the other hand, Paul says in verse 24 that if an unbeliever comes to the church service and actually can understand the words that are being spoken, they could be convicted and converted.

So, this gets us to Paul’s main point here about edification. If they were going to have the gift of tongues used in the service, they needed to be translated. I love what Paul says here then. He basically says that if you do have them interpreted and translated, then they become equivalent to prophecy. See, in verses 2-3 Paul says that the gift of prophecy is better to be used in the church than untranslated tongues because the prophecy edifies and the untranslated tongues doesn’t. However, in verse 5 he adds a qualification: unless the tongues are interpreted. Then the church will be edified just like with the prophecy. This is an important point, because it shows that the gift of tongues was a form of prophecy. The gift of tongues was another way God brought revelation to people. We saw in Acts at Pentecost that it was primarily intended to be used in evangelism, in bringing prophecies to people in their native tongues. Verse 2 confirms this understanding of tongues, that it is a form of bringing divine revelation by the Spirit. There in verse 2 it talks about the person who speaks in tongues is bringing mysteries in the Spirit. That language of mysteries in the Spirit is describing prophecy and revelation. Remember, that was the language we saw Paul used last week in Ephesians 3 to talk about the revelation that the apostles and the prophets received which was foundational to the church. This is so important to understand. The spiritual gift of tongues was not just the ability to speak in other languages. It also involved receiving a prophetic message by the Spirit in that other language. It was inherently revelatory. Again, Acts helps to confirm this. For example, Acts 2:4 says they spoke in tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. Then at Pentecost in Acts 2, that’s when Peter gets up and explains why they were speaking in tongues and he quotes the prophet Joel which says nothing about speaking in tongues. But the passage from Joel talks about the Spirit being poured out so that they would prophesy. Peter there connects tongue speaking with prophesying. Similarly, Acts 19 again speaks of tongues and prophesying together. This is why Paul says here that they shouldn’t speak in foreign tongues to people that won’t understand the message. It defeats the purpose! The prophetic message is only helpful if it is understood. Thus, it must be translated, or it shouldn’t be given at all in the church service.

So then, Paul makes the point that the gift of tongues should be concerned about edification; if the message is understood by its recipients then it is the functional equivalent as prophecy. So then, I’d like to turn now to our third point and offer application with regard to the cessation of the gift of tongues. To be fair, this chapter doesn’t itself directly teach the cessation of tongues. Though, it is fair to ask the question because the previous chapter, in 13:8 says there would come a time when both prophecy and tongues would cease. So then the cessationist argument would be that the gift of tongues ceased at the same time as when the gift of prophecy ceased. We’ve seen today that the gift of tongues was just another form of prophecy. It was inherently revelatory. So that connects us with last week’s message on this topic. Last week we made the case from Ephesians that the gift of prophecy under the New Testament was foundational and ceased at the close of the apostolic era and with the completion of the canon of Scripture. Since tongues is a form of prophecy, that would make us conclude that they too have now ceased with the ceasing of new revelation. Tongues was part of that foundational work in the New Testament church and has now ceased.

We see the foundational aspect of tongues even in Acts. When we think of this supernatural gift of tongues you might assume it is all over the New Testament. That is not the case. As a gift, its only mentioned in this letter and the book of Acts. This letter is one of the earliest written in the New Testament, and likely by the later letters it has already ceased as a spiritual gift. Even in the book of Acts, there are only a few specific occurrences and also in some way connected with the ministry of the apostles and only when the gospel first goes to some new major people group. Acts 2 has the first one, on the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit is poured out on the Apostles and the Jewish disciples there in Jerusalem. The next one is in Acts 8:18 which doesn’t mention tongues but clearly there is a similar pouring out of the Spirit and surely it included tongues. In that case, it doesn’t happen when the non-apostle Philip preaches the gospel to them, even though they become believers. It only happens when the apostles are summoned, and Peter and John come and lay hands on them. The third occurrence was in Acts 10:46 with the first set of Gentiles becoming believers, there with the ministry of the Apostle Peter. Lastly, in Acts 19:6, Paul encounters a group of followers of John the Baptist who had only known John’s baptism, and hadn’t come to know Jesus yet. So, Paul teaches them, they believe, and he baptizes them into Christ. He also lays on his hands and they too begin to speak in tongues and prophesy. Acts doesn’t mention any other occurrences of the Spirit coming on like this. It only highlights this when the gospel first came to some new group, as it breached some new barrier. It was divine affirmation that they were to be a part of the new covenant people as well. In terms of such categories, there really aren’t new barriers to breach. God has confirmed now that the gospel of Jesus is for all! Add to this fact that each occurrence only happened in conjunction with the apostles and their ministry. Remember last week the point we made about the apostles ministry being a foundational ministry. All of this data contributes to the conclusion that these supernatural gifts like tongues were something a part of the foundation of the church. We do not have good reason to presume they will be an ongoing regular part of the church. They are arguably more about a part of the history of redemption, showcasing the pouring out of the Spirit on all believers, than about the application of salvation, as if receiving such supernatural gifts were just one step in the ordinary journey for a Christian.

As a final application with regard to cessationism, I would ask that even if this conclusion was wrong, do we see credible examples of this gift today? We do not. In fact, everything speaks against their credibility. For example, at the start of the modern Pentecostal movement, they claimed that the Holy Spirit had begun again to give this gift. They made claims that they could now go onto the foreign mission field without having to spend years in language training. Well, a number of such Pentecostals were sent to the mission field with that premise and they all discovered that the natives couldn’t understand them. That early embarrassment caused that movement to rethink things. Soon, you heard the argument instead that people with this gift had their own private prayer language. Yet, despite there not being good warrant for such a practice like that from Scripture, linguists have studied many recordings of such claims for tongues. They’ve always concluded that the babble passed off as tongues today doesn’t bear any known markers of language. Such experts are convinced that such examples are not a language at all, but mere gibberish. Along the line of so called interpreters, there have been cases where people have come into a charismatic church and speak in an actual foreign language and the supposed interpreters give a translation that is completely wrong and obviously made up. Similarly, there have been tests with people who claim to have the gift of interpretation that are given recordings of people speaking in tongues and they give completely different interpretations. I’ve also heard from multiple people who were in such charismatic churches that when they couldn’t speak in tongues they were counseled to “prime the pump” by just letting out whatever sounds that randomly came into their minds. That doesn’t sound like the biblical gift either. Surely there are no credible accounts of tongues today for the reasons we’ve considered from Scripture for a cessationist position.

In conclusion, I remind us why all this is important. Look at verse 25. It speaks of someone who might come into our church and hear the message and be converted. It says how they will recognize that God is truly among us. That’s what we are talking about. We want a church environment where God’s truth is going forth and we are having legitimate, life changing, experiences with the true presence of the Living God. We don’t want counterfeit or illegitimate religious experiences. The real growth will be where God is truly at work. Our Lord died on the cross to save us from our sins for all who believe in his name. The apostles and the prophets have laid a foundation of this gospel for us. Let us build upon this message. Let us use the Word we’ve received to convert others and to grow ourselves.

Today’s passage reminded us of the goal for edification when we gather. There are many other applications that come from this besides regarding cessationism. I leave us with the call to reflect on your own gifts today. Are you using them to build up others? Or are you misusing them in some way? For example, if you have the gift of encouragement, do you make time to fellowship with the saints? Or if you have been given a sharp mind for theology, do you use that just to “win” arguments or do you patiently and gently help to teach others around you? In a doctrine-loving denomination like the OPC, pastors like myself have to make sure to give a balance of both “milk” and “meat” in the sermon to help Christians of all maturities to be growing. Let us do all things for edification! And may we thank God that he commands this. What a wonderful command! He commands that we do things to help our growth! Praise the Lord as he graciously grows us even through his Word and Spirit. Amen.

Copyright © 2018 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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