Tongues: Breaking Down Divisions
watch the video of this sermon here.
Last week we
covered something that is at the core of a lot of debate among the church: have
the gifts ceased? Part of the reason that this is such a big debate is because
of the most prominent passage about this issue, 1 Corinthians 13 where Paul
prophesizes that the gifts would at some point cease. We established last week
that they will cease when we finally go to be with the Lord, when we see him
face to face. This process will be begin once we die and be completed once the
final return of the Lord happens, and we are all resurrected into the new
heavens and the new earth. After this we will no longer need such gifts as
prophecy, tongues, or knowledge, because we will be with the Lord they point
And this is
really our hope isn’t it. This is what we long for. The theological
differences, the troubles of this life, the cares of our day and all of this will
mean nothing to us when we finally enter into heaven, into the fullness we look
forward to. But until that time we need helps, we need the Spirit to empower us,
to be with us and to guide us.
us, John 14:15-17 – “15 If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you
forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it
neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will
be in you.”
Spirit will be with us forever, because he is God, God the Spirit. But in this
life he is with us for a particular reason, to equip us for the works that
Jesus has recreated us in God to do. Most notably to glorify our Lord Jesus (John
16:13-14). I have already noted this last week and a few weeks ago, but I am
going to continue reiterating this key point because it should be our guiding
principle as we talk about Spiritual gifts.
Spirit gives us Spiritual gifts because he wants to glorify Jesus in us and
through us. Therefore, at every point of our consideration of the Spiritual
gifts we need to ask: how does this glorify Jesus? How does this help us serve
our brothers and sisters in the faith? How does this honour the role that the
Holy Spirit pours on our life? This includes the gift of tongues, which we are
going to examine today. I want to explore in detail what the Bible says about
this gift, and what it might signify, how it might work and why we should
pursue it, if so desired, because tongues exist for breaking down divisions.
Diversity of Tongues – Paul tells us that tongues is one of the Spiritual gifts that the Spirit
empowers us with in 1 Corinthians 12:4-11 –
“4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same
Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6 and there
are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in
everyone…to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of
tongues. 11 All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions
to each one individually as he wills.”
In fact it
is the last gift that he mentions here. Why are we looking at it first then? Why
not address the hardest one first, it could be fun.
understand how we should think about this gift we need to go all the way back
towards the beginning of the Bible to Genesis 10-11. These two chapters are
actually out of order. Chapter 10 shows us the division of the 70 nations, and
chapter 11 shows us how this division began.
We read in
Genesis 10:25 – “25 To Eber were born two sons: the name of the one was
Peleg, for in his days the earth was divided, and his brother's name was
Joktan.” So, chapter 10 tells us that in the days of Peleg the earth
was divided. There were different nations before this, but they weren’t
divided. And then chapter 11 takes us back in time to show us how this came
We read in Genesis
“11 Now the whole earth had one language and the same
words. 2 And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land
of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make
bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen
for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower
with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be
dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” 5 And the Lord came down to see the
city and the tower, which the children of man had built. 6 And the Lord said,
“Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only
the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will
now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their
language, so that they may not understand one another's speech.” 8 So the Lord
dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off
building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the
Lord confused the language of all the earth. And from there the Lord dispersed
them over the face of all the earth.”
This is one
of the most famous accounts in the whole of the Bible. Most children have
learnt it by a young age. Most Christians and non-Christians have heard of it.
The most common understanding of this passage is that this is where all of the
different languages of the earth come from.
this passage is vital for helping us understand where the human languages
interesting is that if you study the family tree of languages throughout
history, you will see that from London to Berlin to Paris to Rome to New Delhi
to Washington, you have this large swath of Aryan or “Indo-Aryan” languages
that are clearly related, they all have the same root.
call these Indo-European languages. They are the most widely spoken languages
in the world. “3.2 billion people speak an Indo-European language.”
these connections: From the English word fire you have French – Feu, German -
Feuer, Italian – fuoco, Indian – agni, which is related to ignite, which is
another English word for fire, which comes from the Latin word “ignis”.
What you can
see here is that across these vast distances there must have once been a common
group of people who had the same language that has changed over time. All these
languages in other words come from a common source, a common ancestor, we call
these people Indo-European or Indo-Aryan.
But if you
compare these languages to the Asian languages like Chinese, Vietnamese or
Korean there is absolutely no connection. If you compare them to the African
languages you will see the same thing. If you compare them to the North American
Indian or South American Indian languages you will again see the same thing.
even in Europe you will see that there are languages which have no relation to
any other language, like Basque, for instance.
words, if you study the languages of mankind, you will see they that cannot all
be traced back to a common source. They all appear to have developed out of
thin air, almost as if they had been created at some point by a divine being,
who bestowed them on different peoples.
exactly what the Bible says, “7 Come, let us go down and there confuse
their language, so that they may not understand one another's speech.” 8 So the
Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left
off building the city.”
words, if you study the development of human languages they lead you back to a
“division”, a time when all the people of the earth were suddenly divided by
different languages, different tongues, that were completely unrelated to each
other. Just as the Bible says happened.
these languages for two reasons:
limit human evil – “6 And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people,
and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they
will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”
disperse humanity across the earth,
“8 So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face
of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore its name was
called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth.
And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth.”
part of his intention originally for humankind.
say what God did here was a bit of a double-edged sword because it cut both
ways. We would have seen these people as supernatural because they still had
long lifespans, and their genetics would have made ours look completely
degraded. God limited the ability for these men to achieve in their unity the
great evil of their intentions. So, he protected us. But he also created an
unfortunate division that we now must live with in this life, our inability to
easily communicate across language barriers. The barrier of the foreign tongue.
languages of man had been split, sundered, into various tongues, “Old English
tunge "tongue, organ of speech; speech, a people's language," from
Proto-Germanic *tungō (source also of Old Saxon and Old Norse tunga, Old
Frisian tunge, Middle Dutch tonghe, Dutch tong, Old High German zunga, German
Zunge, Gothic tuggo), from PIE root *dnghu- "tongue."
And now because
of this, there is great confusion among mankind. Confusion that leads to
misunderstanding, misunderstanding that leads to hate, hate that leads to
conflict, and conflict that leads to war.
divided and therefore cursed in a way that humanity was never meant to be. We
were supposed to be one humanity. But just like we needed to be kicked out of
the garden for our own good, lest we eat of the tree and live forever in sinful
rebellion like demons (Genesis 3:22-24), so too are we separated from each
other into smaller groups because in our fallen state when humanity unites in
large forces it is much more likely to do evil than do good.
created these divisions of languages to protect us.
being one people and one tongue in the Garden of our God. We are a scattered humanity,
sundered in many ways, divided by many languages and spread out over a hostile
earth that makes us work hard for everything we have.
This is for
our good, but it was never God’s ideal intention for humanity.
does this have to do with the gift of tongues? Well, tongues is just another
Old English way of talking about languages. The Latin word for tongue is
“lingua” the Greek word is “Glossown”, or “Dialectos”, from which we get our
words “Glossary” a collection of words, or “Dialect” a form of a language.
words, a discussion of tongues is always a discussion of languages and
languages in the Bible represent division.
Represent Division – You
probably didn’t realize there was a theology of language in the Scriptures,
because it is not a topic which super excites people, but there is, and you can
follow the threads of this theology right into the New Testament, and it is
highly relevant to the gift of tongues. Scripturally languages represent
divisions among the peoples. This is clear from Genesis 11, but also from other
of a familiar tongue - for example, we read in Ezekiel 3:4-6 –
“4 And he said to me, “Son of man, go to the house of
Israel and speak with my words to them. 5 For you are not sent to a people of
foreign speech and a hard language, but to the house of Israel— 6 not to many
peoples of foreign speech and a hard language, whose words you cannot
understand. Surely, if I sent you to such, they would listen to you.”
people of your own language and your own tongue does not inherently encounter a
barrier. At least it does not encounter a language barrier. It is far easier.
A people of
foreign tongues, however, does raise barriers, Jeremiah 5:15 – “Behold, I
am bringing against you a nation from afar, O house of Israel, declares the
Lord. It is an enduring nation; it is an ancient nation, a nation whose
language you do not know, nor can you understand what they say.”
The fear of
being invaded by the violent alien people was a terror to ancient people as
much as it is today. Being surrounded by people you cannot understand, but who
can understand each other is daunting.
And yet there
will come a day when the Lord God will send a message to Israelites through a
people of a foreign tongue, Isaiah 28:11 – “For by people of strange lips
and with a foreign tongue the Lord will speak to this people,”
refers to division, a division which causes great anguish between the peoples.
But God is eventually going to change this around. God is eventually going to
bridge the gap between nations.
come a day when the barriers of the tongue shall be broken,
“18 For I know their works and their thoughts, and the
time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall
see my glory, 19 and I will set a sign among them. And from them I will send
survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal
and Javan, to the coastlands far away, that have not heard my fame or seen my
glory. And they shall declare my glory among the nations.”
It is here
where the gift of tongues comes in.
of Fire (Acts 2) –
Now that we have explored this background about how the Bible understands
languages or tongues, when we read about God pouring out tongues in the
beginning of the Church, what should we expect to see? Divisions across the
nations being bridged. And what do we see? Divisions across the nations being
bridged. We read in Acts 2:1-13,
“1 When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all
together in one place. 2 And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a
mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3
And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them.
4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other
tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. 5 Now there were dwelling in
Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6 And at this sound
the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was
hearing them speak in his own language. 7 And they were amazed and astonished,
saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we
hear, each of us in his own native language? 9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites
and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia
and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors
from Rome, 11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them
telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” 12 And all were amazed and
perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others mocking
said, “They are filled with new wine.”
This is a
very important passage, because it sets the tone for what God is doing in the
Church. And what is God doing in the church? He is supernaturally empowering
the Church to break down the dividing wall of hostility that has existed
between the nations since Babel.
now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the
blood of Christ”
God is not
doing away with the nations, nations are good. Nations existed before Babel,
ethnic distinctions existed since at least after the flood. But he is breaking
down barriers between them, and the most significant barrier between nations is
God is here
doing a work across language barriers, he is bridging the divisions between
We now know,
after all that we have looked at, that “tongue” simply means another language,
but to show this one more time, here is Psalm 37:30, “The mouth of the
righteous utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks justice.” Tongue is just
another word for speech in passages like this in the Bible.
What do we
see here in 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.”
What are these tongues? Are they a secret heavenly language? Or a special
prayer language? No, they are simply languages, they are being supernaturally
empowered to speak a foreign tongue.
As we read a
bit further, these languages are the languages of the others here in Jerusalem,
“6 And at this sound the multitude came together, and
they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own
language…8 And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? 9
Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and
Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of
Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11 both Jews and proselytes,
Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works
people hearing? “we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works
of God.” Which is exactly what Isaiah prophesied would happen, “18
For I know their works and their thoughts, and the time is coming to gather all
nations and tongues…19…And they shall declare my glory among the nations.”
We see here
God’s plan to bridge the gap between nations is starting to be fulfilled in
this event in Acts 2. Joel prophesied of this day as well, as Peter also
So, when we
come back to our passage in 1 Corinthians 12:10 which says “to another
various kinds of tongues” is given, what does everything we have looked
at so far indicates that this means? A supernatural gift that God gives to help
someone bridge the gap between different peoples of different languages.
It is also a
sign that God is going to send his people out to all nations and all peoples. A
people of a foreign tongue will proclaim the mighty works of God.
this look like? Let me give you an example. One of my bible college lecturers
shared the account of a Jewish man who got saved, because he went with him to a
revival meeting. The man had a Christian co-worker who had been bugging him to
come to a church meeting, he thought he would go so his Christian friend would
leave him alone. During the meeting there was a call for prayer and this man
struck by the power of the meeting went up for prayer. A man prayed over him in
what the praying man thought was “tongues”, the Jewish man looked at him in
shock and said, “How do you know my language?”, the man looked at him and asked
what did he mean? The Jewish man said, “You told me in Hebrew that I should
repent and trust in Jesus as the Messiah.” Which he then promptly did.
forgot this account and it was told to me by someone I respected, one of my
Bible college lecturers.
But note that it fits with our biblical understanding so far, because the use
of “tongues” crossed language and national boundaries to direct someone to the
I have no
biblical or practical problem with such a gift being still in existence.
Imagine reaching someone this way? How incredible.
though is most people understand this gift very differently, they think of it a
supernatural heavenly tongue or a personal prayer tongue. Why? Because of a
couple of things Paul says.
Prayer Language? –
Paul seems to imply that this might be a Spiritual gift for personal blessing
in 1 Corinthians 13-14. This is very different to what we have looked at so
far. So, what does Paul actually say?
of Angels – Some
think it is a special heavenly language where we speak directly to God in the
heavenly tongue, 1 Corinthians 13:1, 14:2, “If I speak in the tongues of
men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal…2
For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one
understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.”
read this to say that “tongues” is a personal access to the spiritual language
of angels, that we can use to pray to God special prayers. But is that what
No, what he
says is that “hypothetically” if he spoke in an angelic language, it would mean
nothing if he had not love.
He also says
if you speak in a language no one else understands only God will know what you
of these passages support the idea of tongues being an Angelic language. The
idea is very tenuous at best.
passage used to support this idea is in Romans 8:26 – “26 Likewise the
Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we
ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for
words.” The problem with using this passage to support this position is
that ‘wordless groans’ is the opposite of tongues which means ‘spoken language’.
Which we have proven conclusively.
It is best
to just understand Paul as saying: if you pray in a language you cannot
understand, as gifted by God, then you won’t know what you are saying,
therefore why do it, especially around others?
Language – But Paul
says he prays in tongues more than anyone doesn’t he? 1 Corinthians 14:18 - “I
thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.” But when you
read this in context you see he says something else entirely, 1 Corinthians 14:9-19
“9 So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter
speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? 10 There
are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without
meaning, 11 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. 12 So with
yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to
excel in building up the church. 13 Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue
should pray that he may interpret. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit
prays but my mind is unfruitful. 15 What am I to do? I will pray with my
spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit,
but I will sing with my mind also. 16 Otherwise, if you give thanks with your
spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your
thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? 17 For you may be
giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up. 18 I
thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 Nevertheless, in
church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct
others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.”
talking about foreign languages, which people are empowered to speak through
the Holy Spirit. Paul was multi-lingual, he would have known at least Greek,
Aramaic and Hebrew, likely Latin, possible more. He was gifted by the Holy
Spirit to cross language barriers.
was the Apostle to the Gentiles for a reason.
But when he
spoke to people he made sure they could understand what he was saying. Paul
wanted to cross language barriers not cause them.
Paul was not
affirming everyone shouting out in “tongues” in worship. He is giving guidance
about how you should exercise the gift of speaking a foreign language if you
have such a gift. How to make sure you use it in a way that blesses others.
Again we see
Paul’s understanding of this gift was to use it to cross boundaries with people
of other languages, not create them, not to focus on personal edification, but
say things others will be blessed by.
So we can
see that our theology of languages under pins the use of this gift, as Paul
explains, 1 Corinthians 14:26-27 –
“26 What then, brothers? When you come together, each
one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all
things be done for building up. 27 If any speak in a tongue, let there be only
two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. 28 But if
there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak
to himself and to God.”
should be used to cross ethnic and language barriers. Because it is a
supernatural empowering of God to do so.
If you use
it privately you also won’t be doing anything wrong.
– So how do we apply
this sermon? Well, those who believe this gift has ceased, as many good
Christians do, would think you should just reflect on how remarkable it is for
God to have used this gift to establish the early church. For me, I think it
can still happen today, and so here is how I think you should apply this
- If you are going to minister to people of a foreign tongue, ask God to empower you with such a gift to understand and communicate with foreigners across language barriers. You will need his help in many ways, ask for this and see what he does.
- Consider what Bible translators do. I think they are an extension of this gift. They are breaking down language barriers at a high rate, enabling people of many tongues to dream in their own language about their God.
- Consider how God could use you to take the gospel across language barriers around the world. I think this is a gift primarily for hard missionary contexts where language barriers are intense. Parts of Rome were like this. Paul would have encountered all sorts of dialects. There is still a call for Christians to become missionaries to difficult places, consider how God could equip you for such a role. If you have a gift for languages this might be why.
- Pray for God to give the gift of interpreting between men and women 😉
Conclusion – There is still much work to be done to fulfil the ultimate
outcome of the gospel, the reversal of Babel, the praise of God in every tribe
and tongue, as we read in Revelation 7,
“9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude
that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and
languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white
robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice,
“Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
But we get
the privilege to consider being a part of this fulfilment. Let me encourage you
to think about how God can use you to reach the people of other nations, and if
in that process he supernaturally empowers you to communicate with them, praise
God. If he uses you in another way praise God. Either way lets be prepared to
tell all peoples about the hope they have in Jesus and may the Lord be praised
in every land and in every tongue. Let’s pray.
After I preached this sermon, a man in my church came up and shared with me
that he has had a similar experience.