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By Rev Charles Seet

Preached at Life BPC 8am & 11am service, 2015-07-19

Text: 1 Corinthians 14:1-28


Learning to speak a foreign language is never easy. You may remember that nine weeks ago (17 May 2015) we commissioned sister Chan Pui Meng to serve the Lord as our missionary in Cambodia. Since she arrived in Cambodia, she has been spending four hours a day learning how to speak the Khmer language so that she would be able to share the Gospel with the people there. Language-learning is not new to Pui Meng as she has worked in Laos before and has also served as a missionary to the Maasai tribe in Kenya. 

Two weeks ago she sent us her progress report. This is what she wrote: “The good Lord has enabled me to understand and carry out very simple conversation in Khmer gradually…There are 33 consonants, 20 dependent vowels, 15 independent vowels and many symbols to memorize.  Some consonants and vowels seem to have similar sounds yet each has its own distinct tone. We need a large ‘RAM’ for memory. For the first three weeks, we focused on conversational Khmer. Switching to think Khmer and speak Khmer was like going back to childhood days, when one learns to identify and read the letters of the alphabet. The life of Apostle Paul has been my inspiration that I ought to be disciplined and persevere to achieve the objective. With boldness and courage from above, I tried to speak to the sellers at the markets, shops, with strangers, tuktuk drivers, or anyone.  The Lord has been kind and good to me by sending many friendly and understanding locals to help me along. But there are also impatient ones who ignored me, or gave me a puzzled look, not understanding what I was talking about!” 

Pui Meng has four months more of language training to go, and we pray that the Lord will enable her to acquire the Khmer language well enough to communicate the Gospel and win souls to Christ in Cambodia. Knowing how laborious it is to acquire a new language helps us now to appreciate the impact of one sign gifts of apostolic times –the gift of speaking in tongues. This gift is the supernatural ability to speak fluently in a language that one has never learnt before. I am sure that sister Pui Meng and many other missionaries would be very happy if they could only have this gift – no need for them to undergo months of laborious language learning. But the gift of tongues is no longer available to them or to anyone else. It ceased to exist after the apostolic era. 

In our scripture passage today we will see that this gift was being used in the church at Corinth. The apostle Paul wrote his first epistle to them in AD 55. But in 1 Corinthians 13:8 he told them that the gift of tongues would cease (“Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease.”) And this happened soon after the apostolic era ended. This gift disappeared completely together with all the rest of the sign gifts. This actually answers the question given in our sermon title, “Why don’t we speak in tongues?” The simple direct answer is that we don’t speak in tongues because this gift is no longer around. It has ceased to exist. 

However in the last 120 years, some churches began to teach a new doctrine. They claim that speaking in tongues is a spiritual gift that still exists today, and that it includes speaking in angelic languages. They say that it is the evidence of being baptised in the Holy Spirit, and is available for all believers to experience. They also believe that it enables their spirit to communicate directly with God when they pray in tongues. 

This new teaching has changed the way many worship services are conducted today. In one part of the service, all worshippers will speak in tongues at the same time, filling the entire room with sounds that no one understands, and producing the strange but thrilling sensation that some supernatural power is working which they believe to be the Holy Spirit’s anointing.

Those who have never spoken in tongues before are encouraged to come forward to receive the gift so that they can have a part in this unusual phenomenon. How do they receive this gift? By being instructed to repeat certain sounds and syllables aloud and in quicker succession, until it becomes very natural to them. Unlike the biblical gift of tongues, modern tongue-speaking is nothing but meaningless utterances (gibberish) that is learned from others. But the sensational feeling it produces draws huge crowds to charismatic services. 

And this easily attracts Christians who feel that their own worship experience has become too boring and mundane. So they ask, “Why don’t we speak in tongues…like them?” Perhaps some of us have been asked this question by friends from other churches: “Why don’t you speak in tongues? Or Why don’t you come over and join us to speak in tongues?” How should we answer them? The best way to do it is to know what the Bible teaches about speaking in tongues, and particularly what Paul wrote to the Corinthians on this. There are three basic truths here in 1 Corinthians 14:1-28 that we need to know about the biblical gift of tongues: 

1. Its Position Was Secondary to the Gift of Prophecy (vv.1-20) 

This is highlighted in v.5 – “…greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret, that the church may receive edifying.” Prophecy and speaking in tongues were both sign gifts that existed in apostolic times, but prophecy was the better gift. 

a.  Prophecy edifies the whole congregation. 

This gift brought direct revelations from God, which were needed at that time because the church did not have the complete New Testament as yet. What made these revelations effective is that they were communicated in a language that was known to the congregation. This language was probably Greek, since Corinth was a prominent city in Greece. 

The Corinthians could receive at least three kinds of benefits from the gift of prophecy, as v.3 says “But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort.” The first benefit is edification, which literally means ‘building up.’ This refers to the strengthening of their faith and knowledge of God which enables them to grow spiritually. The second benefit of this gift is exhortation. Through this, the Corinthians would be encouraged to press on and persevere. The third benefit of the gift of prophecy is comfort. This would help those who were coping with suffering and distress. 

The good news is that all these benefits of this spiritual gift and more are now ours through God’s written Word, which is called ‘a more sure word of prophecy’ in 2 Peter 1:19-21 – “We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts:  Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.  For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” Thus we need to read the Bible daily to benefit from its edification, exhortation, and comfort. In contrast to the gift of prophecy, the gift of… 

b.  Tongues cannot edify anyone without interpretation. 

This gift also brought direct revelations from God, just like the gift of prophecy. The only difference is that they were communicated in languages that were unknown to the congregation at Corinth, and so no one understood them. What kind of languages were they? Were they angelic languages or human languages? To find out, let us look at Acts 2:4-11 which describes how the gift of tongues was given at Pentecost – “And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven.  Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.” 

Here we can see that the languages spoken were clearly understandable human languages. And since those who had come to Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost were from the entire range of the Jewish diaspora, no interpretation was needed. Everyone could understand what was spoken in their own language. The situation was different in local congregations such as the Church at Corinth – interpretation was needed since the Corinthians would probably not understand any language except their own Greek language. If no one interpreted what was being spoken to them in tongues, the Corinthians would be completely clueless about the message. 

It is just like watching a foreign movie on TV with no subtitles – we have to keep guessing what the actors are saying. In movies, the setting and actions may at least provide some clues. But listening to a foreign radio broadcast would leave us completely clueless. That’s what speaking in tongues without any interpretation would have been like to the Corinthians. What benefit could they gain from listening to these foreign language revelations from God? What edification, or exhortation or comfort could they receive from them? None. 

To press this point home, Paul gives several illustrations in vv.6-8. He reminds the Corinthians about how he communicates with them when he comes to Corinth. Paul was probably well-versed in several languages. Because of his strict Jewish upbringing he spoke Hebrew and Aramaic fluently. Because of his Roman citizenship he probably spoke some Latin. But when he came to Corinth he had to use Greek in all his teaching and preaching, otherwise the Corinthians would gain nothing from it. 

In verses 7 and 8 musical instruments are used as illustrations. If someone played random sounds on a pipe or a harp all it would produce is noise, not music. If a military trumpeter does not sound the call to battle correctly, his entire army would be defeated. Then in v.9 Paul delivers the punchline – “So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air.” 

c. Tongues are not meant for self-edification. 

In response to this some people will say that the person who spoke in tongues must have received benefits from his gift, since v.4 says that “He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself.” So at least there was still something gained from it. But what exactly did he gain from it? Could he understand the words he was speaking? The obvious answer is No. Because if he could, then he would not need anyone to interpret them for him. He would be able to interpret them for himself and for everyone’s edification, and the gift of tongues would then be exactly the same as the gift of prophecy. 

Since the person who spoke in tongues could not understand what he said, how then was he edified by it? Some claim that the answer is found in verse 2– “For he that speaketh in an unknown tonguespeaketh not unto men, but unto God.” From this, they infer that speaking in tongues enables believers to speak to God, and hence it must be a spiritual form of praying that does not require understanding. Thus they teach that praying in tongues may be practiced privately and devotionally between a believer and God alone for his own personal edification. 

But this teaching is faulty, because it actually defeats the purpose of spiritual gifts, which is not personal but corporate edification. Like all spiritual gifts, the gift of tongues was meant to edify the body of Christ. This was stated right at the beginning of this whole discourse – “But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal.” (i.e. for the common good, 1 Corinthians 12:7). Corporate edification is also the main point of our passage. It is the basis for proving that the gift of prophecy is better than the gift of tongues: v.4 – “He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church.” Verse 12 – “Even so ye, forasmuch as ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church.” 

With this understanding, we will now look at what Paul wrote v.2, beginning from v.1 – “Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy. For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries.” In its context we see what the phrase ‘speaketh not unto men, but unto God’really means. What is spoken in tongues is called ‘mysteries.’ This term is used in the Bible for things that are known only to God but are revealed to men in His own good time for their edification, exhortation and comfort. Now, if the mysteries that are spoken in tongues come from God Himself, then what use is there in speaking them back to Him? Does God need edification, exhortation and comfort? Therefore Paul is not teaching the Corinthians to use their gift of tongues to speak to God. He is merely saying that without any interpretation provided, nobody except God can possibly understand what is being spoken, and that clearly defeats the purpose of making the mysteries of God known to men. 

I want you to notice also that the context of this passage shows that charity or love should always be our primary motivation for using spiritual gifts. Paul’s command to ‘follow after charity’ in v.1 is preceded by an entire chapter on love. Let us look at the description of love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-5– “Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil.” 

It is in this context that Paul wrote after that in chapter 14 that the gifts of prophecy and tongues must be used for the edification of others. This helps us to understand precisely what he meant when he wrote in v.4 “He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church.” Can you see what is implied here? 

Those in Corinth who insisted on speaking in tongues to edify themselves were actually lacking in love, and especially if they were using the gift to show off their spirituality and to draw attention to themselves! To such Corinthians Paul would say, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” (13:1) What irritating noise-makers they have made themselves! 

This verse, by the way does not imply that one can speak with angelic languages if one has the gift of tongues. The phrase ‘tongues of men and of angels’ is clearly a figure of speech, just as removing mountains by faith mentioned is in the next verse is also a figure of speech. Anyway, angels always spoke in human languages in the Bible (e.g. Luke 2:10-14). (SLIDE40) And would anyone be able to identify real angelic languages when he hears them? I doubt so. How can anyone do this, if no human being has ever heard angels speak to one another in their own language before? 

Thus we have seen that the gift of tongues is not meant for self-edification, and that it cannot edify anyone if there is no interpretation. One question that may then be asked is, ‘Why did God bestow this gift of tongues at all?’ If the gift of prophecy requires no interpretation to edify others, why bother to have this additional gift that requires interpretation in order to produce the same result? The answer may be found in vv.21,22 –  “In the law it is written, With men of other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people; and yet for all that will they not hear me, saith the Lord. Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not.” This reveals that… 

2. Its Purpose was to be a Sign to Unbelieving Jews (vv.21-22) 

a.  Tongues as a sign to unbelieving Jews in the Old Testament 

This is the second basic truth we need to know about the gift of tongues. Here, Paul traces its true purpose all the way back to the Old Testament. Here are the relevant passages of scripture: Deuteronomy 28:49 – “The LORD shall bring a nation against thee from far, from the end of the earth, as swift as the eagle flieth; a nation whose tongue thou shalt not understand…”  

Hundreds of years before Christ, the Lord had told the Jews through the prophet Isaiah that He would speak to them in foreign languages uttered by the lips of strangers. Isaiah 28:11,1– “For with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people. To whom he said, This is the rest wherewith ye may cause the weary to rest; and this is the refreshing: yet they would not hear.” So this sign was meant specifically for the unbelieving Jews who refused God’s loving offer of rest and refreshment. 

Fifteen years before this prophecy was made, the northern kingdom of Israel had been conquered and taken captive by the Assyrians (722 BC) because of unbelief and apostasy. Isaiah then warned the southern kingdom, Judah, that the same judgment was coming to them at the hand of the Babylonians. But the proud leaders of Judah refused to listen to him. 

A hundred years later, the Lord warned the Jews again through Jeremiah – “I will bring a nation upon you from far, O house of Israel, saith the LORD: it is a mighty nation, it is an ancient nation, a nation whose language thou knowest not, neither understandest what they say.” (Jeremiah 5:15) Once again, the sign of judgment was a foreign language. Shortly after this, the Babylonians conquered Judah and took the Jews into captivity, where they were forced to hear a foreign language every day of their lives because of their sins of disobedience and unbelief. 

b.  Tongues as a sign to unbelieving Jews in the New Testament

About 600 years later the Jews became ripe for judgment again, this time for rejecting Christ. They not only refused to believe in the Lord Jesus, they also crucified Him. And God’s judgment fell once again when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70 and scattered the Jews throughout the world. Then the Jews were forced to hear foreign languages spoken to them every day. 

But the Jews were given ample warning of this judgment when the Apostles of Christ spoke to them in tongues on the day of Pentecost in AD 30. To the Jews this was clearly a sign that God’s judgment was imminent (Acts 2:36,37). Though many Jews then believed in Christ, the vast majority of Israel still remained firm in unbelief. Thus, the gift of tongues continued to be a sign to Israel until the judgment that it warned them about was fulfilled in AD 70. Since it has already served its purpose, the gift of tongues is no longer in use today. 

As John Chrysostom (AD 347-407), an early church father wrote, “This whole place [i.e., I Corinthians 14 and its treatment of tongues] is very obscure; but the obscurity is produced by our ignorance of the facts referred to and by their cessation, being such as then used to occur but now no longer take place. And why do they not happen now? Why look now, the cause too of the obscurity hath produced us again another question: namely, why did they then happen, and now do so no more?” 

I hope that all of us can now provide a convincing answer to the question, “Why don’t we speak in tongues?” I believe all of us can see that whatever modern tongue-speaking may claim to be, it is definitely not the biblical gift of tongues. We have seen that biblical tongues cannot edify anyone without interpretation, that it was not done for self-edification, and that it was a sign to unbelieving Jews which has been fulfilled. But modern tongue-speaking is done with no interpretation, and for self-edification, and it continues till today as a sign to believers of being baptized with the Holy Spirit. There is one more reason why we believe that the biblical gift of tongues is not the same as modern speaking in tongues:

3. Its Proper Use Was Systematic and Orderly (vv.27-28) 

Let us observe the regulations given in vv.27-28 – “If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret. But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God.”  These regulations are hardly ever observed in worship services where people speak in tongues today. In fact, with all the emotional excitement and loud noises in charismatic services, there is often much disorder and confusion. What does v.33 tells us? “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.”(v.33) 

It is good for us to remember this whenever we come here for worship every Lord’s day. There should be orderliness, peace and quietness before, during and after each service, and sanctity should always be observed in this sanctuary. God is not the author of confusion. Confusion was a characteristic of pagan worship in Corinth as historical records have shown. It was common for Greek temples to have rituals where devotees worked themselves up into a trance-like state, and this was considered to be the highest form of communion with the divine. The ecstatic speaking of strange sounds that often accompanied such experiences was believed to be the language of the gods. 

And this leads us finally to consider, “Why do people really want to speak in tongues?” They are generally driven by the desire to have the closest possible communion with God. We can surely understand that, since we too long to reach God and enjoy intimate fellowship Him. But do we need to speak in tongues or pray in tongues to reach Him? No, because if we truly belong to Him, the Lord is already living in us. As Galatians 2:20 says, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me…” Through prayer and reading His Word daily, I can enjoy having a very close walk with Christ who is with me and lives within me. May we all be blessed with a closer walk with our Lord Jesus Christ and find all that we need in Him alone!

Vision & Mission


To build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service, to the glory of God.

Verse for the Week

February 18 & 25 - Fruit of Obedience

If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love. John 15:10