What is the relevance of prophecy and speaking in tongues in our lives?

by | Sep 7, 2023 | Ask the Pastors

QUESTION

1 Corinthians 14: Could you please speak to (and clarify) the relevance and context of prophecy and speaking in tongues in our lives?

ANSWER

Sorry it’s taken so long to respond, brother. This is a good question, and a challenging one. Challenging in part because Scripture makes it difficult to be too rigidly systematic about the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells us in John 3:8, “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” We will tread carefully and ask that you pray that God uses our meager efforts to build up the church.

The New Testament is not as detailed about spiritual gifts as we would like it to be. There are multiple lists of these gifts, and no two of them are the same. (The main ones are found in Rom. 12:6–8; 1 Cor. 12:27–31; and 1 Pet. 4:10–11.) Furthermore, when the gifts are listed, we don’t get tidy definitions of exactly what each gift means. It’s difficult, for example, to define precisely what speaking in tongues is. When it happens in Acts 2 at Pentecost, it appears to be speaking in known languages so that foreigners can clearly understand the apostolic message of salvation. But in 1 Corinthians 14 the Apostle Paul talks about speaking in tongues as something that can be engaged in for someone’s own personal spiritual benefit, without anyone understanding what is being said, perhaps even including the speaker himself! (1 Cor. 14:2, 14). This may simply demonstrate the fact that there are, as the apostle says in 1 Corinthians 12:28, “various kinds of tongues.” We run into a similar challenge with prophecy. We typically think of prophecy as predicting the future, but the word is also used in Scripture to describe a Spirit-empowered declaration of the mighty works of God, without any apparent prediction involved.

The spiritual gifts you’ve asked about are often referred to as “sign gifts.” These typically include at least speaking in tongues and prophecy, and often healings, though people’s lists may vary. When it comes to these sign gifts, the biggest theological divide is between “continuationists” and “cessationists.” Continuationists believe in the continuation of the sign gifts throughout the church age (in which we are currently living). They would base their view on passages like 1 Corinthians 14, and they would argue that Scripture gives no reason for us to think these gifts have ceased. Cessationists, on the other hand, normally believe that these gifts were especially for the time of the apostles, to attest to the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and that they ceased with the deaths of the apostles and the completion of the New Testament. Historically, Reformed Christians (like ourselves) have typically held to a cessationist viewpoint.

To put my cards on the table, I do not believe these sign gifts have ceased, at least not entirely. I think it perfectly within God’s prerogative to use dreams and visions, tongues, prophecy, and whatever gifts whenever He pleases, wherever He pleases. I’ve heard enough stories from people I trust, and even seen a few things myself, so that I’m unwilling to adopt a hardline cessationist view of the gifts.

However, I do believe we live in a time and place where the manifestation of these gifts is rare.

But before we talk about sign gifts today, we should realize that these gifts were somewhat infrequent even in the time of the writing of the New Testament. It’s only in a few places that they show up, and there are plenty of instances of the Gospel going forth much more “mundanely,” so to speak. For example: “One who heard us was a woman named Lydia. … The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14, ESV). We may not think of “paying attention” as a spiritual gift, and yet it was the work of the Lord to open Lydia’s heart!

Where the more extraordinary gifts are mentioned in Scripture, they serve to validate the preaching of the apostles, typically among previously unreached people. (You can read more about that in one of our recent Ask the Pastor answers.) This is very important. Signs and wonders serve to confirm the Word of God, which stands forever. Cessationists rightly point out the temporary nature of spiritual gifts revealed to us in 1 Corinthians 13:8–10: “As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.” The Bible teaches that tongues and prophecies “will pass away,” but there is disagreement among Christians about when they’ll pass away.

While the apostles—those who saw the risen Christ and received the Gospel directly from Him—were alive and preaching, it makes sense that their ministries would be attended by miraculous signs that confirmed the truth and divine origin of their message. Today, we have the true apostolic testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ recorded for us in the New Testament, and we don’t need signs and wonders to prove anything to us when so much of God’s wondrous work is recorded for us in the Bible. As best as I can tell, sign gifts are more prevalent today in places where the Word of God is unknown and the Gospel is breaking in for the first time. In other words, these signs still serve to confirm the apostolic testimony, especially where the name of Christ has not yet been named.

In some cases, as strange as it sounds, spiritual gifts may even distract us from the sure, established Word of God. This was apparently the case in the church in Corinth. Their abuse of the gifts had turned their worship into a chaotic spectacle, and the Apostle Paul was not impressed. After instructing them in the proper use of spiritual gifts, he reminds them of that which is of first importance: “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3–4).

To answer your question more directly, I don’t think speaking in tongues and prophecy are normal experiences in the life of Christians today in our cultural context. I’m not exactly sure why that’s the case, but God has His reasons, and we can trust Him.

It may be that we do not experience these gifts frequently in our own time and place simply because their usefulness has been superseded by the perfect Word of God. But it could also be that God removes the presence and power of His Spirit in places where His Word has gone forth and where that Word has been rejected. We live in a nation saturated with God’s Word. There are churches on every street corner where Scripture is (or at least was) taught and preached. Yet we are a perverse people, and not because we haven’t yet been taught God’s Word, but because we have brazenly despised it. In that way we are quite different from the Corinthians. They were still relatively new recipients of the Gospel when Paul wrote to them. We, on the other hand, are the recipients of a rich and centuries-old Christian heritage, one which we are continually drifting further and further away from. Perhaps it should not surprise us that signs and wonders are rare in our day.

But that should not make us lose heart.

One particular passage has been extremely important for me in diagnosing my own heart when it comes to whether or not to look for signs and wonders:

Some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.” But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:38–40)

To Jesus, the Jews’ craving for a sign indicated evil and adulterous hearts that were not devoted to God. He says if they don’t believe the signs and wonders recorded for them in Scripture, they will not believe an even greater sign, namely, His resurrection from the dead. Jesus reinforces this rebuke with the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. In the realm of the dead, the rich man is sure that if Abraham sends Lazarus back to the land of the living, the rich man’s brothers will repent. Abraham’s response is sobering: “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31).

Are we content with the amazing testimony of God’s wondrous works recorded for us in Scripture? If not, I see no reason why we should expect God to give us more signs.

And yet, if we have eyes to see, we will see that God is incredibly gracious, even to those with hard hearts. He was gracious to those who asked Jesus for a sign. Despite their hardness of heart, they got to see the Lord casting out demons, healing the sick, and raising people from the dead. They saw the sun darkened and felt the earthquake and saw the torn veil when He was crucified. And then they themselves saw the risen Lord, or at least heard the testimony of the more than 500 witnesses who did! But many still did not believe.

Think of our privileges. Start with the fact that all of those amazing things are recorded for us in Scripture. Then ponder how many wonderful and gracious things God has done for us in our own lives. I’m sure I’ve seen thousands of answered prayers in my life, including a handful of miracles. And yet I still find myself doubting God. But why! My faith is still so weak. And the solution to this faithless discontentment is not to see more signs and wonders. The solution is to believe God’s Word, which contains all the signs and wonders we could ever ask for, and more.

Let me wrap this up with some practical direction.

Regardless of where we land on the sign gifts theologically, we must resist the temptation to put the Holy Spirit into a box. I think that’s a temptation on both sides of this divide, and there are two main ditches we might fall into:

  1. Continuationist ditch: Every Christian has full access to whatever spiritual gifts they have enough faith to exercise. Some go so far as to say that speaking tongues is a sign that every Christian should expect to experience in their lives, if indeed the Holy Spirit is truly at work in them. The problem with this is that it is clearly contradicted by the Apostle Paul: “All do not speak with tongues, do they?” (1 Cor. 12:30). Different members of the body have different gifts, and we should be careful not to demand that the Spirit work in the same way in everyone’s life—nor that He work in the same way in every time and place.
  2. Cessationist ditch: The Spirit will never use these gifts again because of our theological system that tells us the gifts have ceased. More careful cessationists will acknowledge that the Holy Spirit is, of course, free to work whenever and however He pleases, but then they’ll go on to say that He’ll never please to work through these gifts again, because He stopped doing that about two thousand years ago. Setting aside the empirical evidence of these gifts happening in various ways throughout history up to today, I think 1 Corinthians 14 provides the greatest biblical hurdle for this strict cessationism when it speaks so strongly and directly: “Earnestly desire spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. … Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues” (1 Cor. 14:1, 39).

All gifts, whether miraculous sign gifts or more “ordinary” gifts, like serving, teaching, exhorting, giving, leading, showing mercy, and practicing hospitality (Romans 12:7–8), are for building up the church. They’re not for showing off. They’re to be used for the sake of God’s people.

That even means there are times we don’t exercise our gifts. The Apostle Paul put practical limitations on who would get to use their gifts when in the church. Tongues were not to be used if there was no one to interpret (1 Cor. 14:28). No more than three were to speak in tongues or prophesy in a particular gathering, which meant some people were to keep quiet (vv. 27, 29). Everything was to be done in an orderly manner, which included the instruction that “women should keep silent in the churches” (v. 34). It’s terribly ironic that some of the most enthusiastic practitioners of these spiritual gifts today give little heed to Scripture’s instructions in this area.

Finally, we should understand that signs can be counterfeited. False prophets exist. Some pretend to speak in tongues. But we should not let that turn us into cynics, nor adopt a theological viewpoint simply because it’s convenient. By that I mean, we should only believe the sign gifts have ceased if we sincerely believe that’s what Scripture teaches, not simply because it gives us an easy answer to whether or not someone is speaking by the Holy Spirit. There’s no easy way out of having to use discernment. God still calls fallible men to preach the Word. He calls each one of us to encourage one another and exhort one another and counsel one another, and we have to be continually using discernment with what people tell us and what we tell other people. There’s no simple system that removes the need for us to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1), and to “because of practice” have our senses “trained to discern good and evil” (Heb. 5:14).

There’s a strong tendency among Reformed Christians to forget that the Holy Spirit works among His people today in dynamic ways. We doubt that prayer actually accomplishes anything. We’re immediately skeptical of anyone who says they were led by the Holy Spirit to do something. While it’s true that we should be discerning, we should not be cynical and hopeless. We all need to grow in our reliance upon the Holy Spirit in our day-to-day lives. This will happen as we store up His Word in our hearts, and as we seek to live in faith-filled obedience to that Word in all the messy details of our lives.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. All rights reserved.

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