The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit (See Archives)
Utterance Gifts and the Believer’s responsibility
By Hardy W. Steinberg
Dr. A.J. Gordon, an early American Baptist minister, observed that “whenever in any period of the history of the church a little company has sprung up so surrendered to the Holy spirit and so filled with His presence as to furnish the pliant instrument of His will, a new Pentecost has dawned on Christendom.” It can also be noted that Pentecostal revivals have been accompanied by supernatural manifestations of the Holy Spirit. Utterance gifts such as prophecy, speaking in tongues, and interpretation of tongues have been among these manifestations.
While all gifts of the spirit are supernatural, the manifestation of some, such as the utterance gifts, is in cooperation with believers. This places responsibility on the believer to be sensitive to what the Holy Spirit wishes to accomplish.
Unlike satanic manifestations where the human instrument is completely subject to Satan’s power (Mark 5:1–20; 9:17–27), the Spirit-filled believer is not a helpless automaton. Paul wrote that “the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets” (1 Corinthians 14:32). While the Holy Spirit never makes a mistake, the believer through whom the Spirit wishes to work is human and thus capable of misinterpreting the Spirit’s intent. Thus, in the church at Corinth there were abuses of utterance gifts which, rather than enriching a gathering of believers, actually resulted in ridicule (verse 23).
To help believers cooperate with the Holy Spirit in utterance gifts, the Bible gives guidelines that underline the responsibility of both the speaker and the hearer of these manifestations.
The Responsibility Of The Speaker
As in all spiritual experience faith is an indispensable ingredient in utterance gifts. Paul wrote: “Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith” (Romans 12:6). Doubts and fears can prevent a believer from yielding to the Holy Spirit. A major fear is expressed by some believers with the question, “How can I know if the impression I have is of human or divine origin?” On the other hand, it is possible to be so humanly zealous for manifestations of the Spirit that some proceed presumptuously. Both fear and presumption need to be replaced with genuine faith.
When it is known that the Holy Spirit wishes to manifest himself, the believer in faith needs to heed Paul’s instruction, “Quench not the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:19). The Berkley Version of the New Testament translates this verse, “Do not extinguish the Spirit’s fire.” The New Testament in the Translation of Monsignor Ronald Knox translates it, “Do not stifle the utterance of the Spirit.” Believers must have faith that the Holy Spirit may want to manifest himself through them and must at all times be sensitive to His promptings.
A second guideline for the speaker is: “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40). The time at which a believer receives an impression that the Holy Spirit wishes to manifest himself through him is not necessarily the time to give the utterance. The Holy Spirit expects the believer to use his discretion as to the appropriate time for the utterance.
A gracious attitude and good manners—that is, the fruit of the Spirit—are important in knowing when to speak. If more than one person feels prompted by the Spirit, there should be a polite waiting one for another. Paul wrote: “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 [someone] interpret” (14:27).
It is hard to imagine that the gentle Holy Spirit would ordinarily interrupt the preaching of the Word or the giving of an altar call. It is the Spirit who anoints the servant of the Lord to preach and to ask for a response from the audience. The Spirit-filled believer will honor this anointing and wait for a propitious time to give the utterance.
A third guideline in utterance gifts is the edification of the church. Paul wrote in the context of spiritual gifts, “Let all things be done unto edifying” (14:26). He further pointed out that the person who prophesies is greater than the person who speaks in tongues unless he interprets. The reason is “that the church may receive edifying (14:5). To edify is to build up spiritually, to promote spiritual growth.
Utterance gifts should never dampen a service or destroy what the Spirit wants to accomplish. Biblical descriptions of utterance gifts can help the potential speaker recognize if he is in harmony with the Spirit or proceeding presumptuously. Prophecy, Paul wrote, is “edification, and exhortation, and comfort” (14:3). Tongues with interpretation is speaking either “by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine” (14:6). Utterance gifts, then, make the purpose of a gathering of believers more meaningful. They should enrich and enhance rather than detract from the occasion of the meeting.
A fourth responsibility of the speaker is to interpret or be silent. Paul wrote: “Wherefore let him that speaketh in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret” (14:13). Speaking in tongues in the congregational setting should ordinarily be accompanied by interpretation. While the Holy Spirit might choose to grant the interpretation through someone other than the person who speaks in tongues (14:27), it is clear that the speaker has a special responsibility to be receptive to the Spirit’s prompting. Just as faith is required to yield to the Spirit to speak in tongues, faith is also required for the interpretation.
In 1 Corinthians 14:5 Paul pointed out that the person who prophesies is greater (that is, renders greater service) than the person who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets. Here again it is obvious that the speaker in tongues has the responsibility of yielding to the Holy Spirit for the interpretation, should this be the Spirit’s intention.
In the absence of interpretation the person who feels impressed to speak in tongues has the responsibility to remain silent. This, however, does not mean the impression is not of God. It may mean that the Holy Spirit is moving upon a believer for silent intercession (14:28). The success of a meeting may depend as much on the quiet intercession of some member of the congregation as on the leader. It may be the Holy Spirit is wanting to make intercession according to the will of God (Romans 8:26,27) in order that Satanic hindering power can be broken and spiritual victory accomplished. The speaker in tongues must be so sensitive that he discerns the purpose of the Spirit’s prompting.
The Responsibility Of The Listener
Responsibility in relation to utterance gifts rests not only on the speaker, but on the listener as well. And a primary responsibility has to do with the listener’s attitude. Paul wrote, “Despise not prophesyings” (1 Thessalonians 5:20). The listener must not hold utterance gifts in low esteem or make light of them.
Two factors might contribute to disdaining utterance gifts. Some who are unaware of the clear teaching in Scripture concerning supernatural manifestations of the Spirit may arbitrarily reject them through ignorance. On the other hand, abuses of scriptural teaching may result in skepticism. Paul referred to a situation that might cause people to consider manifestation of utterance gifts insanity (1 Corinthians 14:23). Both factors exist because of lack of teaching.
Believers must not reject the genuine because of the spurious. They must understand that, because of the human factor, fanaticism can exist. God recognized the possibility of abuse and for this reason provided the concentrated teaching concerning spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12–14. Sincere believers will understand that this teaching exists not to eliminate or discourage believers from responding to the Spirit, but to help make divine manifestations all that God wants them to be. They will recognize that, because the church needs the supernatural so much, God has provided ample instruction to make it possible where attitudes are right.
While believers are not to quench the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19) nor despise prophesying (verse 20), neither are they to be credulous. In the same context of urging acceptance of the supernatural Paul wrote, “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Two extremes can develop. One is to reject everything as spurious, and the other is to accept everything as the voice of God. The believer has the responsibility of determining what is truly inspired by the spirit.
Sometimes a speaker may use an expression such as, “I, the Lord God, say unto you. … ” But the teaching of Scripture still applies. The listener is to test what is being said. Paul made it clear that listeners are to judge or evaluate what is being spoken (1 Corinthians 14:29,30).
This evaluation, however, must be done on a sound basis. Some compare the length of an interpretation with the length of the speaking in tongues, and this can be a faulty basis. It should be noted that this manifestation of the Spirit is interpretation, not translation. The Greek word translated interpret means to explain and is also translated expound. It is the word used concerning Jesus’ ministry on the Emmaus Road where He expounded the Scriptures to the two disciples (Luke 24:27).
An example of interpretation is found in Daniel 5:25-28. The words Belshazzar saw supernaturally written on the wall were “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin. ” The exact translation would have been “numeration, numeration, weighing, division.” But Daniel gave the interpretation and not the translation. The 32 words he used to interpret the four are as follows: “MENE; God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it. TEKEL; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting. PERES; Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.” Thus comparing the length of an interpretation with the length of tongues is not a valid basis of evaluating an interpretation.
There are, however, biblical tests by which utterance gifts can be evaluated. First, “No man speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed” (1 Corinthians 12:3). When the Holy Spirit manifests himself in utterance gifts, there will never be statements which reflect adversely on Jesus. Concerning the ministry of the Spirit Jesus said, “He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall show it unto you” (John 16:14). The Holy Spirit always exalts Jesus.
In the early days of the church, as today, there were false prophets. The apostle John warned believers and told how they could distinguish between the true and the false: “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world” (1 John 4:1–3).
Another test for evaluating utterance gifts is the Word of God. All Scripture is given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16) and the Spirit will not contradict through utterance gifts what He inspired in written form.
From earliest times God warned there would be those who pretend to be sent by God (Jeremiah 23:21). They would prophesy lies in God’s name (14:14). They would prophesy what was in their own hearts and not what the Spirit would inspire (23:16; Ezekiel 13:2,3). They would even go so far as to say “He [God] saith” to express their own thoughts (Jeremiah 23:31). In addition to these there can be sincere believers who, though meaning well, mistakenly speak out because they have not learned to distinguish between the prompting of the Spirit and their personal opinions.
Divinely inspired utterance gifts can stand the scrutiny of Scripture, and utterances which are not manifestations of the Holy Spirit need the test of God’s Word. Those who hold utterance gifts in low esteem need to remind themselves that there are counterfeits of almost anything that is genuine. But God so highly regards the gifts of the Spirit that He has given the test of Scripture to distinguish between the true and the false. Listeners have the responsibility of applying the test of Scripture in love.
A third test of gifts of the Spirit has to do with the Word that is being proclaimed. After Jesus’ ascension, the disciples “went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following” (Mark 16:20). When God’s Word is proclaimed it can be expected that at times there will be supernatural confirmation of the Word. Utterance gifts then normally will be in harmony with what God has anointed His ministering servant to proclaim.
Wherever there is life, there can be problems, and this is true of spiritual life as well. The solution to the problems is not to despise utterance gifts, nor to quench the Spirit. The solution is to eliminate lack of understanding (1 Corinthians 12:1) by a careful, thorough study of God’s Word. This should result in fervent prayer that every believer will be so yielded to the Holy Spirit that He can manifest himself through them. The church faces a vicious enemy, but God’s supernatural provision for victory, including utterance gifts, is more than adequate.
The powerful words of Zechariah are as true today as when they were spoken, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, said the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6).