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The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit Series


The Content of an Utterance in Tongues

Wed, 14 Apr 2010 - 10:41 AM CST

By Raymond K. Levang

Theological formulations from the Scriptures can be drawn (1) from statements of God quoted by His servants; (2) from the judgments of those who served God, such as the prophets; or (3) from the experiences of people in the Bible. Of these approaches, the one most likely to lead to error is the last, simply because what may be incidental to the account may be viewed as theologically significant.

However, to rule out drawing theological conclusions from the experiences of people in the Bible runs counter to what the Early Church did in dealing with the Cornelius story. Peter’s argument was that the Gentiles could not be excluded from the benefits of the work of Christ because they (Peter and the believers with him) saw that the Holy Ghost fell on the Gentiles (Acts 11:15; cf. 10:46). The argument Peter presented was dependent on observable phenomena.

The Assemblies of God position on tongues as the visible physical evidence of the baptism in the Holy Spirit is really dependent on looking at the observable phenomena in cases where people received the infilling in the Book of Acts. In all instances in which we know what was observed when people were filled with the Spirit, we find that they spoke in tongues. Three of these passages give us this information: the Day of Pentecost experience, the Cornelius story, and the account of Paul and the believers from Ephesus. Our doctrinal position on the initial evidence is dependent on arguing from the experiences of people in these passages.

In this article, I am going to take a close look at those three passages to see what the meaning or content of the utterances in tongues was. I will then examine Pauline statements about tongues, prophecy, and interpretation.

Three Baptism Experiences

The Day of Pentecost

There are several significant considerations in the Day of Pentecost account (Acts 2:1–11). First, Luke informs us that the members of the church in Jerusalem were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. Second, there were dwelling in Jerusalem devout Jews from every nation under heaven; they are then enumerated either as groups of people or by their places of origin. Third, verses 8 and 11 tell us that all these people (the Jews of the dispersion) kept hearing these Galileans speaking, or relating, or narrating in the tongues of the Jews of the dispersion the wonderful works of God. But Luke in verse 4 declared that the Galileans did this as the Spirit gave them utterance.

What is critical here is that these Galileans either talked about God or addressed God in declaring the wonderful works of God. If one says the content of the tongues included more than that, he is merely making an assertion that Luke’s handling of the material does not specifically include.

This is the only record we have in the New Testament of an “interpretation” of an utterance in tongues. The value of this is somewhat weakened by the fact that we are arguing on the basis of what the Hellenistic Jews said, and not on the basis of a declaration by Luke as to what the meaning of the utterances was. However, that Luke believed their judgment to be correct seems obvious on the basis of how he related the events.

The Household of Cornelius

The second passage relevant to this discussion is the Cornelius episode (Acts 10:44–48). In verse 46, Luke expressly tells us that the circumcised Jewish believers with Peter heard the members of the household of Cornelius speaking in tongues and magnifying God. The Greek construction of verse 46 makes possible two interpretations.

The Greek word for “and” is kai, which can be a true conjunction, or sometimes it can be a modifier (or describer) of something earlier in the sentence. This distinction can be seen in comparing Galatians 6:16 in two translations. The King James Version reads, “And as many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.” The same verse in the NIV is “Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God.” Thus, if one reads kai as “even” in Acts 10:46, then the content or meaning of the utterance in tongues is magnification of God, an idea that agrees well with what the Hellenistic Jews reported the Galileans saying on the Day of Pentecost. If one reads the kai as “and” rather than “even,” then one could argue that in the Cornelius episode there was an utterance in tongues, the content of which is not known to us, and another utterance, perhaps unrelated to the utterance in tongues (given presumably in Aramaic or perhaps in Latin), the content of which involved a magnification of God.

In the final analysis, one must argue that nothing in the Cornelius story forces one to develop a view on the meaning of an utterance in tongues that disagrees with the Day of Pentecost account.

The Disciples of Ephesus

The third passage is found in Acts 19:1–6. The critical verse here is verse 6 where Luke says that when Paul laid his hands on the disciples the Holy Spirit came on them and they kept speaking in tongues and kept prophesying. There is, however, a big difference in the Greek construction used in this verse when compared with the kai in Acts 10:46. In Acts 19:6, the speaking in tongues and the prophesying are put together with a tekai construction. Tekai can join different or similar ideas, but never will this construction mean anything like “even” (describing a preceding element). To argue that the prophesying was the meaning of the speaking in tongues is to violate the rules of the Greek language. In fact, the probability is that Luke deliberately chose the tekai construction to eliminate the possibility of a misreading. What Luke said was that two different things occurred: first, an utterance in tongues, and second, some kind of prophesying distinct from the utterance in tongues.

From these three passages it is evident that the only affirmation one can make about the content or meaning of any utterance in tongues in Acts is that the content or meaning involved a declaration of the mighty acts of God. The magnification of God described in the Cornelius story may be another way of saying the same thing.

Pauline Statements on the Subject

Both the Day of Pentecost experience and the Cornelius episode preceded by many years the writing of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. But Paul’s dealings with the disciples at Ephesus occurred after he had already established the church in Corinth. Thus, the Lucan accounts in Acts 2 and Acts 10 should be examined carefully in dealing with Paul’s Corinthian correspondence. We have seen that in the Book of Acts the only meaning one can show for any utterance in tongues is a glorification or magnification of God. The big question now is this: Does the Corinthian correspondence of Paul force one to say that the pattern seen in the Book of Acts no longer applies? The argument in this article is that one cannot show a change at all. A mere possibility cannot be accepted as a basis for doctrine.

Tongues and Prophecy

First Corinthians 14:1–5 contains six clearly stated ideas that need careful examination: (1) The one speaking in a tongue speaks not to men but to, or unto, or with God (verse 2). (2) No one understands the man speaking in a tongue; he speaks mysteries in the spirit (verse 2). Some translators understand the spirit to be the Holy Spirit and others the spirit of man. This point, however, is not critical to our study. (3) The content, or burden, or function of prophecy is to speak to men for their upbuilding, encouragement, and consolation (verse 3). (4) The one speaking in tongues edifies himself, whereas the one who prophesies edifies the church (verse 4). The critical point here is that Paul’s concern is edification. (5) Paul expresses a desire that the Corinthian Christians would prophesy (verse 5). (6) He who prophesies is greater than he who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets it so the church may be edified (v. 5).

It is especially important to remember that Paul describes the content, burden, or message of prophecy as edification, exhortation, and comfort (verse 3). Beginning with verse 4 and running through verse 5, Paul’s concern is the value of prophecy as well as tongues for edification. Certainly one can argue that Paul saw tongues with interpretation as equivalent to prophecy for the purpose of edification.

Many Pentecostals have taken this passage to mean tongues with interpretation is equivalent to prophecy in content. The problem, however, is that Paul did not deal here with the content of tongues. Also, Paul ends the passage with another reference to edification at the end of verse 5. His entire concern here was edification.

The Content of an Utterance

Some people today attempt to use 1 Corinthians 14:6 as a basis for enlarging the content of an utterance in tongues: “Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine?” The big question here is this: Are revelation, knowledge, prophecy, and doctrine (teaching) given within the framework of the speaking in tongues mentioned earlier in the verse, or are these outside the framework of the tongues mentioned? We are not told what the revelation or knowledge would contain. One could easily assume that it would contain personal guidance. But there seems to be a kind of general rejection in Pentecostal circles of the idea that tongues and interpretation should be used for personal direction. There are many sad stories about people who have attempted to use this approach. We cannot accept what is sometimes said in interpretations of utterances in tongues as doctrine!

Notice that Paul mentioned interpretation with tongues in verse 5. After that verse Paul became critical of uninterpreted tongues and never mentioned interpretation again until verses 12 and 13 where he pled for interpretation of tongues so the church will be edified. From verses 6–11, Paul was speaking about tongues without interpretation. One can argue that instead of a list of meanings for what is said in tongues, verse 6 gives a list of things that will edify, and all these are outside the scope of uninterpreted tongues. They are presented instead in the language of the people.

The pattern seen in the Book of Acts will also fit perfectly with what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 14:14–18 In verse 14, Paul mentioned a tongue that the King James Version takes to mean an unknown tongue. Verse 18 includes another reference to tongues: “I speak with tongues more than ye all.” In verse 16, Paul used the phrase, “bless with the spirit.” Does he here mean the Holy Spirit or his own spirit? If he means the Holy Spirit, the view that the context demands, then bless in verse 16 becomes critical. The Greek word here is the root of our word “eulogize.” Who is to be eulogized? God or man? If it is God, as the context seems to indicate, then it matches the magnification or glorification we see in the passages in Acts.

Also, in both verses 16 and 17 Paul referenced giving thanks. Is that giving thanks to people or giving thanks to God? If it is God, then these two match well the magnification or glorification we saw in the Book of Acts. I would ask: How can God be eulogized or thanked if the meaning of the utterance in tongues involves a condemnation of people? In fact, we would never hear condemnation or guidance presented under the umbrella of tongues with interpretation if the interpretation spoke only to God or about God, unless people, by some kind of linguistic gymnastics, were to say something like, “God wants us to do this or that, or God wants us to see how bad we are.”

It seems we have problems with tongues and interpretation mainly when the interpretation says something like, “Behold the Lord says … ” But how does one fit that approach into the Book of Acts or Paul’s material without arguing from silence or omission? To base a doctrine or a practice on a biblical “maybe” or “could be” and then present it as a certainty is to invite the kind of abuse seen in such groups as the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

How Does God Speak To His People?

One passage from 1 Corinthians 14 that is used by some to support the idea that God will address people by means of an utterance in tongues with interpretation is verses 18–28, with 21 being the critical verse in arguing this way: “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.”

Paul in verse 18 stated he spoke in tongues more than the believers to whom he was writing. But immediately after saying that, he made statements that appear critical of speaking in tongues and ended the discussion on tongues in verse 28 by admonishing one who speaks in tongues to be silent in the church if there is no interpreter present. Why this critical shift? It seems Paul was complaining about speaking in tongues when there was not an interpreter present. If this is true, then what Paul had to say in verses 19–25 describes only tongues-speaking and not interpretation. Be that as it may, we should take a close look at verse 21.

It is necessary to observe how Paul as well as other New Testament writers handled Old Testament material to see what Paul said in verse 21. One pattern used by New Testament writers in introducing Old Testament passages is “It is written.” In addition, New Testament writers frequently introduced Old Testament passages by saying God made the statements. When one looks at the Old Testament passage, he will often see that the Old Testament writer did ascribe the statement to God. But in other instances it is impossible to determine exactly what Old Testament passage the writer was thinking of, or the Old Testament passage is not clear as to who the speaker is.

In still other instances where New Testament writers ascribed a quotation to God, the statements as seen in the Old Testament passages seem to have been made by men.1

From all this we see New Testament writers felt God was speaking to them even in passages in the Old Testament where the writers were praising and magnifying God. Their view was that through divine inspiration motivating the writers of the Old Testament material, the things the writers said even in magnifying God were the voice of God for them. These passages were then viewed as God speaking to them.

This brings us to the crucial verse for this discussion — 1 Corinthians 14:21. In introducing this passage, Paul used the common New Testament approach — “It is written.” What Paul said next would lead one to expect to find the passage in the Mosaic material. It is not found there, however, but is found instead in Isaiah 28:11.2 The statement was made by Isaiah about God. God is not introduced as the speaker in the chapter until verse 15. But the question is: What did Isaiah mean by the statement? There is no way to determine clearly the context in which the statement was made. The likely meaning was that God would speak to the nation through the Assyrians, a people from the east who spoke a different language.

In handling this Old Testament reference, Paul shifted the verb from the third person used in Isaiah to the first person. What Isaiah had said would happen did happen. Paul was saying that just as God spoke to the nation through the Assyrians, He was now speaking in the New Testament era through stammering lips and an alien tongue by means of tongues with interpretation. But is it certain that he meant God would now be speaking in the first person? After all, he saw God as speaking to the New Testament believers in passages from the Old Testament in which the writers were simply magnifying God. On what basis must we conclude Paul was saying God was not speaking in the first person? Will those who argue that 1 Corinthians 14:21 proves God will speak in the first person through tongues and interpretation deny that God was speaking to the Jews of the dispersion when they heard Palestinian Jews magnifying God in languages they had never learned? What Paul was saying in 1 Corinthians 14:21 fits well with what we find in the Book of Acts and with Paul’s other statements. Any individual who says Paul meant more than that in 1 Corinthians 14:21 has the obligation to show what more Paul meant by the statement.

Practical Questions

We come now to questions of contemporary practice. If tongues with interpretation is equivalent to prophecy in meaning, why should we take twice the time to deliver a message that can be handled by the single gift of prophecy? The problems in our churches in the area of the gifts involve tongues and interpretation more than prophecy. Some might suggest, ‘Why not cut out the tongues with interpretation?” But Paul did not want to eliminate tongues; he only wanted to correct the abuses.

Another argument sometimes presented is that if tongues with interpretation can only be used for the glorification of God, the whole thing is not very edifying. But edification is the issue that concerns me. I do not feel condemnation of sincere, godly people is edifying, nor do I feel giving poor advice under the guise of guidance by tongues with interpretation is edifying.

Where does this leave us today? We must conclude that the only thing we can argue for in respect to the content of an utterance in tongues is a declaration of the mighty works of God. Also, if we want to be true to Scripture, as well as to human experience, we must preserve a relationship between what is said in tongues and the interpretation of that utterance. Consequently, the only interpretations we can accept on the basis of the New Testament are interpretations in which the mighty works of God are proclaimed. Thus, there is no justification for an interpretation containing either condemnation of people or personal guidance. If the Corinthians could have a practice that was not correct, we can too. Just as they were called on to eliminate the wrongs, we too should eliminate the errors.

The objection may be raised that there are interpretations in our churches that depart from the New Testament pattern. Paul, however, would not approve a practice in the Corinthian church simply because it was going on.

Since the content or meaning of an utterance in tongues is a declaration of the mighty acts of God, there is a nonbiblical implication in the frequently heard phrase in Pentecostal circles, “a message in tongues.” The implication and the accepted notion in this statement is that God is somehow giving a message in the first person to the church through tongues and interpretation. But one cannot build a case for this position from the New Testament Scriptures. Let us be biblical in all our theology and practice.

Raymond K. Levang, Ph.D.


1. Three such instances from Paul’s writing are found in Acts 13:35, 1 Corinthians 6:16, and 1 Corinthians 15:27.

In Acts 13:35, Luke quoted Paul as ascribing to God the statement found in Psalm 16:10. But Psalm 16 is a psalm of praise to God. The writer David was praising God for His deliverance. Nowhere in Psalm 16 does God appear as the speaker. In 1 Corinthians 6:16, Paul quoted from Genesis 2:24, attributing the quotation to God. However, in Genesis the last-named speaker prior to 2:24 is Adam, not God. Yet it appears Moses made the observation, not God or Adam. In 1 Corinthians 15:27, Paul quoted Psalm 8:6, as though God made the statement. But the writer of Psalm 8, David (according to the superscription), was describing the glory of God and man’s dignity. Nowhere in Psalm 8 is God presented as the speaker.

2. Isaiah started chapter 28 with a condemnation of Ephraim. In verse 5, he shifted to a praise of God but returned to condemnation in verse 7. There is no verb in the Hebrew text in verse 10 (the verb and subject being supplied by the translators). In verse 11, Isaiah said God would speak to the people through stammering lips and an alien tongue.

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