Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Tongues-speaking revisited

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Acts 10:30

I was a very young and inexperienced minister when the whole question of “speaking in tongues” burst on the church. I had long had a close friend who worshipped in a Pentecostal church, so I wasn’t completely unaware of it. But it was (we imagined!) something safely tucked away in those strange “Penty” circles, so it wasn’t something we more mainstream Christians needed to bother with.

We imagined wrong! Once the “charismatic movement” kicked off, complete with tongues, prophecy, miracles and the rest, we all had to come to terms with it and try to make some sense of it.

All that was nearly half a century ago, and the issue has never completely gone away. And in the last couple of weeks it has popped its head up again in my life.

First, I was at a ministers’ conference where one of the speakers spoke as if we were all tongues-speakers (though I’m pretty sure he knew we weren’t!). Second, I received a message from a lady called Kathryn who reads this blog and who was interested, not so much in the teaching on spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12, but in instances where new converts suddenly find themselves speaking in tongues.

In other words, she is interested in tongues as what might be called an “initiation gift” rather than tongues as a gift granted to individuals in the church.

So… what can we say? Let’s do a bit of digging…

The Book of Acts records three examples of this kind of tongues-speaking.

Acts 2, of course, describes the Day of Pentecost, when the apostles “were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues…” Then there is Acts 10, which I have quoted above, the story of the Roman centurion Cornelius, his family and friends.

And then Acts 19:1-6: this is an unusual story, concerning a group of about twelve “disciples” who seem to have got stuck, if I can put it that way, between John the Baptist and Jesus. Their baptism in water was John’s, rather than Jesus’s, and their knowledge of Jesus was obviously very limited. But after full “Christian” baptism, “Paul placed his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied…”

I’m pretty sure that we can add one more to these three instances: Acts 8:14-17, where we read about the first Samaritan converts. True, tongues isn’t specifically mentioned, but we are told that “Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit” – a fact recognised by the pagan magician Simon. Presumably there was some clear sign of their receiving the Spirit, and it seems likely that that would have been tongues.

So then, certainly three, and probably four, examples in Acts of tongues as an “initiation gift”.

I think it’s worth noticing two points.

First, each of these was a group experience. Pentecost involved the twelve apostles; Acts 8 involved “all the people of Samaria”; Acts 10 involved Cornelius and “his relatives and close friends”; and Acts 19 involved that group of men who had accepted John the Baptist’s message.

So? Well, while I’m sure God can and sometimes does give the gift of tongues to individuals at the time of their conversion – their initiation into the church – this isn’t a pattern we find in Acts or elsewhere in the New Testament. So we should be careful not to treat it as an absolute “must” for new converts.

Second, in all four cases the gift of tongues had what we might call a validating role in demonstrating that the Holy Spirit is no longer confined to the Jews.

Acts 2 demonstrates that the prophecy of Joel 2 is fulfilled: “I will pour out my Spirit on all people”; Acts 8 demonstrates that even the detested Samaritans can receive the Spirit and become part of God’s kingdom; Acts 10 demonstrates that the good news of Jesus is for gentiles as well as Jews; and Acts 19 demonstrates that a group that could possibly have developed into an early sect (the “John the Baptist believers”?) was gathered into the true church.

And so it may be that in today’s world such initiation gifts of tongues have that same validating effect – to demonstrate that, yes, God has gathered these people too into his kingdom!

A bit speculative? Perhaps so; but perfectly plausible. But let me finish on a more practical note.

Do you have the gift of tongues? Yes? Well, that’s fine. Use it, of course, as the Spirit leads you. But please, please, don’t imagine it means you are some sort of “superior” Christian! It doesn’t. Look at the Christians of Corinth. They had “spiritual gifts” in abundance, no mistake about that. But their church was a shambles, in certain respects a disgrace to God.

You don’t have the gift of tongues? That’s fine too. Just get on with living the Christian life, seeking to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and focussing on Christlike love, which renders tongues and all the other gifts relatively unimportant and possibly meaningless (see 1 Corinthians 13:1).

And please, please, don’t let anyone persuade you that you are somehow an inferior Christian or that you are “missing out”.

It used to bother me that I didn’t speak in tongues. Then I understood that lack of love should bother me much more! My suggestion is simple: if you really want something to bother about, let it be that!

Lord Jesus Christ, fill me day by day with your Holy Spirit – whatever that may mean in my situation. Amen.

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