I thought only 2 or 3 can speak in tongues at a service...

Tongues: A sign and a gift

Part I

When I was in college, I worked at Hardees. I distinguished myself as a prolific egg flipper, burger stacker, and biscuit maker. I also stood out because I was the only Pentecostal on my shift. One day, I invited a co-worker to church. We’ll call him Doubting Thomas. He seemed interested until he found out that I was Pentecostal. He immediately went into a heartfelt diatribe about how Pentecostals are wrong because the Scripture, God’s own Word, says that only two or three can speak in tongues during a service and the messages must be interpreted. Tongues that violated this command must be out of order or even manifestations of the devil himself. (Doubting Thomas did not feel similar conviction about adultery, cursing, addiction to destructive substances, etc. Too many people speaking in tongues at a time seemed to be the only definite no-no in his belief system. )

So what of his claim? Is it wrong to have multiple saints praying in tongues or receiving the Spirit simultaneously? Does every prayer in tongues need to be interpreted?

The key to understanding Paul’s commands to the Corinthian church is to distinguish between tongues as a sign of the infilling of the Spirit and as a gift of the Spirit.

Tongues – The initial sign of receiving the Spirit

Jesus said that the wind is invisible, but is evidenced by a sound. He said this was also true of every birth in the Spirit.

John 3:8 (NKJV)

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

He further explained this “sound” in Mark 16:17

Mark 16:17 (NKJV)

And these signs will follow those who believe…they will speak with new tongues;

In the book of Acts, when believers received the Spirit, there was always immediate evidence. The consistent sign that the Spirit had come was speaking in other tongues.

Acts 2:4 (NKJV)

And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

When the crowd asked what the meaning of tongues was, Peter responded that this was the outpouring of Spirit that Joel prophesied.

Acts 2:8, 12, 16, 17 (NKJV)

And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born?... 12 So they were all amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “Whatever could this mean?”But this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, That I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh…

Speaking in tongues is the initial evidence of receiving the Spirit.

We see this emphasized in the story of Cornelius’s household converting.

Acts 10:45-46 (NKJV)

And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speak with tongues…

They were shocked that the Gentiles received the Holy Ghost, but they could not deny it because they heard them speak in tongues.

Peter, in the next chapter, actually had to defend this claim that God had poured out His Spirit on Gentiles.

Acts 11:15-17 (NKJV)

And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning. Then I remembered the word of the Lord, how He said, ‘John indeed baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?”

What was his defense? The Gentiles were baptized in the Spirit the same way that the Jews had been in Acts 2. They spoke in tongues. The Spirit infilling was and is always accompanied by tongues.

Acts 19:6 (NKJV)

…the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues

Tongues – A Gift of the Spirit

1. The Greek term, dōrea, refers to a free gift from God. It is used exclusively to describe the initial gift of the Holy Ghost that is promised to all believers with the evidence of tongues. (Ex. Luke 11:13, Acts 2:38, Acts 10:45)

A separate Greek term, charisma, which also refers to a free gift, is used every time God gives a gift to a believer for the benefit of other believers. (Ex. Romans 12:6, 1 Cor. 1:7, 12:4,9,28,30,31, 1 Ti. 4:14, 2 Tim. 1:6, 1 Pe. 4:10.)

2. The gift (dōrea) of the Holy Ghost with evidential tongues is for everyone (Acts 2:39). The original audience of 1 Corinthians 12 had all been baptized in the Spirit.

1 Corinthians 12:13 (NKJV)

For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body

Paul’s instructions regarding tongues were concerning tongues used in a different manner. This was not an individual praying in tongues to God, and receiving the power of the Spirit. These tongues were messages spoken to the church, not God, and given for the edification of the church, and not the individual.

Paul’s instructions were not focused on the individual experience that they had all already received, but on the gift (charisma) that some would impart to edify (profit) the entire church.

1 Corinthians 12:7 (NKJV)

But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all:

3. Since the context of 1 Corinthians 12 is edifying the body instead of the individual, the gift (charisma) of tongues describes a public message given to the church body. Tongues, used in this manner, are completely separate from an individual's personal prayers in tongues.

1 Corinthians 12:4-11 (NKJV)

There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills.

Will all believers speak in tongues when they receive the gift (dōrea) of the Holy Spirit? According to Jesus and the outpourings in Acts, the answer is yes. Will all believers give a message in tongues as a gift (charisma) of the Spirit to the church body? According to Paul, the answer is no.

The sign is the same, but the gifts are distinct. A nice parallel is evident in the Biblical text. I Corinthians 12 states that the gift of faith is given to one individual but not necessarily given to another (vs. 9). The Spirit distributes to each individual as He wills (vs. 11). This can’t be talking about an individual’s initial saving faith. Is it possible for some members of the body to not have faith? This is instead referring to a supernatural gift (charisma) that is intended to be used for the body. The Spirit moves on some people and gifts them to encourage faith, share faith, and speak faith into the church body. Similarly, everyone is promised the Spirit with the evidence of tongues. Subsequently, the Spirit moves on some people and gifts them to speak a message to the church body in tongues with the accompanying gift of interpretation.

4. Tongues as a sign of the initial infilling and tongues as a gift (charisma) of the Spirit to the corporate church must be separate and distinct or the Scripture is full of contradictions. The same Holy Ghost that inspired Paul’s instructions to the church in 1 Corinthians would have violated each instruction every time that the Spirit was poured out in Acts if they are not distinct experiences.

Instruction concerning the gift (charisma) of tongues: Speakers can not speak at the same time. They must take turns. (I Cor. 14:27)

The outpouring of the gift (dorea) of the Holy Spirit with evidential tongues: All spoke in tongues at the same time. (Acts 2:4, 10:46, 19:6)

Instruction concerning the gift (charisma) of tongues: Only two or three can speak in tongues. (I Cor. 14:27)

The outpouring of the gift (dorea) of the Holy Spirit with evidential tongues: 120 spoke in tongues (Acts 1:15, 2:4), all of Cornelius’s household spoke in tongues (Acts 10:46), about 12 disciples of John spoke in tongues (Acts 19:6-7)

Instruction concerning the gift (charisma) of tongues: There must be a member of the church that operates the gift of the Spirit to give an interpretation of the message in tongues. (I Cor. 14:27)

The outpouring of the gift (dorea) of the Holy Spirit with evidential tongues: There is no record of any believer giving an interpretation of tongues when the Holy Spirit is received.

In summary, the gift (dorea) of the Holy Spirit with the evidence of tongues is promised to all believers. At conversion, seekers believed and received the promise in large numbers and in small groups. They spoke in tongues before the public and in the privacy of their homes. The gift was received without restriction in the books of Acts.

The gift (charisma) of tongues was exercised in the church. It was used exclusively to edify the body. A public message was given with the expectation of an interpretation. Restrictions were placed on these messages so that everything could be done decently and in order.

Exercising any of the gifts of the Spirit is predicated on receiving the Spirit. The Spirit is the source of these supernatural abilities. The initial infilling of the Holy Ghost is always evidenced by speaking in tongues. While it is possible for these tongues to be understood by some if they are spoken in an earthly language, they are not primarily intended to deliver a message to the church and will not be accompanied by the gift of interpretation.  After receiving the Spirit, saints can pray in tongues for their own edification. The Spirit helps them to pray as they should.

The Spirit also empowers certain individual believers at specific times to deliver messages in tongues to the congregation. These tongues are not intended to edify the individual believer. They are given for the church. These messages should be orderly and regulated. They should always be interpreted.

Paul spoke in tongues and encouraged the practice. However, when speaking to the church body, it was essential that the whole church understood.

1 Corinthians 14:18-19 (NKJV)

I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all; yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.

When using the gift (charisma) of tongues to minister, there are scriptural stipulations to ensure that the there isn’t abuse or misuse. These instructions only apply when tongues is used to deliver a message to the church from God. They were never intended to be misapplied to seekers as they sought the infilling of the Holy Ghost.

The distinction between tongues as a sign of the Spirit infilling an individual and tongues with interpretation to deliver a message to the church is quite obvious in the scriptures. Many ministers fail to see it simply because they don’t want to see it. They have never spoken in tongues nor allowed it in their churches. Instead of seeking, they try to condemn those that do speak in tongues. This is contrary to Paul's instructions.

1 Corinthians 14:39 (NKJV)

Therefore, brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak with tongues.

Some justify the lack of spiritual demonstration in their services by insisting that the miraculous gifts ceased after the first generation. This could not be farther from the truth. In fact, God has promised to enrich the church with utterances, knowledge, and gifts until the coming of the Lord.

1 Corinthians 1:5-7 (KJV)

That in every thing ye are enriched by him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge; Even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you: So that ye come behind in no gift; waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ: