Re-visiting What the Bible Says about Tongues – pt. 1

The following is an article written by pastor Darrell W. Sparks of the Dearborn Baptist Church in Aurora, IN. It will be presented in two posts. The second will appear a week from today.

The Charismatic Movement is making a comeback.

Not that it ever went away. The “wild” Charismatics continue to thrive on TBN. Just look at the size of their crowds and their financial statements; which can be difficult to ascertain (Check out I suppose that there are certain personality types that are enamored with and in a constant search for intense emotional experiences and “feelings” and are, therefore, attracted to those denominations, those ministries, and those “preachers” who promote such. Signs and wonders, tongues and healings, it seems, cater to that personality type.

Many people are able to see through the shallowness and emotionalism of that type of Charismatic. Perhaps they have been alerted and alarmed by the moral and financial scandals connected with some of the high profile Charismatic ministries or have seen those exposes’ revealing that many of the so-called signs and wonders were bogus or that the lifestyles of the leaders are lavish. Maybe they have observed the false teaching of those preachers with regard to other doctrines (i.e. prosperity theology; eternal security).

It seems to me that the TBN kind of Charismatic is largely ignored by most conservative evangelical and fundamentalist Christians.

But there is a new kind of Charismatic – one that is more thoughtful and more theological, and therefore, in some ways more threatening. Rather than simply saying, “I don’t care what the Bible says, this is what happened to me” this kind of Charismatic does indeed care a great deal about what the Bible says and seeks to build a sound exegetical argument to support his view of the Charismatic gifts. In fact, he may even wince at the label Charismatic and prefer to call himself a “continuationist” as opposed to a “cessationist” when it comes to the supernatural sign gifts. (He may even be a “Baptist” by affiliation i.e. John Piper and Wayne Grudem).

This article is my attempt to re-visit what the Bible says specifically about the gift of tongues, to ascertain if indeed this gift is applicable the work of the Spirit in this present age.

“Tongues…shall cease…” (1 Corinthians 13:8)

In 1 Corinthians 13:8-13, the apostle Paul makes a contrast between the permanency of love and the temporary nature of some spiritual gifts. He writes, “Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. Prophecies shall fail; tongues shall cease; knowledge shall vanish away. These three supernatural gifts, Paul explains, at some point in time shall be abolished. There is no denial that at some point in time the gift of tongues shall cease to exist. The Bible is crystal clear on this. It is a point that cannot be argued.

The verb that is used to describe what will happen to both prophecies and to knowledge is the exact same word in Greek. Strong’s Dictionary defines this Greek word as “to render entirely useless.” Vines explains (Vines Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 1996) that this Greek word means that “they were to be rendered of no effect after their temporary use was fulfilled.” The word is found in twenty-six verses of the New Testament and is translated in the Authorized Version with the words “abolish, cease, cumber, deliver, destroy, do away, become (make) of no (none, without) effect, fail, loose, bring (come) to nought, put away (down), vanish away, and make void.” In 1 Corinthians 13:11 Paul uses this same word (translated “put away”) to describe what a mature man does with his childish things. In Romans 7:2-6, Paul uses this word (translated “loosed” in verse 2 and “delivered” in verse 6) to describe what death does to a marriage relationship (a widow is loosed from the law of her dead husband) as an analogy of what Christ has done for us in relation to the Old Testament law.

Paul uses a different verb to describe the future end of tongues. He writes that they “shall cease.” Again, Strong’s Concordance defines this verb as “restrain, quit, desist, and come to an end.”

There is a sense in which these two verbs are used as synonyms in this text, that is, Paul uses two different verbs to express the same idea – a common literary device in writing. To paraphrase: Prophecies shall stop; tongues shall desist; knowledge shall stop. The two verbs are used synonymously.

But there is also a subtle distinction between the two verbs. The first verb (describing the cessation of prophecy and knowledge) is in the passive voice indicating that it will happen as the direct result of some person or action. Someone or something will cause the gifts of prophecy and knowledge to stop. The second verb (describing the cessation of tongues) is in the middle voice meaning that it will happen on its own. (To illustrate: An alarm stops when someone turns it off [passive voice] while a wind-up clock stops when it runs down on its own [middle voice]).

Again, there is no debate that these gifts will at some point no longer be in effect. The only question is when this will happen. There is a significant clue in the text. Verse 9 states that both knowledge and prophecies are “in part.” They are imperfect, partial, and incomplete. Verse 10 continues by explaining that these partial gifts will be “done away” (the exact same verb in the passive voice used to describe them in verse 8) when “that which is perfect is come.” Thus, the action that will cause these partial gifts (prophecy and knowledge) to stop will be the arrival of that which is perfect. Implied is that by then the gift of tongues will already have ceased on its own.

The question is then, to what does “that which is perfect” refer? What does Paul mean by that phrase? Some say that this phrase refers to the Lord Jesus Himself. Jesus is that which is perfect and when He comes, these gifts will cease. The problem with that interpretation is that Jesus is never referred to by a neuter pronoun. If Paul were speaking of Jesus, he would have written the Greek equivalent of “When He who is perfect is come.”

There are others who say, “Well, it may not be a reference to Jesus, but it is a reference to the event, the Second Coming of Christ.” The problem with that interpretation is contextual. There is absolutely no indication by the context that a reference to the Second Coming is intended. Paul is not writing about the Second Coming here; he is writing about the temporary nature of some spiritual gifts.

If you want to know the meaning of “that which is perfect” consider the illustration Paul uses in verse 12. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face. The word for glass refers, not to a window, but to a mirror, a looking glass. In the ancient world mirrors were made, not from glass like we are familiar with now, but from highly polished pieces of metal. In fact, the city of Corinth was famous for these polished, metal mirrors. The reflection that one would get from such a “mirror” was less than perfect. Paul is explaining, through prophecies and knowledge the image of Christ that we see is dark, shadowed, veiled, dim, obscure, and less than perfect. On the other hand, when “that which is perfect (has) come,” we shall see a perfect reflection. According to James, Scripture is a perfect mirror. James calls it “the perfect law of liberty” (James 1:23-25) and compares Scripture to a mirror.

II Corinthians 3:18 also uses the words “glass” and “face” together. “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” The born-again, Spirit indwelled Christian has the privilege of looking into the word of God with an open mind and seeing a perfect reflection of Christ and thus, that Christian is changed from one level of glory to another by Spirit.

When we get to heaven, “then” we will see Christ, not through a mirror at all – either imperfect (through supernatural sign gifts) or perfect (through the completed canon of Scripture) – but “then face to face. Presently, we know all that we need to know, all that God has revealed to us, but we do not know all that we will know. Presently, even with a perfect mirror, our ability to know Christ is limited by our own fallen humanness. “Then” – that is, once we have experienced glorification, we will know Christ as He knows us!

That which is perfect” refers to the completion of the Word of God. These gifts awaited the coming of the complete canon of Scripture. And when the Word of God is complete, Paul writes, prophecy and knowledge will disappear and tongues will already be gone.

There were some people in the church during the first century who were gifted by the Holy Spirit with the ability to speak the Word of God directly from heaven. They were prophets, in the purest sense of the word. They spoke by revelation and said, “Thus saith the Lord.” This was necessary because the written revelation was not complete. Preachers could not say, “Turn to Romans Chapter 12” because the book of Romans had not yet been written by Paul and was not in their Scriptures yet. Others, during that same time period had the gift of knowledge or the word of knowledge as it is sometimes called. These were apostles and their immediate associates to whom the Spirit had given the ability to write down the literal Word of God. The gift of knowledge was the supernatural inspiration of the Holy Spirit so that God’s Word would be written. But when the complete canon of Scripture was fully revealed, these partial and temporary gifts were abolished. In the strict sense, there are no prophets today, and there is no gift of knowledge given to enable men to write Scripture. God’s revelation is complete and is limited to what is contained in Scripture. The last paragraph of the Bible, Revelation 22:18, says that the Scripture is complete. It reads in part, “If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book.”

Thus, there is solid exegetical evidence in this text to indicate that these supernatural signs gifts either will stop – as in the case of prophecy and knowledge – or already will have ceased to exist – as in the case of tongues – when God closes the canon Scripture.

Furthermore, there is solid Biblical and historical evidence to back up this exegetical claim I am making about 1 Corinthians 13:8ff.

Biblically, 1 Corinthians is an early epistle of Paul. The last recorded miracle in the New Testament occurred around A.D. 58, with the healings on the island of Malta (Acts 28:7-10). From A.D. 58 to 96 when John finished the Book of the Revelation, no miracle is recorded. Miraculous gifts like tongues and healing are mentioned only in 1 Corinthians, an early epistle. Two later epistles of Paul, Romans and Ephesians, both discuss spiritual gifts at length – but no mention is made of the miraculous gifts. Peter never mentions tongues; neither does James, John, or Jude. By the time these epistles were written miracles were already looked upon as something in the past (Hebrews 2:3-4). By then Apostolic authority and the apostolic message needed no further confirmation. Before the first century ended, the entire New Testament had been written and was circulating through the churches. Thus, the revelatory gifts had ceased to serve any purpose. And when the apostolic age ended with the death of the Apostle John, the signs that identified the apostles had already become moot (2 Corinthians 12:12).

The evidence of Christian history also indicates that tongues have ceased. Early Christian theologians considered tongues obsolete. In a few, rare instances when tongues were spoken (Shakers, for example), those who practiced them were regarded as heretics.

The subject of speaking in tongues has only re-appeared during modern days. At the turn of the 20th century, in a church on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, a group of people began to speak in tongues. Today, there are many denominations that claim to speak in tongues – Church of God, Assembly of God, Pentecostal, and Holiness congregations. Furthermore, the Charismatic movement has spread beyond these denominations to many other independent churches and even some mainline denominations. Today, there are charismatic Catholics. Even in some non-Christian religions there are people who to speak in tongues – for instance there are Buddhists who claim to speak in tongues. I find it telling that through eighteen hundred years of Christian history there was virtually no speaking in tongues. Does not this strongly suggest that the gift of tongues has ceased and that the more modern version of tongues is a historical anomaly and a modern day heresy?

The Bible says that “tongues … shall cease.” Both the Bible and Christian history indicate that tongues have ceased.


About Travis

Christ follower. Husband of one woman. Father of three young men. Former 11B. Blessed to pastor the Bible Baptist Church of Mount Vernon, KY.
This entry was posted in Charismatics, Darrell W. Sparks, Tongues. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Re-visiting What the Bible Says about Tongues – pt. 1

  1. Fresh Dirt says:

    There are a lot of weaknesses with Darrell’s exegesis in this sermon, especially with the conclusions he has drawn from the Greek language. Further more, the contextual conclusion of “that which is perfect” would be LOVE, not the completion of the NT nor the coming of Jesus Christ. Basically, there is no way of getting around it referring to love. Darrell was right when he used the phrasing: “They are imperfect, partial, and incomplete.” Tongues, prophecy, and knowledge are imperfect and partial. Only love is perfect. Only love is complete. Only love is whole. Such an understanding is simple, it makes sense, and it is the only interpretation that fits the context correctly. Such an understanding flows with the rest of Paul’s thoughts from the beginning of the chapter (resounding gongs). Of course, such a view doesn’t lend to either side of the charismatic debate (cessasionist or continuist) because the Scripture here was never meant to do so.

  2. Travis says:

    The view that “the perfect” is love has the same exegetical problems as interpreting the perfect as the completed canon of scripture. First, in no way am I able to use the term “perfect” as descriptive of my current level of love or knowledge in this life. Second, there is the difficulty of explaining the phrase, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face” (v. 12) as something other than the full knowledge that believer’s receive in glory. That is why MacArthur holds the view that the perfect is the “eternal state” – the believer’s glorification.Understand that I am still working this out myself. I hold with the view expressed by Darrell in this post, while admitting that it has some weaknesses. I maintain this position, however, because James described Scripture as “perfect” (1:25), and in James 1:23 the word for “glass” is the same one used in 1 Corinthians 13:12. Therefore I conclude that partial revelation is done away with the full revelation of Scripture.I agree that the main thrust of 1 Corinthians 13 is the preeminence of love (so does Darrell). Of the three Christian graces Paul mentions: love, faith, and hope; only love is eternal. Faith will give way to sight. Hope will become a reality, but love never ends. Nevertheless, the cessation of tongues, prophecy, and knowledge is alluded to in the passage. Love never ends, but prophecies and knowledge will pass away and tongues will cease.

  3. Fresh Dirt says:

    Your last paragraph of your comment nails it. Love doesn’t end while these other things do end. I would use the phrasing “fail” or “come to their end” meaning that they can’t go the distance; they are useless after a certain point. It’s like apologetics. The defense of the faith can only go so far in convincing someone of the truth of Jesus Christ. Ultimately, it is love, and only love, that can go the distance. The question to ask is this, “what would the Corinthian believers think Paul is referring to here? We can only go off of the context of the 1 Corinthians letter here. The entire thrust of Paul’s letter is unity. Unity can only be established in love. His message culminates in 1 Corinthians 12-14 describing the unity of the body and the various functions of the parts in that body (including the use of tongues, etc). Paul’s point is that each member of the body with their giftings is incomplete/partial and that these functions ultimatly fail unless that which is whole and complete is to be found among them: the love of Christ. Further, Paul is very clear that he is referring to love– 1 Corinthians 13:8ff: “Love never fails, but where there are prophecies, they will cease…” A paraphrase of the next section might be the following: “When I was a child, I thought only of myself. I was selfish because this how children think/operate. When I became an adult, I put my selfish thinking behind me. We haven’t achieved such clear vision yet (one that allows us to see everything for what it is– spots and all. When such a perfect love shows up, then I will know fully, just as I am fully known (spots and all) by someone who does know me fully. Three things are complete and remain in the midst of this disappearing and ceasing world– faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love!”Prophecies, tongues, and knowledge are contrasted with love because these things do fail. More importantly they did fail. Ultimately it is not knowledge of sin (as revealed by the prophets or those speaking another language) rather it is the forgiveness of sin (through a perfect love that keeps no record of wrongs) that changes humanity/the world. Paul ultimately goes on in chapter 14 saying: “Follow this way of love and desire these spiritual gifts, especially prophecy…” This has a “speak the truth in love” connotation to it. It just seems to me that any other interpretation really breaks the rules of interpretation. The context, the theme, the entire message in this chapter, and its surroundings, is the ultimate superiority of love to spiritual gifts. Other interpretations would require the Corinthians to have access to some knowledge outside of the letter in order to understand what Paul is saying. Also, I would make the claim that the Corinthians did not know that the canon of Scripture would be closed one day. Did they even know that they were reading a letter that would be considered scripture some day. The Corinthian letter also refers to a previous letter received from Paul, did they consider that to be scripture? Would we if it was found? How would they know the difference? Did Paul know the difference between his two letters? Lots of issues here. I ranted for a long time here. Accept my apologies for hogging space, this interpretation has always been one of my soap boxes.

  4. Anonymous says:

    The problem I see with interpreting “that which is perfect” as love is that Paul anticipates a future at which “that which is perfect (will) come.” The future arrival of that which is perfect will mean the end of that which is imperfect and partial.However, love, according to Paul, abideth (present tense) “now” (v. 13) along with faith and hope but is superior to both of those Christian graces because of its permanency.”That which is perfect” had not yet come when Paul wrote this epistle.While the subject of 1 Cor 13 is indeed love, the idea of verses 8-13 is not the perfection of love but the permanency of love.

  5. Fresh Dirt says:

    I don’t think Paul is necessarily anticipating a future time in history rather he is anticipating the moments where love does arrive in our lives. It would be like a dad explaining to his teenage son the idea of truly falling in love, “When that perfect loves happens, then all of these other things will pale in comparison. When you are your age son, you have a more selfish desire regarding the people around you, but as you mature, you must put away such childish desires.” I think the idea of some future state that arrives on the pages of history comes from the previous/false notion of a period in time ending (namely that tongues ends with the completion of scripture)– such a thought would be a direct result of such an interpretation of this passage. I think that interpretation is a reaction to a movement that occurred at end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th century (namely the arrival of the Azusa Street Revival and the tongues movement that resulted in what we call Pentecostalism). When that movement began threatening established churches throughout the US, pastors went searching their bibles for random verses that they could use to combat the movement. They naturally came to 1 Corinthians 11-14 where spiritual gifts are being discussed and they had to re-interpret these verses in chapter 13. No matter what, I would still come back to the fact that if Paul was referring to scripture, then the Corinthians would have no textual clues for such an interpretation. Also, in one of your comments you mention James stating that Scripture is perfect. Yet, when James wrote his letter, the scriptures were not completed yet.

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