the holy spirit
The True Purpose of Tongues
By Glenn Brown
Q: What is the true purpose of tongues?
A: There are two primary purposes for speaking in tongues. One is to edify the individual believer who exercises the gift of tongues in private devotional time with God. The other is to combat racial and cultural prejudices among different people groups and thus promote Christian unity amongst diverse peoples. I believe this purpose is clearly depicted in the book of Acts.
In Acts 1:8, Jesus commanded his followers to take the gospel to “the ends of the earth.” These first followers were all Jews who didn’t believe non-Jews could become Christians without undergoing Mosaic rites such as circumcision. Unless this conviction was discarded, the gospel could not penetrate the non-Jewish world. When Jesus poured out the Holy Spirit upon Gentiles at Caesarea, tongues accompanied the outpouring just as it did at Pentecost. These tongues were for the sake of the Jewish Christians who didn’t believe Gentiles were eligible to be received into the Church without submitting to Jewish rites.
As Paul wrote:
Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers. (I Cor. 14:22a)
The Jewish leaders of the early church accepted Samaritans, Gentiles, and the polyglot society of Ephesus into the church because they heard them speak in tongues just like the one hundred twenty at Pentecost. Tongues were God’s sign that He would not tolerate racism in His family.
History demonstrated this in the 1906 revival at Los Angeles’ Azusa Street. It was no accident that God chose a half-blind African-American pastor to lead the revival. Racism was still rampant in America less than fifty years after the Civil War. When the revival at Azusa Street was launched, powerful demonstrations of God’s presence drew people from all races and walks of life. They worshipped together; they cried together; they laughed together; they were one in Spirit together.
For a short time there was genuine evidence of the equality of people groups within the Christian community. This is the purpose of tongues — to unite the church of Christ. What a shame it is that our erroneous doctrine today has made them a divisive force within the church.
Q: One of the first questions you ask in Pentecost Revisited is whether God-initiated supernatural events like the miraculous speaking in tongues are even possible. Based on Scripture, personal experience, and historical evidence, you are convinced they are. What are some of the most common explanations used to argue away evidence of the supernatural?
A: When people argue against the miraculous outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as they did during the 1906 Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles, they tend to use these excuses:
- It was a case of mass hysteria or some other natural explanation: Hysteria as a neurological symptom came into prominence near the end of the nineteenth century as a result of Freudian psychology. This was the explanation of choice for both the secular world and liberal Christianity since miracles were not an option, whether demonic or divine. The secular world ridiculed the revival as religious fanaticism run amok.
- It was supernatural—but not from God. It was demonic: This was the view of the conservative evangelical cessationist churches (the non-Pentecostals) whose leaders vigorously attacked the Pentecostal outpouring as being unbiblical and even demonic. I ran into this view when I was in seminary as recently as fifty years ago.
Of course, humanistic materialists deny even the possibility of the supernatural. Sad but true, many of this ilk are teaching in our educational institutions and brainwashing our youth with their godless ideology. It leads to despair and a breakdown of society.
But there also were, and always will be, others who consider the possibility that the presence of tongues and miracles might point to a divine manifestation. These people are willing to look at the evidence and see where it leads. God does not hide Himself. He always makes Himself and his power known to all who genuinely seek Him. That’s why millions around the world have experienced multiple demonstrations of God’s supernatural power.
Q: What do you hope this book will achieve in the hearts of ministers?
A: In more than fifty years as an ordained Assemblies of God pastor, Navy chaplain, and missionary, I have discovered that some ministers feel threatened when asked to even consider an idea that differs from their traditional view. I hope this book will motivate my fellow believers to investigate my ideas and the Scriptures that support them. It is truth that I pursue, and I invite others to join me in this pursuit.
My understanding of Scriptural truth has led me to write this book. I write as a convinced Pentecostal believer who longs to see us become all that the Lord intended when He dispatched the Holy Spirit two thousand years ago. I believe a major hindrance to achieving that goal has been our insistence that speaking in tongues must accompany every valid Spirit baptism. (The corollary being that if you have not spoken in tongues, you have not been baptized in the Spirit). I believe the course of action I suggest in this book is biblically sound, and it will enlarge our Pentecostal influence and promote the unity among believers for which Jesus Christ so ardently prayed.
Q: Even when confronted with the clear truth of Scripture, most people seem resistant to a change in doctrine and tradition concerning the issue of tongues. Why is the cessationist tradition (that is, that God removed the gifts of the Spirit after the apostles died) so hard to break?
A: Any tradition, by nature, is difficult to break. But I do suggest two reasons why people are unwilling to change their thought patterns even after seeing a clear exegesis of Scripture, which all evangelicals hold as standard.
- They have become more influenced by our materialistic, Western culture than they realize. The supernatural embarrasses them. They want to retain control of their theological kingdom, and the Holy Spirit’s activity threatens them.
- Another reason, and perhaps more prevalent, is that cessationists have so bought into their centuries-old traditions of worship and the way God operates that their egos are immersed in them. It’s hard to admit that your hallowed tradition is wrong. This is also true for those brought up in the Pentecostal tradition who view speaking in tongues as a necessary element of the initial baptism of the Holy Spirit.
Q: If speaking in tongues is not, according to Scripture, the evidence that one has been baptized in the Holy Spirit, what is?
A: Listen carefully to the words of Jesus, the Baptizer, the Chief Shepherd: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses…” (Acts 1:8)
The sign or evidence that the Holy Spirit has come upon a believer is an outpouring of spiritual power that produces people who exhibit Christ-like character. They therefore can be legitimate witnesses to Jesus. (In this text “witness” is a noun, not a verb.) All that Jesus did when He was on earth was accomplished in the power of the Holy Spirit. The same Holy Spirit that anointed and empowered Jesus has been dispatched to anoint and empower His followers.
What are the character qualities of Jesus that we are to emulate so as to bear witness to Him? Paul describes them:
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control… (Galatians 5:22)
These character traits will follow Spirit baptism, some rapidly, some slowly.
A further proof of being Spirit-filled is the manifestation of spiritual gifts. Paul affirms this positively:
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit the ability to speak with wisdom, to another the ability to speak with knowledge by means of the Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another the ability to speak in different kinds of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each man, just as he determines. (I Corinthians 12:7-11)
When the Holy Spirit fills believers, he determines how and to whom the gifts of the Spirit are distributed.
Do you want to receive the gift of tongues? Call a CBN Prayer Counselor at 800-759-0700 to pray to receive this wonderful gift from the Lord.
More on the gift of tongues:
Why Speak in Tongues?
Does Everyone Have to Speak in Tongues?
The Baptism in the Holy Spirit
The Nature and Purpose of the Baptism in the Holy Spirit
Learn more about the Gifts of the Holy Spirit at the CBN.com Spiritual Gifts Webcast
And also on 700 Club Interactive
More on the Holy Spirit
More Bible Study and Theology
CBN's Video Bible Teaching
More from Spiritual Life
Robert Glenn Brown, a career U.S. Navy chaplain, retired after 26 years’ military service. Most of his time as a chaplain was served with the Marines, but previously he had served in the Air Force and Army. He ministered for nineteen years as an Assemblies of God pastor, five in Colorado and fourteen in California. For the past sixteen years he has had a diversified ministry in Eastern Europe. He is a graduate of Denver University, Denver Seminary, Princeton Seminary and Navy Senior Chaplains’ School. He and his wife Donna reside in beautiful Sequim, Washington.
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