In one little town long ago, all the churches decided to have a combined worship gathering. Since the Baptist church had the biggest building in that town, they volunteered to host the meeting. But some were worried, because the pastor of that church was an gray-haired preacher from the old school. Some called him a “hard-shell” Baptist. He’d never been particularly friendly to the other churches or their pastors. So everyone gave a sign of relief when the old man got up at the beginning of the service and said, “Someday, brothers, we’re all going to be in Heaven together.” Then he said, “The Catholics will be there, led by the pope. The Methodists will be there, led by John Wesley. The Lutherans will be there, led by Martin Luther. And the Baptists will be there, led by Jesus.”
We laugh, but we Christians have often made more noise about what divides us than what we have in common. Today, we’re going to be talking about one of those issues that divide God’s people. Why? First, because it’s in the biblical texts about spiritual gifts. One of my goals for this year is that every member of our church would discover his or her role in God’s Kingdom. Part of that role has to do with how God has gifted you. And we can’t ignore the fact that one of the gifts mentioned in our texts is the gift of tongues. The second reason we need to talk about this is that it reveals something very important about the heart of God. We’ll get to that at the end.
But first, let’s look at a little biblical and historical background. Fifty days after Jesus rose from the dead, the little group of His remaining followers were gathered in Jerusalem for a Jewish holiday known as Pentecost. Suddenly, a violent wind rushed through the place, and flames appeared over the heads of each of the apostles. They found themselves speaking languages they had never been taught. Since it was a holiday, there were Jews from all over the Mediterranean region there, and they heard these men speaking in their native languages. They ran to see what this was all about. Peter took the opportunity to speak the Gospel to this massive crowd, and 3000 people accepted Christ. That was the explosive birth of the Church, the day God’s Holy Spirit came to dwell in every one who follows Christ. There were two other times in the Book of Acts where people spoke in a language they had not learned. In the Church of Corinth, as we discussed at the beginning of this series, people seemed to think that speaking in tongues was a sign of greater spirituality and power, perhaps because they came from a pagan background, where oracles were seen as the way one heard the voice of God. So Paul wrote chapters 12-14 to show that not everyone can speak in tongues. Every person has a gift, and every person is important to the Body of Christ. Then, this issue virtually disappeared for nearly 2000 years.
In 1906, William Seymour, the son of slaves who had studied at a Bible college in Houston, was preaching a revival in Los Angeles, when suddenly people began speaking in tongues. The revival lasted for nearly a decade. It was the birth of the modern Pentecostal movement. Today, Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity is the fastest-growing branch of our faith. Yet for the last hundred-plus years, many other Christians have looked down on this movement. Some call them “Holy rollers.” Some even say it’s demonic. Some believe in a doctrine called cessationism, that says speaking in tongues was given by God for a sign during the apostolic age, but once the Bible was completed, it ceased. Just a few years ago, our own denomination declared that anyone who speaks in a “private prayer language” could not serve as a missionary. And you may have noticed that our spiritual gift surveys don’t have anything about speaking in tongues. Then again, other Christians point out that anytime God has done something new, the Church has had a hard time accepting it. For instance, when our own Baptist predecessors arose in the 17th century, they were severely persecuted for believing that people needed to be baptized by immersion as believers, instead of by sprinkling as infants. I remember a seminary professor saying, “Baptist preachers sometimes worry that their church is going to turn Pentecostal. I say that’s nothing to worry about. It’s easier to put out a fire than it is to wake the dead.”
That leaves us with some questions: What is speaking in tongues? Is this something we should all be seeking? And what does this tell us about the heart of God? My firm conviction is that all that matters is what God has to say about the issue in His Word. And the definitive chapter on this subject is 1 Corinthians 14. Let’s start with vv. 1-4.
What is speaking in tongues? According to v. 2, what Paul is describing here is not the same thing as what happened on the day of Pentecost. On that day, people of other nations understood the languages that were being spoken. But here, Paul says no one understands. V. 4 says it’s meant to edify ourselves. In other words, it builds up our own faith, but doesn’t build up the church. I don’t have this gift, but I believe it is real. I have heard from people who do speak in tongues, who say it gives them a sense of peace and a wonderful feeling of closeness to God. It’s not a trance they fall into; they can control when they do it. For most, it’s something they do in private, just them and the Lord. Not only do I not see anything wrong with that, I think it is a terrible mistake to demonize it. Paul himself had this gift (v. 18). And in v. 39, he expressly says we should not forbid people to use it. However, I need to say two things in disagreement with our Pentecostal brothers. First, nowhere in Scripture does it say that every believer in Christ will be able to speak in tongues. That’s the whole point of chapters 12-14: We each have our own gifts; we are not all the same. Second, it is clear from this chapter that those who speak in tongues should do so in private. Paul says from the start of this chapter that prophecy is a gift to be used in public, because it can warn and strengthen God’s people. But tongues don’t serve that same function. Vv. 23-25 tell us to think about the poor unbeliever who happens to stumble into our worship service. If we’re all speaking in some unknown language, he’ll think we’re out of our minds. But if he hears a clear, biblical message of repentance, it can change his life forever.
Should I seek the gift of tongues? For that answer, we need to go back to the end of chapter 12: But eagerly desire the greater gifts. And now I will show you the most excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. Do you recognize that last sentence? If you’ve ever been to a wedding, you’ve probably heard it read. Most people don’t realize that 1 Corinthians 13 wasn’t written specifically about romance and marriage. It was written in the context of a church fight. Paul was saying, “It’s fine if you want to ask God to give you this gift or that gift, but let me tell you what is better: Why not ask Him to teach you how to love?” When Jesus was asked to sum up the commands of God, He said it all boiled down to loving God and loving our neighbor. Speaking in tongues can be a tremendous gift from God. But it doesn’t help God’s mission in the world, and it doesn’t help others. Back to chapter 14, Paul says in v. 12, “If you’re so eager to have spiritual gifts, why not yearn for gifts that build up the church?” And again, in reference to vv. 23-25, God’s Word clearly commands us to think of the outsider when we’re planning our worship services. I think about a guy I know, who was exploring the possibility of following Jesus. He doesn’t live anywhere near here, so I recommended some churches in his part of Houston. And he said to me, “I’m just afraid that I’m going to walk in, and they’ll be handling snakes and foaming at the mouth.” It hit me that, for a non-religious person, the idea of walking into a church can be terrifying. Now the good news is that, a few weeks ago, I was preaching during the 11:00 service, and a text message popped up on my ipad that said, “Good news! I’ve accepted Christ and got baptized!” It was him, and it was all I could do to not shout “Woohoo!” right in the middle of my sermon. People who don’t know Christ are not going to just wander into our churches, or start listening to Christian radio, or randomly pick up a Bible. We have to show them love. If you want to seek something, why not seek more of God? Why not say, “Lord, help me to know you better?” Why not pray, “Lord, show me how to love people like you do, and be a factor in helping them go from lost to saved?” Are you praying that way? If, in the midst of seeking God and serving people in His name, God chooses to give you a private language that the two of your share, praise God for it. But either way, you’ll be fulfilling your purpose.
What does all this tell us about God? Some of you might be saying to yourselves, “This has nothing to do with me. I’ve never spoken in tongues.” Well, neither have I. But I have had many times when I was reading the Bible, or reading the words of a Christian author, or listening to a sermon or a testimony, and I felt an intense, almost overwhelming sense of God’s presence. It was a foretaste of Heaven for me. For others, that’s not how God connects to them. They struggle to get through a chapter of the Bible, and can barely stay awake for a sermon, but they draw close to God when they’re out in the outdoors, or when they’re singing, or praying, or helping others. My point is that, whether it’s through a secret prayer language or some other means, God gives us all the gift of His presence. And that’s what’s remarkable about God. You see, all religions have this in common: They all say, “God is hard to get to. Here’s a list of things to do and things to avoid. Stick to the list, and if you’re really good at it, you stand a chance.” Then Jesus comes along and says, “No, God’s not like that.” In Jesus, God came to us. He died for our sins, and opened the door to a personal relationship with God, then rose again. Then He sent the Holy Spirit, God accessible to everyone who calls on His name. So it’s not about what we do. God comes to us. We just need to welcome Him in. For most of us, sadly, that only happens when we’ve tried everything else.I think of my friend Bryant Lee. He came and shared his testimony with our deacons a month ago. Bryant grew up in a gang-infested neighborhood near St Louis. When he became an adult, he converted to Islam. He said Islam attracted him because the Muslims were the only ones who were trying to shut down the crackhouses and run off the pimps. He joined the army, and married a fellow soldier. Then, when they were stationed in Kansas, a woman in their apartment befriended his wife. His wife started attending church with this woman, and later accepted Christ. Bryant was furious about this. He decided he was going to kill that pastor. So he went to church with her one Sunday with a bayonet in his pocket. His plan was to walk up to the front of the church at the end of the service and take him out. It was a Pentecostal church; the preacher was talking about speaking in tongues. Bryant thought, “This guy is crazy. Now I really want to kill him.” But suddenly, unexpectedly, something grabbed him on the inside. He began weeping, desperate to know this Jesus his wife had met. When the preacher extended the invitation, Bryant went forward, just like he had planned. But instead of taking that man’s life, he gave His life to Jesus. Today, Bryant is a Christian pastor. Two things about that story: One, that all began when one woman showed love to Bryant’s wife. Now an entire family knows Jesus, and through them, hundreds of lives are being touched. What non-Christians are you currently, actively showing love to? Two, our God is relentless. You may not be contemplating murder, but He’s calling you all the same. You were made for more than an ordinary life. Are you experiencing His abundant love?