[Note: This is the text for a sermonette that was given in the Dalles, OR congregation of the United Church of God on Sabbath, July 14, 2018 and in the Portland, OR congregation of the United Church of God on Sabbath, July 28, 2018.]
Buenos dias, queridos hermanos. Este dia, es mi intencion decirvos sobre la problema de lenguas en las scripturas. I would like to give you all another thought experiment as we begin. I want you to imagine yourself in one of two circumstances. First, I would like you all to picture yourself in a congregation that believes in “speaking in tongues.” All around you there are people making gibberish sounds that neither you nor they can properly understand, but they are convinced that they are more spiritual because they are supposedly speaking in tongues as happened during the early decades of the Church of God, and they may even believe that someone cannot be a Christian apart from this supposed gift of speaking tongues. Let us now picture a separate picture. Imagine yourself at services or at the Feast of Tabernacles in a place where there is translation going on. Perhaps someone is giving a message, and there are others translating the message into sign language in order to serve those brethren who are deaf and hard of hearing, or perhaps someone is in a booth with headphones translating the message into another language for those who do not speak the language spoken by the speaker behind the lectern ? Which of these scenes is what the Bible means by speaking in tongues, and why does it matter to us today?
The classic text concerning the speaking of tongues is Acts 2:1-13, so let us turn there now and begin our discussion of the biblical doctrine of speaking in tongues. As it is written in Acts 2:1-13: “When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, “Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.” So they were all amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “Whatever could this mean?” Others mocking said, “They are full of new wine.””
The most obvious truth of this passage, and, as we will see, the other passages that deal with speaking in tongues, is that all of the languages heard by the audience were actual languages. Some of them are actual languages that are known to us, and others are languages that we know about that are unfortunately extinct to us. Among the languages spoken was the Demotic dialect of Egypt that later became Coptic, an early pre-literate form of Arabic, at least a couple dialects of Greek, the Berber dialect then spoken of in Libya, Latin or perhaps some other Etruscan or Italic languages spoken of in Italy, the extinct Elamite languages, the Indo-European languages of Persian and European, and perhaps some languages close to Armenian that were spoken in Pontus and Cappadocia. All of these were real languages spoken by the people of the ancient Mediterranean world, some of which are lost to contemporary scholars who seek to understand the ancient past because they can no longer be understood. There is a less obvious point, here, though, that is worthy of mention. The entire miracle of tongues was not done to glorify the Galilean Jews who were speaking that Pentecost, who may have spoken two or three languages themselves at best–Aramaic, koine Greek, and perhaps some Hebrew. Rather, the miracle of tongues was that people were able to understand God’s word spoken to them in their own native tongues, so that they could better understand the message that was delivered. Indeed, this miracle of comprehension may be said to have reversed the curse of Babel by which God divided the tongues of mankind to keep them from understanding each other, reminding us that God desires human unity only on His terms, by those who are obedient to His ways.
Unsurprisingly, we see this same precise tendency when we look at the two other locations in which the speaking of tongues is associated with a miraculous example of conversion. Let us first turn to the example of Cornelius in Acts 10:44-48. Acts 10:44-48 says the following: “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. 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 and magnify God. Then Peter answered, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then they asked him to stay a few days.” Here again we see that God gave the miracle of tongues in the same fashion that had been given when the Holy Spirit was made available to the Jewish believers on that Pentecost of Acts 2, and again we see the same patterns. The Jews who were with Peter witnessed the same miracle of comprehension and understanding associated with believing Gentiles, and recognized that the Gentiles were to be considered as equal with Jewish believers, and here too the main benefit was to the listeners, on the one side to demonstrate God’s clear will that Gentiles as well as Jews should be baptized into His Church, and on the other to remove any prejudices that would consider Gentiles to be second-class citizens of the Kingdom of God as may have been the temptation. Just as is the case in Acts 2 when God desired to show the unity of believers of different languages and backgrounds, the baptism of Cornelius and his household was meant to tear down the wall of separation that divided Jews and Gentiles and to create one unified family of diverse origins.
When we next see the miracle of tongues in Acts 19:1-10, we see the same point, only reversed. Acts 19:1-10 tells us: “And it happened, while Apollos was at Corinth, that Paul, having passed through the upper regions, came to Ephesus. And finding some disciples he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” So they said to him, “We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said to them, “Into what then were you baptized?” So they said, “Into John’s baptism.” Then Paul said, “John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on Him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.” When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied. Now the men were about twelve in all. And he went into the synagogue and spoke boldly for three months, reasoning and persuading concerning the things of the kingdom of God. But when some were hardened and did not believe, but spoke evil of the Way before the multitude, he departed from them and withdrew the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus. And this continued for two years, so that all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks.”
Here again, when we look at the speaking of tongues we see the same sort of situation we have viewed before, only it may be judged as the inverse situation as we saw with Cornelius and his household. Here Paul had been engaged in a successful effort to evangelize among the Gentiles of Asia Minor and some repentant Jews who were followers of John the Baptist were the recipients of the gift of speaking in tongues as a way of honoring their repentance and their willingness to be baptized into Christ Jesus and to receive the Holy Spirit that they had never known about to this time. Here too God was giving a reminder to the Gentiles that were flocking to the church that Jews as well as Gentiles were welcome in His family and that no one should view repentant Jews as second-class Christians, as has been the case in Hellenistic Christianity.
Given this context, let us turn to 1 Corinthians 14:6-19 and examine Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians about the speaking of tongues. 1 Corinthians 14:6-19 reads: “But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you unless I speak to you either by revelation, by knowledge, by prophesying, or by teaching? Even things without life, whether flute or harp, when they make a sound, unless they make a distinction in the sounds, how will it be known what is piped or played? For if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare for battle? So likewise you, unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air. There are, it may be, so many kinds of languages in the world, and none of them is without significance. Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me. Even so you, since you are zealous for spiritual gifts, let it be for the edification of the church that you seek to excel. Therefore let him who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful. What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding. Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how will he who occupies the place of the uninformed say “Amen” at your giving of thanks, since he does not understand what you say? For you indeed give thanks well, but the other is not edified. 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.”
What is the relevance of Paul’s message to the Corinthians concerning the speaking of tongues for us today? We live in a world like that of Paul’s day, where many people speak many languages and among even those who speak English there are some people whose dialect or whose vocabulary is hard to understand. Paul’s concern with the speaking of tongues is that the speaking of languages serve to edify the Church. Our purpose as speakers and as brethren engaged in communication with each other and with others about our faith is to be understood by others and to encourage them and exhort them to follow God’s ways. If anyone speaks from the pulpit words that are not understood by those who are in the audience, it does no one any good. We who speak and write do not do so for our own glory but to serve and instruct others. We are not trying to show off that we know other languages, as if being multilingual made us more spiritual, nor even show off our knowledge of difficult or complicated words, so that other people may be impressed that we are intelligent or well-educated, but instead we speak so that others may better understand God’s ways and how they are to be followed. Obviously, this is as relevant in our own time as it was in Paul’s time. The purpose of our speaking is not for our own vainglory and ego but rather to serve as godly communication by which God’s truths pass from the speaker to the listener, and from the writer to the hearer. And if we are given a gift of speaking or writing in a language that we do not understand, it is without any profit if that message cannot be understood by those who hear it. Therefore, whether we are speakers or writers for the Church of God or whether we are engaging in personal conversation with fellow brethren or others, let us pray that our message about God’s ways may be understood by those who we are communicating with, for the message that is not understood by its audience may as well not be said at all for all the worth it has to those who hear it.
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