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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Speaking in Tongues

Don Stewart :: Why Do Some Believe the Gift of Tongues Has Ceased?

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Why Do Some Believe the Gift of Tongues Has Ceased?

The Gift of Speaking in Tongues – Question 3

The Bible clearly says that no one should forbid speaking in tongues. Paul wrote the following to the Corinthians.

So, dear brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and don’t forbid speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:39 NLT).

Yet there is a popular view that the gift of tongues no longer operates in the church. There is no question that the gift of tongues was a valid spiritual gift. However, it is viewed as one of the sign gifts that ceased with the death of the last of the apostles.

The arguments for the cessation of the gift of tongues can be broken down into two categories: biblical evidence and non-biblical evidence.

The Biblical Evidence for the Cessation of the Gift of Tongues

Those who believe that the gift of tongues is no longer available in the church provide a number of biblical arguments to support their case. These include: the nature of the gift of tongues, the fact that the Bible says it has a limited duration, Scripture says it will cease of itself, the meaning of the word “perfect,” and the lack of use of the gift later in the ministry of the Apostle Paul. They support these points as follows.

The Nature of the Gift of Tongues

The nature of the gift of tongues shows that it was only temporary. Speaking in tongues was one of the “sign gifts.” These gifts were given for only a short period of time. Their purpose was to confirm the Word of God before there was written Scripture. Every occurrence of tongues in the Book of Acts was to authenticate the gospel message.

The Old Testament did not need any confirmation by miraculous signs. It was already accepted as the Word of God. However this was not the case with the message of Jesus. The people had to be convinced that it too was a divinely given revelation. This is why we find the miraculous signs that were given.

Thus, it is argued that before the message about Jesus had been committed to writing its divine authenticity was accomplished through the miraculous sign gifts.

Once the New Testament was written, then the gift was no longer operating since its purpose had been served. The writer to the Hebrews states the word had already been confirmed at the time when he wrote. He wrote.

What makes us think that we can escape if we are indifferent to this great salvation that was announced by the Lord Jesus himself? It was passed on to us by those who heard him speak, and God verified the message by signs and wonders and various miracles and by giving gifts of the Holy Spirit whenever he chose to do so (Hebrews 2:3, 4 NLT).

Speaking in tongues was one of the confirmatory gifts that demonstrated that the message of Jesus was a supernatural revelation from God. Consequently it ceased to exist once the Word was confirmed.

Tongues Were Also a Sign to Unbelieving Israel

Another purpose of the gift of tongues was as sign to the unbelieving nation of Israel. Paul wrote go to the Corinthians.

In the law it is written: “With men of other tongues and other lips I will speak to this people; and yet, for all that, they will not hear Me,” says the Lord. Therefore tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophesying is not for unbelievers but for those who believe (1 Corinthians 14:21, 22 NKJV).

Speaking in tongues was a sign of judgment to the unbelieving nation of Israel. This sign testified to the fact that God had judged the nation for rejecting Jesus as the Messiah. The judgment of God upon the nation Israel became apparent to all in A.D. 70 when the city of Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed. Once Jerusalem was destroyed, and the people scattered, the sign was no longer necessary.

Tongues Confirmed the Supernatural Origin of the Message of Jesus

There was a third purpose for the gift of tongues – to confirm supernatural messages. Paul wrote to the Corinthians.

What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God (1 Corinthians 14:26-28 ESV).

God allowed tongues to be used during a meeting of believers as long as there was interpretation of the tongue language. This confirmed that the messenger and the message had its origin with God. However, once the Scripture was completed this type of confirmation was no longer necessary.

At Least One of the Sign Gifts, Apostle, Has Ceased

We know that at least one of the spiritual gifts, that of Apostle, has ceased. It was limited to those who saw the resurrected Christ. In the Book of Acts we read the following qualifications were necessary to choose an Apostle.

So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection(Acts 1:21, 22 NRSV).

If one of the spiritual gifts has ceased, Apostle, then there is no reason why other gifts may have also ceased. Therefore it is not unreasonable to assert that the gift of tongues was limited to the early church.

The Bible Specifically Speaks of the Limited Duration of the Gift

There is a passage in First Corinthians that speaks of the limited duration of the gift. Paul specifically said that the gift of tongues would someday cease.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end (1 Corinthians 13:8-10 NRSV).

These verses teach that the gifts of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge will someday cease. The question is: When will this occur? Most people who believe the sign gifts are not for today argue that they ceased of themselves at the end of the apostolic period. There are some who believe that they existed for a time after the apostolic era, but have now ceased. In either case, the gift is no longer available.

The point is that Paul specifically mentioned three spiritual gifts that would someday vanish. Therefore, it is possible to infer that he meant these gifts would pass away during the age of the apostles. While this is not clearly taught in this passage it can be inferred.

The Evidence from Greek Grammar: The Gift Will Cease of Itself

The Greek grammar of First Corinthians 13:8 also gives an indication that the gift of tongues has now ceased. The word translated “cease” is the Greek word pauo. This verb in Greek is in what is known as the middle voice. The idea behind the middle voice is that tongues will “cease of itself.”

However the other two verbs in First Corinthians 13:8 translated, “fail “and “vanish away” are in the passive voice. This means someone or something will cause them to cease. This is not necessarily true with the gift of tongues. The difference is seen by some to be important. The middle voice speaks of “self cessation.”

Knowledge and prophecy will fail or vanish away when something external causes this to happen. However the gift of tongues will cease of itself – nothing externally will cause this to occur.

The gift of tongues did cease of itself when the apostles died. The sign gifts were given to authenticate the gospel until the Bible was completed. Once the Scripture had been completed, there was no more need for signs because the Word of God was then perfect and available.

The Meaning of the Greek Word Translated “Perfect”

Paul also said the partial would be done away with when the perfect has come. Cessationists differ on the meaning of the term. Some believe that the perfect refers to the completed canon of Scripture. When it was completed there was no more need for signs. The Greek words to telion, translated “the perfect,” are in the neuter gender. This leads some to believe it cannot refer to Jesus Christ. Consequently the best answer seems to refer to the New Testament canon.

There are some cessationists who believe the gift of tongues has ceased, but do not think that Paul had the completed canon of Scripture in mind when he referred to the perfect. While they believe speaking in tongues is no longer a valid spiritual gift, they do not believe that one can appeal to the “perfect” of First Corinthians 13:10 to establish this. They believe this passage is not relevant to the issue.

The Sign Gifts Were Not Exercised Later in Paul’s Ministry

It is argued that the sign gifts were not exercised later in the ministry of the Apostle Paul. Speaking in tongues as well as the interpretation of tongues was one of these sign gifts. As we look at Paul’s ministry we discover that the sign gifts that he earlier used were not in use later in his ministry.

We know that Paul practiced the gift of healing. The Book of Acts records him healing a man by laying his hands on him.

It so happened that the father of Publius lay sick in bed with fever and dysentery. Paul visited him and cured him by praying and putting his hands on him (Acts 28:8 NRSV).

Paul still had the gift of healing at this time.

Though Paul had the gift of healing, we are told that he left a believer sick. He wrote the following to Timothy.

Erastus remained at Corinth, and I left Trophimus, who was ill, at Miletus (2 Timothy 4:20 ESV).

Why didn’t he use his gift to heal this sick person? We know that he certainly had it at one time. It seems it had been withdrawn at this time.

In addition, he told Timothy to take wine for his weak stomach. We read his words in Paul’s first letter to Timothy.

No longer drink only water, but take a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments (1 Timothy 5:23 NRSV).

Why didn’t Paul mention anything about divine healing to Timothy? If the gift of healing was still functioning then why wasn’t Timothy told to receive his healing?

Therefore, the New Testament itself bears witness that the gift of healing ceased from use late in the apostolic era. If the gift of Apostle and the gift of healing ceased at this early time, then it is certainly possible, if not likely that the gift of tongues also ceased.

These biblical arguments have convinced many that the gift of tongues was given by God for only temporary purposes. Since the temporary purposes are no longer necessary, neither is the gift. Consequently, the biblical gift of speaking in tongues is no longer necessary in the church today.

The Non-Biblical Arguments for the Cessation of Tongues

There is also what we may call the non-biblical arguments for the cessation of the gift of tongues. These include: the testimony of church history, tongue-speaking always came from heretical groups, the lack of tongue-speaking among the great saints of the faith, lack of evidence that modern tongue-speaking consists of actual languages, and the fact that tongues always cause a division when brought into churches.

Church History Does Not Record the Continuation of the Gift

As we study church history we find that speaking in tongues was not present after the apostolic era. There seems to be a large period of church history when tongues speaking did not occur. Early church leaders such as Justin Martyr, Origen, and Augustine testified that the gift ceased with the apostles.

An important testimony can be found in John Chrysostom (John the golden-mouth). He was one of the greatest preachers in the history of the church. Born in A.D. 345 he had the following to say about the gift of tongues.

The whole passage (1 Corinthians 14:1-40) is exceedingly obscure and the obscurity is occasioned by our ignorance of the facts and the cessation of happenings which were common in those days but unexampled in ours.

This tells us that tongue speaking was an experience that had long passed from the scene when Chrysostom wrote in the fourth century. This is another indication that the practice was limited to first century Christians.

When the Protestant Reformation occurred, Christianity was brought back to its basic truths. However, the Reformers did not exercise the gift of speaking in tongues. It has only been recently in the history of the church that certain believers have again begun to speak with tongues. It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that any large number or Christians began to exercise what they thought was the biblical gift of tongues. Are we to assume that the church has been without a necessary gift, such as speaking in tongues, for some 1,750 years?

Historically, Examples of Tongue Speaking Were from Heretical Groups

In the few instances in the past, where tongue speaking actually occurred among professing Christians, it was from fringe or heretical groups. Examples of tongue speaking in the ancient church were always from heretical groups.

For example, the only two references we find to speaking in tongues in the first three centuries are from Montanus and his disciple Tertullian. Montanus is seen as a heretic – a man who claimed to be the main way through which the Holy Spirit spoke. The mainline church rejected any outbreaks of Montanism as heresy– not as the work of the Holy Spirit.

This is another indication that the genuine spiritual gift was not practiced after the time of the apostles.

Historically, Great Men and Women of God Did Not Speak in Tongues

Done through the ages, the great men and women of the Christian faith did not testify to speaking in tongues. As we look at the lives of prominent Christians throughout the history of the church, none of them exercised the gift of speaking in tongues.

This includes such great warriors of the faith as St. Augustine, John Wesley, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Dwight L. Moody, and Billy Graham. If the gift of speaking in tongues was so vital to the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers, then why don’t we find the gift being exercised in the great men and women of God in church history? Why is speaking in tongues the exception rather than the rule?

There Is No Evidence That Tongue Speakers Speak Actual Languages

There has been no solid evidence that modern tongue speaking consists of actual languages being spoken. On numerous occasions those who have claimed to have the gift of tongues have had their words recorded. When their tongue speaking is recorded and evaluated there have been no instances of actual languages being spoken. All sides agree that this is the case. This is evidence that the tongue speaking that presently goes on is not something which is supernatural in origin but rather the product of the mind of the speaker or some other source.

Speaking in Tongues Has Always Divided Christian Congregations

By its very nature the gift of speaking in tongues is something that can be easily abused. Whenever tongue speaking enters a church it almost always divides the congregation. Time after time we find that this is the case. While the Holy Spirit is the great unifier of the church, tongue speaking has been the great divider. There are few, if any, exceptions to this rule. Consequently tongue speaking cannot be viewed as something that comes from God.

These reasons, both biblical and non-biblical, have convinced many that the gift of speaking in tongues, while once a supernatural gift that God gave to the church has been withdrawn.

While some may believe they have the biblical gift of speaking in tongues, the evidence from the Word of God, and from other sources indicates the Lord has withdrawn the gift.

Summary – Question 3
Why Do Some Believe the Gift of Tongues Has Ceased?

The gift of speaking in tongues is a legitimate spiritual gift. No Bible-believing Christian doubts this. Indeed, it is clear that it was exercised by the immediate followers of Jesus.

However not everyone agrees as to whether this gift was to be permanent in the church. Indeed, many people believe it was only meant to serve a temporary purpose. Now that this purpose has been reached the gift has ceased to function in the church. A number of arguments are raised concerning the temporary nature of the gift of tongues. They consist of biblical arguments and non-biblical arguments.

The biblical arguments concern the nature of the following.

First, it is the nature of the gift of tongues. As we mentioned, the gift was only meant to serve as a temporary sign to unbelievers. Once certain things took place in the church, the sign of tongues was removed.

Furthermore, the Bible itself limits the duration of the gift. It makes it clear that the gift is not to be seen as permanent.

There is also the argument which is made from Greek grammar. Paul told the Corinthians that the gift would “cease of itself.” This is exactly what took place late in the first century.

To many, the fact that the gift will cease of itself, fits well with the meaning of the Greek term translated as “perfect.” When the perfect had come, the temporary gift of tongues was withdrawn. The perfect is understood by many to mean the completed New Testament canon. Once God’s Word has been entirely written, there was no more need for miraculous signs.

There is also the fact that speaking in tongues, along with certain other signs, were not existent later in Paul’s ministry. This is another reason to believe that the gift had ceased.

There are also non-biblical arguments for the cessation of the gift. They include the absence of the gift in church history. Indeed, we do not find this gift mentioned at all after the time of the apostles.

Furthermore, when it is mentioned, we find that only heretical groups spoke with tongues. The mainstream church did not embrace the gift.

We also find that great saints did not speak with tongues. Indeed, some of the greatest names in the history of the church did not claim to have this gift.

In addition, there is no evidence that tongue-speaking consists of actual languages. Almost everyone, on both sides of this issue, agrees that this is the case.

There is also the matter that speaking in tongues always divides congregations. It is not something which unifies believers. Thus, how can it be considered the work of the great unifier of Christians; the Holy Spirit of God?

These arguments have convinced many that the gift of tongues is no longer active in the church. While many sincere people believe the gift still exists and continue to exercise the gift, these people are sincerely wrong according to this perspective of the issue.

Were Those Who Spoke in Tongues in an Ecstatic, Uncontrolled State? ← Prior Section
What Are the Arguments That the Gift of Tongues Has Not Ceased but Is Still to Be Used in the Church Today? Next Section →
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