The longest section in the New Testament that addresses the subject of speaking in tongues is 1 Corinthians 12-14. The Corinthians were giving undue priority to speaking in tongues. So masterful are Paul’s arguments that even a cursory consideration of only a few of them would nearly shut down overnight the so-called speaking in tongues movement of our day. The principles laid down apply to those gifts that remain and therefore are invaluable to Biblically gathered companies of believers worldwide today.
The Introduction: Tongues compared with the past (12:1-3)
Speaking in tongues should be governed by Biblical knowledge, Holy Spirit guidance, a God Who communicates truth, and the Lordship of Christ. The statements, “I do not want you to be uninformed” and “I wish you to understand” highlight a cause of much doctrinal error – a lack of Biblical knowledge. Contrasts between their pre-conversion and post-conversion spiritual activities are striking. Notice “led astray … however you were led” and “mute idols.” Did speaking in tongues or the abuse of them have anything in common with this? Yes, they were being led astray by their own spirit, or another, but not the Holy Spirit. It was random, “however you were led” and it might as well have been mute for they were not being interpreted. Verse three reminds us perhaps of the core Jewish issues in reception or rejection of salvation – is Jesus accursed? (Gal 3:13), or is Jesus Lord? (Rom 10:9; Acts 9:5). The Corinthians were using tongues to exalt self. The Spirit will do in the congregation what He did at conversion – exalt Jesus as Lord.
The Interacting of Divine Persons: Tongues compared with the Trinity (12:4-7)
Here we learn that the Holy Spirit, Christ, and God the Father, are the source of true spiritual manifestations (1Cor 12:1 Darby) They move as one, each with His own role to play, producing a “common good” for all. When the Corinthians used the gifts, they needed to reflect the unity and harmonious character of the Triune God Who graciously gave (charismata, v4) the ability (v4), opportunity (v5), and energy (v6) for their employ. The misuse of tongues at Corinth was a dishonor to God and a far cry from the way the persons of the Godhead interacted. While ample emphasis is given to the Holy Spirit in this chapter, speaking in tongues or any other form of prayer is never addressed to Him anywhere in Scripture.
The Indexes of Gifts: Tongues compared with other gifts (12:8-10; 28-30)
There are three lists of gifts in this chapter which put tongues last instead of first. In the body illustration, the tongue is not even mentioned. Undue emphasis on one gift to the exclusion of others would be like reducing the body to one member. Imagine a body sized eye bouncing down the sidewalk toward you. No member should feel inferior (vv14-18), nor sufficient and superior to the others (vv19-26). The body illustrates mutual dependency, relationship, interaction, need, respect, care, sympathy, and joy. The “weaker members” should be regarded with greater esteem. God “composed” the physical body with the same pattern and plan as the assembly: “that there should be no division … but that the members may have the same care one for another.” At the end (v30), Paul queries, “Do all speak with tongues?” The answer is, “No.” “Eagerly desire the higher gifts” doesn’t mean to desire them for one’s self, but for the assembly. The “higher gifts” would not include tongues, nor any other miraculous “sign” gifts.
The Importance of Body Truth: Tongues and the Baptism in the Spirit (12:12, 13)
The baptism in the Spirit formed the body of Christ. All souls saved since Pentecost until the rapture are in it: “In one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (v13). The baptism in the Spirit happened only once, on the day of Pentecost, in Jerusalem, and was carried out by Christ (Matt 3:11), not the Spirit. No believer is said to have been baptized in the Spirit at conversion. Neither Calvary nor Pentecost is repeated at every conversion, yet the benefits are still obtained. At Pentecost, only the 120 in the upper room literally experienced being baptized in the Spirit. The 3,000 saved the same day didn’t literally experience it, but were still part of the body of Christ. They (and all other believers since) came into the good of it upon accepting Christ. All are viewed as baptized in the Spirit, but not all speak in tongues (v30), therefore speaking in tongues is not the evidence of the baptism in the Spirit (taken in part from J. Hunter, What the Bible Teaches, pp. 146-148).
Internal Character and Speaking in Tongues: Tongues compared to love (12:31-13:13)
Performance based Christianity genders pride and rivalry, not humility and unity. The first and foremost feature of the fruit of the Spirit, love, is not the only measure of what is “spiritual,” but it is “a way of life that transcends all others” (Weymouth). This section is so eloquent and moving, its beauty so outstanding, that it cannot be pondered without compelling us to both think of Christ, and want to be more like Him. Love, this hallmark par excellence of Christian grace, must be pursued both before and during any meeting of the assembly. Love is like a driver’s license; it is illegal to use gift without it. The Corinthian failure in this led to one of the most powerful, but loving, rebukes in the entire New Testament. Love is the “way of more surpassing excellence” (12:31 Darby). Tongues do not measure spirituality, but love does. Unlike tongues, all could and should have this grace. Unlike tongues, true love cannot be given too much priority. Unlike tongues, which have ceased, love abides. Unlike tongues which were inferior compared to other gifts, love is supreme among the graces.