How the Bible ought to be read in church

After church this morning, I was taking with a friend about reading the Bible in a church service. It is, of course, not just important what we read, but how we read. Too much Bible-reading in our churches is dull, and makes the Word of God seem lifeless. This is the Word of God!

It is not as if this question has never before been addressed. The Westminster Larger Catechism says:

The holy Scriptures are to be read with a high and reverent esteem of them; with a firm persuasion that they are the very word of God, and that he only can enable us to understand them; with desire to know, believe, and obey the will of God revealed in them; with diligence, and attention to the matter and scope of them; with meditation, application, self-denial, and prayer.

This is the crucial point. The one who reads the Scriptures must not only firmly believe all that he reads, he must convince the hearers that he believes it, too! Indeed, although we often consider the preaching of the Bible to be the highlight of the service, the preaching will ‘merely’ explain and apply the Bible’s message. If the Bible is read well, then the preachers job will be significantly easier. By the time the preacher starts his sermon, the congregation could already been under conviction that what they are about to hear will not be mere words, but an exposition of the Holy Scriptures, the Word of God itself. Perhaps this is best illustrated by John’s Blanchard’s recollections of how, as a newly-converted Christian, he so valued the Scriptures – even when he wasn’t preaching, just “reading”:

My wife and I lived in a small flat at the time, but I can vividly remember my Sunday morning routine. Immediately after breakfast I would go into the bedroom, lock the door, and begin to prepare for reading the lesson that morning. After a word of prayer I would look up the lesson in the lectionary and read it carefully in the Authorized Version, which we were using in the church. Then I would read it through in every other version I had in my possession, in order to get thoroughly familiar with the whole drift and sense of the passage. Next I would turn to the commentaries. I did not have many in those days, but those I had I used.

I would pay particular attention to word meanings and doctrinal implications. When I had finished studying the passage in detail, I would go to the mantelpiece, which was roughly the same height as the lectern in the church and prop up the largest copy of the Authorized Version I possessed. Having done that, I would walk slowly up to it from the other side of the room, and begin to speak, aloud: ‘Here beginneth the first verse of the tenth chapter of the Gospel according to St John’ (or whatever the passage was). Then I would begin to read aloud the portion appointed. If I made so much as a slip of the tongue, a single mispronunciation, I would stop, walk back across the room and start again, until I had read the whole passage word perfect, perhaps two or three times… there were times when I emerged from the bedroom with that day’s clean white shirt stained with perspiration drawn from the effort of preparing one lesson to be read in church. Does that sound like carrying things too far? Then let me add this: I was told there were times when after the reading of the lesson people wanted to leave the service there and then and go quietly home to think over the implications of what God had said to them in his Word.

If only we would treat all areas of Christian service as carefully and prayerfully as John did all those years ago, and as carefully as we expect our pastors to treat their sermons. Father, forgive us for our flippancy.

What are “tongues” in Acts 2? (Part 4)

We’ve been examining the question of “tongues” in Acts 2. In part 1 we asked: Are tongues in Acts 2 a gift of hearing, rather than speaking? Then, in the second part, we asked two questions: Are tongues in Acts 2 unintelligible, ecstatic speech? and Are tongues in Acts 2 a “heavenly language” understood only by interpretation? Then in part three, we asked the question: Are tongues in Acts 2 the non-miraculous speaking of a human language? Today, the question is:

Are tongues in Acts 2 the miraculous speaking of human languages?

Many writers refer to tongues in this sense as xenoglossia or xenolalia, to distinguish the phenomena from tongues that are unknown languages.1 This is the position held by most scholars, despite many arguing that this is not true of tongues-speaking elsewhere in the New Testament, despite many thinking that such an interpretation brings division between Luke and Paul, and despite many believing such a position removes any opportunity for establishing the historicity of the passage.2 That the position should prevail despite these three formidable obstacles demonstrates the inherent attractiveness of the position.

That attractiveness is due primarily to three reasons: (1) It is the plain reading of Luke’s text. (2) It explains the mixed reaction from the crowd. (3) The miracle heightens the eschatological significance of the event which helps explain why Luke should emphasise the tongues-speaking in his narrative.

The first of these reasons (that it is the plain reading of the text) is somewhat subjective, yet seems clear to most readers and most commentators. Max Turner, for example, writes, “this sense is virtually demanded…”.3

The second reason is that it explains the mixed reaction of the crowd. Ecstatic tongues best explains the accusations of drunkenness. A gift of hearing or the speaking in Aramaic/Greek best explains the positive reaction of the crowd. But only the speaking of many languages explains both reactions. If Luke was describing the miraculous speaking of many human languages, then it would be quite a chaotic situation before Peter stands up at 2:14. It is not difficult to imagine (for example) an Egyptian who hears Peter speak to him in his own language. But even as he is listening to Peter, he also hears John talking to Parthians in what to the Egyptian sounds unintelligible, and a great many other disciples speaking languages equally unknown to him. It is quite possible that whilst the Egyptian would be amazed that Peter could speak Egyptian, he could not accept that all the languages these untutored Galileans were speaking could be genuine – after all, how, even between them, could they possess such linguistic ability? The excitement of the speaker and the incomprehensibility (to him) of much that was being said would lead to exactly the result of 2:11‑13. He concludes that the disciples are drunk.4 Other more charitable observers hear their own language being spoken, and also hear from others that the unintelligibility around them is in fact other genuine languages being spoken,5 and are simply amazed and bewildered. Verse 11 shows that all understood at least part of what was being said. They did not understand completely, precisely because it was not a miracle of hearing, but of speaking – no-one could understand all of the languages, so no-one understood everything.6 Therefore opinion was split between the enquirers and the mockers (vv 12‑13). Both groups heard a mixture of the intelligible and (to them) the unintelligible, but reacted differently to the same phenomenon.

The third reason is that the miracle heightens the eschatological significance of the event which in turn helps explain why Luke should emphasise the tongues-speaking in his narrative. The eschatological significance of tongue-speaking is a big subject, but a little can be said here. Peter’s speech certainly seems to assume that there is enormous eschatological significance in the tongues-speaking. In his magnum opus, Carl Henry says that:

The tongues of Pentecost signified… proclamation of the gospel to all the world and projection of Old Testament salvation history into the beginning of a new age. The Spirit’s outpouring at Pentecost preludes the apostle Peter’s orderly presentation of the universal claims of the gospel and signals the church’s energetic commitment to the missionary task… The sweeping reference to “men from every nation under heaven” who heard the Pentecost tongues (Acts 2:5) anticipates intelligible worldwide proclamation of the gospel to every race and people.7

If the language-miracle made a significant eschatological statement, then it negates the criticisms of some that a language-miracle wasn’t necessary,8 because all could understand Greek and/or Aramaic anyway.

Conclusion: The nature of tongues in Acts 2

There seems ample evidence to confirm that Luke portrays tongues in Acts 2 as xenoglossia – a miraculous speaking in other languages. This suits Luke’s purpose admirably, or perhaps the miracle itself actually defines Luke’s purpose. Luke’s portrayal accentuates the eschatological significance of the event, in a way that draws attention to the start of fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies. Yet by doing so, Luke also hints that more is to come, thus paving the way for the unfolding drama of the advancement of the gospel and its reception.


[1] For the former term see Williams, “Glossolalia as a Religious Phenomenon: “Tongues” at Corinth and Pentecost”, pg 16; Carson, Showing the Spirit, pg 79; Johnson, “Glossolalia and the Embarrassments of Experience”, pg 116. For the latter see Cecil M. Robeck, “Ecclesiastical Authority and the Power of the Spirit”, Paraclete, 12:3 (1978), pg 21; Harold Hunter, “Tongues-Speech: A Patristic Analysis”, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 23:2 (1980), pg 125; William G. MacDonald, “Biblical Glossolalia: Thesis Four”, Paraclete, 27:2 (1993), pg 38; Turner, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts, pg 217; Cartledge, “The Nature and Function of New Testament Glossolalia”, pg 139

[2] See, on all three points Johannes Behm, “γλῶσσα,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964-1973), pg 1:724.

[3] Turner, “Early Christian Experience,” pg 4.

[4] Marshall apparently assumes this reconstruction, as does Carson and Turner. Marshall, “The Significance of Pentecost”, pg 361; Carson, Showing the Spirit, pg 139; Turner, “Early Christian Experience,” pp 5-6. Along similar lines, Gundry argues that the Palestinian Jews were those who accused the apostles of drunkenness as they did not recognise the foreign languages being spoken, whilst the non-Palestinians understood the miracle. Robert H. Gundry, “Ecstatic Utterance (NEB)?” Journal of Theological Studies, 17:2 (1966), pg 304.

[5] Luke is at pains to point out that the crowd were discussing this amongst themselves, presumably in their common language of Greek.

[6] Barrett is one of many who fails to understand this, Barrett, The Acts of the Apostles, pg 1:125.

[7] Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, 6 vols. (Waco: Word, 1976-1983), pg 6:378.

[8] Zerhusen, “An Overlooked Judean Diglossia in Acts 2?” pg 119.

What are “tongues” in Acts 2? (Part 3)

We’ve been examining the question of “tongues” in Acts 2. In part 1 we addressed the question: Are tongues in Acts 2 a gift of hearing, rather than speaking? Then, in the second part, we addressed two questions: Are tongues in Acts 2 unintelligible, ecstatic speech? and Are tongues in Acts 2 a “heavenly language” understood only by interpretation?

Today I want to deal with a much bigger question: Are tongues in Acts 2 the non-miraculous speaking of a human language?

I’m going to do so at some length, and in much more detail than most of my posts, partly because most people dismiss this suggestion very quickly without thinking through the arguments (which are actually quite persuasive). If you’ve not read Bob Zerhusen’s A New Look at Tongues, you might find that interesting reading before you proceed.

Are tongues in Acts 2 the non-miraculous speaking of a human language?

The option that tongues in Acts 2 is the non-miraculous (learned) speaking of a human language immediately runs into the difficulty of understanding how uneducated men (cf 4:13) could speak in the native languages of all those listed in 2:9-11.12 Bob Zerhusen is probably the only modern scholar to mount a credible case for the position [Read more…]

What are “tongues” in Acts 2? (Part 2)

We’re currently examining tongues in Acts 2, and the previous post considered the question Are tongues in Acts 2 a gift of hearing, rather than speaking? Today I want to deal with two more questions.

Are tongues in Acts 2 a “heavenly language” understood only by interpretation?

Whilst this suggestion has been made for glossolalia in Corinthians, it is not even remotely credible in Acts, as there is no suggestion that any interpreters were present.

Are tongues in Acts 2 unintelligible, ecstatic speech?

If the tongues are not a miracle of hearing then it follows that they cannot be unintelligible speech. There is simply too much emphasis on the intelligibility of the speech for it to be ecstatic. The only “evidence” from Acts that it was ecstatic is that the disciples were accused of drunkenness (Acts 2:13). If the only reaction was a belief that the disciples were drunk, this would be evidence for ecstasy. However, according to Luke, the accusation of drunkenness is only one reaction. Many others affirm the intelligibility of the speech, both in the language (“in our own tongues”), and in the content (“we hear them telling… the mighty works of God”). Moreover, this partial accusation of drunkenness would more easily follow if the speech was the ability to speak in many human languages (see a future post). Therefore in Acts 2, Luke cannot be referring to ecstatic, unintelligible utterances.

Next time we’ll deal (in much more detail) with the question: Are tongues in Acts 2 the non-miraculous speaking of a human language?

What are “tongues” in Acts 2? (Part 1)

We’ve been having quite a discussion on tongues recently, so I thought it would be good to take a little break, and examine tongues in Acts 2.

Tongues are usually seen as referring to one of five main possibilities:1 (1) A miraculous gift of hearing that allows listeners to hear in their native language what a speaker is speaking in a different language. (2) The non-miraculous (learned) speaking of a human language. (3) Unintelligible, ecstatic speech. (4) Ecstatic speech in a “heavenly language” which cannot be widely understood, but is comprehensible by someone exercising the gift of interpretation. (5) The miraculous speaking of a human language.
[Read more…]

Why charismatic speaking in tongues should only be practiced by Catholics

Three weeks ago I posted a slightly provocative post entitled Why Charismatics are not New Testament Christians. That post focussed largely on prophecy, today I want to look at the gift of tongues.

The Gift of Tongues

Of all the so-called charismatic gifts, tongues-speaking is the one that non-charismatics have the most trouble in understanding and accepting. Most Charismatics believe that “speaking in tongues is prayer or praise spoken in syllables not understood by the speaker”.1 Tongues, in other words, are understandable only with interpretation. Frankly, this turns the clock back on the reformation. Charismatics who practice tongues-speaking in public worship have given up the hard-won victory that the word of God should be in the language of the hearer.

[Read more…]

Good Friday Meditation

Can anyone be found who would prefer wasting away in pain dying limb by limb, or letting out his life drop by drop, rather than expiring once for all? Can any man be found willing to be fastened to the accursed tree, long sickly, already deformed, swelling with ugly weals on shoulders and chest, and drawing the breath of life amid long-drawn-out agony? He would have many excuses for dying even before mounting the cross.

Seneca, Epistle to Lucius

[T]he executioner, the veiling of the head and the very word “cross” should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but his thoughts, his eyes and his ears. For it is not only the actual occurrence of these things but the very mention of them, that is unworthy of a Roman citizen and a free man.

Cicero, Pro Rabirio Perduellionis Reo

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God… For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

1 Corinthians 1:22-24, 18

Though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Philippians 2:6-8

Let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Hebrews 12:1-2