Interpretation of Tongues

I just discovered that I posted a lot about speaking in tongues in May last year, but not since. However, I have continued to practice it and to reflect about it. For example, last November I led a study on interpretation of tongues for my home group. Here are my notes, slightly edited. I don’t think there is anything new here, but this may be helpful for any of my readers who are not already familiar with this:


Peter Kirk, 20th November 2008

5 I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. Those who prophesy are greater than those who speak in tongues, unless they interpret, so that the church may be edified.

6 Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? 7 Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the pipe or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? 8 Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? 9 So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. 10 Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. 11 If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker is a foreigner to me. 12 So it is with you. Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church.

13 For this reason those who speak in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. 15 So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. (1 Corinthians 14:5-15, TNIV)

26 What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, two-or at the most three-should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. 28 If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church; let them speak to themselves and to God. (1 Corinthians 14:26-28, TNIV)

Should all tongues be interpreted?

Paul clearly writes in this passage that messages given in tongues in public meetings of the church should be interpreted. But he does seem to distinguish this from private prayer in tongues, which does not require public interpretation. Nevertheless 1 Corinthians 14:13 seems to suggest that one should pray for understanding of one’s own tongue, without restricting this to public meetings. In 14:15 there is an apparent reference to singing in tongues, in worship to God, implying that this too should be interpreted at least for the sake of outsiders.

Who interprets?

According to 1 Corinthians 14:5,13, the one who speaks in tongues should interpret the message. But 14:27,28 and 12:10 suggest that someone else should interpret. I suppose this means that someone should not speak out loud in tongues in church unless they are confident that either they or someone else will be able to bring an interpretation. It should be accepted as normal if the same person brings the tongue and the interpretation.

What does it mean to interpret a tongue?

A “tongue” is sometimes a human language not known to the speaker. In Acts 2:4,6 the apostles spoke in various languages which were understood in the normal way by people present. I have heard of modern examples of Christians being given words to speak in foreign languages which they don’t know, to preach the gospel or as words of knowledge etc.

Sometimes people recognise individual words of a message in tongues as in a language they know. [Our pastor] has recognised [words in a foreign language he knows] in the private prayer language of people at [my church]; I have recognised [ones in a foreign language I know]. But in these cases there has not been a complete message in [one of these languages]. Sometimes this may be chance resemblance, or maybe the Holy Spirit is using this deliberately to reveal the meaning of part of the prophetic message.

In other cases, as suggested by 1 Corinthians 13:1, a tongue may be an angelic language. Certainly it is often a language not understood by anyone present – but then no one would recognise all of the more than 6,000 living human languages, not to mention extinct ones. The gift of interpretation, as usually understood, is about giving the meaning of a message which one does not understand in the normal way, but only as the Spirit reveals the meaning.

As such this is very similar to prophecy. While I have not personally been given a clear interpretation of anyone else’s tongue, God has showed me the meaning of visions etc reported by others. I suppose that it is in a similar way that the meaning of a tongue is revealed to the interpreter. Any experiences to share?

Also the combination of a message in tongues and its interpretation is seen as equivalent to prophecy. Is there in fact a difference, for example in the typical content?

Note 1 Corinthians 14:22-25:

22 Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers. 23 So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? 24 But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, 25 as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!” (TNIV)

In the context the tongues here must be interpreted tongues. What does this mean in practice? This passage is rather obscure but I suppose means that uninterpreted tongues make unbelievers say we are out of our mind, but interpreted tongues will have the effect of prophecy, convicting of sin leading to repentance and faith.

Worship, cessationism, and Steve Chalke

As I predicted in last week, I have been rather busy recently, so no time for an in depth post, just for some reflections on what I have been reading.

Today I have had some time for blogging, but have been distracted into an interesting conversation at TC Robinson’s blog New Leaven. The post that started it was on worship, and indeed ties up somewhat with my last post. But the discussion on it quickly got on to how worship might be affected by the alleged cease of spiritual gifts, or some of them, at the end of the apostolic age. The cessationists Richard and dvopilgrim seem to be arguing that the clearest biblical model for church worship, in 1 Corinthians 14, is no longer valid because prophecy and other gifts have ceased. Thus they set aside the specific commands of God through the Apostle Paul, starting in verse 1, because they conflict with a human tradition of teaching. At least, that’s my side of the discussion; read the comment thread for Richard and dvo’s responses.

Meanwhile David Matthias, who is an elder in newfrontiers, gives a positive report of a meeting with Steve Chalke. This makes a nice change from the attitude of his fellow newfrontiers elder Adrian Warnock (correction 6th March: Adrian is not an elder at his church, but he is a regular preacher there), who a couple of years ago in effect publicly cursed Chalke – and by extension myself. David doesn’t agree with Steve about the atonement, but he shows proper Christian love in his disagreement.

Well, I suppose I shouldn’t expect newfrontiers elders all to be of one mind, as I certainly wouldn’t expect that of Church of England ministers. Indeed recently I have been getting to know and working well with one of the elders of our local newfrontiers church here in Chelmsford. I have no idea of this man’s attitude to Steve’s teaching. But it is somewhat ironic that this church meets in Adrian’s old school but uses the same name as Steve’s Oasis organisation.

Results of being filled with the Spirit

In a comment (the fourth one) on his own blog Mike Aubrey, while making a technical point about the participles in the Greek text of Ephesians 5:19-21, brings out some important teaching about the Holy Spirit:

Most believe that the participles denote the result of the command to “be filled with the Spirit.” … In fact, as far as I am aware every single interpreter of Ephesians since Markus Barth has taken the participles of 19-21 as participles of result rather than imperatival (key words: “as far as I am aware”).

But Mike also argues that there cannot be a break between verses 21 and 22:

What I found was that there is absolutely no other instance where an ellided clause either begins a new pericope or sentence – much less imply a change in mood.

In other words, as I understand Mike’s argument, this passage and what follows up to 6:9 should be understood as follows (adapted from TNIV, 5:22-6:9 abridged):

Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, with the result that you will:

  • speak to one another with psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit;
  • sing and make music from your heart to the Lord;
  • always give thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ;
  • submit to one another out of reverence for Christ:
    • wives, submitting yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord …
    • husbands, loving your wives, just as Christ loved the church …
    • children, obeying your parents in the Lord …
    • fathers, not exasperating your children …
    • slaves, obeying your earthly masters …
    • and masters, treating your slaves in the same way. …

This doubly nested list may not be the normal way of laying out a Bible translation, but it does seem to reflect Paul’s intention here, at least on Mike’s exegesis.

If Mike is correct, this implies that we Christians are not to put our effort into doing these good things like submitting to one another, still less into making others submit to us. Instead we are to allow ourselves to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and as we do so the Spirit will produce in our hearts these good fruits, of worship and thanksgiving and also of the mutual submission which is, or should be, characteristic of the Christian life.

Rowan Williams, 9/11, and the women in his life

The Times has published today an article about and a moving extract from a new biography of Archbishop Rowan Williams. The largest part of the article recalls Williams’ experiences on 11th and 12th September 2001, when he was an eyewitness to the attacks on the World Trade Center, and the next day preached without preparation in the nearby cathedral.

Ruth Gledhill posts only a small part of the article and of the extract, with the interesting title Rowan Williams: ‘Haunted by Suicide’. This title refers to one of the three women in Rowan’s life, a woman with whom he seems to have had a relationship which might have been described as inappropriate although not apparently physical (yes, Jay, such relationships can exist!) shortly before she committed suicide. The second woman was a German Lutheran ordinand to whom he was engaged for a time. And the third woman is Jane Paul who became his wife.

I knew Jane slightly when we were undergraduates in the same year at Clare College, Cambridge. Rowan’s biographer writes that

she had held fast to her evangelical roots, and was active in the Christian Union at her college. … She came from a tradition where speaking in tongues was relatively common …

But during her undergraduate years she was rather on the fringe of this Christian Union, in which I was an active member. She was I think more involved in the college chapel, under Arthur Peacocke and Charlie Moule. Maybe she became more active in the CU as a graduate student, after I left in 1978, and when perhaps speaking in tongues would have been more acceptable in that group which was very conservative in my time. Ironically it is only after I left Cambridge that I too started to speak in tongues. But I can’t help wondering if the prayers of more charismatic fellow students like Jane Paul were partly involved in the softening of my heart towards the gifts of the Holy Spirit and my eventual acceptance of them.

How can I know that God is telling me something?

In a post Using Reason to Judge Revelation Henry Neufeld asks an interesting question:

The problem is that if God reveals something to you that you cannot know in any other way, by what means do you determine that it is true?

The following is the main part of a comment I made on that post, addressed to Henry:

But the way you answer [this question] shows a lot about how you think. You seem to assume that the truth of a statement about God, or at least about the Bible being inerrantly inspired by God, can and should be demonstrated by human methods and reason. This is a fundamental presupposition of Enlightenment liberalism, but not of biblical Christianity. The biblical or at least pre-Enlightenment approach to such questions is rather that they should accepted by faith. I understand the objections to that approach taken on its own.

But to me there is another basic aspect to this which you do not mention, and that is the link between knowledge and relationship. If your wife tells you something, I hope that you don’t require that she demonstrates the truth of it to you, but that you accept it on trust because you know her and trust her. And if you get a message which purports to be from her, you can very often recognise whether it really is from her or not from the language and tone – and if it is not [clear] you can call her and ask. On the same basis, I have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Because of this I am in a good position to recognise whether any message purporting to be from him actually is, from whether it ties up with his character. And if I am unsure I can ask him in prayer and trust him to guide me by his Holy Spirit about whether it is true or not. So I don’t need any external demonstration of whether the message is genuine or not.

This does not completely resolve the issue of “how can one possibly tell the difference between divine and demonic?” But it does imply a consistency: either I have a genuine relationship with God and can know the truth about what he says from him; or (as some people have suggested in response to my defence of Todd Bentley) my relationship is really entirely with demons which are deceiving me. At this point I have to go back either to the Bible or to general revelation about morality, and appeal to them to argue that the good things that come out of my relationship show that it is with God and not demons.

I thought it was worth turning this into a post here because I think it illustrates a basic difference between my approach to Todd Bentley and that of most of the critics of Todd that I have been interacting with on this blog and elsewhere. No, this is not another post about Todd (and I will not allow comments here which are just about Todd and his ministry), but it is about how Christians can discern what is from God and what is not – in matters both of personal guidance and of whether to endorse or criticise ministries like Todd’s.

As I see it, the majority of the critics of Todd who claim to be applying “discernment” to him are in fact using Enlightenment principles of rationalism to reason for themselves an answer to this question. Now I don’t want to discount human reason and Enlightenment principles. They have led to major advances in understanding of this world and great scientific and technological discoveries which have mostly benefited humanity. But I do not consider Enlightenment rationalism to be helpful in discerning the ways of God.

The Enlightenment has given rise to two diverging streams of Christian thinking about God, both of which I consider to be fundamentally wrong.

The first, the more consistently based in Enlightenment thinking, rejected all kinds of appeals to authority including that of the Bible in favour of a thorough-going rationalism in enquiry about the divine, and about the events recorded in the Bible. This is basically theological liberalism. I understand this approach because I used to share its underlying worldview, but I have moved away from it.

In a second stream of theological thinking based on the Enlightenment all authorities were rejected, at least in principle, except for one, that of the Bible. The Bible was taken to be authoritative and inerrant, not really on any rational grounds (although sometimes rather weak rationalistic defences of it are put forward) but essentially as an axiom, something which cannot be proved but has to be assumed. The Bible was also read as a set of propositions about God and what he does. From these propostions were developed, using Enlightenment principles of reason, the system of theological thought labelled as “evangelical” and “fundamentalist”.

I prefer the label “fundamentalist” here because, it seems to me, all Christian fundamentalists think like this, whereas this is only one of a range of approaches taken by people who call themselves evangelical. OK, maybe it is also because I want to use a slightly pejorative label for a way of thinking I reject, rather than a label which I accept for myself. These are more or less the same people who I have called Bible deists and whose approach to studying the Bible I have previously criticised.

To be fair to at least some of the evangelicals and fundamentalists who think like this, they might be arriving at their axiom that the Bible is authoritative by the kinds of method that I outlined in my comment quoted above. This is basically the “Reformed” position as I understand it. It is also the fundamental reason why I find myself believing that the Bible is authoritative, although not inerrant on matters e.g. of science and history which it does not intend to address. But I would differ from fundamentalists in applying the principle of knowing what is true through a relationship with God much more widely than to the axiom of biblical authority.

I had written most of the above when I came across Nick Norelli’s review of what Roger Olson has to say about conservative and post-conservative evangelicalism. I think Olson is trying to make the same kinds of distinctions that I am, and he follows McGrath in showing how conservative evangelicalism, basically what I have called fundamentalism, is dependent on the Enlightenment. I’m not sure whether my own position, in Olson’s categories, is more pietistic or more post-conservative. I accept Nick’s criticisms of some directions in which post-conservatism might go, especially into anti-intellectualism, and I certainly don’t want to go there.

Some of the criticisms of Todd Bentley which I have read have come from the theologically liberal camp; I would put Doug Chaplin‘s and Jim West‘s critiques in this category. These are people who are fundamentally sceptical about claims of miraculous healing because this does not fit within their essentially rationalistic and materialistic worldview. I have some sympathy with their position because I too struggle with accepting the place of the miraculous in my worldview – but I know that I have to because I have seen with my own eyes (quite apart from Todd Bentley’s ministry) the evidence that prayers are answered and miraculous healing takes place today.

But most of the criticisms of Todd I have seen have come from people apparently following the fundamentalist way of thinking, that is, applying Enlightenment methods of reasoning, although often rather incompetently, to the Bible understood as a set of propositional truths. To this many critics add another axiom, or perhaps they claim to deduce this from the biblical text, that God cannot do anything which is not explicitly described in the Bible. So when they find Todd saying or doing things which are not exactly in line with the scheme they have deduced from the Bible text, they denounce him as a heretic and false teacher. They absolutise their own rationalistic theological system and don’t allow even God to do anything which does not fit within it.

Sometimes these people ask me how, when I defend Todd against certain charges, I can be so sure that I am correct. They expect me to answer them according to their own principles of Enlightenment rationalism. Well, sometimes I am able to do so, by appealing to the basic principle of Enlightenment scholarship that one argues from the facts – and unlike many of them I make some efforts to get the facts right, whether about what is written in the Bible or about what Todd has said or done.

But very often the only answer I can give to these critics is one which they seem unable to understand, because within their thoroughly Enlightenment worldview they have no concept of how God can communicate with people today – even while in principle believing that he did so in Bible times. My answer is that I have a relationship with God through the Holy Spirit, made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that it is because of that relationship that I am able to recognise when God is at work, even in apparently unlikely places. To that I could also add that I have a relationship with others, such as my pastor and his wife, who have a closer relationship with God than I do and help me to recognise when God is at work. In this way, and not through reasoning from Bible verses, I have been able to discern that, despite some less than perfect teaching and practices, God is indeed at work in and through Todd Bentley. And, gradually and always provisionally, I am able to discern what else God is saying to his church, and in particular to me.

NOTE: I repeat that I will not allow comments on this post which are just about Todd Bentley and his ministry without addressing the main issues of this post.

Looking at some Lakeland revival issues

There is a lot of interest on the Internet in the continuing revival in Lakeland, Florida, under Todd Bentley. There are also reports of a similar, although smaller scale, revival in Dudley, England.

In a comment on my blog, Dave Warnock quotes me then asks a question:


“I did wonder why the need to actually go there, why this revival can’t be caught from a distance, but on further reflection I believe they are right.”

Please would you unpack this more. I do not understand how this fits theologically.

Can you express that “rightness” theologically?

A good question indeed, and an issue I had only touched on earlier. Although of course God is not constrained by space and completely capable of working from a distance, there does seem to be some special power associated with being in the presence of his holiness or a holy or Spirit-filled person, and especially of being touched by such a person. This is what a number of people have experienced and it is also biblical. See for example, for presence 1 Samuel 10:10 and 1 Kings 8:11, and for touch Acts 19:6 and 19:12, as well as 13:3 and 2 Timothy 1:6 for the practice of laying on of hands for imparting spiritual gifts. This is of course just a quick summary. So I think it is right for people to seek the presence of the Lord in the places where he is working and the physical touch of those who he is using in special ways.

Dave Faulkner, a Methodist minister from the other side of my own town (but we have never met), gives a fascinating analysis of several aspects of Todd Bentley’s ministry. Thanks to Dave Warnock for the link. I would like to look at just a couple of these matters.

First, Dave F suggests that when people on the Lakeland stage apparently fall under the power of the Holy Spirit, in fact Todd may be pushing them – something which, Dave says, in different from what happened in Toronto. Well, I was watching some of the meetings on God TV projected on to a large screen (so much more clear than the YouTube videos Dave was watching). Yes, Todd may have been applying a little pressure to the head of the people being prayed for (but usually more downwards than backwards), but there is no way he was pushing hard enough to push over anyone who didn’t want to fall. I would suggest that the push was more symbolic, almost sacramental, an indication that this is the right time to fall over rather than a serious attempt to push anyone down.

Now I have been in ministries which encourage people being prayed for to fall over, and others which encourage them to stay on their feet so that prayer can continue. I have been in situations where I have been being prayed for, have felt weak at the knees, and have had to decide whether to fall over or stay on my feet. I would suggest that in most cases this is just a matter of choice. When the Holy Spirit comes on someone, he does so gently, leading them but not forcing them in any way, and that includes not forcing them to the floor. Of course in a situation where falling is clearly expected, especially if that expectation is encouraged by a gentle push on the forehead, most people will fall over, while a few will resist. The Holy Spirit respects their decisions.

But we should not focus too much on such matters, which are not the real issue here. Dave is spot on when he writes:

But if you asked all the responsible church leaders who were heavily involved in the ‘Toronto Blessing’ at least in this country, they would have said that the outward manifestation was not itself the proof of the Spirit’s work. … The evidence of the Spirit’s work is the fruit. Outward signs at the time may be commentary on the manifest presence of the Holy Spirit, or they may be ‘fleshly’ human responses.

Well, I would have put the last sentence the other way round, to put the emphasis on the fact that, even among some fleshly excesses, the manifest presence of the Holy Spirit is at work in Lakeland.

Dave also questions the financial accountability of Todd Bentley’s Fresh Fire Ministries. Well, here we can be grateful that it is based in Canada (just across the US border near Vancouver) and so there is no option for it to invoke the separation of church and state to avoid the moral if not always legal requirement of financial accountability. In fact I heard Todd confirm what Bene D comments on Dave’s post, that Fresh Fire is not short of funds. And so, Todd said, he is not taking any money from Lakeland to finance his own ministry. I’m sure that in due course that decision will be confirmed in published accounts.

In another comment on my blog with a follow-up, Scott Gray asks some interesting questions, but ones I find hard to answer because he is approaching this with a different theological viewpoint from mine. He asks if the Lakeland experience is “mystical”, and if so “how is it different than the experience of god in sacrament– eucharist, for example?” Well, the first question depends partly what is meant by “mystical”; if this word refers to an experience which is not readily explained by normal scientific laws, then yes, this revival is “mystical”. As for it being like a sacrament, apparently Scott understands a sacrament as about meeting Jesus, and as something to be avoided if one is not ready to meet him. Well, I think in a lot of the evangelical tradition I come from people are far too ready to worship God and perform sacraments with no real expectation of meeting Jesus or openness to being changed. Their attitude is well summed up in this cartoon. What Scott writes is much more appropriate:

if we expect to meet jesus anywhere … we have to be ready to be changed.

And I am sure that is true also of revival meetings in Lakeland or elsewhere. We need to go there prepared to meet God and be changed. If we don’t, God is patient and kind and so doesn’t actually squash us with his big sandal, but we are likely to leave the meetings offended and critical, as in some of the comments on Lakeland which I have seen. But if we go to meetings like this with a positive attitude and an openness to change, even if we continue to watch out for possible ways in which the experience is less than ideal, then we can expect to truly meet God and know his presence with us, not just in a mystical moment but as a lifelong relationship.

God and Mammonianity

Agathos of the blog Scotteriology has been blogging about what he (gender assumed from the grammatical gender of the Greek word “agathos”) calls “Mammonianity”. This is basically criticism of what is otherwise known as “Prosperity Gospel” teaching, that Christians can expect to prosper materially and the key to this is giving.

Now there is some truth to this teaching. God does indeed desire to give good things to his people, and especially to bless those who give generously to his work. But it is a complete perversion of this good biblical teaching to make material prosperity, rather than serving God, the aim, and also to make giving into a means of becoming prosperous rather than a cheerful sacrifice.

I remember long ago reading a book called “A Daily Guide to Miracles”. I was indeed looking for miracles. But as I read the book I found that every example given was of someone living a reasonably good life, certainly by international standards, who was looking for and received a miracle of financial or other material provision enabling them to live more of the Great American Dream. I found this book, and the selfishness it encouraged in its readers, so repulsive that I rejected it and, to a large extent, the Christian ministry which had recommended it, which was sadly moving towards that teaching.

Todd Bentley has been accused of following this prosperity teaching. I don’t have any evidence that he does. One thing I did hear him say from Lakeland is that he is not accepting offerings taken up there towards his own ministry which, he said, is fully funded from his home in Canada. This is not at all the attitude of the stereotypical prosperity gospel teacher who encourages crowds to make offerings as “seed faith” and then (allegedly) takes tens of thousands of dollars for himself.

Here is some of what Agathos has to say:

This my friends is what the prophets of Mammon prey upon. People that are unaware of how blessed they are and want more. The prophet of Mammon promises them that he has a formula to get more. Their heart makes them susceptible long before the prophet of Mammon ever speaks. Which leads to the next point.

The heart disposition that is adopted to make one susceptible to the lies of the Mammonian prophets leaves absolutely no margins for joy, contentment, gratitude, or thankfulness. There is literally no room for these thing, especially in relation to a God that is holding back on you because you do not have enough faith or haven’t “seeded” enough. A heart full of envy, covetousness, and greed cannot be thankful for the many blessings that have already been recieved just by being born in a North American society.

There may be no sadder commentary on the North American church today than the sector that already has incredible blessing and abundance but sits around desperately unhappy, conniving how to get more from God.

Those heart dispositions and actions are not Christian. They are Mammonianity.

Amen! The worship of Mammon, even by professing Christians, brings one into bondage. The worship of the true God sets one free.

Weird worship in the Bible

David Ker has started a new meme on Weird Worship, and has honoured me as one of the first group of five to be tagged. Not being one to duck out of a challenge like Nick Norelli, I decided to look for my own selection of weird lines from worship songs. But I will look in a more authoritative source even than Songs of Fellowship volume 4 – my TNIV, and specifically the Book of Psalms:

There is no God (14:1)

Deep calls to deep
in the roar of your waterfalls (42:7)

Moab is my washbasin,
on Edom I toss my sandal;
over Philistia I shout in triumph. (108:9)

Happy are those who seize your infants
and dash them against the rocks. (137:9)

Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet,
praise him with the harp and lyre,
4 praise him with timbrel and dancing,
praise him with the strings and pipe,
5 praise him with the clash of cymbals,
praise him with resounding cymbals. (150:3-5)

Well, almost anything taken out of context can seem weird. That includes what is happening in Lakeland, Florida. But weird worship is biblical, because it is found in the Bible. Accept it, and get on with it, or at least let others get on with it without doubting their spirituality.

Well, this was a meme, so I’m supposed to tag some other people. I’ll give them a choice: either continue David (I mean Ker, not King)’s search for weirdness in contemporary worship songs; or follow my example by finding more weird worship in the Bible. I hereby tag:

  • the wonderful Eddie Arthur,
  • the incomparable Jim West,
  • the latest enfant terrible of my blogging circle Roger Mugs,
  • the pastor with the furthest to fall if his congregation decide to re-enact Luke 4:29, Brian Fulthorp,
  • and, to try to get him to blog more than one post, my old friend and weird worship leader Dave G.

Pentecost and Tongues of Fire

Singing in the Reign, despite being by Roman Catholics, has become one of my favourite blogs. Michael Barber has marked Pentecost there not by quoting Aquinas, as he did for Easter and Ascension Day, but with a fascinating post on the significance of the tongues of fire which appeared at the first Pentecost.

Now, despite what some translations make of them (and my humorous misunderstanding of one of them!), “tongues as of fire” in Acts 2:3 cannot mean “tongues that looked like fire”, at least in any sense that these were the physical body parts tongues. Rather, surely, they were tongue-shaped pieces of fire, or what looked like fire. That is, they were what we would now call flames. It is good to keep the word “tongue” in a translation to preserve the link in the original text with the “tongues”, languages, in which the first Christians began to speak in verse 4, but the word can be misleading in a language like English which doesn’t usually call flames “tongues”.

What did these tongues mean? Michael Barber considers some possibilities, and I am sure that the meaning is not exhausted by any one or two of them. One idea which he does not mention is that the tongues which rested on people without burning them are reminiscent of the flame which did not burn up the burning bush, Exodus 3:2. That fire was of course the presence and glory of God, and surely the tongues of fire at Pentecost symbolise the presence and glory of God the Holy Spirit resting on the believers.

But there is more to it than that. Michael points out the description in the Jewish book 1 Enoch of the heavenly temple as “built with tongues of fire“. Since this book would probably have been familiar to Luke and the readers of Acts, the suggestion is that the tongues of fire at Pentecost symbolised the believers as a new temple, whose stones were the first Christians as in Ephesians 2:21 (and more clearly, I would add, in 1 Peter 2:5).

Todd Bentley, like many revivalist preachers, makes a big thing of praying for the fire of the Holy Spirit to fall on his congregations. This is clearly a re-use of the imagery of tongues of fire at Pentecost, although I haven’t heard of visible flames of fire at modern revival meetings. This fire is understood as the power of the Holy Spirit inside someone, to burn up what is wrong in their life, to ignite within them a passion for God, and to continue to burn as a symbolic light of God’s presence. Michael’s post suggests another sense in which believers today need this fire, to be built together all the more firmly as God’s church. For it is by the Holy Spirit that

you also, like living stones, are being built into a temple of the Spirit to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. … 9 … you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

1 Peter 2:5,9 (TNIV, following the marginal reading in verse 5)