1 Cor. 13: 8 says that tongues “shall cease”. When did this happen, or is it still in the future?
Many believe that there has been a modern revival of tongues but there is a serious problem with such claims. Paul declares that tongues “shall cease” (1 Cor. 13: 8, my emphasis) and it is a matter of historical record that tongues died away after the departure of the apostles, thus fulfilling this Scripture. The difficulty for advocates of a revival is that the Bible never refers to tongues starting up again! Making the “latter rain” of Joel 2: 23 to refer to modern ‘tongue-speaking’ is a ‘convenient’ spiritualization without a shred of evidence to support it.
Others have said (without any proof) that the modern phenomenon of tongue–speaking is identical with “the tongues … of angels” (1 Cor. 13: 1). So when will such tongues cease? The gifts of prophecy and knowledge will be “done away” (v8) when “that which is perfect has come” (v10). “Cease” is a different Greek word to “done away”, and implies what will die out rather than what is put out, but neither word allows for continuance. We therefore have a so–called ‘heavenly language’ that will be lost to us before we reach heaven! If angels have tongues (and Paul may have been using hyperbole), then this is much is clear: they are proper languages. The ungrammatical babblings uttered by some today (both Christian and non–Christian) are not tongues in the way that Scripture uses the word.
Nor do we have to travel outside of Scripture for evidence that tongues did indeed cease. Tongues are mentioned three times in Luke’s history of the early Church (Acts 2, 10, 19), each successive occurrence having diminishing significance and detail. Apart from 1 Cor. 14, tongues are not mentioned at all in the epistles. When Paul wrote the first epistle to the Corinthians he was at Ephesus (1 Cor. 16: 8), a city he left forever before the close of the book of Acts (Acts 20: 25). Apart from Mark 16, the references to tongues in the NT are therefore contained within the first twenty chapters of Acts after which the Word of God falls silent. In the light of 1 Cor. 13: 8, this is exactly what we would expect. Indeed, even the more general word signs is not found in any of the epistles written after the period of the Acts.
So why did tongues cease? Scripture tells us that “tongues are for a sign” (1 Cor. 14: 22) but few appear to stop and ask what this means. The sign of tongues was given to “unbelievers” and to illustrate what he means Paul quotes from Isaiah 28. 11–12: “By people of other tongues, and by strange lips, will I speak to this people; and neither thus will they hear me, saith the Lord” (1 Cor. 14: 21). If we examine the context of the prophecy, “this people” are the children of Israel away from God—morally the same class as the unbelieving “Men of Judaea” (Acts 2: 14) who had crucified Christ. On the day of Pentecost, these home–born Jews dismissed the apostles as drunks—while other Jews from outside Judea reacted in amazement on hearing them “speaking in our own tongues the great things of God” (v11). So how were tongues a sign? The sign in Isaiah’s day was that God was going to judge His people using foreign armies—nations whose language would be unfamiliar to the average Israelite (see Deut. 28: 49; Jer. 5: 15). The message to the later Jews was similar in character—God was going to judge His people for rejecting their Messiah. How were they to know this? By hearing strange tongues. Hence Peter’s plea to his fellow country–men: “Repent, and be baptised … Be saved from this perverse generation” (Acts 2: 38, 40).
The Lord had foretold the consequences of His rejection: “What therefore shall the lord of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those husbandmen, and will give the vineyard to others” (Luke 20: 15,16). He wept over Jerusalem because “thou knewest not the season of thy visitation” prophesying “that thine enemies … shall lay thee even with the ground, and thy children in thee” (Luke 19: 43, 44). Later, he told His disciples that “when ye see Jerusalem encompassed with armies, then know that its desolation is drawn nigh” (Luke 21: 20). This refers to the sacking of the city by Titus in AD 70, since when it has been “trodden down of [the] nations” (v24)—even today the modern Jewish state does not completely control the old city. This judgment was preceded by a sign—the sign of tongues. When the judgment fell, then there would be no longer any point in the sign. It is quite clear that tongues had ceased when (if not before) Jerusalem was flattened by the Romans. So where does this leave modern ‘tongue–speakers’? Let them answer that question in whatever way they will, but the witness of Scripture is against them.