The Purpose of Tongues
It is a sad fact that what we believe as Christians may be influenced not only by Scripture, but by tradition, experience, speculation and even prejudice. Our attitude to the subject of ‘tongues’ is a pertinent example. To arrive at the real truth we must clear away this raft of human ideas and thoughts and concentrate solely on what God has said in His Word. Our attitude to the evidence revealed therein will demonstrate, like nothing else can, the spiritual state of our souls.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no actual evidence that the gift of tongues (or languages) was given to aid the spread of the Gospel message. This may have been a useful effect of tongues, but effect is not purpose. Indeed we read of only three historical occasions on which the gift was used. (Acts 2: 4–13; 10: 44–46; 19: 6)––somewhat surprising in view of the detailed accounts of the many places evangelised given to us by Luke. (The idea that there are many unrecorded instances is pure speculation, as is the theory that what Simon the magician saw (Acts 8: 18) involved tongues.) Furthermore, in Acts 10 Peter preached and in Acts 19 Paul conversed but neither spoke in tongues. It was their converted listeners that spoke in tongues. Furthermore in Acts 10 all those spoken to in tongues were already converted (10: 23, 45; 11: 12), and had also just listened without difficulty to Peter preaching in his native tongue. Tongues can hardly be said to be an evangelistic tool there!
The first mention of tongues in the NT is a prophetic one––Mark 16: 17–20––and indicates their special character. Tongues were not only an expression of divine power, but were for a sign: “And these signs shall follow those that have believed: in my name they shall cast out demons; they shall speak with new tongues …” (v17). They have a message to convey. In this context they were a witness to the authenticity of the preaching. This is corroborated by verse 20: “confirming the word by the signs following upon [it]”. Why did the word need to be confirmed? Because it was new, that is, the signs were to be a witness to the fact that this new ‘religion’ that had arisen was of God. Of course this would be particularly applicable to the Jew who would need to have any departure from the divinely accredited faith he was practising confirmed.
This idea of tongues being for a sign is expanded by the Apostle Paul: “It is written in the law, 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. So that tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe, but to unbelievers” (1 Cor. 14: 21, 22). The OT Scripture to which Paul refers is Is. 28: 11, 12: “For with stammering lips and a strange tongue will he speak to this people”. The persons there addressed are the unbelieving Israelites of Isaiah’s day (“this people”), and the message conveyed is one of impending judgement. Thus the passage continues: “that they might go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken” (v13). The strange tongue referred to is that of the soon–coming army of Babylon*. Much the same message is conveyed by Jer. 5: 15 and Deut. 28: 49. Indeed if we go back to the origin of tongues, we find that they were first introduced in the judgement of God (see Gen. 11: 1–9). Tongues then, appear to be peculiarly connected with judgement.
Now the picture presented by Isaiah is not one in which the communications between the Babylonians and the Israelites were of the highest quality. We read of a “strange tongue”––an unfamiliar language, namely Chaldean––and “stammering lips”––persons struggling to speak in a foreign language (in this case, Babylonians trying to speak Hebrew). Why should Paul quote such a passage if he meant to convey that the purpose of the gift of tongues was to aid the spread of the Christian message? Those who heard the Gospel on the day of Pentecost did not hear “strange tongues” or “stammering lips”. On the contrary, they heard familiar tongues––their own native languages. Indeed, more than that, they heard each in “his own dialect” (Acts 2: 6), implying competence in the language. No, the reason the apostle quotes Is. 28 is to show that tongues are a sign.
At whom was this sign primarily aimed? In Isaiah’s day, to hear a strange language was a sign of impending judgement. It was a sign to those who did not understand, or at least had difficulty in understanding, the tongue. On the day of Pentecost, while tongue–speaking had a great effect on those who understood it (see Acts 2: 12), as a sign it was aimed at those who did not. For them, as in Isaiah’s day, it was a sign of judgement.
The company of Jews which heard the disciples speak can be divided into two, namely native–born and foreign–born. The foreign–born Jews were a product of the dispersion, and though many would know Hebrew, their first language would have been that of the country in which they had been born. To have heard Peter and his fellow–apostles speaking in Hebrew would have been natural enough, but to hear them speak in their own tongues filled them with amazement.
Also present in the crowd listening to the disciples, however, were “others” who “mocking said, They are full of new wine” (v13). From Peter’s response it is evident that these others were local or native–born Jews: “Men of Judaea, and all ye inhabitants of Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give heed to my words: for these are not full of wine, as ye suppose” (vs 14, 15). Now since the apostles were speaking in foreign languages, these Jews, knowing only Hebrew (or Aramaic) would only hear unintelligible speech. Foolishly they dismissed this expression of the gift of God as the ramblings of drunkards, when they ought to have seen it as a sign that judgement was coming upon Israel. As unbelievers and as those who did not understand the tongues, the sign was particularly for them. Why was judgement coming? Because a perverse generation of Jews had crucified and slain their own Messiah. (Significantly, Peter quotes from a passage in Joel that has in view the “day of [the] Lord” (Acts 2: 20)––a day of judgement.) It is to these native–born Jews that Peter drives his message home: “him, given up by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye, by [the] hand of lawless [men], have crucified and slain … this Jesus whom ye have crucified” (vs23, 36).
The second recorded occurrence of the gift of tongues is on the introduction of the testimony to the Gentiles. Unlike at Pentecost, in Acts 10 there are no unbelieving Jews present (or indeed any unbelievers at all) when the tongue–speaking takes place. However, it was still a sign. The “faithful of the circumcision were astonished” (v45) that God had acknowledged uncircumcised men as His people. They could not question this because the evidence was plain to see: “for they heard them speaking with tongues and magnifying God” (v46). Was not circumcision necessary to enter the sphere of blessing? Did not one have to be an Israelite in order to be accounted as part of the people of God? That the uncircumcised had spoken in tongues could only mean that God was setting the nation aside––and if it was being set aside it could only be for judgement. Did the faithful of the circumcision believe this, or did they cling to the idea of Christianity being just an updated version of Judaism? Judgement was now the only future for Judaism. What spoke of blessing for the Gentiles, spoke of judgement for the nation. Blessing for individual Jews was still available, but blessing for the nation had gone.
On returning to Jerusalem, Peter is met by unbelief: “Thou wentest in to men uncircumcised and hast eaten with them” (Acts 11: 3). Peter answers these Jewish opposers by asserting that “the Holy Spirit fell upon them even as upon us also at the beginning” (v15)––that is, accompanied by the speaking in tongues (compare Acts 2: 4). Previously salvation had been “of the Jews” (John 4: 22), now it was to be extended (see Acts 11: 14), and the fact that uncircumcised Gentiles were given the Holy Spirit was a witness to Judaism that their system was no longer where salvation was to be found. Peter uses the sign of Gentiles speaking in tongues to witness to the nation that circumcision was now irrelevant.
The last historical mention of tongues is in Acts 19––the introduction of the twelve disciples of John at Ephesus into the Assembly. That there were many Jews in the vicinity is seen by the fact that immediately afterwards Paul entered into the synagogue (v8). For John’s disciples to speak in tongues accredited both John’s message, and the link between it and Christianity. John’s message was exclusively Jewish, but though that word was authentic, it was now superseded by a more inclusive message. Some Jews “were hardened and disbelieved” (v9) however, and so Paul “left them and separated the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus” (v9).
Tongue–speaking also took place in the Assembly in Corinth, but Paul neither commends nor condemns it. What he does take issue with is the absence of translation (1 Cor. 14: 5–13, 28). Now it can hardly be imagined that to speak in tongues was merely the random utterance of unrelated words in a foreign language––a sensible, intelligent speaking is implied (compare verses 16 and 17). If this foreign language was not translated, what was the profit to the Assembly, or, as Paul puts it, “how shall he who fills the place of the simple [Christian] say Amen, at thy giving of thanks, since he does not know what thou sayest?” (v16). The apostle had great ability in tongues but when he took his place in the Assembly he deliberately refrained from speaking in that way. He would rather speak in that which was intelligible to others: “I thank God I speak in a tongue more than all of you: but in [the] assembly I desire to speak five words with my understanding, that I may instruct others also, [rather] than ten thousand words in a tongue” (vs18, 19). It is wrong to say that Paul did not value tongues, but he knew that their real place lay outside the Assembly: “So that tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe, but to unbelievers” (v22). Now unbelievers did on occasion come into the Assembly as verse 23 shows, and so Paul did not forbid the speaking with tongues (v39), but he clearly felt that the more appropriate gift to be expressed in the Assembly was prophecy: “Now I desire that ye should all speak with tongues, but rather that ye should prophesy. But greater is he that prophesies than he that speaks with tongues, unless he interpret, that the assembly may receive edification” (v5). Tongues could be used for edification in the Assembly, but only if they were translated, and with a translated tongue it was the message that edified not the fact that it was in a foreign language. In fact the tongue, in that it had to be translated, served to be a hindrance to the delivery of the message––hence the inferiority of tongues to prophecy in the Assembly. By contrast, outside the Assembly edification of believers was not in view at all and tongues served their primary purpose as a sign to unbelievers (the tongue, not the message as such, being the sign).
In verse 23 Paul says that “If therefore the whole assembly come together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and simple [persons] enter in, or unbelievers, will not they say ye are mad?” This is often taken to mean that Paul is criticising the tongue–speakers for speaking at the same time as each other, but this cannot be the sense since to be consistent the following verse would then have to be taken to mean that several prophets speaking at once is commendable (which contradicts verse 31 where the apostle shows the need to prophesy “one by one”). What he is saying is that if in an Assembly all speaking was only in tongues, this would be justly dismissed as madness by simple persons and unbelievers coming in. What kind of religion is it where no one understands each other? Imagine a visitor asking one of the Corinthian saints what was being said and being told that actually they didn’t know! Such visitors would be most unlikely to say to the Corinthians “God is indeed amongst you”! (see v25). No, if tongue–speaking is to take place in the Assembly there ought at the very least to be room given for translation or, better still, the expression of the more appropriate gift––prophecy.
It must not be assumed that because the Corinthians spoke in tongues that every Assembly was so gifted. If we stick to the facts, we shall accept that Scripture does not mention tongues in connection with the vast majority of NT Assemblies. The Corinthian saints spoke in tongues because Corinth was a city containing a significant Jewish minority (Acts 18: 7, 8), in view of which the gift was primarily distributed. Nor should we imagine that all the saints in Corinth could speak in tongues, or were intended to in the ways of God. Many assert that not speaking in tongues implies a defect in one’s faith, but 1 Cor. 12: 30, “do all speak with tongues?”, is phrased in such a way as to demand a negative answer.
To sum up then, it can be seen that the real intention of the gift of tongues was as a sign to Israel of coming judgement. The gift might be used in a secondary way to deliver “the great things of God” (Acts 2: 11), or to edify the Assembly (see 1 Cor. 14: 5), but the primary purpose was as a sign (see 1 Cor. 14: 22). Matt. 16: 4 has been cited in a vain attempt to prove that tongues could not be a sign to the Jews specifically since the Lord said they would only be given the sign of Jonas. If we go to John 12: 37, however, we read that “though he had done so many signs before them, they believed not on him”. Clearly, the Jews were given many signs. What the Lord meant in Matt. 16: 4 was a sign given in response to an unbelieving request to prove He was the Christ. The other signs were given without prompting. Having been unmoved by the witness that Jesus was the Christ, the nation would be sent a sign of impending judgement. The use of tongues (see Acts 2: 4) and Peter’s urgent words “Be saved from this perverse generation” (v 40) go hand in hand. The Roman assault of AD70 (see Matt. 24: 2), brought about the fulfilment of what was foretold.
Now if the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in AD70 brought about the fulfilment of what was foretold by tongues, is it sensible to expect tongues today? Hardly! Their purpose has been long since accomplished. Tongues were a divine warning to Israel of coming judgement if the Holy Spirit’s testimony to an exalted Messiah was refused. That testimony was rejected and the judgement fell, and with that tongues ceased to be needed––their purpose had run its course. It is futile to point to what many believe is a resurgence of tongues today. That something is happening in the modern church is undeniable. That it is not the same as what is presented in the Scriptures is however, equally clear. The cry of the Reformers was Sola Scriptura––Scripture only. Sadly, Protestantism (so–called) appears to be abandoning that worthy motto. May you and I be found swimming against this tide!
*Isaiah 28 relates both to Assyria (in respect of Ephraim) and Babylon (in respect of Judah).