The What, Why, and When of Tongues
THE WHAT AND WHY AND WHEN OF TONGUES (ACTS 2:4)
why it matters
You all know that Monica and I went to Seattle a couple of weeks ago to see our son Connor and his wife. Our daughter Chloe and her baby boy Peyton flew out there with us, and we all spent a beautiful week together. We spent some time with a humpback whale out on the Puget Sound, we toured a space rocket design and manufacturing facility, we spent an afternoon at Boeing’s Museum of Flight, and we just generally enjoyed ourselves.
Sunday evening I needed to find a place to worship because it was, after all, the Lord's Day. Predictably, just about nobody had a Sunday evening service. I did find one little church called “The Potter’s House” – a small, independent Pentecostal church. Before the service started, about ten of them met in a side room to pray. Because I had gotten there early, they invited me to pray with them. They prayed aloud, in pairs, in English and in tongues. It was a little weird, but not nearly as strange as some tongues- speaking situations I've found myself in over the years. It was actually a sweet privilege to pray with them. I really enjoyed singing with them and hearing the Word in the worship service afterwards. Then I went back to Connor’s house… from The Potter’s House.
Of course, that was only the most recent time I've been in a situation where someone was “speaking in tongues.” I saw a great deal of it when I was a kid, and more than a little in my young adulthood. I’ve never actually had the experience, but I've been around it. And multiplied millions of people all over the world either insist that speaking in tongues is an essential part of being a faithful Christian, or claim that the New Testament gift of tongues went away long ago.
This morning, God has brought us to the place in Acts where we need to talk about tongues. We're not going to say a lot more about what we have seen or heard, or what we have heard people say about what is or is not going on in other churches or in the lives of other Christians. We are going to look carefully at what Acts chapter 2 and verse 4 has to say about tongues. We're also going to look at the one place in the Bible that actually talks about the purpose of the New Testament gift of tongues. And we will talk a little bit about what we ought to do about it all right now.
where it fits
I have suggested to you that a proper title for the book of Acts might be “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.” I have also noted that the book begins with an event called the baptism in the Holy Spirit. I have pointed out that John the Baptist predicted it and explained that a key reason for it was to declare the end of the Old Covenant and God's judgment on Old Covenant Israel. I've also reminded you that our Lord Jesus himself clearly states in Acts 1 that what is about to happen in Acts 2 is going to be the thing that John had been talking about three years earlier: the baptism in the Holy Spirit. When the baptism happened, it came as a sudden filling of the Holy Spirit, manifested in the speaking of foreign tongues and other startling phenomena. Did you get that? A key part of the reason for the baptism in the Holy Spirit, along with the fulfillment of God’s ancient promises to Israel that he would give them his Holy Spirit, was the pronouncement of God's judgment on at least the leaders and the structures of Old Covenant Israel, because of their repeated refusal to listen to the messengers he sent them. They had ignored all the prophets throughout the ages, culminating in John the Baptist himself. In the end, they had even rejected God's very Son and handed him over to the Romans to be crucified. The message of the baptism in the Holy Spirit, according to John and Jesus, was twofold: the Spirit had arrived, and judgment was about to fall. The Old Covenant was done, and the New had come. The remarkable sign to confirm this was the gift of tongues. Let's talk about that.
S&R Acts 2:4
what they need to listen for
3 handles by which we can get a grip on the New Testament gift of tongues
the first handle
The nature of the New Testament gift of tongues
The tongues we see being spoken in the New Testament was the miraculous speaking of a prophetic word from the Holy Spirit in a previously unknown language. That is precisely what this passage means when it says “other tongues.” Everything else we read in the New Testament about tongues needs to be understood in light of this initial occurrence. We need to be very clear about this. It was not simply the speaking of unintelligible words. Their words were startlingly intelligible to those who knew the foreign languages that were being used, as the text will make clear. But the words were completely meaningless to anyone who didn't know whatever language was being spoken – which is actually precisely the point, as we’ll see in a moment. For now, let's make three salient observations
1. This was not the same thing as mere glossolalia – which is the technical term for the various forms of ecstatic, mysterious-sounding, seemingly foreign talk that people since ancient times have uttered while in mystical trances. It happened in ancient Mesopotamia, long before Abraham lived. The ancient Greeks from before the time of Homer – emperors and kings from around the Mediterranean world – visited the prophetesses of Delphi, who used the toxic fumes rising from the caverns to enter an altered state of consciousness and utter all kinds of messages of varying levels of intelligibility. The Hebrew prophet Isaiah talks about the false pagan prophets and workers of witchcraft in his day as people “who chirp and mutter” supposed messages from the spirits. Members of false religions during and just after New Testament times regularly went into trances, with or without the use of alcohol or other drugs, and spoke things in what sounded like other languages. This has gone on throughout history. Just last year, Muslims in some African mosques were filmed engaging in a kind of glossolalia. But the believers in Acts 2 were not like pagans in a trance spouting gibberish. These were devout Jews, filled with the Holy Spirit, speaking prophetic words to the glory of the God of Israel in “other tongues” – real languages other than the dialects they knew growing up in Galilee.
2. These people were not simply having a personal spiritual experience and then expressing their own thoughts and feelings in response. The Holy Spirit was filling them, such that what they said was what the Spirit was “moving” them to say.
3. As we pointed out last week, the miracle here was the fact that these people were actually speaking in unknown languages. Anyone who says the speakers were just speaking their own normal language, while the hearers were the ones actually experiencing a miracle by being enabled to understand a language they didn't know, just isn’t paying attention to what the passage actually says. The Spirit-filled believers who were speaking were Galileans, just as verse seven says, which means they were most likely bilingual, speaking both Aramaic and Greek. The Jewish visitors from all over the Greek-speaking world certainly would have understood anything that was spoken in Greek – and many would have been able to make out anything being said in Aramaic, as well. No miracle would have been necessary. Beyond that just listen to what the text says: Acts 2:4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.
The tongues we see being spoken in the New Testament was the miraculous speaking of a prophetic word from the Holy Spirit in a previously unknown language. Anything else just isn't the New Testament gift of tongues.
The nature of the New Testament gift of tongues
the second handle
The purpose of the New Testament gift of tongues
While this passage in Acts is perfectly clear about the WHAT of tongues – the nature of what was going on – it says absolutely nothing about the WHY, the purpose, of tongues. In fact, there’s only one place in all the Bible that tells us clearly what tongues were for. Once we dig through it, we’ll see that God’s purpose for the sound of foreign tongues was to declare God’s judgment on disobedient, unbelieving Israel. X2
Let's read it together.
1 Corinthians 14:20-22 20 Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. 21 In the Law it is written, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” 22 Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers.
Is it clear to you why tongues would be a sign for unbelievers? It's not clear to me either, especially when Paul will go on to say in vv 23-25 that unbelievers who hear tongues are likely to think that the Christians have all lost their minds! How in the world are we supposed to put all of that together?
Because of how Paul in particular builds his thinking out of long chains of logical links one after the other, it’s often helpful to work backwards through his logic to figure out what he’s saying.
What we need to know, first of all, is that Paul spends three whole chapters in 1 Corinthians – twelve, thirteen, and fourteen – explaining the similarities and the differences in the New Testament gifts of prophecy and tongues. He says much about the uses of tongues and the benefits of tongues and the misunderstandings of tongues and even the dangers of tongues over these three chapters. Yet even in all this, the only place Paul actually clearly states the purpose of the gift of tongues is in these three verses – 14:20-22.
But we need to pause for a moment and make sure we know what these two spiritual gifts were. The New Testament gift of prophecy was and is the speaking of a message from the Holy Spirit, in the power of the Holy Spirit, for the upbuilding (“edification”) of the people of God. The NT gift of tongues was the miraculous speaking of a prophetic word from the Holy Spirit in a previously unknown language. These two spiritual gifts were obviously closely related, and often exercised at the same time and by the same people. Paul's main point across these three chapters was that the gift of prophecy was superior to the gift of tongues because prophecy built up the whole body, whereas tongues didn't.
1 Corinthians 14:20-22 is where he gives the clearest explanation of why that was so. Let’s begin at the end, like we said: verse 22. It starts with the word “thus,” which lets us know that whatever Paul just said in verse 21 is the reason behind what he's about to say in verse 22. Verse 22 tells us that tongues are a sign for unbelievers. So verse 21 becomes extremely important to understanding the reason, the purpose, for tongues, specifically how they could be a sign for unbelievers, and what unbelievers they might be a sign for. So what does verse 21 say?
In verse 21, Paul quotes from the Old Testament, specifically Isaiah 28. That means we have to grasp what Isaiah was saying in 700 BC if we want to understand what Paul was saying in 50 AD. [[ ]] Really? Why would Paul be building his case out of such ancient, obscure stuff? Remember, Paul was a world-class Bible scholar. He probably had the entire Old Testament memorized. When he referred to the Hebrew scriptures, he always knew precisely what he was saying and why he was saying it. If we really want to get what he's saying, we just need to go where he is.
Isaiah 28 was a word of warning to ancient Ephraim, the northern half of the divided kingdom of Israel, that God was about to use a foreign nation, Assyria, to destroy Ephraim’s nation, kingdom, and priesthood for refusing to listen to the LORD God. The sound of the Assyrian language in the streets of Israel was to be God’s final word of judgment on them for their refusal to hear what God kept telling them through the Hebrew prophets.
Please keep your eyes on what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 14:21 as I read Isaiah 28:11.
11 For by people of strange lips
and with a foreign tongue
the Lord will speak to this people,
What Paul is saying by quoting Isaiah 28:11 as the explanation of the purpose of tongues is this: God’s purpose for the sound of foreign tongues in his day, under the New Covenant, is the same as God’s purpose for it in Isaiah’s day, under the Old Covenant: to declare God’s judgment on disobedient, unbelieving Israel. If it seems to you that we had to dig pretty deep in Isaiah 28 to get that message, all I can say in reply is this: you have no idea how deep that rabbit hole in Isaiah 28 actually goes. We could have spent another couple of hours down there, and the deeper you dig, the clearer it becomes that the purpose of tongues was to declare the judgment of God on Old Covenant Israel.
That’s not a message that any Gentile in Corinth would have been able to get from the sound of tongues – or most Jews, or really anyone, anywhere, for that matter. The only people who would have ever picked up on it would be highly educated Hebrew scholars like Paul. If they had not yet put their faith in Jesus of Nazareth as their Messiah and Savior, the sound of tongues would be for them one final appeal from God to repent before judgment fell – this time not at the hand of the Assyrians, but the Romans. That's what Paul was saying when he wrote his letter to the Corinthians.
The truth is, that had been the message of tongues twenty years earlier, in the events of Acts 2, as well – and that was completely in keeping with what John the Baptist and Jesus the Christ had just said a few weeks or a few years before that. Do you remember? The baptism in the Holy Spirit was to be the supreme reminder of God’s warning of judgment to come on faithless Israel, and of God’s promise to give his Holy Spirit to faithful Israel.
It was likewise the purpose of tongues, the signal gift of the baptism in the Holy Spirit, whenever the gift was exercised, from Pentecost throughout that first Christian generation, as we will see repeatedly throughout the book of Acts. So let’s say it once more: God’s purpose for the gift of tongues in the NT was to declare God’s judgment on disobedient, unbelieving Old Covenant Israel and confirm his gift of the Holy Spirit to faithful New Covenant Israel.
Now, at last, we work our way back to 1Corinthians 14:20. His point in verse 20 is that he wants the Corinthians – and us – to understand tongues like mature adults, but remain as harmless and sweet as my grandson Peyton in our basic attitude toward people over this issue –20 Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.
Let this be an anthem for us in all of our discussions of the issue. We need to stay rock-solid when it comes to holding on to a correct biblical understanding of things, but soft like a baby toward our brothers and sisters in Christ. I’ll try to show you a little more of that in just a moment
The nature of the New Testament gift of tongues: WHAT
The purpose of the New Testament gift of tongues: WHY
the third handle
The duration of the New Testament gift of tongues
If you are wondering how that purpose for New Testament tongues intersects with what was happening at the Potter’s House a couple of weeks ago (or what is happening in many Pentecostal churches around the world today), well, let me tell you: that’s a great question. It really did have to be asked, didn’t it?
The original New Testament purpose of tongues was finished long, long ago. It disappeared in AD 70, when the entire structure for Old Covenant worship – the Temple in Jerusalem – was devastated, desolated, and destroyed by the Romans. There was no longer any need for tongues to communicate the message that the Old Covenant age was over. The whole world could see that it was over. With no Temple in Jerusalem, there was no room for doubt: the old was gone; the new had come. As a matter of historical fact, tongues-speaking virtually disappeared after the apostolic age, with only a few widely-dispersed exceptions. Whatever is happening today, it is not fulfilling the actual, original, scriptural purpose of tongues. That’s why I have major questions about what is often called “tongues” today.
There are serious scriptural reasons to believe that the New Testament gift of tongues was always scheduled to cease as soon as its original purpose was fulfilled. Look at 1 Corinthians 13:8-10 with me. T&R
Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.
It's hard to overestimate the importance of these three verses. Paul’s words about prophecy, knowledge, and tongues – those three gifts – are carefully chosen. As with Paul’s use of words elsewhere, there are depths here that would take hours to plumb, so there is no way we could touch it all today. What I do want to ask you to notice right now is the phrase “will pass away.” It is what Paul says will happen to prophecies, knowledge, and “partial” when “the perfect” comes, at some point AFTER his letter to the Corinthians about 55 AD. It is actually a passive verb, so the most literal way it can be translated is “will be done away with,” which is how the NASB handles it. Prophecies and knowledge were to be done away with when “the perfect” comes, whatever that means. But tongues would simply “cease.” It’s a different Greek word, with a different Greek grammatical construction, one that indicates that tongues were going to just up and stop, all by themselves. Nothing was going to happen to stop them. Instead, they were going to just cease at some point after Paul’s letter. Which is exactly whae happened.
Since tongues no longer had a purpose after the destruction of the Temple and the obliteration of its system of ceremonies and sacrifices in AD 70, the gift simply stopped.
That is NOT to say that any other gift or activity of the Holy Spirit has ever ceased – only tongues. Virtually every other gift of the HS that we read about in the NT continues into our present day: prophecy, knowledge, discernment, healing, service, administration, and more.
The New Testament gift of tongues continued throughout the first generation of Christianity, and then it ceased. That was the duration of the NT gift of tongues.
The nature of the New Testament gift of tongues: WHAT
The purpose of the New Testament gift of tongues: WHY
The duration of the New Testament gift of tongues: WHEN
It remains only for us to ask what lessons we should learn for today from all of this. Let me suggest five.
1. Old Covenant Israel is gone; God’s people Israel now live under a new Covenant, bought by the blood of Israel’s messiah, and under the seal and the power and the gifting of the permanently indwelling Holy Spirit. We are Christian Israelites, observing everything the Christ commanded, not every precept of the Law of Moses.
2. God loved the Jews who rejected their Messiah in Paul’s day, and every unbelieving Jew since then. You can hear that love in his repeated appeals to them, through Paul, through all the prophets, through the New Testament gift of tongues, and through every gospel appeal to every unbelieving Jew from Paul’s day until today.
3. The Spirit of God is still moving mightily around the world, including and especially among our Pentecostal brethren. Wherever people are open to and hungry for the filling of the Holy Spirit, God is working. Tongues as a spiritual gift may have ceased, but the filling of the Spirit goes on. The Holy Spirit works where he is welcome, which is part of why you see him doing spectacular works of revival and spiritual awakening in many places around the world.
4. We Baptist and Reformed Christians dishonor our Lord and hamstring ourselves when we take a casual or even reluctant attitude toward the direct, powerful, palpable filling of the Holy Spirit. [[ ]] Are you looking for it? Are you praying for it? Do you even want it?
5. I understand that if this understanding of the baptism in the Spirit and the NT gift of tongues is correct, then all my tongues-speaking friends have been dramatically confused and deeply misled. The powerful, life-changing, joy-filled experiences that have shaped their faith have been something other than what they thought. I know that’s hard to hear. All I can answer is that the alternative is equally offensive and troublesome. If the gift of tongues really is a wonderful and uplifting experience that has nothing to do with judgment on old covenant Judaism but rather it is just all about joy and happiness, then folks like me are obviously deeply deceived. That's hard to hear too. It’s possible that both the tongues-speakers and the non-tongues-speakers are confused. But it's not possible for us both to be right. We probably won't know for sure until Jesus himself comes back and straightens us all out.
6. If there are other questions or concerns that you have because of what I have said today or over the last few weeks, please come to me and share them. I want to hear from you.
7. If all this spooky…