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Purpose of Tongues
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The Purpose of Tongues
A Sign to Israel
Copyright © Tim Warner 04/2001

The Old Testament Prophecy of "Tongues"

The outbreak of "tongues" in Acts 2 should not be seen as a strange or surprising occurrence. It was prophesied by Isaiah many years before. In order to understand the purpose and scope of "tongues" in the New Testament, we first need to understand the context of Isaiah 28 which prophesied its coming. Portions of this passage are quoted in the New Testament, and applied to Christ and the Church. For example, Isaiah 28:16, says, "Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner stone, a sure foundation: he that believeth shall not make haste." This verse is quoted in Rom. 9:33, Rom. 10:11 & 1 Pet 2:6. It is referred to in Eph. 2:20. In each case, the writer interpreted this verse as applying to Christ and the New Testament Church. It is a reference to Christ's first coming. To the Jews, this "stone" was a stumbling stone. But, to those who believed, it was the foundation stone on which the Church is built. Paul says in Eph. 2:20 that the "Apostles and prophets" are the foundation of which Christ is the chief corner-stone. Therefore, there is ample evidence that this passage is speaking about the coming of Christ, and the beginning of the New Testament Church.

However, this passage is about much more than that. It is primarily directed at the leadership of Israel during the time of Christ. It refers to Israel's league with the Romans in crucifying Jesus Christ. And it predicted the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans which occurred in A.D. 70.

Isa 28:11-18
11 For with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people.
12 To whom he said, This is the rest wherewith ye may cause the weary to rest; and this is the refreshing: yet they would not hear.
13 But the word of the LORD was unto them precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little; that they might go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken.
14 Wherefore hear the word of the LORD, ye scornful men, that rule this people which is in Jerusalem.
15 Because ye have said, We have made a covenant with death, and with hell are we at agreement; when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, it shall not come unto us: for we have made lies our refuge, and under falsehood have we hid ourselves:
16 Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD, Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner stone, a sure foundation: he that believeth shall not make haste.
17 Judgment also will I lay to the line, and righteousness to the plummet: and the hail shall sweep away the refuge of lies, and the waters shall overflow the hiding place.
18 And your covenant with death shall be disannulled, and your agreement with hell shall not stand; when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, then ye shall be trodden down by it.

Before we go into the "tongues" in verses 11-13, lets examine the rest of this passage in order to fully understand the context. In verse 14, God is addressing the "scornful men" who were the leaders of Israel that delivered Jesus to be crucified. The "covenant with death" was the unholy alliance between the Chief Priests and the Roman officials. The Jewish leaders conspired together to put Jesus to death, and manipulated the Roman officials to carry out their deed. Yet, in verse 16, God says that He will lay the foundation stone, Jesus, who was the cornerstone of the Church. Whoever believed on Him would be saved. But, for the rebellious Jewish leaders, verses 17 & 18 predict their destruction by the very ones with whom they made their "covenant with death." That is, the Romans would come and destroy them. This occurred some 40 years after Pentecost.

This brings us back to verses 11-13.

11 For with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people.
12 To whom he said, This is the rest wherewith ye may cause the weary to rest; and this is the refreshing: yet they would not hear.
13 But the word of the LORD was unto them precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little; that they might go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken.

The "Word of the Lord" to these rebellious leaders was the words of Jesus Himself. He spoke to the people in parables, bits and pieces of truth, but in a form that they had difficulty understanding. Why? So, "that they might go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken." The Gospel accounts agree.

Mark 4:10-12
10 And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable.
11 And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables:
12 That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.

Matt 13:10-13
10 And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables?
11 He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.
12 For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.
13 Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.

It seems clear from both the Gospel accounts and this passage in Isaiah, that Jesus spoke to the religious leaders in order to condemn them, "that they might go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken." Clearly then, the context here is about the condition of Israel at the time of Christ, Jesus' preaching to them, and their judgment for rejecting Him. The destruction of Jerusalem in AD70 was clearly God's judgment on Israel for rejecting the Messiah (Luke 19:41-44). 

This is the context in which we find the prophecy of "tongues" that was fulfilled beginning at Pentecost. Since Isaiah said that through these strange tongues God was going to speak to "this people" (Israel), and in particular to "the scornful men, that rule this people which is in Jerusalem," in the context of their impending judgment, it is apparent that "tongues" was the sign to unbelieving Israel of this judgment that was fulfilled in AD70.

Since Paul quoted directly from these verses, let's let Him explain the connection to "tongues" as a gift of the Spirit.

The Purpose of "Tongues" According to Paul

1 Cor 14:18-22
18 I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all;
19 yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.
20 Brethren, do not be children in understanding; however, in malice be babes, but in understanding be mature.
21 In the law it is written: "With men of other tongues and other lips I will speak to this people; and yet, for all that, they will not hear Me," says the Lord.
22 Therefore tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophesying is not for unbelievers but for those who believe.

In explaining the purpose for "tongues," Paul quoted from Isa. 28:11,12 where God told Israel that He was sending them a sign of judgment - people speaking a strange tongue. This would be a sign to the "scornful men" who ruled His people Israel. When we look at Acts 2, where "tongues" first made an appearance, we see clearly that this sign was actually fulfilled. The Jews were baffled that these Galaleans were speaking in strange languages to them.

After quoting this passage, Paul wrote, "Therefore tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers." In effect, Paul said, in this manner, (i.e. as God prophesied Israel's judgment) tongues are for a sign FOR UNBELIEVING ISRAEL, a sign of God's impending judgment on the leaders of Israel.

In A.D. 70 the Temple was destroyed and the priesthood and Sanhedrin were disbanded, and the remainder of this prophecy was fulfilled. Therefore, the stated purpose of tongues ceased in AD 70. There were no rulers of Israel after that. Israel ceased to be a governed nation.

Even though Isaiah wrote about the coming judgment on Israel, God would not judge the believing remnant of Israel (the NT Church).

Isa 28:5
5 In that day the LORD of hosts will be for a crown of glory and a diadem of beauty to the remnant of His people,

The "remnant" is always seen in the OT as the smaller group of believers within Israel (in contrast to the rest of the nation who were rebellious). At the time of Christ, the nation of Israel had to choose to follow Christ, or follow their rebellious leaders. Only a remnant followed Christ - the disciples and a few others. Of the rest of the nation and its leaders God said: 

Isa 28:7-8
7 But they also have erred through wine, and through intoxicating drink are out of the way; the priest and the prophet have erred through intoxicating drink, they are swallowed up by wine, they are out of the way through intoxicating drink; they err in vision, they stumble in judgment.
8 For all tables are full of vomit and filth; no place is clean.

To the rulers of His people, God said:

Isa 28:11-14
11 For with stammering lips and another tongue he will speak to this people,
12 To whom He said, "This is the rest with which you may cause the weary to rest," and, "This is the refreshing"; yet they would not hear.
13 But the word of the LORD was to them, "Precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little," that they might go and fall backward, and be broken and snared and caught.
14 Therefore hear the word of the LORD, you scornful men, who rule this people who are in Jerusalem,

Notice what the message in tongues to Israel is given in verse 12. Those who spoke in tongues basically said, "This is the rest with which you may cause the weary to rest," and, "This is the refreshing." In other words, the miracle of foreign tongues was itself the sign, but also the messages being spoken in tongues told the people that THIS GOSPEL being preached by Peter and the early Christians was indeed the hope of Israel, the New Covenant, whereby they could rest from the burden of the Law. This was the "wonderful works of God" that the crowd heard every man in his own tongue. No doubt this "rest" is what Jesus referred to as well when He spoke of giving them "rest for their souls."

Tongues were given to many believers in the Churches after Pentecost. But, the purpose of tongues never changed. When Gentile Christians spoke in tongues, it was still a sign to the Jews living in that community. The message was still, "This is the refreshing" and "this is the rest." The exercising of this gift was a continuous sign that the destruction of the Jewish leaders and their system was imminent. This was well known by the early Church, since Jesus had predicted the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in remarkably clear language (Luke 19:41-44).

So widespread was the gift of tongues, that it had begun to dominate the gatherings in the Corinthian church. Paul's correction of that church in 1 Cor. 14 is entirely in keeping with the stated purpose for tongues.

The End of Tongues

If the stated purpose of "tongues" was a sign to unbelieving Israel, particularly of the impending judgment by the Romans and destruction of the leadership of Israel, it stands to reason that once the judgment came, tongues could no longer function as a sign of impending judgment. And this is what Paul seems to say in 1 Cor. 13.

1 Cor 13:8-10
8 Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away.
9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part;
10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.

Three things are said to end in verse 8 - prophecy, tongues, and knowledge. These are spiritual gifts mentioned elsewhere in the NT. However, in the case of "prophecy" and "knowledge," both are said to be "done away" at some point. This is translated from the Greek word "katargêthêsontai," (first future passive of katargeô). Essentially, it means to be made inoperative by something else. Verse 10 tells us what will cause prophecy and knowledge to be made inoperative - when "that which is perfect is come." It is clear that both prophecy and knowledge (as spiritual gifts) would be made inoperative when "that which is perfect" comes. This will occur at a distinct point in time. When "that which is perfect is come" that is when "prophecy" and "knowledge" will be done away. (Whether you view this event as the coming of Christ's Kingdom, or the completion of the Scriptures, is really irrelevant to the issue of 'tongues' in this article).

However, in the case of tongues, Paul used a different word. He says "tongues shall cease." The word "cease" is the Greek word "pausontai," (future middle indicative of pauô). A.T. Robertson says this means "they shall make themselves cease or automatically cease of themselves." Essentially, the difference between these two Greek words is "katargêthêsontai" means to be caused to cease by something else (in this case the coming of "that which is perfect"), but "pausontai" means to cease of its own accord (not related to anything else). This means that unlike "prophecy" and "knowledge," "tongues" will NOT cease at the same time, when "that which is perfect is come." In fact, if tongues ceases of itself, its cessation cannot be connected with the coming of "that which is perfect" at all!

That Paul is not speaking of "tongues" ceasing when "that which is perfect is come," is also clear from verse 9, where he ONLY mentioned "prophecy" and "knowledge" as being "in part," and being done away when "that which is perfect is come" in verse 10. Notice he never said that "tongues" was "in part," or connected its cessation in any way with the coming of "that which is perfect."

This begs the question, when does/did tongues cease? If the coming of "that which is perfect" does not cause tongues to cease, then logic demands that "tongues" either ceased earlier, or else will continue after "that which is perfect is come." Had Paul meant that tongues would continue into the Millennium, then it seems rather odd that Paul would even mention it as ceasing at all. Why? Because there would be no apparent end in view. If tongues continue in the Millennium, then Paul's point, that faith, hope and love, continue after the gifts end would not be made from his mentioning "tongues." His mention of "tongues" would not be an effective example to make his point. Furthermore, Paul wrote in the next chapter that "tongues" are for a sign for unbelievers. This would seem a bit redundant in the Millennium, with Jesus Himself present! Therefore, to be consistent with Paul's point and with the grammar of the Greek text, we must understand that tongues would cease of its own accord PRIOR to the coming of "that which is perfect."

Since Paul told us in 1 Cor. 14 that "tongues" were the fulfillment of Isaiah 28, once the PURPOSE for tongues ended there could be no more sign. And, as Paul indicated, "tongues" ceased of itself. That is, it just faded away. From the biblical data, we can assume that those with the gift still had it, but it was not given to others on an ongoing basis. The destruction of Jerusalem did not itself cause tongues to cease. But, the fulfillment of the prophecy of which tongues were the sign, in effect made tongues no longer necessary or effective. And so it simply ceased of its own accord.

Church history bears this out. Tongues did indeed cease at about AD 70. There is some mention of it in the second century, but ONLY among heretical groups like the Montanists. There is no indication from the Apostolic Fathers that "tongues" continued in the orthodox churches founded by the Apostles after the A.D. 70 war.

The Revival of Tongues

For nearly 2,000 years the Church has been without "tongues." But, around 1830 "tongues" and "prophesying" broke out among the MacDonald family in Port Glasgow, Scotland. This phenomenon quickly spread to the London congregation of Edward Irving, an ex-Presbyterian minister, who had been defrocked for his heretical views on the person of Christ (believing that Jesus had a sin nature). Irving founded the "Catholic Apostolic Church," and laid the groundwork for both the pre-tribulation rapture view (later developed by John Darby) as well as many of the doctrines that under gird the modern Charismatic and Word of Faith movement. Irving's group prophesied many things, including the date of the rapture and the name of the Antichrist, all of which failed. Irving himself lost two of his children soon afterwards to illness, and within a couple of years he died himself, despite much effort by him and his church for his healing. After his death, and the failure of the prophetic utterances, most of the congregation disbanded.

Modern Tongues

"Tongues" are not unique to Pentecostals and Charismatics. The "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints" (Mormons) were founded the same year that Irving's church experienced the allegedly supernatural manifestations. The Mormons also practice speaking in tongues and divine healing. Yet, they deny the Deity of Jesus Christ. Mary-worshipping Roman Catholics speak in tongues, yet teach a gospel of salvation by works and allegiance to Rome. Occultists, and witchcraft based religions, such as Santaria, practice "speaking in tongues" (that is - speak in gibberish under the influence of a spirit). So, there is nothing externally apparent in modern day "tongues" that requires that it be necessarily of the Holy Spirit. What we see in many Charismatic circles is indistinguishable from the "tongues" found in other non-Christian groups.

In Scripture, "tongues" were known languages foreign to the speaker, but meant to be understood by people present as a sign. This was the case in Acts 2. And it was also true in the other occurrences of tongues in Acts. Not once do we find a case where tongues were spoken as some kind of "heavenly language." Yet, today's "tongues" are basically gibberish. Rarely do we hear claims that modern tongues were actually understood by the people present. And verifying the claims that do exist has proven illusive. Neither do most churches who claim to exercise the genuine gift of tongues follow the Scriptural guidelines in 1 Cor. 14.

I am NOT saying that every person who "speaks in tongues" is doing something evil. I cannot be the judge of individual experiences. God is not limited by the past. He can do whatever He wants whenever He wants. He can do something again that has ceased in the past. And He might even give such a gift to sincere believers who in their ignorance of Scripture believe it is a necessary sign of their receiving the Holy Spirit. For that matter, He could even restore the sign of tongues on a large scale now that Israel is a nation again, as a sign of the Tribulation and Day of the Lord to come. My point is ONLY that the gift of tongues in the New Testament has indeed ceased. Whether or not God has or might revive it, or whether there are exceptions, is another question altogether. At any rate, biblically and historically, it simply cannot be seen as "the sign" that someone has been saved or received the Holy Spirit. It was never used as such in Acts, although it did accompany salvation is at least one case, and baptism in another. The Bible clearly says that it was NOT a sign for believers. And, the stated purpose for tongues was to be the sign of the impending destruction of Jerusalem for the leaders of Israel who crucified Christ.

Postscript for Oneness Pentecostals

Since Oneness Pentecostal groups teach that speaking in tongues is a necessary sign that someone has been saved, AND that Trinitarians are not saved, I would like to pose the following questions for you to consider. What do you make of the "tongues" spoken by the majority of Pentecostals and Charismatics who are Trinitarians? Why is not "tongues" a sign for them that they are saved and have received the Holy Spirit even though they are Trinitarians, and have been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? If they are not really saved, then what makes the tongues that you practice any different from what Trinitarian Pentecostals practice?

Postscript for Other Pentecostals and Charismatics

Since initially posting this article, I have gotten questions from Charismatics regarding a couple of verses in 1 Cor. 14.

1 Cor 14:2-4
2 For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries.
3 But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort.
4 He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church.

The first question concerns the possibility of a "prayer language" that is taught by Charismatic and Pentecostal groups. They think verse 2 above indicates that "tongues" should be used in prayer. However, Paul's point is not that this is the purpose of tongues. Rather, because in the church no one understood the tongues, that only God knew what was being said. In this chapter, Paul was downplaying the use of tongues in the Church because it did not edify the whole body. His comment, that those who speak in tongues in the church are only edifying themselves, is not a positive statement, but a negative one. What he is basically saying is that by speaking in tongues in the church no one is edified except the speaker! That is what he is arguing against in this chapter. He wants all things to be done unto edification of the entire church.

Yes, one with the gift of tongues could pray or even sing using this gift. But, that is not the purpose of the gift. The purpose was a sign to Israel.

Some claim that chapter 13 indicates that tongues is a "heavenly language." But, a closer looks indicates otherwise.

1 Cor 13:1-3
1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.
3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

However, Paul is using hyperbole here, not speaking literally. Just as Jesus did when He spoke of plucking out the eye, or cutting off the hand. Paul did not expect anyone to speak with the language of angels any more than he expected any of them to do the other things in this passage. Did anyone speak in ALL known languages? No. Did anyone possess ALL knowledge and wisdom, and could remove mountains at will? No. Did anyone give away all that they had to feed the poor, and then offer their body to be burned? No, of course not. Paul is using the most extreme things imaginable in order to show that even these mean absolutely nothing without love. That he included speaking in angelic languages in his list of hyperbole is an indication that they did NOT speak with angelic tongues. Otherwise it loses its intended shock value. 

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