Confusion over the nature and purpose of the gift of tongues has been used by Satan to wreak havoc upon the spiritual effectiveness of the body of Christ. This is an extremely important subject because a proper understanding and use of spiritual gifts is critical in God’s plan for the growth and unity of the Church. Satan has placed his deceitful finger upon this important cog that turns the wheels of genuine productive ministry.
In order to shed some light upon this subject, we must understand the true biblical nature and purpose of the gift of tongues.
The Biblical Nature of Tongues
The spiritual gift of tongues is mentioned in Mark 16:17, Acts chapters 2, 10 and 19, (possibly inferred in chapter 8), and 1 Corinthians chapters 12 through 14.
There is abundant evidence in the Bible to show that the gift of tongues was known languages and not ecstatic unintelligible utterances. The Greek word translated tongues is the word glossa. Associated with this word is the verb diermenuo, meaning, “to interpret.” It is used with glossa meaning “to translate.” It is used to infer translation from one language into another (2 Corinthians 14:5, 13).
In Acts 2:4, “They spoke with other tongues,” the word translated “other” is heteros. It is used to indicate that what was being spoken was another kind of language. but still a known language. There are many different language groups on earth. There is no indication that it was a language different from any other language in its nature. There is no indication that what was spoken on the day of Pentecost was “heavenly languages” or angelic language. It was just other languages!
That tongues were known languages is also verified by Acts 2:6, “Each heard in his own dialect (dilektos). Dialect is used only with known languages. There is little reason to believe that the biblical gift of tongues was anything other than languages that were not previously learned by the speaker or by the hearer.
The word “unknown” in reference to tongues in the King James Version of the Bible is not in the original text but was added by the translators in an attempt (they thought) to make the text clearer. Obviously, the addition only serves to confuse.
The Biblical Purpose of Tongues
What exactly was the gift of languages designed by God to accomplish? The one clear passage in the Bible that reveals the purpose of the gift of tongues is found in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.
“In the law it is written: ‘With men of other tongues (languages) and other lips (speech) will I speak to this people; And yet, for all that, they will not hear Me, says the Lord. 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.” (1 Corinthians 14:21-22; additions mine)
A Short Background
Paul penned the words found in 1 Corinthians 12-14 to correct the Corinthian church because of their misunderstanding and obvious misuse of the gift of languages. Most of what he said about the gift in that book was intended to control its use not to encourage the church to continue to use them.
Paul introduced his teaching on the special purpose of tongues with this warning, “Stop being childlike in your understanding….” (1 Corinthians 14:20a). The letter to the Corinthians was necessary because the entire church was acting childish in their knowledge of the truths that Paul had taught them for some eighteen months. Divisions over moral problems, personality clashes, cliquishness, and leadership were all signs of fleshly childish activity. These attitudes spilled over into their misunderstanding of the gift of languages. The obvious cure was to understand exactly what the gift was, why it was given, and how it was to be used.
The gift of languages was intended by God to be a sign. A sign is a symbol, something that could be seen (or heard) and understood, and was used to reveal a hidden truth. It is interesting that the Jews always sought signs (1 Corinthians 1:22).
This sign gift was directed only to those who did not believe. Who were the unbelieving recipients of the sign, and what did they not believe? The only accurate way to discover the answer is to be true to the text and go back and investigate the context of the Old Testament passage that Paul quotes. If we do this, we can begin to bring into focus the true nature and purpose of the gift of tongues.
The passage quoted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:20-21 is taken from Isaiah 28. He did not pull this passage out of the air by chance. The context in Isaiah finds Israel safely in her land but in rebellion against God. God sent Isaiah, His prophet, to warn the Jews that Samaria – a part of Israel – was going to be disciplined for their sin against God. Their priests and prophets were drunk and incapable of judgment. Their tables were full of vomit and filth (Isaiah 28:7-8). God chose the Gentile nation of Assyria as His disciplining rod to carry out this judgment. Hoshea, the king of Israel, had been paying tribute to this Assyrian nation, specifically to their king named Shalmanezzar IV. Hoshea decided that he was paying too much. So he stopped sending the tribute! He then entered into an agreement with Egypt to stand with him against the Assyrians (2 Kings 17:4). Shalmanezzar discovered his plot and attacked Israel. The siege and battle lasted approximately three years. Shalmanezzar died and Sargon II took over and finished the job.
Before Assyria attacked Israel, God had spoken to the Jews time and time again through Isaiah. Their response was to chide Isaiah with these words.
“For whom shall he teach knowledge? And whom shall he make to understand the message? Those who are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts.” (Isaiah 28:9)
They said you give us God’s word “precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little.” They rebelled because Isaiah was speaking to them like children, but they could not miss God’s clear intentions. God had sent Isaiah to warn Israel of impending judgment. At the heart of every message was that if Israel would shape up God would restore their land and bring in His kingdom, giving them peace and rest.
But Israel did not heed God’s message. So God sent the Assyrians into their land (Isaiah 28:1)
God was foretelling through Isaiah that He was going to send people of other languages – namely Assyrian Gentiles – who spoke a language that hurt their ears. Their being in their land and speaking that language that hurt the ears of the Jews was a sign that they were under the judgment of God. Even then they did not repent and turn back to God. Again, the Gentile language in their land was a sign to Israel that they were under the judging hand of God. They were a nation in unbelief.
It was no surprise that God began the church on the Jewish festival, the Feast of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). Nor did God just pull the gift of tongues (languages) out of the air to announce the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. All through the Old Testament the Jews celebrated Pentecost, or the Feast of Weeks, by waving two loaves that had been baked into bread on one sheet (Leviticus 23:22). This was predicting that eventually two different people groups were going to become one body. The day of Pentecost brought to light a new program from God. It marked the formation of the church – the body of Christ – a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). It was formed because Israel had rejected God’s plan for them.
It was, likewise, no surprise that God used languages on this special day. Think for a moment of the Tower of Babel. It was there that God confused languages in order to scatter people into various language groups that they might cease their plotting against Him. He would again use languages in a miraculous way, not to divide people but to bring them together into one body.
At Pentecost in Acts 2, like in Isaiah’s time, the Jews were once again under the disciplining hand of God. Jews were at Jerusalem from all over the world. Fifteen language groups are mentioned. When the Spirit of God was given, they began to speak in the amazing sign gift of tongues. People from all over the known world began to speak languages they had not learned and others understood these languages that before were unknown to them (Acts 2:5-8). They were Jews but speaking Gentile languages. Up to this point, God had used only the Jews and the language of Hebrew to communicate His message to the world. Now God was going to open the floodgate. This sign was to show that the gospel was going to be spoken to every Gentile nation in their language. The language barriers were coming down. Gentiles were going to finally understand God’s life giving truth.
Those who respond to the gospel by faith are no longer Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free, or male or female. They become one new man! This spiritual body is being formed by means of the Holy Spirit’s work of baptizing each believer into permanent union with Christ’s body (1 Corinthians 12:13; 1 Corinthians 12:27). The Baptism of the Holy Spirit happens to every believer the moment faith is placed in Jesus Christ, not to just a select few. This is how we become a part of the body of Christ. Though the word “baptism” is not found in the Pentecostal event, before Pentecost Jesus promised that it would happen. He said to His disciples “you shall be baptized not many days from now” (Acts 1:5). Following Pentecost Peter said that it had happened. He said following a recreation of the event “then I remembered the word of the Lord how He said, “John indeed baptized with water but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 11:16).
Jews would never have believed that Gentiles were now being factored into the plan of God. This is why God used all the amazing signs that accompanied the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. God used the sound of wind, the fire, and the supernatural gift of languages, to break down the barrier. The verifying sign of tongues is mentioned also in Acts 10 and 19 and possibly inferred in chapter 8. In every case Jewish apostles had to be present to personally validate the event. Peter and John were sent to Samaria in Acts 8. Peter was present in Acts 10 and Paul in Acts 19. Peter wrote, “If therefore God gave them (Gentiles) the same gift as He gave us (Jews) when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ who was I that I might withstand God?” (Acts 11:17).
Again, Pentecost also brought to light another significant event. It marked God’s judgment upon the disobedient nation of Israel. It is because of Israel’s blindness to God’s truth and failure to accept their Messiah that God judged them and brought the church into existence (Rom. 11:11).
Here is the major point of why Paul referred to Isaiah 28 in 1 Corinthians 14. The circumstances in Israel on the day of Pentecost were pretty much the same as they were in Israel in Isaiah’s day. Israel as a nation was once again in rebellion against God. She had destroyed most all the prophets that were sent to her and had rejected and helped to crucify the greatest Prophet of all, the Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 23). God was ready to set Israel aside as a nation and bring in a new day when Jew and Gentile would come together to form one new body – the church (Ephesians 2:11-16; Ephesians 3:5-6).
Rome, not Assyria, was used as God’s disciplining rod. What more appropriate sign could God have chosen than Gentile languages in order to jog the memory of the unbelieving Jews motivating them to repent and turn to Him and to warn them that judgment had come and a new day was upon them? The Romans did destroy Jerusalem a short time later and the Jews were scattered all over the world.
The sign gift of foreign Gentile languages would be a wonderful, clear symbol to unbelieving Israel that they had not repented, and that God was now setting them aside as the nation whom He had chosen to spread His message to the world. In Israel’s place He was going to begin to speak His message to the world, not in Hebrew, but you guessed it, in Gentile languages.
Therefore, God’s special purpose for the sign-gift of foreign languages was to warn the unbelieving Jew of imminent judgment and dispersion and to alert both the Jew and Gentile that God was – by means of the gospel and the baptizing work of the Holy Spirit – forming a new body called the church, or the body of Christ. After the Jews had been dispersed throughout the world and the church had been firmly established and brought to maturity, there was no more need for the sign gift of tongues. So it ceased (1 Corinthians 13:8).
What is being used today by many as “the gift of tongues” does not square with the nature and purpose of the gift of tongues taught in the Bible.
New American Standard Bible
Robert B. Thieme, Jr.
S. Lewis Johnson
Bible Knowledge Commentary New Testament