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Purpose Of Tongues

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The Purpose of the Gift of Tongues[1]

No question is more crucial or determined for a proper understanding of the gift of tongues than the problem of the basic purpose of this gift. It should be clear that the issue of whether miraculous speaking in tongues is a genuine modern-day charisma or not will be decided largely by whether or not its Scripturally revealed purpose is likewise a divine purpose for the day in which we live.

The Principle of Temporary Gift

Too often it is incorrectly assumed that the existence of a given spiritual phenomenon in the days of the primitive church must automatically presuppose that the same phenomenon should be apparent today. But no matter how often this assumption may be made, it is patently false. Strangely enough, its falseness can be demonstrated from the case of the supreme charisma—the spiritual gift par excellence—the gift of an apostle. That to be an apostle was itself a spiritual gift is clearly revealed in such passages as Ephesians 4:7–12 and 1 Corinthians 12:28–31, although through inattention to these Scriptures apostleship is often thought of as though it constituted a category entirely separate from the other spiritual gifts. But the inclusion of apostles along with prophets, teachers, miracles, and tongues in a list of charismata like that of 1 Corinthians 12:28 can leave no ground for question on this point. Accordingly, inasmuch as Protestant theology generally has clearly recognized the cessation of the apostolic gift in the first century, at the same time that it rightly denies any form of apostolic succession, all such Protestant theology becomes basically committed to the principle of temporary gift. For clearly the apostleship was itself temporary, and, if the principle be established, it is perfectly legitimate to inquire whether there may not be other first-century gifts which were likewise temporary.

No problem arises in the minds of most Christians as to why apostles should appear only in the beginning stages of Christianity and not in its subsequent years. For however desirable their modern presence might conceivably seem to be, the fact remains that the purpose for which apostles were originally given has been fulfilled. It is evident, for example, from Ephesians 2:20, where that spiritual dwelling which is the church is said to be constructed on “the foundation of the apostles and prophets,” that the apostolic gift belongs to the initial, foundational aspect of the divine building. To the apostles and prophets was committed the responsibility of laying the all-important groundwork upon which in succeeding ages the superstructure might be reared until the whole sublime and holy temple had been completed. Having laid this groundwork, and the Scriptures being committed to the church, the apostles passed permanently off the spiritual scene. The building, however, has continued to rise through the centuries and will not be complete until the return of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. But the special gift of an apostle is no longer given for the simple reason that the purpose for it no longer exists.

Quite naturally, therefore, it follows from this fact that the same consideration may well apply to the question of the continuance or cessation of the gift of tongues. If the Biblically revealed purpose of this gift be an age long purpose, it is proper to look for tongues as an age long spiritual manifestation. If, on the other hand, the Biblically revealed purpose of the gift [of tongues] be temporary, we shall have reason for regarding the gift itself as temporary and will be forced to view modern claims to its possession as actually lacking in basic Biblical credibility.

The Sign Significance of Tongues

It is just here that a consideration of the passage in 1 Corinthians 14:20–22 becomes imperative, for it is within this passage that there is to be found the only direct and specific Scriptural statement regarding the purpose of the gift of tongues. The occasion for the Pauline statement here, within the larger context of chapters 12 through 14 of the Corinthian epistle, is the well-known problem of the disorders attending the exercise of spiritual gifts in the assembly at Corinth. Anticipating not a few modern-day advocates of tongues, the Corinthian Christians were guilty of overrating the spiritual significance of this gift as well as of misusing it. Appropriately the apostle places it last in his own list of charismata (1 Cor 12:28) and makes plain by a series of questions that by no means was it to be expected that all should speak with tongues any more than that all should be apostles (1 Cor 12:29–30)—a caveat quite frequently ignored by modern tongues movements. Then, after setting forth the surpassing excellence of love over any and every spiritual gift (1 Cor 13), he proceeds in chapter 14 to extol the principle of edification (a thing quite naturally desired for others where love is operating) as the paramount object to be sought in the assembly exercise of gifts. “Let all things be done unto edifying” (14:26) is here the guiding thought. Accordingly, verses 1–19 of chapter 14 are primarily occupied with the unprofitableness of speaking in tongues not known to others in the assembly for the simple reason that edification cannot result from utterances which cannot be understood. The apostle himself would rather speak five words in the assembly that could minister edification than ten thousand in an unknown tongue (14:19). This prepares us for the special point dealt with beginning at verse 20.

By way of preface to his crucial remarks to follow regarding the true purpose of tongues, the apostle cautions against any childishness in thinking about these matters. By so much, therefore, the hint is given that to exalt the gift, while overlooking the purpose for which God gave it, is to betray an immaturity which is inappropriate to spiritual adulthood. (The Greek word for “men” in verse 20 is τέλειοι, i.e., “mature.”) The all too conspicuous lack of serious and careful consideration of this pivotal section among present-day advocates of tongues, therefore, hardly speaks well for the maturity of understanding achieved by the modern movements claiming this gift.

Then follows in verse 21 an Old Testament quotation from which the apostle draws a deliberate conclusion in verse 22. The Greek word ὥστε (v. 22), rendered “wherefore” in the AV, makes plain that the statement to follow is the result of a legitimate deduction from the Scripture just presented. “So that,” says Paul, “the tongues are for a sign….” The phrase εἰς σημει̂όν (AV, “for a sign”) involves a frequent Greek idiom expressing purpose and indicates, with ὥστε, that the apostle discovered the true intent of this miraculous phenomenon in the Old Testament passage just quoted. The use of the definite article with the Greek word for “tongues” (αἱ γλω̂σσαι) does not appear in the AV of this verse but must not be overlooked. Inasmuch as the article gives to the word γλω̂σσαι a pointed specificity, it further confirms that Paul finds this particular phenomenon to be the thing referred to by the Scripture he has cited. It is not simply “tongues” in general to which Isaiah of old refers, but “the tongues” of which the apostle has been speaking throughout.[2]

Taken at face value, therefore, the Old Testament (specifically Isaiah 28:11–12) is here alleged by Paul to have prophesied the gift of tongues as a God-given sign to the Jewish nation—for the expression “this people” can, in its Old Testament setting, refer to no other—and to have foretold as well the unbelieving rejection which, in spite of all, would be forthcoming from that same nation. Accordingly, directed as it is to an unbelieving people, the true function of the gift is “for a sign to unbelievers” (εἰς σημει̂όντοι̂ς ἀπίστοις). The Greek adjective construction, τοι̂ς ἀπίστοις, rendered by the AV, “them that believe not,” here is not distinguished by the English version from the preceding participial construction τοι̂ς πιστεύουσιν, “them that believe,” but they are not identical. The fact that either two participial constructions, or two adjectival ones, could have been used if precise, exact opposition of the two expressions were intended points to the conclusion that a certain shade of difference existed in the apostle’s mind.[3] The adjective ἀπίστος under these circumstances would—in contrast to a participial form—express pure description as over against the action of believing involved in the foregoing participle. Thus ἀπίστος, as a description, is more static and hence more inherent in tone. Accordingly, even this grammatical nicety seems emphatic with the spirit of the Isaiah prophecy which deplores a condition of unbelief so tragically fixed that not even the sign-gift of tongues can arouse the nation from it. “And yet for all that they will not hear me, says the Lord.” Apparently, taking everything into consideration, the whole Pauline thought in verse 22 arises directly and specifically from the Scripture presented in verse 21. It is important and essential to see this.

If it should be urged that, despite all that has been thus far said, the passage nevertheless does not confine the sign to an unbelieving Jewish nation but refers to all unbelievers, two remarks can be made by way of reply. First, the expression “this people” clearly delineates the concept of the Old Testament passage and the assumption that on this point Paul departs from the thought of his proof text is entirely gratuitous and without foundation in the context. But second, and just as decisively, unless the phrase τοι̂ς ἀπίτοις be taken as a reference to the Jewish people distinctly referred to in verse 21 it is difficult indeed to comprehend the thought of verses 23–25 which follow. For in these verses the apostle plainly teaches that the average unbeliever who enters the assembly, upon hearing them all speak with tongues, will say that the Christians are mad (v. 23 ). Indeed, he goes on to assert, it is prophecy which will bring to such a one the conscious realization of the presence of God in their midst.

But if the gift of tongues be truly a sign to the generality of “those that believe not” (v. 22), it is hard to perceive why it should not have been the specially appropriate gift to exercise on any occasion when an unbeliever might be present. The solution to this apparent contradiction in thought is most naturally found by adhering faithfully to the precise significance of the apostle’s citation from the Old Testament. Tongues were given as a sign to the Jewish people only, from which it follows that the average unbelieving visitor to the Christian assembly (far more likely to be a Gentile than a hostile Jew) would be exposed to a phenomenon never intended for him in the first place. On the other hand, the intelligible use of prophecy for the edification of the assembly, perfectly understandable to a Gentile visitor, would be likely to have powerful side effects, searching him, and begetting within him the fear of God.

The Real Nature and Use of Tongues

Right here it is necessary also to observe that it is a highly fallacious view of the nature of the so-called glossalalia of the New Testament which supposes that tongues consisted of anything other than known languages of the world.[4] The word unknown frequently coupled with the word tongue in the Authorized Version is italicized to indicate that there is nothing in the original to correspond to it and, indeed, its insertion by the translators was infelicitous in the extreme. For the Greek word γλω̂σσα (“tongue”) meant no more in such a setting to the Greek reader than does our English word “language.” If, then, at every occurrence of the word tongue or unknown tongue the English reader will simply substitute the word language a much clearer concept of this spiritual gift will be achieved. There is no trace of Scriptural evidence that to the Jews, for whom the gift was intended, tongues were ever heard as incoherent, incomprehensible, babbling. It is evident that on the Day of Pentecost, for example, to the great Jerusalem multitude all that was being said was perfectly intelligible—without an interpreter—for these Jews exclaim: “And how is it that we hear – each in our own language in which we were born?…we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:8, 11).

If all of the evidence of Scripture is carefully put together, certain conclusions concerning the gift of tongues will become apparent. From the very first, this charisma consisted of languages known and spoken by Jews of the dispersion, so many of whom were present in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:8–11). The prominence of the gift in the Corinthian assembly is easily accounted for by the fact that Corinth was at this time a thriving commercial center where there was also an appreciable Jewish element (cf. Acts 18:1–17).[5] Obviously, due to the natural Jewish aptitude in commercial affairs, Corinth would be just such a city as would exhibit a polyglot Jewish community many of whom might be resident only for a time in connection with specific ventures. (What seems to be a predictable Jewish practice of planning a year’s residence in some city to “buy and sell and get gain” is alluded to in James 4:13.) If, then, as is natural to suppose the affairs of commerce in Corinth resulted in Jews of various linguistic backgrounds flowing in and out of the city, no surprise is occasioned by the fact that many languages—unknown to the average Greek Corinthian who might visit the assembly—were supernaturally present there that they might be properly utilized in the gospel witness to the race for whom they were a sign.[6]

Obviously, as in the case of any other spiritual gift, the possessor of the gift of tongues could utilize this gift at will. Accordingly, in addition to its primary function in witness to Jewish visitors or inhabitants at Corinth, the gift might be employed in prayer (1 Cor 14:14–16) or simply in speaking in the assembly (1 Cor 14:2, 27, 39 etc.). But here also lay the danger of its abuse for, outside of its proper Jewish context, the average believer in the assembly might not know “the meaning of the voice” and might be unedified when the gift was used (cf. 1 Cor 14:6–11). Indeed, so used, the gift might be no more than a means of vain display. However, once the apostle has placed the gift in its proper perspective by reminding the Corinthians of its basic purpose (vv. 20–22), he is then prepared to restrict its use in the assembly and to stipulate its nonuse there altogether unless there were an interpreter (1 Cor 14:27–28). A sign-gift for an unbelieving nation had indeed its proper sphere, but the controlling principle within the church was the building up of the saints. To this end, tongues would have to be harnessed and directed if they were to be employed in the church at all. “Let all things be done for edification.” (1 Cor 14:26).

Conclusion

It remains then only to inquire whether, in view of its Biblical purpose, the gift of tongues is still being given to the church today. The question is, is God still giving signs to the Jewish people or has the gift, like that of an apostle, been withdrawn by virtue of having fulfilled its function? That its purpose has ended and it has therefore been withdrawn, is the conclusion which is forthcoming from such a passage as Luke 21:20–24. From this Scripture it is clear that the destruction of Jerusalem (accomplished in A.D. 70) was to signalize the fact that God’s attention was being directed to the Gentiles until their times (Greek, καιροί, “seasons,” or even, “times of opportunity”) should be fulfilled. The age long treading down of the holy city constitutes a visual lesson in history that, so long as it continues, God’s purposes with the Jews as a nation are in abeyance and His purposes with the nations are predominant. That the period between the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus and the prophesied destruction of the city in which He died was so long, is but a tribute to the matchless patience and forbearance of God toward His ancient and erring people. The temporary flourishing of the sign-gift of tongues during this period in accordance with Old Testament prophecy—so to speak, a final gracious effort to rouse the nation to repentance—can only be rightly understood if it is seen as a parting token of [YAHWEH’s]  love for the earthly seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The failure of the modern tongues movement to display any discernible consciousness of the plain Biblical purpose of this gift stands as a powerful argument against the movement’s genuineness and validity.


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[1] By Zane C. Hodges

[2] An examination of the context in which Isaiah 28:11 occurs will strongly suggest that the Holy Spirit is looking forward to Messianic times. This becomes especially plain in Isaiah 28:6 which is a famous Messianic prophecy.

[3] Direct opposition could be achieved by τοι̂ς πιστεύουσιν and τοι̂ς ἀπιστου̂σιν, or possibly more likely, τοι̂ς πιστοις and τοι̂ς ἀπίστοις. The adjective ἀπίστος occurs again in verses 23 and 24 as a description of basic character.

[4] If the expression “tongues of men and of angles” (1 Cor 13:1) be appealed to, it is sufficient to note that the first three verses of the chapter have a pronounced hyperbolic character. While angels no doubt have languages of their own, the apostle no more implies that he expects the readers to use them than that he expects them to give their bodies to be burned (v. 3 ).

[5] Cf. also article on “Corinth,” New Bible Dictionary, p. 252.

[6] That the gift of tongues was capable of having limited evangelistic results is sufficiently proved by the three thousand converts on the Day of Pentecost, while the mass of the city fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy and remained in unbelief.

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