The Miraculous Significance of Tongues
Have you ever watched a movie or read a book that opens with the conclusion and then fills in the blanks with a series of flashbacks? It’s a rather popular technique, and I’ve seen it play out in numerous story-lines. If done right, it can create a very intense and interesting story that keeps you guessing up until the very end because the whole time, although you already know where it’s leading, you don’t really know enough to understand what you had seen. Oh, you might think you had it all figured out, but then a little twist or turn in the story causes you to dismiss your earlier assumptions.
Regarding the gift of tongues, many people imagine they’ve got it figured it out based upon the conclusion of a story that had been developing for hundreds of years. It’s like we read the first couple chapters of the story, put the book down, and then filled the blanks in with our own imaginations. What many have ended up with is one of two common misunderstandings:
1) Tongues establishes a connection between the recipient and God. Basically, a prayer language or a validation of salvation.
2) Tongues allowed the gospel to be preached in other languages. Basically, a tool for evangelism.
ADAM: SO, YOU ARE SAYING THAT PEOPLE ON BOTH SIDES OF THE ARGUMENT MIGHT BE MISSING THE REAL SIGNIFICANCE BEHIND THE GIFT OF TONGUES?
Yes, I believe that many on both sides easily miss the real significance for different reasons, but that much of the misunderstanding on both sides comes from the attempt to retrofit the miracle known as Speaking in Tongues into their view of the Bible. You see, while many view tongues as the validation of their relationship to God, many others view tongues as a nuisance that has to be disproved.
ADAM: WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY RETROFIT?
I’ll briefly explain retrofit. Modifying an older design so that it will work under current specifications. Example: software applications (such as games) that no longer work on newer operating systems without some kind of modified protocols.
ADAM: WHAT ARE YOU SUGGESTING AS AN ALTERNATIVE APPROACH?
I’m not suggesting that no one on either side of the argument understands nothing about the gift of tongues, but to in order to discover and understand what really happened at Pentecost with the pouring out of God’s Spirit, we can’t start with the day of Pentecost, we need to recognize how they understood it. In other words, what did it mean to them? Understanding that will shed much light upon Paul’s statement found in 1 Corinthians 14:22 that tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers.
ADAM: SO, IF TONGUES ARE FOR A SIGN TO UNBELIEVERS, IS THIS WHAT’S BEHIND THE IDEA THAT TONGUES WERE AN EVANGELICAL TOOL THAT ALLOWED THE DISCIPLES TO PREACH TO FOREIGN-SPEAKING PEOPLE?
Now, I don’t want to come across as saying that God couldn’t or didn’t cause tongues to be used as some kind of a universal translator to reach those who could not have understood because of a language barrier, however, such an effect would have been secondary. By digging into the primary, historical significance behind the miraculous event that took place in Jerusalem as recorded in Acts 2, it should shed much insight regarding the different teachings of the gift of tongues.
ADAM: SO, WHAT IS IT THIS PRIMARY SIGNIFICANCE?
To understand the event that took place on the day of Pentecost, you have to understand the mind of the Jew, especially as it relates to the rest of the world. After all, who do we think spoke in tongues on that day? Yeah … Jews. For who do we think the unbelievers were who were most impacted when the gift of tongues made their debut.
Again, 1 Corinthians 14:21-22 cross referenced back to Isaiah 28:11-12
In the Law it is written, “BY MEN OF STRANGE TONGUES AND BY THE LIPS OF STRANGERS I WILL SPEAK TO THIS PEOPLE, AND EVEN SO THEY WILL NOT LISTEN TO ME,” says the Lord. So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophecy is for a sign, not to unbelievers but to those who believe. 1 Corinthians 14:21-22
Indeed, He will speak to this people Through stammering lips and a foreign tongue, He who said to them, “Here is rest, give rest to the weary,” And, “Here is repose,” but they would not listen. Isaiah 28:11-12
ADAM: JIM, ARE YOU SAYING THAT THE UNBELIEVERS IN QUESTION HERE WERE THE JEWS?
Most definitely. However, to understand what that really means in today’s religious world, we would have to replace the unbelieving Jew with the unbelieving church.
ADAM: WHOA, THAT’S A TWIST. COULD YOU DESCRIBE THAT PARALLEL A BIT FOR OUR LISTENERS?
Consider John 1:9-11
There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. John 1:9-11
His own did not receive him. Where is the great apostasy today … in Israel? No, it’s the organization that professes the name of Jesus. Most in the institution wouldn’t recognize him if he walked in the front door — which of course, he actually has … many times. I know those in today’s modern church would bristle at such a claim, but that’s exactly how the Jews were affected by God’s assessment of their position as caretakers of his estate. I’ll explain what I mean by starting off with a parable Jesus spoke to Israel in Matthew 21:33-46
“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who PLANTED A VINEYARD AND PUT A WALL AROUND IT AND DUG A WINE PRESS IN IT, AND BUILT A TOWER, and rented it out to vine-growers and went on a journey. When the harvest time approached, he sent his slaves to the vine-growers to receive his produce. The vine-growers took his slaves and beat one, and killed another, and stoned a third. Again he sent another group of slaves larger than the first; and they did the same thing to them. But afterward he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the vine-growers saw the son, they said among themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.’ They took him, and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. Therefore when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vine-growers?” They said to Him, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and will rent out the vineyard to other vine-growers who will pay him the proceeds at the proper seasons.” Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the Scriptures, ‘THE STONE WHICH THE BUILDERS REJECTED, THIS BECAME THE CHIEF CORNER stone; THIS CAME ABOUT FROM THE LORD, AND IT IS MARVELOUS IN OUR EYES’? Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people, producing the fruit of it. And he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard His parables, they understood that He was speaking about them. When they sought to seize Him, they feared the people, because they considered Him to be a prophet. Matthew 21:33-46
Do you see what Jesus did? He let the religious leaders pronounce their own judgment. “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and will rent out the vineyard to other vine-growers who will pay him the proceeds at the proper seasons.” He asked, and they just walked right into it. They agreed with their own ejection as caretakers of God’s vineyard. They said, Bring somebody else in who will perform what is required!
“When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard His parables, they understood that He was speaking about them.”
No, no real spiritual insight here, they simply couldn’t dismiss the directness of his statements toward them. Can you imagine the tension as they realized what they had agreed to? It must have infuriated them! They would have grabbed him right then and there, but they feared the people’s possible reactions.
ADAM: NOW JIM, YOU STATED THAT WE COULDN’T START WITH THE DAY OF PENTECOST TO UNDERSTAND THE MIRACULOUS SIGNIFICANCE OF TONGUES. HOW FAR BACK DOES THIS TRAIL GO?
Oh it goes way back, like back to the time of Moses. That’s where Moses presented Israel with not only the blessings upon them for obedience, but also curses upon them for disobedience.
Deuteronomy 28:45-57 I’m not going to read them all, but these curses — every one of them — have already come upon Israel. Pay special attention to Deuteronomy 28:49 Notice, that God told Moses that He Himself would bring this foreign nation upon Israel
“The LORD will bring a nation against you from afar, from the end of the earth, as the eagle swoops down, a nation whose language you shall not understand, Deuteronomy 28:49
The identity of any culture is intimately connected to its language — that is, its native tongue. It makes no difference who you are or where you come from, the simple fact of the matter is that anyone who doesn’t speak your language sounds funny. Unless you learn some of their language they sound unintelligible to you. In most of the world’s history, a foreign language was considered barbaric because it was the tongue of those who wanted to hurt you and take what was yours. I learned to judge what is intelligible based upon my own perspective, and whatever tongue you speak, you have believed that your language is the basis of intelligence, your language is the only true language, and everybody else should learn yours. Like I say, the identity of a culture is tied to its native language. If that language is not passed down along with the rest of its heritage, that culture loses a huge part of its identity and will find a new identity in whatever culture dominates it.
Remember that the God Himself chose the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to be the people of His own possession, those who would reveal either the blessings or cursings. Through the recording of their history, all the world can see some of those blessings, but more so, the cursings upon the nation that disregarded the Laws of their God.
ADAM: ABOUT THE CURSINGS?
Anyhow, just as it has been with any other culture, the language of their laws, their precepts, their rituals, their prayers, and so forth became intrinsically intertwined with the authority bestowed upon them by their God. For Israel, Hebrew was the official language of God. You can rest assured that no other language was allowed to contaminate their ceremonies. No priest standing before the altar would ever consider speaking the words of God in any other language but that from which it came to them. Even after they were taken into captivity by those whose language they did not know, they kept their identity, their heritage intact, including their language. Even though they came to learn those foreign languages in order to converse with their captors, their spoke their own language among themselves, at least in regards to their God, and the things pertaining to their God.
Let’s take yet another look at Isaiah 28:11-12, and this time I want you to feel the ultimate insult that the prophet Isaiah foretold, the offense that added together with all the other pronouncements that led to his death. Do you know how Isaiah is said to have died? Tradition holds that he was sawn in half. Now, if it doesn’t make sense yet why Israel would have wanted Isaiah out of the way then you’re not understanding the real meaning nor the impact of the prophecy. Let’s not forget our own recent history, for it wasn’t long ago that any opposition to the war on Iraq was condemned as anti-American, and the hatred expressed against such people was filled with venom. This is exactly how Isaiah was viewed, for he had the audacity to proclaim that their God would speak to them in the language of their enemies. I don’t know if you’re catching it yet, but I want to you to feel Israel’s pain so that you can understand why they would have hated Isaiah and would have wanted him out of the way, for the only reason Israel’s leaders didn’t kill Isaiah off much earlier came from their fear of what God might do to them because of it.
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ADAM: MAKE THE CONNECTION TO WHAT HAPPENED ON THE DAY OF PENTECOST.
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance. Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together, and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language. They were amazed and astonished, saying, “Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? “And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born? “Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs–we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God.” And they all continued in amazement and great perplexity, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others were mocking and saying, “They are full of sweet wine.” But Peter, taking his stand with the eleven, raised his voice and declared to them: “Men of Judea and all you who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you and give heed to my words. “For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only the third hour of the day; but this is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel: Acts 2:1-16
Full of sweet wine, eh? They knew these people weren’t drunk, and that’s why Peter was so easily able to dismiss the charge by pointing out that they hadn’t even had enough time to get drunk yet. This was merely an attempt to cover up what they couldn’t possibly deny. It was just like the bold-faced lie that got passed around after the resurrection, you remember, the one about how the disciples stole the body of Jesus while the soldiers had fallen asleep on duty. Yeah, right. Their scoffing was an act of desperation, and I can only imagine the stress in the realization that the very thing they had dreaded for centuries was taking place right in front of them. You know what I’m talking about, for you’ve been in situations where all you could think was, This can’t be happening, I can’t believe this is happening! Well, it was happening, and they couldn’t do a thing about it. It was totally out of their control. They were being confronted with the very real probability that they had not only failed to recognize but had also killed the one sent by God to rescue them!
ADAM: ASK ME TO DESCRIBE THE MIRACLE THEY HEARD THAT MORNING.
First, consider the nature of the crowd in Jerusalem at this time. Realize that for both Passover and Pentecost — and I’m reading from Wikipedia here — “the entire Jewish populace historically made a pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem.” That sheds a bit of light regarding not only what happened as recorded in Acts, chapter 2, as well as the whole fiasco of the crucifixion and resurrection, doesn’t it?
ADAM: HOW THIS WOULD THIS HAVE CARRIED THE NEWS OF THE GOSPEL TO MANY DISTANT LANDS?
Do you realize that what happened in Acts 2 was not only miraculous in the speaking but also in the hearing? “And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together, and were bewildered because EACH ONE OF THEM WAS HEARING THEM SPEAK IN HIS OWN LANGUAGE.” Because there were Jews from all over the known world gathered in Jerusalem at this feast, each understood at least two languages: the tongue of their heritage, Hebrew, as well as the tongue of the nation their ancestors had been forced to live from what’s known as the Dispersion. This scattering took place hundreds of years before when both Israel and Judah were taken into captivity. Many Jews escaped by leaving their homes and making settlements all across the known world. The very fact that they had been scattered and forced to speak barbaric languages was a constant, nagging reminder that they, as a people, had been reduced in the eyes of the world around them as being cursed by the very God they claimed.
“And they all continued in amazement and great perplexity, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’”
Some have suggested that the “mighty deeds of God” they heard in the tongues of their homeland was the preaching of the good news of Christ. I seriously doubt that. Why? Because they would have rejected it without a second thought! No, no, they were hearing none other than the same ancient, verifiable, recognized accounts of God’s working that had been recorded in their scriptures, the very same they had heard from childhood up. The perplexing part was that they were each hearing these testimonies in the language of the foreign land they called home. I don’t think they had ever heard these stories in anything but the language of God (Hebrew). And here they were, looking at each other, asking one another if they were really hearing what they were hearing. I wonder how long they were checking and double-checking and triple-checking to verify this impossible situation?
Don’t forget that at least on the day of Pentecost what happened was both a miracle of hearing as well as of speaking. No one is recorded as claiming to have heard any disciple speak in a non-understandable language, rather each was saying that they heard all of them speak in the foreign language of the country they came from. In other words, if I knew both English and German, and you knew both English and Spanish, I would be asking you if you could hear them all speaking in German, while you would be saying, no, I hear them all speaking Spanish. It had to be really weird.
ADAM: I’D LIKE TO READ A PARAGRAPH FROM YOUR ARTICLE THAT PRETTY WELL DESCRIBES THE IMPACT UPON THOSE JEWS WHO WERE GATHERED IN JERUSALEM:
Their own ancient history was brought to bear upon this very moment. They were impacted with the realization that they had killed the very one who came to deliver them, as verified by their own law. BUT — and this is a very big but — it was through his death and subsequent resurrection that he would rescue his people. Peter often demanded that this HAD to happen. And all of this was brought to them in the form of a sign that spoke of their unbelief. The sign demanded the end of one thing, and the beginning of another for it dredged up their whole history of slavery under the babbling barbarians as the ongoing proof of God’s curses brought against them. There was absolutely no other choice before them: either recognize the demands presented to them by undeniable signs … or else fall back into insanity.
This whole matter of tongues takes on a whole new meaning when it is recognized as an insult and as a judgment against those who rejected their own deliverer. If it was a blessing, it was mixed with the long-standing undercurrent of the coming dispossession. Don’t get me wrong, it was a good thing — for it announced the removal of the creation that could not produce any fruit to God as well as the coming of the creation that would produce much fruit — but it had little to do with being an enjoyable or intimate connection with God. Considering the prophecy of Joel that Peter quoted with the sun turning to darkness and the moon to blood, the other tongues the disciples spoke in declared some very ominous events yet to come upon Israel.
ADAM: YOU QUOTED THE BIBLICAL ACCOUNT IN MATTHEW WHERE JESUS TOLD THE JEWS THAT THE KINGDOM OF GOD WOULD BE TAKEN AWAY FROM THEM AND GIVEN TO OTHERS WHO WOULD PRODUCE THE FRUIT OF IT. IS THIS ALL RELATED TO THE BREAKING DOWN OF THE WALL BETWEEN JEW AND GENTILE?
It most certainly is. If we were to pay attention as we read through the book of Acts, we might begin to recognize the gradual and heavily resisted change that takes place over the course of 30 years where an all-Jewish church turns into a new thing where there is no Jew nor Gentile, no male nor female, no slave or free, but all one in Christ. Israel as a nation continues to reject the offered rest of God and to show itself in agreement with the Gentile world in its rejection of Christ, the new creation. You see, the “others” to whom the kingdom is given are not a replacement of a similar kind but is instead a “people” comprised of those from any and all divisions of mankind who are brought into a reality where there is no division. It’s a far cry from the supposed church of today, is it not?
ADAM: WHAT ABOUT THE OCCURRENCE RECORDED IN ACTS 10 WHERE PETER VISITED SOME GENTILES AFTER GOD GAVE HIM THE VISION OF THE UNCLEAN ANIMALS HE TOLD HIM TO KILL AND EAT?
That whole scene where Peter ends up going to the house of someone the Jews considered unclean had nothing to do with any reluctance on the part of the Gentiles (who were primed and ready to go), rather it was all about the wall that Jewish believers, specifically Peter, still saw between them. If God hadn’t given Peter the vision, I don’t think he would have gone with the men who came from Cornelius. Even then, Peter was a little huffy when he got there. He walked in basically asked, So, what do you want? I’m telling you, if you can’t hear the attitude, you’re not understanding the situation.
ADAM: SO, DO YOU THINK THEIR SPEAKING IN TONGUES IN THIS SITUATION WAS IMPORTANT IN SOME WAY? IS THERE SOMETHING SPECIFIC YOU SEE IN THIS?
Yes, for this was the very first time tongues played a role with a Gentile crowd. Realize this, these Italians didn’t need a translator to understand Peter’s words. Maybe the Gentiles understood Peter’s language, or maybe they all understood Aramaic, or I’m thinking that maybe Peter even spoke Greek. However it played out, what happened because of their speaking in other tongues was more incredible for Peter (and those with him) than it was for the Italians. Did you realize that Peter didn’t even get done with his message to them, but that it says the Spirit fell upon them while he was still speaking? Now, I’m wondering what language or languages the Italians might have been speaking, since it was recorded that “they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God”. Peter immediately recognized that these “unclean” people had “received the gift of the Holy Spirit just as we did”. What if the Italians who received the Spirit were speaking the wondrous works of God in the language of the Hebrews, since that was the language of those who heard them … in other words, Peter and his entourage?
ADAM: SO YOU SAID THIS HAD MORE TO DO WITH PETER’S RELUCTANCE. HOW SO?
The wall between Jew and Gentile had already been destroyed when Jesus Christ broke it down through the cross, but the perception of that wall hung on for years. I wonder if we realize what a major change this event caused within Peter. Despite the fact that he was the major spokesman in the preaching of the gospel, that is, before Paul was brought in, he still held onto some of the underlying division and arrogance of the self-righteous Jewish mind. He preached a gospel of freedom and yet called “unclean” what God had called clean. And what was it that prompted this insight? First, the vision, and then the witness of Gentiles showing forth the very same sign of the Spirit that he and his fellow disciples had also experienced. In this case, when the Gentiles spoke in other tongues, it was the false perception of Jewish superiority Peter still held onto that was shown for what it was. In other words, the tongues spoken that day were mostly for Peter’s benefit, as well as for the Jews who traveled with him. The testimony he received from witnessing those he had assumed to be somehow unclean produced a huge blast of grace that day. Peter had to once again recognize the unbelief inherent within his own heritage as a Jew. I mean, who were the men who traveled with Peter? Were some of them the same ones who later started demanding that the Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to be saved? Remember that it was this same man, Peter, who Paul later confronted because of the influence from those from Jerusalem. Never forget: Tongues is a sign to unbelievers.
SO, HOW DOES THIS ALL PLAY OUT IN TODAY’S CHURCH?
Before using 1 Corinthians 14 as a pattern to validate speaking in tongues in the church, consider the make-up of their gatherings:
the weak and the poor among them were despised
divisive party mentality
whatever they were observing, it was not the Lord’s Supper
self-edifiers vs. 1 Corinthians 10:23-24; 12:7
The “gift of the Holy Spirit” was not speaking in tongues. The gift was the Holy Spirit.