To whom was the gift of “tongues” a sign? Has (or is) speaking in tongues been an evangelistic tool, such as bridging a language barrier in preaching the gospel?
The answer to your first question is found in 1 Corinthians 14:20–22, but first let’s define speaking in tongues.
Countless people have been confused through the years because somehow an idea has prevailed that speaking in tongues has to do with ecstatic babblings, or gibberish—sounds from the voice box that don’t have a particular purpose or meaning. But the Biblical accounts of speaking in tongues reveal known human languages of the day that the hearers both used and understood. This occurrence is what Acts 2:6–11 records. Unfortunately, people who are misled on this doctrine of tongues fail to realize that the word “tongues” is not mysterious; it is simply an old English word for human languages.
Those who argue in favor of practicing tongues today contend that the Bible refers to “unknown” tongues and “tongues of angels.” This mention is supposed to cover and justify ecstatic speaking in their circles. Let’s look at the apostle Paul’s references to these supposed occurrences.
First, the word “unknown” in reference to tongues appears a number of times in 1 Corinthians 14 in the King James Version. But notice something. Your copy of this version probably places this word in italics each time. Why? Because the translators of the King James Version inserted the word “unknown”; the word was not in the original text of the Greek. The translators tried to clarify the passage, but they actually did the opposite. Perhaps, too, they didn’t realize that speaking in tongues was not an ecstatic experience. Thus the word “unknown” is not a valid argument for gibberish, or what some call “unknown tongues.”
Paul began 1 Corinthians 13 with the words, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels.” Here is another argument used by tongues groups. “See,” they say, “there are two kinds of tongues,” allowing for both known languages and ecstatic languages.
The ecstatic languages are heavlenly or angelic languages. The answer to their argument is simply that Paul presented a hypothetical possibility here. We should see the word “though” as “if.” He wrote, “If I should speak with the tongues of men and of angels.” So he didn’t claim this (his speaking in angelic languages) had happened.
Also, note that these languages are clumped together, showing that the hearers understood both—if there were a distinction. Some scholars have also pointed out that in Bible days, whenever angels spoke to people, they used the people’s languages. Thus we can see that Paul wasn’t referring to gibberish when he referred to angels but rather to the place—earth or Heaven. Wherever they came from, from Heaven or on earth, the languages were human languages that people used and understood.
We note, then, that in the instances of speaking in tongues, individuals received supernatural enabling to proclaim a message in the language of their hearers. Acts 2:7 records that the hearers were “amazed and marveled”—and rightly so. They knew that the men speaking did not know their languages.
Now we turn to 1 Corinthians 14 to learn the purpose of this supernatural enabling. Verse 22 states, “Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not.” Paul had just referred to the Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah (Isa. 28:11, 12). Israel did not heed God’s message told by His prophets, so Isaiah prophesied that another message would come later, a message delivered in a foreign language. This language would symbolize (be a sign) to Israel that God was dealing with her because of her rebellion. Those who would speak this message would represent the fact that God was using them rather than Israel to do His bidding, although He had intended for His chosen people to do His bidding.
This portion from Isaiah pictures Israel as she so often behaved. First, she was often wayward, and God would use other people to carry out His will or proclaim His message. Second, she often needed a “sign,” in contrast to the New Testament believer’s walk by faith. Jewish leaders, for example, came to Jesus and said, “Master, we would see a sign from thee.” Jesus replied, “An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign” (Matt. 12:38, 39). At another time they asked, “What sign shewest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee” (John 6:30)? In 1 Corinthians 14:21 Paul used the phrase “this people.” What we have stated about a sign, plus this phrase, indicates to us that the sign aspect of speaking in tongues was for the Jews.
We have several distinct references to speaking in tongues: Acts 2, Acts 10, and Acts 19. Each event recorded in these passages had a specific reason for this supernatural occurrence. Each confirmed something once and for all. The apostles were not to continue speaking in tongues as a common, normal experience. In Acts 2, the Jews needed to accept Peter’s message on the Day of Pentecost as authentic. In Acts 10, we have an account of Cornelius, the first Gentile convert. Tongues here demonstrated to the Jews that Gentiles were to receive and partake of the gospel. Prior to this occasion, the Jews had simply refused to believe that the Gentiles were going to take part in this glorious reality. In Acts 19, Paul met some Jewish men who had received John’s baptism but who apparently were unaware of Christ’s completed work of salvation or of the reality of the Holy Spirit. Tongues again occurred to show the men the authenticity of the message of salvation through Christ.
The purpose of tongues as a sign is this: it showed to the Jews (whether individuals recognized it or not) that God had temporarily placed aside their race during the present Church dispensation and that any Jew becoming a part of the family of God during this dispensation would do so either directly or indirectly through the ministry of Gentiles. How true. The key word in the study of the purpose of tongues is “authenticate.” God saw to it that His word and His messengers were authenticated.
What about the Corinthian believers who engaged in ecstatic utterances they deemed as tongues? Doesn’t it seem that Paul allowed them to do so as long as they didn’t go beyond certain boundaries? Yes, he told them not to forbid speaking in tongues. But remember two things. First, he wrote these guidelines before the apostles left the scene; he didn’t want to oppose some legitimate working of the Holy Spirit, an incident that would be on the order of what we read in Acts 19. Second, Paul’s regulations eliminated virtually all speaking in tongues. Various people in our day have observed that the regulation against women speaking in tongues, for example, would in itself eliminate a great percentage of the so-called tongues experiences in our present-day churches.
Regarding your second question about tongues as an evangelistic tool, this idea perhaps comes from the thousands of souls who were saved on the Day of Pentecost, when speaking in tongues occurred. But notice that the conversion of these souls came after Peter’s stirring preaching, not right after the manifestation of tongues. Otherwise, why bother with preaching? Pure preaching, I’m convinced, is what brings people to Christ. It is the power of the Word of God. Consider the multitudes of people who have been saved where there was no “speaking in tongues.” Tongues was meant to authenticate a message, not to be an evangelistic tool.
It is interesting that missionaries going to foreign countries to evangelize must learn the language—no one has gone to a foreign country dependent upon speaking in tongues to preach the gospel. In the accounts of Acts 10 and 19, apparently no unbelievers. were around, in contrast to Acts 2. This reality would reinforce the fact that tongues was a sign, not an evangelistic tool.
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