Lesson 1: The Principle and Purpose of Tongues
There is nothing wrong with being a child but there are certain characteristics and tendencies of children that should not be permanent. People who don’t grow beyond childhood are considered dwarfed or stunted. They are pitied not respected.
The Bible encourages us to be childlike in expressing faith or in the knowledge of evil or in malice but we are to grow and mature in every other spiritual way.
Paul actually associated immaturity with carnality. To the Corinthians he said, “I could not speak to you as spiritual, but as carnal, even as babes in Christ.” (I Cor. 3:1). Youth is a place to start not to stay.
One childhood tendency which should never characterize Christians is the tendency to mimic the people we admire. In the case of children that would be parents. All children have the natural desire to be “like” their parents and imitating them is not only cute it helps encourage their growth.
But it’s just the opposite for adults. When adults imitate one another it stunts their growth, suppresses their individuality. Sad.
Young Christians are referred to as “babes in Christ” and have the same tendencies as human children. And, like human children, they want to identify with those they look up to. In the early stages they do this by imitating those they admire.
This, of course, is not acceptable in the long run. We are to understand what we are doing and why we are doing it. “Understanding” is one area in which we are definitely told to be adult-like.
We can’t know everything but we should know everything we can.
This is exactly the argument Paul used In 1 Corinthians 14 in reference to tongues. Instead of experiencing or trying to imitate tongues, Paul suggested we should understand this phenomenon and he made this point very clearly:
“brethren, be not children in understanding…in understanding be men – adults” (v. 20).
He was attempting to clarify the confusion and correct an error not endorse a practice.
Also note: This is a repeat of the same point he made in the previous chapter.
Paul’s objective in this passage was to help the Corinthian believers understand what the Bible says about tongues not mimic the experience.
So, the question is, what did he say about it? A lot of confusion prevails on this subject. Can the air be cleared? Is there a conclusive definitive statement, a bottom line principle, which can be used as a guide for interpretation?
The answer to that question is yes!
The Prophecy And The Principle
Paul used a prophecy from the Old Testament to establish a principle in the New. The prophecy and principle are found in 1 Corinthians 14:21-22. If we study these verses carefully we can then see our way clearly through the haze.
In the law it is written, with men of other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people; and yet for all that will they not hear me, saith the Lord. (1 Cor. 14:21)
The above verse quotes the Old Testament passage in which tongues was first mentioned and, according to the context, it was anything but a blessing.
It is from Isaiah 28:10 and the tongues mentioned was nothing more than a foreign language spoken by a foreign army who would be invading Israel and taking them captive.
There are several observations to be made from the context:
- One, the sign related specifically to Israel.
The writer, Isaiah, was an Israelite. The people to whom he wrote were Israelite and what he described is known as a “sign.” A sign was any event, miraculous or otherwise, that verified a message or messenger as genuine and signs were particularly relevant for Israel.
The message in this case was invasion and captivity by a foreign nation. The sign verifying the prophecy was tongues, i.e., being subjugated by a nation who spoke a different language and being forced to speak the captors language.
Hearing and having to learn/speak the language was a daily reminder that Isaiah and his message were from God. Humbling to say the least!
But that was only one sign in a long history of signs to Israel. The concept of signs was seared into the thinking of every Israelite. Paul referred to this in 1 Cor. 1:22, “the Jews require a sign” and the Pharisees smoke screened the message of Jesus by asking for signs (Matt. 12:38). Obviously, signs represent a slippery slope and can be easily misused.
Since Israel were the receivers of God’s revelation every new message and messenger needed verification by signs. Since we now have the entire Bible, signs are no longer an issue.
By the way, there was a negative aspect to signs also. If a prophet’s message contradicted existing revelation he was to be shunned – stoned – even if the message was accompanied by signs.
Dealing with signs was significant for Israel in the past and tongues in particular was an important sign to Israel during the transition to the New Testament order but is no longer necessary today.
- Two, the word “tongues” refers to an actual language not gibberish.
The words “other tongues” in the English version are actually one word in the Greek. The literal translation would be “other tongued.”
The way we would normally say it in English is “foreign language,” i.e., “with men of another (foreign) language will I speak to this people.” The point is, this prophecy involved the use of actual languages.
Could the prophecy refer to an “angelic” language and if so could we expect foreign nations to speak it?
- Three, Isaiah’s prophecy was one of rebuke not blessing.
In context, the Israelite people were being rebuked for their repeated refusal to obey the plain clear statements of Scripture and in this particular case the languages (tongues) were those of their captors, the Assyrians.
Having to tolerate living under a foreign language was humiliating. Hearing the tongues spoken was a rebuke. Learning to speak the language was an act of submission.
The purpose of tongues therefore was not a blessing but a rebuke. It was a slap in the face of the Israelite people, calling them to repentance and belief.
After referring to this Old Testament prophecy, Paul then makes an application of the principle to the New Testament situation (v. 22).
Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not, but prophesying serves not them that believe not, but them which believe.”
This verse states Paul’s conclusion on the issue. This is the all conclusive statement on the matter of tongues. Everything one asserts about tongues must viewed in light of this principle. Applying the principle accurately helps clear the air.
Points to be considered from this verse:
- One, “Tongues” is definitely a sign.
Tongues is not a baptism, a second blessing, or an empowering. It is a sign and signs serve very specific purposes and they are short lived. Once the purpose is served the sign will no longer be necessary.
Keep the following in mind:
Signs are justified only during times of transition and are therefore temporary.
1 Corinthians 13:9 says, “as for tongues they shall cease…”(NRSV).
Signs were used during times of transition (such as OT to NT). They identified who to listen to. Peter referred to Christ as “a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs…” (Acts 2:22).
The Apostles were also attested to by signs as they were God’s instruments for recording the New Testament. Paul told the Corinthian believers, “truly the signs of an Apostle were wrought among you in all patience, in signs and wonders and mighty deeds.” (2 Cor. 12:12)
Periods of transition were the only times when the expectation of signs was justified.
This is a primary reason we understand that signs were more for Jews. All the spiritual transitions of history happened through the Jewish nation. Signs predominated during these times.
Transitions were periods when new revelations were being made. Signs helped them know who was authorized to speak for God and which message was true. When the transition was complete the signs ended.
Signs were also used as a signal or alarm to indicate corrections which needed to be made or attitudes which needed to be changed.
Even when signs were necessary they sometimes were a type of rebuke.
One sign which Jesus said the Scribes and Pharisees would receive was the sign of His resurrection (Matt. 12:38-39). These men did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God. When He rose from the dead they were rebuked by the event not blessed. It was a signal that they were wrong and needed to change their thinking.
Signs can be deceiving.
Moses encountered Egyptian priests who produced counterfeit signs (Ex. 7:10-12) and Jesus said the tribulation would be a time when misleading signs would deceive people (Matt. 24:24).
Signs are never to be sought after.
Jesus used some strong language to rebuke the Pharisees because they sought after signs. In Matthew 12:39 Jesus said, “an evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign.”
Signs will come when they are needed and serve the purpose for which they are intended but will never take the place of established truth. Signs only point to the truth. The truth is our diet not the signs. Once the truth is established the need for signs ceases.
The need for signs is inversely proportional to the amount of established truth (revelation) and the prevalence of transition. Right now we have the entire Bible and an unchanging status quo. No signs are needed.
- Two, an additional point of interest is the fact that signs are for those that are failing to believe not for those that do believe.
As Paul put it, “tongues are a sign not to them that believe but to them that believe not.”
The question we have to ask is, “what are these people not believing.” When we think of an “unbeliever” the first person that comes to mind is someone who doesn’t believe in Christ. But, in the next verse Paul eliminates this possibility. He says:
“If therefore the whole church comes together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that you are mad?” (1 Cor 14:23)
In verse 22 he says tongues are for a sign to unbelievers and in verse 23 he says tongues are ineffective in ministering to unbelievers.
He is obviously talking about two different kinds of unbelievers.
In verse 23 he is talking about the unbeliever who is not a Christian. In verse 22 he is talking about a Christian who is failing to believe, accept and practice the plain clear teaching of Scripture. That is to say that tongues were always used as a mild form of rebuke to people who knew the truth and should be practicing the truth but were failing to do so.
- Do all Christians automatically and immediately obey all the teachings of the Bible?
- Is it possible that a Christian may have a difficult time implementing a truth even when they understand it?
- If a Christian understands a truth but fails to implement it because they find it difficult to accept, could we say that their actions are the actions of an unbeliever?
- Wouldn’t transitions be the most difficult times for God’s people to implement new truth?
The truth is Jesus ministry represented a major transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament.
In the Old Testament they worshiped primarily in one place, the Temple in Jerusalem. In the New Testament bodies of believers (congregations) are to be established all over the world.
In the Old Testament the Jewish nation was God’s instrument to evangelize the world. In the New Testament God is working mostly through Gentiles to evangelize the world.
These facts represent major changes, changes that would be difficult for any rational person to accept without good reason. They needed instruction and personal example both of which were provided in the life and ministry of Jesus. Once Jesus was gone they needed signs to further impress these changes on their thinking.
But, that doesn’t end the study. Not all questions have been answered. The next step is to take this bottom line conclusive statement about tongues (1 Cor. 14:22) and compare it to the situations in which tongues actually occurred. There are four passages in which this happened and we will look at each one and see how the above principle fits in.
As we study the passages we must ask two questions:
1. Who was not believing?
2. What were they not believing?
Definitions to remember:
Revelation – Any truth which God has made known to us which we otherwise would not know.
Inspiration – The process by which revelation was spoken or recorded.
Illumination – Understanding aided by the Holy Spirit as one studies the Bible