Q125 : How are tongues a sign for the unbeliever?

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Q125 : How are tongues a sign for the unbeliever?

It seems to me that the purpose of tongues was to reach believers that speak other languages. The way I would imagine it to be used is that foreigners come into visit a church, and in order to give a word to those individuals, others might be filled with the Spirit to speak to them? It says that tongues are a sign for unbelievers, so that's the most I can infer from that.

A125 : by Tony Garland

Your conclusion about tongues is a common one—but also misses the mark when one studies Scripture in more detail. This is one reason why we teach that Scripture is its own best interpreter and the importance of having good cross-references and then following them to read what the context shows us about what the author means.

Paul makes the comment, “Therefore, tongues are a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers . . .” (1Cor. 14:22) after alluding to a passage from the Old Testament (OT). It is also important to pay attention to connecting words and phrases, in this case: “Therefore . . .”. In other words, his remark follows from the OT passaged which he just mentioned.

If you have a Bible with good cross-references (or a version of The Treasury of Scripture Knowledgea), then you'll see that the passage he refers to is from Isaiah 28:11-12. So to understand what Paul is saying, one has to go to that passage and understand the context of what is being said there. After reading Isaiah 28:11-12 and related passages (e.g., Gen. 11:7-9; Deu. 28:49-50; Jer. 5:15; Eze. 3:5-6), we will find that the use of tongues in regard to unbelievers concerns God’s judgment. God initially spoke to His people plainly in their own language by the prophets, yet they would not listen. When they failed to respond to His gracious communication, He raised up foreign nations of a strange lip to “speak” to them in judgment. These nations attacked and overthrew those who refused to listen. The nations spoke a language the Jews did not understood, yet Israel would “listen” to them because they ultimately understood that the harsh judgment that befell them at the hand of these nations was ultimately from God (one of His promised curses in response to their disobedience, Deu. 28:49-50).

So tongues, based on this OT context used by Paul, is a sign for the unbeliever because God is speaking by the Holy Spirit in a foreign language the unbeliever does not know and cannot understand. In the following verse in Corinthians, Paul elaborates on this theme:

Therefore, if the whole church comes together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those who are uninformed or unbelievers, will they not say that you are out of your mind [or insane]? (1Cor. 14:23)

Notice that he says that the experience of unbelievers in a church where all are speaking in languages unknown to them will be much like that of the scoffers on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:13). Both the scoffers on the Day of Pentecost and the hypothetical unbelievers visiting the church have this in common: not knowing God and having (up until now) rejected Him, they are not among those who have understanding about what God is doing. In this sense, they are “outside” and Paul’s point is that tongues do not communicate to them. This is one of several reasons Paul gives whey tongues were not to be used in the church gathering unless only a few messages were given and then only if interpreted for the benefit of all (1Cor. 14:27). Paul’s entire thrust in this passage is that what is said in the church meeting should be understood by those normally present and by those who may visit from outside. Tongues, without interpretation, did not accomplish this goal.

If we look at all the situations in the book of Acts where foreign languages are spoken by people who never learned the language they find themselves speaking, we won't find the phenomenon associated with preaching the gospel or explaining the way of salvation, however common such a misconception may be.

  1. On the Day of Pentecost, Jews from Israel—who did not know the languages of the Jews of the diaspora—began speaking “the wonderful works of God” in foreign languages (Acts 2:11). Those who heard them and understood were from the regions where these languages were spoken.

    And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God. (Acts 10:8-11)

    Notice that what was said was about God’s works, and not a clear gospel presentation because the response of those who heard was, "Whatever could this mean?" (Acts 2:12). This was not a gospel presentation. It was only in response to their question that Peter responded by presenting the way of salvation speaking in the local language which all the crowd, made up both of visitors and locals, understood (Acts 2:14-36). It was only after Peter preached that they understood the way of salvation and responded (Acts 2:37-29). The gospel itself was not presented to them in their (many) native languages.

    But don't miss the flip side of what transpired! Because this is key to understanding Paul's comment about tongues being a sign [of judgment] for unbelievers. Notice that there were other Jews who also heard the foreign languages but did not understand them because they were Jews resident in Jerusalem and not from the diaspora. Their response was entirely different: “Others mocking said, ‘They are full of new wine’ ” (Acts 2:13). This is key: the praises and wonderful works of God were not proclaimed in the Hebrew or Aramaic which would have been expected due to God’s previous focus on Israel and the Jews. Instead, He was using Gentile languages. In short: those skeptical Jews who were native to Jerusalem were being judged because God was not speaking in their language. These Jews thought the disciples were drunk with wine, a misunderstanding which Peter had to explain (Acts 2:15). This is very similar to the OT motive of God judging those who He had spoken to plainly: when they refused to listen, He “spoke to them” through foreigners—whose actions they could not deny as being empowered by God.

  2. In Acts 10, Peter is sent to the house of Cornelius (a Gentile) to reveal the way of salvation. Peter speaks to them in a language both he and they already know. But before Peter can finish his presentation, the Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles (Acts 10:44). How did the Jews know this? Because the Jews heard the Gentiles speaking in a foreign language that the Gentiles did not themselves know. The Jews, “heard them speak with tongues and magnify God” (Acts 10:46). The Jews heard the Gentiles magnifying God using a language the Gentiles did not know, but the Jews understood (probably Hebrew). Notice that the gospel was not presented through the use of tongues and, in this case, the tongues served as a sign to the Jews that the Gentiles were on equal footing: Peter hadn't even laid hands on the Gentiles yet, but God had done the work directly. The significance of this was not missed by Peter (Acts 11:15-18)!

  3. In Acts 19, Paul encounters some disciples of John the Baptist. When Paul lays his hands on them, they spoke with tongues and prophesied. Again, notice that speaking in the foreign language had nothing to do with presenting the gospel. It was an indicator that the gift of the Holy Spirit, based on earlier promises (e.g., John 7:38-39; John 14:16-18; Acts 1:5-8) had also been given to these disciples.

We can conclude several things from these key passages on tongues and their use in an evangelistic context:

  • Tongues as a Sign

    Tongues were used as a sign to one party that God was doing a work with the other. In some cases, they merely show God’s direct involvement. In other cases, they serve as judgment on those who cannot understand what was said (God was no longer speaking in their native tongue on that occasion).

    In Acts 2, the tongues indicate God's gift of the Spirit to the disciples (how else were they to know of the arrival of the “promise of the Father,” Acts 1:4?). Although not explicitly mentioned in Acts 8, but strongly implied from Acts 8:14-17, tongues showed the Samaritans—a rival religious group—that “salvation was of the Jews” (John 4:22). Although the Samaritans had previously received the gospel, they did not receive the Spirit until Peter (a Jew) laid hands on them.

    In Acts 10, the Gentiles spoke in tongues before Peter finished preaching the gospel and before he could lay hands on them. This was a sign to the Jews that God had accepted the Gentiles, given them the Spirit, and placed them on equal footing in regard to salvation: there was no dependence upon Peter laying his hands on the Gentiles for them to receive the Spirit. This also served to convince the Jews that Gentiles could be saved (Acts 11:15-18).

    All these uses of tongues parallel the statement Jesus made about how the gospel would go forth in Acts 1:8, “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem (Acts 2), and in Judea and Samaria (Acts 8), and to the end of the earth (Acts 10 and beyond).”

  • Real Human Languages

    In every place in Scripture where we have objective evidence regarding the nature of how tongues were actually used, they are undeniably known human languages, not the “ecstatic speech” claimed by Pentecostals and Charismatics today as “speaking in tongues.”

  • Not Used for Preaching

    There is no record in Scripture of the gospel ever being preached to foreigners in a language unknown by the evangelist. People prophesied or spoke the praises and wonders of God in unlearned foreign languages, but even in the passage which describes perhaps the most significant use of tongues recorded in all of Scripture (Acts 2), Peter gave the gospel message without the use of tongues.

One frequently encounters many misconceptions concerning tongues, but a careful reading of God’s Word—our final authority regarding how to live as believers—will dispel many of them.

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