PMT 2014-068 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.
Tongues have a peculiar relevance to Jewish unbelief in this regard.
In Acts 2 God attracts the attention of the Jews by tongues-speaking, after which Peter charges them with slaying the Lord of glory (vv. 22-24). The two-edged sword of curse falls upon these men, with the result that many are cut to the heart (Acts 2:37) and repent, thereby leaving apostate Judaism to become Christians (Acts 2:38-41). Peter cites and applies Joel’s prophecy as indicating the coming judgment:
But this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh; Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, Your young men shall see visions, Your old men shall dream dreams. And on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days; And they shall prophesy. I will show wonders in heaven above And signs in the earth beneath: Blood and fire and vapor of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, And the moon into blood, before the coming of the great and awesome day of the LORD.” (Acts 2:16-20)
Then he warns the Jews: “Be saved from this perverse generation” (Acts 2:40b).
Tongues serve as a sign relevant largely (though not exclusively) to Jewish unbelief in the Corinthian church, as well:
First, historical context
The Corinthian church is born in a context both of strong Jewish opposition and impressive Jewish conversions. Acts 18 records that Paul’s eighteen month ministry at Corinth (v. 11) was characterized by heated opposition from Judaism. While teaching at the Corinthian synagogue the Jews’ opposition vigorously oppose the gospel message to the point of blasphemy, causing Paul to call down a curse upon them (v. 6). Resistance is so violent that the Lord appears to Paul in a special vision promising divine protection from harm (vv. 12-13). The Jewish zealots even pummel Sosthenes, a Christian and former leader of the synagogue, before Gallio’s judgment seat (v. 17, cp. 1 Cor. 1:1). Yet despite the opposition, Sosthenes and Crispus, while leaders in the synagogue, believe in the Lord and are converted (vv. 8, 17) along with many others (v. 8).
Second, Jewish setting
The epistle to Corinth itself refers to the Jews and their desire for signs (1 Cor. 1:22). Given the church’s history this reference to the Jewish concern for signs deserves special significance in regard to the tongues issue—which receives such prominence in the epistle (three full chapters, 1 Cor. 12-14).
Third, biblical citation
Paul’s citation of Isaiah 28:11 is lifted out of a passage dealing with covenantal curse upon Israel:
In the law it is written: “With men of other tongues and other lips I will speak to this people; and yet, for all that, they will not hear Me,” says the Lord. Therefore tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers. (1 Cor. 14:21-22a)
The apostle is not loosely employing the verse irrespective of its true, contextual meaning. He applies the verse to the tongues issue fully in keeping with its biblico-theological setting. This is tremendously important for the Corinthian church to comprehend. For in chapter ten Paul deals at length with “our fathers” (v. 1) and their disobedience and judgment in the wilderness— and warns the Corinthians of the same predicament if they are not careful (1 Cor. 10:1-12).
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In conclusion, tongues truly are “for a sign” (1 Cor. 14:22). The sign had a two-fold, yet inter-related, import: apostolic confirmation and Judaic condemnation. Tongues-speaking is a sign-gift for validating the apostles in their bringing new revelation from God. Their revelational message is, in part, that the final corner had been turned in redemptive history. Whereas, in the past God had dealt almost exclusively with the Jew, he is now-turning from Jewish exclusivism to all men (cp. Acts 1:8; 2:17, 21). The final phase of redemptive history has come, the “last days” has been entered (Acts 2:17; Heb. 1:1; 9:26; 1 Cor. 10:11). The Jews, who reject Christ, are about to fall under the curse of the covenant. This breaks forth in full fury in A.D. 70.
The Transience of Tongues
We must approach the question of the transience of tongues — their temporary function and ultimate cessation — biblically and theologically, rather than experientially. In the end we will not resolve the issue of the transience of tongues on the basis of one man’s experience — or of a million men’s experiences (experience does not establish truth, Matt. 7:21-23). We will resolve the question upon a “thus saith the Lord” (John 8:31-32; 17:17; Isa. 8:20). With Paul such issues ultimately boil down to this: “Let God be true, but every man a liar” (Rom. 3:4).
Tongues are designed to be a temporary gift to the apostolic church and has long since faded away from the Church. This can be demonstrated from at least two clear angles: (1) Their functional purpose has been fully realized, and (2) Scripture declares a specific terminus ad quem for their cessation.
Tongues’ Functional Purpose Realized
As noted above, the functional purpose of tongues is twofold: They serve as a sign of validation for the apostolic message and as a sign of covenantal curse upon unbelieving Israel.
Concerning the validation of the apostolic ministry-message, we may draw a helpful illustrative analogy from NASA’s Space Shuttle program. The launch of the Shuttle is an awe-inspiring technological accomplishment. The Shuttle is perched atop a tremendously powerful booster rocket system which lofts it into orbit. Not more than a few minutes after a majestic blast-off, after the system has reached an appropriate altitude and speed, the booster rockets fall free from the Shuttle and plunge into the ocean. Why? Why is so much technology and expense poured into the booster rockets only to have them last but a fraction of the voyage —a little more than one minute? The answer is obvious: The booster system by design is intended only to get the Shuttle into orbit. If they did not fall away, the entire project would be disastrously jeopardized. The boosters are designed as a temporary mechanism for the space venture.
Likewise tongues serve a functional purpose by divine design: In a sense tongues are a part of the “booster stage” of Christianity. Tongues, as a miraculous sign-gift, serve to “blast off” the New Covenant era. But once Christianity is safely on course, tongues (and other miraculous sign gifts) are no longer necessary. This analogy illustrating the temporary function of tongues is appropriate, in light of the following observations:
First, since tongues are a validational sign of the apostles in their revelation-bearing function, once the apostles pass from the historical scene their confirmatory signs would be rendered inoperative. By divine design the apostleship is, in fact, a temporary office:
(1) The prerequisite for apostolic office can no longer be met. In Acts 1:22 as the apostles are choosing a successor to fill Judas’s vacancy, a particular requirement for the office is stated: “one must be a witness of His resurrection.” One who has not seen the Resurrected Lord is excluded from consideration for the apostolate. Interestingly, Paul defends his own apostleship on this very basis in 1 Corinthians 9:1: “Am I not an apostle. . .? Have not I seen Christ the Lord?” The Lord specifically appeared to Paul to ordain him to the apostolate (Acts 9:1-19; cf. Acts 22:13-15; 26:15-20).
(2) Paul informs us that he is the last apostle: “Then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as it were to one untimely born, He appeared to me also” (1 Cor. 15:7-8). No apostles succeed Paul in history.
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(3) The apostolic office is foundational to the New Covenant phase of the Church. Ephesians 2:19-20 says: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow-citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone.” A building’s foundation is laid but once, after which the superstructure may be erected for some time.
Furthermore, as a revelational gift given to confirm the apostolic message, tongues serve to provide supplementary revelation to “fill the gaps” of revelation in the rapidly expanding New Covenant phase of the Church. As the Church expands in geographical outreach she needs a word from God to guide her. The apostles could not be everywhere (1 Cor. 4:17; Rom. 1:11-13; 2 Cor. 8:23), thus revelational gifts (tongues, prophecy, and “knowledge”) bring messages from God to supplement the apostolic teaching. Once the New Testament revelation is finalized, however, such supplementation is no longer needed. The inspired writings of the apostles round out and conclude the canon and can be reproduced and circulated among the churches (cf. e.g., Acts 15:22, 30; 16:4-5; Col. 4:16; Rev. 1:3). Thus, the epistles of the New Testament are often either circular letters to various churches or apostolic responses to specific questions from a church (e.g., Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27; 1 Cor. 7:1; 12:1).
In anticipation of the closing of the New Testament canon Jude exhorts believers “to earnestly contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Likewise, Paul can include the soon-to-be-completed body of New Testament writings with the Old Testament books by reference to the complete collection as “Scripture”: “All Scripture is inspired of God and profitable” (2 Tim. 3:16). He cites Luke alongside of Deuteronomy as authoritative: “For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages’” (1 Tim. 5:18). The continued flow of inspired revelation is not needed after the completion of the New Testament canon. The Bible is a complete, perfectly adequate revelation from God and equips all saints with all they need for every good work (2 Tim. 3:17).
Second, since tongues serve also as a sign of covenant curse upon Israel, once God’s curse upon Israel is poured out, such a sign would no longer be necessary.
In this connection, the New Testament teaches that Christ “came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him” (John 1:11). That is, for the several years of Christ’s ministry, Israel is confronted with the gospel — but refuses it. Consequently, Jesus solemnly warns: “Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and be given to a nation producing the fruit of it” (Matt. 21:43). Just a few days later the Lord weeps over Jerusalem in anticipation of the soon-coming desolation of her temple: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate!” (Matt. 23:37–38).
Israel is filling up the measure of her guilt to completion (Matt. 23:32; 1 Thess. 2:14-16), the ax having already been laid at the root (Matt. 3:10). Soon her desolation will be completed with the devastation of the temple (Matt. 24:2, 34) and Jerusalem itself by invading Roman armies (Luke 21:20, 24). History records the fulfillment of this destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
Thus the Jews stumble over Christ to their own judgment (Rom. 9:31-33). God issues a solemn covenant warning of judgment. For forty years after the ascension of Christ tongues serve as a sign of impending divine wrath. Tongues serve their purpose right up until the end of the temple.