Speaking in Tongues Debate - 07 - The Purpose of the Sign

Chapter 7 

    I must now go back and take up the question which had puzzled me for so long and to which I had not found an answer. Certainly speaking in tongues was a sign, but for whom? Before I could find out for whom this sign was given, I found out for whom it was not given. As I carefully read the Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians again, I came across the declaration that it was:

A sign, not to those who believe (I Cor 14:22)

    I rubbed my eyes. Had I read this aright? Yes, I had. This sign was not for believers. For many years I had read this passage without really seeing it. Now I wondered how I could have missed it. No one had ever brought this teaching of the Holy Spirit to my attention. The Assemblies thought that it was a sign for believers; that they should seek this sign for themselves, and that above all it was the sign of having received the baptism of the Holy Spirit. At first this new-found passage intrigued me. Then it troubled me. So much so that I went to see several servants of God to ask them what this meant. Their embarrassed silence and muddled answers only showed me that they had never noticed this passage either, and that my questions left them without a reply. I was acutely aware of the risks involved. My confidence was shaken. And the battering ram which had shattered my beautiful building had not come from those who were against speaking in tongues, but from the Apostle Paul whom I so admired. A chain reaction set in. Other Bible verses, one after another, became clear. Naturally, if this sign had been for believers, Paul would have encouraged its use in the assembly of believers, but on the contrary, he discouraged its practice in the church (I Cor 14:19). It was outside the church that he spoke in tongues more than anyone else, but within the church he preferred five intelligible words to ten thousand words in tongues (I Cor 14:19). That is to say, he was two thousand times more against speaking in tongues that he was for it. No one had ever told me these things. At times I was furious with those who had hidden them from me, and angry with myself for straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel (Matt 23:23). Could it be possible that the others were right? "Get thee behind me Satan!" I firmly resolved not to budge an inch. I felt that my opinions were shaken, and I decided to attack the issue head-on. I was finished with second-hand explanations (John 4:42). 1 realized the danger of knowing doctrine only by bits and pieces on hearsay, or by "experiences" which supposedly have something to do with the subject. I discovered once again that I was totally unaware of the truth in the passages written in black and white two thousand years ago.

Then for whom?

    What put me on the right track was not so much the beginning of the phrase, "a sign, not to those who believe...", but the end of it, "but to unbelievers," (I Cor 14:22). 1 was looking for noon at twelve o'clock, but the answer was the preceding verse where Paul asks us to be mature men in our thinking (I Cor 14:20), quoting Isaiah, "By men of strange tongues and by the lips of strangers will I speak to this people." (I Cor 14:21). About which people was he speaking? The Jews. So it was a sign for the Jews, especially for the unbelieving Jews. It was for those Jews who did not want to believe in the salvation of the pagans (people of other languages), and who opposed it with all their might. Paul wrote of them, "hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved" (I Thess 2:16). Everything about this point became clear in an instant. At last I had discovered the purpose of this great sign! The entire Bible glowed with life and truth before my very eyes. The film of the Jews' fierce opposition against those who were not of their own race was projected before me.


    I could see Jonah who detested "the tongues" (the Ninevites) to the point of disobeying God. He fled to Tarshish rather than take the word of salvation to them. He argued with God. He preferred to see that immense metropolis perish rather than saved. For him, the LORD was the God of Israel, and no one else; at any rate not the God of these barbarian heathens! In his spite he went so far as to cry out for his own death. If Nineveh lived, Jonah wanted to die! He reproached God for the very thing that is His glory-that He is the Savior of men from every tribe and nation. This spirit of resistance and unbelief increased throughout the centuries. They belonged to Jehovah and Jehovah belonged to them. It was a closed circle and all outside of it were cursed. Any attempt for a spirit of brotherhood or even tolerance of people of other tongues caused them to bristle with uncontrollable hate. Death to heathen tongues and to those who speak them! Daring to suggest that people with a language other than their own could benefit from the goodness of God was to risk death (Luke 9:49; Acts 22:21,22). They led the Lord Jesus to the brow of a hill to cast Him down because He said, "But I say unto you in truth, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah ... and yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon..." (Luke 4:24-26). And provoking them to greater wrath Jesus added, "And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian" (Luke 4:27). In their eyes that was enough! He deserved to be put to death. Even the Samaritans, although they were closely related to the Jews, did not escape their racist hatred. One day when Jesus was refused entrance to a Samaritan village, His own disciples asked, "Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" (Luke 9:54). Jesus had to reply, "You do not know what kind of spirit you are of" (Luke 9:54 margin). Later, after having received the Holy Spirit, these believing Jews returned to those Samaritans asking not for heaven to baptize them with fire, but that they might receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:15).

Even the Apostles

    This old idea was so engrained in them that the Jewish Christians had a hard time believing other tongues were included. When Peter was sent by the Holy Spirit to the home of Cornelius, and when all who were there were converted, all of the apostles did not see the event in the same light. Peter was reprimanded because he had preached the Good News to the Gentiles. He had to explain what had happened, how he had heard them speak in foreign languages in just the same way as they themselves had in the beginning (Acts 11:15). What a shock! The sign was for them. Here they had thought that their God could only accept Hebrew, and now His Holy Spirit was proclaiming His praises through the pagan tongues and peoples they had detested. With their heads still spinning from this revelation, they said to themselves with astonishment, "Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life!" (Acts 11:18). They could not get over it. The God of Israel was also the God of the Gentiles! They needed this sign in order to begin to admit it. But they were so hardened that they relapsed into their former way of thinking. It was second nature to them. A few years later this unfortunate state of mind showed up in the great Apostle Peter. We find the account in Galatians 2:11-14. It called for the intervention of an exceptional man, a contender for the faith like the Apostle Paul, to size up the situation quickly and stand up to them all (Gal 2:5).

Peter too!

    Paul had to reprimand Peter severely because of his two-faced behavior. He was all the more reproachable because he, more than anyone else, had been made aware of the universality of the Gospel (Gal 2:11-14). If the new Jewish converts were not ready to believe that salvation extended beyond Israel, what could be expected of the fanatic unconverted Jews? The experience at Antioch illustrates this very well. When the Jews saw the crowd of Gentiles listening and receiving the Word of God, they were filled with jealousy and resisted Paul, contradicting and blaspheming him (Acts 13:45). Jonah's attitude had come a long way! When they heard Paul and Barnabas say, "I have placed you as a light for the Gentiles, that you should bring salvation to the end of the earth" (Acts 13:47-50), the Jewish leaders stirred up persecution against them and expelled them from their city. From Antioch Paul and Barnabas went to Iconium, where the opposition was worse. "'Paul and Barnabas, GO HOME!" (Acts 14:5,6).

Moses told them so

    This was the literal fulfillment of the prophecy given 1500 years earlier, "So I will make them jealous with those who are not a people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation" (Deut 32:21; Rom 10:19). This violent aversion to the Gentiles came from a long way back. A chosen people they were, but they misconstrued the God-given meaning of their calling. Their entire history was that of a nation distinct and separated from other peoples, tribes, nations and tongues. But separation from the evil ways, the idolatry and the abominations of these nations did not mean that they should nurse hate, contempt, pride and superiority. They had become more Catholic than the Pope himself, going so far as to reject all that was not of, for, or by themselves, and to imprison their Jehovah instead of revealing Himself to others. So when God revealed Himself to the Gentiles, the prophecy was fulfilled to the letter, annoying the Jews greatly. This jealousy was seen in Thessalonica where the angry Jews took with them evil men to the populace who provoked gatherings and stirred up riots all over the city (Acts 17:5). All of that because non-Jews, people of another tongue, believed in the Jew's own personal God but in a different way. The whole situation went against their grain.

On the Fortress steps

    Things got worse when Paul returned to Jerusalem. What a thrilling account is given in the 22nd chapter of Acts! Paul the prisoner stood on the fortress steps, motioned to the crowd and asked to speak. As he speaks in Hebrew, silence falls upon the crowd. They all hold their breath waiting to hear what he has to say. Paul tells of his encounter with Christ on the Damascus road and of his conversion. The crowd hangs on his words. No one dares interrupt him. Motionlessly they listen to him speak of his past, of his titles, of his activities, of his zeal for the Jewish cause. He speaks to them about Jesus' appearance to him. He speaks to them about baptism, and still there is no reaction-not until he comes to this sentence: "And He said to me: I will send you far away to the Gentiles..." They listened until the word "Gentiles", but when Paul pronounced that word they raised their voices, threw off their cloaks and threw dust in the air saying, "Away with such a fellow from the earth, for he should not be allowed to live!" (Acts 22:22). What caused them to explode like that? The idea that God could be the God of all mankind and of all tongues. That makes it easy to understand why God chose speaking in tongues to be the sign of this great truth, and why the unobtrusive phrase, "for this people" is so essential to understanding the purpose of tongues. Their unwillingness to believe that salvation was also open to the Gentiles drove the Jews to make a binding oath, swearing against themselves, that they would not eat until they had killed the Apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 23:12)-the one who spoke in the Gentiles tongues more than anyone else.

A Replay of Jonah

    Jonah had done the same thing. He had refused to obey the LORD and went out to sit on the east side of the city and pouted, waiting for it to be destroyed. And there, under his vine, Jonah lamented because the punishment did not come. There he was, totally preoccupied with his own gruesome expectations, wishing for the death of a nation that God wanted to save. Jonah, who reproached God for saving Nineveh, was the spiritual father of the apostles-yes, you read it correctly-the unbelieving apostles who reproached Peter because he had announced the Gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 11:1-3). Unbelievable! Spiritually speaking, they were all hard of hearing. Peter was too, even though he had experienced the extraordinary events that took place on the day of Pentecost. In spite of the fact that he had spoken in tongues that day, he needed the vision of the sheet descending from heaven full of all kinds of unclean animals before he was ready to go to people of other tongues. The Lord had to speak to him I three times before Peter could say, "I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right, is welcome to Him" (Acts 10:34).


    Only after Peter received the vision did he pronounce the word everyone in a key phrase-one of the greatest of history. "Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him has received forgiveness of sins" (Acts 10:43). The words every one give me the opportunity to confess a 20-year old error. I had overlooked a very important aspect of John 3:16. This verse, known by millions of Christians the world over, hid a doctrinal truth that I had not suspected. Jesus said to Nicodemus, "For God so loved..." Who? ... the world. A Jew would never have said such a thing. Not Jonah, not Peter, nor anyone else. They all would have said, "For God so loved ISRAEL." Already at this early point in His earthly ministry the Lord announced the extent of His love-the entire world composed of tongues, peoples, tribes and nations. On Jesus' cross the reason for His condemnation was inscribed in three languages (John 19:20-Latin (the legal language), Greek (the commercial language) and Hebrew (the religious language). Without their knowing it, the authors of the title proclaimed the universality of the Gospel from then on. This title carried in it the seed of the Great Commission which rang out a few days later, "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations" (Matt 28:19), of all the tongues. The matter should have been closed. But I am a die-hard and I wanted to finish my investigations. It remained for me to learn...