Speaking in Tongues Debate - 08 - The Teaching of Epistles

Chapter 8 


    When John wrote his epistle he included this phrase which was so self-evident that, to me, it seemed superfluous, "....... and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world" (I John 2:2). Of course! But it was not all that evident to the Jews. John, the apostle to the circumcision, (that is to say to the Jews), had to remind them constantly that God's forgiveness, purchased by Christ's death on the cross, was not just for them but also for all the tongues of the entire world. In his writings all the way through to Revelation, written 60 years after Pentecost, John insisted again and again on this point. Many times he spoke of a New Song in contrast with the Song of Moses. And what is the main theme of the Song of Moses? The relationship between the LORD (Jehovah) and His chosen redeemed people. He scarcely leaves this ground. It is the Old Covenant. And what are the words of the New Song of the New Covenant? "Thou wast slain and didst purchase for God with Thy blood men from every tribe and tongue and nation" (Rev 5:9). The Song of Israel did not go that far. This worldwide concept eluded Israel. To understand it, they needed an interior enlightening of the Holy Spirit and an exterior sign: speaking in tongues.

A Mystery

    I went back to listen to Paul, the teacher of the Church. He explained in his letter to the Ephesians that Gentiles and Jews form one body and together share the same promise (Eph 3:6). For us in the twentieth century there is nothing mysterious in this, but sharing the same promises with the Gentiles was an entirely new and unexpected truth for the Jews. They could not fully understand it without the help of this sign, speaking in tongues, for the Jews seek miraculous signs (I Cor 1:22). The Jews, like Jonah, wanted men to be saved, but not all men and especially not the Gentiles; whereas, God wants all men to be saved (I Tim 2:4). Paul repeated this truth in different words in his letter to Titus, reminding him that God's grace is the source of salvation for all men (Titus 2:11). It wasn't at all evident for the new Jonahs of the New Testament so Paul had to repeat it over and over again to convince them. Between them and the Gentiles they had built a kind of Berlin wall. Paul demolished this shameful wall full of theological watchtowers: first of all by speaking by the Holy Spirit the tongues of those who were on the other side of that wall, and then by teaching them that Christ is peace for those on both sides of the wall. He told them that Christ made of the two one and that He destroyed the wall of separation and hostility. His purpose was to create in Himself one new man out of the two, making peace and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross by which He put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to those who were far away (the Gentiles), and peace to those who are near (the Jews), for through Him both of them have access to the Father by one Spirit (Eph 2:11-17). Hallelujah! With ecstasy Paul exclaims, "To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ" (Eph 3:8).

    Alas, not everyone shared the conviction of this man Paul who had been baptized by the Spirit to form one body with all men, Jews and Greeks (I Cor 12:13). Their unrelenting opposition exposed them to the terrible baptism of fire. Paul wrote of them, "Hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved; with the result that they always fill up the measure of their sins. But wrath has come upon them to the utmost." (I Thess 2:16). Yes, these foreign tongues, proclaimers of so great a Gospel, sign of a new and worldwide convenant, would become a fire for them, a fire of judgment. The wrath of God would set them aflame like the chaff that is thrown to the fire (Matt 3:12).

The Purpose

    To conclude this chapter, the purpose of speaking in tongues was very simply explained in a passage that I must have read fifty times more-the account of the day of Pentecost! It was all there. To the great question of these astonished people who wondered what in the world speaking in tongues meant, Peter answered simply with the Scriptures. He quoted the prophet Joel, "I will pour forth my Spirit upon all mankind" (verse 17), and "every one... who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved" (verse 21). Every one... all people... that is the answer! The purpose? To tell these stubborn Jews who come from all over the world that the Gospel was also for all people from all over the world. Thus Paul concluded, "So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe, but to unbelievers" (I Cor 14:22). Led by the Holy Spirit, Paul gave, with irrefutable exactitude, the identity of these unbelievers, specifically naming the Jews, "By men of strange tongues and by the lips of strangers I will speak to this people..." (I Cor 14:21). In all the New Testament we find the gift of tongues used only in the presence of Jews to whom it was destined. Even when Gentiles spoke in tongues, the sign was for this people. It was for Jews and Jews alone, without exception. At this point I imagine that someone is asking, "But if the sign was for the Jews, why did Cornelius and those of his household speak in tongues?" The answer lies in the following passage. It was so that Peter could go back and tell his Jewish brethren who did not yet accept the Gentiles' right to salvation that "the Holy Spirit fell on them just as He did upon us at the beginning" (Acts 11: 15). When they heard this, they quieted down, and glorified God" (Acts 11: 18). This last sentence shows to what extent preaching grace to the nations had stirred up the unbelieving Jews. But speaking in tongues was for "this people" the irrefutable sign that their God accepted foreign peoples as well as the pure children of Israel. By this exclamation we see that they were forced to admit, first with amazement and then with wonder, "Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life" (Acts 11:18). Cornelius was the sign bearer, but the sign was for "this people".

    It seems there is a famous man in the Far West, a cowboy (a sort of western version of Robin Hood) played by Steve MacQueen. This Jos Rendal, up until then a suspect, was suddenly named sheriff in an emergency situation. But how could the county's citizens and especially the bandits, be brought to believe that his authority was not invalid, but, on the contrary, quite legal? The famous star, sign of his new calling and his good faith, was pinned on his chest.

    In the same way Cornelius, with an unquestionable sign divinely "pinned" to his language (Acts 10:46), proved to unbelieving Israel that, Gentile though he was, he too had received the call to the heavenly vocation. He became a child of God just as did the converted Jews, as it is written, "He came to His own (things, possession, dominion), and those who were His own (the Jews) did not receive Him. But as many as received Him (such as Cornelius did), to them He gave the right to become the children of God" (John 1:11,12a).

    The episode at Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7), where twelve disciples suddenly spoke in tongues, is not an exception. These were not disciples of Christ, but Jews, disciples of John the Baptist who were baptized with his baptism which was for Jewish people.

    So, believing in Christ, rebaptized in water in the name of Jesus, and baptized by the Spirit, they became one body (I Cor 12:13) with the converted Gentiles to such an extent that the tongues of these Gentiles miraculously took over their own tongues to praise the God of Israel Who became, in their eyes, the God of the nations. They needed the sign of speaking in tongues to teach them the worldwide dimension that their Jehovah was now giving to His divine salvation.