The Purpose of Tongues
No question is more crucial or determined for a proper understanding for the gift of tongues than the problem of the basic purpose of this gift. It should be clear that the issue of whether miraculous speaking in tongues is a genuine modern-day charisma or not will be decided largely by whether or not its scripturally revealed purpose is likewise a divine purpose for the day in which we live.
The Principle of Temporary Gift
Too often it is incorrectly assumed that the existence of a given spiritual phenomenon in the days of the primitive Church must automatically presuppose that the same phenomenon should be apparent today. But no matter how often this assumption may be made, it is patently false. Strangely enough, its falseness can be demonstrated from the case of the supreme charisma — the spiritual gift par excellence — the gift of an apostle. That to be an apostle was itself a spiritual gift is clearly revealed in such passages as Ephesians 4:7-12 and 1 Corinthians 12:28-31, although through inattention to these Scriptures apostleship is often thought of as though it constituted a category entirely separate from the other spiritual gifts. But the inclusion of apostles along with prophets, teachers, miracles, and tongues in a list of charismata like that of 1 Corinthians 12:28 can leave no ground for question on this point. Accordingly inasmuch as Protestant theology generally has clearly recognized the cessation of the apostolic gift in the first century, at the same time that it rightly denies any form of apostolic succession, all such Protestant theology becomes basically committed to the principle of temporary gift. For clearly the apostleship was itself temporary, and, if the principle be established, it is perfectly legitimate to inquire whether there may not be other first-century gifts which were likewise temporary.
No problem arises in the minds of most Christians as to why apostles should appear only in the beginning stages of Christianity and not in its subsequent years. For however desirable their modern presence might conceivably seem to be, the fact remains that the purpose for which apostles were originally given has been fulfilled. It is evident, for example, from Ephesians 2:20, where that spiritual dwelling which is the Church is said to be constructed on “the foundation of the apostles and prophets,” that the apostolic gift belongs to the initial, foundational aspect of the divine building. To the apostles and prophets was committed the responsibility of laying the all-important groundwork upon which in succeeding ages the superstructure might be reared until the whole sublime and holy temple has been completed. Having laid this groundwork, and the Scriptures being committed to the Church, the apostles passed permanently off the spiritual scene. The building, however, has continued to rise through the centuries and will not be complete until the return of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. But the special gift of an apostle is no longer given for the simple reason that the purpose for it no longer exists.
Quite naturally, therefore, it follows from this fact that the same consideration may well apply to the question of the continuance or cessation of the gift of tongues. If the biblically revealed purpose of this gift be an agelong purpose, it is proper to look for tongues as an agelong spiritual manifestation. If, on the other hand, the biblically revealed purpose of the gift be temporary, we shall have reason for regarding the gift itself as temporary and will be forced to view modern claims to its possession as actually lacking in basic biblical credibility.
The Sign Significance of Tongues
It is just here that a consideration of the passage in 1 Corinthinans 14:20-22, becomes imperative, for it is within this passage that there is to be found the only direct and specific scriptural statement regarding the purpose of the gift of tongues. The occasion for the Pauline statement here, within the larger context of chapters 12 through 14 of the Corinthian Epistle, is the well-known problem of the disorders attending the exercise of spiritual gifts in the assembly at Corinth. Anticipating not a few modern-day advocates of tongues, the Corinthian Christians were guilty of overrating the spiritual significance of this gift as well as of misusing it. Appropriately the Apostle places it last in his own list of charismata (1 Cor. 12:28) and makes plain by a series of questions that by no means was it to be expected that all should speak with tongues any more than that all should be apostles (1 Cor. 12:29-30) — a caveat quite frequently ignored by modern tongues movements. Then, after setting forth the surpassing excellence of love over any and every spiritual gift (1 Cor. 13), he proceeds in chapter 14 to extol the principle of edification ( a thing quite naturally desired for others where love is operating) as the paramount object to be sought in the assembly exercise of gifts. “Let all things be done unto edifying” (14:26) is here the guiding thought. Accordingly, verses 1-19 of chapter 14 are primarily occupied with the unprofitableness of speaking in tongues not known to others in the assembly for the simple reason that edification cannot result from utterances which cannot be understood. The Apostle himself would rather speak five words in the assembly that could minister edification than ten thousand in an unknown tongue (14:19). This prepares us for the special point dealt with beginning at verse 20.
By way of preface to his crucial remarks to follow regarding the true purpose of tongues, the Apostle cautions against any childishness in thinking about these matters. By so much, therefore, the hint is given that to exalt the gift, while overlooking the purpose for which God gave it. is to betray an immaturity which is inappropriate to spiritual adulthood. (The Greek word for “men” in verse 20 is telioi, i.e., “mature.”) The all too conspicuous lack of serious and careful consideration of this pivotal section among present-day advocates of tongues, therefore, hardly speaks well for the maturity of understanding achieved by the modern movements claiming this gift.
Then follows in verse 21 an Old Testament quotation from which the Apostle draws a deliberate conclusion in verse 22. The Greek word “hoste” (v. 22), rendered “wherefore” in the AV, makes plain that the statement to follow is the result of a legitimate deduction from the Scripture just presented. “So that,” says Paul, “the tongues are for a sign…” The phrase “eis semeion” (AV, “for a sign”) involves a frequent Greek idiom expressing purpose and indicates with “hoste”, that the Apostle discovered the true intent of this miraculous phenomenon in the Old Testament passage just quoted. The use of the definite article with the Greek word for “tongues” “hai glossai” does not appear in the AV of this verse but must not be overlooked. Inasmuch as the article gives to the word “glossai” pointed specifically, it further confirms that Paul finds this particular phenomenon to be the thing referred to by the Scripture he has cited. It is not simply “tongues” in general to which Isaiah of old refers, but “the tongues” of which the Apostle has been speaking throughout. (An examination of the context in which Isaiah 28:11 occurs will strongly suggest that the Holy Spirit is looking forward to Messianic times. This becomes especially plain in Isaiah 28:6 which is a famous Messianic prophecy)
Taken at face value, therefore, the Old Testament (specially Isaiah 28:11-12) is here alleged by Paul to have prophesied the gift of tongues as a God-given sign to the Jewish nation—for the expression “this people” in its Old Testament setting, refers to no other — and to have foretold as well the unbelieving rejection which in spite of all, would be forthcoming from that same nation. Accordingly, directed as it is to an unbelieving people, the true function of the gift is “for a sign to unbelievers” “eis semeion … tois apistois.” The Greek adjective construction, “tois apostois,” rendered by the AV, “them that believe not,” here is not distinguished by the English version from the preceding participial construction “tois pistevousin,” “them that believe,” but they are not identical. The fact that either two participial constructions, or two adjectival ones, could have been used if precise, exact opposition of the two expressions were intended points to the conclusion that a certain shade of difference existed in the Apostle’s mind. The adjective “apistos” under these circumstances would —in contrast to a participial form—express pure description as over against the action of believing involved in the foregoing participle. Thus “apistos,” as a description, is more static and hence more inherent in tone. Accordingly, even this grammatical nicety seems emphatic with the spirit of the Isaiah prophecy which deplores a condition of unbelief so tragically fixed that not even the sign-gift of tongues can arouse the nation from it. “And yet for all that they will not hear Me, saith the Lord.” Apparently, taking everything into consideration, the whole Pauline thought in verse 22 arises directly and specifically from the Scripture presented in verse 21. It is important and essential to see this.