Tongues Were a Sign to Unbelieving Israel
A foundational truth about biblical tongues is that it was chiefly a sign to Israel that God was extending the gospel to all nations. Paul made this clear in his instructions to the church at Corinth:
“Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men. In the law it is written, With men of other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people; and yet for all that will they not hear me, saith the Lord. Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not: but prophesying serveth not for them that believe not, but for them which believe” (1 Cor. 14:20-22).
The Corinthians were abusing the spiritual gifts and were particularly enamored with tongues. As spiritual infants (1 Cor. 3:1), they were “showing off” to one another. Paul tells them to stop being children and to be men, by understanding the true purpose of tongues. It was a fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 28:11-12 that was directed to the Jews.
“For with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to THIS PEOPLE. To whom he said, This is the rest wherewith ye may cause the weary to rest; and this is the refreshing: yet they would not hear” (Isa. 28:11-12).
The miraculous tongues or languages was a sign to the unbelieving Jews that God was speaking to all nations and calling all men into one new spiritual body composed of both Jews and Gentiles. “This people” refers to the Jewish nation to whom the prophet Isaiah was speaking.
Each time we see the gift of tongues exercised in the book of Acts Jews were present (Acts 2:6-11; 10:46; 19:6). On the day of Pentecost and in Acts 19 it was the Jews themselves that spoke in tongues.
Fernand Legrand, a former Pentecostal, makes the following important observation:
“It is worth noting that wherever the sign appears, it is always in the presence of JEWS, and where we do not find Jews, as in Athens or in Malta, neither do we find the sign. ... It is in the very nature of the sign that we find the nature of their unbelief. ... The sign denounced or corrected their lack of faith concerning the salvation of those who spoke languages that were foreign to their own, that is, the Gentiles. .... But this was precisely what the Jews did not want to believe. In fact, they were ‘contrary to all men: forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved’ (1 Thess. 2:15-16). ... The idea of now being made one with foreigners was more than the first-century Jews could stand. The thought alone was enough to fire up their Hebrew atavism. Yet that was the first thing they had to understand and finally admit. So God gave them the best sign possible to make them understand what they could not or would not believe; HE MIRACULOUSLY MADE JEWS SPEAK IN THE LANGUAGES OF FOREIGNERS. IN SO DOING, GOD PUT JEWISH PRAISE INTO THESE PAGAN TONGUES. ...
“A simple but attentive reading of the Bible reveals the scenario of fierce Jewish opposition towards everything that was not specifically Jewish. We see Jonah who hates the men of Nineveh to the point of disobeying God. ... In his frustration he goes as far as asking for his own death. If Nineveh lives, may Jonah die! ... This spirit of opposition and unbelief will only be reinforced over the centuries. The Jews belong to Yahveh and Yahveh to them, in a closed circle of bigotry; everyone else is cursed. ...
“Daring to suggest that people with a tongue different from their own could benefit from the goodness of God, was to risk one’s life. They led Jesus to the top of a hill to throw Him off because He had just said: ‘many widows were in Israel in the days of Elias, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when great famine was throughout all the land; but unto none of them was Elias sent, save unto Sarepta, a city of Sidon, unto a woman that was a widow.’ Jesus added to their immense rage: ‘And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Eliseus the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, saving Naaman the Syrian’ (Luke 4:25-27). This was, in their eyes, more than enough to deserve death. ...
“What a narrative in Acts 22! The prisoner Paul stands on the steps of the fortress. He motions to the crowd with one hand and asks to speak. As he begins in Hebrew, silence falls upon the crowd. ... But at the very instant that he starts, ‘And he said unto me, Depart: for I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles,’ the sentence freezes in mid-air. They listened as far as that word Gentiles (or nations); and threw dust into the air, shouting, ‘Away with such a fellow from the earth: for it is not fit that he should live.’ What made them explode like that? Simply the idea that God could also be the God of every man and every tongue. It is now easier to understand why speaking in tongues is the sign of this great truth and that for ‘this people’ it was the means of access to it. ...
“They alone had to be convinced to abandon this particular unbelief and to consider no longer impure the people and the languages that God considered pure, languages pure enough to be spoken by His Holy Spirit. ... This sign in foreign languages, like the triple vision of Peter, taught them that salvation was for ‘whosoever,’ for ‘all flesh,’ for ‘every tongue.’ ...
“But WHO in today’s Church composed of peoples, tribes, nations and languages, WHO still needs to be convinced by a repeated sign that the Spirit of God is poured out on all peoples, nations, tribes and languages?” (Legrand, All about Speaking in Tongues, pp. 24-27, 33).
It is impossible to have a correct doctrine of tongues without understanding that it was a sign to the nation Israel of the new thing that God was doing, which was extending the gospel to all men and bringing both Jews and Gentiles into one new spiritual body.
The need for such a sign ceased entirely in the first century. By 70 A.D. Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Roman armies led by Titus and the Jews had been scattered to the nations. By then, Gentiles had come to Jesus Christ by the tens of thousands and Gentile churches had been established throughout the Roman Empire. The purpose for the gift of tongues as a sign to the nation Israel had ended. Israel had rejected the sign and she had been judged just as the prophet foretold.
“For with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people. To whom he said, This is the rest wherewith ye may cause the weary to rest; and this is the refreshing: YET THEY WOULD NOT HEAR. But the word of the LORD was unto them precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little; THAT THEY MIGHT GO, AND FALL BACKWARD, AND BE BROKEN, AND SNARED, AND TAKEN” (Isaiah 28:11-13).
Isaiah not only prophesied that God would give the sign of tongues to Israel but he also prophesied that Israel would reject it and be judged, which is exactly what happened.
In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul taught the church at Corinth that the gift of tongues would cease:
“Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away” (1 Cor. 13:8-10).
This passage is talking about the revelatory gifts of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge. It is not knowledge itself that will cease; it is the gift of knowledge. It is not tongues that will cease; it is the gift of tongues.
When will these gifts cease? The passage indicates that they will cease in two stages. The gift of tongues is treated separately from the gifts of prophecy and knowledge. The gift of tongues is mentioned in verse 8 and then is not mentioned again, whereas the gifts of prophecy and knowledge are mentioned again in verses 9-10. I believe that this teaches that the gift of tongues would cease of its own accord prior to the cessation of the other two gifts. We can see this in the book of Acts. The final time that we see tongues speaking is in Acts 19. By that point in church history there was no question that God was calling the Gentiles by the gospel. That matter had been made crystal clear.
Once a sign has been fulfilled it is foolish to continue with it. If I were to tell someone who is meeting me at the airport that he will know me because I will be wearing a red hat, the red hat is the sign. Once we meet and he recognizes me by the sign of the hat the need for the sign has ceased. If I were to continue to wear a red hat for the rest of my life, that would be foolish.
Thus the gift of tongues ceased even before the events recorded in the book of Acts concluded, but the gifts of prophecy and knowledge continued to operate until “that which is perfect is come,” which was the completed canon of Scripture. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says the Scripture is able to make the man of God “perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” The gifts of prophecy and knowledge were used by the prophets and apostles for the completion of Scripture and then they vanished away. The final book of Scripture to be written was Revelation. John wrote it in his extreme old age in about A.D. 96 on the Isle of Patmos, and it concluded with a solemn divine warning not to add to or to take away from “the words of the prophecy of this book” (Rev. 22:18-19). This applies not only to the book of Revelation itself but also to the entire Book of which Revelation forms the final chapter.
This clear biblical doctrine about tongues single-handedly refutes all modern tongues speaking. When Charles Parham’s Bible School students began speaking in “tongues” in 1901 or when “tongues” broke out on Azusa Street in 1906, what Jews were present? Had Jews been present, in what way could the tongues speaking have been a sign that God was extending the gospel to all nations and creating a new body through the Gospel? That sign had already been given 1,900 years earlier. In what way was that sign not entirely fulfilled in the first century? These are the hard questions that every Pentecostal and Charismatic must answer. If someone would rejoin that the Jews still need the sign of tongues, we would ask, “Why, then, has the Pentecostal-Charismatic movements almost entirely ignored this aspect of tongues?” Parham in Topeka and Seymour in Los Angeles did not seek for tongues as a sign to Israel but as a sign of the “baptism of the Holy Spirit.” The same is true for the Assemblies of God and the Church of God of Prophecy and the Foursquare Pentecostal Churches and you name it.
“Someone, after reading my book, said to me, ‘For you it all boils down to being a sign.’ Of course it does! Take a sign-post for instance; you may discourse at length on its height, its shape, the colour, the phosphorescence and size of its letters, but however accurate your remarks may be, it is impossible to get around the fact that its sole and ultimate purpose is to be a sign-post. And so is it with speaking in tongues. However you may look at it, the Holy Spirit said it was a SIGN for incredulous Israel. In this matter as in others, it can be seen that the rules of the game are not being followed” (Fernand Legrand, All about Speaking in Tongues, p. 67).