Instruction about baptisms – What did tongues signify

In our previous study we saw that it was spontaneous prophesying rather than tongues that marked the baptism in the Holy Spirit. The speaking in tongues did however have its own significance, which we consider here.

We start by remembering the events that took place on the Day of Pentecost when the Spirit was poured out on the apostles in Jerusalem:

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs – we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine. ”
14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

`In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
19 I will show wonders in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
21 And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

Peter explains the events of Pentecost with reference to Joel 2:28-32, which speaks of the judgment that would come on Israel, but also proclaims that ‘all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.’

The important consequence of the gift of tongues was that the pilgrims who had come from all over the known world to Jerusalem to commemorate the giving of the Law at Sinai (the event historically linked with Pentecost) – both Jews and God-fearing men from other nations – could now hear ‘the wonders of God’ proclaimed, each in his own language.

Genesis 11 reveals that the diversity of languages and other ethnic distinctions originated at Babel, after all men had united in rebellion against God.

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
5 But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. 6 The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
8 So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel – because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

Through the gospel of Messiah this ‘curse’ was being reversed, and a new unity being established across national and linguistic barriers – a unity this time not in rebellion against God, but of obedience through faith in Messiah. For this unity, Jesus himself had prayed:

My prayer is not for them [the apostles] alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: 23 I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me (John 17:20-23).

The Old Testament prophets has announced this day in advance to Israel, e.g. “Many nations will be joined with the LORD in that day and will become my people. I will live among you and you will know that the LORD Almighty has sent me to you” (Zechariah 12:11).

The remarkable mystery that was unveiled at the time of Messiah was that: “through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 3:6).

Tongues signified, in the reversal of the Babel curse, that the whole world would be united in Messiah in faith and obedience to God. But, it was only a sign! Paul later explained to the Corinthians: ‘Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled …’ (1 Cor. 13:8).

The enduring quality and eternal binding force of the Christian faith would be love.

The end result of Jesus’ work on the Cross, by the gift of the Spirit to the faithful, was revealed to John on Patmos:

After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’
(Revelation 7:9-10)

The same gift of tongues had, however, a further signification. At the same time that salvation would spread to all nations, many of those to whom the word of God had been entrusted had become proud and would neither accept salvation through faith in Messiah, nor be willing that God’s grace and favour should extend in this way to the ends of the earth. The prophet Isaiah warned concerning these people:

Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues
God will speak to this people,
to whom he said,
“This is the resting place, let the weary rest”; and, “This is the place of repose” –
But they would not listen.
So then, the word of the LORD to them will become:
Do and do, do and do,
rule on rule, rule on rule;
a little here, a little there –
so that they will go and fall backward,
be injured and snared and captured.

(Isaiah 28:9-14)

As His punishment toward those who has made His living faith into a religion of rules, God pronounced that His word would hence be spoken to them in foreign tongues, so that they would not be able to escape His judgment.

Paul confirms that tongues were a sign for unbelievers – as an act of punishment towards them:

In the Law it is written: “Through men of strange tongues
and through the lips of foreigners
I will speak to this people,
but even then they will not listen to me,”
says the Lord.
Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers …
(1 Cor. 14:21-22).

Tongues were thus common in the church until the time of the Temple’s destruction, after which the phenomenon of genuine tongues largely fell away.