May 25, 2004


Category: Bible - NT - Acts,Theology - Soteriology :: Permalink

This week, I’ve been working on Acts 2 in preparation for Pentecost (this coming Sunday). In particular, I’ll be focusing on the gift of tongues (2:4ff.), which I take to be ordinary human languages and not some kind of private prayer language or a sort of “non-cognitive vocalization” (to borrow Richard Gaffin‘s term). I’m aware that some commentators distinguish between the tongues on the day of Pentecost and the tongues that Paul is dealing with in 1 Corinthians, but that distinction doesn’t seem plausible to me.

As I thought about Pentecost, I was struck by the importance of understanding the gift of tongues in its historical context. If we posit that the gift of tongues is the ability to scat while praying or prophesying, like a jazz singer improvising, or if we take the gift of tongues to be the gift of a private prayer language, what is the point of the gift? Why was this particular gift given at Pentecost, after Christ ascended into heaven? Why would such a gift have to wait until after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ? How does this gift fit into redemptive history?

One answer might be that this gift is some sort of evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Because the Spirit has come, we can now pray and prophecy in some other language. But why? Why this particular gift? What’s the significance of it? Why couldn’t this gift be given earlier?

Those questions arise if we treat the gift of tongues in isolation from its historical context. The gift of tongues becomes a sort of showy demonstration of the Spirit’s power. The Spirit could just as well have shown His presence by giving people the gift of doing handstands or, for that matter, barking like dogs or laughing uncontrollably. The gift is arbitrary, with no roots in the rest of Scripture, and if it’s arbitrary then any number of weird things someone has dreamed up can be claimed as a similar “gift of the Spirit.”

But if we locate the gift of tongues in its historical context, as men such as Sinclair Ferguson, Palmer Robertson, and James Jordan have done, we end up with a richer understanding of the gift of tongues. In fact, only in this historical context does the gift make sense.

The gift of tongues wasn’t an arbitrary example of the Spirit’s power. Rather, it was given at Pentecost precisely because it had a role to play at that point in redemptive history.

And what was that role? It was a role rooted in the Old Covenant revelation. The background to the gift of tongues includes what happened at the Tower of Babel. As the Tower of Babel resulted in division, Pentecost results in unity as the gospel now goes out in many tongues to gather people into the church. The divisions of the Old Covenant and of the Old Creation are now being broken down by the Spirit of the resurrected Christ, including, in particular, the division between Jew and Gentile, represented by the language of Israel and the many tongues of the nations.

But, as with the Tower of Babel, speaking with other tongues also implies judgment. At Babel, God confused the “lip” of the people (Gen. 11:9) so that they were not able to understand each other’s speech (11:7). But at Pentecost, too, the disciples begin speaking in different languages. The effect is not that the listeners couldn’t understand — they did, in fact, understand — but I wonder if there isn’t something symbolic going on here. Is this gift of tongues implying that the temple and perhaps Jerusalem is (in danger of becoming) a new Tower of Babel, from which the unbelieving Jews will be scattered?

Even if that’s not the case, Paul links the gift of tongues to judgment coming on unbelieving Israel in 1 Corinthians 14:21, when he quotes from Isaiah 28:11, 12:

With men of other tongues and other lips I will speak to this people; and yet, for all that, they will not hear me.

That passage in Isaiah draws on God’s threat to bring against Israel “a nation whose language you will not understand” (Deut. 28:49). Israel wouldn’t listen to God when He spoke to them in their own language, and so He threatened to speak to them in the language of foreign invaders. That speech is a speech of judgment, but it is also a summons to repentance.

And so it is, Paul says, with the gift of tongues in the church: It is a sign to unbelievers (1 Cor. 14:22) and, given the context, a sign to unbelieving Jews in particular. It is a sign that the kingdom has been taken from Israel and has been given to another nation, a nation that will bear fruit to God, as Jesus had said (Matt. 21:43).

As a sign of the worldwide expansion of the kingdom of God as a result of Christ’s death and resurrection and ascension and as a sign of God’s judgment on unbelieving Israel, the gift of tongues fits with the situation begun by Pentecost. It wasn’t simply a private prayer language and it certainly isn’t non-cognitive vocalizing: it involved genuine human languages, the languages of the nations, because it was a sign of the gospel going to the nations and of judgment coming on Israel.

As such, this gift was also intended to be temporary. Though God may continue to bless some missionaries with unusual language gifts, the gift of tongues itself, as a sign to unbelieving Israel, was intended for the period when the Old Covenant and New Covenant overlapped, the period when God’s judgment had not yet fallen on unbelieving Israel and its temple, the period before AD 70. After that, the gift of tongues no longer had a role to play.

The gift of tongues given at Pentecost thus had everything to do with its particular moment in history. It was not an arbitrary personal experience certain Christians might have, an experience which appears out of the blue after Pentecost and which has very little meaning in itself. It was, rather, rooted in God’s past revelation, a fulfilment of God’s past warnings, a reversal of Babel’s confusion, and a demonstration of the new situation brought about through the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. The gift of tongues has meaning only in its historical framework.

Posted by John Barach @ 7:49 pm | Discuss (0)

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