Speaking in tongues (glossolalia) in narrative-historical perspective

Read time: 10 minutes
“No, watch me. Raise both hands but no further than this.”

I made the point in my previous post that Paul’s teaching on marriage in 1 Corinthians is not stand-alone, timeless ethical exposition but a somewhat makeshift set of instructions to help the church navigate a difficult eschatological transition. I mentioned as part of my catalogue of eschatological markers in the letter that speaking in tongues was a “warning to unbelieving Jews that Jerusalem faces catastrophic judgment.” I thought it might be worth saying a bit more about that.

Modern discussion of speaking in tongues or glossolalia has tended to focus on such questions as whether the phenomenon is to be explained psychologically or supernaturally, whether the “tongues” are of earth of or heaven, or whether it must be regarded as definitive for Christian experience.

These are all fair questions in their way, but a careful reading of the passages in Acts and 1 Corinthians where the speaking in tongue is mentioned will make it clear, I think, that they miss the point. Why am I always the bearer of bad news?

We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God

The modern church typically reads Acts 2 from the perspective of the modern church and assumes that the gift of speaking in tongues for the sake of the mission to the nations and the emergence of a multinational church.

In an article in the Biblical Archaeology Review, for example, Ben Witherington notes the multiplication of languages after the Babel episode (Gen. 11:9) and observes that while “Pentecost doesn’t reverse the effect of God’s confusing the languages at Babel, it overcomes the problem for the sake of the salvation of the nations.”

Nothing indicates, however, that Luke understood the event to be a reversal of the multiplication of languages at Babel. It seems more likely that he was drawing on a conventional Jewish listing of localities. The emphasis is not on the diversity of languages but on the people groups and the places from which they have come to attend the festival in Jerusalem. The list represents the scope of the diaspora, not of humanity.

Craig Keener also argues that the phenomenon anticipates the subsequent mission of the church as described in Acts 1:8—from Jerusalem, through Judea and Samaria, to the end of the earth:

Luke’s particular emphasis regarding the Spirit is empowerment for cross-cultural prophetic witness (Acts 1:8), and nothing could better symbolize empowerment to cross such barriers than the ability to speak, by the Spirit’s inspiration, in languages one has not learned.1

But again this is not apparent from the text. In fact, what Luke depicts is precisely the opposite: the convergence on Jerusalem of Jews from Mesopotamia, North Africa, Asia Minor, and Europe to hear Jesus’ disciples telling “in our own tongues the mighty things (megaleia) of God” (Acts 2:11). Neither the event nor the phenomenon is referenced elsewhere in the New Testament in connection with the proclamation of the gospel to the nations. At a later stage, as we will see, speaking in tongues becomes, if anything, an obstacle to the mission of the church in the Gentile world.

We should let Luke interpret the incident for us.

When the crowd asks about the significance of what they have seen and heard, Peter refers them to Joel’s prophecy about the outpouring of the Spirit on “all flesh” (that is, on all Jewish flesh) and not just a select few so that they would all prophesy, see visions, and dream dreams (Acts 2:16-21; Joel 2:28-32). It’s a long-standing biblical hope, going all the way back to Moses: “Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!” (Num. 11:29).

It is precisely because Israel has not listened to the word of the Lord and repented that God will speak to them in a language which they do not understand. Speaking in tongues is a sign of their incomprehension.

What they will prophesy and envision in the Spirit is a “great and manifest” (megalēn kai epiphanē) day of the Lord against his people, when the skies will be darkened, which will result in the destruction of the current “crooked generation” of Jews, and from which Jews will be saved only by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 2:21, 38-40).

In other words, it is now not just Jesus who has been empowered and qualified by the Spirit of God to warn Israel about the coming judgment (cf. Lk. 21:25). A whole community—albeit a symbolic community of 120—within Israel, men and women, young and old, masters and servants, has been empowered and qualified for prophetic witness in these tumultuous “last days” of second temple Judaism.

The “mighty things of God,” therefore, must be, I think, a reference not to great acts of divine deliverance in the past, or even to the resurrection of Jesus. It is a reference to a future great and shocking day when YHWH will judge his people. No wonder the “men of Israel,” gathered from the four corners of the diaspora, were “astounded and perplexed” at what they heard (Acts 2:12).

The gift of speaking in other tongues signifies the extension of Joel’s prophecy beyond geographical Israel to include all Jews who looked to Jerusalem as the centre of their religious life and practice. The city and its spectacular temple would soon be destroyed.

Remarkably, this witness is extended further when Cornelius and his household come to believe that the God of Israel has made Jesus judge and Lord over his people (Acts 10:42). They too receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, “speaking in tongues and magnifying God” (Acts 10:45-46). Even these Gentiles have now been incorporated into the prophetic community of eschatological witness against Israel.

Finally, I take it that the disciples in Ephesus who had known only the baptism of John the Baptist were Jews (there were twelve of them!) who had chosen to identify with a movement of repentance and reform but had not grasped the significance of Jesus and had not become part of the eschatological community of witness and renewal (Acts 19:1-7). So Paul laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came down on them, and they “began speaking in tongues and prophesying” concerning what YHWH was about to do in Jerusalem.

Tongues are a sign for unbelievers

When Paul addresses the matter of speaking in tongues, it is in the context of a quite extensive body of teaching on the gifts of the Spirit given to a predominantly Gentile community (1 Cor. 12-14). A major concern, therefore, is to differentiate between pagan “spiritual” experience and authentic expressions of the Holy Spirit:

…when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor. 12:2–3)

Clearly, management of the gift of speaking in tongues was proving problematic, presumably because the charismatic experience was becoming an end in itself. So Paul puts great emphasis on intelligibility and edification insofar as speaking in tongues happened among believers (1 Cor. 14:6-19).

But he seems to think that the community of believers gathered for worship and edification was not the proper context for speaking in tongues:

Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you. (1 Cor. 14:22–25)

The key to understanding this odd distinction, I think, lies in the quotation from Isaiah which precedes it:

By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” (1 Cor. 14:21)

This reminds us that Paul’s apostolic purpose still has the fate of Israel firmly in view. He is writing to converts from paganism, but what they have been converted to is the task of eschatological witness, and this continues to be a witness to the coming judgment of YHWH against his people.

The passage from Isaiah is a prophecy against Ephraim and Jerusalem (Is. 28:1-13). Ephraim (i.e., Israel) has become drunk; the priests and prophets “stagger with strong drink, they reel in vision, they stumble in giving judgment” (Is. 28:7). In other words, the nation has lost the capacity to hear God clearly. So God will speak to his people “by people of strange lips and with a foreign tongue” (Is. 28:11). The reference is probably to the Assyrians, by whose hand God would punish his people, so that they would be “broken, and snared, and taken” (Is. 28:13).

The Septuagint version of the passage has the phrase “another tongue” (glōssēs heteras), which is echoed in Luke’s statement “they began to speak in other tongues (heterais glōssais)” (Acts 2:4).

Paul, therefore, like Luke, understands speaking in tongues as an intrinsic part of the prophetic witness against Israel. In fact, Richard Pervo suggests that the account in Acts “reads like a narrative presentation of the hypothetical situation set out in 1 Cor 14:23”—outsiders think that the jabbering community is merely drunk and disorderly.2

In any case, it is precisely because Israel has not listened to the word of the Lord and repented that God will speak to them in a language which they do not understand. Speaking in tongues is a sign of their incomprehension. Jesus gave the same explanation for speaking to Israel in parables which they could not understand. His parables might be understood by insiders, but they were a sign to unbelieving Jews, who were increasingly becoming outsiders, that the land would soon be left a desolate waste (Matt. 13:10-15; Mk. 4:10-12; Lk. 8:9-10; cf. Is. 6:8-12).

I would suggest, therefore, that the “unbelievers” in 1 Corinthians 14:22-25 are unbelieving Jews—representatives of “this people,” to which the God of Israel speaks through “tongues,” real or otherwise, which they do not understand.

When the Spirit-filled church prophesies intelligibly about what God is doing, an unbelieving Jew may be convicted, fall on his face, worship God, and testify to the authenticity of the prophetic witness of the church (1 Cor. 14:24-25).

Speaking in tongues, on the other hand, should function as an unintelligible sign to unbelieving Jews that they have become “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” (Rom. 9:22).

A continuous cessationism

Where does this leave us today?

The church remains a community of the Spirit and not of the Law, the theory being that the Law has been written on the hearts of the new covenant people of God (cf. Jer. 31:33).

The prophetic witness against first century Israel, however, has obviously timed out. The phenomenon of glossolalia experienced by the early churches, whether these were tongues of men or of angels, served a particular and paradoxical purpose in that context. Whether or not the content of such speech could be understood, it was a concrete sign to the Jews that they were living on borrowed time, that YHWH’s patience was running out (cf. Rom. 9:22).

We probably see in 1 Corinthians 14, though, evidence that in the Gentile context the phenomenon was beginning to acquire a different function as a form of ecstatic worship, comparable no doubt to certain pagan spiritual practices. Paul, being a Jewish apostle deeply concerned with the fate of his people, was not happy with this development, but for the sake of the eschatological relevance of the gift of tongues he endeavours to manage it rather than ban it.

So are the cessationists right? As far as the New Testament narrative goes, yes, I think they probably are. But the New Testament narrative doesn’t go very far. I don’t see why the revival of speaking in tongues in the modern era, in Pentecostalism and the Charismatic Movement, shouldn’t be understood as God again speaking to a people who have become hard of hearing, who are facing obsolescence, leaving so many of us mystified and perplexed, smugly cynical, stumbling in giving judgment, or dangerously complacent. Who knows?

  • 1Keener, Craig S. Acts: An Exegetical Commentary: Volume 1: Introduction and 1:1-2:47 (2012, Kindle edition).
  • 2Richard I. Pervo, Acts: A Commentary (2009), 64.
Joseph Holbrook | Mon, 07/06/2020 - 19:57 | Permalink

I loved your last paragraph. 

I think this is probably one of your best Andrew.  Then you had to ruin it with the last three sentences.  What’s correct is correct.  Sorry some toes have to get stepped on.  We’ve all had to experience it.  With that said.

So are the cessationists right? As far as the New Testament narrative goes, yes, I think they probably are.

While this may be true, they are only right technically.  They are right, but don’t know why!  The reasoning for their position is wrong because they don’t have a correct narrative-historical perspective.  I had my toes stepped on here.