the sign of tongues

Our Lord’s Signs and Wonders have two effects: 1) When believed they generate faith for salvation. 2) When rejected they signal a judgment that’s already begun. The Apostles’ signs from the Book of Acts would continue to set in motion these same two dynamics, to which book we now turn.

The Meaning of the Sign and Wonder of the Day of Pentecost – Acts chapter two. Simply, the sign and wonder was that the disciples were being filled with the Holy Spirit in fulfillment of Jesus’ promise. The supernatural feature of the sign was speaking in unknown tongues ‘as the Spirit gave utterance’. All who waited for it got it, all 120 in Acts 2. Being filled with the Holy Spirit was so rarely experienced in the Old Testament (e.g. Exodus 35:30) yet the Prophets foretold it. The unique thing was that this outpouring was for ‘all flesh’ and that they ‘would prophesy’ (cf. Joel. 2:28-32 as quoted by Peter in Acts 2:17-21, one of the longest quotations in the NT). And the ‘speaking in tongues’ equaled ‘prophesying’ since God the Holy Ghost was speaking through them to others (cf. I Cor. 14:21). This was a very interesting fulfillment of prophecy indeed. Who could have guessed it? Being filled with the Holy Spirit was exciting and ecstatic beyond what known words can describe. The experience was a divine necessity before anyone would be capable of preaching.

However you understand Pentecost, you must see it as fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to his disciples (e.g. Luke 24:29; John 16:13). What had just been witnessed at this sacred feast, and by so many international visitors to Jerusalem from far off places, was that these simple Galileans came cannon-balling out of the upper room, worshipping God in languages unknowable for them yet publicly recognized by foreigners. And hearing their native mother tongues and sub-dialects from these Galileans, and that they were understood by the visitors, had left them awestruck. Maybe it was like this: ‘Why Ruby, did you hear that? Why we haven’t heard that language sense we were kids with Grandpa in the barn in Italy! Remember? I sure do, Wally.’

Interestingly, Paul comments on this kind of situation in I Corinthians 14:21-22: “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 (cf. Isaiah 28:11). Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not. . . .” So in the company of a foreigner, or maybe someone who simply didn’t believe in the gifts of the Spirit, who happened to hear his own language from someone who did not speak his language yet did so without design or guile by the Spirit, that event became a sign to him that God was ‘speaking’ to him. That‘s what happened at Pentecost.

Tongues are a sign: they point to a reality that is greater than the sign itself, i.e. that God the Holy Ghost is in your midst. The sign for these tongues is not that they are interpreted; rather they were an enthusiastic expression of full praise for “the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:11). The speakers were ‘edified’ (I Corinthians 14:4) while not knowing what they were saying (I Corinthians 14:14), but God knew. Notwithstanding, their tongues just happened to be understood in this case because this was the first outpouring of the Spirit and it showed that their languages were the real deal.

Notice that Paul makes a differentiation of the tongues given in church which were to be interpreted in I Corinthians 14:5 compared with the tongues happening in prayer or in this case, at Pentecost. But, in connection with being filled with the Spirit, none of the tongues at Pentecost needed to be interpreted. Compare it to you: the Spirit is ‘giving you utterance’ and it is indeed God speaking through the unknown tongue coming out of your mouth (Acts 2:4). Imagine flowing in the supernatural like that! And it becomes a prayer language done at your will (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:15). But not only is God speaking through you (I Corinthians 14:21, i.e., prophecy); you are speaking to God in mysteries (I Corinthians 14:2). Got any mysteries you need to talk to God about?

Tongues were evidence of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. They were God’s idea and were about to become the pattern in Acts, repeated four out of five times in the separate outpourings of the Spirit, beginning in #1 Jerusalem (Acts 2), in #2 Samaria and Phillip with Peter and John (Acts 8 – only here tongues are not mentioned as evidence of receiving the Spirit, yet Simon the sorcerer saw something of the Spirit here and offered Peter money for it – was it tongues?), in #3 Damascus with Paul (Acts 9, cf. I Corinthians 14:18), in #4 Caesarea and Cornelius (Acts 10-11), and in #5 Ephesus with twelve guys and Paul (Acts 19). But when this sign first happened in Jerusalem, the prototype of all the other four outpourings of the Spirit, these folks demanded an explanation. They asked, “What meaneth this” (Acts 2: 12). Notice more specifically: their question was, what do tongues mean? The 120 had just given a demonstration, but one gave an interpretation (Peter).

This was the same Peter that answered their question, who, just fifty days prior to this at Jesus’ trial at Passover, had denied that he even knew Jesus. But now look at him: he lifted up his voice, knowing that the very same leading Jews who had crucified Jesus were present. Not caring a fig for what they thought of him, he cranked the volume way up, speaking slowly, deliberately, and with authority (one of the effects of the promised Spirit – “But ye shall receive power after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you” – Acts 1:8), saying: “This is that which was spoken by the Prophet Joel; ‘And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: and on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18).

We can find no evidence in Scripture where God ceased or failed or discontinued to pour out the promise of the Spirit after the close of the New Testament. The ‘failure of prophecies’ or the ‘ceasing of tongues’ are in sync with the vanishing of knowledge and all things partial. ‘Knowledge’ has clearly not disappeared yet but must end together with tongues and prophecy when Jesus returns; all these will become irrelevant because of the fullness of revelation he brings. That tongues, prophecy, and knowledge still exist shows that ‘the Perfect’ has not yet come, which will be nothing less than our Lord’s very presence, ‘not in a glass darkly but face to face’ (cf. I Corinthians 13:8-12). Come Lord Jesus. Maranatha.

Tim Halverson

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