I sought the Lord for insight concerning the purpose of the miraculous languages that accompanied the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Jerusalem and later in Samaria, Caesarea and Ephesus. I had come to realize that the purpose assigned by my church had absolutely no support in the entire context of Scripture. Research of history and Scripture revealed that our tradition which insisted that there was no valid baptism with the Holy Spirit unless evidenced initially by speaking in tongues was without scriptural support. The Scripture which we Pentecostals quoted as supportive is Acts 2:4: “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” This is historian Luke simply presenting important data. He tells WHAT happened but this historical fact doesn’t give a clue as to WHY it happened. It is sheer presumption to assume, and then declare as immutable fact, that no one is filled with the Holy Spirit unless validated by speaking in tongues. As a biblical scholar, all of this I clearly recognized. But what is the purpose of the accompanying tongues?
As I continued praying and searching Scripture one day it penetrated my mind that the only Scripture the early disciples had was the Old Testament. Since Jesus didn’t teach anything about speaking in tongues the apostles must have wondered what the purpose of this gift of various languages was all about. Paul certainly did and his search through his Bible led him to Isaiah 28:11-12. In explaining the purpose of tongues to the Corinthian church he loosely quotes Isaiah. He introduces his quote with a brief warning to the Corinthians. “Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. In the law it is written: ‘Through men of strange tongues and through 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.”
When I saw this principle that Paul had drawn out of Isaiah I felt like shouting, EUREKA! It was like a lightening bolt flashing across a storm darkened sky. I now had a solid biblical purpose for tongues at Pentecost and subsequently.
Paul’s principle drawn from Isaiah refers not just to tongues at Corinth but to the tongues poured out to each people group that received the Holy Spirit. There is an old proverb that says, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” I decided to test Paul’s principle by applying it to each outpouring of the Spirit.
At Pentecost in Jerusalem, who were the “unbelievers”? Primarily the Jewish pilgrims. What happened when they heard their own languages being spoken by unschooled Galilean peasants? They recognized this was supernatural and began to enquire about the meaning of this miracle. This gave Peter an opening to preach the gospel in which three thousand were converted. Paul’s principle passes the “taste” test. It’s ridiculous to say that the tongues at Pentecost were to prove the disciples had been baptized in the Holy Spirit. There is nothing in the Old Testament that supports this. Remember, the Old Testament is the only Bible available at this time.
Furthermore, John the Baptist, the last Old Testament prophet, had predicted Jesus would baptize “with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” The disciples saw the fire dancing over each head when the Spirit fell on them. This was the evidence that certified Jesus had kept his promise. Neither Jesus nor John had ever said anything about tongues so they had no meaning or purpose as far as the one hundred-twenty were concerned.
What was it the Jewish pilgrims at Pentecost didn’t believe? They didn’t believe that Jesus, the crucified rabbi from Nazareth, was really their Messiah. The fifteen supernaturally spoken languages used across the Roman Empire grabbed their attention and prepared them to listen to the gospel. Now then, Paul’s declaration that tongues are a sign to unbelievers makes all the sense in the world.
Before going on further with our test of the validity of Paul’s principle we need to examine it in the light of the Corinthian setting. Many commentators are thoroughly confused when they read verse 22a because the very next verse states that if there is en masse speaking in tongues by the congregation an unbeliever who happens to be present will say “These people are crazy.” That’s my modern English summary of verse 23. What immediately becomes apparent is that Paul is not applying his principle to en masse tongue speaking by a church congregation. The fact that Paul draws his principle from the Old Testament indicates that it is generic to wherever the Spirit is initially outpoured. It only has incidental application to the Corinthian misuse of tongues. According to Paul’s rebuke in verse 20 the Corinthians have missed the primary purpose of tongues and are using them childishly as spiritual play things. Are there other instances in the New Testament where tongues are spoken en masse in addition to Pentecost and in Corinth? Yes, of course; in Caesarea, Ephesus and perhaps in Samaria when Jesus baptized believers in the Holy Spirit.
Before we examine these cities we should determine the “unbelievers” in each place. Who are they and what did they not believe? Could the “unbelievers” Paul refers to possibly be God’s chosen people in the New Testament era,i.e., followers of Jesus? This would certainly continue to maintain the parallelisms between the Isaiah passage and the Corinthian passage. And even at the unique outpouring on Pentecost, which marked the end of the Old Testament era, all the Spirit filled disciples were “unbelievers” in the sense they did not believe Gentiles could be part of the messianic kingdom without submitting to Jewish rites. Yes, as difficult as it may be to accept, Peter and the other disciples are among these “unbelievers”. They did not believe Gentiles could enter the kingdom of Christ unless they first converted to Judaism and became proselytes. (See Acts 10, 11 and 15.)
We will now continue our investigation of Spirit baptisms and en masse speaking in tongues. The next recorded instance of believers being baptized in the Holy Spirit is found in Acts 8:14-17. Philip the evangelist conducted a highly successful evangelistic campaign in one of the Samaritan cities. Many turned to Christ and were baptized in water. The word got back to Jerusalem and the apostolic leadership sent Peter and John to investigate what was going on in Samaria. They immediately discovered the new Christians had not been baptized in the Holy Spirit. That undoubtedly created a question in the minds of the apostles. Why the delay in pouring out the Spirit upon these Samaritan believers? Were these half-breed neighbors really eligible to be included in the company of Christ’s followers? There was one test that could resoundingly affirm that they were. As Peter and John prayed over them and laid their hands upon them they received the Holy Spirit.
Tradition assumes they spoke in tongues at this time. Certainly something unusual took place otherwise the magician would not have tried to purchase the power to make it happen. If speaking in tongues did accompany their Spirit baptism, as I assume it did, what was the purpose? Exactly what Paul’s principle would lead one to expect. It was a sign to unbelievers. Who were the unbelievers. You would never guess unless the Spirit opened your eyes. They were none other Peter and John and perhaps other Christian Jews who may have been present.
We know John and Peter were racists. Only weeks before John wanted to incinerate a Samaritan village that had been inhospitable to Jesus and his disciples. (Luke 9:54) And we know Peter prided himself on never associating with anyone “unclean”. The Samaritans were of mixed pagan and Jewish blood and were despised by the Jews and vice versa. But the Spirit falling on these outcasts trumped the prejudices of Peter and John. Another unacceptable people group had been added to the broadening circle of Christians.
Acts 10 provides a dramatic account of Jesus invading the Gentile world. Peter was drafted as a reluctant chaplain to share the gospel with Cornelius and the Roman garrison he commanded in Caesarea. Peter reluctantly agreed to obey but for moral support he took several Christian Jews with him. After arriving in Caesarea, Peter and Cornelius exchanged greeting and then Peter began quickly to share the gospel. Faith in Jesus sprang up in the hearts of the throng of listeners and Peter’s sermon was interrupted by Jesus himself. Reading the hearts of the assembled household and soldiers of Cornelius, Jesus wasted no time in affirming that Gentiles were welcome into his kingdom without passing through the gate of Judaism. Peter and his friends listened in utter astonishment as they heard these “unclean” Gentiles “speaking in tongues and praising God” (Acts 10:46). How could this be? it was contrary to every facet of their Jewish tradition. But their tradition was no longer in control. Jesus, the sovereign Baptizer. was in charge and he had ushered these Gentiles into his family of nations and poured out his Spirit upon them.
Peter finally recognized the authority of his Lord by immediately declaring that the Gentile converts should be baptized in water. Without any prior teaching about the Holy Spirit, with no knowledge of spirit inspired languages, without seeking a specified experience, Jesus simply, in divine sovereignty, filled these Gentiles with his Spirit. So what was the purpose of the “tongues”? They were the sign that convinced tradition bound Jews that the Gentiles were welcome into the household of Jesus Christ on an equal footing with Jews and proselytes. They had not believed that possible. But, Paul’s principle again proved true, “Tongues, then, are not a sign for believers but for unbelievers”. Tongues certainly were the sign that convinced unbelieving Peter and his companions they must welcome Gentiles into the family of God on His terms, not theirs. It was a replication of the tongues of Pentecost that shattered their disbelief. It was this miracle of supernaturally spoken languages that was widening the circle of people groups that were to comprise God’s eternal kingdom. First, Jews and proselytes, next Samaritans, then European Gentiles from Rome. Whom is next as the gospel begins to penetrate to the “ends of the earth”. That’s another blog.
I explore in much greater depth the truths touched upon here in my books, PENTECOST REVISITED and PENTECOST REKINDLED. My new novels THE TRUTH SEEKERS and THE TRUTH SEEKERS, Second Edition, both contain powerful evangelical theology wrapped in an unforgettable and intriguing story. Obtainable from Amazon or contact me personally.
I pray all of you will have a blessed Thanksgiving celebration. Until next time May God keep you securely in his love. Chaplain Glenn Brown
Published on on November 19th, 2014