The Gift of Tongues as a Glorious Display of the Gospel (Part 2)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Part Two: Evangelism

This is a Chinese saying that may be familiar to you:

yi shi er niao

It literally translates: "one stone two birds". There is also another Chinese saying that says...

yi jian shuang diao

And this one translates similarly: "one arrow double vultures".

One etymology expert on idioms and phrases, Carol Pozefsky, writes, "My sources find that the term originated in Tudor times when witches were killed two at a time by dropping bags of peach stones on them. Peach stones were believed by some to be the result of a sin of the flesh." Yikes! Not where I wanted to go with this illustration. But I'll keep working with it for just a minute more.

The Free Dictionary on Idioms defines the phrase to mean either, "to solve two problems at one time with a single action," or "to do two things at the same time using the effort needed to do only one." What a beautiful definition of what the gospel does! Let me explain.

The gospel seems to do two things when it comes to a person or a group of people. It either saves them or condemns them. That seems to be the theology Paul lays out in Romans 1. The entrance of the gospel saves those who believe (v. 16), or condemns those who disbelieve (v. 18 ff.).

Take the classic scenario in Acts 17 where Paul is preaching to the Aeropagus on Mars Hill in Athens, Greece. When Paul gets to the punchline or invitation part of his sermon - the gospel of God in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead - some laughed at him, and some joined him and became believers (Acts 17:32-34).

So the gospel has this authenticating, validating effect on a person's heart. In either case it's totally a matter of whether or not the Holy Spirit opens a person's mind (Luke 24:45; Acts 16:14). But that's not theh point here so don't leave off on a rabbit trail (you Calvinists friends!).

Here's the point I do want to try to make here. And it has to do with this condemning effect the gospel has. In Isaiah's day, for example, the people of Israel were incredibly rebellious. And any attempts on the part of Isaiah and the other godly prophets to bring conviction to the false prophecies of peace, safety, and security were met with persecution and murder (cf. 1 Thess. 2:15-16).

In response, God sent them into exile...into Babylon and Assyria...where a different people group spoke a different language in a different culture. Here's what God said to Israel through the prophet Isaiah.

Isaiah 28

11 So now God will have to speak to his people through foreign oppressors who speak a strange language!

12 God has told his people,"Here is a place of rest; let the weary rest here.This is a place of quiet rest." But they would not listen.

13 So the LORD will spell out his message for them again,one line at a time, one line at a time,a little here, and a little there,so that they will stumble and fall. They will be injured, trapped, and captured.

14 Therefore, listen to this message from the LORD, you scoffing rulers in Jerusalem.

15 You boast, "We have struck a bargain to cheat death and have made a deal to dodge the grave. The coming destruction can never touch us, for we have built a strong refuge made of lies and deception."

16 Therefore, this is what the Sovereign LORD says: "Look! I am placing a foundation stone in Jerusalem, a firm and tested stone.It is a precious cornerstone that is safe to build on. Whoever believes need never be shaken. (NLT)

This is, no doubt, simply a repeat of what God had already told Moses to tell Israel way back in Deuteronomy 28:49.

45 "If you refuse to listen to the LORD your God and to obey the commands and decrees he has given you, all these curses will pursue and overtake you until you are destroyed...

49 The LORD will bring a distant nation against you from the end of the earth, and it will swoop down on you like a vulture. It is a nation whose language you do not understand..." (NLT)

About a hundred years later, after Isaiah, Jeremiah shows up on the scene to continue to preach the same message to the rest of the people who were later carted off to Babylon.

O Israel, I will bring a distant nation against you," says the LORD."It is a mighty nation, an ancient nation,a people whose language you do not know, whose speech you cannot understand. (Jeremiah 5:15, NLT)

In essence, living in a foreign land and listening to a foreign language was God's way of validating their discipline and punishment for their rebellion against God. Listening to a person speak ancient Assyrian to them while shopping, having their chariot maintenanced, banking, ordering from a menu at a local restaurant, etc. was itself a sign to those unbelieving Jews of God's commitment to His glory and His promises. Peter capitalizes on Isaiah's words in 1 Peter 2:6-8.

1 Peter 2

6 As the Scriptures say,"I am placing a cornerstone in Jerusalem, chosen for great honor,and anyone who trusts in him will never be disgraced."

7 Yes, you who trust him recognize the honor God has given him. But for those who reject him,"The stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone."

8 And,"He is the stone that makes people stumble, the rock that makes them fall."

Israel, and everybody else who doesn't obey God, is stumbling over the cornerstone of the gospel. And hearing an unknown language was an affirmation of their condition and their fate, if they refused to repent.

Now we have the OT backdrop to understand what Paul is trying to say to the Corinthians when he writes to them about tongues in 1 Corinthians 14.

1 Corinthians 14

20 Dear brothers and sisters, don't be childish in your understanding of these things. Be innocent as babies when it comes to evil, but be mature in understanding matters of this kind.

21 It is written in the Scriptures:"I will speak to my own people through strange
languages and through the lips of foreigners.But even then, they will not listen to me," says the LORD.

22 So you see that speaking in tongues is a sign, not for believers, but for unbelievers. Prophecy, however, is for the benefit of believers, not unbelievers.

Paul seems to be quoting the Isaiah passage cited above to freshly anchor the Corinthians once again on the biblical theology behind the gift of tongues in the first place. This was Paul's attempt, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit of course, to help bring order to the disorderly conduct in the local assembly, evidently caused primarily by an abuse of the gift of tongues.

To be sure, he's not saying, "Hey you idiots! Just stop speaking in tongues altogether in the first place, and everything will level out and become normal for you all." That can't be simply because he said the very opposite.

39 So, my dear brothers and sisters, be eager to
prophesy, and don't forbid speaking in tongues.

40 But be sure that everything is done properly and in order.

Rather, what he seems to be after here with this church is, again, to anchor them in God's original intent for tongues in the first place. And when you start to look at this thing a little closer, all the experience(s) you or I might have had are immediately and justifiably called into question...not to dismiss, but to re-examine.

The gift of tongues is fascinating when seen in this light, as a sign to unbelievers. The whole matter seems to hinge on the presence of God and a person's awareness of that fact. The foreign and strange Assyrian language would immediately bring an unbelieving Jew in the days of the exile in Babylon and Assyria, into the awareness of God and His presence.

Transporting us hundreds of years later, to Pentecost in Acts 2, and you see part of the reason why the Jews would have pierced through to the heart when hearing Peter's message (Acts 2:37). Hearing strange languages would have brought back these texts in Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and would have reminded them that hearing a foreign language was a sign of God's judgment upon them. If that's true, how much more would it be true since they were hearing dozens of foreign languages at one time! Can you see now why they would have been terrified and cut to the core of their being? The speaking in tongues here was a signal of God's judgment, essentially performing a preparatory work on their hearts, warming them up, if you will, for the final blow in Peter's monumental sermon about Jesus. In other words, multiple tongues + the story of Jesus + by the way, you killed Him = Dear God, What Have We Done and What Do We Do Now?!!!

So it also seems that an uninterpreted tongue, according to Paul, would have the same effect upon unbelievers in the Corinthian assembly. According to one commentator, "Paul indicates that tongues-speaking is a sign from God for unbelievers who either notice God's sacred presence at the worship service or turn away from God by hardening their hearts" (Simon Kistemaker, 1 Corinthians, p. 500).

Now for the glorious display of the gospel. (I almost couldn't wait to get to this part! I'm so excited...I feel like a kid on Christmas morning here!) Think about this for a moment: If hearing one foreign language - Assyrian for Israel, and Chaldean for Judah - was a sign of judgment on them for their unbelief, then hearing multiple foreign languages (Acts 2:6, 9-12), was a sign of something far, far greater! And just what was that?

It was a sign of redemption! An Israelite hearing Assyrian in Assyria, or Chaldean in Babylon was another reminder of God's judgment. But a Jew standing there in Acts 2, hearing multiple languages, was experiencing an announcement of God's salvation! Hallelujah! Do you see it there?! How exciting this gift of tongues is for the church! It represented a new day that had dawned. It is an announcement to unbelievers that the day of redemption has come!

The great Chrysostom, early church pastor and preacher, wrote that "Tongues are a sign to astonish them" (Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians, 36.2). Luke writes that these people in Acts 2, "stood there amazed and perplexed. 'What can this mean?' they asked each other. But others in the crowd were mocking, 'They're drunk, that's all!' they said" (2:12-13). And here the gospel of the kingdom, being spoken through tongues, is killing two birds with one stone, as the idiom goes. For one group it was a validating sign of condemnation. For the other it was a validating sign of redemption.

The person and work of Jesus Christ, King of the Jews, King of the Universe, murdered, resurrected, and now ascended was being preached in multiple tongues as a sign to unbelievers saying, "Hey! You can either continue stumbling over this Cornerstone, or you can embrace Him as precious and chosen by God!" The gift of tongues is a clarion call to unbelievers, "You can either repent and be baptized and be forgiven of your sin of rebellion...or you can walk away and confirm the condition of your heart forever."

So the gift of tongues in a local assembly, while a sign for unbelievers, is also a stimulating gift for believers when it happens! Tongues stimulate everyone, saved and unsaved alike, in God's presence. When it happens, there's an intense sense that the presence of God has fallen upon them and the saving work of God in Jesus Christ is ready to be poured out to those who do not yet believe. And how exciting and motivating that would be for believers at the same time!

The one standing there proclaiming God in tongues, and the one standing there interpreting (for Paul says they should always go together) are both there as representations of the outstretched, pierced hands of Jesus Christ calling them to, "Come to me!" (Matt. 11:28-29), just like Isaiah before Him had preached, "You can have rest!" (Isa. 28:12), and just like Peter after Him had preached, "Now turn from your sins and turn to God, so you can be cleansed of your sins. Then wonderful times of refreshment will come from the presence of the Lord, and he will send Jesus your Messiah to you again!" (Acts 3:19-20, NLT).

The gift of tongues is a glorious display of the gospel of Jesus Christ, offering rest to unbelievers wearied with their sinful and disobedient and rebellious lives, calling them to rest in the redemption and rescue from God's judgment found only in Christ. The gift of tongues says to unbelievers present in a Christian assembly,

"Attention unbelievers! God's presence is here right now manifesting among us, and you can either respond by mocking it or believing it! You can either come to Jesus as your rescue from God's judgment, or you can run from Jesus and confirm your judgment! But every syllable and word spoken in this different language is another call to you to come to Him all you who are so weary and heavy-laden! Jesus will give you rest!"
Listen to Calvin's words on the matter, because he absolutely nails it here.

"The advantages derived from tongues were various. They provided against necessity - that diversity of tongues might not prevent the Apostles from disseminating the gospel over the whole world: there was, consequently, no nation with which they could not find fellowship. They served also to move or terrify unbelievers, by the sight of a miracle - for the design of this miracle, equally with others, was to prepare those who were as yet at a distance from Christ for rendering obedience to him. Believers, who had already devoted themselves to his doctrine, did not stand so much in need of such preparation" (Calvin's Commentaries, Volume XX, p. 454)

Oh, that we would embrace this gift as continuing today for the same reason it was given to the early church...the salvation of souls and the rescue of weary sinners! Oh that the church would discontinue their rejection of this amazingly precious and beautiful gift which is the Spirit's tool in preparing the heart of an unbeliever to hear a prophetic word about the gospel, whether by another supernatural display of the gifts, or by a supernatural accompaniment of power with the preaching of the gospel.

Take away the gift of tongues in a local church, and take away a most significant, crucial, biblical, and historically redemptive Spirit-driven announcements of God's presence, and the Spirit-driven preparation of the unbeliever to receive redemption in Jesus. There are other Spirit-driven announcements, to be sure...most of them being signs and wonders. Don't think tongues is the only one. But don't neglect it either as such. Embrace tongues as it is taught here, for these historically redemptive purposes, and see what work of evangelism and missions God might be pleased to do in, among, and through your local church fellowship.

How exciting it is to taste and see the goodness of God in this incredibly display of the supernatural gifting of the Spirit! I want to experience more of God's presence. And with this gift, I can experience that and at the same time experience a mightier movement of God's Spirit in bringing people to faith in Him!

Oh for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer's praise!
The glories of my God and King,
And the triumphs of HIS grace.

My gracious Master and my God,
Assist me to proclaim,
To spread through all the earth abroad
The honors of your name.

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