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Tongues and the Missionary Enterprise

Category Articles
Date January 17, 2003

If such is the case, why would God allow a man like William Carey to spend more than 50 years translating the Scriptures into the language of the peoples of India? Why do missionaries need to spend years studying the language of the peoples to whom they will minister?

by Fred Pugh

Recently I was asked if I thought it possible, even though the spiritual gifts known as sign gifts were no longer functioning as they did during the apostolic age, that the Holy Spirit might possibly give the gift of tongues to a missionary in a land where the gospel had not been heard.

If there was no Scripture translated into that language, might God grant the gift of tongues to a missionary so that the people would be able to hear the gospel? That would seem to be a legitimate question.

Certainly the person asking the question was sincere in his question. He was not calling for recognition of the sign gifts as they have been purported to be seen in the churches of our day that still believe the sign gifts are operative. He was simply asking if we were being a bit too narrow in our view of the cessation of the sign gifts. Could it be that in specific instances, God might yet give the gift of tongues to a missionary for the purpose of the proclamation of the gospel?

One might be tempted to think that this could be a legitimate granting of the gift of tongues. After all, that would be in line with the original gift of tongues as recorded in the book of Acts, chapter 2. The gift of tongues granted to the disciples in Acts 2 was not angelic language as some want to make the. gift of tongues. It was legitimate language of the various nationalities gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost.

The message of the "wonderful works of God" (v.11) was understood clearly by all who heard. Certainly, it could be argued, if God gave the gift of tongues then so that nations that had not heard the gospel previously could hear, why would he not do so now?

But if such is the case, why would God allow a man like William Carey to spend more than 50 years translating the Scriptures into the language of the peoples of India? Why do missionaries need to spend years studying the language of the peoples to whom they will minister?

If this gift of tongues, as recorded in the book of Acts, had continued, would there have been any need of Bible translation at all in the missionary enterprise? Why use translators when speaking, something even those who believe in the continuation of the sign gifts do?

A careful study of the major passages addressing this gift of tongues will not only give us an answer to whether or not the gift of tongues is still be a continuing and valid gift, but will also provide the impetus for continued work in translating the Word of God into the languages of unreached peoples. It will be an impetus to future missionaries to learn well the language of the people to whom they will go with the gospel.

The account of the first occurrence of this gift, found in Acts 2, provides us with several significant facts to consider. When the men gathered accused the disciples of being drunk, Peter contradicted that accusation by saying, "For these are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel." Peter then proceeded to quote from Joel 2:28-32, a passage that speaks of judgment to fall upon the nation of Israel. Many have given a woodenly literal interpretation to the details of this prophecy, contending that it is a prophecy of the second coming of the Lord.

However, two facts from the text argue strongly against that viewpoint. First, the phrase "last days," as the apostles used it, does not refer to the end of the world when Christ returns. The apostles tell us that they were living in the last days. It is not legitimate to only say they believed they were living in the last days. According to the inspired words of Scripture, the days in which the apostles lived were the last days. (See Heb. 1:1; James 5:3; 1 John 2:18; 1 Cor. 10:11)

Second, Peter tells them that what they are seeing and hearing is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel. He says, "This (men speaking in other tongues) is what was spoken by the prophet Joel." The gift of tongues given to these men on the day of Pentecost was a sign to the Jews gathered in Jerusalem that judgment was coming upon them for their rejection of the Lord of Glory, Jesus the Messiah. It was a sign to them that the favor of God would now fall upon the Gentile nations of the world who spoke these languages.

The passage from Joel is prophetic language describing the judgment that will fall upon Jerusalem, language that is common to judgment passages from the Old Testament prophets. That judgment does fall upon the Jews when Jerusalem is destroyed by the Roman armies in A.D. 70, ending once for all time the Old Covenant system of worship.

The statement by Paul in I Cor. 14:21,22 that the gift of tongues was a sign not to those who believe, but to those who do not believe, fits this scenario perfectly. Paul quotes from Isaiah 28 in 1 Cor. 14:21, an Old Testament prophetic text in which Isaiah prophesies of judgment to fall upon Israel for their rejection of Christ, the cornerstone. Then he uses that word that should always he carefully observed in interpretation of Scripture Therefore. "Therefore, tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers." Paul is arguing, in agreement with the other apostles such as Peter, that tongues are a sign of judgment upon unbelieving Israel for their rejection of Messiah.

Tongues were never intended to be a permanent gift. When the Old Covenant system of worship was destroyed in God’s judgment and the New Covenant was permanently established as its replacement the need for tongues was over. Its role as a judgment sign was fulfilled.

It was never God’s intent to use tongues as the primary means of communication in missionary efforts. As one observes the providence of God in bringing the Messiah into the world in the fullness of time, he must be amazed that the way had been paved for the spreading of the gospel. Though nations still maintained their unique individual languages, the Greek language was so widespread throughout the known world of the Roman Empire that the Apostle Paul and the other apostles could go from country to country and know that they would be able to communicate with the people in that country.

As one looks back through the history of the church, it is obvious that the primary means God has used for the spread of the gospel is that men learn the languages of other nations and proclaim the gospel to them in their native tongues. It was the translation of the Bible into the common tongue of the people that has opened the door for the massive spread of the gospel.

The gospel has penetrated the darkness of the nations of the world as men and women have sacrificed time and great effort to learn the language of the nations because they considered the gospel to be so valuable as to merit the time and effort required to learn the languages of the nations of the world.

That gospel is no less valuable today. It is the power of God unto salvation to all who believe, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. Can we do any less than give the same time and effort to learning the languages of the nations so that we might communicate the most important message the world has ever heard, the message that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners?

Fred Pugh is pastor of Grace Covenant Church in Olmstead Township, Ohio.

The Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America Update Vol 19 No 4 2002

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