The vital and dynamic interconnection we believers share with the Father and the Son through the Holy Spirit (since Pentecost) is patterned after that between the Father and the incarnate Son through the Holy Spirit (John 14:11,20). This is by divine design. The works we are empowered to do through this union, from loving our brothers and sisters to effectual prayer—and including “spiritual gifts” are likewise the same works as the Father did through the Son (John 14:12), now distributed through the Body (1 Cor. 12:12-13).
Is there not one exception? The gift of tongues evidently appears only after Jesus’ ascension, at the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost. Though we cannot say with certainty that Jesus never spoke in tongues, the textual evidence appears to suggest that tongues is new with the pouring out of the Spirit. This difference between Jesus’ ministry and the church’s ministry correlates with another difference. Jesus was “sent only to the lost sheep of the tribe of Israel” (Matt. 15:24). The Church is sent to “all nations” (Matt. 28:19).
Now Christ’s overall ministry has always been for the nations as well as to the Nation of Israel.
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Is. 49:6)
There are foreshadowings of this ultimate purpose in the gospels. Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32) on the occasion of Greeks coming to see Him (vv. 20-21). Yet this phase of ministry does not engage in earnest until the baton is passed, as it were, to the Church as Christ’s Body, after Christ’s bodily departure from the earth.
That the form of this added charisma, tongues, should correspond so clearly to the expansion of Christ’s mission from the Nation to the nations is more than suggestive that in itself it carries a meaning. It is called a “sign” after all; it signifies something. That the impartation of human languages evokes the confusion of tongues at Babel is also hard to miss. I think this is perfectly deliberate, and I want to explain how I think this works.
If we compare Babel with Pentecost as to their relative places in the outworking of God’s plan of redemption, we find each one at a corresponding and in some ways inverse pivot point. The first eleven chapters of Genesis, far from being a mere string of Hebrew folktales, threaded like so many beads at the beginning of the Torah, lay the groundwork for the rest of the Bible. These chapters communicate two major elements, without which nothing in the remainder of the Scriptures would make much sense. The first is the introduction of the problem, sin, human rebellion to the Creator. The second is the first steps undertaken by the Creator to effect redemption.
We see in Genesis 1 God’s method of creating by dividing. The Babel account is not so much a “curse” as a hindrance to man’s collective ability, in order to restrain his descent into utter ungodliness. It is redemptive, or an element in the redemptive plan. It is a divide and conquer plan. By confusing the languages of men, He creates nations. Once He has divided mankind into nations, He proceeds to create a Nation for Himself. That Nation, in turn, will one day serve to bring redemption to the nations.
Beginning with the call of Abraham (Gen. 12) God builds a people, and with the exodus and the giving of the Law, He constitutes them a nation, His Nation. This is all ultimately for the nations (Gen. 18:18), but for a period of time the nations—the Gentiles—are segregated from the Nation by the Law. Understand that our word “Gentiles” is simply a rendering of the Hebrew word for “nations” (goyim).
It hardly needs pointing out that a major ongoing theme throughout the Old Testament is the separation of Israel from the Gentiles. This theme of separation begins with Abraham, just after the account of Babel and continues on through the Gospels up to the inauguration of the Church’s mission to the “all nations.” Then there is a shift, a radical change in orientation.
I picture this as a 90 degree shift. If the various nations are likened to parallel lines, such as in the grain of wood, then OT Israel operated on a national orientation, along the grain. The Church, by contrast, is like a line cutting across the grain, in trans-national orientation, “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9).
The book of Acts narrates the beginnings of this shift in orientation. It is one of the main themes of the book, which begins in Jerusalem and ends in Rome. In chapter one Jesus sets the tone: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (v. 8). In chapter two, they do receive power, just as Jesus said they would, and they proceed, in fits and starts to fulfill Christ’s mandate to be a “light to the nations.”
It can be no mere coincidence that the moment of this shift is signaled by a phenomenon that features the praises of God being voiced in that languages of the nations (Acts 2:5-6). Babel produced the inability to speak in one tongue, Pentecost produced the ability to speak in many tongues. Babel was the starting point of the national orientation, in which God would plant His Nation. Pentecost was the end point of that orientation, and signaled the transition to a trans-national orientation, in which Israel was one nation among many (Eph. 2:11-17).
This phenomenon of Spirit-empowered utterance was new, in that it appeared in trans-linguistic form, but Spirit-empowered utterance was nothing new, as a perceptible evidence of the Spirit coming on a person for service had been seen in the past:
When he [Saul] turned his back to leave Samuel, God gave him another heart. And all these signs came to pass that day. When they came to Gibeah, behold, a group of prophets met him, and the Spirit of God rushed upon him, and he prophesied among them. (1 Sam 10:9-10)
Were the disciples at Pentecost also among the prophets? Peter stood up on that day and directly declared this to be so (Acts 2:17-18). Though the phenomenon was “tongues” on this occasion, it was a manifestation of the prophetic promise of the New Covenant. Some two decades later (in Paul’s first letter to Corinth), we see that it was not a one-shot phenomenon, but remained and became part of the regular practice of the church (1 Cor. 14:26), attested to by Paul’s own use (v. 18), though it was not without controversy, apparently (v. 39).
Tongues functions in some sense as a “sign,” to unbelievers, Paul states (1 Cor. 14:22). I don’t think it is quite justified to specify as some do, to unbelieving Jews, but as we have seen, the form itself of the gift is a a declaration that the Spirit has been given also to the Gentiles (Acts 10:45-46), and would thus serve as part of what provokes Israel to jealousy (Rom. 11:11).
To say it is a “sign” is not to invoke the whole “temporary “sign-gift” construct. The sign-ness of tongues does not appear to express the totality of its usefulness. With it God is praised, with it the Church may be built up. We do not have much Scriptural narrative demonstrating an evangelistic use, but it would be surprising if this were not in the picture, and contemporary anecdotal evidence suggests it is. It is not just “an attestation to the validity of new revelation” or some such concept. At any rate, is a “sign for unbelievers” likely to be without use, as long as there are plenty of unbelievers to go around?