By Mac Deaver
In John 8:43 the Lord once asked some of his contemporaries, “Why do ye not understand my speech? Even because ye cannot hear my word” (ASV). The footnote shows that the Greek word translated “understand” is actually the word for “know.” The Lord was asking why it was that those who spoke the same language did not know what he was saying. His explanation was that they could not hear his word. That is, though they spoke the same language as he did, they could not grasp the meaning of what he was saying. It was one thing to know the meaning of isolated words; it was another to comprehend the connection of words in sentence construction. In verse 45 he declares why it was that they could not comprehend what he was saying. In their case, it was a perversity of character. Since Jesus was telling the truth and their hearts were not attuned to the reception of it, they were not getting it. And in verse 47, he ascribes their lack of understanding to the fact that they were not “of God.” Dishonesty stood between them and understanding of truth.
But there are other reasons why someone might not understand or comprehend a message, one of which is that the sound of the message may, in fact, be presented in a language that he does not know. That is, the message is completely unintelligible to him because he does not know the words of that language. Each word is merely a sound that signifies nothing to him.
The New Testament doctrine of “tongues” is historically rooted in an event that God had long ago caused. When men refused to scatter on the earth, God confused their language. At the time only one language was being spoken (Gen. 11:1), and the people were not scattering out over the earth. So, in order to motivate human scattering, God made it impossible for some of the people to understand others of them. The details are not provided, but somehow in the power of God, he changed the language comprehension of some of them so that a language barrier now existed. And since humans tend to associate mainly with those with whom they can by words communicate, some people then left the area. This change in language was preceded by changing the relationship between humans and snakes (Gen. 3:15), changing the male-female relationship (Gen. 3:16), and by changing the relationship between man and the sustenance of life (Gen. 3:19). These changes followed the commission of the first sin. Later following the flood, another change took place: the relationship between humans and animals (Gen. 9:1-4).
So, the change in the then immediate language capacity was the latest of the changes that God brought about to position man as he desired him now to be on this earth. This was God’s own way of separating people so that they would “replenish the earth” (Gen. 1:28) and not simply stay in the vicinity where they had all been born. Evidently, there were none or few who would on their own at this time adventure out into the great unknown world. So, it was God himself who created the situation in which men could not understand other men. Because of human reluctance to venture out into the world, God created the language barrier between humans. We are not told how many languages were now being comprehended. We can only know that the number was sufficient in God’s eyes to cause the desired scattering.
Notice please that God divided the nations in the earth after the flood (Gen. 10:32). The division of the earth referred to in Genesis 10:25 is not geological; it is ethnological. God would later separate another group from all the rest of humanity, not by language but by a covenant. All of Abram’s descendants were to be distinguishable from the rest of the world. By means of the circumcision covenant that God made with Abram, God created the Hebrew nation (Gen. 17:1-14). Abram was “the Hebrew” (Gen. 14:13). His descendants became known as “Hebrews” (cf. Gen. 39:14).
But our point just here is that all of these changes were initiated by God himself. And the language barrier was only one of the changes he wrought in the earth. And as with all the changes just mentioned, it affected the course of human existence and history for all time. The issue of the language barrier did not need additional divine attention until it was necessary for all men to hear the gospel of Christ. As long as Jews were amenable to God through the law of Moses and as long as the Gentiles were amenable to God through moral law (Rom. 2:14-15), (that is, as long as there was divinely imposed ethnic segregation) there was no necessity of divine intervention regarding the language barrier in any way.
But when the universal religion of Jesus Christ became operative on Pentecost of Acts 2, the stage was now historically set so that eventually all men would become answerable to God through Christ (Acts 17:30-31). Several years passed before the gospel was preached to the first full-blood Gentile (Acts 10), but by the end of the first century, all accountable men then living were answerable to the gospel (Col. 1:23; Mark 14:9; 16:19-20).
But in order to fulfill the mission of taking the gospel to the whole world (Mark 16:15-16), the apostles made use of a gift in order to speak to men whose language they did not know (Acts 2:5-12). Later, when the Holy Spirit deemed it appropriate, other brethren were endowed with this gift as well (1 Cor. 12:4-11).
Since God had changed the structure of human accountability, it was up to God to make the announcement. Men could not be held accountable to a message that they never received since they were already living within the confines of divinely imposed religious responsibility. God had left Gentiles in Gentile-ism and the Jews in Judaism. But now that divinely imposed human amenability would no longer be sufficient in God’s mind to allow humans to any longer retain God’s favor. As the announcement of the change in amenability was made, human accountability changed. And since there were various languages spoken throughout the world, it was necessary (if God wanted the gospel carried throughout the world in a relatively short period of time) that men be able to speak languages that they had not studied and did not know in order to make the announcement known throughout the Roman empire.
Miraculous divine intervention was utilized in pointing out the places to go to for optimum success (Acts 16:6-10) and in providing the languages that must be utilized but were not by the teachers then known. It was God’s will that the change in amenability be announced within the historical context of divine miraculous involvement. He would not and did not leave matters simply to human decisions and human capacity. The work of taking the gospel to the world was finalized within the time of the miraculous workings of God. That is also the same time period in which he completed his divine book by inspiring the writing of the complete New Testament (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:20-21; 1 Cor. 2:12-13).
That book had to be completed before God could withdraw the miraculous element from the earth, just as the preaching of the gospel had to be completely taken into all the world before God could hold all men now answerable to the gospel and judge all men by Christ. Men became amenable to the gospel as the gospel became accessible. They were being called out of two divine systems already in place. Those alive in the first century were being “transitioned” from Gentile-ism and Judaism into a new divinely imposed accountability to the gospel of Christ. Nothing like that historic moment has ever existed again. That is, the time period in which God was relocating Jews and Gentiles under obligation to the gospel was a period of time and a religious situation that could never be duplicated since Gentile-ism and Judaism were divinely replaced by Christianity.
The “tongues” that the Spirit provided were the means of God’s addressing the language barrier that existed then (and which still exists now but without any need for miraculous intervention). God settled for all time the issue of human amenability within a thirty year period (from about 30 A.D. to about 63 A.D.). Everyone had access to God’s announcement of the change of amenability! There was no geographical area on earth inhabited by people that was not contacted.
“Tongues” were for a sign to the unbelieving world (1 Cor. 14:22). The kind of question raised by the yet unbelievers on Pentecost was no doubt raised time and time again. How is it possible for someone who does not ordinarily speak my language to speak it now (Acts 2:7-8)? The event itself signified that something divine and miraculous was occurring!
Thus, it is clear that “tongues” were languages. The disciples of John on Pentecost of Acts 2 spoke “with other tongues” (v. 4). These tongues were real languages (v. 6). They did not simply utter unintelligible sounds, but languages that were known and spoken by others. Furthermore, by the fact that “tongues” were always subject to rational interpretation, we know that they were sounds that made sense (1 Cor. 14:13).
It should also be observed that in 1 Corinthians 13, where Paul discusses the cessation of miraculous gifts (including miraculous tongues), he mentions three specific things that will cease as he compares the cessation of miracles to the permanence of faith, hope, and love. That is, in chapter 13 he is contrasting what is passing away and what remains. The miracles are coming to an end; faith, hope, and love are permanent features of the faithful church. So, in 1 Corinthians 13:8 he declares that prophecies, tongues, and knowledge will all come to an end (v. 8), and the gift of prophecy was miraculous (1 Cor. 12:10). He states that tongues shall cease, and miraculous tongue-speaking was another miraculous gift (1 Cor. 12:10). Thirdly, he says that knowledge will cease. This, of course, is knowledge that is miraculous to which reference had already been made (1 Cor. 12:8). Thus interestingly, each of the three items that Paul cites in 1 Corinthians 13:8 has to do with information! Miraculous information will cease being provided, he is saying. In verse 10, when he refers to “when that which is perfect is come,” he is contrasting that perfect or completed information with the partially and miraculously supplied information. When the perfect thing is finally here in its completed form, Paul is saying, then no longer is there a partial thing here. And when the perfect thing is here, there is no longer any need for the miraculous process that had delivered information up to the time of the perfected or completed form. When the perfect thing is come, that which is in part (the partial product) ceases. That is, there is no longer a merely partial thing. It has eventuated into the perfect or the now completed thing.
Finally, let me say a word about the transmission of scripture. God removed the miraculous element from the earth. Scripture would remain as promised (1 Pet. 1:25), but its permanence would obtain through translation. God would not keep scripture here by miraculous intervention. His divine providence would suit the situation so that capable people would be available at the right place and the right time to transmit scripture into languages that were then, as seen by God, now ready for scripture dissemination through them. Today those who are capable of translating scripture and those who have an inherent interest in certain people and places are all entailed in the marvelous providence of God. And neither group, translator or missionary, has access to the first-century gift of tongues.