The crowds in Jerusalem were amazed on the Day of Pentecost when the disciples spoke in tongues. Many thought they were drunk. Peter, however, knew that it was the work of the Holy Spirit and when he saw what was happening, his mind went directly to the words of the prophet Joel (2:28-32). Peter could see clearly that the tongue-speaking had a very practical function at Pentecost. With fifteen nations represented (2:9-11), it was clear that the gospel was being opened out to “all flesh,” (Acts 2:17), for “whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21). Three thousand souls were saved.

Only two other events in the book of Acts record the use of tongues: the conversion of Cornelius (Acts 10:34-11:18) and Paul’s ministry at Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7). These two events are directly related to the spread of the gospel beyond the Jewish nation, as the Lord had promised (Acts 1:8). The only other place in the New Testament where we read of the use of tongues is in the city of Corinth (1 Corinthians 12-14). There are many wrinkles in the details of the Corinthian use of tongues that need to be ironed out; at this point, however, it is the purpose of tongues that we want to determine. Harmonising the purpose of tongues at Pentecost and the Corinthian phenomenon is no easy task.

Corinth was the capital of the province of Achaia, in southern Greece. It was a major shipping port, and a wealthy city noted for its commerce and culture, and for the arts and architecture. But Corinth also had a reputation of immorality.

The Church at Corinth was established during Paul’s second missionary journey (Acts 18:1ff), after the arrival of Silas and Timothy (Vs. 5). Paul remained there for about two years, and many were converted both Jews and Gentiles. There is no doubt that the Lord blessed the Church of Corinth under the apostle’s ministry (1 Cor. 1:7). But the Church in Corinth soon revealed that it was spiritually immature; it harboured division, immorality, spiritual pride and heresy. From Paul’s letters also we know that there were a number of areas of theology and practice on which the Corinthian Christians were confused—the Lord’s Table (1 Cor. 11), the role of women in the church (1 Cor. 11, 14), the resurrection (1 Cor. 15) and spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12-14).

It was the Corinthian misuse of the gift of tongues with which Paul dealt most extensively. The spiritual pride, childishness and selfish abuse of the gift of tongues found no shelter in Paul’s letter. His tone was clearly negative, pointed, at times stinging and chastising.

But it is in this first letter to the Corinthians, that we get the “only direct and specific Scriptural statement regarding the purpose of the gift of tongues.” Towards the end of a long discourse on spiritual gifts, the apostle said (1 Corinthians 14:20-22);

“Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men. In the law it is written, With men of other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people; and yet for all that will they not hear me, saith the Lord. Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not…” 

In this text, the apostle quoted loosely from a prophecy of Isaiah and applied two lessons to the Corinthian use of tongues. First, Paul rebuked the immaturity of the Corinthians, and not for the first time (3:2). Notice how he paralleled the childish and thoughtless Israelites and the childish use of tongues in Corinth. Israel and her priests had sinned (7) and God threatened to remove the nation’s glory (28:1-4). He had taught them “line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little.” He had given them milk and not meat (9-10 Cf. 1 Corinthians 3:2). Yet they had refused to hear God’s Word (12) and were scornful (14). God said, therefore, because you refuse to hear my word, and refuse the pleading of the prophets, I will judge you.

But what was that judgement?

This leads to the second lesson that the apostle applied to the Corinthians—because they persisted in this childish stubbornness and did not listen, God judged them with the sign of tongues. Interesting that Isaiah also looked to prior scripture. Moses had warned the Israelites in his day that if they refused to hear God, then the “LORD shall bring a nation against thee from far, from the end of the earth, as swift as the eagle flieth; a nation whose tongue thou shalt not understand” (Deuteronomy 28:49). Isaiah repeated the warning in the eighth century BC, “…for with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people” (28:11) and Jeremiah echoed the same warning in the sixth century, “Lo, I will bring a nation upon you from far … a nation whose language thou knowest not, neither understandest what they say” (5:15).

The prophecy of tongues as a judgement was fulfilled first when the foreign-speaking Assyrians invaded Israel in 586 BC. But this was only a foretaste. This covenantal curse on Israel, pronounced first by Moses, and repeated by Isaiah and Jeremiah, found its ultimate fulfillment by the manifestation of tongues in the New Testament.  Tongues signified then, as Paul said, the judgment of God on unbelieving Jews. Jesus told them, “Your house is left to you desolate” (Luke 13:35).

But, were tongues a sign of judgment only for the Jews? (Zane Hodge and Merrill F. Unger) This view has attractive elements; it is simple, it flows nicely from the Acts accounts and Luke clearly identifies Jews in Corinth during Paul’s time there (Acts 18:1-17). But this approach is too simple and does not deal sufficiently with all of the difficulties.

Paul’s use of Isaiah’s prophecy made a broader application to the Corinthians. Paul showed, in his quotation from Isaiah, that tongues indicate God’s “attitude” towards unbelief. They are a sign of God’s disapproval and his commitment to bring judgement (Wayne Grudem and D. A. Carson). This is true. But again, it seems too simple and removes the tongues experience from the broader biblical picture.

Pentecost, along with the other tongues events in Acts, are best harmonised with the Corinthian phenomenon by observing them in connection with God’s covenantal purpose in redemption (O. Palmer Robertson). Seen in this framework of God’s redemptive purpose, the manifestation of tongues at Pentecost identifies a transition—the story of redemption shifted from the Jews to the Gentiles.

Tongue-speaking at Pentecost was an evangelical tool, then, in the sense that it indicated the covenantal blessing of God’s redemptive purpose returned to the nations—it was the reversal of Babel (Genesis 11). With foreign tongues, God indicated his judgement on Israel, as promised, and at the same time, through the same foreign languages, brought the gospel to the nations of the world. Ironically, it was through the Jews that the Gospel was brought to the world. All who were gathered there, and who heard the tongue-speaking were Jews or proselytes to Judaism, from 15 different nations (Acts 2:9-11).

But these believing Jews needed to be convinced of God’s gracious intentions towards unclean Samaritans and Gentiles. Peter’s amazing appeal forcefully shows the connection between Pentecost and the other tongues events in the book of Acts. Sent, reluctantly to the Gentiles, Peter was astonished at the breadth of God’s mercy. He testified to the other disciples, “As I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning … Forasmuch then as God gave them [Gentiles] the like gift as he did unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ; what was I, that I could withstand God?”

In Corinth then, while there are many difficulties in the details which cannot be addressed here, it is obvious that Paul applied this sign of judgement, previously directed towards the Jews, to unbelieving Gentiles also. To the unbelievers in Corinth (and to us today) they show that God keeps his promises. They are a sign pointing to the fact that the threats of judgement that God made to Israel were indeed fulfilled.

But they also point to the fact that the promises made to “all flesh” were also fulfilled. God has kept his promise to bring a Saviour to the world. Tongues have served their purpose, at Pentecost, at Ephesus and Caesarea, and at Corinth. The covenant promise of God has transitioned to the Gentiles and tongues have ceased (1 Corinthians 13:8).