“Tongues Shall Cease”

In the previous article, we looked at the nature of the New Testament gift of tongues, coming to the conclusion that in all cases it was a public gift of foreign languages which was bestowed by the Holy Spirit on those who had not previously learned them. In this paper we will seek to answer a further two questions about this gift. First of all, why were tongues given and secondly, for how long?

Basic to our understanding of the gift is the fact that it was a sign, Mark 16. 17; 1 Cor. 14. 22. That is to say, tongues were not primarily for the benefit of the speaker (although this was a side effect, 1 Cor. 14. 4) but were given as a token or indication for others. This naturally leads to further questions: for whom was the sign given, and of what was it a token? I believe that the sign was given for non-Christian Jews. In 1 Corinthians 14. 22 we see clearly that tongues were for them “that believe not”. The previous verse links tongues to the word of the Lord in Isaiah 28. 11, which was quite specifically addressed to the Jews, “this people”. When we understand this key concept, everything else falls into place. In Acts 2, although there were over 15 nationalities represented, vv.9-11, all present were “Jews, devout men”, v.5. When tongues were spoken in Caesarea, 10. 46, it was in a Jewish city. In Ephesus and Corinth, the other two localities mentioned in connection with tongues, there were large colonies of Jews to whom the gospel was preached by Paul before he went to the Gentiles, 18. 4-6; 19. 8. 9. If tongues were spoken in other places in New Testament times it would be within the same context.

This sign was given to the Jews for three reasons:

  1. To show the power of the Holy Spirit. In Acts 2. 7 we read that the assembled Jews “were all amazed and marvelled”—God’s Holy Spirit, in doing a new work, was showing His power in a sign through unlettered men, 2. 17, 18.
  2. To show that the nation was under divine judgment. Jeremiah in his prophecy was called upon to utter the divine judgment upon Israel because of its sinfulness and rebellion against God. Amongst the prophecies of judgment we read the solemn words in Jeremiah 5. 15, “Lo, I will bring a nation upon you from far, O house of Israel … a nation whose language thou knowest not, neither understand-eth what they say”. When king Jehoiakim heard these words read to him, instead of repenting and turning to God, he was so furious that he cut the prophecy up and threw it into the fire, Jer. 36. 23. Then the wrath of the Lord against Israel was poured out, 36. 29-31, and the people suffered much and were dispersed from the land. Thus we can see that when the Jews heard a strange language it was to them a sign of judgment. On the Day of Pentecost, Peter in His fearless message told the Jewish nation how they had rejected God’s Messiah—they had actually crucified the One whom God had made both Lord and Christ, Acts 2. 36. Those who were pierced to the heart by this revelation were exhorted to repent, 2. 38, and thus they would save themselves from the perverse generation in which they lived, 2. 40. It comes as no surprise to us that God dealt with the nation in the same way as in king Jehoiakim’s time. After a time given to repent, the majority of the nation remained stiffnecked against God. In the year A.D.70 the Roman general Titus destroyed the fortifications of Jerusalem and the temple. Once again the Jews were scattered abroad. After A.D.132 it was prohibited for any Jew to reside in Jerusalem. Thus we see that “God is not mocked”, but for those who had wanted to heed the sign of unknown languages on and after the Day of Pentecost ample time was given.
  3. To show that blessing had been restored to the Gentiles. In Genesis 11. 1-9 we see the judgment of God at the end of the dispensation of human government. Men became unbearably arrogant, and thought that they could invade heaven itself by building a tower. God blew on such presumption, and by the simple means of confounding their language, He scattered men abroad, and their plan came to nothing. From that day, God ceased to deal with the Gentiles in a general way (although there are some exceptions), and began to deal with one man, Abraham, whom He called out of Ur, and with whom He entered into a covenant that he and his seed would be blessed. So began the period of God’s special dealings with the Jewish nation, a period which came to an end for a time on the Day of Pentecost when the dispensation of the Church began. On that day God reversed what He had done at Babel when one language was made into many to confound man. The gift of tongues enabled men who generally spoke one language to speak many so as to bring others to understanding and faith. Thus blessing is shown to have been restored to the Gentiles. The middle wall of separation between Jew and Gentile has been broken down, and we who were once afar off have been brought nigh to form one new body—the Church, Eph. 2. 13-16.

Having shown why the gift of tongues was given, it remains to ask for how long. In 1 Corinthians 13. 8 we read that “tongues … shall cease”. It is clear from the context that this is linked to the period described by “when that which is perfect is come”, 13. 10. This is variously thought to mean the completion of the sacred Scriptures or the coming of the Lord. I believe that the first explanation is the right one. As faith, hope and love “abide” after that which is perfect is come, 13. 13, “that which is perfect” cannot refer to the coming of the Lord as by their very definition faith and hope are no longer needed after the Lord has come. R. E. Harlow has stated, “faith and hope do not go on to eternity. Hope that is seen is not hope, Romans 8. 24, 25. We read of the hope of glory, the hope of eternal life and the hope that is set before us, Colossians 1. 27; Titus 1. 2; Hebrews 6. 18. We need faith to get to heaven but not when we get there. See Hebrews 11. 1. Love is the only one of these three which abides into eternity; love never fails. The greatest of these is love.”1

Tongues were linked with other sign gifts given at the beginning of the Christian dispensation for the establishing of the Church in an era when there was no complete New Testament, and when it was in God’s plan that the Jewish nation should receive abundant proofs of the truth of the new revelation. Those needs do not exist today. It would seem from the New Testament that by later apostolic times these gifts were dying away, and as the canon of Scripture was completed they came to a halt. B. B. Warfield2 and others have shown that “the charismata” did not extend beyond the apostolic age, and that claims to the contrary by various groups do not stand up to impartial investigation. So it is today. If instances of foreign languages being given miraculously as a sign to non-Christian Jews could be proved, we would have to accept this as being from God (having checked the content of the message, naturally). The modern tongues movement shows nothing of this, however, and must be rejected as being unscriptural.

We finish this paper by quoting the wise words of a recent book on Spiritual Renewal’. “The supporters of the charismatic movement sometimes confuse the issue. They demand that doubters shall produce proof that the gift of tongues could not under any circumstances be renewed. But their claim is that the gift has been renewed, and this is what they have to prove. More than once in this book we quote the case of the man who was healed at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple. The proof was plain. ‘Beholding the man who was healed standing with them, they could say nothing against it’, Acts 4. 14. We ask for proof which is as unanswerable as this.”3




Harlow, R. E. The Complete Thing. Toronto: Everyday Publications, 1979, p.16.


Warfield, B. B., Counterfeit M iracles. London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1972 edition, pp. 3-69; (1st ed. 1918).


Holmes, Frank Ed., Spiritual Renewal. South Molton: Quest (Western) Publications, 1977, p.67.


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