The subject of speaking in tongues is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and controversial topics found in the Bible—and it is not my intent to settle everything here, but to point to what every Christian should embrace.
Despite the theological debates surrounding the idea of “tongues,” everybody who loves Jesus must agree that we need more speaking in tongues. We should not let a debate about the gift of tongues keep us from pursuing people of all tongues.
Speaking in Tongues and the Bible
In Spiritual Warfare and Missions: The Battle for God’s Glory Among the Nations, Jerry Rankin and I discuss the tongues motif as one of the Bible’s greatest missed themes.
Between the tables of the nations and the genealogy of Shem to Abraham, we find the account of the Tower of Babel. Some of us remember this story from our days in Sunday school. However, let me show you anew how this one narrative fits into God’s larger plan in redemptive history for His glory. Remember that Genesis 11 indicates humanity was on a mission for their own power fueled by self-interest. At Babel, we see collected humanity reaching for the dominion of God in order to make their own name greatly known.
Come let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the sky. Let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.
What men meant for evil, God used for good. Humanity wanted to achieve unity apart from God, but in his gracious wisdom, God stopped them by creating different languages and dispersed them across the planet. However, despite the scattering of the people groups according to language, God had a plan for unity amidst their diversity. Throughout the Old Testament, God clearly directed His children to gather people from all tongues, tribes and nations and bring them back to Jerusalem in order to praise to God. Did it ever happen? I believe so, but it happened through the work of Jesus Christ and His Spirit.
In the book of Acts, we see a fascinating account of the Holy Spirit descending and sending tongues of fire to rest on people so that they may give praise to God in all different languages. Don’t miss this, it all happens in Jerusalem. Moreover, at Pentecost, the people who were scattered at Babel were represented in Jerusalem. In fact, every nation under heaven was gathered and heard Peter proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. Picture Acts 2:5,9-11 in your mind:
There were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven … Parthians, Medes, Elamites; those who live in Mesopotamia, in Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking the magnificent acts of God in our own languages.
What do we see here? Essentially, Acts 2 records the reversal of Babel. Instead of man reaching for the dominion of God, God comes to the dominion of man. In Babel, we see men grasping for unity apart from God through their own strength and for their own glory. At Pentecost, we see God bringing man together in unity for His glory through His gospel.
From Pentecost on, the mission of God’s people changes, as noted in Matthew 28. Rather than bring people to Jerusalem, a centripetal mission, God’s people are to go with the Holy Spirit. God’s people were to leave Jerusalem and spread His praise to the nations, a centrifugal mission. Again, this is unlike Babel where the people built upwards to avoid being scattered outward. Jesus comes downward and sends us out His people to every tongue, tribe and nation in order to proclaim the gospel to bring glory to God’s name.