There are four key Biblical concepts that give us insight into the perpetuation of the gift of tongues – specifically, that the gift has fulfilled its purpose and is no longer a factor for the church today. First is the nature, purpose, and scope of signs miracles and wonders in the Bible. Second is the Ephesians (2:19-20; 4:11-13) illustration of the church as a building composed of particular parts. Third is a remarkable admission by the author of Hebrews in 2:2-4 of the foundational nature of signs, miracles, and wonders. And finally, there is specific discussion regarding how and when tongues would cease in 1 Corinthians 13:8-12.
Signs, Miracles, and Wonders
God used signs, miracles, and wonders throughout Biblical history for specific purposes and in very limited contexts. The first period was during the ministry of Moses (e.g., Ex 3:20, 7:3), but no miracles are recorded in Joshua – the chronological book immediately following the lifetime of Moses. And just a few years after Joshua’s time, Gideon speaks of miracles as if they are long since past (Judg 6:13), even though God is willing to show him a sign (Judg 6:17). The second period was during the ministries of Elijah and Elisha, though their ministries were never specifically referred to using the terms signs, miracles, or wonders. Still we see during their ministries miraculous deeds that they did which confirmed their messages (1 Kin 17:18-23; 2 Kin 5:15). The third period was the ministry of Jesus, and all three terms are used to describe the evidence for His identity and message (Acts 2:22). Fourth, was the apostolic era (e.g., 2 Cor 12:12), in which the apostles’ message was confirmed by divine evidence (e.g., Heb 2:4).
Further, various prophets were used of God to do miraculous things, especially the still yet future two prophets of Revelation 11:3-6. Notably, their miraculous ministries are very brief. Finally, the last Biblical period of miracles is during the time of the one we call antichrist. He will be filled “with all power and signs and false wonders” (2 Thes 2:8-9). In each case where there are authentic signs, miracles, or wonders, they occur with preannounced or confirmed authority (Ex 3:20; 1 Kin 17; Acts 2:22; Rev 11:3-6; 2 Cor 12:12). In each case also the signs, miracles, and wonders never advanced beyond the generation in which they began. In other words, the precedent and resulting expectation regarding signs, miracles, and wonders was that they were very purposed and very temporary. That there might be some miraculous activity or commissioning that would last for centuries was not the expectation of any context of Scripture.
The Church as a House (Eph 2:19-20; 4:11-12)
Paul describes the church metaphorically as “God’s house” (οἰκεῖοι) in Ephesians 2:19. Filling out the word picture, Paul identifies two additional key components of the house: Christ Jesus as the cornerstone, and the foundation as the apostles and prophets. In Jesus, the whole building is growing into a holy temple, and believers are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit (2:21-22). In this building there are three directly cited phases of construction: the corner, the foundation, and the building up of the building. Notice that the foundation does not precede the corner, and the building up does not precede the foundation. Further, it is noteworthy that apostles and prophets are the foundation – the singular antecedant (foundation, θεμελίῳ) identifies that both offices (apostolic and prophetic) are foundational.
Basic architectural principles require that the foundation be completed before the whole building is built up. That the apostles and prophets were described as foundational demands that there would be an end to their ministry, and that the building would necessarily progress past them. That progress is considered in Ephesians 4:11-12 when once again apostles and prophets are mentioned, but this time those offices are followed in context by evangelists and pastors and teachers. Paul returns in 4:12 to the architectural metaphor, identifying in 4:11 evangelists and pastors and teachers as non-foundational – in other words, as the offices necessary not for the foundation, but for the building up of the body. It is notable that Paul uses a mixed metaphor – first architectural (building up, 4:12), then with respect to a body (the body of Christ, 4:12) then with respect to human maturity or completeness (4:13-14). This illustrates Paul’s penchant for using multiple and mixed metaphors to illustrate a major point. He uses the same literary device in the pivotal 1 Corinthians 13:8-12. But before we consider the Corinthian context, we take note of another NT writer who understood signs, miracles, and wonders as foundational and very temporary.
The Hebrews Admission
The writer of Hebrews describes salvation as “first being spoken through the Lord,“ and then as “confirmed to us by those who heard.“ The author makes it clear that he was not a firsthand witness of the Lord’s message. The confirmation came to “us“ by those who heard. The writer acknowledges being a second-generation believer in a sense, and not an apostle. He further recognizes that God worked uniquely through the apostles – “those who heard.“ God testified with them “both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will.” Adding to the more common signs, miracles, and wonders terminology, the author includes the phrase “gifts of the Holy Spirit.” The Greek μερισμοῖς (not χάρισμα) is perhaps better translated as distributions. This does not refer to the Holy Spirit as the gift or distribution (in contrast to passages like Acts 2:38 in which the Spirit is referred to as τὴν δωρεὰν, the gift). God used gifts or distributions of the Holy Spirit in the Apostles to confirm His message
When To Teleion Comes
Paul describes the conclusion and fulfillment of the revelatory sign gifts in 1 Corinthians 13:10, when he says, “but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.” The perfect is τὸ τέλειον, and is translated in different contexts as perfect, genuine, complete, mature, adult, or even initiated. How this word is translated in 13:10 is the most significant lexical issue regarding miraculous sign gifts. If in this context it is best translated mature or adult, then Paul’s implication would be that sign gifts are done away as a maturing (either individual or corporate) occurs. If it is best translated perfect, then it would seem most likely that Paul is referencing some aspect of the eternal state or even the return of Christ (as that which initiates perfection). If the intended meaning of τὸ τέλειον is the complete, or that which is completed, then in this context of sign gifts which are all related to revelation, it would seem a certain reference to God’s complete revelation – a completed canon.
In 13:8, there are three revelatory sign gifts or functions (they are not specifically referred to as gifts in this context) mentioned: prophecy, tongues, and knowledge. Prophecy and knowledge both end the same way: they are done away – prophecies, in the plural (καταργηθήσονται) and knowledge, in the singular (καταργηθήσεται). The verb, katergeo (to put an end to or stop to) in both cases is passive voice, meaning that an outside force will end these abruptly. Tongues, on the other hand, will cease (παύσονται). This verb is in the middle voice, meaning that the subject is acting upon itself: tongues will cease themselves. Tongues is the first of these three to go. Remember the contrast: love never fails, but these other three will. Verses 9-10 discuss a specific event that brings the “failing” or limitation of prophecy and knowledge, but by the time that event happens, tongues have already ceased themselves. Tongues are the least significant of these three revelatory sign gifts or functions. Remember that after the mentions of tongues in 1 Corinthians 12-14 tongues is never again mentioned during the remaining forty or so years of New Testament history – not once.
In 13:9, Paul identifies the particular kind of prophecy and knowledge that will be done away: “For we know in part and we prophesy in part.” Literally translated, ἐκ μέρους, is in or from a part. It is not that prophecy and knowledge will disappear, it is that partial prophecy and knowledge will be done away. Paul says “we know…and prophesy…” – both verbs are present active indicative. The prophesying and knowledge that was presently in effect during Paul’s day was in part.
In extolling love’s superiority, Paul identifies in 13:10 the event that will end partial knowledge and partial prophecy: “but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.” The NASB, KJV, and ESV all translate τὸ τέλειον as “the perfect.” The NetBible translates the same way, but adds the appropriate note, “Or ‘when completion’.” The word teleios can have any one of several meanings, but when Paul has just established the antonym as partial in the previous verse, the natural reading of the text would be to translate teleios as complete, rather than perfect. Paul is not contrasting imperfect and perfect. He is contrasting partial and complete.
That contrast governs the illustrations to follow – they do not govern the contrast. For example, in 13:11 Paul illustrates that there is a difference between the speech, thoughts, and reasonings of a child and those of a man. From this example, some conclude that Paul’s contrast in 13:9-10 is of immature and mature, but μέρους is never used elsewhere to reference immaturity (especially note Paul’s uses in 1 Cor 12:27 and in Eph 4:16). Paul employs the illustration to show that childish things are partial, and unfitting for an adult. He introduces the idea of logical progression. This doing away of prophecy and knowledge is part of a logical progression, and it is the coming of the complete that brings it about.
Likewise, 13:12 provides another example – this one illustrates clarity of focus or certainty. “For we now see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face…” The term translated mirror (ἐσόπτρου) is used only one other time in the NT. In James 1:23 the term is used in the context of illustrating that one who looks at the word but is not a doer of it is like one who looks in a mirror and forgets his face. In both instances, the near-context referent is the word of God and human response to it. In 1 Cor 13:12, the mirror is engaged ἐν αἰνίγματι – in a dim (or enigmatic) image, but then “face to face.” Because of this latter phrase, some suggest τὸ τέλειον references the eternal state (after all, we will be face to face with Jesus, right?). And I certainly admit, that phrase is difficult to justify with the contrast of partial versus complete. However, even with this difficulty, we must prioritize either a phrase in a secondary illustration or we must prioritize the primary contrast undergirding the entire context: partial versus complete. I prioritize the latter, and consider the former simply one of many Pauline mixed metaphors (e.g., as in 1 Cor 3:1-17).
“Now I know in part.” Again, ἐκ μέρους, from a part. “But then I will know fully…” This phrase is translated in such a way that we might infer the eternal state is in view. For when else will we know fully? But it does not say we will know fully. The word translated know fully is ἐπιγνώσομαι, and it simply means to understand or to have certainty. Romans 3:20 uses the same root word to describe the present knowledge of sin brought by law. The eternal state is not in view here. “Just as I also have been fully known.” This phrase uses the same verb as in the earlier phrase – not fully known, but rather, understood or recognized. Either way, the contrast is to ἐκ μέρους, and that is probably why the verb is translated as fully known.
We should admit that worthy arguments can be mounted for both of these Pauline illustrations (the child/man and mirror/face to face) as portraying the maturing of the church, the eternal state, or the completed canon. It should also be recognized that none of these arguments are conclusive in themselves, and that ultimately, Paul employs these examples to illustrate his earlier primary contrast – partial versus complete. In any case, partial prophecy and knowledge will be done away as sign gifts and revelatory vehicles, because the complete will have arrived.
The natural reading of this context favors the completed revelation of God as taking the place of the partial, and hence the vehicles for partial knowledge and revelation are no longer needed. If this is not what is intended, then we have three major difficulties: (1) the syntactical one, in which we must discard ἐκ μέρους and τὸ τέλειον as contrasting ideas altogether, (2) the theological one, in which there is absolutely no need or justification for a completed canon at all [if this is the case how can Rev 22:18-19 prohibit additions and subtractions, when theoretically, additions, at least, should be possible?], and (3) the historical one, in which tongues, prophecy, and knowledge should be fairly common in the church, yet especially in the apostolic age of the church, tongues, at least, receives no mention after AD 54.
What About Modern Manifestations?
Alleged modern manifestations of tongues do not fit the characteristics of tongues as it is described in the Bible – either in substance or in function. It has been argued here that tongues – the revelatory sign gift described and discussed in Acts and 1 Corinthians – has been fulfilled and is no longer in play in the church. But if that argument is true, is it possible that someone today can speak the Gospel in a tongue or language they have not learned? Certainly, it is. But such an occurrence would not fit the parameters of the Biblical gift of tongues. The Biblical gift of tongues was intended both as a sign and as a vehicle for divine revelation. If God’s revelation is complete, then tongues, if still in play, could have no further revealing function – which was a major component of their purpose.
Let me illustrate in this way: even if the spiritual gift of healing (as in 1 Cor 12:9) is no longer in effect in the church, it is still entirely possible that God can grant the prayer of an individual to heal another. Let’s say, for example, that there is a sick child in a local church, and the parents call the elders of the church and ask them to pray for the child. The elders come, and pray for the child. Is it possible that God can immediately heal the child? Of course. If He did, would that mean the elders had the gift of healing? No. What’s the difference? The Biblical gifts related to signs, miracles, and wonders were granted for a short time in order to confirm God’s message and messenger. In other words, with respect to the gift of healing, certain people were given the authority to heal others (e.g., Acts 3:6-8) for a specific purpose. In other cases, where the gift was not in play, there is direction to “pray for one another so that you may be healed” (Jam 5:16). With no sign in view, this is just a matter of everyday life in the church. Sometimes we get sick or are weak and need help. Sometimes He heals. Sometimes He doesn’t. In the same way, even Elijah had no unique authority over the rain, but by God granting his prayer, the rain stopped for three and a half years (cf. 1 Kin 17:1 and Jam 5:17).
If God wishes for a people to hear the Gospel in their own language, or if He wishes for a person to be healed, He has the divine right as Creator to do those things, and even to use people to be administrators of those things, if He so desires. However, for an individual to claim that a specific spiritual gift is in play goes beyond the text, and puts a person in danger of misdiagnosing what God is doing in the situation. We need to be careful not to put the wrong label on what God is doing. Better simply to glorify God for healing someone, rather than to claim a gift of healing. Better to praise God for allowing His message to be heard rather than to claim a gift of tongues.
Can God still work miracles of healing or proclamation of His Gospel today? Of course He can, but He makes no promise to do so, and the instruction for believers who would seek His miraculous working is to pray, not to search out people who have particular spiritual gifts. We pray, trusting Him with the outcome, whether the miraculous is evident or not. We pray. Sometimes He heals, sometimes He doesn’t. He knows best. Do we simply trust Him, or do we instead seek a mystical way to ease our lack of trust – even to the harm of the Bible’s integrity?