recommend that this article is studied alongside The
Truth About 'Speaking in Tongues' At Last
It has been claimed
that Mark 16: 17 indicates that today's Christians should be
expected to speak in tongues. But is this what this Scripture is
really saying? Lets read it:
"And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues" (NKJV throughout)
Certainly, on the face of it, that appears to be clear enough. However, a cardinal rule of good scriptural exegesis is that all Scriptures on any given subject must be taken into account before there can be any sound attempt at establishing doctrine. This means that verses like this one should only be considered alongside any other Scriptures which discuss not only tongues but the Gifts of the Spirit in general. Moreover, since - without question - the apostle Paul wrote the bulk of New Testament theology, we especially need to check any relevant references from his writings. But the starting place must be context; we need to fully take into account the verses surrounding any Scripture which is to be scrutinized!
Now, in looking at this particular Scripture, the first thing which we need to do is to get the whole quote! To get the full sequence, we need to start in verse 15:
"And He said to them, 'Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover"(Mark 16: 15-18)
Now we have the full sense of this quotation we can start to consider it a little more deeply. The resurrected Christ was about to be taken up into heaven (the very next verse) and the final verse of this book states that the disciples did indeed go out and commence their post-resurrection ministry of preaching the gospel with,
"...the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs. Amen"
So the signs appeared immediately at that time.
Now please let us notice that there are three distinct sections to this:
1.The gospel is to be preached to every creature. (Verse 15)
2.Those who believe will be baptized and saved, but those who reject the message will be condemned. (Verse 16) (Incidentally, as an aside, please notice that those to be condemned are those who reject the message, not those who never hear it, i.e, the unevangelised. Modern evangelicalism has unwisely insisted on glossing over this difference).
3.The signs will - please note - follow- believers. The classical Pentecostal position actually turned this on its head by picking on just one of these signs (tongues) and by claiming that this sign identified true believers. So this one sign attained a paramount importance which is not the case in the Scripture. It tended to say, 'No sign - no believer'. But in Mark 16: 15-18, tongues are just one thing which would tend to follow believers (at least at that time). The Scripture already establishes the believer's presence; it does not say that if the believer does not do this or does not do that, then they are no believer! Moreover this one sign (tongues) is apparently no different to the other ones, so if one should say, 'Today the believer will be found to be speaking in tongues' - I could answer, 'Today the believer will be found to be drinking deadly substances and surviving', or, 'Today the believer will be found to be getting bitten by venomous snakes and surviving' . But any attempt to do any of these things would plainly amount to tempting God. (Matthew 4: 7). Indeed, let us also note that none of these things are things which one would necessarily seek, rather, they are things which would be evidenced among believers! In an ideal scenario, who would choose to cast out demons? No. It is best not to encounter them (in our day we witness the sad spectacle of ministers apparently affected by spiritual vanity who ignore biblical advice and develop "deliverance ministries" going out of their way to seek confrontations with demons). Who would choose to encounter sick people who are in need of healing? No. It is best not to encounter sick people. We don't like to see sick people. Who would wish to be bitten by a venomous snake? Who would wish to take poison? No.The whole point is: these things will be evidenced among God's people! To 'evidence' something, or to notice it, is not the same as to seek it.
We have a very good example of the protection against venomous snakes which was granted to the apostles in Acts 28: 3-6;
"But when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and laid them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat, and fastened on his hand. So when the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, 'No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he has escaped the sea, yet justice does not allow to live.' But he shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. However, they were expecting that he would swell up or suddenly fall down dead; but after they had looked for a long time and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god"
Now did Paul actively seek this encounter with the viper (adder)? Of course not. To have done so would amount to tempting God. And of course exactly the same principle would apply to the drinking of deadly substances. We begin to see, then, that there is a big difference between things evidenced among believers and things to be sought after.
So, at least in the day of the apostles, tongues would be one of the things which would tend to be denoted among the followers of Jesus. In other words, there would be times when - in a less than ideal situation with people from several nationalities present - God would miraculously grant the Gift of being able to speak/understand 'other tongues.'
Do we begin to understand why Paul would place tongues at the bottom of a list of desired Gifts? (See 'Tongues'). It was an important Gift in some situations, but not as important as prophecy, for example, as Paul clearly shows.
This is why Paul could say;
"Therefore tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophesying is not for unbelievers but for those who believe." (1Corinthians 14: 22)
Hopefully the reader is beginning to understand how absurd it is for any to insist that one should 'seek a tongues experience' in our day. Is that saying that tongues experiences no longer occur? Not necessarily. But to say that one should seek a tongues experience in order to 'prove' that one is a believer is - from what we have seen - a bit like insisting that one should seek a poisonous liquid experience. No, I am not saying that they are the same. Tongues - if it is of the Holy Spirit - would be a wonderful Gift of God. But the point is, these were things which would be evidenced - not sought after!
Tongues, then, would tend to attract the attention of
unbelievers, while prophecy (the broad Greek word 'prophetes'
includes inspired preaching) would be of more interest to those
genuinely walking with God.
Why, then, do we usually not see these 'signs to follow' today?
The testimony of the early 'church fathers' is important here, since they obviously lived very close to the time of the apostles. They remarked on the diminishment of these signs during their day and an 'age of miracles' which was then passing away.
If one looks very closely at the Bible one finds that God has mostly only used an abundance of miracles to mark out important biblical eras, and the coming of Jesus and the ministry of the apostles was paramount among these.
The teaching that frequent spectacular miracles marked the 'signs of an apostle' (an apostle being a direct witness to Jesus' earthly ministry), has good biblical authority. Look up; Acts 5: 12-16, Acts 14: 3, Acts 15:12, Acts 19: 11, 2 Corinthians 12: 12 and Hebrews 2: 3-4.
However, recognising this fact should not then lead us to the extreme position of cessationism (cessationism would say that no spectacular Gifts/miracles should be expected between the completion of the biblical canon and the events immediately preceding Christ's return to earth). In fact, there is abundant evidence that while the age of the apostles has now obviously past, God has occasionally revived some of these spectacular Gifts, especially during some of the great Revivals, and also (apparently) where the gospel has gone into areas of the world formerly completely closed to it.
Cessationism is a very biblically dubious position to adopt and I have occasionally been concerned to note that some cessationists even, at times, seem to doubt examples of clear and outstanding answers to prayer. They are sceptical of anything which could be miraculous; this is a position which is seriously close to the scepticism of unbelievers!
So Mark 16: 17-18 should not necessarily be seen as a 'norm'; these signs tended to follow, or be noticeable around, the preaching of the gospel in the first century and have occasionally been apparent since. To insist that these (and other spectacular signs) must follow is not a prerogative which is ours to take! That is in God's hands alone. What we must do is the first part; preach and publish the gospel to every 'creature.'
If the reader has not already done so, I would now also recommend the reading of my other article on this topic; The Truth About 'Speaking in Tongues' At Last!
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