Recently I was asked a question regarding a familiar verse in the book of Hebrews. The writer, whose identity is unknown to us, said of our Lord in 13:8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Apparently, some have offered this verse as a defense of the pentecostal practice of speaking in tongues, a modern-day practice in which people utter gibberish sound and syllables presumably speaking in some unknown and unearthly language. (I describe speaking in tongues in this way in order to distinguish it from the examples of the NT where it is abundantly clear that the tongues-speaking involved the supernatural ability to speak in human languages that were unknown to the speaker.) Without a specific argument to refer to, I am limited in how I can respond to this idea, but I would like to consider this verse from two perspectives. First, what does Hebrews 13:8 actually mean in its context? And then, does it offer any support for the modern day tongues-speaker?
Chapter 13 of the Epistle to the Hebrews is kind of a typical concluding portion of a letter. The author has given a great deal of very thorough doctrinal instruction and is wrapping his brief letter (v.22) up with a series of practical directions about “serv[ing] God acceptably with reverence and godly fear” (12:28). This includes continuing to demonstrate love for our brothers and sisters in Christ (13:1), showing hospitality toward strangers (v.2), and remembering those who have been imprisoned for the cause of Christ (v.3). Marriage is to be held in honor (v.4), and each one is to live in contentment, trusting in God’s faithful provision (v.5-6).
These personal principles of Christian living are followed by a series of instructions on how to properly relate to the church body and especially its leaders. And so in v.7 he tells them to call to mind those leaders who first instructed them in the truths of God’s word, then in v.17 he tells them to submit themselves to the watchful care of those who are currently leading them in the truth. Everything in between these verses is bracketed by these instructions on how to regard those in spiritual leadership over the flock of God. This, of course, includes v.8. But consider first the instruction of v.7, which says that they were to remember those who had first reached them with the gospel, to follow their example of faith, being especially mindful of the results of their faith. Presumably, these are men and women who are no longer a part of their congregation and are likely dead, yet the testimony of their faithful lives is something worth remembering and copying. They could be said to have “serve[d] God acceptably with reverence and godly fear,” and so their example ought to be followed.
It is at this point that the writer of Hebrews says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” What does he mean? In light of the previous verse, where those who had first led them to Christ and set an example for them to follow have now passed on and are gone, they have a more enduring example in the person of Jesus Christ. So that just as their former leaders had lived for God and pleased God, the readers of this epistle could confidently follow their example, knowing that they too were upheld by the grace of God in Christ.
And this kind of single-minded living, following the example of godliness that was set before them, would result in doctrinal stability, as he warns in v.9 that they should not be carried away by “various and strange doctrines.” Apparently, the recipients of this letter had been exposed to and influenced by teachers who recommended all sorts of dietary restrictions, supposing that these would make them holy. On the contrary, says the writer of Hebrews, it is the bloody sacrifice of Christ which makes us holy (v.10-12), and we who are Christ’s by faith must reject worldly philosophy and human wisdom, embracing the reproach of our Savior (v.13-14). And everything we do for God is done in Christ, whether worship (v.15) or service (v.16), as we submit to those who are currently watching over our souls in the Lord (v.17). This life of faith and obedience and service is undergirded by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ which is perpetually available because he is timeless and consistent.
Now what does this mean for the theory that Hebrews 13:8 supports the modern tongues movement? Not much at all. In fact, I can’t find a single reference to tongues-speaking or even to spiritual gifts in general in this passage. There simply is no relationship, and therefore we have no basis to claim that this verse is teaching anything about speaking in other languages, either earthly or heavenly. And furthermore, to suggest that, in spite of its utter lack of contextual support, the truth that Jesus never changes requires tongues to continue from the time of the NT until now is also contradicted in numerous ways. Let me give you a few examples. If Jesus’ timelessness means that nothing has changed from the early church until now, then why are liars not being struck dead as Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5? And why are ministers of the gospel not routinely whisked from one place to another by the Holy Spirit like Philip in Acts 8? But this point can be pushed even further, because if Christ being the same yesterday, today, and forever, means that nothing else every changes in God’s dealings with men, then why is it that we feel free to wear mixed fabrics in disobedience to Lev. 19:19? Or why do we not build parapets around the roofs of our homes in violation of Deut. 22:8?
Hebrews 13:8 has as much to do with the continuation of tongues-speaking as it does with the continuation of the law of Sinai for the church or the instantaneous judgment for lying in church. In short, nothing at all.