I am finally getting back on track to finish out my series on the gift of tongues. The title of the series – The Tongues Conundrum – points to the reality that this is the most debated, and probably most misunderstood, gift of the Spirit.
As I recently pointed out, the five previous articles can be found at these links:
- Article 1 – An introduction to Spirit-inspired speech
- Article 2 – Some specific introductory thoughts on tongues
- Article 3 – Some in depth thoughts on ‘tongues of angels’ in 1 Corinthians 13
- Article 4 – The 3 purposes of tongues: praise, prayer and proclamation
- Article 5 – The 2 uses of tongues: personal and public
In this article, I want to take the time to look at a very confusing passage in 1 Corinthians 14. It is as follows:
20 Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. 21 In the Law it is written, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” 22 Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. 23 If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? 24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you. (1 Cor 14:20-25)
Can you see the confusion, almost contradictory statements, with these words of Paul? Look at vs22-23 again: 22 Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. 23 If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?
In vs22, we read that the gift of tongues is a sign for unbelievers. But in the next verse, Paul points out that, if all are speaking in tongues, and an outsider-unbeliever comes into the gathering, will they not have a negative reaction and say that the people are out of their minds.
You see the seeming contradiction?
And some have personally seen this kind of reaction described in vs23 in a church gathering. Not only that, but, because of Paul’s words in vs23, some churches only allow for the use of tongues in smaller settings such as homegroups or prayer meetings.
So, what is going on here? How do we approach such a passage?
Well, in vs22, when Paul says that tongues are a sign for unbelievers, he is not pointing to the fact that they are a positive sign, but rather a negative sign. How? Well, this all goes back to vs21 – In the Law it is written, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.”
Here, Paul is quoting from Isaiah 28:11. This is important for us to understand the context of what God was speaking to Israel in the Old Testament. Within that specific situation, Isaiah is warning of the judgment that would come upon the people of Israel for all of their disobedience, idolatry, etc. And so, by strange tongues, God would speak to this people. This would be fulfilled as the Assyrian armies came in to take the Israelites captive, ransacking the northern tribes of Israel. And, of course, the Assyrians spoke quite a different language from the Hebrew people of that day. Hence, Isaiah’s words:
For by people of strange lips
and with a foreign tongue
the LORD will speak to this people (Isaiah 28:11)
And, so, what Paul alludes to in 1 Corinthians 14, by referring back to the words of judgment in Isaiah 28:11 is that, if the church gathers together and all speak in unintelligible, and uninterpreted tongues, such will become a negative sign of judgment for outsiders who have come in the gathering. To this, Paul says you are not utilising the gift in a proper manner. For remember, it is uninterpreted tongues that function as a negative sign. Interpreted tongues are good. That’s the whole context of the passage in 1 Corinthians 14 – when you use the gift of tongues in a public setting of proclamation, follow up with an interpretation.
Therefore, I do hope this sheds a little more light on the enigmatic passage of 1 Corinthians 14:20-25.
Remember, Paul is not saying we should never use tongues in the public gathering of the church. He is instructing us to not have a bunch of people speaking out public messages in tongues without interpretation. Otherwise, like in the days when God judged Israel through the Assyrians, this would become a negative sign of judgment upon the unbelieving and unspiritual in our midst. They wouldn’t know what is going on. They would think the congregation mad.
Thus, let’s follow the practical guidelines of vs27-28 and provide interpretations as we allow for the gift of tongues to be used in our gatherings. This is a good and beautiful gift of God’s Spirit given to the body of Christ. But our call is to use it correctly for the edification of the body and even for drawing those to Christ who are not yet followers.