Tongues Are For Unbelievers
Paul said, "So then, tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers. Prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers" (I Corinthians 14:22). Does Paul mean to say that tongues are not intended for believers? To answer this question we must examine the immediate context of this verse:
Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking. Instead, be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. 21 It is written in the law: "By people with strange tongues and by the lips of strangers I will speak to this people, yet not even in this way will they listen to me," says the Lord. 22 So then, tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers. Prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers (I Corinthians 14:20-22, NET Bible).
First Corinthians 14:21 is a quote from Isaiah 28:11. Paul cited this verse to illustrate the point he was trying to make. It was from the Isaiah passage that Paul concluded tongues are a sign to unbelievers. In order to understand Paulís statement, then, we must examine the context of Isaiah 28, for Paul drew upon its meaning to derive his own teaching for the church at Corinth.
Israel had broken their covenant with Yahweh, falling into idol worship. The priests were drunkards. God had attempted many times to bring Israel back into a right covenant relationship with Him but they would not heed His call, and were so far spiritually removed from Him that He could not get His message across. In Isaiah 28:2-6 we find Isaiah prophesying that the Assyrian army was going to invade Israel and ravish them. Since the priests and prophets of Israel had become drunkards, they were not spiritually capable of listening to God's voice, and thus were making bad decisions (v. 7). Who could God get His message to if the priests and prophets are not even in right relationship with Him to be able to hear His voice? Can he get communicate it to those who were in a state of spiritual infancy (v.9)? God could only give them small bits and pieces of His will because they were so spiritually immature (v.10).1 Because God could not communicate His message to Israel any other way, He would send those of another tongue (language) to relay the message (v.11). These messengers were none other than the Assyrian army. The message they were to deliver to Israel was none other than that they had broken their covenant with Yahweh. God would make sure they received His message by allowing them to be defeated of another nation. It was through the foreign tongues that God would speak to His people.
In what way would God communicate His message through the Assyrian tongue? The Israelites would be carried captive by the Assyrians to their own land. Every time the Israelites would hear the Assyrians speak in the Assyrian tongue it would remind them that they were defeated and carried away captive because of their failure to love Yahweh and keep His covenant.
God told the Israelites how he had offered them rest and refreshing from their enemies time and time again, yet they would never listen to Him. They kept up their sinfulness. Therefore, God was no longer able to keep them in the state of rest (v.12) Because the Lord could only speak to the Israelites by bits and pieces and couldn't get His whole message across to them, the Israelites would fall backward, be snared, and taken captive by the Assyrians (v.13).
As the prophecy had stated, the Assyrians invaded Israel and destroyed it, taking the Israelites captive. Most Israelites still did not repent, but they most definitely received His message. Instead of repenting they simply grew accustomed to the Assyrians, and even began to marry them and have children by them.
Having now established the meaning of Isaiah 28:11, let us examine Paulís usage of this text in his letter to the Corinthians.
Notice the parallel of I Corinthians 14:20 to Isaiah 28. Paul told the Corinthians not to be like children, or immature, (like Israel was, who needed line upon line, here a little there a little, precept upon precept), but to be mature. In verse 22, by using the principle of Isaiah 28:11, Paul said, "So also tongues are for a sign for unbelievers today."2 Remember, God told Israel that with men who speak other languages, He would communicate His message to them. Paul, therefore, says that tongues serve a similar purpose today. When an unbeliever hears a believer speaking in tongues, it is a sign to the unbeliever of their rejection of God, and will serve to condemn them on the day of judgment. God will hold them accountable for their unbelief because God expects the sign, and planned for the sign of tongues to convince them and make them believe and be converted, speaking in tongues themselves. Notice that even Jesus connected speaking in tongues with a sign in Mark 16:17.
God expects tongues to convince the unbeliever because speaking in languages which have never been learned cannot be faked, and therefore cannot be denied by unbelievers. It is possible to fake a miracle, prophecy, or word of knowledge. One cannot, however, fake speaking in languages they do not naturally know, without it being obvious.
God has given tongues as the evidence of receiving the Holy Ghost so that unbelievers will believe when they hear believers speaking in tongues. If they do not believe God will use their experience to condemn them in judgment for not believing. Tongues will either excuse or accuse the unbelievers who hear them, at the judgment.
That tongues serve the above purpose does not mean that tongues are not for believers also. Granted, if believers were not to speak in tongues, how could unbelievers ever hear tongues in order to be convinced of their rejection of God? Obviously unbelievers will not be the ones speaking in tongues.. It must be the believers who are speaking in tongues. Also, Jesusí statement that tongues would follow those who believe would become a contradiction (Mark 16:17). Yet another point to bring out is that immediately following Paul's statement that tongues are for unbelievers, he noted that prophecy is for believers, not unbelievers (v. 22). But then Paul went on to show how prophecy would avail to the conversion of unbelievers (vs. 23-25). If we take Paul's statement that tongues are only for unbelievers to mean that tongues serve no purpose for believers, then we must also consider Paul's blanket statement concerning prophecy in verse 22 to mean that prophecy serves no purpose for unbelievers. The context of verse 22, however, renders both positions untenable. There is a larger context to verse 22 that we must take into consideration in our interpretation.
In the very same chapter that we find Paul making the statement that tongues are for unbelievers, he also makes several statements which clearly indicate that tongues are for believers: tongues and interpretation serve to edify the church (I Corinthians 14:27-28); the individual who speaks in tongues edifies himself (14:4); Paul, a believer, prayed and sang in tongues (14:15); to give thanks in tongues is to give thanks well (14:17); Paul thanked God he spoke in tongues more than the Corinthians (14:18); tongues should not be forbidden among the church (14:39). All these verses describe the tongues of believers. If tongues were not for believers, but only unbelievers, then most of I Corinthians 14 would be in error.
In conclusion, in verse twenty-two Paul is focusing on the fact that the sign of tongues does not serve to convince the believer, but rather the unbeliever. As Jesus noted, however, those who come to believe would then have the sign of tongues following them.
1. The text which says "line upon line, here a little, there a little, precept upon precept" is a rebuke to Israel. It is not giving us an ideal teaching method. <back>
2. It is commonly held that Isaiah 28:11 was a prophecy concerning speaking in tongues. Such a position is not justifiable from Paul's usage of this passage. It was a prophecy to Israel only. Paul merely applied the principle of that passage to his audience, to show that tongues had a similar purpose in the New Covenant. He did not say that tongues fulfilled Isaiah 28:11. <back>
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