1 Cor 14:22 So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophecy is for a sign, not to unbelievers but to those who believe.
Ever wonder why you hear charismatics talk about 1 Cor 12, 13, and 14 but never give an adequate explanation for this passage (or the one before it)? Perhaps you have wondered about this verse yourself. I hope to reveal what this passage means in this post and perhaps more after it. This has been a long, long time coming, but certain discussions of late have once again thrust this controversy into the forefront and I’d like to address it.
Before we can address 1 Cor 14 at all, we need to consider a few things first, what’s being addressed as well as what is being quoted. But I’m getting ahead of myself. So let’s start at the beginning.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.
Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together, and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language. They were amazed and astonished, saying, “Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born?”
Several important things to note, right off the bat in this passage. The believers upon whom the Holy Spirit has gifted this outpouring of tongues are Jewish believers, but the languages they are speaking are the tongues of “men from every nation under heaven”.
Some have suggested that this was a “hearing miracle”, but the passage states specifically that they “began to speak with other tongues”. The term, tongues, here can be translated “languages” and does not indicate a language other than an Earthly one. Note that those hearing are (currently) unbelieving (yet God-fearing) converts of Gentile nations to Judaism.
Finally, Luke is careful to enumerate the countries/regions that each person comes from. These are all areas considered under pagan Gentile rule. This is concluded with the statement:
11Cretans and Arabs–we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God.”
Consider that when you “speak of the mighty deeds of God” you’re talking to God, praising Him, not specifically to men. Men may overhear the praise, but God is the audience.
Peter’s famous sermon then begins. An appeal to believe in Christ is made.
14But Peter, taking his stand with the eleven, raised his voice and declared to them: “Men of Judea and all you who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you and give heed to my words…. 36″Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ–this Jesus whom you crucified.”
The thrust of this message is aimed at Israel, and those of Israel. It was Israel who heard the speaking of Gentile tongues.
There are other examples of tongues in Acts where Jewish (non-Gentiles) are present.
Acts 10:45-47 All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?”
The next example is where Paul lays hands on the Ephesians:
Acts 19:4-6 Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.”
When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying.
We find out in v10 that during that time many “heard the word of the Lord both Jews and Greeks”. Here again, it is apparent that non-Gentile believers were present.
Now we can approach 1 Corinthians with this background information. Consider here that 1 Corinthians is not a “manual on the gifts of the Spirit”, while it does contain instruction of that sort, it is primarily a corrective letter. Paul is addressing problems in the Corinthian church. And in 1 Cor 13, Paul is not establishing the possibility of speaking in the tongues of angels (as if angels speak in any other language than those found on Earth) [If someone challenges this, they need to provide citation…], but rather the supremacy of love over all spiritual gifts in contrast to the Corinthians who were parading around puffing themselves up with their supposed giftedness.
One last thought before getting to 1 Cor 14, many charismatics make a distinction between the tongues seen in Acts 2 and those spoken of in 1 Cor. I will hope to provide evidence here that they are one-and-the-same gift for the same purpose.
This brings us to 1 Cor 14 wherein we read, about tongues:
2For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries.
Remember in Acts 2, the men were “speaking of the mighty deeds of God”, this coincides with 1 Cor 14:2, where we read that those who speak in tongues speak to God. When Paul writes, however, “no one understands” it is not to be understood that “no one ever” or “no one at all” understands, rather, it is implied that no one in the congregation understands (see vs. 3~4.)
That this tongues is clearly human language is expressed later:
10There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of languages in the world, and no kind is without meaning. 11If then I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be to the one who speaks a barbarian, and the one who speaks will be a barbarian to me.
If tongue speaking were truly some “private prayer language”, then what Paul here states would be of no purpose. Even tongues then has meaning to someone.
Now, before you cry foul, let me finish my point:
21In the Law it is written, “BY MEN OF STRANGE TONGUES AND BY THE LIPS OF STRANGERS I WILL SPEAK TO THIS PEOPLE, AND EVEN SO THEY WILL NOT LISTEN TO ME,” says the Lord. 22So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophecy is for a sign, not to unbelievers but to those who believe.
Here Paul quotes Isaiah, probably from the LXX. Thus, we can look back to Isaiah’s prophecy to understand better what Paul means when he says: “tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers”.
Isa 28:11 Indeed, He will speak to this people
Through stammering lips and a foreign tongue… (12 par) but they would not listen.
Paul’s quoting of this passage directly ties into what he says immediately after. This is a prophecy that through the lips of Gentiles God will be praised and the Jews will hear it, and it will be a sign of God’s judgment against Israel.
Thus, tongues then are a sign to unbelievers (Jews). Since Israel, as a theocracy under the old covenant has vanished, so has the need for this gift. There are no more first century Jews wandering about who haven’t heard that the Gospel has gone to the Gentiles. Prophecy fulfilled, end of need for ongoing gift.