1 CORINTHIANS 14:21-25

21   In the Law it is written:

"Through men of strange tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me."

says the Lord.

22   Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers.

23   So, if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some believers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?

24   But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everyone is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, 25and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, "God is really among you!"

Many times we are faced with an apparent contradiction in the above passage. Paul in v.22 seems to say that tongues are for unbelievers, prophecy for believers, then in the following verses (23-25) seems to say the opposite, that prophecy has an effect on the unbeliever, and tongues having a detrimental effect. Ho do we resolve this?

I think part of the problem is due to the "paragraphing" done by the translators of whichever version of the Bible we have. By combining v.22 with v.23-35, we would end up with the contradiction described above. However, if we take the context of placing v.22 as a continuation of Paul's argument in v.21, and v.23-25 in a separate, though related argument, the conflict is resolved.

Let us take the text section by section, and then see if we can combine them together.

v.21 is taken from Isa 28:11-12. Here the prophet Isaiah is telling the unbelieving house of Israel that judgment was coming upon them in the form of foreigners (Assyrians) whose tongue (language) they do not understand. Therefore, Paul interprets this passage to mean that tongues were then a sign to unbelieving Israel that God's word through Isaiah was true. This Paul states in v.22, applying the passage in Isa 28 to present-day unbelievers, that tongues was a sign of God's judgment on unbelievers. Whether the unbelievers understood the tongues is not the issue, but what matters is that since the unbelievers refused to believe when the plain word of God was spoken in the vernacular, then He would speak to them in tongues (i.e. sending judgment upon them), thus paralleling the situation in Isa 28, where unbelieving Israel refused to heed the warnings spoken clearly through Isaiah, resulting in God sending judgment in the form of foreigners speaking strange tongues. Speaking in tongues, being the normal Christian experience, would thus have no judgmental effect on believers. Prophecy, on the other hand, was for the edification of the church (1Cor 14:4), the contents thereof would then only be relevant and make sense to those predisposed to receive it, i.e., the believers. As is written, the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1Cor 1:18). Revealed truth, in the form of prophecy, would then only edify believers, and not unbelievers. In essence, v.21-22 deals with tongues as a sign of God's judgment. I feel that the added passage about prophecy is not so much as to delineate believers from unbelievers, but that Paul's intention was to contrast tongues with prophecy. This will become more apparent when we try to resolve v.24-25 with v.22 later on.

The situation in v.23 parallels that described in Ac 2:13. For unbelievers who do not understand the significance of tongues, that is the normal reaction. v.24-25 is self-explanatory.

Apparently, v.23 seems to suggest that tongues do not edify the unbeliever, and would even lead them to make fun of it. Well, we do not dispute this fact, as the reaction of the unbelievers to tongues is quite similar to that of unbelieving Israel in Isa 28. So, how, then, do we reconcile that to v.22? If we read v.22 carefully, it actually says that "tongues... are a sign for unbelievers". It does not say "tongues... are for unbelievers". As discussed earlier, tongues is God's sign to unbelievers of His impending judgment, though the content of the tongues itself had meant nothing to the unbelievers. In fact, in Isa 28, when unbelieving Israel reduced the plain word of God to "baby-talk" (Isa 28:9-10), God's reply was that since His plain word was "baby-talk" and thus foreign to the unbelievers, then, since they say Isaiah is speaking nonsense, so God's word that Isaiah speaks will remain nonsense to them. So, we have to get it clear that tongues are a sign to unbelievers, even if the content sounds like nonsense to them, which ties in neatly with v.23.

Now, how do we resolve v.24-25 with v.22? If prophecy is for believers, how then can it affect unbelievers? Prophecy, spoken in the vernacular and intended for believers, convicts the unbelievers because he hears and understands God's revealed truth, thus convicting him of his sins. Now this sounds like I am contradicting myself when I mentioned earlier that prophecy would only make sense to those predisposed to receive it. In a sense this is a very sticky passage but let me give a practical allegory. When we preach the Gospel to unbelievers, we can get either of two reactions: either the unbeliever rejects the Gospel as nonsense, or else he would be convicted and receive the Gospel as God's revealed truth. In this way, we can say that the unbeliever who rejects the Gospel is like those in v.22 and v.23, who receive a sign of God's judgment in the form of tongues (v.22), and yet say it is nonsense (v.23), and thus not being able to comprehend prophecy (v.22). On the other case, the unbeliever who receives the Gospel is like those in v.24-25. Because he is predisposed to the Gospel, and is willing to accept God's word in plain language (in contrast to Isa 28, where the unbelievers were not willing to heed God's words, even in plain language through Isaiah), he is thus able to understand the prophecy, resulting in his conviction (recall 1Cor 1:18?). We do not preach the Gospel in tongues, as no one would understand. We preach the Gospel in plain language, and the tow reactions to the preaching of the Gospel is like the two reactions unbelievers would have when they are confronted with prophecy. To add some more difficult food for thought, in the same way, we can see the two different reactions to tongues in Ac 2:12-13. When God gave the sign of tongues, one group of unbelievers dismissed it as nonsense, while another group were perplexed and were predisposed to hear the Gospel in plain language (through Peter). In this particular case, the tongues spoken was in known languages (though unknown to the speakers). Yet, God used it as a sign to the unbelievers. In the same situation as Isa 28, it forced a decision on the hearers. For some, even the known tongue was interpreted as nonsense (Ac 2:13)(as the Israelites did with God's plain words through Isaiah), while for others, they took heed of God's warning and thus responded (Ac 2:12).

In summing up, let us go over the few points raised up.

1) Tongues: Meant as a sign for unbelievers, while at the same time being part of the normal Christian experience.

2) Prophecy: Meant for believers, to edify the church. Has no effect or meaning to unbelievers who reject the Gospel preached in plain language, but convicts the unbeliever who will receive the Gospel when preached in plain language.

3) The passage in 1Cor 14:21-25 should be interpreted in the light and understanding of Isa 28.

We can almost infer that v.21-22 is God's warning to the unbelievers, and that v.23-25 is the unbelievers' responses to His warning of judgment.

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© Nicholas Tay 1994