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The description in verses 23-25 seems to contradict verse 22, how is prophecy a sign to believers and tongues a sign to unbelievers?

1 Corinthians 14:22-25

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.

  • Wonder if the purpose with praying in tongues has anything to do with the Tower of Babel? – Constantthin Aug 24 at 12:11
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Paul speaks of tongues throughout chapter 14, reviewing the entire chapter will prove useful. I've split my response into the answer in summary first and my work following it. Also, I've split my work into sections (1,2,3) and (A,B,C) which you can refer to when reading the answer.

The Answer

Tongues are mentioned along side prophecy many times and mention is even made of speaking in the tongues of angels. "Prophecy" doesn't always mean foretelling the future, it can simply be delivering a convicting message of truth.(A)(2) If, and this is simply an "if", tongues were used for delivering such messages then what Paul is saying would still apply. They would need an interpreter or the message would not be understood and if the message cannot be understood then why deliver it? (B)

Paul is saying that the purpose of speaking in tongues is to be a sign, a proof of sorts, to the unbeliever. Therefore, there is no reason for a group of believers to be speaking in tongues in this way to one another, for they already believe and do not need a miraculous sign. (1)

This is why Paul says that a nonbeliever would think the believers mad if he walked in on them speaking in tongues to each other. You see, the tongues are supposed to be a sign to him, the nonbeliever, directed to him and for him. (C)

If I understand the question correctly, the confusion is mostly with the verses 24 and 25. Paul never said prophecy was only effective on believer. When he says "But if all prophesy" he is not saying they are all prophesying to each other only, but that they all possess the gift of prophecy. The contrast between the two scenarios is to show that a message of truth is effective and edifying for nonbelievers as well.(D)

Best yet is tongues to the nonbeliever, followed by convicting words of prophecy and all the gifts of the Spirit working together for the benefit of all members of the church.

1 Cor 14:26 How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.

Paul's point is more about how the stranger perceives them from the outside. Improper tongues looks crazy, proper prophecy is moving.

Also if the tongues spoken of by Paul to the Corinthians was the type of ecstatic, religious experience "Glossolalia" that was common among pagan (including Greeks of Corinth) religions, then the meaning is further enhanced. Such tongues serve no purpose to a nonbeliever and even serve to turn them away, but divine truth can convict their hearts in a way that no pagan religion ever had.(3)


The Work

Uses of Tongues

"Tongues" takes on a number of meanings and uses in the New Testament.

  1. A literal language
  2. Praying in tongues
  3. Speaking in Angelic tongues

(1) Literal Language

Acts 2:3 And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. 5 And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. 6 Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. 7 And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans? 8 And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born?

Act 10:44 While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word. 45 And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost. 46 For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God. Then answered Peter,

In every instance of the use of "tongues" outside of 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, it is in the context of a literal language that is heard and miraculously understood. It is always for the purpose of communicating the truth of the Gospel to unbelievers. Even if you wish to understand the use of tongues in Acts 10:46 to be Angelic tongues that the Gentiles were simply impressed by, it was still with the purpose of their conversion.

(2) Praying in Tongues

Paul does not forbid the speaking of tongues without recipient or interpreter (an unknown tongue). Rather, he simply says that if no one (seemingly including you) can interpret, then it is just for you and your spirit, for speaking with yourself and God.

1 Cor 14:4 He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church.

1 Cor 14:13 Wherefore let him that speaketh in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret. 14 For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful. 15 What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.

1 Cor 14:28 But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God.

(3) Tongues of Angels

There isn't much here in Scripture. We have Paul's mention of it in 1 Corinthians 13:1

1 Cor 13:1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

Some will contend that the tongues spoken of in 1 Corinthians 14 is this angelic language, and that is why it was "unknown". However, two things should be noted: 1) The term "unknown" was inserted by translations as an aid, there is nothing in the Greek to directly translate there. 2) They were unknown, not because they were not necessarily languages of men, but because there was no one there who spoke that language and could interpret, either someone else or the speaker. That is why Paul says in 1 Cor 14:14 "For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful." His understanding is unfruitful because even he does not understand the language.

There are other extra-biblical accounts of speaking angelic language. In the case of the Testament of Job, it includes the speaker (or singer) having some knowledge of what they are speaking. But that does not seem to be the case in what Paul is writing.

Unfortunately the concept of "Glossolalia" is most commonly seen outside Christianity. Many pagan priests and priestesses used it. The Greeks of Corinth would have been well aware of this and perhaps that is the issue at hand with the church at Corinth. If Paul is speaking of Glossolalia in 1 Cor 14 then it would seem he is warning against it while respectfully not outlawing it, not wanting to stand against a possible working of God. This would also explain why it does not come up in this context in any other New Testament book, but was a specific issue to Corinth.

(A)

1Co 14:3 But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort. 4 He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church.

I'll also refer to Christianity Stack Exchange, which seems appropriate, all upvoted answers agree at least on this point, that prophecy is for divine instruction. It may be for the future, but it is just as often for the present.

(B)

1 Cor 14:6 Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine? 7 And even things without life giving sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped? 8 For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle? 9 So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air.

1 Cor 14:16 Else when thou shalt bless with the spirit, how shall he that occupieth the room of the unlearned say Amen at thy giving of thanks, seeing he understandeth not what thou sayest? 17 For thou verily givest thanks well, but the other is not edified.

(C)

When directed at others, it looks and sounds ridiculous. We see in Acts 2:13 that those who did not receive the Spirit and were involved in the speaking of tongues, that is speaking or being spoken to, saw all those speaking in tongues as being drunk and mocked them. Also:

1 Cor 14:10 There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification. 11 Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me.

The word for "voice" (φωνή, phone) can also be understood as a noise or sound, but also as a language. While it may be odd that Paul switches to this term when he has been using "tongues" (γλῶσσα,glossa), however when we consider what he is saying, it is very appropriate that he uses a term that means both language and sound. For, as he says, if you do not understand the language, it just sounds like noises. That is why

(D)

After reading the "if" statement of v23, we expect a similar inverse reaction in v24 and 25. That the prophecy would not effect him because we were just told that prophecy is for believers. So it seems logical to conclude that, as a nonbeliever, prophecy should then not be for him. But instead of the nonbeliever being confused by walking in on a group prophesying to each other, he is convicted. We should not see v23 as an inverse to v24,25, but rather how each scenario would effect the same stranger. While the nonbeliever thought tongues between believers was madness, he is convicted when he see's them prophesying to one another. This actually enhances the point that prophecy is to be used internally, for the stranger reacts positively when he see's the believers using it properly.

A real inverse of v23 would be something like "If a group of believers were out on the street prophesying to strangers, would not the nonbeliever think them mad?" But rather than inverting the wrong use with another wrong use, he contrasts the incorrect with the correct.

Returning to v23, the mockers of Acts 2:13 were not involved like the unbeliever in v23 and therefore it was ineffectual. But how does Peter respond to their mocking?

Acts 2:14 But Peter, standing up with the eleven, lifted up his voice, and said unto them, Ye men of Judaea, and all ye that dwell at Jerusalem, be this known unto you, and hearken to my words:

He responds with a sermon, a word of truth and prophecy. If prophecy was ineffective on the nonbeliever, why would Peter have responded in such a way. Why would he not have spoken to them in tongues? While the narrative does not say if Peter's sermon did effect the mockers specifically, we are told many heard and responded to his words:

Act 2:41 Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls.

It's getting late so I've tried to make it coherent enough to post, let me know if something got jumbled

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Just back up a verse:

21 In 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.

That's a quote from Isaiah 28 (which is addressed to drunken, immature judges, priests and prophets):

11 For with mocking lips and a foreign tongue he will speak to these people,

12 In the past he said to them, "This is where security can be found. Provide security for the one who is exhausted! This is where rest can be found." But they refused to listen.

13 So the Lord’s word to them will sound like meaningless gibberish, senseless babbling, a syllable here, a syllable there

In that passage, other tongues without interpretation are not a sign for the benefit of the immature, but against them. (It's unfortunate that some English translations introduce the word "for" for the dative as in "not for believers but for unbelievers", when "to" is closer to the intent).

The subsequent verses in Corinthians then outline how to be constructive instead: either through interpretation, silence, or prophecy rather than tongues.

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A good and perplexing question.

If nothing is added or contextualised, then there really holds a contradiction between the verses 22 and 23-25.

One can hazard this solution: the speaking in tongues not learned is a miracle and a miracle is not a haphazard gift by God, but for helping preachers to convert the bearers of this language (unlearned by the preacher himself). This is the meaning that the speaking in [foreign] tongues is a special miracle only for unbelievers, while the same miracle is redundant for those who already believe and have entered the life of faith.

On the contrary, for the latter, that is to say, those who already believe and live a life of faith, the other type of miracle, that of the ongoing prophesies (coupled with their meaningful interpretations /cf. 1 Cor. 14:29 /) are constantly needful, in order to grow spiritually in faith and wisdom. However, this miracle is impressive and beneficial also for unbelievers and outsiders, for it is clearly described by Paul (verses 23-25) how they will be benefitted from the miracle of the prophesy so as to come to faith.

Then the possible solution will be to read the verse 22 in such a way: "Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but [only and exclusively] for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not [only] for unbelievers but [also] for believers."

Still a problem remains: why will an unbeliever not be benefited from the sign specially destined to him, that is to say, the speaking in tongues, for he is said to think that the actors of this miracle are mad? I think it has to do with the nature of the miracle of tongues: it is a, so to say, a crude, outward miracle that immediately impresses but does not edify, does not touch the inner, noblest recesses of human heart and intellect. Thus, being so crudely impressed is good only for a short while and a good-hearted person looks for a greater and deeper perception and understanding of God and his relationship with Him. Without finding such and seeing only a miracle of continuous tongue-speaking, they will quickly depart, for only the outward, crude and introductory miracle of tongue-speaking will not be enough to keep them. In fact, Paul says that even for the tongue-speakers themselves this miracle which they themselves perform is futile unless somebody interprets for them contents and meaning of what they say (again cf.1 Cor. 14:29 and 1 Cor. 14:15, where Paul says that full benefit from prayer comes when both soul and intellectual understanding are involved, while in speaking with tongue only soul/spirit of the speaker is involved and benefited, not intellect).

That is my nothing but a tentative take on this very difficult and puzzling passage.

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To understand this passage one must be familiar with God's relationship with Israel because the "unbelievers" being referred to are unbelieving JEWS. The "sign" of tongues (Jews seek after a sign) was an indictment against Israel due to their rejection of Christ and ultimately, the kingdom which was offered them. 1 Corinthians 14:21 is a quote from Isaiah 28:11-12. The Corinthians church had many different type members (Jew, Gentiles, etc.) that made up one body and were basically misusing the gift of tongues and somewhat toting the gift as a spiritual "badge" because they were carnal "babes". Not much has changed today! It's also interesting to note in Acts (transitional book from law to grace for Jews and God ushering in the Times of the Gentiles/Church age) that as Christ's Spirit filled disciples took the gospel (acts 1:8) to Jerusalem (Jews/acts 2) Samaria (half Jew / half gentile/acts 8) and the UTTERMOST parts of the earth (Gentiles/acts 10). Whenever each of these groups received Jesus and the Holy Spirit fell upon them there were ALWAYS Jews present when the recipients spoke in tongues, why? Because God used tongues to convince the Jews present that God NOW was not just THEIR God, but was the God of the Gentiles as well! This was hard for the Jews to believe because up till now God was the God of the nation Israel ONLY and had nothing to do with gentiles! See Acts 10:44-46.

  • Hello Larry, welcome to BHSE, glad to have you here! If you have time, please take the tour of our site to get yourself familiar with how this site works, and how it is different from other sites you may know. Thanks! (hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/tour) – sara Aug 25 at 6:03
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The meaning stands as written Christ says twice in new testament all our evil and wicked generation get is jonah for a sign Google it Bible hub ..twice ..and what this means ..jonah already happened with my own face 1982-1984 ..gods angel through no power of my own ..only a mouth ..we don't forbid speaking in tongues as written tongues is for non believers ..prophesy is only for believers when everything comes true only ..because not only does the future turn true modern day terms only every second of every day every minute hour day week month and year events ..all personal sin is also exposed in prophesy if there is any ..so since nothing is hidden by god all secrets are laid bare open to others and recorded anyway ..so speaking in toungues edifys the spirit and ones self as written but also as written the bible says pray for prophecy the most out of anything ..as written if we can't then follow and do the commandments of the bible regardless and never repay evil with evil and never yoke unbelievers with believers anyway ..its a command out of rebuke not judgement in case a brother or sister repents 100 percent and stays repented ..if we sin once in a great while admit the sin openly and don't keep repeating that sin ..and as jonah terms go all personal sin is publicly exposed regardless of the whole future turning true as written all secrets laid bare open . amen this isant a bad thing ..the only exception with jonah is rev 11 were those two prophets coming will have fire from their face outward to kill any who try to harm them till 1260 days is over clothed in sackcloth and ashes as these two extremely powerful prophets backed by god and gods angels will do extreme damage and will strike as many times as they want water into blood famine pests hold the rain drought they will be very terrible ..the main false prophet will have fire from the sky down as written ..their are already many false prophets now but the main one is the main one ..watch out amen

  • 4
    Please consider incorporating punctuation and paragraphs into your answer. – user862 Jan 29 '17 at 3:37
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    Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange Robert, thanks for contributing! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites. – Steve Taylor Jan 30 '17 at 10:45
  • (-1) I have no idea what .. means. This is not an English form of punctuation, and makes this answer difficult to understand: this answer is extremely hard to read. – Steve Taylor Jan 30 '17 at 10:45

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