1 Corinthians 14:22:

22 Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not: but prophesying serveth not for them that believe not, but for them which believe. [KJV]

22 so that the tongues are for a sign, not to the believing, but to the unbelieving; and the prophesy [is] not for the unbelieving, but for the believing, [YLT]

22 So then, tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophecy is not for unbelievers, but for those who believe. [NASB]

In what sense is speaking in tongues a "sign" to unbelievers?

A sign of what?

Why would an unbeliever see it as a sign?


  • It would only be a ‘sign’ if their natural mind could comprehend what was spoken. So the ‘tongues’ in this case would need to be a ‘known’ language that the speaker was not trained in, but the hearer understood.
    – Dave
    Dec 23, 2021 at 22:56
  • @Dave - but the question is: does the 'sign' come from the content of what the speaker is saying, or from the fact that the hearer knows that the speaker is speaking miraculously in an unlearned language? In other words, is the hearer aware of the fact that a miracle is taking place?
    – user38524
    Dec 23, 2021 at 23:00
  • 2
    The ‘key’ term is ‘sign’. Biblically a ‘sign’ is some un-natural [supernatural] event that is ‘seen’ via natural senses [seen, heard, felt] but for which there is no ‘natural’ explanation. So “is the hearer aware”? Yes, or else it wouldn’t be a ‘sign’.
    – Dave
    Dec 24, 2021 at 0:22

2 Answers 2


The word σημεῖον (sémeion) is used in the NT in two senses (BDAG):

  1. a sign or distinguishing mark whereby something is known, sign, token indication, eg, Luke 2:12, 2 Thess 3:17, etc.

  2. an event that is an indication of confirmation of intervention by transcendent powers, miracle, portent, Matt 12:38, 16:1, 4, Mark 8:11, 12, 16:17, John 2:11, 18, 23, 3:2, 4:54, 6:2, 14, 26, 30, 7:31, 9:16, 10:41, 11:47, 12:18, Acts 4:16:22, 8:6, 1 Cor 1:22, Rom 15:19, Heb 2:4, 2 Cor 12:12, etc.

I would argue that is in this latter sense that σημεῖον (sémeion) is used in 1 Cor 14:22, thus we would have:

So then, tongues are for a miracle, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophecy is not for unbelievers, but for those who believe.

That is, the spiritual gift of tongues is for the purpose of reaching unbelievers when they cannot speak the same language, not for showing off in church services. That is, if an apostle find unbelievers who do not speak the same langues, then the Spirit might elect to enable the apostle to speak their language in order to evangelize them.

This is confirmed by other statements in the same chapter of 1 Cor 14:

  • V4 - but the one who prophesies edifies the church.
  • V5 - I wish that all of you could speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets so that the church may be edified.
  • V9 - So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air.
  • V14, 15 - For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. What then shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind. I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind.
  • V19 - But in the church, I would rather speak five coherent words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.
  • V23-25 - So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who are uninstructed or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if an unbeliever or uninstructed person comes in while everyone is prophesying, he will be convicted and called to account by all, and the secrets of his heart will be made known. So he will fall facedown and worship God, proclaiming, “God is truly among you!”
  • Very fine answer. +1 Do you make a distinction between the speaker being enabled to speak a language he does not know and the hearer being enabled to understand a language he does not know. I ask because Acts 2 sounds like lots of different people groups (and languages) understanding single individuals speaking and it seems unlikely that they were speaking multiple languages at the same time. Dec 23, 2021 at 22:03
  • I fail to see how verses 23-25 serve as a confirmation. Those verses seem to suggest that prophecy is more effective for converting unbelievers than tongues.
    – user38524
    Dec 23, 2021 at 22:03
  • @MikeBorden - I think Acts 2 is a case of both gift of tongues (on the believers) and gift of interpretation of tongues (on the unbelievers).
    – user38524
    Dec 23, 2021 at 22:05
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator - that is the point - all communication must be in a language that both speaker and listener understand. Both V22 and V23-25 are true - when the apostle speaks to unbelievers who do not speak his language, by the gift of tongues he speaks their language. But in church, if everyone is speaking in an unknown language, then unbelievers will thing that are all "out of their mind".
    – Dottard
    Dec 23, 2021 at 23:13
  • @MikeBorden - see my answer to your question here >> hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/45222/…
    – Dottard
    Dec 23, 2021 at 23:16

Pentecostal Miracle This answer can be answered with reference to the first time tongues were demonstrated: Acts 2. On the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was manifested supernaturally in the manifestation of unknown tongues being spoken by the Jewish disciples of Jesus:

And when the Day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.
And there appeared to them tongues like fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them.
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues as the Spirit was giving them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4)

What was supernatural about this was the fact that people who had come to the Feast or were living in Jerusalem, were from many nations, and spoke different languages. BUT the Jewish disciples were speaking their language having never learned it normally:

When this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language. (Acts 2:6)

Paul's Admonition So Paul realized that tongue speaking would continue to be a sign of the supernatural character of Christianity to visitors who heard the languages in their own tongue. But the Jewish congregation in the local church would not be edified because they wouldn't understand what was being said. So tongues are for the unbeliever (visitor). (1 Corinthians 14:22)

Prophecy However if a minister or congregate stood up and prophesied in the local (Jewish) language, the rest of the people in the congregation would understand the message, and be edified. Also, the unbeliever (visitor), upon seeing the manifestation of prophecy...revealing the heart of a person...telling the future...exposing hidden sins...encouraging the persecuted...etc. would be amazed! It would pique his/her interest in the supernatural Christian religion. But mainly, the prophecies are directed to a person in the congregation being ministered to.

This way all things would be done decently and in order, without confusion or meaningless unedifying gibberish. (14:33, 40)

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