Text: 1 Cor. 14:1-25
Pursue love, and desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy. For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands him; however, in the spirit he speaks mysteries. But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men. He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. I wish you all spoke with tongues, but even more that you prophesied; for he who prophesies is greater than he who speaks with tongues, unless indeed he interprets, that the church may receive edification.
What exactly is “speaking in tongues,” and what does the Bible have to say about it?
This is a question that you all have probably wanted me to get to earlier, but I’ve purposely delayed it in order to follow closely what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians. But now we are getting into the details of it. Most people’s first question is, “Should we still speak in tongues today?” and that can be a difficult question to answer if you’re hoping to find one verse that answers it directly. But what we can find are verses that tell us what speaking in tongues is for and why anyone ever did it in the first place. That will go a long way in telling us what we should think about tongues today.
So, this morning we will see Paul’s explanation of what the miraculous sign gifts are for. We will see that prophecy and speaking in tongues are different gifts with different purposes. We will see that Paul prefers prophecy and places it higher than speaking in tongues, and we will see that the reason he does this is because of the purpose. Prophecy, as he says, is for the people of God, whereas speaking in tongues is a warning to unbelievers.
The Difference Between Prophecy and Tongues
The first thing we should note is the very obvious thing. Paul says that prophecy and tongues have different purposes. Paul says that speaking in tongues is an action directed “to God” whereas prophecy is an action directed “to men.” Speaking in tongues, by itself, does not edify others but only the speaker. Prophecy, however, “edifies the church.”
Prophecy is not simply “predicting the future” as we often think. Rather, it is the more basic concept of speaking God’s Word. Peter explains it this way, “prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). For this reason, he adds, prophecies are never private interpretations but are instead always public proclamations that can be evaluated and shown to be true. Prophecy is when God gives a person a special revelation that they then proclaim to others. It is therefore a word of “edification and comfort to men.”
Speaking in tongues is different. The first difference is simply that “no one understands him.” Because he is speaking in a different tongue from the tongue the people around him speak, he is unintelligible. And so Paul says that without interpretation, this gift only edifies the speaker. A little later Paul adds that speaking in tongues is a sign “not to those who believe but to unbelievers” (vs. 22). So we see that it is a unique form of speech. It is speech direct towards non-Christians, and it is meant to convict and condemn.
We can also see that the tongues are human languages, and they are languages that have a logical and coherent meaning. Listen to how Paul explains it:
There are, it may be, so many kinds of languages in the world, and none of them is without significance. Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me. (vs. 10-11)
Notice that, “many kinds of languages in the world” and “if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner…” Paul is talking about world languages, and these languages can and should be translated in order to benefit the church.
This is similar to Pentecost in that the Apostles there began to speak in different languages, but it is different as well. The difference is that these languages were perfectly suited to the audience at Pentecost. “Everyone heard them speak in his own language” (Acts 2:6). In Corinth, however, the congregation mostly all speaks the same language, and the tongue-speaker is speaking to them in a language that they cannot understand. They are not automatically given understanding by this gift. Instead, they are given confusion.
Since this is the case, any tongues used in the worship service must be translated. Paul is emphatic about this. He says, “he who prophesies is greater than he who speaks with tongues, unless indeed he interprets” (1 Cor. 14:5) and also, “let him who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret” (vs. 13). A little later, Paul gives instructions for how the Corinthians are to, and he will require an interpreter (vs. 27-28).
This is very important to understand. Speaking in tongues, in the first century, involved speaking a foreign language that the audience could not understand. Since this was the case, those tongues had to be translated. If they were not translated, then they were forbidden. You were not allowed to speak in tongues without having a translator present with you. And so, whether we think Christians should speak in tongues today or not, it’s Biblically undeniable that anyone who does must have an interpreter. Anyone who simply shouts unintelligible words is doing no good to the church. Indeed, they are contradicting the clear teaching of the Scriptures.
Why Prophecy Is Better
Since all of this is the case, prophecy is better than speaking in tongues. Prophecy is better for at least three reasons. It’s better because people can understand prophecy. It is intelligible. “Unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air” (1 Cor. 14:9). Paul adds to this:
I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding. Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how will he who occupies the place of the uninformed say “Amen” at your giving of thanks, since he does not understand what you say? (vs. 15-16)
Understanding is essential. We must understand what we are saying, and others must understand what we are saying. This is the only way that we can bring about conviction, repentance, and salvation. “In the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue” (vs. 19) Prophetic speech teaches others. It helps them grow in understanding.
Secondly, prophecy brings about proper conviction before God. Paul explains in more detail:
But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an uninformed person comes in, he is convinced by all, he is convicted by all. And thus the secrets of his heart are revealed; and so, falling down on his face, he will worship God and report that God is truly among you. (vs. 24-25)
Notice what causes the unbeliever to worship God. It is not simply the spectacle. It isn’t that he sees something amazing, something out of the ordinary that signifies power. No, what causes Him to worship God is being convicted. “The secrets of his heart are revealed.” He knows His sin. And that is what causes him to believe “that God is truly among you.”
Thirdly, prophecy is better than speaking in tongues because it edifies other people. As Paul said in vs. 4, speaking in uninterpreted tongues only edifies one person, the speaker. Paul is probably being rhetorical there. That’s a criticism. His point is that if you speak in tongues without an interpreter you are being self-centered. By contrast, prophecy edifies other people. It edifies the church (vs. 5, 12). And since the whole purpose of all spiritual gifts is the building up of the whole church, then our use of any gift must further that goal. No gifts may be used selfishly or in isolation.
What Tongues Were For
Since prophecy is better than speaking in tongues, then why was the gift of tongues given at all? What was it for?
The answer to this is fascinating. Speaking in tongues were a specific sign meant to send a very particular message. In fact, the tongues were a sign to unbelievers, and they were meant to send the message that God’s word was against them.
Brethren, do not be children in understanding; however, in malice be babes, but in understanding be mature. In the law it is written:
“With men of other tongues and other lips
I will speak to this people;
And yet, for all that, they will not hear Me,”
says the Lord. (vs. 20-21)
Paul tells the Corinthians that they need to be “mature” in their understanding of the gifts. That’s the same word that is translated “perfect” in 1 Cor. 13. These gifts were happening among the immature, and Paul wanted to lead them into maturity, into a better understanding. He wanted them to know what was going on.
To do this, he quotes from Isaiah 28. “With men of other tongues and other lips I will speak to this people; and yet for all that, they will not hear Me.” God is speaking, and He is speaking about Israel. God is saying that He will send Gentiles upon Israel, and those Gentiles will speak God’s word to Israel. The Gentiles will prophecy to the Jews. But the Jews will not hear it. Why will the Jews not hear it? They won’t hear it because of their hard heart. And so the external unintelligibility is a sign of the spiritual unintelligibility.
This is the same thing that God said in Isaiah 6:
Go, and tell this people: “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; Keep on seeing, but do not perceive.” Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; Lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and return and be healed. (Is. 6:9-10)
Isaiah would tell the people that they had been blinded. And when Isaiah told them this, that actually further sealed their fate. It made their heart dull, their ears heavy, and their eyes shut. It was a ministry of judgment. And the Gentiles would do the same thing. They were an exponential version of the same thing. Now the Jews cannot understand because God’s Word has literally become unintelligible.
Isaiah predicted that Gentiles would take Israel into captivity, and that happened– first with the Assyrians, then with the Babylonians, and then with the Persians. What’s astounding is that during the Babylonian captivity, God actually began to speak to Israel in the language of the Babylonians. We see this in the book of Daniel. Did you know that Nebuchadnezzar actually writes part of Daniel? There is chapter in Nebuchadnezzar’s voice, in the first person. That means that God was speaking to Israel through their Gentile captor! In fact, part of the book of Daniel is written in Aramaic. The book begins in Hebrew, but then it switches to Aramaic. And do you know whose language Aramaic was? It was the Babylonians!
God translated His word into the language of the Babylonians, and He spoke to Israel in that language. This was a sign. It was a sign that God had turned against them. That He had joined with foreign people. It should have caused them to repent.
That was what the tongues meant in the Old Testament. God has joined with the Gentiles, had given them power, and was actually speaking in and through them. And now the same thing is happening in the 1st century. God is pouring His Spirit out on the Gentiles, and as the Jews rejected this movement of the Spirit, their ears closed. God made His word unintelligible to some of them. And if that word is not interpreted, then it is only a sign of condemnation to the audience. It means that they do not and cannot understand what God is telling them.
This is why Paul explains it this way: “Therefore tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers” (1 Cor. 14:22a). The “sign” value of speaking in tongues is that it sends a message to unbelievers. It tells them that they are currently deaf and blind to God. It tells them that if something doesn’t change, they will face God’s judgment.
Since this is the case, what will happen if the Christian Church uses these tongues without any sort of interpretation? It will actually serve to condemn the Church! “Therefore if the whole church comes together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those who are uninformed or unbelievers, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” (vs. 23). Paul’s point is that the conclusion that the unbelievers make will be a justified one. They will not be converted by the speaking in tongues. They will be repulsed by it. Confusion, irrationality, and unintelligibility are not the ways that God saves people. They are the way that God destroys and condemns people.
This point also goes a long way to explain to us why tongues were happening in the first century and whether or not we should expect them to happen today. They were intimately connected with that point in covenant history. They sent the message that God was broadening the boundaries of His kingdom. Indeed, God was translating Himself, and the people of God would now look and sound different from before.
If tongues happen today, then they need to also make some sort of sense of this covenant history. They need to be reflective, not of some sort of non-human language, but of peoples to whom God is bringing the kingdom. And when we hear languages which we cannot understand in worship, this would be a warning to us. It would be telling us that something was going on, and that we were in danger of judgment. We would need a translator, and we would expect that this signified some movement of God from one culture or people group to another.
But none of that is happening with modern churches who speak in tongues. They use the tongues as a sign for their own members, as proof that divine power is working in their midst. They make it a “sign for believers” instead of a sign for unbelievers. And they make no real reference to the translation of God’s word from culture to culture or an impeding eschatological shake-up about to face God’s people. In short, they take the gift of tongues entirely out of its biblical context and use it for new purposes. And so, whether or not any kind of speaking in tongues might be possible today, we can be sure that the common form is not biblical.
We have seen a few things this morning. Prophecy and tongues are different, and prophecy is better than tongues. Prophecy is intelligible, creates proper understanding conviction, and edifies the church. And as we will see next week, anyone who did speak in tongues in the first century was commanded to have an interpretation, thus turning speaking in tongues into prophecy. It had to be intelligible.
We have also seen that speaking in tongues is a prophetic action of the Old Testament, and it was meant to be a sign that things were not going to turn out well for those who couldn’t understand God’s Word. Since this is the case, we ought not to desire to be confounded by foreign speech. That would be a very bad thing for us. Instead, we ought to long for intelligible speech which can teach us and build us up.
Most of all, we should see in this passage that our spiritual gifts, no matter how impressive, must be used for the building up of the church. We have to have other people in mind, and we have to strive for other people’s blessing and well-being. This is because the greatest gift is always love. So this morning, let us find our gifts and put them to use. Let us use them for one another, and let us proclaim God’s word to one another, that we might be edified, that we might be convicted, and that we might be led to worship God.
Let us pray.