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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Speaking in Tongues

Don Stewart :: In What Sense Is Speaking in Tongues a Sign to Those Who Do Not Believe?

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In What Sense Is Speaking in Tongues a Sign to Those Who Do Not Believe? (1 Corinthians 14:22)

The Gift of Speaking in Tongues – Question 7

There is a passage in First Corinthians where Paul states the purpose of speaking in tongues. He says that it is a sign to unbelievers.

Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers (1 Corinthians 14:22 NIV).

According to this passage speaking in tongues is a sign to unbelievers while prophecy is a sign for believers.

Does Paul Contradict Himself?

This is a difficult passage because it seems to contradict what Paul had earlier said. Indeed, when we read this verse in context it seems like a contradiction. Here is what he said in context.

It is written in the law: By people of other languages and by the lips of foreigners, I will speak to this people; and even then, they will not listen to Me, says the Lord. It follows that speaking in other languages is intended as a sign, not to believers but to unbelievers. But prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers. Therefore if the whole church assembles together, and all are speaking in [other] languages, and people who are uninformed or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your minds? (1 Corinthians 14:21-23 HCSB)

First, he says that tongues are a sign to unbelievers. He then seemingly contradicts himself when he says that if everyone in the congregation speaks in tongues unbelievers will think they are all crazy.

How can it be a sign to unbelievers if they assume the tongue-speakers are out of their minds?

Was This a Copyists Error?

The seeming inconsistencies lead the English translator J.B. Phillips to change the text from which he was translating. In a footnote he explained his reasons.

This is the sole instance of the translator’s departing from the accepted text. He felt bound to conclude from the sense of the next three verses, that we have here either a slip of the pen on the part of Paul, or more probably, a copyist’s errors

Others have joined Phillips in amending the text in this verse. However, we do not have to resort to doing this. There are a number of ways in which this difficulty can be solved without insisting on a contradiction in Paul’s thinking or assuming that a copying mistake was made when the original letter to the Corinthians was first sent out.

Furthermore, there is no manuscript evidence whatsoever that would suggest that the text originally read differently. Those who alter the text in this verse are guilty of tampering with the Word of God. This is a serious offense!

As we will see, there are a several ways in which this verse can be understood without assuming a contradiction. They are as follows.

Congregational Tongue-speaking Is a Sign That Everyone Is Crazy

Some feel the answer to this dilemma is simple. Individuals, speaking in tongues one by one, can be a sign to an unbeliever of God’s truth. However, if everyone in a congregation speaks in tongues at the same time, it is then a sign to the unbeliever that the people are indeed crazy!

Therefore, Paul is arguing that it is essential to follow the rules when the gift of speaking in tongues is operating – only one person may speak at a time and there must be an interpreter present. Individuals, who speak in tongues with an interpreter present, are exercising the gift in the proper way. Congregational tongue-speaking is always forbidden.

Was It a Sign of Judgment on the Nation Israel?

Some believe the sign of tongues was meant to be one of judgment upon the nation of Israel. They are the unbelievers to whom Paul is addressing. This is consistent with the Old Testament quotation that Paul cited.

Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues God will speak to this people, to whom he said, “This is the resting place, let the weary rest”; and, “This is the place of repose”— but they would not listen (Isaiah 28:11, 12 NIV).

This idea of an alien, or foreign, language goes back to the curses pronounced by Moses against the nation. If the people disobeyed the Lord then the following judgment was promised.

The LORD will bring a nation against you from far away, from the ends of the earth, like an eagle swooping down, a nation whose language you will not understand, (Deuteronomy 28:49 NIV).

This speaks of the judgment of the Lord on disobedient Israel by means of a foreign nation. The sign that Israel is being judged is the sound of people babbling in a foreign tongue.

We have the same situation here. The sign of tongues was one of a curse to the Jewish nation. They had rejected the Messiah. Consequently, the Lord, in the same way He did in the past, judged the people with the sound of people babbling in a foreign language. Less than twenty years after Paul wrote First Corinthians the nation Israel was mightily judged by God for the rejection of Jesus. The city of Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed. Those who were not killed were sent into exile. Judgment from God had arrived!

Was It a Sign of God’s Favor?

There is the opposite position that says the sign of tongues was a sign of God’s favor to the unbelieving world. The fact that God is being praised in numerous different languages demonstrates that the gospel is going out to all nations. This is what happened at Pentecost. The Book of Acts tells us what took place.

When this sound occurred, the multitude came together and was confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. And they were astounded and amazed, saying,] “Look, aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites; those who live in Mesopotamia, in Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, (Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs–we hear them speaking in our own languages the magnificent acts of God.” And they were all astounded and perplexed, saying to one another, “What could this be?” (Acts 2:6-12 HCSB).

Therefore, from this perspective, speaking in tongues is a sign to the unbeliever that God’s message is going out into the entire world.

Each of these views is possible. Consequently, we do not have to resort to saying that Paul contradicted himself when he wrote this statement neither do we have to amend the text. The text, as it stands, can be read in harmony with the rest of the teachings of Paul.

Summary – Question 7
in What Sense Is Speaking in Tongues a Sign to Those Who Do Not Believe (1 Corinthians 14:22)

The Apostle Paul wrote that speaking in tongues constitutes a sign for unbelievers. Yet this seems to contradict what he earlier said about the gift – unbelievers will think believers are crazy when they hear them speaking in tongues. This seeming contradiction caused the Bible translator J.B. Phillips to change the text in First Corinthians 14:22 so that it would harmonize.

However this is not only unnecessary, it also sets a horrible precedent. Since there is no manuscript evidence whatsoever for a different reading in this passage, we should not resort to altering the text merely because we do not understand how Paul’s statements can be reconciled. Furthermore, the idea that tongues is a sign for the unbeliever can be understood in a number of different ways without assuming some sort of contradiction in the text as it now stands. A number of points need to be made.

The simplest answer is that if everyone in the congregation is speaking in tongues at the same time then the unbeliever, to whom the sign of tongues is directed, will think that everyone in the place is crazy. However, if tongue-speaking follows the rules with one person speaking at a time, then the unbeliever will be convicted by what he or she hears. Paul is simply illustrating why it is essential to follow the rules which he has laid down.

Others think it is a sign of judgment upon the unbelieving nation of Israel. In the past, they were judged by nations that spoke in foreign tongues or foreign languages. The same thing is true here. Their judgment for rejecting Jesus as the Messiah is the sound of believers speaking in languages in which they do not understand. It would remind them of what Moses warned would happened if they disobeyed God’s command.

There is also the view that the sound of foreign languages is actually a sign of God’s favor. The gift of tongues at Pentecost showed that the gospel was going out to the entire world. It is a sign to the unbeliever that the good news of salvation is being proclaimed to everyone, Jew and Gentile alike.

The fact that there are a number of possible interpretations of what Paul meant, without assuming some sort of contradiction, shows us that we should not attempt to alter the text in this verse. Paul did not contradict himself! Any of these three options is possible.

Is There a Difference between the Gift of Tongues and the Sign of Tongues? ← Prior Section
Must a Person Speak in Tongues to Be Saved? Next Section →
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