God’s Word for You
1 Corinthians 14:21-22 A sign for unbelievers
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Thursday, June 15, 2023
21 In the Law it is written, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” 22 So tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers.
Here is a place where Paul does not quote from the Greek Septuagint, but translates the passage himself from the Hebrew of Isaiah 28:11-12. He omits part of verse 12 and adds, “says the Lord,” but this is done in good order. In the context of Isaiah’s message, God meant the coming Assyrian army. They would speak to Israel. In some cases, this was in their own language, in others, it would be Hebrew (Isaiah 36:4-20). And in still other cases, the speaking would be figurative, since they would be speaking with armies and not words (Isaiah 36:2).
Paul is warning the Corinthians that the entertainment and the spectacle of tounges-speech in their worship was in danger of becoming a judgment on them because of the way they were abusing the gift. Verse 22 carries the thought forward with his next caution:
10. Speaking in tongues is not a miracle for the benefit of believers at all, but a sign for unbelievers.
The better gift to pursue, as with all of these, is love. In this case, love drives us toward prophecy (preaching and proclaiming the word of God) rather than a display of tongues. Without any interpreter, tongues is just gibberish anyway, of some value to the speaker because he has been given a gift from God, but of no value to anybody else since they can’t understand what’s being said.
Perhaps the Corinthians were one of the final flourishes of tongues-speech as a spiritual gift. The early church is unanimous in its observation that following the deaths of the Apostles, tongues all but vanished from the churches except for a very few fringe groups from time to time. From 100 to 1900, practically no one claimed ever to have spoken in tongues. For an interesting account of how ecstatic speech resurfaced among Charismatics and Pentecostal churches, see John Vogt’s Holy Spirit: The Giver of Life (NPH 1997) p. 100-103. Your church library probably has a copy. In the early church, tongues was a confirmatory gift like healing and other miracles, to draw attention with signs to the place where the true gospel was being preached. Today, those who claim to speak in tongues do not view it as a special gift given to a few as it was in ancient times, but the true sign of anyone who wants to be considered a genuine believer. Thus it has become a terrible temptation. Those who wish to fit in or become leaders in those churches are virtually compelled to fake or lie about having that experience, and therefore their consciences are burdened by it for the rest of their lives. Instead of being a source of God’s presence and grace, it becomes a terrible fear of God’s absence (“why everyone else and not me?”).
Of all things, a godly gift like tongues should not become divisive. I for one have never been blessed with speaking in tongues, but I believe that Jesus is my Savior and my baptism washed all my sins away. Perhaps I could proudly modify the words of Paul: “I thank God that I have spoken in tongues less than any of you!” After all, the church is not made up of tongues-speakers, but of Christians. The Christian church is nothing other than the gathering or congregation of saints—pious believers on earth. This church is gathered, preserved, and governed by the same Holy Spirit and is given blessings richly and daily by means of the sacraments and the word of God.
Let our clear message and preaching be a sign for all, that what we believe is right in step with what the Bible teaches (Galatians 5:25). Love will compel us to reach out with the gospel of forgiveness, and not to compel anyone to make any false show of their faith, but to trust in Jesus for forgiveness, for peace, and for everlasting life.
Pastor Timothy Smith