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The "Signs" of Tongues and Prophecy in 1 Cor. 14:20-25

Whatever position one takes with regard to the cessation or continuation of the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit mentioned throughout the pages of the New Testament, there is one thing we can all be sure of--1 Corinthians 14:1-25 (see esp. vv. 20-25) is an incredibly difficult portion of Scripture to interpret. In addition to the question of what "tongues" (glossolalia) were,* the difficultly of this passage is heightened by the fact that, in this section, the apostle Paul "calls tongues a sign for unbelievers (vs. 22), but then seems to discourage the use of tongues when unbelievers are present (vs. 23). Similarly, he says that prophecy is for believers (vs. 22), but then encourages the use of prophecy when unbelievers are present (vss. 24–25)."1 Add to this the way in which Paul quotes Isaiah 28:11--a text that seems to teach us that God is sovereignly disposed to hide the truth from some unbelievers by keeping it contained to particular foreign languages. Almost all commentators are agreed that "foreign speech" of Is. 28:11 is, in its historical context, "foreign speech which the Lord would bring to the Samaritans by way of punishment for their stubborn refusal too hear and obey his words." If all of these dynamics are accurate then when Paul takes this passage up in his argument to the Corinthians it appears to have a modern application with regard to God's sovereign concealing of truth from impenitent unbelievers. In the same passage, however, Paul refers to the "unbeliever" who comes into the congregation and hears a clear word of God's revelation and is converted. It appears that the conversion of unbelievers is also clearly one of God's goals in giving the gifts of the Spirit. What are we to make of this strange line of argumentation? How are we to deal with the apostle's seemingly contradictory arguments? In his Spring 1979 WTJ article "1 Corinthians 14:20-25: Prophecy And Tongues As Signs Of God’s Attitude," Grudem helpfully observes:

In the NT, (σημειο͂ν can mean “an indication of God’s approval and blessing” (Ac. 2:22, 43, 4:30, 5:12, 6:8, 8:6 [cf. vs. 8], 15:12, Lk. 2:34, Jn. 2:11, 4:54, 9:16; cf. Barn. 4:14, 1 Cl. 51:5) or “an indication of God’s disapproval and a warning of judgment” (Lk. 11:30, 21:11, 25, Ac. 2:19; perhaps Mt. 12:39 [cf. vs. 41], 16:4; cf. 1 Cl. 11:2).

So when Paul says “tongues are a sign not to believers but to unbelievers” he is using σημειο͂ ν in a familiar and well-established sense. Toward those who disbelieve, signs as indications of God’s attitude in the OT are always negative. They indicate God’s disapproval and carry a warning of judgment. This was precisely the function of the “other tongues” in Is. 28:11 and Paul quite naturally applies the term (σημειο͂ν to them. But signs for those who believe and obey God in the OT are generally positive. They indicate God’s presence and power among his people to bless them. Thus Paul can quite easily apply the term to prophecy in a positive sense: prophecy is an indication of God’s approval and blessing on the congregation because it shows that God is actively present in the assembled church.26

This means that the οὖν, “therefore,” in vs. 23 is quite natural. We can paraphrase Paul’s thought as follows: “When God speaks to people in a language they cannot understand, it signifies his anger and results in their turning farther away from him. Therefore (οὖν, vs. 23), if outsiders or unbelievers come in and you speak in a language they cannot understand, you will simply drive them away. This is the inevitable result of incomprehensible speech. Furthermore, in your childish way of acting (vs. 20) you will be giving a “sign” to the unbelievers which is entirely wrong, because their hardness of heart has not reached the point where they deserve that severe sign of judgment. So when you come together (vs. 26), if anyone speaks in a tongue, be sure someone interprets (vs. 27); otherwise, the tongue-speaker should be quiet in the church (vs. 29).”

Similarly with prophecy, vss. 24–25 follow quite easily from the statement in vs. 22 that prophecy is a sign to believers. Once again we paraphrase: “Prophecy is an indication of God’s presence among the congregation to bless it (vs. 22). Therefore (οὖν, vs. 23), if an outsider comes in and everyone prophesies (vs. 24), you will be speaking about the secrets of the outsider’s heart which he thought no one knew. He will realize that these prophecies must be the result of God’s working, and he will fall on his face and declare, ‘Truly God is among you’ (vs. 25). In this way prophecy will be a sure sign to you that God really is at work in your midst.

It might be objected that this interpretation makes ἄπιστος means “hardened unbeliever” in vs. 22 but “interested unbeliever” in vss. 23–24. This objection is not really accurate, because ἄπιστος must mean simply “unbeliever” (of whatever type) in both places. In fact, if it did not refer to all unbelievers in vs. 22, Paul’s argument would not hold together. In vss. 21-22 Paul argues that when tongues have been used against unbelievers they have been a very severe and perhaps final indication of God’s displeasure,30 and they have resulted in further turning from God. On the basis of that historical example, Paul then cautions the Corinthians not to use tongues in the presence of unbelievers, lest the same thing happen (vs. 23). So Paul is saying that against even interested unbelievers, tongues would function as an indication of God’s disapproval and would bring punishment. Tongues, according to vs. 23, would be a σημειο͂ν τοις͂ ἄπιστος not only for hardened unbelievers but also for visitors to the Corinthian church, and as such, it would be so wrong to use it that Paul must carefully caution against it. Therefore, ἄπιστος in vs. 22 must refer to unbelievers generally, even though the specific example in vs. 21 deals with hardened unbelievers in particular.

It should also be noted here that Paul’s reaction to this recognition of the sign function of tongues is not to forbid tongues in public worship, but to regulate the use of tongues so that they will always be interpreted when spoken in public (vss. 27–28). This seems to be a very appropriate response, for it is only incomprehensible tongues which have this negative function both in Is. 28:11 and in 1 Cor. 14:23. But toward unbelievers, when a speech in tongues is interpreted, it is no longer incomprehensible and it no longer retains this ominous sign function.

Therefore, it is important to realize that in 1 Cor. 14:20–23 Paul is not talking about the function of tongues in general but only about the negative result of one particular abuse of tongues,31 namely the abuse of speaking in public without an interpreter (and probably speaking more than one at a time [cf. vss. 23, 27]) so that it all became a scene of unedifying confusion. Concerning the proper public function of the use of tongues plus interpretation, or the proper private function of speaking in tongues, Paul is elsewhere quite positive (12:10-11, 21–22, 14:4, 5, 18, 26–28, 39). So to use Paul’s discussion of an abuse of tongues in 14:20–23 as the basis for a general polemic against all other (acceptable) uses of tongues is quite contrary to the entire context in 1 Cor. 12–14.”2

Helpful as these observations are, they do not fully adequately explain the nature of "tongues" and "prophecy." O. Palmer Robertson, in his Fall 1975 WTJ article, "Tongues: Sign of Covenantal Curse and Blessing," offers the following suggestion as to the nature of both gifts, as well as to the superiority of the gift of prophecy to that of the gift of tongues:

Both prophecy and tongues appear to represent gifts of inspired utterance. In the case of tongues, the correctness of this evaluation seems apparent. Since God was making the mouth move, the utterance in a tongue had to be a directly God-inspired statement conveying infallible and inerrant material. The interpretable quality of tongues-utterances (1 Cor 14:5) would appear to rule out the possibility that tongues were nonsense syllables. They did communicate divinely inspired truth.

The gift of prophecy also appears to have been an utterance derived directly from God’s inspiration. The gift is discussed in terms of its “revelational” quality in 1 Cor 14:29–31. Although the case is not as clear as tongues, prophecy does appear to manifest the character of revelation.

But the two gifts also manifest marked distinctives. While they both fit into the same basic category, they display significant differences. Most important for the present discussion is the distinctive characterization which Paul assigns to each of the gifts in the life of the church. “Prophecy” is for the edification, exhortation and consolation of men. “Tongues” have the effect of edifying only the speaker, unless they are interpreted (1 Cor 14:3–5). This relative value of the two gifts finds permanent confirmation in the fact that chosen words of “prophecy” have been preserved in the Scriptures for the continual edification of the church. We still possess a “more sure word of prophecy” (2 Pet 1:19) which is adequate to make the man of God “perfect, thoroughly furnished unto every good work” (2 Tim 3:16). Because of their continual value in edifying the church, inspired words of prophecy have been preserved in Scripture. The gift of tongues, however, did not possess inherently this value for the edification of God’s people. Therefore tongues-utterances would have had no such lasting value in preservation. “Tongues” served as a “sign” which communicated to unbelievers (1 Cor 14:22). Prophecy ministered instead for the edification of the believer.

A “difference of species” therefore separated the gifts of “tongues” and of “prophecy” despite their similarities. One partook of drastic limitations in form and function. The other did not possess these limitations. It is this radical “difference of species” that serves to resolve the interpretive problem associated with Paul’s next remark (vss. 23–25).

Paul had just assigned tongues for unbelievers, and prophecy for believers. Then in verses 23–25, he seems to reverse himself entirely, so much so that the following comment is found in a footnote of J. B. Phillips’ translation of the New Testament:

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.

In verse 23, Paul says that the effect of tongues on the unbeliever will be to lead him to conclude that those in the Christian assembly are “mad.”7 He will not be able to comprehend the significance of the phenomenon. But, continues the Apostle in verses 24 and 25, if all are engaged in prophesying in the assembly when an unbeliever visits, he will be convicted and converted. While tongues lead the unbeliever to the conclusion that Christians are mad, prophecy leads him to salvation.

How is this apparent contradiction in the Apostle to be resolved? In verse 22, he commends tongues for the unbeliever; in verses 24 and 25 it is prophecy that he commends. The answer to this question lies in the distinction made earlier between the basic nature of tongues and of prophecy. Tongues are a “sign”; prophecy is not. “Tongues” possess a character which inherently limits their function to a narrower scope than the ministry enjoyed by “prophecy.” “Tongues” serve as an indicator; “prophecy” serves as a communicator. “Tongues” call attention to the mighty acts of God; “prophecy” calls to repentance and faith in response to the mighty acts of God.

If Paul’s line of thinking in 1 Cor 14:20–25 is considered in the light of Acts 2, it will become apparent that Paul is recommending for the unbelievers of Corinth nothing more than the procedure followed at Pentecost. First, tongues serve as a sign to the unbeliever. Then prophecy elicits repentance and faith from the unbeliever. First, the apostles manifested the gift of tongues, which converted no one. As a matter of fact, it only led the crowd to attribute drunkenness to the Apostles (Acts 2:13). Paul says in like manner the Corinthians may expect unbelievers to conclude madness from the gift of tongues (1 Cor 14:23). But by the gift of prophecy, the phenomenon of tongues may be explained, the declaration of the word may proceed, and the lost may be won.

The history of redemption makes plain the truth. Tongues, while significant as a sign, have a most limited usefulness for deepening the understanding of the church. According to Paul, tongues marked unmistakeably the point of judgment on Israel, and the point of transition to the nations. As such, they served as a sign of covenantal curse and blessing. It is in this context that the temporally circumscribed character of the gift of tongues becomes most apparent. Tongues are a sign which are attached vitally—but irretrievably—to a particular juncture in the history of redemption. As such, the gift of tongues cannot be expected to fulfill actively its assigned role indefinitely. By the very nature of the case, the gift of tongues could fulfill its God-appointed function only in the historical context divinely designed for such a sign.

At a crucial point in history, necessity required that God’s judgment on Israel be sealed by a sign. God’s intention to minister his gospel equally to men of all nations needed to be made manifest by a sign. Tongues were that sign.

Tongues served well to show that Christianity, though begun in the cradle of Judaism, was not to be distinctively Jewish. Tongues aided significantly the transition from a Jewish to a world-wide gospel. Tongues provided signal support to the foundational structure of Christianity. Now that the foundation has been laid, the continuation of the sign of tongues would serve no significant function. Now that the transition has been made, the sign of transition has no abiding value in the life of the church.

Today there is no need for a sign to show that God is moving from the single nation of Israel to all the nations. That movement has become an accomplished fact. As in the case of the founding office of apostle, so the particularly transitional gift of tongues has fulfilled its function as covenantal sign for the Old and New Covenant people of God. Once having fulfilled that role, it has no further function among the people of God.3

Here we discover some variation from Grudem's explanation of the text. Robertson focuses more on a redemptive-historical understanding of the nature of the two gifts. At the close of his treatment of this extremely challenging text, Grudem makes one final important observation having to do with the "blessing" aspect of the sign of prophecy. He concludes:

Returning now to a consideration of prophecy, we are in a position to understand vss. 24–25 more clearly. “If you all prophesy” in vs. 24 is probably to be understood as a hypothetical situation which Paul need not have thought would ever actually occur (μη πάντες προφἦται;, 12:29). Nevertheless, if several people prophesy the outsider is “convicted” (ἐλέγχεται) of sin and “called to account” (ἀνακριν́ εται) by several different people (vs. 24), presumably in different ways or with respect to different matters. In this way the secret sins of his heart are “disclosed” (φανερα  γιν́ εται , vs. 25).

Although vs. 24 might simply mean that the outsider hears some general prophecy or preaching and is inwardly convicted of his sin, vs. 25 must mean that specific mention of one or more of his particular, individual sins is made in the prophecies33 (although the prophets and the congregation may or may not know to whom their words apply; cf. 1 Pet. 1:11, Ac. 2:30, 21:11 ?). This is true because (i) φανερός (18 times) and (φανερόω) (49 times) in the NT always refer to a public, external manifestation, and are never used of private or secret communication of information or of the internal working of God in a person’s mind or heart,34 and (ii) the reaction of the outsider —“falling on his face he will worship God, declaring, ‘Truly God is among you”’—is not normally one that accompanies even good preaching, but Paul seems quite sure that it will happen. Now Paul might have thought this would happen occasionally with a mention of general kinds of sins, but his statement (if it applies to every situation like this) is more understandable if he thought the prophecies would contain something very striking and unusual, such as specific mention of the visitor’s sins. The visitor will think that these Christians know things that could only have been revealed to them by God: they know the secrets of his heart. It seems to be the fact of knowledge acquired by “supernatural” means, not merely the conviction of sin, which effectively convinces the outsider of God’s presence.

That is why it is prophecy (rather than some other gift) which Paul calls a “sign to believers.” The distinctiveness of prophecy is that it must be based on a revelation (1 Cor. 14:29), and a revelation (ἀποκάλυψις) as it functions in prophecy is always something which, according to Paul, comes spontaneously (as in 1 Cor. 14:29) and comes only from God. Where there is prophecy, then, it is an unmistakeable sign or indication of God’s presence and blessing on the congregation—it is a “sign for believers”—and even an outsider who visits will be able to recognize this. If the preceding analysis is correct, 1 Cor. 14:20–25 can be understood as a reasonable and consistent statement by Paul: Uninterpreted tongues are a sign to unbelievers of God’s displeasure and impending judgment (vss. 21–22a), and Paul, not wanting the Corinthians to give unbelievers this sign, discourages the childish (vs. 20) use of uninterpreted tongues in the Corinthian church meeting (vs. 23). Prophecy, however, is a clear sign of God’s presence with and blessing on believers (vs. 22b), and so Paul naturally encourages its use when unbelievers are present, in order that they may see this sign and thereby come to Christian faith (vss. 24–25).4

As a "redemptive-historical cessationist," I believe that it would help us to couple Grudem's observations concerning the way in which Paul addresses the problem in Corinth with Robertson's redemptive-historical understanding of the nature of the gifts of prophecy and tongues. If we do so we might actually arrive at a much clearer and deeper understanding of 1 Corinthians 14:20-25. We need not be forced to choose between the two. As Robertson notes, tongues appear to have been a sign to the Jews that the Gospel was going to the nations. In this sense, it was a sign of judgment on Israel. It was also, however, a sign of covenantal blessing coming to the nations. Prophecy was a sign of blessing on the new Israel--those who had heard and believed. God was manifesting His presence by sending out a clear word of redemptive revelation. Add to this Grudem's observations about the proper context of the gifts. If the gift of tongues was exercised in the church, without someone to interpret, they were being wasted. In fact, if tongues were exercised in the church without an interpreter--and there were unbelievers present--it might be perceived that God was judging those unbelievers who found themselves in the congregation because they could not understand the truth that would be necessary to be known and believed for redemption. If, however, they heard a clear word of prophecy about the truth of God and Christ then "the secrets of their heart would be revealed; and they would fall down on their faces, worship God and report that God is truly among [the covenant people]." The gift of tongues could not do anything for believers (other than some existential edification), but the gift of prophecy would continue to build up believers.

*Listen to O. Palmer Robertson's lecture Tongues: The Holy Spirit in the Old and New Testament, Gordon Fee's lecture The Theology of Glosolalia, D. A. Carson's lecture Prophecy and Tongues: Pursuing What Is Best, and Richard Gaffin's lecture Prophecy and Tongues (Part 4); read O. Palmer Robertson's article Tongues Today? and Vern Poythress' article "The Nature of Corinthian Glossolalia: Possible Options" to get a sense of the breadth of scholarly difference of opinion on this subject.

1. Wayne Grudem "1 Corinthians 14:20-25: Prophecy And Tongues As Signs Of God’s Attitude" WTJ 41:2 (Spring 1979)

2. Ibid.

3. O. Palmer Robertson "Tongues: Sign of Covenantal Curse and Blessing" WTJ 38:1 (Fall 1975).

4. Grudem, "1 Corinthians 14:20-25: Prophecy And Tongues As Signs Of God’s Attitude"

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