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First Corinthians 14--The law of tongues, part 2

Sep 07, 2017

Isaiah prophesied in a time when Israel’s apostasy had reached its climax. He was the main prophet when God sent the Assyrians to bring judgment upon Israel and to deport them to the area near the Caspian Sea. Though he prophesied, the people refused to listen, so God spoke to Israel in tongues—specifically the Assyrian language! So Isaiah 28:11, 12, 13 says,

11 Indeed, He will speak to this people through stammering lips and a foreign tongue. 12 He who said to them, “Here is rest, give rest to the weary,” and “Here is repose,” but they would not listen. 13 So the word of the Lord to them will be, “Order on order, order on order, line on line, line on line, a little here, a little there,” that they may go and stumble backward, be broken, snared, and taken captive.

Isaiah had given Israel the word of the Lord in their own Hebrew language, but the rebellious people and carnally-minded leaders scoffed at it (Isaiah 28:14, 22). In essence, God said that if they refused to hear and believe the word spoken to them in their own language, then He would speak to them in an unknown tongue. Hence, Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 14:22,

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

Prophecy, by Paul’s definition, comes in one’s own native language. It is understandable, and the people hear and obey. But if we refuse to hear the word of God in our own language, God will continue to speak, but He will do so in an unknown tongue. This is the judgment found in the Law of Tribulation, given in Deuteronomy 28:49,

49 The Lord will bring a nation against you from afar, from the end of the earth, as the eagle swoops down, a nation whose language you shall not understand.

When Moses gave this law, he probably was unaware that this was a law of tongues. When Isaiah applied this law prophetically to the divine judgment upon Israel, it is not likely that he understood the gift of tongues. His understanding was limited. But when the gift of tongues was given to the church, Paul understood both the law and the prophets well enough to know the purpose of this gift and to whom it was given. He had a greater revelation.

What Happened?

On the day of Pentecost, when the gift of tongues was first given to the church, Acts 2:4 says,

4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.

These tongues were not unknown, however, for we read in Acts 2:6,

6 And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were bewildered, because they were each one hearing them speak in his own language.

As we have already seen, there are two kinds of tongues: “tongues of men and of angels” (1 Corinthians 13:1). On the day of Pentecost, the disciples in the upper room spoke in the tongues of men. But when Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he acknowledges unknown tongues which are not understandable. We are given no clue as to when the gift of unknown tongues first appeared in the church. We only know that it was being practiced and that Paul cautioned the church about the use of tongues without interpretation.

On the day of Pentecost, there were those who believed what God was speaking to them in their own languages, and there were those who followed the example of the Israelites in the time of Isaiah by mocking or scoffing at them (Acts 2:13). So it would naturally follow that because of the scoffers, God would institute unknown tongues that were suited to their unbelief. Speaking of unknown tongues, Paul says “tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe, but to unbelievers.”

The Carnal Mind

Even believers themselves speak in unknown tongues—including the apostle himself, as he says in 1 Corinthians 14:18. Does this mean that the apostle Paul was an unbeliever? Well, yes and no. Paul’s spiritual man (his New Creation Man) was a true believer; but his soulish man (his “old man” from Adam) was carnal. Recall that Paul said in 1 Corinthians 2:9 that our physical eyes and ears have “not heard all that God has prepared for those who love Him.” Why? Because the revelation of God is received only by the spiritual man within us. As for the soulish man, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:14,

14 But a natural [soulish] man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.

In other words, the soul is incapable of accepting (fully) and understanding (fully) the deep things of God. Such things “are foolishness to him.” The soul (carnal mind) must therefore submit to the spirit (spiritual man), which has superior intellect and discernment. The soul must be obedient to the commands of the spirit. The revelation of God runs contrary to the mortal nature of the soul, so it is required to be obedient. But one’s spirit, which “appraises all things” (1 Corinthians 2:15), has been begotten by God and therefore has the nature of his heavenly Father. The spirit, then, does the will of the Father by nature, not by obedience.

We all have two “I’s” within us. The old man is incapable of believing, but the new man is incapable of unbelief. Tongues is for the old man; prophecy is for the new man. The unknown tongue is a judgment upon the old man—the scoffer. Prophecy is the word of God to the believer, that is, the spiritual man within us.

Since every believer (including Paul) had to contend with the inner soulish man, as Paul tells us clearly in Romans 7, the gift of tongues was an important part of a believer’s life. Just as God spoke to the unbelieving Israelites in the tongue of the Assyrians, so also does the unknown tongue bring judgment upon the soul—that is, the carnal mind. Judgment is discipline and correction, bringing the soul into subjection to the spirit.

But if the soul does not understand the unknown tongue, how can it be obedient? One might ask the same question of the Israelites when God spoke to them in the (unknown) Assyrian tongue. No doubt when the Assyrians cracked the whip, the Israelites knew what to do, even without understanding the language.

But here is where the gift of interpretation of tongues becomes important, for to be instructed more fully, interpretation is needed. So also is it in the church, where Paul (he says) would rather speak five understandable words than give an hour-long speech in an unknown tongue.

When Nonbelievers Attend the Meeting

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:23-25 says,

23 If therefore the whole church should assemble together and all men speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad? 24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you.

If the church engages in an outburst of unknown tongues, those unbelievers who are present will simply think that the church is insane. But if the church prophesies (in the common language), the secrets of the heart are disclosed. True prophecy brings us into the presence of God Himself, and the unbelievers will be “called to account.”

Paul is again showing the superiority of prophecy over tongues, especially in a group meeting. If tongues are employed in the church, the message ought to be interpreted for the instruction of all and for the benefit of unbelievers. Interpretation raises the value of tongues to the level of prophecy, and prophecy is for believers.


This is part 95 of a series titled "Studies in First Corinthians." To view all parts, click the link below.

Studies in First Corinthians


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Category: Teachings
Blog Author: Dr. Stephen Jones