The Study of the Holy Spirit

"Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature. In the Law it is written, 'BY MEN OF STRANGE TONGUES AND BY THE LIPS OF STRANGERS I WILL SPEAK TO THIS PEOPLE, AND EVEN SO THEY WILL NOT LISTEN TO ME,' says the Lord. So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe, but to unbelievers..." 1 Corinthians 14:20-22a

Part J: What is the Significance of Speaking in Tongues in 1 Corinthians 14?


J.             What is the significance of speaking in tongues in 1 Corinthians 14:1-25?  Paul wrote an extended correctional treatise on the subject of speaking in tongues in 1 Corinthians 14:1-25.  Because the Corinthians were so obsessed with speaking in tongues, Paul wrote to inform them of the superiority of the gift of prophecy over the gift of speaking in tongues.  (1) He argued, first of all that this is so because prophecy builds up the church, whereas speaking in tongues does not (1 Cor. 14:1-19).  (2) Next he argued that speaking in tongues represents a childish (immature) “sign-for-judgment” emphasis in the church – and it is thus inappropriate for instruction or evangelism (1 Cor. 14:20-25).  Let us examine each of these in order.

1.               Prophecy is superior to speaking in tongues because prophecy builds up the church, whereas speaking in tongues does not (1 Cor. 14:1-19).

a.               Paul commanded the Corinthians to pursue (imperative tense) love, and he commanded them to desire (imperative tense) spirituals (the word gifts is the translators’ addition), “but especially that you may prophesy” (1 Cor. 14:1).  Already in the first verse of this corrective chapter, Paul touted the preference of prophecy over tongues.

b.               What is the reason?  Paul’s first reason is that “tongues-speaking” is directed at God, while prophecy benefits men. 

1)              Paul made the first of a series of comparisons which illustrate the superiority of the gift of prophecy over the gift of speaking in tongues.  “For the one speaking in a tongue not to men is speaking, but to God – for no one hears (in the sense of understanding), but by [the] Spirit he speaks mysteries” (author’s translation) (1 Cor. 14:2).   

2)              “The one prophesying, moreover, to men speaks for edification (building up) and exhortation and encouragement” (1 Cor. 14:3, author’s translation).  Paul’s statements imply that the listeners in a typical church service in Corinth would not normally be linguistically diverse enough to understand the language the “tongues speaker” was speaking in.  This situation would contrast with the situation in Jerusalem, a place where men speaking languages from all over the then-known world had gathered on the Day of Pentecost.  In a typical church service, people would not know the foreign language being spoken, hence, no one would understand.  That being the case, speaking in tongues would be of no value to the church.  Since no one understands or benefits, the “tongues speaker” is speaking to God, not to men.  One who prophesies, however is speaking to men, and his understandable speech benefits the church listening by way of edification, exhortation, and encouragement.

3)              It is interesting to note, by the way, that, in the only recorded content of speaking in tongues, the speakers were “speaking of the mighty deeds of God” (Acts 2:11).  While there was, on the Day of Pentecost, a diverse enough crowd to understand all the different languages being spoken, normally in a church service there would not be.  But God would always be honored by the praise accorded Him in declaring His “mighty deeds.”

c.               Paul’s second reason is that “tongues-speaking” builds up the speaker, but prophesying builds up the church.  “The one speaking in [a] tongue himself builds up; but the one prophesying the church builds up” (1 Cor. 14:4, author’s translation).  This is true because no one can understand the one speaking in tongues, but everyone can understand the one prophesying.  By “builds up” Paul meant that in the process of speaking in tongues, the tongues speaker is benefited in the sense that there is fulfillment and personal benefit in that God’s Spirit is at work in him.  But there is no benefit to the church, for they cannot understand what he is saying.  The church is not made better by virtue of someone speaking in tongues.

d.               Paul wishes that all of the Corinthians would speak in tongues, but he wishes even more that they would prophesy.  In fact he states explicitly, “Now greater is the one prophesying than the one speaking in tongues unless he translates, in order that the church might receive construction” (building up) (1 Cor. 14:5, author’s translation).

e.               Paul next asked a rhetorical question.  If he came to them speaking (only) in tongues, how could they possibly be benefited?  They couldn’t, because no one would be able to understand the foreign language he was speaking.  They would only be benefited if he spoke by way of revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching, wouldn’t they (1 Cor. 14:6)?  

f.                Paul went on to illustrate what he was saying from the world of musical instruments (1 Cor. 14:7-9).  How can one tell the difference between that which is being played on a flute and that which is being played on a harp unless the sounds emanating from these instruments are distinct from one another (1 Cor. 14:7)?  And if a trumpet gives an indistinguishable sound, how will anyone prepare himself for battle (1 Cor. 4:8)?  Paul’s application was clear – “So also you, unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air” (1 Cor. 4:9).  His conclusion was transparent.  Speaking in tongues in a church service is worthless because no one can understand what is being said and benefit thereby!

g.               Paul next proceeded to illustrate his concern from the world of linguistics.  “There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of languages (from phone) in the world, and no kind is without meaning” (1 Cor. 14:10).  “If then I do not know the meaning of the language (from phone), I will be to the one who speaks a barbarian, and the one who speaks will be a barbarian to me” (1 Cor. 14:11).  A barbarian (from barbaros) was, to the Greeks of Paul’s day, not a rude or cruel person, but rather someone who spoke a foreign language they could not understand.  Since they could not understand someone’s language, it sounded to them as though he was merely jabbering, saying repeatedly, “bar-bar-bar.”  The point Paul was making was, again, clear.  If I come to a church service and someone is speaking in tongues, since I cannot understand him, it will sound to me as though he is a foreigner speaking a foreign language I cannot understand.  He will be saying “bar-bar-bar,” and it will be a fruitless experience.

h.               Paul concluded this section of his corrective essay as follows:  “So also you, since you are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek to abound for the edification of the church” (1 Cor. 14:12).  Since they were such zealots for the spiritual realm, he commanded them (imperative mode) to exercise even greater zeal in building up (edifying) the church!

i.                 Now Paul made a practical application for these spiritual-gift-absorbed Corinthians:  “Wherefore, the one speaking in tongues – [let him] pray that he might translate” (1 Cor. 14:13, author’s translation). The recommendation of Paul was not a suggestion – it was a command issued in the imperative voice!  “If you really understand spiritual gifts,” Paul was saying, in effect, “you need to ask God to give you the gift of interpreting tongues so you can translate the foreign languages being spoken in the church service so the church can benefit.  The church will hear the Spirit-borne praise of God, and will be enabled rationally and spiritually to participate in worshiping Him” (author’s amplified paraphrase).

j.                 Paul went on to justify his command.  He said, “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful” (1 Cor. 14:14).  Paul here acknowledged the possibility of praying in a foreign language one had not learned.  For Paul, not knowing what one was saying was simply unacceptable.  Both one’s mind and one’s spirit needed to be engaged in worship.  Paul’s recommendation was praying with both one’s mind and one’s spirit, and singing praise with both one’s mind and one’s spirit (1 Cor. 14:15).  Praying in an unlearned, foreign language (without translation) would not enable listeners to join in agreement with the prayer offered, since they would not know what was being said (1 Cor. 14:16).  The speaker would be giving thanks well enough, but the hearer would not be built up (1 Cor. 14:17).

k.               Paul was not discussing the gift of tongues from a personal vacuum.  He was grateful to God that he was even more gifted in speaking in tongues than they were (1 Cor. 14:18).  But since his over-riding principle of “building others up” was so overwhelming, he kept things in balance.  He would rather speak five words with his mind in order to instruct others than ten thousand words in a language that none could understand (1 Cor. 14:19)!

2.               In the next section, Paul argued that speaking in tongues represents a childish (immature) “sign-for-judgment” emphasis in the church – and it is thus inappropriate for instruction or evangelism (1 Cor. 14:20-25).   In this paragraph he revealed God’s purpose for the gift of tongues.  It is a purpose concerning which, in my mind, the modern tongues movement seems to be largely oblivious.

a.               Paul began his next paragraph with a gentle but firm reproach.  He warned his Christian brothers not to be children in their understanding of the gift of tongues.  They were to be as innocent as infants in regard to evil, but in regard to their thinking they were to be mature and complete (teleios) (1 Cor. 14:20).  This word calls to mind Paul’s statement in 1 Cor. 13:10 that when that which is complete (teleios) arrives, that which is partial “will be done away.”  These Christians at Corinth were not being mature in their thinking about tongues, but rather, were thinking childishly.

b.               Paul went on to bring their understanding to a mature or complete level.  He quoted (1 Cor. 14:21) from the first line of Isaiah 28:11 and the last line of Isaiah 28:12 as follows:  In the Law it is written, ‘BY MEN OF STRANGE TONGUES AND BY THE LIPS OF STRANGERS I WILL SPEAK TO THIS PEOPLE, AND EVEN SO THEY WILL NOT LISTEN TO ME,’ says the Lord.”  The phrase, “men of strange tongues,” translates a single Greek word from heteroglossos, meaning, in a literal sense, “tongues (languages) different than one’s own.”  This is the only time in the New Testament this word is used.  It is a pronominal adjective used here in the masculine gender and it means here “those men who speak a foreign language.”  What Paul was saying was that speaking in tongues is a fulfillment of Isaiah’s Old Testament prophecy that God would speak to the nation of Israel through men using foreign languages, but the Jewish people still would not listen to God!  If one reads through Isaiah 28, he quickly discovers that the meaning of this OT passage is not only not complimentary, it is downright damning in its implications!  People who speak in tongues in the Church era need to understand the damning purpose of tongues!  If they did, they would be much more balanced in their perspective on the gift of tongues!  Let us look briefly at Isaiah 28:1-29.

1)              In the first paragraph (Isa. 28:1-8), Isaiah pronounced judgment upon Ephraim, a name for the Northern Kingdom of Israel.  He pronounced, “Woe to the proud crown of the drunkards of Ephraim” (Isa. 28:1).  This refers to the prideful, drunken kings of Israel and the elders (civilian leaders) of Israel.  Even the priests and prophets of the nation were disgustingly inebriated when they were trying to represent God (Isa. 28:7-8)!  Because of the nation’s disgusting departure from God’s ways, God was going to bring a mighty judgment on them (Isa. 28:1-4).  As often happens in passages of prophetic judgment, God through Isaiah predicted that one day, still as yet unfulfilled, He would temper His judgment against Israel by repelling Israel’s enemies through the reign of His Messiah (Isa. 28:5-6).

2)              The mercy and salvation promised to the people of Israel did nothing to temper the peoples’ disdain toward Isaiah in view of the national judgment He had predicted (Isa. 28:9-10).  They began to mock him!  Here is a paraphrase of their arrogant, disrespectful, mocking mimicry of God’s prophet Isaiah:  “Whom does he think he’s trying to teach? And just whom does he think we are when he tries to explain to us his so-called message from God?  He’s acting like we are a bunch of pre-kindergartners he’s trying to teach!  He is so condescending to us we can’t believe it (Isa. 28:9)!  Here’s how he tries to teach us – “Rule number one, rule number one!  Rule number two, rule number two!  Learn a little bit here and a little bit there, and you little kids will finally learn the whoooole thing (Isa. 28:10)!”  The English language cannot do justice to the elementary sounding Hebrew language these mockers employed.  Here is a reproduction of the way Isa. 28:10 would sound in Hebrew:  “Key tsahv latsahv, tsahv latsahv; kahv lakahv, kav lakahv; zeer shahm, zeer shahm!”  One can almost hear the repetitive, sing-song chant of small children trying to learn their ABC’s or some other elementary bit of knowledge! 

3)              But the last laugh was not on Isaiah, but on his disrespectful audience!  And the last laugh would be totally devoid of humor!  Isaiah replied to his contemptuous audience (author’s paraphrase), “So that’s how you feel about it, is it?  Well, then, God will treat you just as you’ve described!  God will speak to you Jewish people through stammering lips and a foreign language that will sound to you just like the sing-song child’s babbling you’ve just described (Isa. 28:11)!  God offered to give you people rest and peace in your land, but you simply would not be instructed (Isa. 28:12)!  So here is what God’s word to you will be:  ‘Rule number one, rule number one!  Rule number two, rule number two!  Learn a little bit here and a little bit there, and you little kids will finally learn the whoooole thing!’” (End of paraphrase.)  And the result of this ‘instruction’ will be that you will “go and stumble backward, be broken, snared, and taken captive” (Isa. 28:13)!

4)              Isaiah went on to direct God’s message of judgment not only to the Northern Kingdom, but to the Southern Kingdom of Judah, with its government in Jerusalem (Isa. 28:14-15).  Judah’s leaders had made a covenant with death and Sheol, meaning they were confident that they would be exempt from any invasion.  But their covenant was actually based on lies and deception.

5)              God would provide His own way for peace and security for the nation (Isa. 28:16-29).  He would lay in Zion a costly cornerstone (Isa. 28:16).  Only those who believed in the cornerstone, Jesus, would remain undisturbed.  When Jesus offered Himself to Israel as her Messiah, the nation as a whole through its leaders stumbled over Him.  Faith was absent for all but a minority, and judgment would soon follow (Ps. 118:22; Isa. 8:14-15; Matt. 21:42; Mark 12:10; Luke 20:17; Acts 4:11; Rom. 9:30-33; Rom. 10:3-13; Eph. 2:20; 1 Pet. 2:4-8).  Judah’s covenant with death and Sheol would be canceled (Isa. 28:17-18), and Yahweh would strike them with sheer terror (Isa. 28:19-21).  Indeed, destruction would strike the entire earth, a reference to the great plagues of the Tribulation (Isa. 28:22).  Yet God would temper judgment for Israel with mercy (Isa. 28:23-29).

c.               So how was this prophecy in Isaiah 28:11-13 of judgment against the Northern and Southern Kingdoms of Israel by means of men with foreign languages fulfilled?  It was fulfilled first when the nation of Assyria, with its foreign language, invaded the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and deported its citizens to Assyria.  Assyria did so initially in 733 B.C. (2 Kings 15:27-29; see Thomas Constable, Notes on 2 Kings, 2008 Edition, p. 34), and finally in 722 B.C. (2 Kings 17:1-6; see Constable, pp. 36-37).  It was fulfilled second when the nation of Babylon with its foreign language carried the Southern Kingdom into captivity in Babylon in three installments in 605 B.C. (Jer. 24:1; Dan. 1:1-2), 597 B.C. (2 Kings 24:10-16), and 586 B.C. (2 Kings 25:1-21).  It was fulfilled a third time when God, through the early Church and its gift of speaking in foreign languages, spoke to the nation of Israel about the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 2:1-41), God’s costly cornerstone which He laid in Zion.  Those who believed in Jesus would be undisturbed, but those who refused to believe would suffer terrible judgment.

d.               Paul explicitly concluded not that speaking in tongues was designed by God primarily to serve as a beneficial sign for those believing in Jesus, but that tongues were a damning sign to the nonbelievers (1 Cor. 14:22a).  Historically, the Jewish people as a whole, for whom the gift of speaking in tongues was given as a damning sign, would not believe in Jesus.  They would hear the foreign languages spoken by the early Church at Pentecost and thereafter, but by and large would not repent and turn to Jesus, their chief corner stone.  And terrible judgment ensued!  Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthians in A.D. 56.  In A.D. 70 the Roman army, speaking its foreign language, led by Titus Vespasian, destroyed the city of Jerusalem and the Temple.  This was a fourth fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (Isa. 28:11-13), one closely linked to the third fulfillment.  Over a million Jewish people were killed!  In the subsequent years the Jewish people were scattered over the entire globe and effectively had no nation in their promised land for centuries! 

e.               By way of contrast, God gave “the [gift of] prophecy not to the unbelievers, but to the ones believing” (1 Cor. 14:22b, author’s literal translation).  (Note that the Greek text does not include the word "sign" in the second half of 1 Cor. 14:22.)

f.                Paul applied what he had just taught them to their present situation.  He said, “Therefore if the whole church assembles together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad?” (1 Cor. 14:23).  Paul’s argument was that if the church thought that speaking in tongues was beneficial to anyone in their church services, they were dead wrong!  If all in the Corinthian church were speaking in tongues and novices (uninstructed) or unbelievers came into the service, they would conclude the Corinthians were a bunch of raving lunatics!  This is true because the primary purpose for which the Holy Spirit gave the gift of tongues was not to benefit believers, but to serve as a damning sign to unbelievers. 

g.               On the other hand, if all of the church should be prophesying and some novice or unbeliever should enter, he would be convicted by all, he would be called to account by all; the hidden things of his heart would come to light, and so falling on his face, he will worship God, exclaiming that God is really among you (1 Cor. 14:24-25)!  Clearly, Paul concluded, speaking in tongues in a church service was not beneficial, but prophecy was!

Part I: What is the Significance of Speaking in Tongues in 1 Corinthians 13? Part K:  What Rules Must Be Observed in Regard to Speaking in Tongues and Prophesying?

This study is based on, and the links to Scripture reference the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE , Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by the Lockman Foundation. (

(Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.  Used by Permission.)

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Updated July 22, 2019