Home » Biblical Studies » 101 Most Misunderstood Verses » A Tongue Lashing over Tongues

A Tongue Lashing over Tongues

Let’s face it, the Corinthian church was a mess. They remind me of the struggles of frontier ministers, like Peter Cartwright, who once beat the crud out of some hecklers, only to have them return for his evening service and dedicate their lives to Christ.

The scene in I Corinthians 14 seems just so, what one forgotten saint would have described as undisciplined people responding to the Holy Spirit in undisciplined ways, people among whom even divine gifts inadvertently become weapons of destruction.

Unfortunately, much of Paul’s dialogue on their spiritual bacchanalia is lost in a confusion created by a common failure to grasp the relationship of his discussion to Isaiah 28:1-13, which he quotes in 1 Corinthians 14:21. Without this, the statement in 1 Corinthians 14:22, “Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers.” throws the reader’s mind off track and into the mud. “If talking in tongues before unbelievers makes them think you are nuts and chases them away, then how are tongues a sign for unbelievers?” “If prophecy is meant as a sign for believers, then why does Paul focus his discussion on its positive effect on unbelievers?”

The answer is found in a paradigm demonstrated in Isaiah 28:1-13, which appears to be a prophetic drama about the Northern rulers put on for the benefit of the Southern rulers. The prophet looks into the debaucheries of what seems a war council, and speaks a message of destruction. Though they seek to raise themselves from the destruction and oppression of Assyria, they are like the plucked party wreaths adorning their heads, looking nice, but dead already. The partiers appear to mock the prophetic word as baby talk (see my earlier post “Drama and Ditty in Isaiah 28:1-13“) and the prophet hurls their words back at them in the form of a curse. Since these have rejected the word spoken to them as baby babble, YHWH will next speak to them through the babbling tongues of foreign invaders… for he is done with them. The Southern rulers, however, receive a clear prophetic word of warning that they may yet turn from that same disastrous path.

Within Isaiah 28 two paradigms are illustrated which are important for Paul in the larger divine scheme for Israel and the Church—a paradigm of death and of salvation. In Isaiah 28 God gives babbling tongues to those who have heard, yet utterly rejected the prophetic word. These tongues are a sign of His abandonment of them. Yet, he offers clear prophetic warning to those who may yet hear and repent. This prophecy is a sign of his continued work among them.

As Paul unpacks his chastisement, some words shift their meaning by shifting reference to either the Corinthian context and the unbelieving visitors among them or to the context of Isaiah 28 and the unbelieving mockers of Divine word. Let me spell it out for you.  

I Cor 14:21  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  Thus tongues (babble—here the tongues of foreign invaders) are a sign (that which convinces of the legitimacy of the God behind the prophetic event) not for believers (i.e. those who may yet believe) but for unbelievers (rejecters of divine word, abandoned by God), while prophecy (clear word of conviction) is a sign (convincer of the legitimacy of the God behind prophecy) not for unbelievers (those abandoned by the God they have rejected) but for believers (those whom God still seeks to save).

I Cor 14:23  If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues (spiritual gift of special unknown speech), and outsiders or unbelievers enter (people who are curious about your faith), will they not say that you are out of your minds? (You look crazy to them; they leave; they die in their sins.)  [a paradigm of death]

I Cor 14:24  But if all prophesy, (spiritual gift of speaking clear words from God) and an unbeliever or outsider enters, (curious seekers) he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 25  the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you. [a paradigm of life] (Compare Is 45:14; Zech 8:23; Dan 2:46-47)

The Corinthians, in their undisciplined & immature fascination with spiritual gifts were accidentally invoking a paradigm of death which God reserves only for the most hardened… those whom He, Himself, has abandoned to destruction, and the Corinthians are creating the same effect.

[1] Media pic is from freedigitalphotos.net.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

%d bloggers like this: