Tongues as Signs for Unbelievers – what are they?

Let me share a few thoughts on the subject of tongues. I am aware that this is very controversial, but so be it. Here I give you a list of how these passages are often interpreted:

No. in Acts in 1Corinthians
1. foreign languages foreign languages
2. foreign languages Pagan extatic utterances
3. foreign languages special language (between man and God)
4. special language special language

Let us lay the foundation to the correct understanding of the Scriptures.

One of the keys to understanding the relevant passages in Acts and 1Corinthians is Paul’s simple statement:

1Cor 1:22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom…

So according to Paul the Greeks were not interested in signs. They were after wisdom. It was the Jews that sought after signs. We remember that some of the Jews demanded miraculous signs from Jesus to prove that he was from God. Others disbelieved him despite performing many such signs.

Signs always signal something, they communicate a pre-agreed message. Once we encounter the signs we recognise the message. In the bible college I attended there was a long thick metal rod hanging from the roof of the veranda. At a particular time of the day those working in the kitchen banged it a number of times with another piece of metal. We heard it in the classroom and knew it was tea or lunch time. Take that rod to a shopping centre, bang it and see if anyone will recognise the message you intend to communicate. It is more likely the police will arrive.

Therefore, a sign is only meaningful to a particular group of people in particular circumstances (i.e. to bible college students in the bible college). The sign is meaningless to others.

Now let us examine another plain statement from Paul:

1Cor 14:22 Thus, tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers.

Who are these unbelievers referred to by Paul? Well, it appears they are Jewish unbelievers, for the Greeks were only seeking wisdom. You notice how Paul starts the sentence – “Thus”, therefore he is pointing back to what he had just said as the reason for his conclusion. Here is the preceding verse:

1Cor 14:21 In the law it is written, “By men 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.”

To whom does the law apply? To whom was it given? The Jewish people. Now we looking up the quote in Isa 28, and we find that the reference is to the impending judgment against the sinful Israelites, particularly Ephraim:

Isa 28:1 Woe to the proud crown of the drunkards of E’phraim, and to the fading flower of its glorious beauty, which is on the head of the rich valley of those overcome with wine! 2 Behold, the Lord has one who is mighty and strong; like a storm of hail, a destroying tempest, like a storm of mighty, overflowing waters, he will cast down to the earth [i.e. the land] with violence. 3 The proud crown of the drunkards of E’phraim will be trodden under foot; 4 and the fading flower of its glorious beauty, which is on the head of the rich valley, will be like a first-ripe fig before the summer: when a man sees it, he eats it up as soon as it is in his hand. 5 In that day the LORD of hosts will be a crown of glory, and a diadem of beauty, to the remnant of his people; 6 and a spirit of justice to him who sits in judgment, and strength to those who turn back the battle at the gate. 7 These also reel with wine and stagger with strong drink; the priest and the prophet reel with strong drink, they are confused with wine, they stagger with strong drink; they err in vision, they stumble in giving judgment. 8 For all tables are full of vomit, no place is without filthiness. 9 “Whom will he teach knowledge, and to whom will he explain the message? Those who are weaned from the milk, those taken from the breast? 10 For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little.” 11 Nay, but by men of strange lips and with an alien tongue the LORD will speak to this people, 12 to whom he has said, “This is rest; give rest to the weary; and this is repose”; yet they would not hear. 13 Therefore the word of the LORD will be to them precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little; that they may go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken.

I suggest you read the whole passage in context. The sign of God’s impending judgment will be the foreign languages they will hear. When they hear it they shall know that it is God who speaks to them [i.e. the messengers of God speak His instructions], yet they will not heed it and fall under judgment.

The above passage sheds light to why the people in Jerusalem are so frightened when the first disciples (a hundred and twenty of them – Acts 1:15 – they would have spoken to groups of people who gathered around them because they understood what they said in their own native language) proclaim the wonderful works of God in foreign languages and hear Peter saying that this is what Joel prophesied. They recognised that judgment was at hand, and asked how they could avoid the wrath that was to come upon the nation because of their sins.

Acts 2:37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?”

The quest was how to avoid the wrath of God coming upon the nation.

I said, tongues were foreign languages. Do we have proof? Certainly, they are named in Acts:

Acts 2:5 Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven [i.e. in the Roman world – exaggeration]. 6 And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7 And they were amazed and wondered, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? 9 Par’thians and Medes and E’lamites and residents of Mesopota’mia, Judea and Cappado’cia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phryg’ia and Pamphyl’ia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyre’ne, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabians, we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”

This was surely the fulfillment of Isa 28. The warning sign of God’s impending wrath.

It is often claimed that the hearers were given the miraculous ability to understand what the disciples had to say in a special language that otherwise only God understood. However, we see no such things in Acts. On the contrary, we find that the disciples were simple people, they did not know these languages, and it was the Spirit of God that gave them the ability to speak these languages without prior learning:

Acts 2:4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

Therefore the miracle was the speaking of those languages and not the understanding of them.

So we may conclude that in Acts the tongues are foreign languages, and the miracle serve as the sign of impending judgment to the Jewish people.

In order to understand the tongues of 1Corinthians we need to understand the difference between the situation in Jerusalem and Corinth.

In Jerusalem there were many foreigners who came to celebrate Pentecost. Corinth, on the other hand, was a Greek congregation. The language they spoke was Greek. Now if the miraculous gift was the Egyptian language, and if a person gifted with that tongue stood up and spoke the mysteries of God in that language, of course, no-one understood it. Only God understands all human languages. So Paul ironically says,

1Cor 14:1 Make love your aim, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. 2 For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.

Prophesying fulfills the purpose of God regarding the edification of believers, but tongues serve no such purpose, since tongues were signs for unbelieving Jews. If nobody understood the speaker, he didn’t speak to his hearers, but to God. He alone understood him. The purpose of speaking in the church is edification, and if no-one understands what is being said, this very purpose is defeated. If people in the church don’t understand each other, they are like foreigners to each other:

1Cor 14:11 but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. 12 So with yourselves; since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church. 13 Therefore, he who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. 15 What am I to do? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also. 16 Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how can any one in the position of an outsider say the “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying?

The issue in the Corinthian church is the misuse of the spiritual gift, not a different kind of tongue. They lacked the understanding that the edification of the assembly was of primary importance. If they stood up and spoke in tongues (look what I can do!!!), that is, with the spirit, not making sure that the audience would be edified, they only edified themselves, not others.

You may notice the mention of “mind” that is “unfruitful”. It is often thought it means the person speaking in a tongue himself didn’t understand what he said. However, reality is quite the contrary. Let us examine a few verses where the Greek terms for “fruitful” or “unfruitful” appear:

Matt 13:22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is he who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the delight in riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.

Mark 4:19 but the cares of the world, and the delight in riches, and the desire for other things, enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.

Eph 5:11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.

Phil 1:22 If it is to be life in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell.

Titus 3:14 And let our people learn to apply themselves to good deeds, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not to be unfruitful.

2Pet 1:8 For if these things are yours and abound, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

You shall see from these quotes that being “fruitful” is about doing good deeds, about benefiting others, about producing the fruits of righteousness, that is, fulfilling the law of God. It is not about doing things to self, but to others. The people who are “unfruitful” lack righteous deeds or simply do evil deeds. The follower of Jesus is called to be fruitful.

Let us return back to the 1Corinthian passage. The speaker in the tongue understands what he himself says, for he edifies himself. However, his mind is “unfruitful”, that is, what he says doesn’t benefit others. He has nothing to give, his mind yields nothing that produces growth in others. If he prophesied his mind would have been fruitful.

Even though tongues were a sign to unbelieving Jews, their usage was not prohibited in the assembly providing it was interpreted, so that the congregation was edified. Therefore the need for praying for (miraculous) power to translate it into the spoken language.

Well, this doesn’t mean a lot of sense, does it? If they spoke those foreign languages and understood what they said, why would they have difficulties to translate it? However, if you leaned another language you know how difficult is to translate it. It is a special skill to put one language into another. Even thought I spoke and understood English reasonably well when my wife came to Australia, I struggled when I tried to translate to her the sermon the pastor preached in the church. Other times I wrote articles in English and tried to translate them into Hungarian. It took me days to translate them, while I wrote them in just a few hours. I tell you, it would have been much faster to write them again from scratch in Hungarian, rather than translating them. So translation is a special skill that not everyone who speaks another language has.

More could be said about the subject, but I don’t intend to give a full exposition on 1Cor 14-15 here. What was sad is sufficient to see what tongues were all about.

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  1. […] In v8 he speaks about the mirac­u­lous gifts of the Spirit. My view is that the Spirit belongs to the King­dom era, and the pur­pose of the sign gifts was to bring the Jew­ish peo­ple back to God (remem­ber, Greeks were after wis­dom, the Jews were after signs). Signs always sig­nal a pre-agreed mes­sage, which only the Jews could under­stand as these were proph­e­sied. I will not go into any more details, if you wish, you can read a longer dis­cus­sion here. […]

    The Greatest of These is Love – 1Cor 13 « ZWorld – The World to Come

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