Tongues and Unbelievers: Exposition of 1 Corinthians 14:20-25

Today I’d like to look at a section of verses I came across as part of my daily study. In studying these verses, I was reminded of the importance of catching the particular point of view of the writer when interpreting scripture.

Words can have multiple meanings so a proper understanding of context is a must. But you can use scripture to interpret scripture, and Paul presents us with the keys to understand what he’s telling us.

“Brethren, do not be children in understanding; however, in malice be babes, but in understanding be mature.” 1 Corinthians 14:20.

These verses are in the middle of a section of Paul’s letter in which he discusses the spiritual gift of tongues. As he apparently thought the Corinthians knew what he meant by tongues, he doesn’t address them so much as talk about how and when to use the gift.

To that end, he reminds his readers to be like children in their attitudes toward others, kind and compassionate, but mature in their understanding of how they are to act when it comes to using their gifts.

“In the law it is written: “With men of other tongues and other lips I will speak to this people; and yet, for all that, they will not hear Me,” says the Lord.” 1 Corinthians 14:21.

Paul references a passage from Isaiah 28:11-12. The story behind those verses is that the Jewish people are being judged by God, and He is sending them into exile in a foreign country. They refused to hear His rebuke in their language, so He’s putting them where they’ll hear a foreign language. Thus hearing another language is a sign that judgment is taking or has taken place.

“Therefore tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophesying is not for unbelievers but for those who believe.” 1 Corinthians 14:22.

Here is where the proper point of view comes into play. If speaking in tongues is supposed to be a spiritual gift, how could it not be a sign to believers? Paul appears to either contradict himself or to have gotten his ideas confused.

That’s why he included the passage from Isaiah, to give the proper context. Paul isn’t interested in the content of the tongues, what is being said, which would be important to believers, but the fact that the tongues are there. Those who are not believers won’t be able to get anything from hearing the tongues and will be just like those in Isaish who are in judgment. The tongues have become a sign to them that they don’t believe, they aren’t part of the group, so to speak.

But prophesying shows that a person is a believer since they prophesy by the moving of the Holy Spirit which indwells them. Prophesying shows the believers are in the right place spiritually as hearing an unknown tongue shows the spiritual condition of unbelievers.

“Therefore if the whole church comes together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those who are uninformed or unbelievers, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” 1 Corinthians 14:23.

A practical result of the point Paul is trying to make. Using the spiritual gifts should be for the edifying of everyone, in some form or another. Believers should be encouraged while unbelievers should be pointed toward Christ.

While tongues have their place and time, using them above all the others may create a situation where they could be a stumbling block to the lost. It would be like someone attending a service where everything said was in a foreign language. If the lost person can’t understand the gospel, what good is it to them? And might it not have the possible result of turning them away from Christ? Paul wants to make sure that reaching the unbeliever is always a high priority.

“But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an uninformed person comes in, he is convinced by all, he is convicted by all. And thus the secrets of his heart are revealed; and so, falling down on his face, he will worship God and report that God is truly among you. 1 Corinthians 14:24-25.

Here is the better situation. Those who believe will share what the Spirit wants them to share. And the unbelievers will hear it, be convicted, and turn to Christ. Everyone receives something from what is done.

Paul doesn’t mention it here, but after all have become believers, someone could speak with a tongue and someone interpret, and all would be edified and encouraged. Wisdom in knowing when to use our gifts is just as important as using them.

That’s the long and short of these few verses. Once you have the right point of view, Paul’s points become clear. We must never forget the long game of following Christ. Do all things to grow in Him and bring others to Him.

Spiritual gifts are wonderful to have, but we mustn’t use them for selfish reasons or just to show that we have them. They are given to us to edify one another and bring glory to the Father.

May God give you wisdom to use the gifts He has given you.

Do you know Jesus? Do you have a personal relationship with Him? According to scripture, all anyone must do is recognize their sin condition, realize that Christ died to pay for that sin, and ask Him to save them from it. Salvation is a gift of grace we receive by faith. Meet Him today! Contact me at if you need more information.

Thanks for stopping by! Please feel free to comment and let me know what you think!

One thought on “Tongues and Unbelievers: Exposition of 1 Corinthians 14:20-25

  1. A good discussion of tongues. When young I was in the company of people who spoke in tongues and were very focused on that spiritual gift, encouraging me to do the same. For a long time I thought something was wrong with me spiritually that it didn’t happen for me.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s