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The Sunday Sermon – 1st Corinthians 14:20-25


Tongues and Early Evangelism!

1 Corinthians. 14:20-25

Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men. 21In the law it is written, With men of other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people; and yet for all that will they not hear me, saith the Lord. 22Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not: but prophesying serveth not for them that believe not, but for them which believe. 23If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad? 24But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all: 25And thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth.

Paul’s point in this chapter is that worship in the Lord’s Church must have a purpose and be productive.  In a purely human sense, it must edify the church!  For that reason, the worship at Corinth was unedifying and thus irregular and pointless, for there people contended with each other to demonstrate their spirituality, and did so in particular by their use of the gift of speaking in languages that they had not learned.

That utter confusion in worship was edifying to no one, and was dishonouring to the Lord, in that He had given a great gift to the early church, which the Corinthians were abusing.  With regard to this particular gift, there was a specific purpose; it was given to the church for THE FIRST EVANGELISM, and it is to that matter which Paul now turns.  His argument is that tongues, as given to the church by the Lord, is for the purpose of the first missionary evangelism, as seen in the second chapter of Acts, at Pentecost, and thus, not translated, has no place in the meetings of the gathered church.  In fact, we shall see, that to introduce such a ‘gift’ into the church has very serious implications indeed. We shall look at this passage in three sections:-

Equilibrium in the Believer’s Attitudes!

Paul begins this section with a strong plea for balanced attitudes in the Christian life.  On the one hand, as far as understanding is concerned we are never to be childish, while on the other, there are areas of life where childlikeness is to be greatly desired!  Let’s try to grasp the basics of the balance for which Paul is appealing in each of our lives, for when we achieve that proper equilibrium our witness for the Lord will be all the greater!

  1. We are to be mature!  We must never be children in comprehension.  Brethren, be not children in understanding.  Our understanding of the things of God is to grow and to mature!  And we must always be adults in doctrine!  but in understanding be men.  Our doctrinal purity will reflect our Christian maturity.  So Peter would say in 2 Peter 3:18 But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and for ever. Amen.

Jude 1:20 But ye, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost, Ephes. 4:15 But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ:  Hebrews 6:1 Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, 2 Peter 1:5 And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge;

  1. We are to be like childrenhowbeit in malice be ye children Forever be children in evil!  In certain respects Christians are to be just like children:
  • In coming to Christ! In fact Jesus said, in Luke 18:17 Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein.   We have to come to Christ as a little child, and place our childlike trust and faith in Him.
  • In our relationships within His KingdomLuke 18:16 But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.
  • In desiring spiritual nourishment! Just as babes hunger continually for their milk, and need frequent feeding, so should we be like them! 1 Peter 2:2 As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby.
  • In malice! As far as wrongdoing is concerned, we are to remain as innocent as babes!

So, you see in the life of every believer there is a balance and a tension.  On the one hand we are to be mature, and confident of what we believe and in our knowledge and understanding of God, and yet on the other we are to be innocent and dependent on God for spiritual food and protection.  Perhaps this is exactly what our Lord meant when He sent forth His disciples to witness for Him, and told them in Matthew 10:16 Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. 

But practically speaking, how can a Christian be, at the very same time, as harmless as a dove, yet as wise as a serpent?  How can he, simultaneously, be as dependent and unassuming as a baby, yet as wise as a mature man?  He must submit to the Word!  God’s Word is God’s Nursery for His children!  Most of the really important lessons we learn in life are learned in the nursery, rather than in the university!  There we learn to share everything, to play fair, not to hit other people. We learn in the nursery that we should put things back where we found them, and clean up our own mess.  We are taught that we must never take things that aren’t ours. We learn to say we’re sorry when we hurt somebody.  Later, when you go out into the world, you learn to watch for traffic, and to hold hands, and to stick together.  All these great and vital lessons are learned in the nursery!    We learn the really important lessons of the Christian life in the nursery of God’s Word, at the feet of the greatest teacher ever.   Our attitude to the Word, our childlike submissiveness, (or otherwise) will determine how well, and how completely, we mature as believers!   It is this amalgamation of submissiveness to the Lord coupled with mature understanding of Christian doctrine and practice that will convince others that our lives and our testimonies are real and genuine!

Example from Biblical Antiquity!

Now, Paul gives his readers a reminder of an incident concerning tongues in the Old Testament.  Isaiah 28:11-12 For with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people. To whom he said, This is the rest wherewith ye may cause the weary to rest; and this is the refreshing: yet they would not hear.

  1. A legal obligation to obey! In the law it is written.  Now this passage is not actually from the TORAH, the Law of Israel, it is from Isaiah.  But in this context, Paul is right to refer to the passage as LAW, for all the Scriptures are the Law of God, for they are given to us to be obeyed.  Now, in legal pleadings, it is commonplace to quote LEGAL PRECEDENT, in other words to examine previous cases of a similar nature, see what decisions had been applied in earlier times, and use those decisions as the basis for contemporary judgement.  This is exactly what Paul does now.  He brings to the notice of the Corinthians an incident from the history of Israel of old, and uses it to explain the will of God with regard to tongues and worship.  The Corinthians would need to take note of what happened in Isaiah’s time, and learn from it, and apply it to their own situation, and obey the Lord!  It is:-
  2. A reference to God’s sovereignty in election and call! With men of other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people.  God had continually spoke to His chosen people in the Old Testament.  He loved them, called them to be His, rescued them from slavery and sent His prophets to declare His will to them, yet they continually rebelled against Him and practiced false and compromised religion.  Yet the prophets of God were ignored and despised, their messages were scorned and derided, and often they were physically mistreated.  Listen to just how God thought about the way His people regarded the messengers of His Word, in 2 Chron. 36:16 But they mocked the messengers of God, and despised his words, and misused his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord arose against his people, till there was no remedy.   It is a truly fearful thing to have been given the Word of God and to deliberately and cold-heartedly disobey that word!  So God punished His people. Dake’s Bible Notes puts it like this, “Since the disobedient mockers of Judah regarded the messages of the Lord through Isaiah as suitable only for children, He would teach them in a manner they did not like and instruct them through the language of foreigners as a sign of their unbelief.”[i]  This is what God did!  He raised up the Babylonian armies, and He sped them on their way to Israel, and He guided their steps until the sound of their foreign tongues were heard right inside the city of Jerusalem itself!  When these foreign tongues were among God’s people they were the SIGN of His displeasure and judgement on His people!
  3. A refusal on the part of sinners to respond!  and yet for all that will they not hear me, saith the Lord  And even when the Lord God went to such extreme measures to bring His people back to Himself,  they STILL refused to listen!
  4. A reminder of why God brought unknown languages among His people – for JUDGEMENT!  In Isaiah’s time, God sent these unknown tongue-speakers into the midst of Judah to demonstrate His displeasure and to punish them for their sins!  But tongues were still a sign, even in Corinth!  Paul reminds his readers of this when he brings this illustration to their memory, and when he says,  Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not: but prophesying serveth not for them that believe not, but for them which believe.

Here is Paul’s teaching on this matter of the purpose of tongues.  There are two signs mentioned here.  There is the sign of tongues, foreign languages, which is for the unbeliever, for the purpose of evangelism.  The other is the sign of prophesy, the sounding out of God’s will, which is for the gathered church! The use of God given languages in evangelism is exactly what God intended!  But in the Christian assembly, in the midst of God’s people, it is a sign of God’s judgement and curse!

Am I saying that speaking in tongues in a meeting of a Christian Church is actually a sign of God’s displeasure with that church?  Listen to Charles Hodge,  “… it is no mark of the divine favour to have teachers whose language they (the Corinthians) could not understand.  They were turning a blessing into a curse.  The gift of tongues was designed… to facilitate the propagation of the gospel…  Used for this purpose it was a blessing; but to employ it for the sake of display in addressing those who could not understand the language employed, was to make it a curse!  The Spirit of God often confers gifts on men, and then holds them responsible for the way in which they exercise them![ii]

Education for Befitting Accessibility!

Paul teaches the Corinthians that our message should be accessible to those who are outside the church, and to those who are still unsure of Christian truth.  This means that we should:-

a)      Expect Observers at our Meetings!! If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers.  There are two classes of visitor that Paul supposes might be in attendance at a meeting at Corinth:-

  1. Unlearned.  The Greek word is interesting.  It is ‘idiwtai and it implies those who have a deficiency in knowledge, perhaps about this very gift itself.
  2. Unbelievers.  ‘apistoi   Literally, just people without faith.  Perhaps at Corinth, Greek unbelievers would come to the church just to see what was happening; perhaps the Lord was leading them under the sound of the Gospel.  Don’t let modernistic evangelicals tell you that the day of the Gospel Meeting is over, and that people simply don’t come to church these days!  Even in pagan, filthy corrupt Corinth, a city much more sinful and degenerate than ours, Paul simply assumed that sinners would come into the meetings, and come under the influence of the Gospel!  Obviously, our service must be so ordered that people who are unbelievers will understand them, and be aware of what is happening and be able to apply the Gospel message to their own lives.  This was certainly not the case in Corinth.

So Paul says, will they not say that ye are mad?  At Corinth, the abuse of tongues made the services confusing for both the unlearned and unbelievers.  Unbelievers would be hardened against the gospel, as they heard this babble of untranslated languages.  It just seemed as if the people in that church were insane!

b)      Teach Outsiders at our Meetings!  Paul now says, But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned.   Now, this is the opposite situation to the Corinthian error. What if one of these people, previously mentioned should come into what we might call a ‘preaching service?’  What would happen then?  Paul makes it clear in these verses:-

  • he is convinced of all. He hears about his sinfulness before the Lord, and his need of a Saviour, he is reproved for his hardness toward the Lord, and he becomes CONVINCED  of the way of salvation through Christ.
  • he is judged of all.  His character defects and needs can be examined in the light of the open Word, and he can be called account by the others in the assembly!  He learns that he will one day be called before the judgement bar of Christ to answer for his sin!
  • The secrets of his heart are made manifest!  We are very good at seeing the faults of others, but in a service where the Gospel, the whole counsel of God, is being intelligibly proclaimed, the Spirit of the Lord will open up our hearts before His gaze, and show us our own hearts and lives in the light of God’s searching Spirit!  In the Bible, there is an evident relationship between the Word and the Heart of man…  Psalm 119:11 Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee.  Romans 10:8 But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach.  Hebrews 4:12 For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.
  • falling down on his face he will worship God.  The preaching of the Word in the House of the Lord, will bring a sinner to his knees!  He will desire to come in great humility to worship the Lord, and will kneel and pray and ask for forgiveness!
  • report that God is in you of a truthWhen he leaves the church service he will report that he has experienced the presence of God in the midst, and bear witness to the Christian faith of the assembly.

So, in the church, if all stood up and spoke in foreign languages, and there was no one to say what was being spoken, no sinner would be convicted, and the situation at Pentecost would be totally reversed.  But if the people who occupied the ‘pulpits’ of the church spoke in a common language, unlearned believers would be built up in the faith, and sinners would hear the Word and so be convinced of their sin, and hear the call to come to Christ for salvation.  The testimony of the church would be preserved and enhanced.  It is A POWERFUL ARGUMENT FOR THE PRIMACY OF PREACHING IN WORSHIP!

So tongues was for a special purpose.  It was a missionary purpose, evidenced at Pentecost, so that people from other lands could understand the Gospel for the very first time.  In that context, no interpreter was needed, for the people heard the message in their own language.  It was not so in Corinth!  At the church, sinners who came into the meetings would be convinced of their sin and brought to Christ only through the proclamation of the word, as it was openly proclaimed, and as the Holy Spirit applied it to the hearts of the listeners.

[i]               Dakes Bible                           Notes on Isaiah 2811                                           Zondervan, Grand Rapids.

[ii]               Hodge, Charles,                    1st Corinthians, Geneva Commentary,             Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, 1959 Pg 293

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