Tongues – Negative and Positive

1 Corinthians 14:20-25
20 Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. 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 are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. 23 If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? 24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, 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.

As Paul continues his conversation about the gift of tongues, he again encourages the readers toward maturity rather than spiritual infancy. It is interesting that this topic engenders such a comment on more than one occasion. Clearly, this gift lends itself to abuse. No wonder he spends so much time trying to instruct believers in proper practices of such. His example leads us to understand that to be concerned with vain and competitive displays of one’s spiritual prowess through tongues-speaking, with no thought for the effect on fellow believers, is a mark of childishness. The person who truly has their will bent in the direction of God’s will does not want to waste time being childish.

In an unexpected usage of this gift, Paul goes back into the Old Testament and points to the apostasies of the Children of Israel and the way God uses foreign powers (and their foreign language) to mete out His judgments. They would hear a language they do not understand when they are given over into enemy hands (specifically the Assyrians in this case) as slaves. This would be God’s judgement on them for their idolatry.

Paul’s key text is Isiah 28:11–12. Through the prophet Isaiah God had been attempting to guide his people into the way of peace and rest, but they had rejected his message as gibberish. In response God had declared that those who refused to listen to clear Hebrew would be compelled to listen to the Assyrians, “men of strange lips and with an alien tongue”. Thus Israel would be subjected to the judgment foretold in Deuteronomy 28:49: “The Lord will bring a nation against you from afar, … a nation whose language you do not understand.”
Lockwood, G. J. ©2000. 1 Corinthians (p. 490). Saint Louis: CPH.

While the gifts are used by God’s people for the purpose of building up the entire body, so too do they have uses for those who do not yet know the Lord as their Savior. In the case of tongues, the unbeliever will think you’ve lost your mind should they experience a room full of “tongue-speakers”. On the other hand, should they hear, in their native (heart) language the Law and Gospel, they may be brought to faith. The Spiritual Gifts are used to bring God to people, not drive them away. Isn’t is just like us to upend something the Lord has given us for our benefit and turn it into something useless or even harmful.