Something that has interested me as a Christian has been speaking in tongues. In some denominations, people only think you’re saved if you speak in tongues, while others declare that the days of speaking in tongues have been over for almost 2,000 years. One thing that I’ve had difficulty understanding, however, is this passage from 1 Corinthians.

22 Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers. 23 So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? 24 But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, 25 as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”

1 Corinthians 14:22-25 (NIV)

In verse 22, Paul says that tongues are for unbelievers and prophecy is for believers, which makes sense. Furthermore, Paul’s example in verse 23 also makes sense. I’ve actually seen nonbelievers be driven away from believers speaking in tongues. However, verse 24 is one I’ve yet to quite grasp since it appears that Paul contradicts what he just said in verse 22.

Today I asked the Lord for clarity on this issue. I know Paul didn’t contradict himself because his words are inspired by the Holy Spirit. However, I still didn’t quite understand what Paul said until today. Therefore, I present (hopefully) some clarity.

Tongues (other languages (divine included)) are (a sign) for unbelievers. If they hear someone speaking in a language foreign to the speaker but clear to them, it can convict them that it is a miracle (Acts 2:4-12).

However, only some people who hear the tongue will be convinced (Acts 2:13). This is the case in 1 Corinthians 14:23, where we see believers speaking to one another in languages neither understands. That’s crazy, right? Hence, the unbeliever will also think it crazy and not be convicted.

When Paul says that prophecy is for believers, it doesn’t mean that unbelievers cannot benefit from it. Again, look at Acts 2. After the tongues, Peter spoke a prophetic (truthful message from God (doesn’t have to mean predicting the future)), and 3,000 people were saved. We can surmise from Acts 2 that speaking in tongues got everyone’s attention: Those who recognized the tongue as their language and those who mocked. Some believed the miracle (and were saved that day), while others did not but believed the prophetic (truthful) sermon Peter preached and were saved.

Therefore, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:19, prophecy (intelligible words) is superior to speaking in tongues. Thus, unbelievers and believers can benefit from prophecy, but speaking in tongues is only a sign to unbelievers who may or may see it as a sign.