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In his discussion of the gift of tongues, Paul writes in 1 Cor. 14:21 and 22,
21 In the Law it is written, "By men of strange tongues and by the lips of strangers I will speak to this people, and even so they will not listen to Me, says the Lord." 22 So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe, but to unbelievers, but prophecy is for a sign, not to unbelievers, but to those who believe.
Paul was loosely quoting from Isaiah 28:11 and 12,
"Indeed, He will speak to this people through stammering lips and a foreign tongue, 12 He who said to them, "Here is rest, give rest to the weary," and "Here is repose," but they would not listen."
Isaiah was speaking to Israel, giving them the word of the Lord in their own Hebrew language. In other words, he was giving them PROPHECY. However, the people refused to listen, and for this reason God intended to send them into the Assyrian captivity. In other words, God was going to bring Assyrians who would speak in "a foreign tongue" to the Israelite unbelievers.
Paul says, tongues are a sign to unbelievers; prophecy is a sign to believers. The Israelites were unbelievers, so they were given the sign of a foreign tongue. Those Assyrians told them to pack up and move into exile. That was the word of God to them, and they obeyed--after the commands were interpreted for them.
On the other hand, if the Israelites had believed the word of prophecy, God would not have spoken to them in another tongue.
Paul continues, saying,
23 If therefore the whole church should come together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad?
In other words, if an unbeliever walks into a Pentecostal or Charismatic church and hears everyone speaking in unknown tongues, he might think that everyone is crazy. This is because he has no idea what is being said and may think that it is just gibberish.
24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed so that he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you.
If an unbeliever walks into the same church and hears PROPHECY being spoken in his own language, he may hear a direct word from God about his own personal life. If "the secrets of his heart are disclosed," he will know that a supernatural gift of knowledge is in operation, and he will declare "that God is certainly among you."
So how do tongues relate to unbelievers? Was Paul speaking of the possibility that an unbeliever might walk into a church meeting? Or was he speaking of church people who might be unbelievers?
Well, Isaiah 28 shows us that God was speaking in tongues to the unbelievers in Israel. Paul says in verse 22 above that tongues were a sign to unbelievers. But then the example in verse 23 appears to say the opposite. Paul seems to chide the church for speaking in tongues with no interpreter present, because if an unbeliever enters the meeting room, he will think everyone has gone mad.
But if tongues are a sign to unbelievers, why does Paul seem to chide them for speaking in tongues to unbelievers? Paul seems to contradict himself here. What does Paul mean, then?
The key is to know that within each of us as Christian believers is both an old man and a new man. The old man is the fleshly man; the new man is the spiritual man. The old man is born of our natural parents; the new man is born of the Spirit and is Christ in you.
The old man is the unbeliever in us. It is incapable of believing and has already been sentenced to death through the sin of Adam. The new man is the believer in us. It is incapable of NOT believing, because it is that holy anointed seed (Christ), begotten of the Heavenly Father.
These are the two I's in Romans 7. The spiritual "I" follows the Law of God, while the carnal "I" serves the law of sin (7:25), the violation of the law.
The carnal "I" is our internal unbeliever, to whom is given the word spoken in an unknown tongue, because it is incapable of knowing spiritual things or of truly hearing the voice of God.
The spiritual "I" is Christ in you, the true believer, capable of hearing the word of prophecy.
I recall my difficulties in the 1980's after my 1982 transition from tongues to prophecy. Hearing God's Voice is my story of learning to hear His voice in English.
I had to learn by experience that hearing His voice did not resolve the problem with my carnal "I." When my spiritual "I" would hear the word, my carnal "I" would try to obey that word and would fail miserably. Because I did not yet know how the two "I's" within me related to tongues and prophecy, I spent many years wrestling with this problem. In frustration, I often turned to my wife and said, "What is the point of hearing His voice when I can't act upon it anyway?"
Yet God led me through many years of struggle in order to lay a foundation of understanding in regard to idols of the heart and in regard to the two "I's."
My ultimate conclusion was that my carnal "I" would never be capable of understanding the word of God without the gift of interpretation. In other words, even if the word itself came in my own language--and was technically prophecy, rather than tongues--it was still a tongue to my carnal "I" and needed interpretation.
So there is more to this gift of tongues than I had been taught. My immature expectation was that once I could hear God's voice in English, then my troubles would be over. I would always know the word of the Lord, and would never again fail in fulfilling His will. Oh, how naive I was! I discovered that even prophecy in my own language was no guarantee that I would know what God was saying. Hearing English words did not mean that my carnal "I" understood and could apply the prophetic word properly. It still needed to be interpreted in order that my carnal "I" in my flesh body could do as the Spirit instructed.
A good example is found in Acts 10:10. Peter received a vision and word in his own language ("prophecy"). He saw a large sheet of unclean animals and was told in verse 13, "Arise, Peter, kill and eat." Peter's carnal "I" assumed this meant he was to eat unclean food. In fact, this command was repeated two more times, and Peter's carnal "I" still could not comprehend its meaning.
The interpretation came when the men sent by Cornelius, the Roman Centurion, arrived at the door. They were directed by revelation to that very house to ask for a man named Peter. When they told their story, Peter finally received the "interpretation of tongues" and followed them back to Caesarea. There he met with a group of Romans and Greeks. In Acts 10:28 Peter gives the interpretation,
28 And he said to them, "You yourselves know how unlawful [man's law; not God's law] it is for a man who is a Jew to assemble with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean."
Peter then expounds upon the divine law more fully in verses 34 and 35,
34 . . . I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, 35 but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him.
So this is the real meaning of Peter's vision. Peter's natural (carnal) mind finally received the interpretation of the prophecy, so that he could act upon it, change his religious viewpoint, and live accordingly.