Exposition of 1 Corinthians 14:20-25, The clear superiority of prophecy

1 Corinthians 14:20-25

20 Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. 21 In the Law it is written: “With other tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.”

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!”

The section we will examine today (verses 20-25) reinforces what has been argued in verses 1-19. Paul has been contrasting the use of prophecy in meetings of the church with the use of tongues, and he has strongly preferred prophecy because it builds up the church by being intelligible. Remember that: “Prophecy, as a gift of the Holy Spirit, combines pastoral insight into the needs of persons, communities and situations with the ability to address these with a God-given [message] . . . leading to challenge or comfort, judgment or consolation, but ultimately building up the addresses.”[1] The sermons offered at our church are a good example of prophecy today.

As has been his custom in 1 Corinthians, Paul began his argument with a steady development of his points, but here at the end he is quite blunt: “Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children” (1 Cor. 14:20a). Anthony Thiselton says, “Nowhere does Paul state more clearly than in v. 20 that the way in which speaking in tongues is used in Corinth ministers to childish love of display or thoughtless self-centeredness.”[2] Thiselton approvingly quotes G. Deluz to apply this idea in our day: “Children love anything that shines or moves or makes a noise. . . . Many modern Christians have the same mentality. . . . They would rather be made to feel than to think.”[3] As you have studied 1 Corinthians, has Paul demanded more of your mind or more of your feelings? However, feelings are neither irrelevant nor sinful; the imbalance in Corinth must not drive us to the opposite extreme.

Verse 21 requires some background from the Old Testament and, in particular, from the prophet Isaiah. Like the leaders of the church in Roman Corinth, the spiritual leaders of Israel — men whose unbelief was complete — considered themselves wise and gifted and rejected the prophet Isaiahs plain message from the Lord as childish (Isa. 28:9-10, 13). David Garland describes the result: “Since Israel refused to heed what God spoke to them in understandable language through the prophet, God will now approach them by means of the foreign language of the conquering Assyrians. . . . When God speaks intelligibly, it is to reveal. When God speaks unintelligibly, it is to judge.”[4] Assyria crushed Israel and removed the survivors into foreign captivity.

Again, Garland makes the point you will need as we enter verses 22-23: “The citation from Isaiah [given in 1 Cor. 14:21] makes clear that tongues are not a saving sign but a sign of retribution. They do not stimulate belief but instead seal unbelief.”[5] So, historically, unintelligible speech has served as a sign of Gods judgment upon unbelievers. This fact leads Thiselton to ask the critical question: “Paul invites the Corinthians to evaluate the respective effects of tongues and prophecy: what signal does each convey?”[6] This is the critical issue in verses 22-25. As before, Paul is very concerned about the perception of unbelievers who come to a gathering of the church.

The most reliable way to evaluate a difficult text like verse 22 is to let the context dictate the interpretation. Verse 23 plainly states that if unbelievers encounter a church involved in tongues, the signal they get is negative in that they consider the members to be mindlessly raving. That repels the unbelievers with the result that their unbelief is reinforced and the gospel makes no impact. The effect of unintelligible tongues puts unbelievers farther down a track toward judgment.

Verse 25, however, reveals the positive effect of prophecy on unbelievers. A church that uses intelligible speech (i.e., prophecy) to advance the gospel message of Christ crucified brings about a vital result with unbelievers: the secrets of their hearts are laid bare (1 Cor. 14:25). When those secrets come to the unbelievers attention, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment (1 Cor. 14:24). To be convicted of sin means to bring a person to the point of recognizing wrongdoing.[7] The phrase “are brought under judgment” means to be called to account for one’s behavior. This is the power of the gospel! At that moment the unbeliever has the opportunity to accept God’s kindness through salvation in Jesus Christ.

To show love for others, the gathered church must take care not to indulge its own tastes but instead must present the gospel in a way that unbelievers can understand, through prophecy. In Roman Corinth, the gathered church must minimize tongues — which repel unbelievers and make believers feel alienated — and the church must emphasize prophecy — which builds up believers and brings unbelievers to the point of repentance.

Copyright 2013 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 964.

[2] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1119.

[3] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1120, quoting G. Deluz, A Companion to 1 Corinthians, 203.

[4] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 645, 648.

[5] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 648.

[6] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1123.

[7] BDAG-3, elegcho, convict, q.v.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!

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