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First Corinthians 14--The law of tongues, part 1

Sep 06, 2017

All New Testament teachings or doctrines are rooted in the divine law and confirmed by the prophets. Grace itself is rooted in the law of Jubilee. Even spiritual gifts are in the law, although for the most part these “blessings” are imparted only through obedience, since they are discussed primarily in the context of the Old Covenant. The Old Covenant requires obedience in order for us to blessed as God’s people. So Deuteronomy 28:2-9 says,

2 And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you will obey the Lord your God…. 9 The Lord will establish you as a holy people to Himself, as He swore to you, if you will keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and walk in His ways.

However, the New Covenant puts the responsibility upon God to make us His people, and so today His blessings come through His grace that is bestowed upon us according to His will. Such grace is foreshadowed in God’s treatment of King Saul, the Pentecostal king who prophesied, though he was in rebellion against God. He did not obey God, but yet he was blessed with the spiritual gift of prophecy.

Hence, it became a saying in Israel, “Is Saul also among the prophets?” (1 Samuel 10:11). When men confronted a strange contradiction that they could not explain, they shrugged their shoulders and said, “Is Saul also among the prophets?”

Regardless of who is responsible and by which covenant, the fact remains that all of the spiritual gifts in the New Testament are included in the blessings in the law. The nine spiritual gifts in Paul’s list are not specifically listed in the law, of course, because Scripture is a gradual unfolding of the mind of God through history. The spiritual gifts were not fully clarified until the writings of the Apostle Paul. In the law, they are included only under the general term, “blessings.”

Having Maturity in our Understanding

In 1 Corinthians 14:20, 21 Paul writes,

20 Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be babes, but in your thinking be mature. 21 In the law it is written…

Paul had already been explaining spiritual gifts, focusing on tongues and interpretation. His teaching thus far was milk, or baby food, which anyone ought to be able to understand. But in verse 20 Paul shifts toward deeper teaching, “meat,” as it were. Mature believers ought not only to experience the blessings and gifts of God, but also to understand the mind of God behind these things. So Paul begins to expound on the gift of tongues and prophecy from the Scriptures themselves—specifically from Isaiah, who in turn was applying the law to Israel’s situation.

1 Corinthians 14:21, 22 says,

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.

In order to understand what Isaiah was saying, we must go back to Isaiah 28, which is the prophet’s great exposition on the distinction between tongues and prophecy. Paul understood what Isaiah was saying, and for this reason he referenced Isaiah’s prophecy in his own discussion of tongues and prophecy. But because Paul had already taught this to the Corinthians, he did not find it necessary to repeat his teaching. Unfortunately, we today need such teaching. So we should be grateful that Paul referenced Isaiah 28 in his letter, for this gives us the mandate to search out what Paul must have taught the church while he was among them.

The Drunkards of Ephraim

Isaiah 28:1 begins by saying,

1 Woe to the proud crown of the drunkards of Ephraim, and to the fading flower of its glorious beauty, which is at the head of the fertile valley of those who are overcome with wine!

Isaiah was not speaking merely of Ephraimite drunkards. Wine was a metaphor for teaching and a way of life. The “grapes” of Sodom and Gomorrah were poppies and the juice was opium (Deuteronomy 32:32, 33). Isaiah 1:22 says,

22 Your silver has become dross; your drink (sobe, “wine”) diluted with water.

Isaiah was not speaking literally, but metaphorically. Israel’s character was like impure silver, and her teachings were a mixture of the word of God and the traditions of men.

Jeremiah, too, spoke prophetically of the “wine” of Babylon. Jeremiah 51:7 says,

7 Babylon has been a golden cup in the hand of the Lord, intoxicating all the earth. The nations have drunk of her wine; therefore the nations are going mad.

Again, the prophet was not speaking of literal wine, but of Babylonian teachings, which, in the end, are a form of mental instability, or insanity. This can be seen very clearly in the world today among those who are drunk on Babylonian wine. They advocate policies and life styles that can only destroy the nation and themselves as well.

So when Isaiah speaks of “the drunkards of Ephraim,” he was speaking prophetically. Paul understood this, and so he wrote later in Ephesians 5:18,

18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit.

The comparison between literal wine and spiritual wine and the contrast between Babylonian wine and Kingdom wine is evident throughout the Scriptures. We even see it come to the surface on the day of Pentecost, when we read in Acts 2:13-16,

13 But others were mocking and saying, “They are full of sweet wine.” 14 But Peter, taking his stand with the eleven, raised his voice and declared to them, “Men of Judea, and all you who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give heed to my words. 15 For these men are not drunk as you suppose, for it is only the third hour of the day; 16 but this is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel.”

Peter then expounds on Joel’s Pentecostal prophecy in Joel 2:28-32. Most are familiar with Joel’s prophecy, but not as many are familiar with Isaiah 28 and its Pentecostal prophecy that was cited by the Apostle Paul.

Isaiah 28 goes on to describe Israel’s life style in terms of an all-night party. Isaiah 28:7, 8 says,

7 And these also reel with wine and stagger from strong drink; the priest and the prophet reel with strong drink, they are confused by wine, they stagger from strong drink; they reel while having visions, they totter when rendering judgment. 8 For all the tables are full of filthy vomit, without a single clean place.

The Israelites certainly knew about such wine parties, but the prophet was not really condemning these. He was condemning the fact that the priests and prophets were drunk on the wine of false teachings, and the judges were rendering judgments while under the influence of the laws of other gods. Hence, “all the tables are full of filthy vomit, without a single clean place.” Their teachings, prophecies, visions, and judgments coming as “vomit” from their mouths rendered everything around them unclean.

God’s Solution

Isaiah 28:9, 10 then says,

9 To whom would He teach knowledge? And to whom would He interpret the message? Those just weaned from milk? Those just taken from the breast? 10 For He says, “Order on order, order on order, line on line, line on line, a little here, a little there.”

The Hebrew text here differs from both the Septuagint Greek text and the Peshitta (Aramaic). The Septuagint version of verses 10, 11 reads, “Expect thou affliction on affliction, hope upon hope; yet a little and yet a little, by reason of the contemptuous words of the lips, by means of another language.” This version tells us that the divine message was to expect “affliction on affliction” and “hope upon hope,” because of contemptuous words that are spoken in another language.

The Aramaic text is stranger yet.

9 To whom shall He teach knowledge? And whom shall He make to understand the report? Those who are weaned from the milk and drawn from the breasts. 10 For filth is upon filth, filth upon filth, vomit upon vomit, vomit upon vomit; a little here, a little there; 11 For with a difficult speech and with an alien tongue will He speak to this people.

Strange as it may read, this text is perhaps the most consistent with the overall context of the wine party. At such parties, people often went outside to vomit, and so if a person left the tent at night, he would have to make his way carefully to avoid stepping in piles of vomit. It pictures the Israelites having a wine party with foreigners whose language they do not understand.

What is more obscure is the fact that somehow the foreigners are speaking in tongues, but yet it is God who is speaking to the people through them. I will explain this shortly.

The Hebrew text says that God teaches the people “line on line,” that is to say, a little at a time. No doubt this is true, especially if you are teaching “those just weaned from milk.” Perhaps also, this is why the Apostle Paul, quoting the next verse, speaks to the Corinthians about being mature.

The Hebrew text continues in Isaiah 28:11, 12 (NASB),

11 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.

These are the verses that Paul quoted in 1 Corinthians 14:21, though in a shortened form:

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.

Paul understood that this was somehow a reference to tongues and prophecy. Yet this is difficult to understand. It is not for those who have just been weaned from the milk. This teaching is for the mature who are capable of understanding the law—that is, the law of tongues.

To be continued.

This is part 94 of a series titled "Studies in First Corinthians." To view all parts, click the link below.

Studies in First Corinthians

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Category: Teachings
Blog Author: Dr. Stephen Jones