Speaking in Tongues: Its Essence, Purposes, and Use (Part 2)
This second of four installments examines what the apostle Paul writes about tongues and offers practical guidance for their use in public gatherings.
In this series of articles, we are focusing on the essence, purposes, and uses of speaking in tongues. An early insight of the Pentecostal movement was that evidential tongues in Acts 2:4 and the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians 12:4–10,28 were the same in essence but different in purpose and use. Several practical issues arise concerning the purposes and uses of speaking in tongues. These issues include:
• What is the purpose of speaking in tongues in connection with the baptism in the Holy Spirit?
• Should a pastor encourage people to be baptized in the Spirit during public services?
• Should a pastor foster speaking in tongues, along with interpretation, in the public services?
• Should the worship leader, or the pastor, lead the congregation to sing in tongues?
• Should a pastor encourage people to pray privately in tongues?
This is the second article in a series of four. The first article was devoted to what Luke says in Acts about speaking in tongues. The second and third articles present what Paul writes about tongues. We already have considered Paul in action at Ephesus in Acts 19:1–6. The fourth article will summarize our studies about all the issues.
Paul’s main treatment of speaking in tongues is in 1 Corinthians 12–14. This includes 12:10,28,30; 13:1,8 and many references in 14:1–40. Several related passages might refer to speaking or singing in tongues, although the term is not always used. These passages include Romans 8:26,27; Colossians 3:16; and Ephesians 5:19; 6:18. As Paul writes, he considers both the private and public uses of the gift of tongues.
Apparently, the local assembly was using the gift of tongues improperly, so Paul writes 1 Corinthians 12–14 as a corrective. In the process, he goes well beyond correction and says many good things about tongues, as well as the interpretation of tongues and prophecy. He puts a high value on tongues, but he also gives guidelines on how to exercise the gift.
As we study, we will keep in mind the essence, purposes, and uses of speaking in tongues. The essence of tongues is no different than in Acts. With regard to purposes and uses, Paul’s emphasis is on the edification of the local church body. For the church body to receive edification, their communications should be intelligible. In his instruction about the use of tongues in public gatherings, Paul emphasizes speech that edifies. Paul teaches that speaking in tongues alone may edify the speakers, while tongues and interpretation edify the entire body of Christ. The tongues prepare the hearts of the believers for the interpretation.
1 Corinthians 12,13
Many scholars hold that speaking in tongues at Corinth was an ecstatic experience. Some warn against loss of control while speaking in tongues. Although 1 Corinthians 12:1–3 does not mention either ecstasy or speaking in tongues, the scholars may refer to this passage. However, we must take some things into account.
It is possible to be ecstatic, in one sense, without loss of self-control, though Paul does not use such terms. He does say, “The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of the prophets” (1 Corinthians 14:32).
In 1 Corinthians 12:10, Paul identifies “different kinds of tongues” (genē glōssōn) as one of the gifts of the Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 12:28, he mentions this gift again. He repeats that God has appointed in the church “different kinds of tongues” (genē glōssōn).
This phrase raises two key questions. One, many people debate whether tongues are actual human languages or utterances that are not human languages. Either way, everyone agrees that what is spoken is not learned or understood by the speaker. Moreover, in Paul’s writings no instance is recorded of anyone being present who understood an utterance in tongues.
With regard to this issue and Paul’s approach in 1 Corinthians 12–14, Fee writes: “In the final analysis, however, this question seems irrelevant. Paul’s whole argument is predicated on the phenomenon’s unintelligibility to both speaker and hearer; he certainly does not envisage someone’s being present who would be able to understand it because it was also an earthly language.”1
When a person speaks in tongues, he could be speaking a human language not understood by the speaker or anyone present. Some have testified to hearing someone speak in a language unknown to the speaker but known to the hearers. A person may speak in unintelligible utterances that are not human languages. Some objectors claim this is just gibberish. However, in my view, it is a special purpose language that God understands.
Paul doesn’t precisely define the phrase “kinds of tongues.” It is similar to the phrase “other tongues” on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:4). As far as Paul’s writings are concerned, the phrase may refer to human languages, special purpose languages, or languages of men and angels (1 Corinthians 13:1). In addition, various kinds of tongues may refer to praying and singing, in private and in public, and tongues along with interpretation of tongues.
Paul asks a rhetorical question in 1 Corinthians 12:30: “Do all speak in tongues?” Some scholars point to this as evidence that not all speak in tongues when they receive the baptism in the Holy Spirit. However, this misses the context of Paul’s remarks. He is referring to the exercise of tongues as a spiritual gift in local church ministry. We cannot equate this with speaking in tongues on the Day of Pentecost, which was not an exercise of this spiritual gift in the church. The functions are different.
Paul declares in 1 Corinthians 13:1: “If I speak in the tongues [glōssais lalō] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”
Some scholars hold that “tongues of men or of angels” refers to eloquent or ecstatic speech. However, others say that both the tongues of men and the tongues of angels are Spirit-inspired utterances not understood by the speaker. A variation of this view is that the speaker understands Spirit-inspired tongues of men, but the speaker does not understand tongues of angels.
James D.G. Dunn, in his book Jesus and the Spirit, says: “Since he [Paul] is presumably thinking throughout 13:1–3 of different types of charismata as such, ‘tongues of men’ will denote not simply ‘ordinary human speech,’ but inspired speech of different kinds in the vernacular … while ‘tongues of angels’ will be Paul’s and/or the Corinthians’ description of glossolalia.”2
Assuming that Paul is referring to the charismata, the tongues of men could include prophecy understood by the speaker and human tongues not understood by the speaker. With regard to tongues of angels, many hold that Paul was speaking in hyperbole and that no one actually speaks in the language of angels. Others go further and question whether there actually are tongues of angels. We do know that angels communicate. I believe the tongues of angels are real, and the Spirit could inspire someone to speak in such tongues.
Many scholars maintain, based on 1 Corinthians 13:8–10, that speaking in tongues has ceased. Therefore, they do not think that speaking in tongues today is valid or genuine. In this passage, Paul makes these comments: “Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.”
Those who believe speaking in tongues has ceased often cite verse 10 for support. They believe “completeness” refers to the Word of God; now that we have the Word, they say, we do not need the gift of tongues. Those who hold that spiritual gifts are operational today believe completeness refers to the return of Christ.
1 Corinthians 14:1–40
In 1 Corinthians 14:1–40, Paul gives guidelines for speaking in tongues in the church. While discussing this, he mentions tongues in private prayer. He also highlights the close relationship of speaking in tongues and prophecy. The first five verses deal with tongues and prophecy, as well as the interpretation of tongues.
“Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified” (1 Corinthians 14:1–5).
We address tongues to God, for He alone understands them. Paul says the speaker utters mysteries (mustēria). The word spirit in verse 2 could refer to the speaker’s spirit, to speaking by God’s Spirit, or to the speaker’s spirit being inspired by God’s Spirit. The last option is preferred, as the Spirit inspires the human speaker to speak in tongues.
Sometimes Paul uses the word “mysteries” to refer to truths previously hidden but now revealed. However, as theologian C.K. Barrett says: “Here, the meaning is simply ‘secrets’; the speaker and God are sharing hidden truths which others are not permitted to share.”3
In Barrett’s view, the speaker may be able to understand his or her intent (1 Corinthians 14:28) but not the meaning of the words or utterances. The content might be prayer, praise, confessions, the mighty works of God, a personal burden, or something else.
Regarding prophecy, we should consider who is addressed, the relationship between revelation and prophecy, and the content of prophecy. When someone prophesies, they address the people in the congregation. They speak in a language that all understand. Prophecy, like tongues, is Spirit-inspired (1 Corinthians 12:10).
Prophecy and revelation are very closely related, but they are not totally synonymous. Revelation usually provides the basis for the message delivered. A prophecy may be a declaration of either previously or currently revealed information. The speaker giving a revelation may know the message is relevant and applicable to the audience. According to 1 Corinthians 14:3, the content of prophecy strengthens, encourages, and comforts.
Verse 4 compares tongues and prophecy with regard to edification. Though the language uttered is unknown to the speaker, he or she is edified, or built up. This suggests the speaker may understand, to some degree, the intent of the mysteries uttered. The speaker also benefits from expressing personal feelings to God. Therefore, tongues without interpretation are for private edification. Prophecy, however, is for the edification of the church. In 1 Corinthians 12:10 “interpretation of tongues” is listed as one of the spiritual gifts.
In verse 5, Paul expresses his desire for spiritual expression among believers. Paul’s wish that all would speak in tongues no doubt refers to private prayer, but it can refer also to tongues with interpretation.
We must keep in mind that the interpretation may not be an exact translation of the utterances spoken in tongues. The Greek word for “interprets” is diermēneuēi. According to theologian Walter Bauer, this word may mean either “explain,” “interpret,” or “translate.” This opens up many possibilities for the interpretation.4
Without an interpretation, one who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues. The interpreter of tongues addresses the congregation. Just as prophecy edifies the church, understanding the tongues message brings edification. In this case, when one interprets an utterance in tongues, the value to the church is equal to the one who prophesies.
Even with interpretation, the speaker addresses tongues to God. As the tongues are uttered, God alone understands the meaning. However, the message may address God, people, or both. The intent and direction will be clear when the interpretation is given. The content may be praise, prayer, illumination of gospel truth, or anything else the Spirit prompts one to say.
In 1 Corinthians 14:6–12, Paul compares tongues to a trumpet call. He amplifies his previous remarks with these comments:
Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the pipe or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker is a foreigner to me. So it is with you. Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church.
Paul poses a question that includes the phrase “what good will I be to you unless ….”
The phrase translated unless (ean mē) literally means “if not.” From this point in the passage, there are three possible ways to interpret Paul’s meaning.
We could say that when one speaks by way of revelation, knowledge, prophecy, and teaching, it makes speaking in tongues without interpretation acceptable. In other words, the speaker exercises these gifts in addition to speaking in tongues. This is unlikely, however. Paul already said that speaking in tongues without interpretation is not edifying to the church. Adding messages via other independent gifts would not change this.
Another approach is to say that Paul means “unless” in the sense of “instead of.” In other words, he will speak through revelation, knowledge, prophecy, or teaching instead of speaking in tongues. The other gifts take the place of speaking in tongues without interpretation. This interpretation is possible, but the passage seems to say that the speaker speaks in tongues as well as exercises the other gifts.
Finally, perhaps Paul means “unless” in the sense of offering interpretation through other gifts.5 Viewed in this way, the following verse amplifies the message, as Paul says the one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless the tongues message includes an interpretation for edification. In other words, the interpretation could contain revelation, knowledge, prophecy, or teaching. This harmonizes with Paul’s admonition in verse 13: “For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say.” In this context, this view seems the most logical.
In his writings, Paul deals extensively with the nature, purposes, and uses of speaking in tongues. When a person speaks in tongues, that person does not understand the sounds that are uttered. Concerning the purposes and uses, Paul includes private prayer and the public use of tongues — as long as the tongues are interpreted. His concern with regard to the public use is that the message edifies the church. When interpreted, speaking in tongues edifies the body of Christ.
Our discussion of tongues in Paul’s writings will continue in the next article, the third in this series. We will discuss the relevant paragraphs in 1 Corinthians 14:13–40. The fourth article will summarize our findings and further discuss practical issues.
1. Gordon D. Fee, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul. (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 173.
2. James D.G. Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit (London: SCM Press Limited, 1975), 244.
3. C.K. Barrett,A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, second edition(London: Adam and Charles Black, 1971), 315–16.
4. Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, fourth revised and augmented edition, translated by William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), 194.
5. Barrett, 317.