The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit Series
Gifts of Speech
Tue, 16 Jul 2013 - 10:59 AM CST
Gifts of Speech
Part 4 in a series on Spiritual Gifts in the Church Today
By Douglas A. Oss
The speech gifts of 1 Corinthians 12:10 are prophecy (propheteia), evaluation of spirits (diakriseis pneumaton), kinds of tongues (gene glosson), and the interpretation of tongues (hermeneia glosson).
Definition of Speech Gifts
The position of most Pentecostal/charismatic scholars is that revelation given through speech gifts in the contemporary church is not Scripture quality for the following reasons: (1) In the immediate context, Paul commanded the Corinthian church to evaluate prophecies seemingly for their accuracy and authority (14:29); something he would have never commanded with regard to Scripture. (2) Speaking in tongues is described as the human spirit praying at the prompting of the Holy Spirit, without any mention of Scripture-quality authority (14:14). (3) The stated purpose of the gifts is edification, not the production of Scripture (12:7; 14:3–5,12,19,31).
New Testament usage of propheteia indicates that prophecy was a spontaneous act of inspired speech — as opposed to a prepared study from the Scriptures — but not inspired in the same sense as the canon. The content of the utterances appears to have been predictive (e.g., Acts 11:28; 21:10) in a manner that was at the same time hortatory in nature (e.g., 1 Corinthians 14:20–26; 1 Peter 1:10–12). Prophetic ministry was significant enough in the New Testament that those who were appointed by the Lord as prophets were listed second only to apostles in Ephesians 4:11.
Prophecy both predicts future events (Acts 11:28; 21:10,11) and reads the secrets of individual hearts (1 Corinthians 14:20–26) in order to provide corporate or personal exhortation.
Evaluation of Spirits
The evaluation of spirits (diakriseis pneumaton) is closely linked to the prophetic gifting and refers to the divinely imparted ability to determine which prophetic utterances are truly from God and which are not (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:19–22). This is not necessarily a reflection on the prophet’s motives, although false prophets do prey on the church and should be identified. Rather, the need for evaluation often simply reflects the fallible perception of the prophet. Sometimes, despite the prophets’ best efforts, the message might be misperceived.
Clearly implied in this gift is the subjective element in the prophetic gift. Prophecies need not be received uncritically as absolute or binding on the believer. They are to be “weighed” (the type of judgment implied by diakriseis; e.g., the Bereans in Acts 17:11).
Kinds of Tongues
The clearest definitive statement regarding tongues (gene glosson) is in 1 Corinthians 14:14: “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.” According to this verse, “tongues” constitutes a type of prayer in which the human spirit prays in a manner that transcends the capacity of human reason. It is spirit-to-Spirit communication.
The context amplifies the content of tongues to include: prayer, singing, praise, and thanksgiving (verses 15–17). Evidence from the Book of Acts confirms the basic nature of tongues as praise and declaration of the wonders of God (e.g., Acts 2:11; 10:46; 19:6).
1 Corinthians 14:2 is often used in this discussion to argue that tongues is exclusively speech from man to God: “For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit.” This verse reinforces the human spirit-to-God content of utterances in tongues; however, it does not necessarily rule out messages in tongues that contain communication from God to man.
The person-to-God statement of 14:2 may be due to the absence of translation that is being discussed in the context (14:1–17). If someone speaks in a tongue during corporate worship and there is no translation, then the person will have spoken only to God, since the speech is incomprehensible to the congregation at that point.
Interpretation of Tongues
The interpretation of tongues refers to the translation (hermeneuo and its cognates) of the utterance given in an unknown language. This translation puts the content of the message into the language of the congregation so that all may be edified. Unless the message makes sense to the hearers, there can be no edification (1 Corinthians 14:1–19).
With regard to tongues in worship, our traditional practice is that interpretations are almost always prophetic in content — the interpretations are virtually always from God to man. The teaching of 1 Corinthians 14:1–5 indicates that prophecy is equivalent to tongues interpretation in terms of edification but neither states nor implies that the content will be identical. While there is no biblical warrant to argue that our traditional practice is wrong, there is ample evidence in 1 Corinthians and Acts to suggest that the content of tongues can also be speech from the human spirit to God.
Thus, at least some of the time, the content of the interpretation will be speech to God in the form of a prayer, a praise, a thanksgiving, or a song.
Contribution of Speech Gifts To Ministry
The purpose of speech gifts is to edify the church. They edify specifically through the content of what is spoken. Prophecies may be uttered to groups or individuals in the form of exhortations or predictions. The group or individual should pray for the prophetic companion gift of discernment in order to evaluate what is spoken. Persons purporting to be prophets have at times abused the gift, especially in ministry to individuals.
Consistent application of biblical criteria for the use of prophecy will help keep balance in the church when this gift is manifested. When an individual is legitimately gifted with this ministry, it is a powerful source of encouragement and should never be despised (e.g., 1 Thessalonians 5:19–22) but must be evaluated and pastored.
Prophecy given by the Holy Spirit will build up, never tear down. It will bless God’s people. It will confirm and renew but never create anxiety or fear. It will never usurp the God-given authority of the pastor. Furthermore, this gift lays bare the secrets of unbelievers’ hearts and leads them to repentance and worship (1 Corinthians 14:20–25). Finally, prophecy that is on target will reflect the principles of love laid down in 1 Corinthians 13:1–7.
Tongues and interpretation together edify the church just as much as prophecy. Tongues alone cannot accomplish this in a corporate worship setting because of the comprehension factor, even though uninterpreted tongues do edify the speaker (1 Corinthians 14:1–5,18,19).
Tongues that are interpreted edify the church through prayer, praise, thanksgiving, song, and declaration of the wonders of God, thus functioning in a complimentary relationship with the prophetic gifting.
Each of the gifts covered in this series work together to edify the church, and none of the gifts alone can accomplish nearly so much as all of them together. The Spirit distributes gifts according to His will in order to edify, renew, refresh, and guide people into all truth as Jesus builds His kingdom through us.
Douglas A. Oss, Ph.D. is professor at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, Springfield, Missouri.