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. Speaking in tongues (Part 3) Tongues in 1 Cor 13

The Lasting and Best Spiritual Quality (Tongues in 1 Cor 13)

1 Corinthians 13 in the midst of the rebukes that Paul has been dishing out to the Corinthian church is like a breath of fresh air. It is like an oasis in the desert where these Corinthians can find meaning for life and faith. It is a chapter of relief for those who might have felt that they are not as spiritual as others, and it is an encouragement for those seeking true spirituality, to find it in what really matters. In a sense it is a chapter that takes all pressure off the believer in thinking that we have to figure out our gifts, and to strive for the best, but to relax with joy and satisfaction for what we have received and to rather embrace something far more superior.

Coming from chapter 12:31, Paul says, okay, it is good to desire the greater spiritual gifts, perhaps agreeing with something the Corinthians had written in their letter. Wherever they arrive in their spiritual gifts, there is something greater and more excellent which is what he focuses on now in chapter 13. It seems that the Corinthian Christians eagerly desired to be spiritual and to appear spiritual. The Corinthians strived for spiritual importance through their spiritual gifts but they failed in the area of love, as we saw in the first 11 chapters.  We all know it is nice to be important, but it is more important to be nice. The health of spiritual living is not based on spiritual gifts but on spiritual fruit. It is logical to conclude from the context of the church of Corinth that the spiritual gifts can operate so much better in an environment of spiritual life, because here we have a church that prides themselves in their gifts but the spiritual life is greatly absent as we saw Paul criticism of them so far. Even their worship services do more harm than good.

So in chapter 13, Paul describes the best evidence of spirituality — love. If love is not present, it does not matter what kind of miracle-working gifts a person might have (verses 1-3). In actual fact “if’ you were able to be a super Christian, like one that did not exist then and does not exist now, and that is a single Christian who can speak in the tongues of men and of angels and has the gift of prophecy, knows all mysteries, has all knowledge, who has faith to move mountains, who gives all his possessions to the poor and who gives his body up to be burnt, but if he does not have love, he and all he does is worth nothing and is of no benefit to the person at all. What Paul does here is to exaggerate to the level of imagination and to simply say ‘if’ you can arrive at such a level and you do not have love, you would be worth nothing.

So the simple act of love is supreme over all these things. It reminds us of John 13:34 that teaches us that people will know that we are Christians by our love. John is also clear in his epistles that we ourselves know that we have passed from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to the power of God by our love. Love is what Christianity is all about because even God is Love (1 John 4:16).

Paul mentioned "tongues of men and of angels" (verse 1). Again Paul uses the word ‘glossa’ which could mean the physical organ, but that is not what Paul has in mind here. "Tongues of men" means human languages. I do believe that it will be logical to assume that Paul is here referencing to the gift of tongues as far as these tongues of men are concerned, otherwise what will make it special? This is the very gift that was so special to the Corinthians in the first place. A three year old can speak in his mother tongue, so I do not believe that is what Paul is talking about. But what are the "tongues of...angels"? There is no indication in the Bible that angels speak to humans in mysterious languages. Every time they spoke to humans, they were understood. There is no evidence or hint that the angelic language is what is understood as the ‘gift of tongues’. To conclude that will be to force the meaning of the text.

So why did Paul mention angelic languages? It may be that some of the Corinthian tongue-speakers claimed that their sounds were angelic. Or perhaps Paul used the term as the most exalted tongue-speaking he could imagine. And, of course, in the realm of spirits there certainly is a different vocabulary. In any case, Paul tells us that tongue-speaking without love would be nothing; no matter how "spiritual" it might appear. You can be a Super Christian who even speaks with the tongues that angels speak in heaven, which is superior to every tongue on earth, but if you do not have love, you are nothing. So, it does not matter if you speak with human languages or the angelic language, without love you are a noisy gong or clanging cymbal.

Why would Paul reference a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal here? He probably is likening them to some of the pagan rites that are nothing but noise. In the New Testament times, rites honouring the pagan deities Cybelle, Bacchus and Dionysus included speaking or shouting in ecstatic noises that were accompanied by smashing gongs, clanging cymbals and blaring trumpets.

God's way of life however is based on love. It is easy to be orthodox and to claim great knowledge of Scripture and it is easy to act all spiritual with special messages for people but without love, all of this is worthless.

Love perseveres and endures forever; it will never fail or become unnecessary (verses 7-8). In contrast, tongues will eventually no longer be needed and will cease. Knowledge, at least the kind that the Corinthians were proud of, will pass away (verse 8). Even prophecy, a gift that Paul praises, will cease. Now how do we know that? Paul is clear in 1 Corinthians 13:8-10, (ESV) "Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away."

Now what does that mean? In short, it means that love is eternal, while prophecies, tongues and knowledge are temporary.

There are a few views regarding the meaning of these verses.

Love never ‘ends’ or ‘fails’ as some translations have it is very easy. The Greek word here is  (pipto) which simply meansto fall” It is a word that was used for flowers or leafs that would wither, or decay and fall to the ground. So love will never die out. So love is not only supreme over all the Super Christian qualities and gifts that we have looked at, but it is also eternal.


Now in the English translation we are presented with some interesting words when it comes to tongues, knowledge and prophecy. Tongues according to Paul will ‘cease’, prophecy and knowledge will ‘pass away.’


The word ‘cease’ that is used for the ending of ‘tongues’ comes from the Greek word  (pauo) which meansto cease, or to stop, or to come to an end”. Based on the tense here which is in the ‘middle voice’ it means that the ending here is reflexive, self-causing action. In a sense one can say that tongues will self-destruct.

The words ‘pass away’ that is used for the ending of prophecy and knowledge comes from a different word  (katargeo) which means to “render inoperative, to abolish or to reduce to inactivity.” Based on the tense of this verb which is passive it means that something or someone will cause it to stop.


Now, we do know from the text when prophecies and knowledge will cease. We have already seen that someone or something will cause it to stop. The text is clear that it will happen ‘when the perfect comes’. The cessation of tongues however in the text is not linked to the coming of the perfect.


So the ending of prophecies and knowledge is on that day when God's people are resurrected and become completely perfect, living in the realm of God’s perfect eternal presence. Special spiritual knowledge will no longer be important, because everyone will know fully. At the moment we know in part. Divine messages and predictions will no longer be important, for the same reason.

Tongues will likewise cease, but when? Here I have to declare some ignorance. The text does not tell us when. In a sense it will also depend on how tongues are viewed.  If it is an ecstatic babble as some believe, a person could ask if it is still necessary. Well, maybe 1 Corinthians 14 will help us in this regard when we get there, for at the moment we just want to stay true to the text before us without jumping around. If it is a gift to speak in a language that is not your own or the giftedness of easily learning various languages, then one could possibly conclude that it’s need will be as important as prophecies or knowledge until the perfect comes.

Some theologians like Dr John Mac Arthur believe that it ceased alongside other sign gifts at the end of the apostolic age. Let me say to his defence that he does not believe that God does not perform miracles anymore, as I have heard some theologians make claims about his views. He firmly believes according to his commentary that God still heals miraculously and works in supernatural ways according to His sovereign will, but he believes that no individual can claim that he for example has the gift of healing with which he can go around to heal left right and centre, unless God supernaturally empowers that individual for the moment.  He states 6 reasons why he believes that tongues have ceased. His arguments by the way cannot simply be discarded as without value. I will personally easily align myself with him, but I do not believe that I will be able to claim full honesty as far as my interpretation of the text before us is concerned. I believe that 1 Corinthians 14 will help us more in this regard.   I will rather make some remarks on the validity or lack of validity of ‘tongues’ for the present age when we deal with some of the issues there.

One thing that can be said for now is that there is no evidence of tongues in the writings of the early church fathers, which might be an indication that the need for tongues ceased. Even Clement’s letter to Corinth in the year AD95 in dealing with problems in the church, says nothing about tongues, so either the use or the abuse of tongues ceased or it became a mute issue. The only reference to tongues until the 19th century was during the 2nd century under the ministry of Montanus who was classified as a heretic, as he taught that Scripture was still open-ended and that God was revealing new truth through him. His followers were also called Montanists after him.

Besides a few references in the 18th century under Catholicism, and some evidence in England the first upswing of tongues was in the Holiness Movement in the early 19th century which was the forerunner to Pentecostalism. It only came to its full flavour in the 1960’s under the Charismatic movement. The difficulty remains that we do not have anybody present, barring the Holy Spirit and the Word of God to tell us if what we see today in these movements is exactly the same as what we saw in Corinth.

The bottom line however is that based on 1 Corinthians 13 certain spiritual gifts have value in this temporal age, but they are not of eternal significance in the way that love is, so let us commit ourselves to the fruit in the tree of spiritual life rather than the gifts under the tree.