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. Speaking in tongues (Part 4) Tongues in 1 Cor 14

A Better Form of Speaking (1 Corinthians 14)

So finally we get to chapter 14 where we see the most information about tongues. Again we need to understand Scripture in context. Now coming from Acts we saw that tongues was a supernatural ability given specifically to the apostles and only on two other occasions to others to speak known languages that were not their own.

1 Corinthians 12 refers to tongues requiring an interpretation, which makes it different than Acts. Now depending on one’s view of tongues, it could either be a known language that was unknown to its hearers and as the speaker did not have the ability or the gift to speak in the language of the hearers, it was necessary for someone who knew the language of the speaker to interpret it into the language of the hearers. Or it was a language that was unique, not a human language, and not the language of angels as in chapter 13. There is no evidence in 1 Corinthians 12 that it was an ecstatic babbling as is seen in our day.

In 1 Corinthians 13 the tongues of angels are mentioned but there is no evidence that it is the gift of tongues. Comparisons are drawn between a Super Christian who can even speak in the language of angels but without love his speaking is nothing but noise. We also see in 1 Corinthians 13 that tongues will cease. The voice that is used which is the ‘middle voice’ means it does it to itself. So it will just end. It will implode or self-destruct. There are those who believe that it has already ended, maybe at the end of the apostolic era and then there are those who believe that it will end when knowledge and prophesying are done away with when the perfect comes.

We now advance onto the more difficult chapter namely chapter 14. It is difficult as there are parts that are difficult to interpret as it could have double barrel meanings. Because of the critical nature of this section we will tackle it verse by verse.

Verse 1.

“Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.”

Verse 1, connects to chapter 13 by emphasising the crucial value of love, but one should earnestly desire spiritual gifts, not claim them, but the gift that is recommended is prophecy.

We have already been told that spiritual gifts do have value, so we should want to have them (1 Corinthians 12:31). But what kind of gifts should we desire? If we follow the way of love, we should eagerly desire a gift that helps others. "Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church" (1 Corinthians 14:12).

Paul recommends "the gift of prophecy" (verse 1). He does not necessarily refer to predicting the future. The Greek word Paul used here means "an utterance inspired by God...the capacity or ability to utter inspired messages." The verb  propheteuo {prof-ate-yoo'-o}  translated "prophesy" means "to speak under the influence of divine inspiration, with or without reference to future events" (Louw and Nida — see the bibliography). In other words, the gift of prophecy is, as Edgar Goodspeed translates it, "inspired preaching or speaking." Today's English Version calls it "the gift of proclaiming God's message." By recommending prophecy here, Paul says, is better than speaking in tongues. "The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues," (verse 5). Why? Because inspired preaching or speaking can be understood and other unknown tongues cannot, unless there is an interpreter.

There are those who say that part of the Corinthian Church were aspiring to learn other languages and that they would use this in their services to show off their spirituality while others focussed on learning the Scriptures well, so that they can speak in an intelligent way under the power of the Spirit – Biblical truths that could be understood, and that Paul recommends the latter. Philosophically this can be true; Scripture however is silent on the issue. An example they will use is that which you see in Catholicism. Priests will quote a lot of Latin, which is not understood by the populace, and this sets them apart. Such language though it may sound spiritual is of no value to the body, prophesying in a known language will however build up the body.


Verse 2-3.

“For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.”

Whatever the tongue or language was that was spoken by the individual was foreign to the Corinthians and therefore not understood by them. Some translations like the KJV actually says that “for he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men”. So therefore whatever is spoken does not benefit the gathering of believers. Mysteries in ‘the Spirit’ as some translations put it or ‘mysteries in his spirit  (pneuma) wind, spirit’ as other translations put it is not necessary the same mysteries that was revealed to the apostles, it could simply mean that whatever is uttered remains a mystery to the Corinthian believers as they have no clue what is being said.

So whether this tongue was a language unknown to the Corinthians or whether it was some spiritual language, the benefit to the congregation was nil. The reason some theologians believe that it was simply a language is because ‘speaks to God’ denotes intelligent conversation. The word laleo {lal-eh'-o} means “to utter a voice or emit a sound, or to speak or to use the tongue or the faculty of speech, or to utter articulate sounds, or to talk, or to tell, or to use words in order to declare one's mind and disclose one's thoughts.” To speak is never just simply making sounds. It denotes conversation and the text is clear that it is conversation with God to the detriment of the Corinthian believers who have no clue what is spoken.

However, inspired preaching or speaking to the congregation in a known language can be understood; as its purpose is building or edifying the Church (verses 4, 31) — helping Christians live better lives.


Verse 4

“The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church.”

Verse 4 very much says what verse 3 says. Again Paul is saying that it is more important to build up the church than self, and that he who speaks in a tongue, which we conclude from verses 2-3 was an unknown tongue, actually just builds up self. So again he is making a case that prophecies are better that tongues, as the gifts are for the benefit of building up the body.

But what does Paul mean with ‘builds up himself’. Some translations use the term, ‘edifies himself.’ Just like Christ dealt with the Pharisees, Paul at times resorts to sarcasm and many theologians believe that this is the point here. We will see this again a few times in 1 Cor 14:8-10 and verse 16 in particular. The issue here is that if it was a known language they were speaking then we can be assured that it is not sarcasm as they would then understand the language they are speaking, and that can be edifying.  However if it is a language the speaker does not understand and it therefore requires an interpreter to interpret it so that even the speaker understands it, then it will be sarcasm. The satisfaction that the tongue speaker would have is simply nothing else than self-satisfaction based on nothing. It will be like candyfloss; it is sweet for the moment but disappears into nothingness soon. So Paul’s view more than likely is that it is pride induced emotion with no substance at all.

All the gifts are meant to edify the body and prophecy definitely achieves that. Even the gift of tongues in Acts 2 fits the category of edification in a major way.


Verse 5.

“Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.”


Let me remind us again of the meaning of the word ‘tongues’. It comes from the Greek word “glossa {gloce-sah'}" which means the tongue, a member of the body, an organ of speech or the language or dialect used by a particular people distinct from that of other nations.” That is why we talk about a mother tongue. In verse 5 ‘tongues’ is in the plural.

The question we need to ask is why Paul would say that he wants them all to speak in tongues? Well, if we stay with the basic meaning of the word, it could be great to be able to speak in other tongues or languages. If it is a language unknown to man, Paul’s comment that he wants them all to speak in tongues does not make much sense, because Paul is clear that it is of no benefit to the body, and then neither to the speaker himself if there is no interpretation. It is interesting that the interpretation in verse 5 is not so that the speaker can be benefitted but that the church may be built up. Surely Paul would not now try and compound a problem he is trying to address in the negative. It is like saying, tongues are a problem, it does not benefit the body, but I wish you all spoke it.

I believe Paul is making this statement as a matter of emphasis to the importance of prophecy. Paul has already stated in 1 Cor 12 that not all have the same gift, because the Spirit gives as He wishes. So to state that all should speak in tongues will be improving on the Spirit’s wisdom.

Paul is clear that if the Corinthians desired greatness, which is evident all the way from chapter two, that they should then rather desire to prophecy as the one who prophesies is greater than the one speaking in tongues. Tongues in the plural here as in other verses implies languages or the real gift of tongues, so if it is not known languages even though it might be unknown to the Corinthians, we have to then conclude that there are various spiritual languages, otherwise we are untrue to the meaning of the word “glossa {gloce-sah'}”. This then opens up a bunch of other questions that we have no answers for in Scripture. There will be questions like, do these spiritual languages represent special classes of Christians and can an interpreter interpret any language or are there categories of interpretation as well, and how does the tongue speaker know if there is an interpreter present with the ability to interpret his particular tongue? The word ‘interpreter’ comes from the Greek word  "diermeneuo {dee-er-main-yoo'-o}" which means to unfold the meaning of what is said, to explain, to expound or to translate into one's native language.


Verse 6.

ESV 1 Corinthians 14:6 Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching?

Again we can see Paul going down the same track and that is to show a more superior language and that is one that is understood by the listeners. His thesis remains that tongues lose their value because they are unintelligible and the Corinthians should rather stay with what is intelligible. Paul uses himself as an example, he is the speaker and they are the hearers. Now if he Paul spoke to them in tongues whether it is a supernatural gift to speak in another language or in a spiritual kind of language, it still has no benefit to the Corinthian church. So far Paul has not really encouraged the gift even when he does say back in verse 5 that he wishes they could all speak in tongues. The emphasis is on the word ‘benefit’ and as we have seen time and time again, it is the benefit of the body that Paul is concerned about and not the benefit of the individual. Any message is useless if the hearer does not understand it.


Verse 7-9.


ESV 1 Corinthians 14:7-9 If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air.

Paul just simply keeps going down the road of the uselessness of speech that is not intelligible. He uses as an illustration musical instruments that communicate even more than tongues that cannot be understood, whether it is a physical language or a spiritual language. Paul is not trying to annihilate the use of an actual language spoken in the wrong context in contrast to a spiritual language spoken in the right context.  Whatever it is for now, if it is not understood then we need to hear some more of Paul’s sarcasm which is that a language that is not understood is like speaking into the air. The Corinthians would understand clearly what Paul was writing as their city contained a music theatre that could accommodate 20 000 people. The Corinthians did not seem to care about communication. For them they were more concerned about impressing others, or seeming more spiritual. They were confused, disorderly and unproductive (11:21;14:23; etc.).


Verse 10 – 12

ESV 1 Corinthians 14:10-12 There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, 11but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. 12So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.

This time Paul falls back on the variety of human languages in the world, but again all of them have meaning and all of them must be understood by the hearer to have any benefit at all. There is a feeling though amongst many commentators that the Corinthians might have been trying to duplicate what took place in Acts 2, and that was self-induced was then classified as a manifestation of the Spirit, and Paul is here gently trying to move them as children away from what is illogical to what is logical. So instead of just rubbishing what they had, he is systematically trying to teach them the value of communicating in a language that can be understood and that is for the benefit of the whole and not just the individual.

So musical instruments had meaning, human languages have meaning, and whatever the Corinthians had did not have meaning for the body. It is meaning that makes a language a language. They were eager for gifts and Paul encourages them away from tongues once again. Nobody can draw a conclusion from Corinthians that tongues are a preferable gift and therefore nobody can draw a conclusion that all spoke in tongues or that all should speak in tongues.

The ESV translation of verse 11 where we twice read the word ‘foreigner ‘ is unfortunate although in English it makes more sense. The Greek word however is "barbaros {bar'-bar-os}" which means one whose speech is rude, rough and harsh, or one who speaks a foreign or strange language which is not understood by another with the added notion after the Persian war, of rudeness and brutality. The route word here is bar-bar which is with reference to the same sounding syllables. It carries no meaning. It is like my favourite reference to Boeremusiek or Countrymusic – ‘same tune’. Our word ‘barbarian’ is derived from  "barbaros {bar'-bar-os}".


Verse 13 – 17

ESV 1 Corinthians 14:13-17 Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. 15 What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. 16 Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say "Amen" to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? 17 For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up.

Paul again is reverting here to possible sarcasm. While they are desirous of speaking in a tongue, they should also be desirous that they could interpret, otherwise again it does not make sense to the body.

Paul now speaks of himself hypothetically so that they can understand where he is going. He says that “if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful.” Now as Christians we know that we must love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, we also know that we must be renewed in our minds. True spirituality never excludes the mind. We worship the Lord in spirit and in truth. So what the Corinthian Christians were doing in their worship service was to utter words that they themselves did not even understand. When there was a true gift of languages the mind could not be unfruitful, and it would be of such that somebody else understood it in their mind and they could interpret it.

We are now starting to sense out of what we have looked at so far that there is a real gift of tongues or languages which can be interpreted so that the whole body could benefit, but that what the Corinthians had was not that, they possibly had a counterfeit gift. They were possibly only making a lot of noise, their minds were unengaged, they did not benefit as they did not understand themselves what was being said and nobody else benefitted.

So Paul says that he will not be caught doing something like that. He will rather pray with his spirit and with his mind.

Again Paul emphasises that the gifts are for the benefit of the body.  16 Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say "Amen" to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying?

Now, here is something deep in what Paul is saying. Let me try and put it in Pauline: “hey your Corinthians, whatever you are speaking or giving thanks in, I have no clue what you are saying, you have no clue of what you are saying, nobody has a clue of what you are saying, when you speak you make the rest of us look like unlearned, unskilled and ungifted idiots, as we are outsiders to whatever you are experiencing, for us you look like you are out of your minds.” The Greek word for ‘outsider’ as in verse 16 is: "idiotes {id-ee-o'-tace}" which means a private person as opposed to a magistrate, ruler, king,  or a common soldier, as opposed to a military officer or a writer of prose as opposed to a poet, or an unlearned, illiterate, man as opposed to the learned and educated. So, Paul is saying that their supposed giftedness or their real giftedness is making the rest look ungifted, but sadly not even the gifted knows what he is saying, therefore it has no value to anyone. The gifts were never intended to make some look good and some look stupid. Even gifts like teaching or prophecy are there to uplift the whole body.

Now Paul adds in verse 17 that, okay, let’s for argument sake accept that you are giving thanks, however for the rest of us we are outsiders to you. Nobody can say ‘amen’ or ‘so let it be’ if they did not understand. If they said amen out of politeness, they have literally become liars.


Verse 18-19

ESV 1 Corinthians 14:18-19 "I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue."

Let’s have a competition between the value of an unknown tongue to known tongues. Five words understood are worth more than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue. This verse causes some commentators to believe that when ‘tongue’ is used in plural then it refers to the real gift or languages. However when ‘tongue’ is used in the singular then it refers to something counterfeit and the same as that what the Corinthians were doing. Just for interest, Paul does not in the Greek give an exact figure like ten thousand. The Greek word that he uses is "murioi {moo'-ree-oi}" which means innumerable, countless or a myriad. Ten thousand is simply used to draw a contrast.

So when Paul says he speaks in tongues more than what they were doing, he is saying this with reference to the real gift, which could be the same as the gift in Acts 2, or he is simply acknowledging that he speaks in many languages. It is quite probable that the Holy Spirit gifted him on numerous occasions as he travelled amongst foreign nations to communicate with gentiles in languages that he did not know, which is the same as what happened in Jerusalem at Pentecost. However we have no evidence of that.

The confusion to understanding the meaning of the text comes when Paul says that in church he would rather speak five words ‘with his mind’ than ten thousand in a tongue. Could it be that what Paul is saying is that he has the real gift of tongues and that it is not even understood by the individual, but in church he will rather speak five words that he and they understood, rather than ten thousand words spoken in the way the Corinthians do, in church which they or nobody else understood. It could also simply mean that Paul spoke languages they would not understand but in church he would not use them. It could be that what Paul is saying here is that when he speaks in tongues he does not know what he is saying in his mind. This could be true if he was speaking Holy Spirit inspired languages that are foreign to him while not to the hearers. He would not have the benefit of understanding while they would. So for him the preferred method of speaking would be what he and the hearers understand.


Verse 20- 25

1 Corinthians 14:20-25 “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. 21 In the Law it is written, "By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord." 22 Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. 23 If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? 24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.”

The section we arrive at now is the key in our understanding of tongues and its purpose. It also becomes the key to be able to say beyond reasonable doubt that known languages are implied in tongue speaking and not some spiritual ecstatic babbling, and that the verses that are difficult to interpret should somehow be left in tension, but that verse 20-25 should be the basis on which we leave it in tension. So we should rather say that we battle to understand a verse because it seems to talk about something else than a known language, while verse 20-25 is clear that it must be talking about a known language. Our interpretation then remains safe as it is based on Scripture and not on experience even when a tension remains.

20 Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.

To understand the true meaning of tongues requires spiritual maturity. They needed to grow up. The Corinthian church members were experts in evil, but infants in their thinking. They were more concerned about experience than truth; they were more concerned about their own ends than the ends of the body. They were more interested in pleasing themselves than pleasing the Lord by considering the benefit of gifts to others. For them experience always won over truth, self-will won over God’s will and emotions won over reason.  They seem to be a congregation that if something sounded good, they believed it and if something sounded good, they did it, instead of being like the Bereans who always tested everything on Scripture according to Acts 17:11.

Why Paul did not start his arguments on tongues with verse 21 that clearly states the purpose of tongues is anybody’s guess. It might be that he for 19 verses were trying to show them how silly and immature they are in putting value on something that is not understood by the body, and that they must now grow up and understand what tongues is really all about. Because of their experience which carried so much weight, he had to systematically break it down and down to a point where they realize that they are actually childish concerning these matters. We know that even today people are so caught up in their experience that it is difficult to tell them that it is wrong, because for them it has value, and seems to be a demonstration of their spirituality and you just do not fiddle with that, until they realize that they have been wrongly taught or at least they wrongly understand. This requires a call for maturity. They need to think and for some sadly it might be a new experience when it comes to this subject.

So for 19 verses Paul says it does not work, it does not have benefit to the body, it is not understood, a myriad of words in tongues is of less value than five understood words, it is a noise, it is self-centered, mindless and immature. There is however a real gift of tongues, there is a real purpose of tongues, Paul had that gift, but it seems that the Corinthians were immature regarding that gift, they were not Biblically informed and therefore what they had, could quite possibly have been a counterfeit of the real gift. Paul will now from verse 21-25 introduce them to the real meaning and purpose of tongues according to Scripture.

21 "In the Law it is written, "By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord." 22 Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers." Hopefully now that he has shamed the Corinthians into understanding their immaturity, Paul can now tell them what tongues is all about. The real purpose was not that they would benefit, but it was that unbelievers will benefit, even though they will not always.  Paul quotes Isaiah 28:11-12 which was recorded app. 900 years before the Corinthian church even existed. "For by people of strange lips and with a foreign tongue the Lord will speak to this people, to whom he has said, “This is rest; give rest to the weary; and this is repose”; yet they would not hear."

So those strange tongues are what were now to be experienced as the gift of languages. It was through the tongues of foreigners or gentiles that God would seek to reach out to an unbelieving Israel and they would still reject it. We do know however that in Acts 2 some ‘unbelieving Jews’ did believe and were baptised and added to the church. This happened as they heard Jewish men speaking in the language of strange lips and a foreign tongue. If the true gift of tongues were to be functioning in Corinth this should be it – and all the difficult verses in chapter 14 should be interpreted in the light of this understanding. So do we want to know what tongues are all about? Verse 22 states it categorically and this is the crux of chapter 14 and should be our departure point in evaluating our experience instead of interpreting scripture based on our experience. Verse 22 says: Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers….”

Tongues are not a sign for a believer to know that he is baptized with the Holy Spirit, tongues are not a sign of maturity for a believer, tongues are not a sign of spirituality, and tongues are not a prayer language between man and God which Satan does not understand.  Tongues are very clearly a sign for unbelievers. Tongues as a sign for unbelievers is specifically aimed at the unbelieving Jews.

Tongues for the Jews were clearly a sign of a curse if you were to study the Old Testament. About 800 years before Isaiah Israel is warned in "The Lord will bring a nation against you from far away, from the end of the earth, swooping down like the eagle, a nation whose language you do not understand," (Deuteronomy 28:49, ESV)

App. 100 years after Isaiah they are warned again in "Behold, I am bringing against you a nation from afar, O house of Israel, declares the Lord. It is an enduring nation; it is an ancient nation, a nation whose language you do not know, nor can you understand what they say." (Jeremiah 5:15, ESV)

The sign of judgment to come would be by a language that they do not understand. In the Old Testament God’s judgment fell on Israel and then on Judah, how much more now will it not fall on those who have crucified the Son of God. When they saw the gift of tongues in Acts 2 they should have known that judgment is imminent and not too long after Pentecost in 70AD they had to see the total destruction of Jerusalem, when over 1 million Jews were slaughtered by Titus. This can be discussed in much greater detail, but there are good commentaries available for that. It will make this document too lengthy.

Whenever one is in discussion with someone who tries to defend an unbiblical position on tongues, it is always good to ask them to explain the meaning of 1 Corinthians 14:21-22 and to determine how their understanding of their gift fits with what Paul clearly states is a sign for unbelievers.

Tongues were also a sign of blessing. The mere fact that the glory of God would now be proclaimed in other languages is a sign that the gospel is no longer for one nation or one people. The house of the Lord is truly a house of prayer for all nations, and in Christ there are no language barriers as all are one in Christ (Gal 3:28). Romans 11:11-12 (ESV) is clear: "So I ask, did they stumble in order that they might fall? By no means! Rather through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!" In the Old Testament God sought to make the unbelieving gentiles jealous by His covenant relationship with Israel, and now in the New Testament God seeks to make the unbelieving nation Israel jealous through the inclusion of those who speak foreign languages. In Acts 2 the sign of tongues was clearly evident when some Jews were included, and then in Acts 10:44-46 tongues were evident when the gentiles were included. There will continuously be those Jews who will come to faith, but for Israel as a whole it will not happen until the final number of gentiles are included. To this point they will remain in jealousy.  Paul continuous in Romans 11:  "Lest you be wise in your own sight, I want you to understand this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”;" (Romans 11:25-26, ESV)

In the midst of it all tongues has no value in and of itself, it is a sign and all a sign does is to point. In Mark 16 we see that tongues are a sign that will follow the 12 disciples, however we must take note that Mark 16:9-20 do not appear in the earliest manuscripts so it seems to be added after the event of Pentecost. However we must also note that the scripture in Mark 16 is a prediction, not a command. It simply says that the disciples  would experience these miracles; it is not a promise to protect all Christians, or to heal all, or that all would speak in tongues, or that all would cast out demons. It indicates that various miracles would happen; it does not say how often they would happen. In Romans 15:19 ESV Paul says: "by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God—so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ;" Paul also says in 2 Corinthians 12:12 (ESV): "The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works."

It is interesting that nowhere in Corinthians or nowhere in the whole of the New Testament for that matter is there any reference to a message in tongues to the church, either interpreted or not. Every reference to tongues is very general. They are always mentioned in relation to purpose and never in relation to content. There is no evidence that tongues ever revealed new insights or new truths. In Acts 2 we simply see that it was a proclamation of the mighty deeds of God (Acts 2:11).

Paul continuous in verse 22: Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. "Again Paul gives us the value of prophecy over tongues. The words ‘is a sign for’, related to prophecy does not appear in the Greek manuscripts and was added by translators. A better translation will simply be that ‘prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers.’ Our aim again is not to discuss prophecy in detail, so we will leave it there. Now Paul turns his attention again to order in worship. He has told them before that their worship is disorderly.

23 If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? 24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.”

Now we have already seen that Paul says that tongues is a sign for unbelievers, yet he now says that if outsiders or unbelievers entered and all were speaking in tongues they would say that the Corinthians are out of their minds. The difference here has to be with the real gift of tongues versus that which the Corinthians had or claimed to have. In Acts 2 the tongues were understood by unbelievers and brought people to conversion. For 19 verses already we have seen that the tongues in Corinth were not understood and had no purpose for either believers or unbelievers, when it should be a sign to unbelievers. Their tongues came over as a wild and meaningless ritual.  The word for outsiders or unbelievers is exactly the same as we saw in verse 16 namely ‘idiotes’ which means ungifted or unlearned. Such a person will not understand what is going on and will classify the Corinthian believers as "(mainomai) {mah'-ee-nom-ahee}" which simply means to be mad, to rave or one who so speaks in such a way that he seems not to be in his right mind.  So again Paul weighs up tongues against prophecies and prophecy wins. Tongues as seen in the Corinthian church was nothing but a chaos, while prophecy served a real Godly purpose in their midst and was part of order. Paul then continuous to give some instructions of what their service should look like.


Verse 26-40

26 What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. 27 If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. 28 But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. 29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. 36 Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? 39 So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But all things should be done decently and in order.

Paul now comes to some conclusion. He had already told them that their worship services are in shambles, even from the perspective of the pagans. Paul keeps with his central theme and that is that “all things be done for building up”. Verse 27-28 will make sense if tongues are understood as known languages and that the gift is the supernatural ability to speak those known languages as it happened in Acts 2. In Acts 2 however the audience understood the languages that were supernaturally given to the apostles and they needed no interpretation. In the church of Corinth it required an interpretation. The ability to speak a particular language in the Corinthian context could not have been a spur of the moment ability given to speak in another tongue. They ten to one acquired the language and believed that it was a God given ability or gift. The reason this is clear is that they were able to know if there was an interpreter present with the ability to interpret what they were saying. If there was no interpreter the tongue speaker had to keep quiet and speak to himself and to God only. We need to observe the text carefully as it will help us to understand what we are dealing with. The practice was not to speak in tongues and then suddenly to discover in embarrassment that there is no interpreter. The knowledge of the presence of an interpreter was beforehand, because only in such conditions can you tell the tongue speakers to speak or to be silent. Now, one can argue that if it was a tongue other than a known language that the church could possibly know who their interpreters are and if those persons were present the tongue speaker was welcome to speak as there would be the gift of interpretation present. The difficulty here that needs to be dealt with is the chicken or egg scenario. The gift of interpretation is dependent on the gift of tongues, and the gift of tongues is meaningless without the gift of interpretation. So, how does one know that you have the gift of interpretation if there is no tongues present, and how did one know before tongues were spoken the first time that an interpreter was going to be present.

The fact that the speaker could speak to himself and God in the language implies that the language was at least understood by the speaker otherwise it is not speaking to himself and God, it is simply unintelligible noise and then one should ask what the real meaning of gifts are in the absence of an interpreter. Let me explain, words like ‘speak’ and ‘tongues or languages’ imply meaning. That is why Paul said that even musical instruments give meaning. The question then arises why he had a need to speak in the tongue as he was surely a Greek with the ability of being able to speak in another language. Now before we spiritualise the issue again and say aha here is proof then that it is an ecstatic babble, is this not the simple reason Paul said that he speaks in more tongues than all of them but that he will rather speak to them five words that are understood than ten thousand or a myriad that were not understood. The issue is, that if an interpreter is required to interpret, and there is no interpretation, and if the speaker does not understand himself what he is saying, what value is there in speaking to himself and the Lord?

This gift had to be fully controlled even as far as the amount of speakers is concerned. Now if it was the Holy Spirit on the spur of the moment dishing out tongues during a time of worship it will be atrocious to think that man could even dream of controlling the Holy Spirit. Paul is actually then seriously guilty of grieving the Holy Spirit, because it would not be man that he is silencing but the Holy Spirit. So tongues were a fully controllable deal. It was not an issue of heightened emotionalism caused by the presence of the Spirit of God. It was subject to the spirit of the speaker. Paul has this to say even about prophecy: "For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints," (1 Corinthians 14:31-33, ESV) The main aim again is learning and encouragement, not the showing off of gifts. If tongues is as it seems to be a God given gift to speak a known language that requires interpretation, even the two or maximum three to speak makes sense. On a pragmatic level having to sit and listen to a message in a language you do not understand and having to depend on an interpreter become long and tiring when there is too much of it, because in a sense you are cut off from the person you do not understand and your only connection is with the interpreter.  In a sense it would have been more beneficial if he had the message from the word go. Aha, this is exactly where prophecy comes in.

The last reference to tongues in the Bible is "So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues." (1 Corinthians 14:39, ESV). Again Paul simply says that tongues must not be forbidden, but that prophecy is the desired gift.




  1. So is there a gift of tongues? Absolutely.
  2. Is it a sign of being baptized with the Holy Spirit? There is not a scrap of evidence of that in Scripture.
  3. Do all speak it? No
  4. Is it a sign of my spirituality? No it is a sign for unbelievers.
  5. Are those who speak in tongues more spiritual or closer to God than those who do not? Not necessarily. If those who speak in tongues don't have love, Paul says, they are useless noisemakers, maybe the Afrikaans says it best – ‘raasbekke (noise mouths)’ — no matter what language they speak (1 Corinthians 13:1)
  6. Should it be forbidden? No, but it must be controlled. There must be an interpreter, no more than three to speak in a tongue and it must be in turn, which is a clear indication that it is not an ecstatic babbling in a heightened time of emotionalism in worship.
  7. Is it a better gift than prophecy? No, prophecy wins hands down.
  8. Does Paul encourage the gift? Well, he humbly wishes that they all had the gift, but rather that they prophecy.
  9. Is what we see in churches today namely this ecstatic babbling the gift of tongues? Based on the overwhelming evidence of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 14, I do not believe so.
  10. To be sure can we really say that the ecstatic babbling is not what the Corinthians had? Can we really say that it is? There is just too much subjectivity involved. Even the interpretation of the ecstatic babbling cannot be proven right or wrong as it is entirely subject to the interpreter. If I attended a service where somebody spoke in an ecstatic tongue, and I short on that person’s tail decided to interpret it, but entirely with a message of my own to the congregation. Who will know?
  11. Would what we see today namely various tongue speakers speaking during a heightened time of emotionalism in worship be appropriate if it was the real Biblical gift of tongues? No, because it does not benefit the body and lacks interpretation? There is also no evidence in Scripture at all that tongues was a sudden revelation during a heightened time of emotionalism, like during worship revealed in Scripture.
  12. Is there any Biblical basis for the singing in tongues as we see in some churches? No!
  13. Can new revelations or insights come to the body through tongues?  There is no evidence of it in Scripture; even in Acts 2 they simply proclaimed the mighty deeds of God

One of the key verses in 1 Corinthians 14 with which I want to end this subject of tongues with is verse 26 and the last part that says: “Let all things be done for building up.” Some translations use the word ‘edification’ instead of ‘building up’. Building up is actually more accurate as the Greek word used is: "(oikodome)" which means the act of building, a building or a house. The Greek word ‘oikos’ actually mean ‘house’. The primary responsibility of all Christian activity is to build one another up. The role of the pastors and teachers in the body is exactly that according to "And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ," (Ephesians 4:11-12, ESV) The Corinthian church however was a house divided and we know that a divided house will fall. That which builds each other up brings harmony, and that which centres on self brings disharmony, no wonder that the modern day issue of tongues has brought about so much disharmony when it starts out in churches.

I trust that what we have done is to relax before the Holy Scriptures and to be dogmatic where Scripture is clear, and accommodating where Scripture is not clear. It is clear in Acts that the ‘tongue speaking’ there were known languages. What was going on in Corinth, you decide. You have seen the value Paul attaches to tongues; you have seen the context and their problems they were facing as a church.  I trust that this topic will never become divisive for Logos Community Church as it has been for many other churches. Let us rather aspire to the greater gifts that are for the benefit of the whole body, but at the same time let us allow others the freedom to interpret Scripture responsibly and to act according to their own conscious. However at Logos we will emphasise order and a function in the realm of clarity and not vagueness.

The real proof of Christianity is not miracles. It is the love of God, the fruit of the Spirit of Christ in us, motivating us to love one another and to love and obey God (Romans 5:5; Galatians 5:22; John 13:34-35; Romans 8:14; Acts 5:32).

I trust that the House of the Lord that we are part of will be built by the Lord Himself, to the glory of God. I pray that we may be the church as Christ intended it to be.