. Speaking in Tongues (Part 2) Tongues in 1 Cor 12

Tongue-Speaking in Corinth (Corinthians 12)


Again to arrive at the best understanding of tongues, this time in the context of the church in Corinth, one must relax, put aside experience or the lack thereof and simply be honest as to what we genuinely can deduce or not from the text.

On Paul's second major journey to preach the gospel to gentiles, he went into Europe, preaching briefly in Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea and Athens (Acts 16:12-17:15).

In Corinth, however, Paul spent a year and a half (Acts 18:1, 9-11) — a long stay for an apostle who was "constantly on the move" (2 Corinthians 11:26). Corinth was a seaport city with a reputation for immorality. There Paul found Jews and gentiles who wanted to be taught the Word of God.

After the congregation had been established in Corinth, Paul eventually moved on — to Ephesus in Asia Minor, Caesarea in Judea, Antioch in Syria, and, after a few years, to Ephesus again (Acts 18:18-23; 19:1).

Bad News from Corinth

While Paul was back in Ephesus, he heard news about the Corinthian church. The news was not good — the new Christians were arguing among themselves about several aspects of Christian behaviour. Their example made Christianity look bad, even to the immoral pagans!

The Corinthian Christians sent Paul a letter asking him for advice about a number of topics, including the topic of tongues. They had been speaking in tongues frequently, and they asked him about this spiritual gift. Their letter gave him an opportunity to give them the guidance they needed.

In his letter Paul criticized them because their arguments were ruining the unity that Christians ought to have. "Some from Chloe's household have informed me that there are quarrels among you" (1 Corinthians 1:11). "I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it" (1 Corinthians 11:18). "Your meetings do more harm than good" (verse 17). I think we would all immediately agree that if you want to find out what the gathering of the saints should look like, you possibly don’t want to have as a model a church where their meetings do more harm than good.

In their disagreements, some of the people claimed to follow one Christian leader, and some claimed to follow another (1 Corinthians 1:12). The behaviour of the Corinthian Christians was wrong, and Paul had to correct them.

"I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought" (verse 10).

Paul Writes About Their Problems

In chapters 1-4, Paul tried to help the Corinthians see the problems of disunity. They were acting like unbelievers, not like Christians (1 Corinthians 3:3).

He told them what to do about sexual immorality within the Church (1 Corinthians 5:1-13; 6:12-20) and lawsuits between Christians (verses 1-8). These subjects illustrate the problems the congregation was having. Paul had to set them straight with strong words.

Then Paul began to answer their questions. "Now for the matters you wrote about..." (1 Corinthians 7:1). First, he dealt with the topic of marriage in chapter 7.

Chapter 8 begins to address their next subject: "Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up" (verse 1).

From the way Paul writes his letter, we can tell that the Corinthian Christians were proud of their "knowledge." Paul points out that their knowledge, at least the way they were using it, was harmful to their spiritual growth. Their knowledge was causing arguments and divisions in the congregation. Love, he writes, is more valuable, it is supreme, and it is a better indicator of Christian living.

Chapter 9 explains Paul's right as an apostle, and chapter 10 continues the subject of food sacrificed to idols. In chapter 11, Paul comments on some problems the Corinthians had in their worship meetings.

Various Spiritual Gifts

In chapter 12, Paul begins a new section, which contains comments on tongues. "Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant" (verse 1). They needed instruction to help them use their spiritual gifts in a helpful way.

There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, Paul tells us, even though they are all inspired by the same Spirit (verse 4). God gives these special abilities "for the common good" — so Christians can help one another (verse 7). Paul lists various gifts, including "speaking in different kinds of tongues, and...the interpretation of tongues" (verse 10). Being a gift, the prerogative surely lies with the giver whether someone has the gift or not. In a sense one can say, ‘the reason I don’t have the gift of this or that, blame the giver’.

The question now is what these tongues or languages are? Are they foreign languages, like the miraculous tongues spoken on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-11)? Or does this gift of tongues produce other kinds of sounds? Many theologians believe that the fact that a spiritual gift was needed for interpreting the sounds (1 Corinthians 12:10; 14:13) indicates that the speaking may not have been a human language. One’s view also depends on how the term gift is viewed. Also, we need to ask a question if interpretation from a known language is maybe not a gift as well. Although I do not want to as I am breaking our own rule, I need to refer to what we see today. For example we see missionaries preach the gospel in English with a Shangaan interpreter interpreting. When you look at these interpreters, the speed with which they interpret, and the accuracy with which they do that is amazing, and it is not the ability of all Shangaans even if they were to understand English. They hardly wait for the preacher to stop and they are already interpreting. Is this maybe what Paul is talking about? If it was an ecstatic babble, how do you know that there is an interpreter amongst the people, because if there is not one, the tongue speaker must be silent? But if it was a language, surely you can know that there is someone who is able to translate or interpret what you are saying and to speak it to the locals in their lingo, something the speaker could not do. There are those who believe that it is simply our talents that are mostly inborn but are also spiritual gifts. Something we cannot know is whether modern tongue-speaking as we see in various movements is anything like the Corinthian practice. Scripture is just simply too vague on the issue.

Paul lists similar spiritual gifts in his letter to the Roman Christians (Romans 12:6-8), but that list doesn't mention tongues or interpretation. Corinth seems to have been the only church congregation where tongues were spoken regularly.

Not everyone has the same spiritual gift or ability, Paul notes. God distributes them: one power to one person, another gift to the next person, a third ability to another, just as God determines (1 Corinthians 12:8-11). By dividing the gifts in this way, God encourages members to work with and help one another.

The analogy of a human body illustrates this. Feet, hands, eyes and other parts serve different functions. By contributing to the body as a whole, the various parts serve one another. So it is in the Church, the Body of Christ (verses 12-27). God appoints people with various spiritual functions: apostles, prophets, teachers, miracle-workers, healers, helpers, administrators and speaking in different kinds of tongues (verse 28).

Then Paul asks a rhetoric question. "Are all apostles?" or as the NAS puts it: “all are not apostles, are they” asks Paul. ‘Of course not’ is the logical answer. Neither are all Christians, prophets, teachers, miracle-workers, healers, tongue-speakers or interpreters (verses 29-30). The Greek word is 'me' which we will pronounce {may}. It means “no, not lest” its origin is a primary particle of qualified negation (Denial, annulment, cancellation etc.)  (Whereas 3756 (Strong’s number) expresses an absolute denial).

From the way Paul presents his argument, it seems that some Corinthians expected every Christian to have the same gift when it came to tongues. They doubted the spirituality of anyone who did not have that gift. That isn't a reasonable way to judge Christianity, Paul tells them. None of these spiritual gifts can be singled out as the one and only test of the Holy Spirit.