In Greek 3 I was told to write a 25 page paper on 1 Corinthians 14:1-19 with two of my classmates. If you aren’t familiar with this passage, Paul addresses the use of spiritual gifts in church, primarily the gifts of prophecy, tongues and interpretation of tongues. I laughed so hard when I received the assignment – a Charismatic in a Presbyterian seminary being given one of the most Charismatic passages in the Bible. I’m presenting my findings here, because what I discovered changed my understanding of tongues fairly significantly. As there is so much to say I’m going to break this into four parts – what is being said when tongues are spoken, who interprets the tongue, how tongues can be properly used in church and various other related points. One reason my understanding changed is that some of the major translations blatantly mistranslate what Paul said, masking the true sense. For those who may question my motives or abilities, I will say that everything that follows is found in other major translations or respected commentaries. I’m not saying anything new; just new to everyone I know.
People have different ideas about what is being said when someone speaks in tongues. At Azusa Street in 1906, the people who spoke in tongues rushed to the mission field believing that they had been given human languages to evangelize with, only to discover that the Chinese and Indians had no idea what they were saying. Others understand tongues to be a prophetic message. This is often seen during church services when a tongue is given and then the interpretation comes with direction for the church. Also, during times of prayer for an individual you will see people speaking in tongues over them, tongues being understood as a form of intercession. Lastly, you will see churches singing in tongues during times of worship, tongues being understood as worshipping God with your spirit. Are these right ways of understanding though? What is really being said?
Examples from the New Testament
To find out which of these are correct we will examine all the places in the New Testament where the gift of tongues is explicitly mentioned. Surprisingly, at least for those of Charismatic persuasion like myself, tongues is only mentioned in five places in the NT. At the end of Mark, Jesus states that speaking in new tongues is a sign that will accompany believers. In the book of Acts, tongues is mentioned three times, always when people initially receive the Holy Spirit.
The first occurrence is on the day of Pentecost. Divided tongues of fire came down and rested on the heads of those in the upper room and they spoke in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. We all know that part. The question is “what was being said?” Acts 2:11 says “we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God.” What exactly does it mean that they were “speaking of the mighty acts of God?” We don’t know. This passage is often understood evangelistically – the believers were proclaiming the gospel. It also could mean the believers were praising God, the mighty acts of God often being proclaimed in the Psalms. At any rate, no one got saved from hearing the tongues; Peter had to preach the gospel. A new idea for me was that Luke doesn’t say they were speaking in human languages. Read Acts 2:6 carefully “And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language.” Each person heard the believers speaking in his own language. It doesn’t say each member of the crowd heard one or two out of the believers speaking in his own language; it says he heard the group speaking in his own language. There appears to have been a work of the Spirit on the crowd as well as on the believers, giving them the interpretation of the believers’ words, regardless of what language the believers were speaking in.
The next occurrence is in Acts 10, when the Holy Spirit falls on the Gentiles for the first time. In 10:46 the disciples are amazed because they heard the Gentiles “speaking in tongues and making God great.” I’ve translated “extol” this way, because extol is seldom used nowadays. Lastly, in Acts 19 Paul lays his hands on twelve believers and the Holy Spirit comes upon them and they speak in tongues and prophesy.
The last part of the NT where tongues is mentioned is in 1 Cor. 12-14. Tongues is simply mentioned in chapter 12 with no commentary to help us. 13:1 says “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” This may mean that tongues is understood to be the language of angels. Or it may not. Lastly we have chapter 14. 14:2 says the tongues speaker is uttering mysteries in the Spirit. Vv. 14-15 say that you can pray and praise in tongues. Vv. 16-17 say you can give thanks in tongues. Let me quote v. 17 as the ESV and NRSV get it wrong – “For you are giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not built up.” The ESV and the NRSV say “you may be giving thanks” changing Paul’s statement of fact (you are) to a statement of possibility (you may).
That’s all we’ve know for sure. Let me summarize. When a person speaks in tongues they can definitely praise and thank God and speak of his mighty deeds. They can definitely pray, but we don’t know what Paul means by this. Does that mean intercession or does that mean praise in nonmusical form? I don’t know, but I’m inclined to think that it is simply speaking praise. What of my list in the beginning of this post? Evangelism – No. Prophetic message – No. Intercession – Maybe. Praise – Definitely. By offering this summary, I’m not trying to limit God; I’m simply trying to present what the Bible says so we can align our practice with it. When we are speaking or singing in tongues we are praising God with our spirits.
Tomorrow I will post on who interprets the tongue once it is spoken.