This is part 2 of my four part series on speaking in tongues. Part 1 is here. Today I will present my findings on the interpretation of tongues. Who is supposed to interpret when someone speaks in tongues in church? This is a question I have never asked before; it never occurred to me to ask it. But, as I was assigned vv. 12-19 in my Greek 3 class I had to ask the question. Verses 13 and 15 seem to say something very different than what I have experienced in church. These verses say:
1 Cor 14:13 “Therefore, let the one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret.”
1 Corinthians 14:15 “What is the outcome then? I will pray with my spirit and I will pray with my mind also; I will sing with my spirit and I will sing with my mind also.”
Who interprets the tongue here? The one who speaks in tongues is the one who interprets. The meaning of v. 15 may not seem obvious on its own, but in context he is talking about giving the tongue in church so that people can understand and receive a benefit from it. The person prays in a tongue and then prays the interpretation in their native language. That was a totally new idea to me. Whenever I’ve heard a tongue interpreted at church, someone besides the person who spoke the tongue gives the interpretation.
There are also three other verses that address this issue in chapter 14. These are tricky, however, because some of the major translations change what Paul said based on their understanding of the process.
1 Cor 14:5 “The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be built up.” This agrees with the NASB and the NKJV. But I don’t use those translations personally. The ESV, NIV and NRSV say “unless someone interprets.” That’s not what Paul said. Thankfully I looked at my own translation before looking at those.
Lastly, 1 Cor 14:27-28 “If someone speaks in a tongue, let only two or at the most three speak in turn, and let the one who speaks interpret. But if he is not an interpreter let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God.”
Let me quote the NSRV, which is my favorite version, for v. 28 so you can see the contrast: “But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God.” In the first bit they’ve changed “if he is not” to “if there is no one.” They’ve changed the noun “interpreter” to a verb. And they’ve made the second bit plural instead of third person singular (meaning “them” instead of “he”).
Why do some versions change the sense? It goes back to what Paul says in 1 Cor. 12:10 “… to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.” This seems to say that some people get the gift of tongues and others get the gift of interpretation. In fact, I don’t know how else to understand this verse. However, the supposed implications of this verse shouldn’t be allowed to override how Paul says the process does work. The interpreter is the same person who speaks in the tongue. However, taking 12:10 into account, if he does not get the interpretation someone else may give it. This should be the exception not the rule.