Our base verse for today is 1 Corinthians 12:10 “and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, and to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues."
The word used here for tongues is glossa, meaning tongue in both the literal/physical sense and in the sense of language. It is always rendered as either tongue or tongues in the NASB, and is the only word used in the New Testament meaning tongue. (A few other Greek words are rendered as language, however.)
Yet we also see from this verse that there are “various kinds of tongues.” (Note that various is not in the original Greek; it was added in an attempt to clarify understanding ... so, a strictly literal translation would read “kinds of tongues.”) There are generally recognized to be two categories of tongues in Scripture (a viewpoint I agree with): foreign languages, and the language of God, both granted to you through spiritual means. We’ll examine both below.
Foreign Languages as Tongues
We find a wonderful example of the Holy Spirit giving the early believers the ability to speak in tongues in this capacity in Acts chapter 2. Here’s a bit of the story:
1 And when the day of Pentecost had come, they [those who believed in Jesus] were all together in one place …4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance …
6 And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were bewildered, because they were each one hearing them speak in his own language.
7 And they were amazed and marveled, saying, “Why, are not all those who are speaking Galileans?
8 And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born?
9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,
10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,
11 Cretans and Arabs – we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the might deeds of God” …
37 “Now when they heard this [the gospel message], they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” …
41 So then, those who had received his word were baptized, and there were added that day [to the number of those who believed in Jesus] about three thousand souls.
So, we see here that tongues can mean a special spiritual endowment to speak a foreign language in order to communicate the gospel to others. In this instance, the disciples could have preached in Greek and nearly everyone would have understood them (it was the lingua franca of the world at that time), but the tongues ensured that people actually listened to them – I mean, if you were in some foreign country and suddenly heard someone giving a big speech in your own language, wouldn’t you stop and listen for a few minutes to see what it was about?
A modern extension of this would be missions work. I’ve read all sorts of accounts by missionaries saying that people really respond to the gospel when they hear it in their own language or dialect, particularly in Africa and South America where people speak both a local language and the official language of the nation or region. I imagine this is a place where God gives missionaries the ability to speak in tongues.
“Heaven Speak” – the Language of God and the Angels – as Tongues
Tongues in this context of a sort of mystical language used in heaven is identified in 1 Peter 4:11: “Whoever speaks, let him speak, as it were, the utterances of God…” and 1 Corinthians 14:2 “For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men, but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries.”
1 Corinthians 14 is the definitive chapter on what tongues in this context is, what its purpose is, and how to use it effectively and not abuse it. I am posting the entire chapter here, and I strongly encourage you to read it in its entirety because there is so much to glean from it. I’m going to interweave my commentary with the passage, my words appearing in italics.
1 Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophecy.2 For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men, but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries.
3 But one who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation.
4 One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church.
There is a certain hierarchy of spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:8), and tongues falls below prophecy. The reason for this is that, unless there is an interpretation (which Paul will address soon), tongues only affects you and your worship and communication with God – and remember, the primary purpose of spiritual gifts is for the edification of the entire body (1 Corinthians 12:7).
5 Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy; and greater is one who prophesies than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may receive edifying.
6 But now brethren, if I come to you speaking in tongues, what shall I profit you, unless I speak to you either by way of revelation or of knowledge or of prophecy or of teaching?
7 Yet even lifeless things, either flute or harp, in producing a sound, if they do not produce distinction in the tones, how will it be known what is played on the flute or on the harp?
8 For if the bugle produces an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself for battle?
9 So also you, unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air.
10 There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of languages in the world, and no kind is without meaning.
11 If then I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be to the one who speaks a barbarian and the one who speaks will be a barbarian to me.
12 So also you, since you are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek to abound for the edification of the church.
13 Therefore let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret.
This is a continuation of the point in verses 1-4. Speaking in tongues without an interpretation is pointless and will just weird people out (v11). However, even tongues that you only use privately do have value to you (v 5). Additionally, when tongues are interpreted, they can have great benefit to the church. One time when I was attending a small, extremely spirit-filled congregation, as the worship leader finished up the last song he started quietly speaking in a beautiful language. The pastor stood up and interpreted – it was a message of blessing from God, applauding the congregation for laying down their lives for Him and encouraging them to continue to do so. In this instance, tongues were used for the benefit of the body because there was an interpretation – that is, we could understand what was said. Sometimes the speaker is also the interpreter, and other times, they are two people.
14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.
15 What is the outcome then? I shall pray with the spirit and I shall pray with the mind also; I shall sing with the spirit and I shall sing with the mind also.
I know a woman who sometimes prays and sings praises in tongues, and other times, she does so in English. When she is doing this in tongues, it is a really cool spiritual connection for her, but if she didn’t pray and praise in English sometimes, she’d have no idea what she was saying, which would hinder her walk in another way.
16 Otherwise if you bless in the spirit only, how will the one who fills the place of the ungifted say the “Amen” at your giving of thanks, since he does not know what you are saying?
17 For you are giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified.
18 I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all.
19 however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind, that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue.
Just because tongues are, frankly, cool, doesn’t mean they should replace teaching – that is an abuse. Babbling on is an abuse. We need to be careful that in all contexts, not just the issue of tongues, we do not get so wrapped up in emotional spiritual experiences that we neglect the intellectual side of the faith.
20 Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be babes but in your thinking be mature.
21 In the Law it is written, “BY MEN OF STRANGE TONGUES AND BY THE LIPS OF STRANGERS I WILL SPEAK TO THIS PEOPLE, AND EVEN SO THEY WILL NOT LISTEN TO ME,” says the Lord.
22 So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe, but to unbelievers; but prophecy is for a sign, not to unbelievers, but to those who believe.
23 If therefore the whole church should assemble together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad?
24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, his is called to account by all;
25 the secrets of the heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you.
If an unbeliever comes to a group of believers and is met with an interpreted tongue (i.e., one that ends up saying something prophetic), it will bring him to God. But if he comes and finds us babbling meaninglessly like a bunch of idiots, he’s just going to think that Christians are crazy. So, we need to be mature in how we handle tongues and not get all caught up in it.
26 What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.
27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and let one interpret;
28 but if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church; and let him speak to himself and to God.
29 And let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment.
30 But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, let the first keep silent.
31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted;
32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets;
33 for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.
Tongues is a very good gift, and has a definite role in the church – BUT, it must be handled with order. It needs to be interpreted, and it should not monopolize the entire service/meeting/etc.
34 Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law says.
35 And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.
These two verses get twisted a lot. We don’t have room to get into too many of the specifics here, but what you do need to know is that (1) extra-Biblical history shows that the women in Corinth, many of them having roots in the cult of Delphi, were used to babbling loudly in their pagan worship – and they likely brought this practice with them when they came to Christ, and (2) the Greek word for speak is in verses 34-35 is laleo which means specifically speaking without understanding – that is, this was not being interpreted (and is used elsewhere in the Bible referring to speaking in tongues w/out it being interpreted). So Paul’s point here is not that women are somehow banned from speaking or speaking in tongues in church, but that, since the women of Corinth apparently were particularly guilty of carrying on without interpretation, they needed to cut it out, and, as the husband is the head of his wife, the husbands needed to step in and get their wives to cut it out. He is not giving women a different commandment regarding tongues, he is just emphasizing it since they were causing a specific problem.
36 Was it from you that the word of God first went forth? Or has it come to you only?
37 If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment.
38 But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.
39 Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues.
40 But let all things be done properly and in an orderly manner.
Paul sums up this long passage by pointing out that yes, he knows what he’s talking about, so the Corinthians need to follow his instructions. He also emphasizes that tongues is an important spiritual gift that should not be neglected, but it desperately needs to be handled in an orderly manner and interpreted.
Summing It All Up
So, we have learned that tongues can take the form of either foreign languages or heavenly languages.
And what’s the point of tongues?1 – It’s a way of witnessing more effectively (Acts 2)
2 – It’s a specific sign to unbelievers, and a way of conveying prophetic words and blessings (1 Corinthians 14)
3 – It’s a display of God’s power (Mark 16:17-18)
Join the Conversation
Do you have the gift of tongues, or know someone who does?Any other questions or comments? Leave ‘em below! :-)