By: Mark Tabara (Evangelist)
Question: Why does Paul spend so much time talking about the gift of speaking in tongues in his first Epistle to the Corinthians?
Answer: Paul needed to spend a great deal of time talking with the church in Corinth about the gift of tongues because of the ways that the church were misusing this gift.
Throughout 1 Corinthians, Paul dealt with the problems in the church of Christ located in Corinth. Sadly, there were many problems with this congregation. Among others, they had become horribly divided amongst themselves (1 Corinthians 1:10-13). Their divisions into sects over various issues and preachers was a powerful sign of their carnal nature (1 Corinthians 3:1-5). The problems in the church were especially evident in their church assemblies. Several times throughout 1 Corinthians, Paul deals specifically with abuses that were taking place in the church assembly. He used the Greek phrase en humen several times to describe their assemblies of worship (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:10-11; 2:2; 3:3, 16, 18; 5:1; 6:5; 11:18, 19, 30; 14:25; 15:12, etc.). He was especially concerned because of the ways that the practices of the worshippers of pagan gods and goddesses in the heathen temples at Corinth were spilling over into and affecting the church.
In 1 Corinthians chapters 10-16, Paul deals specifically with the abuses of public worship in the assemblies of the church at Corinth. In chapters 10 and 11, he deals with the abuses taking place in the Lord’s Supper and with the way that the women of the church were casting aside their veils in the assembly (at Corinth, a woman laying aside her veil was a symbol of temple prostitution). In chapters 12-14, he deals with the ways that the brethren were misusing their miraculous gifts (including the gift of tongues). In chapter 15, he deal with the public false teaching taking place in the church regarding the resurrection of the dead. Finally, in chapter 16 Paul deals with the need to store up the church treasury with free will donations from the members (1 Corinthians 16:1-2).
In chapters 12-14, Paul discusses especially how the Corinthians’ misuse of their miraculous gifts was causing great harm to the church. Not only was their misuse of these gifts causing divisions within the body of Christ, but their misuse especially of the gift of tongues was causing unbelievers to continue in their sin and to spread the rumor that the Christians were all crazy.
1 Corinthians 14:23-Therefore if the whole church comes together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those who are uninformed or unbelievers, will they not say that you are out of your mind?
Question: What does Paul mean when he says that one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God (1 Corinthians 14:2)?
Answer: The person who has the gift of tongues will only be a blessing to the church if he (or someone else in the assembly) is able to translate the foreign dialect he speaks miraculously; otherwise the church itself is not benefitted in any way.
1 Corinthians 14:2-For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands him; however, in the spirit he speaks mysteries
Throughout 1 Corinthians, Paul deals with the subject of brethren in the congregation who are misusing their spiritual gifts to cause discord and chaos in the assembly. If that wasn’t bad enough, visitors to the church witnessed the assemblies and became convinced that the Christians were simply insane (1 Corinthians 14:23). There are several factors that Paul points out to the brethren regarding the gift of tongues.
First, it is very possible that the person who is speaking in tongues may not understand the language which he is speaking. Notice how the text points this out:
1 Corinthians 14:5- I wish you all spoke with tongues, but even more that you prophesied; for he who prophesies is greater than he who speaks with tongues, UNLESS INDEED HE INTERPRETS, that the church may receive edification.
1 Corinthians 14:13-Therefore let him who speaks in a tongue PRAY THAT HE MAY INTERPRET.
Second, Paul teaches that if the man speaking in tongues could not interpret what he was saying, those in the congregation who had the gift of interpretation were to translate for the rest of the assembly:
1 Corinthians 14:27-If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret.
Third, if there were no interpreters in the congregation present, and if the man himself could not translate what he was speaking, then he was to be silent:
1 Corinthians 14:28-But if there is no interpreter, LET HIM KEEP SILENT IN CHURCH, and let him speak to himself and to God.
It is apparent from this that Paul is wanting the Christians to see that the gift of tongues was to be used for the edification of the church and for a sign to unbelievers. It was not primarily about the edification of the tongue speaker.
1 Corinthians 14:5-I wish you all spoke with tongues, but even more that you prophesied; for he who prophesies is greater than he who speaks with tongues, unless indeed he interprets, THAT THE CHURCH MAY RECEIVE EDIFICATION.
1 Corinthians 14:12-Even so you, since you are zealous for spiritual gifts, LET IT BE FOR THE EDIFICATION OF THE CHURCH that you seek to excel.
1 Corinthians 14:17-19-For you indeed give thanks well, but the other is not edified. 18 I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all; 19 yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.
1 Corinthians 14:26-How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. LET ALL THINGS BE DONE FOR EDIFICATION.
1 Corinthians 14:40-Let all things be done decently and in order.
Question: Are the “tongues” in 1 Corinthians 14 actually foreign languages, or are they gibberish?
Answer: The passage makes it clear that the “tongues” in context are referring to foreign languages.
There are at least three indicators from this passage that the “tongues” are referring to foreign languages.
First, the gift of tongues (as we have seen elsewhere in the New Testament) was a reference to the miraculous ability of some (I.e., the Apostles of Christ and those upon whom they laid their hands and conveyed miraculous gifts) to speak in foreign languages which the speaker had not previously studied.
Second, the gift of tongues in this passage is specifically referenced as being tongues with which foreigners would understand (I.e., their own native tongues):
1 Corinthians 14:10-11-There are, it may be, so many kinds of languages in the world, and none of them is without significance. 11 Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me.
Notice the connection between “tongues” and “foreigners,” as well as Paul’s reference to the fact that there are many “languages” in the world. Clearly, there is a link between the “tongues” and the “languages” of “foreigners.”
Third, Paul shows from a quotation from the Old Testament that the gift of tongues is actually the gift of speaking in other human languages:
1 Corinthians 14:21-In the law it is written: “WITH MEN OF OTHER TONGUES AND OTHER LIPS I WILL SPEAK TO THIS PEOPLE; AND YET, FOR ALL THAT, THEY WILL NOT HEAR ME,” says the Lord.
Commenting of this passage, Jim, McGuiggan has well explained:
“In these two verses he illustrates how the gift of tongues is to function. The law (as in, say, 14:34) is the Old Testament. The passage used is Isaiah 28:11. The setting is clear. The people won’t hear the words of the prophet (who speaks to them in their own language) so God will speak to them in the language of the Assyrians (if you think Israel is in view) or Babylonians (if you think Judah). Had they listened to the prophets they wouldn’t have needed foreign chastisement. But they wouldn’t listen so they will go into captivity. And in captivity they will be reminded of their unbelief by the daily “babbling” going on all around them. It was unbelief that necessitated the lesson of the foreign tongue. As it was with the Old Testament illustration so it is with the present gift.” (Jim McGuiggan, 1 Corinthians: Looking Into The Bible Series, 3498-3508 (Kindle Edition); Lubbock, TX; Sunset institute Press)
Question: If the gift of tongues was the ability to speak “foreign languages,” then why does the Bible say that these were “unknown tongues?”
Answer: The tongues were foreign languages which were “unknown” to the majority of the congregation at Corinth, which is why there were to be translators present in the assembly.
First, please notice that many people have misunderstood the meaning of the text due to the translation of the KJV in this chapter.
You will notice that several times, the word “unknown” was supplied by the translators of the KJV throughout this passage. Please observe that the word “unknown” is italicized in the text, showing that the word was not part of the original language but was instead supplied by the translators.
Second, the phrase “unknown” was not added by the translators to try and suggest that the “tongue” was the gibberish speaking of the pagans of the day; indeed, it was to further highlight the fact that the tongue was “unknown” to the vast majority of the congregation (being a foreign dialect), which was why Paul pointed out that there needed to be translators present.
Question: What was the main function of the gift of speaking in tongues?
Answer: The primary purpose of the miraculous gift of speaking in tongues was to provide evidence to the unbeliever of the Word of God. A secondary purpose of the gift of tongues was to edify the church.
1 Corinthians 14:22-Therefore tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophesying is not for unbelievers but for those who believe.
Friends, God has gone to incredible lengths to provide you the evidences that you need to verify that His Word is true. The miraculous gift of tongues is only one such demonstration.
The greatest evidences of Hs love for you are found in the Good News that His Son, Jesus Christ, paid the price for your sins by dying in your place, being buried, and rising from the dead on the third day as verified by over five hundred witnesses (1 Corinthians 15:1-8).
Why not today submit your life to Him by believing in Him (John 8:24), repenting of your sins (Luke 13:3), confessing Him before men (1 Timothy 6:12), and being buried in the waters of baptism so that your sins may be washed away by the blood of Christ (Romans 6:3-4)? Then live faithfully to Him, even to the point of death (Revelation 2:10).
If you have started that journey by being baptized into Him but have wandered away in sin (2 Peter 2:20-22), why not today repent of your sin and confess it to the Lord in prayer (1 John 1:9)? Let your church family strengthen you and encourage you in any way that we can (Galatians 6:1-5).
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.