by Rick Pidcock
Earlier this year, I began a series on biblical continuationism. After an initial introduction article, I wrote two additional articles entitled, Continuationism & the Sovereignty of God, and Continuationism & the Sufficiency of Scripture.
When I began to come around to the idea of ongoing biblical prophecy, I really struggled with the idea of speaking in tongues. And as I talk with other believers, I get this sense from them as well.
I hear questions like, “Isn’t speaking in tongues simply witnessing in another human language? Doesn’t Paul say that speaking in tongues is selfishly prideful? What about the modern day craziness that goes on in churches? What is the meaning? What’s the point?”
I’d like to say up front that I have never experienced this gift in either private or corporate worship. So I am writing this article, not based on experience, but rather based on my understanding of Scripture.
Speaking in tongues is a topic mostly met with very strong convictions, and a lot of confusion. So I’d like to work my way through 1 Corinthians 14, in order to try to give as accurate and simple of an explanation of tongues as I can.
1. Speaking in tongues is a mysterious spiritual language directed to God.
“For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.”–1 Corinthians 14:2
Many people believe that speaking in tongues is what happens at Pentecost where believers preached the gospel, and were heard in human languages by unbelievers. While that indeed took place, that is not what is described in 1 Corinthians 14.
According to verse 2, the listener of tongues is God, not unbelieving man. Why? Simply put, speaking in tongues cannot be directed to men because nobody can understand the tongues. That is describing something completely different than what happened during the preaching at Pentecost. So what are they saying? Paul says that speaking in tongues is uttering “mysteries in the Spirit.”
2. Speaking in tongues is given to edify the speaker.
“The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself”–1 Corinthians 14:4
Some people interpret this verse as something negative. They will say that Paul is contrasting the negative, self-centered purpose of tongues, with the positive, others-focused purpose of prophecy.
I think that a more natural reading of this verse, when taken in the greater context, would imply that tongues can edify a believer. That does not necessarily make it selfish. There are many positive things that can edify an individual, including Bible study, prayer, singing, and many other spiritual disciplines.
3. Speaking in tongues is desirable, but not as desirable as prophecy.
“Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophecy”–1 Corinthians 14:5
Speaking in tongues is often met with skepticism, fear, and dismissiveness. And based on how it is often abused, it is somewhat understandable that we naturally respond in that way. However, Paul’s desire was that we would all be able to experience this gift. So biblically, it is a good thing for us to desire this gift.
4. Speaking in tongues can edify the church, in addition to the speaker, if an interpreter reveals the meaning.
“The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up. Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? 7 If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? 8 And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? 9 So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. 10 There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, 11 but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. 12 So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church. 13 Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret.”–1 Corinthians 14:5-13
Many people ask, “What’s the point?”
The point of speaking in tongues is the same as any other gift–to glorify God by edifying the body of Christ. So in the context of a corporate worship gathering, as long as an interpretation is given to reveal the meaning of the mysterious utterance to God, then the interpretation allows others to be edified. If, however, no interpretation is given, then no edification of the body takes place. Therefore, Paul says that we should pray for the gift of interpretation.
5. Speaking in tongues is a language of the spirit, rather than of the mind.
“For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful.”–1 Corinthians 14:14
This point is one of the most mind-boggling (no pun intended) points of the topic to me. What profit can there be in an activity where the mind is unfruitful? I cannot fully explain this. However, it is clear from the text that a believer’s spirit can pray in such a way that edifies the individual, beyond the mind’s comprehension.
6. Speaking in tongues is a spiritual language of prayer and praise.
“I will pray with my spirit…I will sing praise with my spirit.”–1 Corinthians 14:15
Paul draws an interesting parallel here between spiritual and understandable speaking. Just as your mind can pray, your spirit can pray. Just as your mind can sing praise, your spirit can sing praise.
7. Speaking in tongues must be accompanied by understandable speech.
I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. 16 Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? 17 For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up.”–1 Corinthians 14:15-17
While there is a parallel between praying in the spirit and with the mind, praying in the spirit must be accompanied by praying with the mind. Again, the reason for this necessary accompaniment of the mind is for the edification of the body.
8. Speaking in tongues is something to be thankful for.
“I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.”–1 Corinthians 14:18
If you have experienced the gift of tongues, then your heart should be full of thankfulness. If you measure the salvation or maturity of others by whether or not they speak in tongues, then you should ask yourself whether the gift of tongues has led your heart to be thankful, or whether it has resulted in something else.
9. Speaking in tongues, apart from the edifying gift of interpretation, is exponentially less desirable than understandable speech.
“Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.”–1 Corinthians 14:19
Here is where Paul really puts the gift of tongues in its proper context. If there is no interpretation to reveal to the church in a corporate gathering the meaning of the tongues, then it would be better to speak five understandable words then 10,000 words in a tongue. Again, this verse ties the gift back to the purpose of edification.
10. Speaking in tongues, apart from interpretation, is God’s salutation of rebuke to unbelievers.
“In the Law it is written, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” 22 Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers.”–1 Corinthians 14:21-22
This part of the passage is probably the most difficult to understand what Paul is talking about. So in order to understand it more fully, we need to go back to the original OT passage that Paul quotes.
“For by people of strange lips
and with a foreign tongue
the Lord will speak to this people,
12 to whom he has said,
“This is rest;
give rest to the weary;
and this is repose”;
yet they would not hear.”–Isaiah 28:11-12
The context of Isaiah 28 is God’s judgment on unbelieving Israel. Though Israel had been confronted by God many times, they refused to listen to Him. So God responded by telling them that He would send the Assyrians, who spoke a language that they did not understand, to bring judgment on them.
When Paul quotes this passage, He is not drawing a direct parallel, because the details simply do not perfectly align. But Paul is bringing to our attention the bigger picture idea–namely that when God utilizes language that cannot be understood, He does so in judgment of unbelief. So when Paul says that tongues are a sign for unbelievers, He is saying that tongues are God’s rebuke to unbelievers.
11. Speaking in tongues, apart from interpretation, is senseless to unbelievers.
“If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?”–1 Corinthians 14:23
Paul begins to transition at this point by posing the question of chaos and senselessness. If unbelievers see the church utilizing this gift, then will they not think that the church is filled with a bunch of crazies? Throughout the rest of the chapter, Paul will illustrate on a practical level how this gift can be exercised not in a crazy way, but in an orderly way.
12. Speaking in tongues, along with interpretation, has an edifying function in corporate worship.
“What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.”–1 Corinthians 14:26
The context here is a corporate worship gathering of the church. Whether somebody comes to the gathering with a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation, each gift must be done for the edification of the body. This is an important thought that transcends even the discussion on tongues. When we choose our songs, prepare our sermons, or whatever we bring to the gathering with us, we should desire to build up the body in all things.
13. Speaking in tongues, during corporate worship, must only be used by two or three people.
“If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three…”–1 Corinthians 14:27
My brother told me of a recent worship gathering that he attended where the leader told a group of 2000 people to all speak in tongues. Then for the next few minutes, thousands of people began ecstatically speaking unintelligible sounds.
Not only were there no interpretations given, but there were definitely more than “two or at most three.” Just do a search for “speaking in tongues” on YouTube, and you’ll find that this clear biblical command is ignored and disobeyed quite often.
14. Speaking in tongues, during corporate worship, must only be used by one person at a time.
“…and each in turn…”–1 Corinthians 14:27
Notice again how specific Paul gets in the practice of this gift. It is not a group of people losing control of their mouths, as if being possessed by some other spirit. Rather, it is is something that happens by one person at a time, with one or at most two others waiting their turn.
15. Speaking in tongues, during corporate worship, must be followed by an interpretation.
“…and let someone interpret.”–1 Corinthians 14:27
A former professor of mine told the story once where he attended a Charismatic worship gathering, and stood up quoting the Greek alphabet. And to his surprise, an interpretation was offered. Only, the interpretation was not accurate.
I have heard from reliable sources, however, of examples where this has taken place. Wayne Grudem tells the story of a gathering in which one person stood up to speak in tongues, and a number of people in the congregation immediately were drawn to a specific Psalm. So one of them stood up to give an interpretation. And others throughout the congregation confirmed that they had been led to that same passage.
Experiences aside, however, we can definitively conclude from this passage that for speaking in tongues to take place in a corporate gathering, there must be an interpretation in order to edify the body.
16. Speaking in tongues, during corporate worship, if not followed by an interpretation, must be silenced.
“But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church…”–1 Corinthians 14:28
So what happens if somebody stands up, speaks in a mysterious spiritual language to God, and nobody offers an interpretation? Paul says that such an individual should keep silent while in church.
On a practical level, if somebody were to stand up and speak in tongues in a service that I was leading, I would wait until they were done, and then ask if there was an interpretation. If there was no interpretation, then I would ask for the speaker to be silent, and give further instruction to the individual that is found in verse 28.
17. Speaking in tongues can be practiced in private.
“…and speak to himself and to God.”–1 Corinthians 14:28
If there is no interpretation, then an individual desiring to exercise this gift must be silent in corporate worship, but is free to exercise the gift in private between himself and God. Paul does not get irate with the individual, or have the individual carted off in handcuffs. He simply instructs corporate silence, and private worship.
For those that I know and whose judgement I trust that claim they have experienced the gift of tongues, they usually always say that they normally experience it in private, with no one else around but them and their God.
18. Speaking in tongues must be allowed in corporate and private worship.
“…do not forbid speaking in tongues.”–1 Corinthians 14:39
Paul could not be any clearer than when he says, “Do not forbid speaking in tongues.” The cessationist has to not only wiggle past a clear statement in 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 that says that speaking in tongues will last until Christ returns, but he also has to disobey a command in this passage to “not forbid speaking in tongues.”
Rather than responding to the unbiblical use of tongues by forbidding the gift, we should instead instruct on how the gift is regulated in Scripture.
19. Speaking in tongues must be practiced in a proper and orderly way.
“But all things should be done decently and in order.”–1 Corinthians 14:40
If speaking in tongues in corporate worship is exercised by one to three people, in turn, as a mysterious utterance to God, and accompanied by a clear interpretation, then it is a gift that can be exercised properly and orderly. And if there is no interpretation, then it can be exercised properly and orderly in private.
Perhaps one day God may allow me to experience this gift. It is something that I would find to be desirable. But as we discovered in Continuationism & The Sovereignty of God, God determines the distribution and duration of the gifts. And one day, we will no longer have use for mysteries and dark mirrors. One day, we will see Christ face to face, and fully know Him. So as with prophecy, let’s allow the gift of tongues to create within us, not only a temporary beneficial experience of edification, but also a thirst for seeing our Savior face to face, where the mysterious becomes fully known.