What exactly is the nature of the gift of tongues? This is a massively important question. Does the word “tongues” refer simply to human languages? Can it include a sort of spiritual language that is not known by anyone in the world? Do tongues have a private purpose only or is there a corporate value to them? The answers we derive from Scripture to these questions will determine how we analyze the modern manifestations of the gift. 1 Corinthians 14 should be our primary grid for understanding and evaluating the modern gift of tongues.
The most obvious starting place for discussing the gift of tongues is Acts 2. Here the disciples, inspired and empowered by literal “tongues of fire” (Acts 2:3), speak in foreign tongues. Luke records the event, saying:
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6 And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. (Acts 2:1-8)
This is the first and most famous mention in the New Testament of the gift and from it we learn several important things. First, we learn that the disciples were divinely empowered to speak previously unknown languages. They did not learn these languages through study, but rather they spoke them “as the Spirit gave them utterance.” It is divinely empowered. Secondly, we learn that they spoke human languages. These were real known languages reflective of various “nations under heaven.” Thirdly, we discern that the communication was clear to those who received it. There was no need for interpretation because the Spirit gave interpretation, but the people understood the content of the words. Fourthly, the communication served a specific purpose of teaching God’s truth, in this case it was evangelistic and served more than just the speaker.
These are good and valuable principles to be drawn from the passage and yet, as we turn to another passage we find some important and key differences. The second most significant place in the New Testament to mention the gift of tongues is 1 Corinthians 14. In Paul’s teaching about tongues we find that he says many things that support the principles of Acts 2, and yet there are some noticeable differences. We should note what Paul says about the gift, highlighting similarities and differences, and then seek to bring some reconciliation to the two texts.
First, Paul states that the “one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God” (1 Cor. 14:2). That seems distinctly different from the nature of the event at Pentecost. Paul is contrasting the gifts of tongues and prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14. Part of what he demonstrates is the superior usefulness of prophecy to tongues (at least uninterpreted tongues, as we will see) in the corporate gathering. So, he points out here that “the one who prophesies speaks to people” (v. 3), but tongues are directed Godward.
Secondly, he notes that in tongues man “utters mysteries in the Spirit.” This is similar to Pentecost in that is Spirit-given utterance, and it comes apart from man’s own thoughts and conclusions. Paul further develops this idea when he speaks of man praying “in the spirit” but apart from the mind (v. 14). Tongues remain empowered by the Spirit apart from man’s own understanding. So, Wayne Grudem’s definition helpfully articulates this distinction. He writes:
We may define this gift as follows: Speaking in tongues is prayer or praise spoken in syllables not understood by the speaker. (Systematic Theology, 1070)
Tongues, then, are clearly seen by both Paul and Luke as Spirit-given utterance.
Thirdly, tongues are designed for building oneself up (v. 4). We note again Paul’s contrast between prophecy and tongues, as prophecy is for the building up of the whole body. Some conclude from this contrast that Paul is being sarcastic, that he is condemning the usefulness of tongues. That is too strong a stance, however, since Paul says he desires that everyone would speak in tongues (14:5, 51). Self-edification is not a bad thing, Paul’s focus is on the corporate worship, however, and uninterpreted tongues does not build up the church because they can’t understand what is being said (v.6-13). We note the distinct differences in Paul’s language about tongues here and the events at Pentecost. The goal at Pentecost was that tongues would draw people to Christ. Paul notes the usefulness of tongues as a “sign for unbelievers” (v. 22), but he has a different idea in mind there than the function of tongues at Pentecost (the use of tongues as a “sign for unbelievers” is one of judgment – they cannot discern spiritual things, see Isa. 28:11 and Deut. 28:49).
Fourthly, Paul states that tongues in corporate worship require interpretation (v. 27-28). His emphasis on building up the church requires that interpretation be available before tongues are to be exercised in the assembly. No one can understand without interpretation. Thus Paul sees prophecy as superior to tongues “unless someone interprets” (v. 5), for with interpretation tongues function very similarly to prophecy. This detail about the practice of tongues dismisses any notion of ecstatic expression. Paul recognizes that the speaker is self-controlled and able to start, stop, and restrain his speaking (v. 27-28).
Fifthly, speaking in tongues should not be forbidden (v. 39). Despite his contrast between tongues and prophecy, Paul holds tongues to be of real value both privately and corporately. He encourages the church to support it, practice it, and encourage it. Don’t forbid, he says, what God has produced for our good.
How do we reconcile the two distinct passages on tongues? I think we need to recall the unique role of Pentecost in the unfolding of redemption. It is a unique stage in the development of the church and therefore not an exact model of our current life as believers. There is much in Acts that is more descriptive than prescriptive and so we must be careful. Clearly Paul perceives some differences in the function of tongues in the church at Corinth and the events of Pentecost. We should too. 1 Corinthians 14 serves as a better grid through which to understand our current experience of the gift of tongues.
What about the issue of known languages? Is the gift of tongue the gift to speak in real known languages or is it some sort of divine/spiritual language that isn’t known to human ears? In all honesty, I don’t know. The text doesn’t clarify this issue for me. While it is clear in Acts 2 that the language is known to the people, that doesn’t necessarily mean that every example of tongues in the New Testament is the same. We’ve already noted the unique difference between Pentecost and 1 Corinthians 14. While the tongues at Pentecost have the goal of evangelism, 1 Corinthians 14 clearly connects the practice to personal worship (speaking to God not to men). In addition, if tongues are directed to God and not men, then it seems that non-human language may be included in the categories of tongues. For, as Sam Storms says, “speaking to men is precisely what human language does” (The Beginner’s Guide to the Spiritual Gifts, 142). On the other hand, Paul does make a strong and clear comparison to human languages in verses 10-12. There are good arguments, then, for both human and spiritual languages as categories within the gift of tongues, I am not sure if the practice is exclusive to one or the other. Humility compels me to acknowledge that it is most likely both.
All of this sets us up next week to analyze more carefully the modern manifestations of tongues. If we see the practice of modern tongue speakers to be in accordance with 1 Corinthians 14 than we should not “forbid speaking in tongues.” Sadly, much of what we see is quite different and requires strong warnings.