All Scripture quotations are from the 1901 American Standard Version unless otherwise noted.
Among all the gifts of the Spirit, the gift of tongues is easily the most confusing to people. And for good reason. In regard to the tongues that was spoken on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), we have no doubt what that was. Those were known foreign languages that were understood by the unbelievers who were present that day. They spoke in their language as a sign to them, as a validation of the truth regarding Christ.
On the other hand, the tongues that is talked about in this chapter, is not easy to explain. Many Christians make the assumption that the tongues-speaking in this chapter is the same tongues that were spoken on Pentecost. However, the way Paul talks about tongues in this chapter, it seems clear that he is talking about a different type of tongues. The gift of interpretation was not needed on Pentecost, but was understood by those present, each one hearing it in their own language. But in this chapter, no one understands the tongues being spoken without an interpreter. Furthermore, many also make the assumption that the tongues-speaking in this chapter is the same as that which is spoken in Pentecostal and charismatic churches today. However, the fact is, what type of language it was, is not explained — not in this chapter or anywhere else in the Bible. Furthermore, Paul doesn’t even explain what purpose it served. It’s a gift of mystery.
In regard to the tongues that were spoken in Acts 10:44-48; 19:1-6; and Acts 8:14-19 (as evidenced), no details are given about those tongues, including which type they were (Acts 2? or 1 Cor 14?). This further adds to the mystery of this gift overall.
I think you’ll find the approach and interpretation of this chapter to be very honest and sensible, as it provides an understanding and a conclusion that allows us to deal with the gift of tongues in a wise manner. Even for those who are not convinced of the (my) cessationist position, I believe the interpretation for the tongues of this chapter provide common sense instruction in regard to its use in our churches today.
1 Corinthians 14
(The gift of mystery)
1 Follow after love; yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy.
As with 1 Cor 12:31, Paul is referring to the whole assembly, not to individuals. He’s making an emphatic statement that the gift of prophecy is to be made the priority of their church over all the other gifts. Why is that? Because it was the gift of prophecy that gave us the Word of God. It was the gift of prophecy that gave us the NT Scriptures. The Word of God is to be valued above all things. This gift was active while the NT was being written. While the NT was being written, Christians had to have the teachings of the Christian faith, so God gifted people with the gift of prophecy to convey those teachings. This obvious fact precludes the idea that this gift was given for the purpose of providing personal direction for someone’s life — as the norm, as if it was a common experience that was available to all. The idea that God was giving out personal prophecies for personal direction in people’s lives, when there was something far more important going on in the plan of God, is incomprehensible. It’s an idea that fails to see the significance of this pivotal point in history.
There are but two examples in the whole NT of such use, and there are no instructions for this gift being used in that way. The two exceptions was the prophecy regarding the call of Paul and Barnabas, and Timothy’s call to be a pastor (Acts 13:1-3; 1 Tim 1:18; 4:14), as we talked about in 1 Cor 12:8-10 (please read commentary). It’s important to note, that in both of those cases of personal prophecy, it was not a private matter, but validated by others in authority. In Timothy’s case, Paul himself was one of those who confirmed his call, along with the elders. Also highly important, is the fact that in both cases, these personal prophecies were highly significant as it related to the whole Church. The call of Paul and Barnabas was to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ and to help establish the Church. Some of what God accomplished through them is recorded for us in the NT Scriptures. As for Timothy’s call to be a pastor, that too had significant value to the Church, as he was not only a close fellow-minister of Paul’s, but we have two books of the NT that are addressed to him. The point is, even in these few cases where a personal prophecy was given for ministry, they were highly significant as they related to Christ and the Church. Therefore, the idea that God used this gift to provide the average Christian ordinary direction for their lives, is completely absent of biblical authority. It’s a position regarding the gift of prophecy that must be assumed. We can’t build theological positions on assumptions. They must be founded on workable teachings and examples of Scripture.
Make no mistake, the primary use for the gift of prophecy was for providing the teachings of the Christian message. To go beyond that is to assume way too much. The rare exceptions given in Scripture should never be the rule.
It seems apparent that all the Apostles had this gift, but others had it too. I think it’s fairly likely that every faithful church had at least one person with the gift of prophecy until the NT was completed. If not, then they would have had the written Word of God sent to them via messengers. Or perhaps they received the Christian teachings via traveling Apostles and prophets, for the book of Acts reveals that a lot of that occurred in those days.
As this gift related to the Apostles, they had the overall responsibility to not only give the Word of God, but also confirm that the truth was being taught throughout the Church. For sure that was a process that took time, but that was one of the responsibilities the Apostles had in order to ensure that the teachings of the Church was being correctly taught, and that the foundation of the Church was being properly laid.
2 For he that speaketh in a tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God; for no man understandeth; but in the spirit he speaketh mysteries.
Many Bible teachers believe that the gift of tongues in this chapter is the same tongues-speaking that took place on the day of Pentecost, but this statement reveals that idea to be a false notion. At Pentecost, there were many people present who understood what was being said, for they were hearing them speak in their own language. But in this chapter, it’s clear that Paul is talking about a different type of tongues-speaking.
When the gift of tongues was used privately, and when there was no interpreter, they spoke mysteries that only God could understand. But for what purpose? That’s a mystery in itself. We simply don’t know. It’s not stated anywhere in the NT. Yes, it apparently provided a means of communion with God (in some mysterious way), but prayer in our own language provides the same thing. This gift also provided instruction and blessing to the assembly of believers when there was an interpreter, but why the need for that when the gift of prophecy in the common language of the people did the same thing more extensively and effectively? It’s a gift of mystery.
This much we know about the tongues of that day – and particularly, in the Corinthian church – that no one understood what was being said, except God alone. That included the one who was speaking. What we don’t know for sure is the purpose this gift served, as we’ll see as we go along. For example, it’s not clear why someone would be given the use of this gift if there was no one to interpret what was being said. There is absolutely no discussion about that in the NT. In regard to the tongues-speaking that was spoken on Pentecost, we know the purpose they served, but the purpose of the tongues in this chapter isn’t made clear to us. The mere fact that the use of this gift was given in private when there was no interpreter, but also granted in the assembly when there was and wasn’t an interpreter, makes this very confusing to understand. All this lack of information and understanding about this gift, strongly indicates that we’re dealing with a gift that was only for their time in history — given to a people that had an understanding about it that we don’t have today. Otherwise, surely we would be given the necessary information about it for our time too — to be used throughout the whole Christian era, up to the return of Christ. But no such information is available.
Whatever the gift of tongues was, in private, it edified the person speaking it, not others. It edified not via instruction, but by the mere fact that they were experiencing a miracle of God and communion with Him.
3 But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men edification, and exhortation, and consolation. 4 He that speaketh in a tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church.
As the overall teaching of the NT reveals, it’s the truth that provides edification and exhortation and consolation. Truth is always the revealed Word of God, and we’re spiritually edified as God’s Word is applied to our lives — and to be clear, God’s Word and prayer always work together. It’s through these two avenues that we commune with God and are edified and grow spiritually.
Therefore, clearly, prophesying was primarily the giving and applying of God’s Word, not personal direction for someone’s life, as the norm. As already discussed, two examples in the whole NT does not justify the assumption that it was used in that way as a common, Church-wide practice. That can’t be backed up biblically. There’s simply not enough evidence for that. On the contrary, the lack of evidence is very instructive on how the gift of prophecy was commonly used. However, as it relates to us post-apostolic Christians, it no longer matters anyway — for as we’ve learned, the gift of prophecy ended with the completion of the NT and the full establishment of the Church.
Paul reveals that no one is edified (via communion with God) by uninterpreted tongues except the person speaking it. I want to raise an important question that adds to the mystery of the gift of tongues. Why would God grant this gift for private use and edification for them personally when over and over Paul states that the gifts of the Spirit were given for the edification of others in the the body of Christ (read chapter 12 and commentary carefully)? This significant, unanswered question continues to add to the mystery of this gift.
Throughout this chapter, Paul makes the point that it’s primarily the gift of prophecy that provides the Word of God and edification, not the gift of tongues. Even if tongues and its interpretation provided the Word of God, which seems clear (to a very minimal degree), they already had that through the plain speaking of the common language. So Paul obviously doesn’t view this as a necessary gift for the assembly of believers. Paul very strongly makes a case for that in this chapter.
The Corinthian Christians were very clearly abusing the gift of tongues. They were placing the emphasis on the wrong gift. Paul goes out of his way in this chapter to correct this terrible imbalance.
5 Now I would have you all speak with tongues, but rather that ye should prophesy: and greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret, that the church may receive edifying.
To paraphrase, Paul is saying “I think it would be great if you all spoke in tongues (because of the simple fact that it’s a manifestation of the Spirit, and it’s personally edifying), but because of its great importance I would much rather that you had the gift of prophecy, so that the whole assembly can be spiritually edified.”
Again, Paul indicates that he viewed the gift of tongues as being more valuable for private use than for the local assembly of believers — unless someone provided interpretation, for the purpose of edification. But even with interpretation, he still regards it to have minimal value when there’s the gift of prophecy that everyone understands.
The plain-speaking, common language gift of prophecy was always for the whole assembly, and was the primary gift through which the believers heard the Word of God. In the beginning years of the Church, it was the message of the Christian faith they were hearing while the NT Scriptures were being written. To understand this gift as being primarily used for anything other than that, is not supported by God’s Word. In fact, to hammer this point further, throughout this whole chapter Paul makes the point that the gift of prophecy was for the benefit of the whole assembly, and was not used as a means of providing personal direction for someone’s life. As already discussed, use of that gift for such purposes was not the norm. I cannot stress this strongly enough. There’s absolutely no support for the idea that God was using this gift of prophecy to show individuals His will for their lives, as is commonly used today (supposedly). Overwhelmingly, it was the Christian message that was being delivered through this gift. But again, it no longer matters, since the gift of prophecy ended with the Apostles and prophets of the early Church.
6 But now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, unless I speak to you either by way of revelation, or of knowledge, or of prophesying, or of teaching?
NLT – “unknown language” instead of “tongues”
The fact that Paul compares tongues with revelation, knowledge, prophesying, and teaching via the common language of the people, indicates that tongues was also used for the same thing (God’s Word) — at least in part. It’s just that with uninterpreted tongues, it can’t be understood, so of what value does it have in the assembly of believers? Paul continues to make the point that there is no spiritual edification for the assembly that comes via the gift of tongues (uninterpreted). He says that even if he himself came to them with that gift, they would not receive any benefit from it. He makes it clear that the only way they would be benefited is if he came to them with a revelation or knowledge or prophesying or teaching in the common language of the people.
What Paul is doing is trying to eliminate hindrances to their learning and growing in the faith. He viewed the gift of tongues as a hindrance in the local assembly. Why bring in a language nobody understands when the Word of God can be given in a language that everyone understands? To Paul, it made no sense. Again, he indicates that he would rather that the gift of tongues be limited to private use. If there was an interpreter, fine, but that was not the ideal situation for learning. That’s the message that Paul is trying to get through to them.
7 Even things without life, giving a voice, whether pipe or harp, if they give not a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped? 8 For if the trumpet give an uncertain voice, who shall prepare himself for war? 9 So also ye, unless ye utter by the tongue speech easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye will be speaking into the air.
Paul continues to reveal that the gift of tongues was a type of language that wasn’t understood by anyone. In order for others to be instructed and edified, they had to understand the words that were being spoken to them. Uninterpreted tongues doesn’t provide that. The reason Paul had to discuss this, is because tongues was being spoken in their assembly without interpretation and without order. Furthermore, as verses 21-23 and 1 Cor 12:28-31 indicate, false tongues were also being spoken in their midst — which of course added to the confusion and lack of spiritual edification. We must not miss this important detail.
10 There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and no kind is without signification.
NET – 10 There are probably many kinds of languages in the world, and none is without meaning.
11 If then I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be to him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh will be a barbarian unto me.
Here Paul is referring to the many foreign languages of the world. His point is, if one does not understand the language spoken, it creates a communication barrier. It benefits neither the one speaking nor the one hearing. Same with the gift of tongues.
12 So also ye, since ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may abound unto the edifying of the church.
Paul tells them that since they’re so zealous for spiritual gifts, they should practice those gifts for the purpose of edifying the whole assembly. In other words, use them for the purpose that the Holy Spirit gave them. That means whatever selfish motives they obviously had for using their gifts, they were to lay them aside for the spiritual welfare of all the other believers in their assembly. Of course, Paul is speaking especially of their misuse of the gift of tongues. Paul makes it clear that the gift of tongues only has value in the assembly if it’s interpreted:
13 Wherefore let him that speaketh in a tongue pray that he may interpret. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful. 15 What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also. 16 Else if thou bless with the spirit, how shall he that filleth the place of the unlearned say the Amen at thy giving of thanks, seeing he knoweth not what thou sayest?
NET – 16 Otherwise, if you are praising God with your spirit, how can someone without the gift say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since he does not know what you are saying?
17 For thou verily givest thanks well, but the other is not edified.
Here Paul gives other examples of tongues-speaking: prayer, singing, praise, and thanksgiving. Along with the giving of God’s Word, use of this gift in these ways – via interpretation – also provides edification for those who hear.
Here Paul gives a strange instruction. He says that the individual should “pray that he may interpret” what he is saying. For if a person is praying or singing or praising God or giving thanks or giving God’s Word in tongues without interpretation, neither he nor anyone else will understand (“the unlearned”). Thus no one is edified.
However, in verse 15, Paul makes it clear that he personally, would speak these things with “understanding” (of both the speaker and hearer). In other words, he will speak these things in the common language of the people, not in a language no one understands.
A couple questions I want to bring up here: One, it seems strange that Paul would instruct the tongues-speaker to pray for the ability to interpret, instead of instructing the others to do that. This instruction is further puzzling since Paul stated several times in chapter 12 that God distributes the gifts of the Spirit according to His own will, as needed by the assembly. Why would there be a need for someone to pray to interpret when God Himself can just provide the gift as He does with all the other gifts?
The other question I have is, why go through all this when it can all be said in the common language of the people? Could this perhaps be the very point that Paul is trying to convey to them? I rather think so, considering all the trouble he is going to in order to get them to focus on the gift of prophecy.
These questions continue to add to the mystery of the gift of tongues.
18 I thank God, I speak with tongues more than you all:
Paul is letting them know that he knows what he’s talking about since he has more experience with this gift than all of them. This way they can’t claim that he doesn’t understand the gift or the situation. As an Apostle, he would have a better understanding of this gift than they would.
19 howbeit in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that I might instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.
20 Brethren, be not children in mind: yet in malice be ye babes, but in mind be men.
Think about this. Paul is comparing five words to ten thousand words. The point is obvious. If you’re going to speak an uninterpreted language that nobody understands – including the speaker – then it’s best not to use it. If five words of understanding is all you have, then that’s better than none. Some communication between speaker and hearer is better than none.
Five words = parts of the whole
Ten thousand words = parts of the whole
Paul’s statement provides a significant clue regarding tongues after the NT Scriptures were completed. I believe it should be regarded as a prophetic clue as to the future (from their time) use of the gift of tongues. While not so apparent on the surface, careful consideration suggests the transitory nature of the gift of tongues. Paul makes the comparison between “five words” of truth in the common language of the people, and “ten thousand” words of truth in a language that nobody understands. The message he’s trying to convey is that five words of truth that is understood by everyone who hears, has far more value than ten thousand words of truth that nobody understands.
Therefore, that being true, then once the NT Scriptures were completely written, it logically follows that there would be no further need for the gift of tongues. Reason being, if five words represents a “part” of the whole NT Scriptures (see commentary 1 Cor 13:9-10), and is of more value than ten thousand words that aren’t understood (tongues), then the closer you get to the completion of the NT, the less value the words spoken in tongues has — until finally, once the NT Scriptures are complete, there is no value left for that gift. In other words, there is no longer a need for it.
Let me explain this another way. Speaking from the perspective of the early-Church Christians, the more that words of understanding are added (more of the NT written), the more they increase in value — because as truth upon truth is given, the better the overall understanding we have regarding the teachings of the Christian faith, just like 27 books of the NT has more value to our learning than only one book of the NT. Therefore, (again speaking from the perspective of the early Christians of Paul’s day), as these NT words of understanding are being added and increasing in value, the more the gift of tongues is decreasing in value. In other words, the more the NT Scriptures are revealed, the greater the gap between the two becomes……until that gap has finally reached its fully extended form. Meaning, that once the NT Scriptures are completed, then the gift of tongues are also completed — in other words, finished.
Likewise, with the completion of the NT Scriptures, the gift of prophecy would also be completed — in other words, finished. The gift of tongues and the gift of prophecy will have served their purpose. No longer a need for either.
What Christians have to understand is, that with the completion of the NT Scriptures, God deals with us differently than He did during the early years of the Church. It was a time of transition. We are no longer in transition. This fact cannot be overemphasized. The Scriptures are complete and the Church is fully established now, and has been since the passing of the Apostles. Therefore, God speaks to us and directs our lives via the written Word of God — as the Holy Spirit teaches us and empowers us to live for Him.
God’s written Word is our firm foundation. It’s our source for all truth. To insist that God still speaks to us via prophecy or tongues or dreams and visions or in any other miraculous way, is to declare God’s written Word, insufficient. However, that’s an idea that God’s Word itself refutes:
(2 Timothy 3:16-17) 16 Every scripture inspired of God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness: 17 that the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work.
This same Paul who wrote 1 Corinthians is the same Paul who wrote these words in 2 Timothy. Note carefully what he says here: “All Scripture” gives us what we need to live for God and to serve God. Through the written Word of God, we are “complete, equipped for every good work.” In other words, the written NT Scriptures are totally sufficient to reveal God’s will to us, as it renews our mind — giving us the spiritual discernment and wisdom that we need to recognize God’s will, as the Holy Spirit does His work within us (Ro 12:1-2; Eph 5:17-18).
The idea that God provides additional revelation outside of His written Word today, puts God in a place of contradiction. God does not contradict Himself. The idea that it’s in God’s plan to provide miraculous revelation today just as it was in the early days of the Church, is not supported by the overall and sensible exegesis of Scripture. Therefore, for Christians to rely on additional, miraculous revelation, opens them up to deception, deceiving voices, demonic influence (1 Tim 4:1). The only way to keep ourselves from being deceived, is to cling to God’s written Word — through diligent study. By clinging to the Scriptures alone, it keeps us in the realm of wisdom, sound judgment and responsible living. It prevents us from straying into the realm of the bizarre: bizarre beliefs, bizarre activities, bizarre behavior, and bizarre lifestyles. It also prevents us from experiencing a lot of unfruitful, wasted years.
1 Cor 14:19 and 2 Tim 3:16-17 and Ro 12:2 alone is enough to dismiss all notions that God still provides revelation outside of the Scriptures. But thankfully, the Bible provides a lot more information than that to provide validation. Either the written Word of God is sufficient, or it’s not. If we rightly accept that it’s completely sufficient to lead us and guide us through life as servants of Christ, then why would there be a need for further guidance outside of those Scriptures? God’s written Word gives us all that we need to live wisely and completely in His will.
Continuing on with our text, Paul makes it clear that he himself doesn’t use the gift of tongues in the assembly of believers. The implication is, not even if it’s interpreted. So this is really a challenge to the Corinthian believers to follow his lead. He’s telling them to stop being children in their thinking, and to think as mature Christians, and he’s their example. He’s exhorting them strongly to put the emphasis on the gift of prophecy in the common language of the people, rather than on the gift of tongues. Again, they were very immature in their thinking. Not only that, but what they were practicing was not a sign of God’s blessing, but a sign of God’s displeasure, as he reveals in the following verses:
21 In the law it is written, By men of strange tongues and by the lips of strangers will I speak unto this people; and not even thus will they hear me, saith the Lord. 22 Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to the unbelieving: but prophesying is for a sign, not to the unbelieving, but to them that believe.
Here’s the message Paul was communicating to them (verses 21-23): “Look, there’s nothing right about what I’m seeing here. It’s total chaos! What I’m seeing in your church is not a sign of God’s blessing, but a sign of God’s displeasure! In fact, it’s comparable to the situation with Israel in regard to Assyria.” Then he quotes Isaiah 28:11:
NET – 9 Who is the Lord trying to teach? To whom is he explaining a message? Those just weaned from milk! Those just taken from their mother’s breast! 10 Indeed, they will hear meaningless gibberish, senseless babbling, a syllable here, a syllable there. 11 For with mocking lips and a foreign tongue he will speak to these people. 12 In the past he said to them, “This is where security can be found. Provide security for the one who is exhausted! This is where rest can be found.” But they refused to listen. 13 So the Lord’s word to them will sound like meaningless gibberish, senseless babbling, a syllable here, a syllable there. As a result, they will fall on their backsides when they try to walk, and be injured, ensnared, and captured.
The situation with Israel was that God had spoken to them through His prophets in their own language, the language they understood clearly, and should have believed. However, they “refused to listen.” As a consequence, God gave them over to a people (Assyria) of a language they couldn’t understand. It was a sign of God’s displeasure and judgment for their unbelief. And “even then” they didn’t believe.
So we see that Paul is associating tongues with unbelief and God’s displeasure. And he’s associating the common language of the people (via His prophets) with belief and God’s favor. The norm is that God’s people respond in belief to the Word of God through the understandable language of the people. That should have been the Corinthians emphasis, but it wasn’t. Their emphasis was on tongues, and in mass! It’s the plain teaching of God’s Word that changes lives, not a language that no one understands and causes confusion.
This whole chaotic situation pointed to the fact that they were out of favor with God, just as Israel was out of favor with God. The mass confusion of the tongues-speaking of the Corinthian Christians was a sign that God was not in it. It was totally their own doing, for God is not a God of confusion, but of peace and order (vs. 33).
I want to raise another significant point. As I mentioned earlier, Paul also reveals that he was aware of false tongues being spoken in their assembly, along with the true gift of tongues. Whether the people themselves were aware of it, is unknown, but we can be sure that Paul knew what was going on. The reason we can be so confident about this, is one, because of what he says about the limited use of true tongues in 1 Cor 12:28-30, and two, because of the example he uses about the Assyrians. They were a people who didn’t represent Yahweh, nor did they speak the language of the people who did (believing Israel). The comparison is clear, that much of the tongues being spoken in the church of Corinth, did not represent God, and was not of God.
Furthermore, I think it’s also likely that both believers and unbelievers among them were speaking this false form of tongues, because even believers can be deceived if they’re not taught the truth or not following the truth (2 Cor 11:2-4; 2 Pe 2:1; 1 Ti 4:1; Eph 5:6; 2 Th 2:3). Christians can be so easily led astray if they’re not grounded in the truth — especially when there’s jealousy, and desire is great.
In conclusion, the fact there was such a large number of people speaking in tongues proves that a lot of it was false (1 Cor 12:30). We can be confident that the Holy Spirit would not create such an imbalance in this church by giving so many members the true gift of tongues. That would be totally contrary to what Paul teaches in 1 Cor 12:14-19 (indeed, the whole chapter). Again, God is not a God of confusion, and everything He does is according to wisdom.
Furthermore, it’s quite likely that the false tongues that were spoken then, continued on after the true gift had ceased, and is what’s being spoken by God’s people today, and is the same form of tongues being spoken by those of other religions. There’s so much deception and false teaching and practices going on in the Church today, who could sensibly and biblically deny that possibility – or rather, probability – without a personal or positional bias?
Note: To read about tongues-speaking today in other religions, I encourage you to do an online search.
So we see in the church of Corinth that there was a lot of commotion going on in regard to tongues-speaking. They were not distinguishing between the true gift and the false gift, nor were they practicing it according to proper procedures. Paul deals with that in verses 27-33.
23 If therefore the whole church be assembled together and all speak with tongues, and there come in men unlearned or unbelieving, will they not say that ye are mad?
Apparently, this is exactly what was going on in their assemblies. A large number of the people were speaking in tongues (probably both the true and false gift) all together at the same time, which could be described as pandemonium. They were not following proper order in their services. So Paul says, paraphrasing, “imagine if people came into your church who are either ‘unlearned’ in the languages being spoken, or they’re ‘unbelievers.’ They would think you were all nuts! Again, that is not a ‘sign’ of God’s doing or God’s favor. The very opposite is true,” still making the comparison with Isaiah 28:11.
24 But if all prophesy, and there come in one unbelieving or unlearned, he is reproved by all, he is judged by all; 25 the secrets of his heart are made manifest; and so he will fall down on his face and worship God, declaring that God is among you indeed.
On the other hand, if these same people (unsaved) came into their assembly and believers were speaking the Word of God (via the gift of prophecy) in the language of the common people, in the language they understood, then they would be convicted of the truth and [potentially] fall on their face in worship of Christ as Lord and Savior. That would be the “sign” of God’s favor among them.
So again, unbelief is associated with tongues, and believing is associated with the plain teaching of God’s Word in the common language of the people. Uninterpreted tongues, especially in mass, cannot teach anyone the gospel of Jesus Christ or the teachings of the Christian faith. In other words, speaking in a tongue that no one understands can never lead anyone to faith in Christ, nor can it edify a believer.
These verses are significant for another reason. Here Paul reveals that the prophets of the early Church gave the Word of God. They preached the gospel of Jesus Christ. They taught the doctrines of the Christian faith. This passage makes it clear that that’s what this gift was used for. Contrary to the belief of many, the gift of prophecy was not intended for, nor was it used to provide personal direction for someone’s life — as a common and normal function of that gift. Nowhere in the NT do we see any evidence to support that idea. Instead, the overwhelming evidence is that this gift was for the primary purpose of communicating the Word of God. In other words, communicating the Christian message until the NT Scriptures were complete.
26 What is it then, brethren? When ye come together, each one hath a psalm, hath a teaching, hath a revelation, hath a tongue, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.
What “edifies” is the Word of God. Thus when Paul mentions the “psalm” and “teaching” and “revelation” and “tongue” and “interpretation,” he’s referring to the message of Christ and all the teachings associated with it.
The prophets of the NT had a somewhat different role than the prophets of the OT, who typically spoke of future events. The prophets of the NT gave the Word of God as the NT Scriptures were being written. But like the prophets of the OT, what they spoke and what we have in the NT Scriptures, also contains prophecies of future events.
27 If any man speaketh in a tongue, let it be by two, or at the most three, and that in turn; and let one interpret: 28 but if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God.
Those with the true gift of tongues were to do so one at a time, and only two or three in any given meeting. If there was no interpreter, they were to be silent. This eliminated not only useless confusion, but also guarded against the speaking of false tongues. However, how they knew who was interpreting according to truth, is nowhere revealed in the NT. There are no instructions. This further confirms that these gifts were not intended to continue beyond the early beginnings of the Church. They had understanding about the gifts that we don’t have today.
29 And let the prophets speak by two or three, and let the others discern. 30 But if a revelation be made to another sitting by, let the first keep silence. 31 For ye all can prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be exhorted; 32 and the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets; 33 for God is not a God of confusion, but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints,
As with the gift of tongues, those with the gift of prophecy were to speak one at a time, and only two or three in any given meeting. When one prophet spoke, then the others were to remain silent unless one of them also received revelation. It’s likely that when this occurred, that light was shed on what was spoken by the other — “that all may learn” the Christian message. So we see that there was to be order of the use of this gift, for “the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.”
I should add that once truth was revealed, that is, once the teachings of the NT Scriptures were given, then those with the gift of teaching would give its meaning and application. Not that the prophets could not do that too. In fact, I think it’s likely that they too had the gift of teaching.
As I’ve discussed throughout this study, they didn’t have the NT Scriptures that we have today in complete form, but they still needed to learn the same teachings of Christianity that we have today. And that is where the prophets and the gift of prophecy filled that need until the NT was finally completed.
Another mystery: It seems very odd to me that there would be a need for the gift of tongues (and interpretation of) in the assembly of believers at all, since the prophets accomplished the same thing in plainly understood language, as Paul himself stresses. Furthermore, how did they even know who had the true gift of interpretation? The lack of instruction (guidelines) in the NT about this, adds yet more to the mystery of the gift of tongues. But the most puzzling thing of all about this gift is that the Holy Spirit would give this gift to anyone at all. For it’s the same Holy Spirit who was leading Paul to write the words of these chapters (12-14), words that greatly downplays the importance of tongues, especially in the corporate gathering of believers. We can easily see the role and purpose of the gift of tongues that were spoken on Pentecost, but the role and purpose of the gift of tongues spoken of in this chapter is truly bewildering.
All these unanswered questions adds to the mystery of the gift of tongues and interpretation of tongues of this chapter. It’s clear that we don’t have the same understanding about these gifts that they had in the early years of the Church, particularly as it relates to the Corinthian believers. While they were abusing it, for sure, it’s evident that they knew they were experiencing the same type of tongues-speaking that Paul did……even though there were many who were speaking a false form of it. Perhaps other churches of their day didn’t have the same confusion of tongues that the church of Corinth had. At any rate, it’s obvious that there was an understanding about the true gift of tongues that we don’t have today.
As I’ve already stated, this whole study leads me to the conclusion that the tongues-speaking that’s going on today is not the true gift that Paul was dealing with in this chapter (excluding the false gift). Even if the gift of tongues was still active today, we aren’t given enough information about it to be able to even identify it. And as I discussed before, that fact alone indicates that the gift of tongues was not meant to continue beyond the early Church, that it was not meant for us today. There are so many things about this gift we honestly don’t understand, and again, that’s due to the silence of Scripture.
34 let the women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but let them be in subjection, as also saith the law. 35 And if they would learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home: for it is shameful for a woman to speak in the church. 36 What? was it from you that the word of God went forth? or came it unto you alone?
The Corinthian Christians seemed to think that they were the standard by which all other churches should live by. However, they were the ones who were out of standard practice.
37 If any man thinketh himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him take knowledge of the things which I write unto you, that they are the commandment of the Lord. 38 But if any man is ignorant, let him be ignorant. 39 Wherefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and forbid not to speak with tongues.
“desire earnestly to prophesy”
Again, Paul is referring to the whole church (leadership especially), and not to individuals.
40 But let all things be done decently and in order.
It should be clear by now that Paul had a very dim view of using the gift of tongues in the assembly of believers. He’s done his best to get their focus off the gift of tongues and on the gift of prophecy. Yet, here he gives the instruction to “forbid not” its use in the assembly. I believe the reason he gives this instruction is only because he doesn’t want to discourage those Christians who have the gift. I believe this instruction is a mere concession or compromise. Quite obviously, from Paul’s point of view, it’s not a gift that is essential to the health of the corporate body of believers. It’s the gifts of prophecy and teaching that provides that. Even if tongues-speaking provided the Word of God, that’s something that is provided through the common language of the people. So why complicate things? Nevertheless, Paul allows it — not out of necessity, but out of consideration of where these believers were spiritually. I think Paul would have been thrilled if they had, on their own, took the same view and approach to the gift of tongues as he, and relegate its use to the privacy of individuals. However, I don’t believe they were spiritually mature enough to see it that way at that particular time.
Even if the gift of tongues was operational today, we would not be bound by this instruction to “forbid not to speak with tongues,” for we don’t have enough information to even correctly identify it. There are far too many unanswered questions about it to responsibly allow any form of tongues-speaking, not knowing for sure if it’s the same gift that Paul describes in this chapter. However, we don’t have to worry about that, because the biblical evidence abounds that the miracle gifts ceased with the completion of the NT and the full establishment of the Church.
In light of all these mysteries regarding the gift of tongues, even if a church believes that all the gifts are still operational today, I believe the leadership of churches today would be wise not to allow tongues-speaking in their corporate gatherings. To assume that what’s being spoken in their church is the true gift that Paul describes here, is assuming way too much. We simply don’t have the same understanding of it that the early Christians had to know with absolute certainty how to recognize the genuine gift. It’s far better to be safe and disallow, than to attribute something to God that might not be.
Note: In regard to the tongues that were spoken in Acts 10:44-48; 19:1-6; and Acts 8:14-19 (as evidenced), again no details were given about those tongues, including which type they were (Acts 2 or 1 Cor 14?). This further adds to the mystery of this gift overall. It further supports the conclusion that they were not meant to continue beyond the purpose that God had for them during this transitional time of history.
Conclusion of 1 Corinthians 12-14
It seems obvious to me, that if the gift of tongues – and all the other miracle gifts – were meant to continue till the return of Christ, Paul or some other writer of the NT would have clearly defined the gifts and how they’re to be used, so that we could responsibly recognize them and use them for God’s glory. We have to use some common sense here. The silence strongly suggests that Paul knew that they would soon come to an end, and therefore, no detailed explanation or guidelines were needed — or provided. It’s apparent that the Corinthian believers had complete awareness of what all the gifts of the Spirit were, but they had issues regarding motives and proper order of their use in corporate settings.
Christians have been trying to understand something that was never meant to continue beyond the days of the Apostles and prophets, who were tasked with laying the foundation of the Church of Christ. We live in the post-apostolic period of the Church, and our focus and responsibility ever since has been to build upon the foundation that they laid, which is accomplished through the permanent gifts that have been given for that purpose. All the confusion is resolved when we realize our proper place in time and calling in God’s plan for His people.