Back in the early 70s, I was saved in a church belonging to a denomination with a strong evangelistic, missionary emphasis. Though the church was not charismatic, it was not opposed to the gift of tongues. Its semi official position was “seek not, forbid not” with more of an emphasis on “seek not.”
However, the particular church that I had been saved in had formed out of the Jesus’ people movement and over time fully embraced the charismatic.
Speaking in tongues was as controversial back then as it is today. As a result of the denominational influence, I had started to develop a negative attitude towards the gift and was looking down upon those who practiced it in the church I attended.
But at a Bible study group, I felt the Lord speak to me of my need to be filled with the Holy Spirit. I asked some of the people in attendance to pray with me for the in filling.
It was a dramatic moment as I was instantly filled with God’s Spirit. I can not describe the incredible joy I experienced at that very moment.
But I did not speak in tongues.
I was attending university at the time, and the next day I was manning a table for a Christian group on campus.
I was still experiencing an immense sense of joy and was singing songs of praise. While sitting there I suddenly experienced a burning sensation, minus the pain, originating in my stomach. It quickly moved up my chest and begin traveling up my throat.
Startled, I immediately suppressed it and pushed it back down.
The experience repeated itself three more times and each time I purposely stopped it. I suspected this was tongues and was determined not to do it.
After suppressing the fourth episode, the sensation stopped. An hour passed and I saw a brother walking down the hallway. Momentarily distracted, as I tried to get his attention, the burning sensation returned and burned quickly up my chest, throat and in seconds I was spontaneously speaking in tongues.
It was an incredible experience.
Then I felt the Lord say to me, “Now you are numbered among them.” I was part of the very group I was despising.
What is the gift of tongues?
The gift of tongues or glossolalia is a foreign language, either angelic or human, spoken under the influence of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 13:1). While some look upon it as a sign of the infilling of the Holy Spirit, that is not universally agreed on by charismatics, but certainly tongues and the interpretation of tongues is listed as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit:
10 and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. (1 Corinthians 12:10 NASV)
It is part of a package of gifts God gave believers for the “common good” of the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:7). This term has a business connotation and contains the idea of profit or increase. The gifts, including tongues, are profitable for the church and its expansion.
In an odd dichotomy, Paul considers the gift of tongues one of the lesser gifts as it is listed last (1 Corinthians 12:27-31) and in verse 31 he encourages believers to seek the greater gifts.
Yet, despite downplaying the gift, the Apostle Paul spends nearly a full chapter teaching about tongues, something he never did for any other gift.
Paul also puts tongues below prophesy, but the in the same verse he wishes all the Corinthians spoke in tongues:
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. (1 Corinthians 14:5 NASV)
Clearly Paul saw a benefit to tongues and told the Corinthians he used the gift more than anyone else (1 Corinthians 14:18) and then keeping to his track record in verse 19, he downplays the gift stating five spoken words in a service were more important than 10,000 words spoken in tongues.
Why all these contradictions?
The issue Paul was dealing with in the Corinthian church is that a number of people were using their gift publicly during church services and it was becoming a problem because these tongues were not being interpreted.
In a public setting, tongues are meaningless without the gift of interpretation. But done privately the gift is very beneficial for the person using the gift, which is why Paul ‘thanked God’ he spoke in tongues more than them all.
So what benefits was Paul receiving from the gift of tongues?
It is a prayer language:
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 14:2 NASV)
Paul says when we speak in tongues we are speaking to God, not to man. It is a prayer language.
Though we are praying, we will have no idea what we saying. Paul says it is a mystery because our spirit is praying:
14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. (1 Corinthians 14:14 NASV)
So if you are not sure what to pray about in a particular situation consider speaking in tongues and allow the Holy Spirit to guide your prayers.
Now I should point out, when we speak in tongues there is no guarantee the Holy Spirit is praying about the situation you are thinking about. But He will pray through us what God wants us to pray.
It is a step of faith as we give God control over our prayers.
It is for self-edification
4 One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church. (1 Corinthians 14:4 NASV)
The Greek word edify “oikodome” refers to the act of constructing a building. By using this word, Paul says that speaking in tongues will build us up spiritually as well. The same idea is also mentioned in Jude 20.
That makes sense as we are purposefully activating the Holy Spirit in our life when we use this prayer language.
As we use this gift, it strengthens our inner spiritual man. This means it should be a regular part of our prayer life and it also explains why Paul says “I wish that you all spoke in tongues” (1 Corinthians 14:5).
It has a prophetic edge
Though it is not as common today, in the early church the gift of tongues was often expressed publicly in meetings. When that happened a special gift of interpretation was required (1 Corinthians 12:10).
Essentially, God would interpret the tongues and through this process all members could be edified. When interpreted, Paul put tongues on the same level as prophecy (1 Corinthians 14:5).
In the first manifestation of tongues on the day of Pentecost, we read, “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.” (Acts 2:4).
The word utterance “apophthengesthai” means to speak loudly and was used to describe the oracle giver who spoke under the inspiration of the gods. The word is also used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) in reference to prophecy (1 Chronicles 25:1; Zechariah 10:2).
Why do some reject the gift of tongues?
There are some today who do not believe the gift of tongues is for today. This is based on a theory of Bible interpretation called Dispensationalism that divides the Bible into different periods or dispensations.
What we find available in one dispensation is not found in the next.
Dispensationalism is also the source of ‘Replacement Theology’ that I wrote about earlier, meaning that when Israel failed to accept Jesus as their Messiah, God rejected Israel and replaced it with the church. According to this theory, we are living in the church age or dispensation.
Those who hold to this theory also believe the gifts of the Holy Spirit are part of a different dispensation or age that ended with the writing of the New Testament. They do not believe the gifts are for today.
However, I believe the Bible teaches that the church is made up of those who accepted Jesus as the Jewish Messiah and is simply a continuation of the Old Testament people of God — Israel. The Apostle Paul even refers to the church as Israel (Galatians 6:16).
When writing on the gift of tongues, the Apostle Paul cites a passage out of Isaiah that hinted at God giving the gift of tongues to Israel.
20 Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be infants, 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. (I Corinthians 14:20-22 NASV)
Paul was quoting Isaiah 28:11-12 where the prophet tells Israel that though God would speak to them “through stammering lips and a foreign tongue,” the nation would not respond.
And that is exactly what happened.
When the Holy Spirit fell on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), the disciples poured into the crowded streets of Jerusalem speaking in tongues. The Jews were amazed when they heard people speaking in their own language.
The Apostle Peter stood up and addressed the stunned Jews who were watching this power display of the Holy Spirit. Though 3,000 Jews were saved that day, most Jews still rejected Christ as their Messiah.
But nevertheless, the gift of tongues predicted for Israel in the Old Testament was fulfilled in the church.
God then poured His Holy Spirit on the gentiles and similar to what happened on the Day of Pentecost they spoke in tongues (Acts 10:44-45) and joined the church in the thousands. When this happened, it fell in line with a prophecy in Amos speaking of a remnant of gentiles being added to Israel. But again this prophecy was fulfilled in the church (Amos 9:11-12, Acts 15:13-18).
In Paul’s mind, as the church fulfilled the various promises given to Israel, it revealed that the Body of Christ was simply the continuation of the true Israel. There is no difference between the church and Israel.
The Bible is not divided into dispensations and as a result the gift of tongues is not limited to the early church and is as relevant today as it was in the Book of Acts:
17 These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; (Mark 16:17 NASV)
More in this series:
- Why Paul wishes we all spoke in tongues
- What happens when you do a neuroimage scan of a person’s brain as they speak in tongues?
- The secret purpose for the gift of tongues
- Study shows people want to experience God
1. You say speaking in tongues is a prayer language because 1 Corinthians 14:2 says: “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.”
But does this verse mean that every believer should use tongues as a prayer language? I’m not certain that this is Paul’s point in this verse. The context of this passage is public worship in the church, not private devotion — keep this in mind. In verse 1, Paul tells the Corinthians to pursue spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy [rather than the gift of tongues]. Then in verse 2, he begins to list the reasons why he prefers prophecy to tongues. The first reason he gives is: “For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God; for [BECAUSE] no one understands him . . .” (1 Cor. 14:2). So, Paul is saying here that he prefers prophecy to tongues during public worship because when someone speaks in tongues without interpretation, no one else in the church congregation can understand the language that the tongues-speaker is speaking; only God understands it because God understands all foreign languages. So, in effect, the tongue-speaker is only speaking to God since only God understands the language the speaker is speaking. It’s important to pay attention to Paul’s own stated reason for saying “He who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God”. Paul’s reason for making this statement is: “for [because] no man understands the speaker.” Although tongues are addressed to God in the form of praise, worship, prayer, and thanksgivings, this is not Paul’s reason for saying “he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God”. His reason is “because no one [in the church congregation] understands the language the tongues-speaker is speaking”. Since it is only God Who understands the language being spoken by the tongues-speaker, the speaker is effectively speaking to only God, not the congregation. I think this is the reason that Paul insists throughout the passage that tongues must be interpreted so that the church congregation can understand what is being said in tongues. So, the idea of a prayer language doesn’t seem to me to be Paul’s point here.
2. You say tongues are for self-edification because 1 Cor. 14:4 says: “He who speaks in tongues edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church”.
Well, in this verse, Paul gives his second reason for preferring prophecy to tongues. He prefers prophecy to tongues because he who prophesies edifies the church whereas he who speaks in tongues edifies himself. Why does Paul think that prophecy is more valuable than tongues or that tongues are less useful? The reason is simple. When you prophesy, you are edifying the church, which means you’re using your gift for the very purpose the gift was designed for. In 1 Corinthians 12:7, Paul says: “The manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man for the COMMON GOOD”. So, Paul is telling us here that all spiritual gifts are given for the “common good” (corporate benefit), not for personal benefit. Paul makes it abundantly clear that the purpose of spiritual gifts is the collective profit of the church, not personal profit. In other words, we’re to use our spiritual gift to serve other members of the body of Christ, not ourselves. Spiritual gifts are not meant for self-service or self-edification. Peter echoes this same message in 1 Peter 4:10: “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to SERVE OTHERS, as faithful stewards of God’s grace . . “. Take note of Peter’s words in this verse: each of you should use whatever gift [including tongues] you have received to serve others [not yourselves]. So, when Paul says in 1 Cor. 14:2 that he prefers prophecy to tongues because he who speaks in a tongue edifies himself [instead of edifying the church], it becomes clear that the tongues-speaker is not using his gift for the purpose for which the gift was given. Paul is not teaching the use of tongues for self-edification in 1 Cor. 14:4. Instead, his point is that if someone speaks in tongues in the church without interpretation, only the speaker gets edified, but the rest of the church is not edified, hence speaking in tongues without interpretation is not an appropriate use of the gift of tongues since all spiritual gifts are meant for edifying the church. On the other hand, if someone prophesies in the church, the whole church is edified since prophecy is delivered in a language everyone in the local church understands. For this reason, the person who prophesies is putting his gift to a much better use than the person who speaks in a tongue. This is another reason why Paul prefers prophecy to tongues unless tongues are accompanied by interpretation. Speaking in tongues without interpretation is not an appropriate use of the gift of tongues. In other to use the gift of tongues to edify the church, it must be followed by interpretation; this is the reason that God gave the complementary gift of interpretation. Like every other spiritual gift, tongues are not meant primarily for self-edification but for edifying the church. He who speaks in a tongue without interpretation edifies only himself, and such self-edification violates the purpose of spiritual gifts as stated in 1 Cor. 12:7 and 1 Peter 4:10.
3. In 1 Corinthians 14:12, Paul further highlights the importance of using our spiritual gift to build up the church. He says: “Since you are zealous for spiritual gifts, let it be for the edification of the church that you seek to excel.” In order words, since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, your main goal in seeking spiritual gifts should be to edify the church rather than for your personal edification.
4. In 1 Cor. 14:5, Paul says: “I wish you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you prophesied”. First of all, the fact that Paul wished for all the believers in Corinth to speak in tongues confirms that not everyone at Corinth spoke in tongues. Had all the believers in that church spoken in tongues, Paul would not have wished that all of them spoke in tongues. So, this statement indicates that the gift of tongues is not meant for everyone. Secondly, the fact that Paul wished all the believers in the Corinthian church spoke in tongues does not mean the gift of tongues is meant for all believers. Paul also wished that all men were single (unmarried) in 1 Corinthians 7:7, but nobody believes that Paul was teaching celibacy for all men in this verse. It was simply a wish. So also, his wish that all the Corinthian believers speak in tongues did not mean tongues were meant for everyone; it was simply a wish.
Furthermore, the idea that all believers should speak in tongues is flatly contradicted by 1 Cor. 12:30. This verse teaches us that not every believer speaks in tongues. The idea that there are two types of tongues is an attempt to get around 1 Cor. 12:30, but such an argument does not work because the Bible does not teach two types of the gift of tongues. Paul gave a list of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12; this list contains only one type of tongues, not two.