The Gift of Tongues

(1 Corinthians 14:21a) “In the Law it is written: Through men of strange tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me,” says the Lord. Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however is for believers, not unbelievers.”

Historically and for many years now in the Church there has been an unrelenting dispute and much confusion concerning this grace gift. What does the Bible really teach? Should every believer speak in tongues or only some? Is it really the evidence of the Baptism with the Holy Spirit? Can anyone speak in a tongue at anytime they wish to speak? Are there tongues of angels as well as men? Today many ask these questions and more. There were many problems at Corinth and one of these was the misuse of spiritual gifts especially in meetings. We must not assume that every person who speaks in a tongue is speaking by the Holy Spirit. Some Mormons speak in tongues; Buddhists and Taoists speak in tongues. African witch doctors speak in tongues and even prophesy. You have Catholic nuns and priests speaking in tongues to Mary.

A tongue can come from a number of sources.

Firstly, it can be a physically manipulated tongue. In meetings there are those who try to get people to speak in tongues by massaging their jaws or by suggesting they make certain sounds and even copy the sounds of others.

Secondly, it can be psychological. The person is speaking a language they have made up themselves and activated when in a state of emotional euphoria.

Thirdly, it can be demonic. A person can be speaking in a tongue and actually blaspheming and cursing the Lord.

Fourthly, it can be by the direct control of the Holy Spirit. How then can we know that when we are speaking in a tongue we are speaking by the Holy Spirit? There are four basic tests.

Four Tests

Test 1. The key to every spiritual blessing is the total and unreserved surrender of our wills to the Lord and to the absolute authority of His Word the Bible. Ask yourself the question, “Am I totally available to the Lord to use me in any way, at anytime and anywhere He chooses to use me?”

Test 2. We must make sure that there is no un-confessed sin in our lives or wrong motives that can block the flow of the Spirit through us to others. If we have wrong motives then the Holy Spirit may not control the language we speak. The syllables may be virtually the same but their expression may not be glorifying to God.

Test 3. we must yield our tongues to the Holy Spirit by faith before we speak. Only the Holy Spirit can impart the grace to speak in tongues. It cannot be manipulated by our wills. The Holy Spirit is sovereign in this matter. As we are inwardly moved to speak the language will come. Of course we begin the speaking but the Holy Spirit accelerates the language through us. It will come up from deep within our spirits and not be generated from the mind or even by the emotions.

Test 4. are we being faithful to the Lord everyday by reading His Word and by doing those things that please Him and by obeying and applying His word to the daily circumstances of our lives.

Of course faith is also involved as it is in every area of our lives. We live by faith and not by sight. If we are walking with the Lord and the whole of our lives yielded up to His control then our tongues will also be under His control. If He gets hold of our bodies He gets hold of all of us including our tongues. (Romans 12:1-2)

In 1 Corinthians chapter fourteen the apostle Paul deals with this issue. He doesn’t discourage the local believers from using the gifts but gives them practical instruction on how to use them appropriately. He certainly never forbade tongues but like every other gift it had its place in the overall ministry of the Gifts of the Spirit. There are no chapter divisions in the New Testament Greek text so this chapter is linked to chapters twelve and thirteen however our focus will be on chapter 14: verses 1-33.

When we look at Paul’s overall teaching on the grace gift of tongues exercised publicly before others it is primarily a gift of communication especially where the message of the gospel is concerned but it also becomes prophecy when interpretation is involved (13:5) Isaiah prophesied concerning tongues for the Day of Pentecost but also predicted the unbelief of the Jewish nation as a whole. Paul picks up on Isaiah’s prophecy and applies it to the situation at Corinth here in this chapter. Now lets look at the text itself.

1 Corinthians 14:1-33

Turn your Bibles to 1 Corinthians chapter 14 and we will look at verses 1-33 to see the manifestation of tongues in its Biblical context.

(Vs 1)  Firstly everything we do for the Lord must flow out of love. The word for love here is “agape” and expresses the strongest form of unconditional Love in the universe. It is in fact God’s Love and the kind of love that can never be deserved or earned by us. It is also a self-giving love that always has the welfare of others in mind and Paul has described it in chapter thirteen.

He also tells us to “eagerly desire” spiritual gifts. If we follow the way of love when seeking to exercise spiritual gifts then God will be able to manifest those gifts through us to bless others. We should seek to prophesy because through prophecy the Lord Jesus can encourage, strengthen, warn and even rebuke the Church. Many at Corinth had been speaking in tongues publicly without interpretation causing confusion and even chaos. (Vs 23)

(Vs 2)  Paul tells us that when we speak in a tongue we are actually speaking to God and speaking mysteries with our spirits or by the Spirit. God’s Spirit lives in our human spirit if we have been born again and when we speak in a tongue the Holy Spirit is speaking through our human spirit. If someone were listening to us they would not understand us unless they understood what we were saying. Speaking to ourselves and to God will edify us but when we speak in a tongue publicly it must be understood otherwise it will cause confusion to those who don’t understand the gifts as well as the unsaved present in the meeting. (Vs 7-11,23)

(Vs 3-4)  When we speak in a tongue we ourselves are edified but no one else is. We may speak privately to God but if we do it publicly it needs to be understood. When someone who understands the language understands it either through an interpretation or directly it becomes a message of prophecy.

There is no doubt that Paul is saying a message in tongues in a public meeting must be understood resulting in others being strengthened, encouraged and comforted. This grace gift operates best in a multicultural fellowship where various languages are spoken.

If everyone in the congregation speaks in the same language then a message in tongues is not necessary. Sometimes a message in tongues will be given for a specific visitor who speaks another language. Though the speaker may not know what he is saying himself the person listening certainly does. Generally where there is a common language a message in tongues is not really necessary.

(Vs 5)  Paul actually encouraged the believers at Corinth to speak in tongues but he wanted them to seek the more important gift of prophecy so that the whole church might be edified. This is the true function of the gifts. (12:7) (14:12)

The believer who prophesies has a greater amount of God’s grace operating through him because what he is saying is for the benefit of others. If someone speaks in a tongue and is given the grace to interpret it then that person is also prophesying. When people speak out in tongues uncontrollably or in some overt manner and begin to shout others down then disorder and confusion prevails. Paul now deals with this kind of thing.

(Vs 6)  In a public meeting we may speak eloquently in a tongue and feel edified ourselves but of what real value is it to others listening. Unless the message brings a revelation or a word of knowledge or prophecy or a word of instruction for the benefit of others then we must exercise self-control and speak only to ourselves and to God. We have a Spirit of love, power and self- control (2 Timothy 1:7)

When we allow the Holy Spirit to control our tongues then He will be able to control the rest of us. Remember James tells us that the tongue is like the rudder of a huge ship it can steer the whole course of our lives. As it says in Proverbs, “The power of life and death is in the tongue.”

If we can control our tongues then we can control our emotional responses at meetings. This is only possible through the power of the Spirit. He knows what needs to be said and how it should be said and He must be allowed to work through us. He will never create disorder and confusion. We can control what we say and we should (v32).

(Vs 7)  A musical instrument when played properly can have a great impact on others but if you let a child play on the instrument it creates a series of disjointed and confusing sounds that no one understands. When we speak in a tongue it must create harmony and order as a musical instrument does that is played well. This can only come about through an interpretation otherwise it is a sound that has no meaning to the listeners.

Notes played well on an instrument communicate to others and in the same way a tongue rightly interpreted will create the same effect on the listeners.

(Vs 8)  When the Roman soldiers were in battle they were often manoeuvred by the sound of trumpets. Certain sounds enabled them to perform certain turns and form into distinctive ranks but if the sounds were not clear then the army would soon become confused and disorganized. Tongues are the same and if exercised properly will give people instruction and clear insight. On the other hand a tongue or series of messages in tongues will only create confusion if they are not properly interpreted.

(Vs 9)  If we speak out in a tongue and there is no interpretation then how will anyone else understand we will just be speaking into the air and it will not benefit anyone even though it may be edifying us.

(Vs 10-12)  No language is without meaning but if the person listening to that language doesn’t understand it then he or she is in a sense alienated from the speaker. The speaker may well be speaking in a known language but if the person listening doesn’t understand it then it is really a waste of time. If we are eager to have spiritual gifts flowing through us to the local church then we need to seek the grace to exercise and to excel in those gifts that will build up the church.

(Vs 13-17)  If we speak in a tongue in a public meeting we should pray for an interpretation. We may well be speaking from our spirit by the Spirit of God but in a public meeting it needs to be understood. Praying in the Holy Spirit is not limited to speaking in tongues. We can be led by the Holy Spirit to pray just as effectively in our own language. Once more it needs to be said that this whole issue of speaking in tongues is geared around public meetings when the local church has come together for worship and ministry.

Praying or even singing privately with our human spirit controlled by the Holy Spirit is okay and even though we don’t understand what we are saying we should still ask God to help us to understand what we are praying about. Whether we understand what we are saying or not we must always make sure that we have asked the Holy Spirit to take control of our tongue.

When we speak in a tongue publicly it must be understood either by our selves, by someone who understands language or by an interpretation otherwise how can anyone say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving. We may be giving thanks well enough but the other person is not edified.

Privately we can pray in a tongue even though we may not know how to express ourselves and at such times the Holy Spirit not only enables us to pray but also prays with us, for us and in place of us when we find words hard to express. This is the meaning of the word ‘helps’ used in Romans 8:26. Sometimes our praying will be an inward groaning that cannot be expressed and the grace to speak in a tongue can enable us to express the deepest longings of our heart to the Lord.

(Vs 18-19)  Paul constantly spoke in tongues probably more than anyone else especially with the burden he carried for all the churches yet whenever he spoke publicly he always sought to edify others and impart clear and sound teaching.

Five words spoken in the Spirit and understood by the hearers will instruct them where as ten thousand words spoken in a language no one understands achieves nothing where others are concerned.

(Vs 20-21)  The Lord will give us the grace to exercise spiritual gifts but we must make sure that we have a mature and balanced attitude when we are moved to express them to others. Little children shout out and create a lot of noise and often leave chaos and disorder in their wake. They want to draw attention to themselves and get jealous when others receive things that they don’t. Little children are insensitive to others and usually pre occupied with their own needs and wants and expressing themselves regardless of others.

The believers at Corinth were acting in this way when they were expressing the spiritual gifts in the church. Paul uses a prophecy of Isaiah and applies it to this situation. Paul affirms that tongues are from the Lord but that they must be used appropriately with the attitude of an adult and not with the attitude of a child.

Also Paul implies that even if people see spiritual gifts or signs, miracles and wonders they will not always believe. The same crowd that saw the miracles of Jesus and shouted “Hosanna” to Him turned on Him a few days later and cried out “crucify Him”. Even though the gift of tongues was seen on the Day of Pentecost and 3000 were saved the majority of the Jews rejected their Messiah. Signs, miracles and wonders will always follow the preaching of the Word. (Mark 16:17-18)

This is why prophecy is so important because when the Word is preached in the power of the Spirit the gifts of the Spirit can freely operate. Two or three in turn can prophesy or speak in a tongue along with an interpretation and bless everyone present. (Vs 29)

Sometimes you will see a beautiful order and pattern in a meeting where everyone is being edified or corrected or instructed and then some one at the back of the meeting starts to shout ‘Halleluiah’ uncontrollably or even have an emotional outburst in tongues causing confusion and disharmony. This kind of thing was happening at Corinth and frequently happens these days in multitudes of Charismatic and Pentecostal meetings. When you look at the motives of the people that do this kind of thing they want to draw attention to themselves just like children do. This is why Paul says, “Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regards to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.”

When we allow our flesh to dominate our spirits we imprison the Holy Spirit and if we continue in this way then it will always result in evil. All uncontrolled behaviour will lead to evil and one way Satan can disrupt a fellowship is to get believers to move over into the flesh when spiritual gifts are operating.

Many of the believers at Corinth had been involved in pagan worship before they were saved and accustomed to euphoric spiritual experiences that led them into all kinds of uncontrolled behaviour. (12:1-3)

Remember that the gifts and calling of God go forth without repentance. A person may still be exercising gifts even after they have backslidden. King Saul continued to prophesy after he was a backslider. Sampson continued for some time under the anointing of the Spirit even after he had started to backslide and eventually lost God’s power until he repented, Likewise, King Solomon continued to exercise the gift of wisdom but did not take his own advise and became a backslider.

Remember that we must not look at the gifts only but also at the fruit in the lives of those expressing the gifts. Jesus said that we would know people by their fruit and not their gifts. Undoubtedly the believers at Corinth were richly endowed with spiritual gifts but were very carnal and immature in almost every aspect of their lives as Christians. (3:1-4) (5:1-2,11-12) (6:5-8) (11:28-32) Today we can see these same kinds of things going on in many Charismatic and Pentecostal churches.

(Vs 22)  On the Day of Pentecost those listening to the 120 speaking in other languages understood clearly what was being said. (Acts 2:11) Peter and those with him heard the Gentiles speaking in other tongues and praising God. (Acts 10:46) How did the Jewish believers present know that the Gentile believers were praising God unless they understood what they were saying?

Likewise Paul heard the disciples at Ephesus speak in tongues and prophesy. (Acts 19:6) How did Paul know they were prophesying unless he understood what they were saying or at least spiritually discerned what they were speaking by the Holy Spirit?

The manifestation of tongues in the book of Acts is basically the same gift in 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14. The confusion of languages at the tower of Babel was reversed on the day of Pentecost. The languages themselves were not the important thing but what they represented. God was pouring out His Spirit in new way to unite His people once more so that they could go into the world to witness to the resurrected Lord Jesus and to establish His kingdom in the hearts of men. (Acts 1:8)

The primary purpose of tongues revealed in the book of Acts and 1 Corinthians is to reach the unsaved in their own languages and to edify and build up the body of Christ.

(Vs 23)  Now there are two kinds of people that Paul mentions who will often come into a meeting where the spiritual gifts are flowing. There is the one who is uninstructed or who does not understand about the gifts of the Spirit and how they operate and there is the person does not know the Lord Jesus and is unsaved. If they see undisciplined behaviour and disorder they will think the people in the church are crazy!

When unbelievers and those who are not open to the gifts of the Spirit see the crazy antics of Rodney Howard Brown and Kenneth Copeland on video speaking and laughing to themselves in tongues on T.V. and being applauded by the audience it is little wonder that they think Christians are crazy and that being born again is a joke.

What else can you expect from them when they see pastors rolling on the floor and laughing uncontrollably or women writhing on the floor having something akin to sexual orgasms. What do they think when they hear people all speaking in tongues together out aloud in a state of emotional euphoria? Paul goes on to tell us how we are to conduct ourselves in worship keeping in mind those who are uninstructed and are unsaved.

(Vs 24-25)  If the Holy Spirit is really in control in our worship meeting the effects of His ministry through the body of Christ will powerfully affect both the uninstructed and the unsaved present in that meeting. If believers are prophesying in the Spirit then the unbelievers will be convicted about their sin and want to be saved. The Holy Spirit will be giving words of knowledge and speaking directly to people present.

An unbeliever will hear the gospel in his own language directly or through an interpreter or have the secrets of his heart revealed and become convinced that God is among us. He will fall down before the Lord and worship Him, exclaiming, “God is really among you!” Likewise, those believers present who do not understand the gifts of the Spirit will see them in operation and want to experience them for themselves.

A minister of a fundamentalist church who is not open to the gifts of the Spirit will see what is happening and want the same thing to happen in his church. But if he sees chaos, disorder and confusion he will go back to his church and not only discourage the use of spiritual gifts but supply his people with ‘the theological shovel’ to bury them.

Today we desperately need the sound Biblical teaching of God’s Word aligned with the gifts of the Spirit if we are to see our society radically changed. If those churches that preach the Word could get together with those who genuinely practice the gifts of the Spirit then Satan would be hard pressed to stop a revival happening!

Paul now goes on to give instructions for orderly worship focusing primarily on the public utterance of tongues and prophecy as these two are connected.

(Vs 26-28)  Every believer by virtue of having the Holy Spirit dwelling within can exercise any gift of the Spirit because they all have their source in Him. (12:4-7) The Holy Spirit is sovereign and will give someone grace to exercise one gift and to another believer the grace to exercise a different gift. His aim is to strengthen the church.

If we come into the worship meeting and feel moved to bring a hymn, a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation we must make sure that our motive is to strengthen our brothers and sisters in their faith and not to promote ourselves.

If several believers all have a tongue then they should all speak in turn, not shouting each other down, and someone must be able to interpret what they say. If there is no one who can interpret then the speaker should keep quiet and speak to himself and to God. This will avoid confusion and misunderstanding to the uninstructed and the unsaved present in the meeting.

(Vs 29-31) Prophecy is linked to tongues because when a tongue is interpreted it becomes a word of prophecy. Again the same pattern applies. If there are several believers who each have a prophecy then they must be sensitive to each other and prophesy in turn. If someone is prophesying and someone else has a sudden revelation then the first person must stop and allow the other person to speak.

Others present need to weigh carefully what is being said and this requires the gift of the discerning of spirits. Everyone can prophesy if they are open to the Holy Spirit and Paul encouraged this. (Vs1) He also did not forbid speaking in tongues. (Vs 39) When believers prophesy in turn others are instructed and encouraged. Moses recognized the importance of prophecy when he said, “I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them” (Numbers 11:29).

(Vs 32-33)  Paul tells us in his second letter to Timothy that we have not been given a spirit of fear but of power, of love and of a sound mind or literally self-control. (2 Timothy 1:7)

When we were born again God’s Holy Spirit recreated our human spirit and fused Himself with our spirit. Scripture says, “He that is joined to the Lord is One Spirit with Him.” God the Spirit is a Spirit of self-discipline or self-control and not chaos and disorder.

Many claim to have the Holy Spirit present in their meetings but when you look at the chaos and disorder and Charismania going on you must ask what spirit is really at work? Certainly it is not the Holy Spirit. It is either the flesh or an alien spirit but it certainly isn’t the Holy Spirit. He is Holy as God is Holy and will never endorse carnal worship.

If our human spirits are in submission to the Holy Spirit then we will be able to control our impulses especially our emotional ones. We may feel we have to speak out but even so if we submit that strong desire to the Holy Spirit then He will give us the opportunity and the appropriate time to speak.

Even if we have to wait until the next meeting if what we have is from the Lord then the Holy Spirit will see to it that the message we are holding in will be released.

In verse 40 Paul says, “Therefore (in the light of what has been said before) my brothers be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.”