This chapter is devoted to making sure that we have a complete understanding of the two spiritual gifts listed in 1Corinthians 12 that we have not yet examined: various kinds of tongues, and the interpretation of tongues.
Many people claim that this study is irrelevant, asserting that tongues passed away with the death of the apostles. There is no biblical basis for this claim. Of course, 1Corinthians 13 states that tongues will pass away, but explains exactly when.
1Cor. 13:8-11 Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. When I was a child, I used to speak as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known.
Those who are uncomfortable with the concept of tongues argue, "You see? When the Bible was completed, it was perfect. Therefore, tongues have ceased." But that is bad Bible study. If you read the entire passage, you see that the perfect coming marks full knowledge of God as He now knows us. It marks full face-to-face sight as God now sees us. The perfect does not speak of the completion of the Bible, for we are still knowing and seeing only partially. It speaks of the day that perfect love comes.
Now, even if it is biblical, many are weirded out by this subject. I myself sit on the spiritually conservative side of the fence. But we must remember that when the Holy Spirit moves, it is always beautiful and supernatural. We think of tongues as being "out there" because of the abuses that we've seen and heard of in our past. So I will begin this study by reminding us all of Paul's exhortation:
1Cor. 14:39 ...do not forbid to speak in tongues.
Many of us will be stretched by this study we will be challenged to see the Holy Spirit working in this mysterious way. For others, it will be a stretching from the opposite direction. A "reining in" of sorts being challenged to have a decent and orderly view of the gift of tongues.
Out of 1,189 chapters in the Bible, just 7 include a mention of this strange phenomena that is called "tongues." Tongues were first plainly promised and presented by Jesus before He ascended into heaven (though Paul will point out in chapter 14 some hints at it in the Law). In Mark 16, we read that Jesus said,
Mark 16:17-18 "And these signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it shall not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover."
What Jesus was saying was that miraculous things would often accompany someone who came to faith in Him. Some would have the power to cast out demons. Others, like the apostle Paul when he was bitten by a poisonous snake, suffered no ill effects. Some will speak in new, previously unlearned languages. And some will see people healed when they pray and lay hands on others. So this was one of the miraculous things that would sometimes happen when someone became a Christian.
The promise of tongues was fulfilled not too long later, as the disciples were all gathered together on the day of Pentecost,
Acts 2:2-4 And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent, rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.
The disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues a miraculous occurrence. As we continue reading, we find out what languages these tongues were in:
Acts 2:5-11 Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men, from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were bewildered, because they were each one hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and marveled, saying, "Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs..."
These were known languages of mankind some of the disciples were speaking Asian, others Egyptian, some in Pamphylian, etc. These were simple Galileans who spoke only Hebrew and Aramaic they didn't know these languages. And yet as the Holy Spirit miraculously gave them utterance, they were speaking fluently in these other languages from around the world.
However, tongues are not always in a known language. You see, Paul wrote to the Corinthians,
1Cor. 13:1 If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
The statement tells us that tongues are either known languages of man or unknown angelic languages.
This "tongues of angels" provision seems to make it very difficult to differentiate between a true manifestation of the Spirit in the gift of tongues, and someone who is either faking it or convincing themselves that by babbling out some nonsensical words they are actually speaking in tongues, doesn't it? When we hear someone speak in tongues, how can we tell if it is truly the Spirit, or just their flesh?
The first way we can tell is through the content. Remember that in Acts 2, these Jews from all around the world heard a common thing in their own languages:
Acts 2:11 "we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God."
Speaking the mighty deeds of God. That was the content of the tongues speaking the mighty deeds of God. This remains consistent as we look at the rest of the Scriptures that tell of occurrences of tongues.
In Acts 10, when Peter was preaching the gospel to a group of Gentiles in Caesarea, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening.
Acts 10:45-46 And all the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon the Gentiles also. For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God...
Again, the speech in tongues was exalting God, lifting Him up, praising Him.
And Paul, writing to the Corinthians, says
1Cor. 14:2 For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men, but to God
Also Paul, later in that same chapter, said that tongues was prayer, giving thanks, and blessing God. Tongues are spoken to God. Always. Never to man.
The content is an important factor in recognizing the true manifestation of tongues. Speaking the mighty deeds of God, directed to God, exalting God, giving thanks to God, blessing God. That is what the gifts of tongues always is. If it is anything else, or directed to anyone else, it is of the flesh, not the Spirit, and should be disregarded, and possibly rebuked.
What other boundaries does this gift fall within, that we may know if it is truly inspired by the Spirit?
There is a limit that the Spirit places on the manifestation of the gift of tongues. This is because, like many churches today, the Corinthian church was going crazy with everyone speaking in tongues. Their worship services were full of people babbling nonsense. Paul rebukes them for this, saying,
1Cor. 14:23 If therefore the whole church should assemble together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad?
You might have been there yourself. Many people I know were once invited to Pentecostal churches. And when they saw everyone freaking out and speaking in tongues, their conclusion was, "Those people are nuts! If this is what this Jesus thing is all about, I don't want any part of it!"
So Paul writes,
1Cor. 14:27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn...
Many churches approve of everyone in the congregation speaking simultaneously in tongues. This command has been thoroughly disregarded by them. Why? I can't speak regarding their motives. But the Bible is crystal clear: two or at the most three. And never all at the same time each in turn.
Now a third requirement of tongues...
1Cor. 14:27-28 ...And let one interpret; but if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God.
The third examination that tongues must hold up under is that it must be interpreted. An interpretation should be given by someone who recognizes the language, so that everyone can hear and understand what was said. For example, in Acts 2, the multitudes were the interpreters.
This is where the gift of interpretation of tongues comes in. Just as God can supernaturally give you utterance, He can supernaturally give you understanding to both know what was said, and to tell it to the church body.
Who can interpret? Anyone either someone who knows the language spoken, or someone else who has been given the gift of interpretation (1Cor. 12:10).
It can even be the person who spoke the tongue in the first place. As Paul wrote,
1Cor. 14:13 ...let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret.
So the third criteria is that the tongue be interpreted. If tongues are spoken in a way so as to be heard by someone else, it must be interpreted.
We've seen tongues' languages, what they are saying, who they are speaking to, the numerical limitation on them, and the requirement of an interpretation. But what in the world are tongues for? Paul writes,
1Cor. 14:22 ...Tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe, but to unbelievers...
Tongues are for a sign to unbelievers. Now remember, if tongues are abused or faked, unbelievers say you're crazy. But if tongues are inspired by the Spirit, they are a sign to an unbeliever.
How can they be a sign? Don't forget what a powerful sign the tongues were to the unbelieving multitudes in Acts 2. But how does this manifest in the church? The same way. I'll give you two examples to illustrate.
A previous pastor of mine, Jon Courson, was at the Lake Arrowhead Hilton for a Christian gathering in their conference room. Hotel rules dictated that the bar in the back of the room stayed open whenever it was in use. So here's this bartender standing in the back of the conference room polishing the glasses while Bible study, prayer, and worship went on.
Near the end of the meeting, a guy stood up and spoke in tongues. They all waited silently for the interpretation. When none was spoken, the guy leading the meeting said, "We thank the Lord for that utterance, but since there is not interpretation flowing here tonight, that will be our only public utterance of tongues."
As soon as the meeting was over, the bartender walked up weeping tears flowing down his face. He said, "I must talk to that man who stood up and prayed. How does he know my tongue? I'm Iranian, and he worshiped the True and Living God in perfect Farsi!" That night the bartender gave his heart to Jesus Christ. You can see that tongues are still a sign to unbelievers.
One more example: early in the days of Calvary Chapel, Pastor Chuck Smith was overseeing the praise and worship time of the church service. A woman in the congregation began to praise the Lord in tongues. Chuck recognized it as French from the little that he could understand, but couldn't give an interpretation. His wife Kay, who does not speak French at all, gave the interpretation a beautiful statement of praise to God the woman had been thanking God for her new life in Christ. After the service, a woman who was an unbeliever, but who had come to receive counseling, said, "Before we get to my problems, explain to me what was happening here tonight. Why did the one lady speak to God in French, and the other lady translate to the group what she said?" Chuck explained to her that it had been a manifestation of the gift of tongues, that neither of those women spoke a word of French. The woman said, "I lived in France for six years, and that woman was not only speaking it fluently, but with the aristocratic, upper class accent. And the translation was perfect!" That woman, too, received Jesus Christ as her personal Lord and Savior that Sunday night.
Now if that Iranian bartender or that French-speaking woman had walked into a church where everyone was speaking in tongues, all at the same time, they would have said, "These people are crazy!" But because the gift of tongues was practiced decently and in order, according to the boundaries outlined in Scripture, both were saved. God uses tongues as a sign to unbelievers.
As we continue through 1Corinthians, we'll see in chapter 14 that there is a private use of tongues as well, a use which builds you up by enabling you to pray in the spirit. What a great spiritual gift to have! It can be a sign to unbelievers, drawing them to salvation in Jesus Christ, or be a beautiful private gift, as your spirit prays in words that you don't understand. No wonder Paul said,
1Cor. 14:5 ...I wish that you all spoke in tongues...
How can I receive it? The gift of tongues is given like every other spiritual gift through the Spirit. Not everyone receives every spiritual gift, but if you'd like to know how you might, we see that the disciples in Acts 2 received tongues while they were waiting on the Lord, praying and worshipping. The Lord might grant you this gift as you worship and pray.
Another group of disciples received the gift of tongues...
Acts 19:6 ...when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying.
In chapter 14, we're going to see that not everyone speaks in tongues certainly there were times in the book of Acts that people were filled with the Holy Spirit and didn't. And it will be pointed out to us that tongues are the least of the gifts. But if you desire to ask the Lord for the gift of tongues, you can do that in worship, ask the elders of the church to lay hands on you, or simply pray and ask.