Understanding Tongues

A Commentary on Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 12 – 14

The topic of the Holy Spirit gift of “tongues” has long been a point of contention within the Christian community.  The purpose of this article is to answer in a plain and common sense way, the many questions that arise from 1 Corinthians 12, 13 and 14.  We will especially look at the verses in chapter 14, where much of the confusion stems from.  But, if we are going to understand the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians, we must first look at the Scripture passages that introduce the Bible reader to this extraordinary gift from God.

The first place in the New Testament that “tongues” is mentioned is Mark 16:14-18.  This was one of the commissions to the Apostles of Israel (see Gal. 2:8) and right in the middle of our Lord’s instructions is a key word… “signs”14Afterward He appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at the table; and He reproached them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who had seen Him after He had risen. 15And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. 16“He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned. 17“These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; 18they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover. 19So then, when the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.  20And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by the signs that followed.” 1 Corinthians 1:22 tells us that signs are for the Jews, so we see first off that these particular signs and wonders have a Jewish connotation to them.   Verse 20 indicates what the purpose of these signs were, 20And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by the signs that followed.” (Even Paul’s miracles were done for the purpose of convincing the Jews that his message was from God-See Acts 15:12, 21:18-19). Note well that you can find examples of most of these signs during the first few chapters of the book of Acts at a time when the Kingdom program was still in operation and God had not yet set Israel aside completely. (More on the setting aside of Israel later in this article). These signs were nothing new as we read very similar instructions in Luke 10:1-24.  The casting out of demons, serpents being trampled upon with no harm coming to anyone, healings being witnessed, etc. were all part of the Kingdom program.  1Now after this the Lord appointed seventy others, and sent them in pairs ahead of Him to every city and place where He Himself was going to come. 2And He was saying to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.  3“Go; behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. 4“Carry no money belt, no bag, no shoes; and greet no one on the way. 5“Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house.’ 6“If a man of peace is there, your peace will rest on him; but if not, it will return to you. 7“Stay in that house, eating and drinking what they give you; for the laborer is worthy of his wages. Do not keep moving from house to house. 8“Whatever city you enter and they receive you, eat what is set before you; 9and heal those in it who are sick, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10“But whatever city you enter and they do not receive you, go out into its streets and say, 11‘Even the dust of your city which clings to our feet we wipe off in protest against you; yet be sure of this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ 12“I say to you, it will be more tolerable in that day for Sodom than for that city. 13“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had been performed in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. 14“But it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the judgment than for you. 15“And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will be brought down to Hades! 16“The one who listens to you listens to Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me; and he who rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me.” 17The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name.” 18And He said to them, “I was watching Satan fall from heaven like lightning. 19“Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing will injure you. 20“Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven.” 21At that very time He rejoiced greatly in the Holy Spirit, and said, “I praise You, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for this way was well-pleasing in Your sight. 22“All things have been handed over to Me by My Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.”  23Turning to the disciples, He said privately, “Blessed are the eyes which see the things you see, 24for I say to you, that many prophets and kings wished to see the things which you see, and did not see them, and to hear the things which you hear, and did not hear them.” So, as we look into this issue of “tongues”, it is important to notice that this gift was given right along with others that had been prevalent in Jesus’ earthly ministry to the nation of Israel.

In the beginning of the book of Acts, the early history of the Jerusalem-Kingdom church is spelled out for us.  Starting in chapter one, we see the Apostles to Israel, the eleven, still looking for the Kingdom promised to the patriarchs (Acts 1:6).  Right before Jesus ascends to heaven, He tells them it is not for them to know when the Kingdom will be realized (Acts 1:7).  Jesus assures them that they will receive the Holy Spirit for power in just a few days.  At the end of Acts 1, Matthias is chosen to replace Judas as the twelfth Apostle.  Acts chapter two opens with the disciples and all of Jerusalem celebrating the feast of Pentecost.  It is in this passage of Scripture that we see the gift of “tongues” bestowed upon the disciples (Acts 2:4).  Peter exclaims that this is the beginning of the fulfillment of the prophecy spoken of in Joel 2:28-32.  The gift of “tongues” isn’t mentioned specifically in the Joel passage, but being filled with Holy Spirit, Peter connects it directly with this prophecy.  The translators of the Bible chose to use the word “tongue” or “tongues” for the Greek words glossa and dialektos. The Greek indicates that a better and more explanatory word would have been the word “languages”.  As we see from the text, this is exactly what this gift was.  4And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.  5Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven.  6And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together, and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language. 7They were amazed and astonished, saying, “Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8“And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born?” This gift of “tongues” was the gift of speaking a foreign language without having been taught that particular dialect.  This was used by God to proclaim the Gospel to people in their own language as they would not understand the language of who was speaking if they spoke in their normal dialect.  The gift of “tongues” is NOT syllables, ecstatic speech, babble, gibberish or a private prayer language used for building your personal relationship with God.  More on this later.

Now, we have to consider who had this gift and for whom this gift was displayed.  Obviously, the gift was given to those that Jesus promised would receive the power of the Holy Spirit, His Jewish followers.  The people observing the power were Jews present in Israel at the time of Pentecost as we see in verse five of Acts chapter two. 5Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven.” Keep this in mind as we approach 1 Corinthians.  These early Acts believers were not the Body of Christ, as the Apostle Paul had not even been converted yet and it was through Paul that the ascended Lord revealed the mysteries of the Body of Christ, not the twelve Apostles to Israel (Gal. 2:8).  The twelve were still in Jerusalem bringing the Kingdom message only to the Jews (see Acts 3:18-20).  They were still practicing temple worship as evidenced by the day of Pentecost (a festival given to the Jews by God) and as late as chapters 10 and 21 the Apostles are still practicing the law.  We see this in Acts chapter 10 as Peter was sent to the house of Cornelius to bring the Gospel to a Gentile despite Israel’s unbelief, which was in contrast to the commissions given to Christ’s Apostles to bring in Israel first.  Peter told Cornelius that it was “unlawful” for Peter to be there.  Yet, God showed Peter and his fellow Jews that accompanied him through the sign gifts of visions and “tongues” that this mission was ordained of God by showing Peter, a Jew, that Cornelius received the same gifts from the Holy Spirit that the Jews in Jerusalem had received at Pentecost. Remember, who requires a sign?  The Jews do (1 Cor. 1:22).  God was using the sign gift of speaking in other languages to confirm the plan of God to go to the Gentiles with salvation, not through Israel’s belief, but because of Israel’s fall.  This was never prophesied about before as all the prophets spoke of the Gentiles coming to the light of Israel.  That’s why Peter needed convincing.  That’s why Peter protested so much to God about going to the house of a Gentile.  In Acts 15 God uses this visit by Peter to confirm to the Jews at the council meeting in Jerusalem that Paul’s message to the Gentiles was of God as Peter himself had witnessed the sign gifts given by the Holy Spirit to Cornelius and the other Gentiles there.

So, now let’s take a look at the Scripture passages in 1 Corinthians that deal with the Spiritual gift of “tongues” or “languages”.  We first have to set the background of the Corinthian church.  This church was very carnal or worldly in its practices.  Paul admonishes them many times about several things they were doing wrong in light of their salvation.  In 1 Corinthians 3:1-2, we read that Paul referred to the believers in Corinth as “infants”, unable to chew on the real meat of the truth.  1And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ.  2I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able,” Paul is writing to believers who were not of sound doctrine.  In some areas they were divided, in some areas there was immorality among them and in 1 Corinthians 12-14, we see the Corinthians misusing and misunderstanding some of the spiritual gifts.

In 1 Corinthians chapter twelve Paul deals with the concept of unity within the Body of Christ.  He uses the analogy of the human body and its members to show how the Body of Christ must function.  Each member has its own importance and cannot tell another member that it is not needed or is not part of the Body.  This chapter is very self-explanatory, but I want to concentrate on a key sentence in verse seven.  7But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” We see here that all spiritual gifts are given by the Holy Spirit for the betterment or building up of the Body of Christ; not the building up of the individual Christian.  Paul further substantiates this point in chapter thirteen when he indicates what is really important….love.  A member of the Body of Christ can have all the special gifts possible and even speak the language of angels, but it does not do any good for the Body if that particular member doesn’t have love.  Paul stresses the importance of love in verses eight through eleven of chapter thirteen and basically tells the Corinthian church to grow up spiritually by contrasting the unfailing attribute of love versus the uselessness of the Spiritual gifts without love.  8Love 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.”… “11When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.” We will look at why the sign gifts disappeared in another section of this article.

In chapter fourteen Paul really deals with the “tongues” issue within the Corinthian church.  It is obvious that the gift of “tongues” that was bestowed upon the Gentiles was the same gift as was received by the Jews of the early period of Acts.  We see this when Peter went to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile, and witnessed the very same gift and exclaimed in Acts chapter 11,  15 “And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as He did upon us at the beginning.  16 “And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17“Therefore if God gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” This gift was the ability of speaking unlearned languages and not some spiritual prayer language as some have taught.

I will try to explain each verse as we proceed with our study.  Hopefully by doing this, a better understanding of this whole controversial topic can be acquired.  Chapter fourteen of 1 Corinthians shows the important contrast between the gift of prophecy (speaking forth the word of God) and the gift of “tongues”.

1 Corinthians 14

1Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.

Paul writes that all the spiritual gifts are of value, but prophecy (speaking forth the word of
God) is the best.

2For 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.

If anyone speaks in a language that is foreign to the people gathered, the language is only understood by God.  If no one is there who understands the foreign language, then the speaker is speaking “mysteries” or words that can’t be understood by the others.  It is apparent that these Corinthian believers were showing off their spiritual gifts in a manner that was not beneficial to the whole Body.  Remember 1 Corinthians 12:7, that these gifts were for the common good of the Body.  They were not for someone to exhibit them in a manner that would not help or build up the church of God.

3But one who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation.

Again, Paul is showing how prophecy (speaking forth the word of God) is beneficial for the whole Body.

4One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church.

The comparison between prophecy and “tongues” is shown again.  Speaking in languages unknown to the hearer only shows that the individual speaking has this gift.  No one can benefit from it, not even the speaker as the interpretation of what is being spoken is left as a mystery.  Paul is not being complimentary when he says that speaking in a “tongue” edifies the person speaking.  Keep in mind what the main purpose of this letter to the Corinthians was.  It was meant to admonish them for their spiritual childishness.  The selfless act of building up the Body was intended with this gift; not for some building up of personal faith or for the speaker of this foreign language to get closer to God.

5Now 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.

We see again that prophecy was to be desired more than the gift of speaking languages that someone was not trained in.  But, if the person speaking the unknown language can interpret the language, then that is better than prophecy.  Why?  Again, we have to remember what the gifts given by the Holy Spirit were for.  They were to be used for building up the whole Body, not just an individual.  Paul reiterates this at the close of this verse.  If the person speaks an unknown language within a group of believers and he can also interpret what is said, then the whole group can understand and praise God for what is being said.

6But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking in tongues, what will I profit you unless I speak to you either by way of revelation or of knowledge or of prophecy or of teaching?

Paul explains in verse six what context the gift of speaking unknown languages was to be used in.  It was to profit the church with something beneficial for their spiritual growth…revelation, knowledge, prophecy or teaching.  It was not given by the Holy Spirit to be used as a “private prayer language”.

7Yet even lifeless things, either flute or harp, in producing a sound, if they do not produce a distinction in the tones, how will it be known what is played on the flute or on the harp?    8For if the bugle produces an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself for battle?  9So also you, unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air.

The example is given here that the sound of an instrument played without a purposeful rhythm or structure does no good to those hearing the instrument.  Such is the gift of speaking a foreign language to someone who doesn’t understand it.  If it is not understood by the people hearing what is spoken, what good does it do?  It goes up into the air and is understood by no one.

10There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of languages in the world, and no kind is without meaning.

All languages have a meaning.  What is said to be the gift of “tongues” that is spoken today in some circles of the church is unsubstantiated by Scripture.  All languages can be interpreted and not just by God.

11If then I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be to the one who speaks a barbarian, and the one who speaks will be a barbarian to me.

The word “barbarian” used here in the Greek means to speak a language unknown to the hearer.  So Paul emphasizes over and over again the uselessness of speaking in a language that no one understands.

12So also you, since you are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek to abound for the edification of the church.

Paul exhorts the Corinthian believers again to seek after the gifts that build up the whole church.  He implies very obviously that a language spoken without understanding does not build up the church and therefore is not for the Body.

13Therefore let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret.

If a believer has the spiritual gift of speaking a foreign language, then that individual should pray for the gift of interpreting that language.  Otherwise the gift of speaking a foreign language doesn’t build up the Body.

14For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.

Paul is explaining how the gift of “tongues” is an instrument of the spirit, but if understanding (“my mind”) is not grasped, it is useless.

15What is the outcome then? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also.

Paul brings all this together by showing that using the gifts of the Spirit with understanding is the only way to build up the Body.  Praying and singing praise to God in the Body is only beneficial when the spirit works together with understanding.

16Otherwise if you bless in the spirit only, how will the one who fills the place of the ungifted say the “Amen” at your giving of thanks, since he does not know what you are saying?

Languages that are not interpreted fall on deaf ears as no one can agree with the person praying unless what is being said is understood.

17For you are giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not edified.

Again, we see what the gifts are for.  They are for the building up of the whole Body.  If a language is spoken and not understood by anyone, the only person being edified is the speaker as it is clear that the speaker has the gift of “tongues”, but it does the Body of Christ no good if it is not understood.

18I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all; 19however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind so that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue.

Paul is thanking God for this gift of speaking foreign languages, but he says something that really puts this gift in proper perspective.  Paul shows that speaking forth understandable words is far more desirable than having nothing he says understood.  Why does he say this?  “…so I may instruct others also,” It is for the understanding of the “others” within earshot of what Paul is saying.  How can Paul “instruct others” by speaking unintelligible sounds or words?  Paul keeps emphasizing the point that the gifts are for the building up of the whole Body, not the individual.  Speaking or praying in an unknown language doesn’t build up anybody that hears it unless it is understood.

20Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature.

Paul is again exhorting the Corinthian church to grow up spiritually.  He says this at least three times when addressing this group of believers.  Paul refers to this maturity in 1 Corinthians 13:11 and Eph. 4:11-16.  Also see Hebrews 5:11-6:1a.

21In 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.  22So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophecy, not to unbelievers but to those who believe.

Verses 21 and 22 are crucial in understanding this gift of languages.  Paul refers back to when Isaiah the prophet foretold of a time when God would try to communicate His message to the nation of Israel through the lips of foreigners.  Why?  The answer is in verse 22.  “So then tongues (foreign languages) are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers;” Now, we have to keep in mind what is written in the Scriptures about “signs”.  1 Corinthians 1:22 holds the key to understanding what “signs” were used for.     22For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom;” Signs were used for attempting to persuade unbelieving Jews to believe the message presented to them by God’s messenger or as a sign of judgment as in the Isaiah passage.  This was done all through the Old Testament beginning with Moses in Exodus chapter four.  In Exodus chapter three the LORD was commissioning Moses to lead Israel out of captivity.  Knowing that Israel would question him, Moses asks God in Exodus chapter four how He would make the Israelites believe what Moses was saying. 1Then Moses said, “What if they will not believe me or listen to what I say? For they may say, ‘The LORD has not appeared to you.'” 2The LORD said to him, “What is that in your hand?” And he said, “A staff.” 3Then He said, “Throw it on the ground.” So he threw it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from it. 4But the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand and grasp it by its tail”–so he stretched out his hand and caught it, and it became a staff in his hand– 5that they may believe that the LORD, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you.6The LORD furthermore said to him, “Now put your hand into your bosom.” So he put his hand into his bosom, and when he took it out, behold, his hand was leprous like snow. 7Then He said, “Put your hand into your bosom again.” So he put his hand into his bosom again, and when he took it out of his bosom, behold, it was restored like the rest of his flesh. 8“If they will not believe you or heed the witness of the first sign, they may believe the witness of the last sign. 9“But if they will not believe even these two signs or heed what you say, then you shall take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground; and the water which you take from the Nile will become blood on the dry ground.” We see from the text that at the beginning of the nation of Israel, God used signs to confirm His message to unbelieving Jews.  Jump ahead to the earthly ministry of our Lord.  Romans 15:8 tells us that Jesus was a minister of the Jews.  8For I say that Christ has become a servant to the circumcision on behalf of the truth of God to confirm the promises given to the fathers,” As Jesus walked the land of Israel, He went about showing Himself to be the Messiah by performing miracles and signs and wonders to the nation so they would believe.  Peter confirms this in Acts chapter 2.  22“Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know-…” Jesus defended Himself as Messiah in by pointing John the Baptist’s disciples to these miracles and signs and wonders as well.   2Now when John, while imprisoned, heard of the works of Christ, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to Him, “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?” 4Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and report to John what you hear and see: 5the BLIND RECEIVE SIGHT and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the POOR HAVE THE GOSPEL PREACHED TO THEM. 6“And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.” In other words, “You see the miracles and signs and wonders that I’m doing.  Who else can do these things, but the Messiah?”  And the last sentence that Jesus proclaims in this passage shows the purpose of these signs.  Jesus in so many words says that seeing these signs, you better believe.  We also read about the Pharisees constantly urging Jesus to perform a sign and in the Gospel of John we read several times that the people came out to see Jesus because of the signs which He performed.  In John 4:48 we read, 48″So Jesus said to him, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you simply will not believe.” Remember that Jesus came to His own, the Jew.  When He could tell that some still didn’t believe in Him, look what Jesus exhorts them to do in John 10:37-38.   37“If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me; 38but if I do them, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me, and I in the Father.” We know that the Jews rejected Christ just like the multitudes rejected God all through Israel’s history, despite the signs and miracles.

Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 14:21-22 again in light of this information.   21In 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. 22So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophecy, not to unbelievers but to those who believe.” Paul uses Isaiah to show that God would speak to this people”, Israel (see Isaiah 28:11), in judgment by the lips and languages of the Gentiles, hoping the Jews would believe after witnessing the sign of “tongues”.  In fact, the Corinthian church was housed right next door to a synagogue.  See Acts 18:1-7.  This enticing of Israel through the sign of tongues fits perfectly with Acts 2 and the experience witnessed by the Jews at Pentecost.  After the “Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation” heard the disciples speaking in different languages, they inquired what was going on.  Peter then announces that this “sign” was foretold in the Old Testament and he went on to preach his most effective sermon recorded in the Scriptures to the “Men of Judea and all you who live in Jerusalem,”. Peter recites part of Israel’s history and goes on to say that Jesus was raised from the dead and the evidence of this was the gift of languages exemplified by the believing Jews.  32“This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses.  33“Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured forth this which you both see and hear.” (Acts 2:32-33).  As a result of these Jews witnessing this sign/miracle and hearing Peter’s sermon, over three thousand of them came to believe in Christ as their Messiah.  Precisely the pattern of the Moses led nation of Israel; “signs” first, then belief.  This is also in accordance with the commission given by Jesus to the Apostles in chapter 16 of the book of Mark.  17“These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; 18they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” During the time that the twelve Apostles preached the Gospel of the Kingdom to the nation of Israel, signs and wonders would follow as they always did in the earthly ministry of Christ (see Matthew 4:23, 9:35; Mark 6:12-13; Luke 9:2-11).  The sign of speaking in tongues was one of these miracles that accompanied the ministry to the Jews.  Take another look at chapter ten of the book of Acts.  Remember Peter when unwillingly went to the house of a Gentile named Cornelius.  What evidence or “sign” did God use to convince Peter and his fellow Jews that these Gentiles were now saved?  It was the sign of speaking in untaught foreign languages. 45All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. 46For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God.” Acts 10:45-46 here shows again why these “sign gifts” were distributed.  They were used by God to confirm his message to the Jews.  Even when tongues are mentioned in Acts 19, we see that these are Jewish converts under John the Baptist’s ministry and the sign of tongues was used by God to show these Jews that Paul’s message was true.  It is as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:22; the Jews require signs to believe.

So, what does Paul mean in 1 Corinthians 13:8?   8Love 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.” According to Romans 11:25 and 28; God has temporarily set Israel aside for the sake of the Gentiles.  25For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery–so that you will not be wise in your own estimation–that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in;”…” 28From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake,” 1 Corinthians was written shortly before Romans and during the time of transition when God was moving the program from the Gospel of the Kingdom to the Gospel of the Grace of God as revealed to Paul.  So, when Paul was writing his first letter to the Corinthians, God was still trying to reach the nation of Israel and was doing it through the lips and foreign languages of the Gentiles as evidenced in 1 Corinthians 14:21-22.  When Israel rejected God again, the program changed and the “sign” gifts, “tongues” being one of them, ended.  The sign program ended when the sign people were set aside.  Another evidence of this is the list in 1 Corinthians 12:28 showing what offices were appointed for the church at that particular time. 28And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues.” When we come to a similar list written years later in Ephesians 4:11-12, we see that the offices using signs, miracles and wonders are no longer in operation within the Body of Christ.  11And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ;” And what does Paul say these offices are for?  “…the building up of the body Of Christ”.

Paul went on to say in 1 Corinthians 13:10, 10but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.” What did Paul mean by “perfect” ?  He couldn’t have meant when Christ comes, because these gifts had ended before Paul had finished his epistles.  Some think that the word “perfect” was referring to the Bible being canonized about the 3rdcentury.  This also could not be what Paul meant for the same reason as before; the sign gifts had ended by the time Paul wrote to Timothy (this will be explained later).  The word “perfect” has several definitions in the Greek.  The one most often used is the meaning “complete” or “fulfill”. Paul writes in Colossians 1:25 that one of his commissions was to “complete” or “fulfill”the word of God.  Verse 26 of Colossians one shows us what this fulfillment is…26that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations,”. I believe that Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 13:8-10, that the revelatory gifts (prophecy and knowledge) were a part of the message sent by God for that particular point in time.  But, the whole of Scripture was not yet revealed; “the partial”.  When the complete mystery was to be finally revealed to Paul, then the revelatory gifts that revealed only the partial of Scripture would be “done away”.  The “perfect” or “complete” mystery would now be at their disposal, and the “partial” or incomplete as spoken of in 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 would be replaced with the complete Word of God.  12For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully…” Let’s continue with 1 Corinthians 14:23.

23Therefore if the whole church assembles together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad?

Paul further brings home the point that these languages needed to be interpreted, “ungifted men”, or they not only didn’t help the Body as a whole, they would end up causing harm as unbelievers would think the worst. 

24But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all;   25the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you.

Paul shows here that the gift of prophecy (speaking forth the word of God) is much more effective as an evangelistic tool, as even an unbeliever will be convicted by the word, which is sharper than any two edged sword.

26What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation Let all things be done for edification.

The instruction here is for making sure that whatever gift is being exemplified let it be for the building up of the Body and nothing else.

27If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret; 28but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God.

These two verses confirm Paul’s continual plea to have orderly worship.  Any utterance in a foreign language must be interpreted.  If there is no interpreter present, then silence is commanded.  Pray to yourself and God.  Paul did not mean to pray in another language to yourself and God.  The point here is that having no interpreter would mean no edification for the Body as a whole, so just pray like you would without displaying the gift of “tongues”.   Nowhere in Scripture are we instructed to pray to God in any other language than the one which we normally speak.  As one Bible teacher so aptly put it, “God can understand English.”   

29Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. 30But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, the first one must keep silent. 31For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; 32and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; 33for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.

Paul winds up this section of his letter by instructing the Corinthian church about prophecy (speaking forth the word of God).  Again, orderly worship is the main focus of these last few verses.

The spiritual gift of “tongues”, or speaking foreign languages, without personal training was a wonderful way that the Lord used languages other than ones familiar to Israel to bring forth His Good News to the Jews.  The early church leaders and Apostles had this gift and many more, like healing.  But as we study the whole of Scripture, we begin to see a pattern in the New Testament. These miraculous sign gifts faded off the scene as the Gospel of the Kingdom/Circumcision, to the Jews, was temporarily set aside and the Gospel of the Grace of God, to the Body of Christ, was brought to the forefront.  Paul’s healing gift is an example of this.  In the book of Acts during the transition period from the Kingdom Gospel to the Gospel of the grace of God, we read accounts of miraculous healings being done through the hands of the Apostle Paul to the Gentiles.  Paul’s meeting with the Jerusalem church  leaders in Acts 15:12 shows us again that these sign gifts were used to confirm God’s message so the Jews would believe that Paul’s message to the Gentiles without the law was indeed of God.  12All the people kept silent, and they were listening to Barnabas and Paul as they were relating what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.” Again, we see this in Acts 21:17-20a, 17After we arrived in Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. 18And the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. 19After he had greeted them, he began to relate one by one the things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. 20And when they heard it they began glorifying God;” Why did God exhibit these gifts among through the Apostle?  1 Corinthians 1:22, 22For indeed Jews ask for signs…” Yet as Paul writes to Timothy later, at the end of Paul’s ministry, the gift of healing is peculiarly absent when Timothy has a stomach problem.  Paul also left Trophimus sick at Miletus.  We also read in Philippians 2:27 that Paul didn’t heal Epaphroditus, but that God spared him. 27For indeed he was sick to the point of death, but God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, so that I would not have sorrow upon sorrow.” Just like the spiritual gift of languages, the spiritual gift of healing disappeared as Israel was being set aside for the sake of Gentile salvation.  Paul’s instruction to us in the second book of Timothy to rightly divide or handle the Scriptures is paramount to understanding the whole counsel of God.  When this is done, then everything God has put together in the Bible for us to learn makes perfect sense.

Article written by Paul D. Pedro of Oakdale Minnesota.

All Scripture references used in this article were taken from the New American Standard Bible.  Any underlining or extra emphasis added to the Scriptures was done by the author of this article.

3 Comments

  1. michael cull
    Posted March 26, 2010 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    corinthians is a transitional book,please contact me about this serious issue….k? im mid acts also…we have lotsa good stuff to share.

  2. Posted March 10, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    these people had no bible ,gifts were the means by which they received information, >to the comment by michael , acts is the transitional book

  3. Zicky
    Posted July 23, 2018 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Waow ! A very good work !

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