Biblical Tongues*


In 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, tongues of men refer to understandable human languages; the tongues of angels may refer to the medium by which angels communicate in heaven. Paul does not say that it is possible or desirable to speak with the tongues of angels, rather, he says that if such a thing were possible, it is not (nor is any other "gift") the mark of the Spirit of Christ -- genuine love is that mark (1 Cor. 13 describes Christian love).

other tongues (Acts 2:4), heterais glossai -- that is,

Other than their native tongues. Each one began to speak in a language that he had not acquired and yet it was a real language and understood by those from various lands familiar with them. It was not jargon, but intelligible language. Jesus had said that the gospel was to go to all the nations and here the various tongues of earth were spoken. One might conclude that this was the way in which the message was to be carried to the nations, but future developments disprove it. This is a third miracle (the sound, the tongues like fire, the untaught languages). There is no blinking the fact that Luke so pictures them. One need not be surprised if this occasion marks the fulfilment of the Promise of the Father. But one is not to confound these miraculous signs with the Holy Spirit. They are merely proof that he has come to carry on the work of his dispensation. The gift of tongues came also on the house of Cornelius at Caesarea (Acts 10:44-47; 11:15-17), the disciples of John at Ephesus (Acts 19:6), the disciples at Corinth (I Cor. 14:1-33). It is possible that the gift appeared also at Samaria (Acts 8:18). But it was not a general or a permanent gift. Paul explains in 1Cor. 14:22 that "tongues" were a sign to unbelievers and were not to be exercised unless one was present who understood them and could translate them. This restriction disposes at once of the modern so-called tongues which are nothing but jargon and hysteria. It so happened that here on this occasion at Pentecost there were Jews from all parts of the world, so that some one would understand one tongue and some another without an interpreter such as was needed at Corinth. The experience is identical in all four instances and they are not for edification or instruction, but for adoration and wonder and worship. As the Spirit gave them utterance (kathos to pneuma edidou apophtheggesthai autois). This is precisely what Paul claims in I Cor. 12:10,28, but all the same without an interpreter the gift was not to be exercised (I Cor. 14:6-19). Paul had the gift of tongues, but refused to exercise it except as it would be understood. Note the imperfect tense here (edidou). Perhaps they did not all speak at once, but one after another. Apophtheggesthai is a late verb (LXX of prophesying, papyri). Lucian uses it of the ring of a vessel when it strikes a reef. It is used of eager, elevated, impassioned utterance. In the N.T. only here, verse 14 and 26:25. Apophthegm is from this verb. (A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, III.21, 22. Broadman. See RWP in Online Bible.)

own language (Acts 2:6, &c.), tei idiai dialektoi -- that is,

Locative case. Each one could understand his own language when he heard that. Every one that came heard somebody speaking in his native tongue. (Ibid, 23.)

tongues (various locations), glossa -- that is,

the language used by a particular people in distinction from that of other nations: Acts ii.11...; new tongues which the speaker has not learned previously, Mk. xvi. 17... 1 Co. xii. 10...; to speak with tongues; this, as appears from 1 Co. xiv. 7 sqq., is the gift of men who, rapt in an ecstasy and no longer quite masters of their own reason and consciousness, pour forth their glowing spiritual emotions in strange utterances, rugged, dark, disconnected, quite unfitted to instruct or to influence the minds of others: Acts x. 46; xix. 6; 1 Cor xii. 30; xiii.1; xiv. 2, 4-6, 13, 18, 23, 27, 39... (J.H. Thayer, The New Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon, 118.)

divers kinds of tongues (1 Cor. 12:10), gene glosson -- that is,

No word for "divers" in the Greek. There has arisen a great deal of confusion concerning the gift of tongues as found in Corinth. They prided themselves chiefly on this gift which had become a source of confusion and disorder. There were varieties (kinds, gene) in this gift, but the gift was essentially an ecstatic utterance of highly wrought emotion that edified the speaker(#14:4) and was intelligible to God (14:2,28). It was not always true that the speaker in tongues could make clear what he had said to those who did not know the tongue (14:13): It was not mere gibberish or jargon like the modern "tongues," but in a real language that could be understood by one familiar with that tongue as was seen on the great Day of Pentecost when people who spoke different languages were present. In Corinth, where no such variety of people existed, it required an interpreter to explain the tongue to those who knew it not. Hence Paul placed this gift lowest of all. It created wonder, but did little real good. This is the error of the Irvingites and others who have tried to reproduce this early gift of the Holy Spirit which was clearly for a special emergency and which was not designed to help spread the gospel among men. See on Acts 2:13-21; 10:44-46; 19:6. (Robertson, IV.170.)

interpretation of tongues (1 Cor. 12:10), hermeneia glosson -- that is,

Old word, here only and 14:26 in N.T., from hermeneuo from Hermes (the god of speech). Cf. on diermeneuo in Luke 24:27; Acts 9:36. In case there was no one present who understood the particular tongue it required a special gift of the Spirit to some one to interpret it if any one was to receive benefit from it. (Ibid.)

speak with the tongues (1 Cor. 13:1), tais glossais -- that is,

Instrumental case. Mentioned first because really least and because the Corinthians put undue emphasis on this gift. (Robertson, IV.177.)

all spake with tongues (1 Cor. 14:5) -- that is,

Translate, "Now I wish you all to speak with tongues (so far am I from thus speaking through having any objection to tongues), but rather IN ORDER THAT (as my ulterior and higher wish for you) ye should prophesy." Tongues must therefore mean languages, not ecstatic, unintelligible rhapsodie (as NEANDER fancied): for Paul could never "wish" for the latter in their behalf. (Jameson/Fausset/Brown, III.Part 3.323. Eerdmans.)

Hastings points out that "It is significant that the Pauline notices of 'tongue-speech' are concerned only with the Corinthian Church." Mystical, ecstatic, even demonic utterances in supposed communication with the gods were not uncommon in Corinth. Ecstatic utterances had invaded the church from the pagan worship so prevalent in the city (1 Cor. 14:2, 4, 13, 14, 19, 26, 27, including all the verses having unknown added by the translators). 1 Cor. 14:9 refers to the physical tongue of man; 1 Cor 14:23, plural with a plural pronoun, refers to the Corinthian ecstatic utterances. Observe that chapter 14 contains a mixture of the word tongues: vv. 2, 4, 13, 19, 26 & 27, pagan ecstatic utterances; vv. 5, 6, 18 & 22, actual ethnic languages. (Encyclopaedia, III.371a; The Pulpit Commentary, XIX.397; The Hebrew-Greek Key Study Bible, by Spiros Zodhiates, 1436, 1438.)

Therefore, Paul says that he desires that they would indeed be able to supernaturally speak with other ethnic languages as he can, but on the other hand, he is soundly renouncing and rebuking the ecstatic utterances which were actually taking place in this church.


Let us make a quick overview of three main points from 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14 (covered in more detail later in this report):

First, notice Paul anchors tongues firmly in the law of Moses by citing tongues' Old Testament foundation, their time-frame, and purpose, 14:21, 22, which we will develop shortly. Furthermore, Paul refers to Moses' command for women to remain silent in the church assembly and to learn from their own husbands, 14:34, 35. (A result of the fall is that the husband is commanded to instruct his wife, Gen. 3:16; Eph. 5:22; 1 Pet. 3:1. Thus, for a woman to instruct men in the church is a direct effort to overthrow God's word.) The command is followed immediately with, If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that these things that Paul writes to the church are the commandments of God, v. 37.

Second, notice Paul's list of "gifts," 12:8-10 and v. 28; tongues (ethnic languages) is listed last, showing that they were the least desirable of all the gifts (cf. 14:5). Whatever is done in the church is for one purpose only: to edify the church -- the individual is to excel in building up the church, 14:12. Paul is quite clear in 14:4: The Corinthian ecstatic utterance was for self-edification, and was connected with the pride that Paul had to deal with in this letter. Paul makes a contrast -- prophesying (preaching the whole counsel of God, Jesus Christ in His entirety, Ac. 20:27; Rev. 19:10) edifies the church, while ecstatic utterances edify the individual (it makes one feel good).

Third, we see that tongues (both ethnic languages and the Corinthian ecstatic utterance) had to be interpreted for the profit of the entire assembly, vv. 5, 13, 27, 28; thus, if there was no interpretation for what was spoken, neither ethnic languages nor ecstatic utterance was permitted. In addition, Paul clearly and absolutely forbids women from taking any part in the speaking or interpretation of tongues; it is confusion, 14:33-35. What is needed in the church is clear -- distinct and easily understood speaking, 14:7-12. Therefore, Paul, without actually telling them to stop the ecstatic utterances, placed severe enough restriction on them that, if they would obey him, they would stop. Notice the connection that we will come back to, 14:8 -- he connects tongues with the trumpet that sounded the alarm as in the Old Testament, Ezekiel 3 and 33, etc. God's messenger is to sound the trumpet of warning midst sin and evil. If the trumpet cannot be understood, what good is it?

In Paul's first letter to Corinth, he dealt with situations that developed in this church with "the gifts." In chapter 12:1, Paul starts his address on the subject of spiritual gifts; thus, chapter 13 cannot be taken out of context from chapters 12 and 14. These three chapters (12-14) were written to deal with the outside influence of the ecstatic utterances flooding into the church from the pagan temple worship of Aphrodite. Paul made it clear to the Corinthians that their speech (glossa) had no spiritual significance before the Christian God (1 Cor. 14:6-11). Furthermore, in these three chapters, Paul points out the difference between the real tongues and the ecstatic utterances that were taking place. Obviously, what was going on at Corinth was causing problems because Paul, in 12-14, is not exhorting its practice; rather, he lists its restrictions and regulations.

Spiritual Defined

It is important to understand that these three chapters (12-14 of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians) are dealing with a problem: misunderstood spirituality. 1 Corinthians 12:1, spiritual -- Paul follows the same line of thought as he did in Galatians 6:1; these Corinthians were misunderstanding what it meant to be spiritual. Because of the carry-over of the pagan idea of worship (and thus spirituality), they were associating the pagan ecstatic utterance with spirituality and communion with the heavenly Father. Notice that the word gifts is added by the translators; therefore, Paul writes the whole passage (chaps. 12-14) to clear up the misunderstanding associated with spirituality. (True spirituality is defined in chapter 13; see also 1 Jn. 3:14.)

Tongues & God's Law

Paul firmly anchored tongues (ethnic languages, not ecstatic speech) in the law, as clearly revealed in the Old Testament; therefore, we must do the same. Tongues were a warning to unbelieving Jews of God's soon coming, and even present, national judgment; tongues were a sign for those who knew God's Old Testament law; tongues were a call to the nation that had forsaken its God, a call to repent and turn from its sin and back to the Lord God through Christ, 14: 21, 22 -- Tongues were for a sign not to them that believe already the truth of God's Word, but to those who believed not. The clear preaching of God's Word, prophesying, was for believers.

Here, as in all places, our final authority for all that is believed, said, and practiced must be God's Word (2 Tim. 3:16). Christ Himself commanded us to search the Scriptures that we might find the truth of a matter (Jn. 5:39, 46, 47). Both Paul and Christ were referring to searching the Old Testament Scriptures to confirm any and every doctrine, because there were no New Testament Scriptures when Christ spoke and Paul wrote. The Old Testament was safely kept in the Synagogues. The Bereans were commended as being more noble than those in Thessalonica, because they searched the Old Testament Scriptures daily to confirm what they were being taught by Paul (Ac. 17:11). Should we not do the same? Therefore, we must reach back to the Old Testament, as Paul does here, to find the truth about tongues.

Isaiah & Tongues

Isaiah says that if anyone speaks not according to the law and to the testimony (of the prophets), there is no light in him (Is. 8:20; see also Lk. 24:44-48). Paul, by quoting Isaiah 28:11-12 in 1 Corinthians 14:20-22, rebukes the Corinthians for not understanding the Old Testament Scriptures in their use of "the gift of tongues." Charismatic "Christians" today should tremble in fear of the Lord as they read the passage Paul used to instruct the first generation of Christians.

Isaiah 28 takes place in the latter years of Hezekiah, King of Judah, 705-701 BC. Before his rule (722 BC), Assyria invaded Palestine and the Northern Kingdom. Ephraim was destroyed. Now, many years later, Isaiah warns the people of the Southern Kingdom, Judah, that the same thing will happen to them (cf. Jer. 3:7-10). But instead of trusting in the Lord for their deliverance from Assyria, Judah makes a deal with Egypt. Their unity with pagan Egypt brings an influx of heathen practices into the congregation of the Lord, and their hearts turn from Him. In vv. 7-8, God's prophet points to the leaders of Judah, and tells the world that they are involved in wicked, evil practices -- a drunken party. The leaders mock Isaiah and his warning concerning their spiritual condition. Not liking to be addressed as irresponsible children, even though they are childish, they call his teaching childishly simple. As far as they are concerned, Isaiah, a legalist preacher, speaks down to them as one would to a minor, and, considering themselves "free adults," they resent Isaiah, and sneer at his warning.

The prophet, in vv. 11-13, deals with them in the very point of their sarcasm (he continues to speak to them as children, using their scorn for God's Word against them) as he makes his prophetic announcement of coming judgment, vv. 14ff. Since the people will not listen to God as He speaks to draw them back to His Word with plain and simple words that they understand and use daily (including the weather, v. 2 & Dt. 28:24), He will speak to them in a language they cannot understand, Assyrian. Now they will need an interpreter to understand the other "tongues," languages (Is. 10:5-6). When they hear the stammering lips and another tongue on the streets of Jerusalem, as well as throughout the land (i.e., the Assyrian language which they understood not), they will know that God's judgment is upon them according to Isaiah's warning. The another tongue was a sure sign pointing them directly back to Isaiah's warning of the coming judgment at which they had mocked and sneered.

Moses & Tongues

The warning goes back well before Isaiah. We find the basic law for Isaiah's warning (and Paul's) in Deuteronomy 28:15-68 (36, 49). There Moses points out to the congregation of the Lord (the seed of Israel) that one result of God's people rejecting the Lord as their King would be servitude to a people whose tongue (language) they would not understand, which is genuine, lawful, Biblical tongues. If God's people will not serve the Biblical God as their King, whose Word is easily understood (Dt. 30:14, Rom. 10:8), they will serve the heathen, whose words they cannot understand, 47-49. Therefore, let us not suppose for a moment that the rebellious Jews who Isaiah and Paul spoke to, did not make the connection of Deuteronomy 28:45-68. There is no way they could have missed the connection, but knowing human nature as we do (we have it), they ignored the facts. "Other tongues" was the result of rejecting God's rule (total authority) over them (cf. 1 Sam. 8). This fact is well established in the Word of God, and will not change.

Deuteronomy 28:15-68 was fulfilled at least three times: First, it was fulfilled when Assyria moved against God's people in fulfillment of Isaiah's warning (2 Kg. 15:5, 23, 24; 18:11; 1 Chr. 5:26. One of the symbols of Assyria was a winged lion -- see Dt. 28:49); Second, it was fulfilled when God moved his servant's army, Babylon, against His people (Jer. 25:9); Third, it was fulfilled when God sent Titus against Jerusalem in AD 70.

The stammering lips and another tongue was/is God's judicial sign of judgment upon his people because they harden their hearts against the simple truths of which Moses and the prophet Isaiah spoke.

In Isaiah's day, the judgment came in the form of Assyria, and the speaking of the Assyrian language on the streets of Judah pointed to Isaiah's prophecy being fulfilled -- they could not understand the language without an interpreter. In Jeremiah's day, the tongues were Chaldean. In Paul's day, God's people had again degenerated into an apostate nation, and had rejected the true Prophet, Christ the Messiah, and His warnings. No doubt, if He had come as a worldly king with military might or as an elite man of some kind, they might have listened to Him, but He did not. He came as a humble servant of God; He came with a simple and plain message that the common man could readily understand, identify with, and accept, and the elite rejected and killed Him. Christ warned of the horrible judgment that would come as the result of their rejection of the Son (Mt. 21-24). In fact, He said that the former judgments would be nothing compared to the one that was coming, 24:21, 22. Assyria, as terrible as it was, would pale compared to the punishment in store for the rejection and crucifixion of Christ.

Signs & Tongues

After the crucifixion of the Son of God, and before the final destruction of the Jewish nation, the sign of tongues re-appeared. To the Jews who knew the law (Dt. 28) and the prophets (Is. 28), it meant only one thing -- judgment. Other tongues (ethnic languages) were not new to them; it had happened in the past. In the middle of Paul's significant warning concerning the proper use of tongues (1 Cor. 14), we have his reference to Isaiah, 14:21. Paul clearly identifies tongues in the same context as did Isaiah -- a sure sign of judgment for rejecting God's warning. The Roman language that would be spoken on the streets of Jerusalem would not be understood without an interpreter.

Thus, indignation and wrath, Tribulation and anguish came upon the Jews first, in the form of Assyria, Babylon, and Rome for their refusal to glorify God, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, with their personal, religious, social, and national lives. Paul clearly tells us that God, being no respecter of persons, will also send indignation and wrath, Tribulation and anguish against the Gentiles for the same offense.


Something that is quite amazing in the passage we are considering is the context in which Paul quotes Isaiah's warning, and the resistance (even anger) exhibited by the Jewish leaders against Isaiah, accusing him of treating them like children (cf. Isaiah 28). Both Isaiah and Paul are dealing with immature people who claimed to be God's people; however, they were children whose pride and rebellion caused them to harden against being treated like and spoken to as children.


Our Lord said, except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Mk. 10:15). It is not hard at all to follow this call to humility and conversion, as the gospel of the kingdom goes out from the very first day that Christ taught it, to the last days of Paul as he taught i. (Mt. 3:2; Ac. 28:31). The idea of becoming as little children would have struck at the very heart of the rebellious nation, as once again the religious leaders became hostile at the thought of being treated like children. In fact, having to put on the spirit of a child is enough to make any "natural man" hostile. But not only is childishness required in order to enter into the kingdom of heaven, but it is required to advance in His kingdom. Stephen told the religious leaders (as did every other preacher of the gospel, including Christ) that they were the same pious, rebellious, stiff-necked, proud, hardhearted, hypocritical men as were their fathers who mocked and sneered at Isaiah's instruction (Ac. 7:51-60).

Moving to the middle of Paul's instruction in chp. 14, v. 20, we see that his warning against childishness fits in with the situation in which Isaiah spoke (1 Cor. 14:21 & Is. 28:11). Isaiah was rejected by the Jewish leaders because he was treating them like children; Paul tells the folks at Corinth, "Don't continue in your childish attitudes as your fathers did in Isaiah's time. Grow up! Remember, the reason for other tongues is to speak to a rebellious, stubborn, stiff-necked people who will not hear the plain, easily understood Word of God. When your fathers rejected the clear, plain message of repentance toward God and faith in Christ, they had to listen to other tongues: an ethnic and unintelligible language of a foreign invader. Your fathers needed an interpreter to understand what was being said." Paul's thought continues: "The another tongue Isaiah referred to had nothing to do with salvation or with being spiritual; rather, it is a sign of judgment which is either already here or is coming."

Also, notice Paul's indictment against this church for being childish (1 Cor. 13:11, 14:20). The supernatural ability to speak an unknown (to the speaker) foreign language was being used with pride, as a child would be lifted up with pride over abilities he had and he considered superior to another's abilities. Paul points out that childishness is only commendable in the matter of malice, not in understanding. He tells them to grow up. Again, the connection is significant as he moves from this exhortation into the quote from Isaiah. The context of both Paul and Isaiah has to do with childishness and maturity.

Paul's 13 Guidelines

Note some significant points made by Paul as he tries to instruct this worldly, immature, and childish church concerning the proper use of tongues. Remember, the ecstatic utterances from the pagan worship had infiltrated this church, and was being mistaken for something godly and spiritual. We have already noted Paul's distinction between their ecstatic speech and true spirituality. We will not cover the whole chapter (1 Cor. 14) but will quickly mention thirteen guidelines which Paul establishes for the proper use of tongues:

1) The other tongues, as used in chapter 14, is the power given by the Holy Spirit to speak in a literal, foreign language, unknown to the speaker -- an obvious fact from the passage. Referring back to either the situation with the Assyrians or with the Romans, the context of chapter 14 would be something like this: The people did not understand Rome's language, for it was unknown. A person not knowing Rome's language has the supernatural ability from God to speak it. Those around him do not understand Rome's language either, so the speaker needs an interpreter to translate his words into a common language, so his hearers can understand him. Paul says it is crazy to speak in a language that requires an interpreter when one can speak in the common language and present a message easily understood by all (1 Cor. 14:1-12).

In all three cases, Assyrian, Chaldean, and Roman, tongues were a foreign language for which the hearers needed an interpreter to understand (Dt. 28:49; Is. 28:11; cf. all of Acts, esp. chap. 2). Anything other than this scenario of an actual foreign language would have to be the ecstatic speech carried over from paganism, which Paul vehemently stands against. He tells the immature Christians at Corinth to quit seeking the childish things and grow up, e.g., "Sure, it makes one feel good to be able to supernaturally speak in a foreign language not understood by others, but what good is it to speak in mysteries that only God can understand? It's so much better to speak in the common language of those present." Paul says that he would rather speak five words in easily understood language than ten thousand words unintelligible to his hearers (1 Cor. 14:19).

If it were not so obviously fraud against their hearers, we could find it amusing that those who claim supernatural gifts of speaking in tongues must have interpreters when they go to foreign countries to speak. How can they claim the supernatural gift of tongues is from God if they cannot even preach the gospel in an unknown (to them) native tongue? In other words, their tongues are not foreign languages, but are ecstatic utterances, a hold-over from the ecstatic utterance that had invaded the Corinthian church from the pagan worship so prevalent in that city.

2) Prophecy, not tongues, was to be desired, 14:1-5. The desirable thing is the ability to explain the practical applications of God's Word, which alone will build God's people. Everything done within the church is to be for the benefit of the body of believers. The purpose of the public assembly is to admonish one another, to build up and strengthen one another, and to be an encouragement and help (Heb. 10:25). When we consider the true purpose of tongues (warning of God's wrath upon the rebellious Jewish nation), we can see how tongues would not "edify" a church. They would edify an individual and lead to vast amounts of pride, e.g., "I'm special because God is using me to speak to that person about God's judgment to come." (Yes, I see 14:5, except he interpret, that the church may receive edifying. We will see more of this as we continue.)

3) Tongues were not spontaneous, 14:2, 28, 32, etc. There were several conditions that had to be met.

4) 14:8 is an interesting comparison -- speech is compared to a trumpet that sounds an alarm (Num. 10:5; Jer. 4:19; 6:17; 42:14). Paul calls tongues an uncertain trumpet, an uncertain alarm for battle. In fact, anything not easily understood would leave the people unprepared for battle -- the battle was a spiritual one, as well as one against personal, social, religious, and national evil and wickedness.

5) [T]ongues were for a sign ... to them which believe not. When the hardened, unbelieving Jew heard the tongues (supernatural speaking in a foreign language that was not his native tongue), the tongues would speak to him of the coming judgment against his hardness and rebellion (because he would know the lesson taught by both Moses and Isaiah, v. 22).

6) However, to the unlearned (those not knowing the law of Moses) and to the unbelieving Gentile (who also would not know the law), tongues would be madness, v. 23.

7) It was to be the preaching of the gospel of Christ and of eternal judgment to come that would cause the visitor to believe, v. 24. It is the clear, easily understood presentation of the gospel that reveals the heart, causing conviction and conversion, vv. 24, 25 (1 Cor. 1:21; Heb. 4:12, 13).

Looking through Acts, we see that in every instance of tongues there were unbelieving Jews present -- that is, unbelieving in the gospel (Ac. 2), unbelieving in the Holy Spirit (we have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost, Ac. 19:2), or unbelieving that the gospel should go to the Gentiles (Ac. 10).

1 Corinthians 12-14: The purpose of Paul's instruction is to clear up the misunderstanding of what is spiritual. The Corinthians were under the delusion that the ecstatic utterances from pagan worship were a sign of being in close fellowship with the Holy God of heaven and earth. First, Paul said the supernatural ability to speak in an unlearned and unknown foreign language was the least important of all the gifts. Why do we need to speak in a foreign tongue when our message can be so much more effective in the common language? Paul's second guideline was to only use what will edify the complete body of believers within the church -- the ability to speak in a foreign tongue edified only the speaker. Third, tongues (ethnic languages) must be interpreted by a man who speaks them -- a message in a foreign language that cannot be understood by the hearers is useless. It would be absurd to use a supernatural ability to speak in another language that the hearers cannot comprehend, 14:5. Fourth, the ability to speak in an unknown foreign language was to warn the hardened unbelieving Jews that judgment was on its way -- soon he would witness on the streets of his own hometown an invading army whose language he would need an interpreter to understand. This was backed up by the law and the prophets. Judgment was coming upon the Jewish nation for rejecting the plain, clear, child-like message of God (the Messiah), which had been in their own language and easily understood. Obviously then, there had to be an unbelieving Jew present for supernatural tongues (ethnic languages) to be of God (see Mt. 23:34-39).

Continuing with Paul's instructions:

8) Speaking in a foreign language could not be uncontrolled, for it always had to be planned, orderly, and subject to the speaker, 14:32-34, 40.

9) At the most, there could only be three speakers, and then only one at a time could speak, vv. 2, 27.

10) Furthermore, there had to be a person present who could translate what was said into the common language of the assembly, v. 28. If there was no one who could translate (explain) what was said, then either the speaker had to do it (v. 5), or he had to keep quiet.

11) As already mentioned, there had to be an unbelieving Jew present because when the speaker spoke in the foreign language of that Jew's birth, that unbelieving Jew would understand and know from the law and the prophets about the judgment to come against his unbelief, v. 22. As the speaker spoke in the unbelieving Jew's language, for the rest of the church to understand, either an interpreter or the speaker himself must explain what was said.

12) Probably one of the more important restrictions placed by Paul on the use of tongues is found in vv. 34-35: tongues were, without exception, absolutely forbidden to women in the churches. The purpose of tongues was to "preach" to the unbelieving (yet knowledgeable of Moses) Jew, and he would know that women were forbidden to take any speaking or leadership authority in the assembly of God's people; they were required to be under subjection to their own husbands in their homes (Eph. 5:22-24; 1 Tim. 2:11-12). The situation at the city of Corinth makes this a very important point: Corinth was famous for its immorality with its temple prostitutes (one thousand were kept in the temple). One of the signs that these prostitutes (priestesses) were in close communion with their gods was their ecstatic utterances during the temple rituals of sexual orgies. Thus, we have Paul's firm statement, for it is a shame for women to speak in church, v. 35, referring to either preaching or usurping authority over the men of the church (of course, preaching is the exercise of authority based upon God's Word). The ability to speak in the foreign language of that unbelieving Jew's birth was a sign to him; however, to an unbelieving Jew, a woman was little better than a slave. (Only Christianity elevates women to the status of respect and honor, 1 Pet. 3:7.) Under no circumstances would an unbelieving Jew in Paul's day have listened to a woman speak from any position in a Christian assembly -- a woman speaking would completely destroy the purpose of tongues. (The Jewish man thanked God for three things every day: that he wasn't a publican, that he wasn't a Gentile, and that he wasn't a woman.)

13) Tongues were not to be forbidden, 14:39. In Paul's day, before the judgment against Jerusalem of which tongues spoke, tongues were needed, and to forbid them would be to forbid the Spirit of God from expressing his warning message of judgment through his chosen vessel. Judgment was at the door; Jerusalem was on the very threshold of being completely overturned, heaped up in a pile, burned, and, as Josephus says, her foundations plowed with a yoke of oxen. The Israelite/Jewish race, as known in the Old Testament, was on the verge of extinction, so God continued to send warnings to that race right up to the day Jerusalem was sealed by Rome with millions inside.


In addition, notice these two points about v. 14: first, pray in this verse does not mean "addressed to God" as in Matthew 21:22, etc.; rather, it means "to offer prayers, to pray, (everywhere of prayers to the gods, or to God)" as in Matthew 6:5, where the Pharisees depended on their loud, long public prayers to be heard by the Lord (cf. Mk. 12:40). The word pray (1 Cor. 14:14) can refer to either empty words spoken into the air, or meaningful words. It is used twice in Matthew 6:5, once for proper and once for improper prayer ( The New Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon, 545). Therefore, claiming that pray (ecstatic utterance) in v. 14 is words spoken to the Father stretches the context beyond Scriptural recognition. Scripture is clear: there is no direct approach to the Father through words or any other means. All who come to the Father must come through Christ (Jn. 14:6, 13, etc.). Therefore, the only prayer which the Father hears is through Christ. Second, my spirit, not the Holy Spirit -- in other words, "My spirit can, by some circumstance, be moved to an utterance." (Many leaders know how to use emotions to produce their desired effects, e.g., ecstatic utterances and/or large "gifts." Note Paul's final remark on this subject, vv. 37, 38.)


The best thing is to testify of Christ, preach the gospel, apply his Word to the whole of life and thought, and do not forbid tongues, as long as they meet the conditions established by Paul to prevent their misuse (chaps. 12-14). Of course, those conditions cannot be met today, but if tongues were "active" today, they no doubt would be something like Paul laid out in 1 Cor. 14:18.

Ecstatic utterances at Corinth were a carry-over from the pagan temple worship. Biblical tongues was the supernatural ability to speak an unknown foreign language: As God's warning message was delivered in the Christian assemblies in tongues, it spoke to the hearts of the unbelieving Jewish hearers. The result was to be their repentance of sin and turning to the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul said, "You are proud of your spirituality, but let me show you what true spirituality really is." Then he moves into chapter 13: True spirituality is defined as humility and love for one another shown by actions, not by any "supernatural ability" one might think he has (see all of 1 John). Love is shown by rejoicing over someone's conversion, by encouraging others when the person takes a stand for Christ, by unity among the body of Christ, by a willingness to do for one another, by Biblical rebuke and correction when required, and by a genuine family spirit among the body of believers (1 Cor. 12:12-31; 13:1-13).

The pagan's definition of close, spiritual contact with their gods (ecstatic utterances) had crept into the Corinthian church, and the people claimed spirituality and love for God because they could imitate the pagans. Paul points out that what they had was not true spirituality (chapter 13).

American "Christianity," as a whole, is as paganized as was Corinth's and Israel's of old. America's religious leaders, as Israel's of old, have ignored God's warnings, united with pagans, and have mocked and are mocking God's Word and God's men. Judgment is surely coming.

* Adapted from the December 1997 issue of The Biblical Examiner; used by permission.

Biblical Discernment Ministries - Revised 3/99