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THE TONGUES ISSUE: PART FOUR

Tongues and the Corinthians:

       In Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Church, Paul enters into a rather lengthy discussion of the tongues issue.  Paul is teaching that tongues are one of several gifts of the Spirit.  Is Paul discussing a different kind of tongues than that witnessed at Pentecost?  The manifestation of tongues at Pentecost in AD 31 appears to have occurred for two reasons.  It demonstrated that the promised Holy Spirit had arrived.  Secondly, it got the attention of unbelievers in attendance so they would listen to what the Apostles had to say about the Christ event.

        In Corinthians, tongues are not seen as being for the purpose of demonstrating the arrival of the Holy Spirit as was true at Pentecost. However, as appears to be the case on the day of Pentecost, tongues appear to continue to be for the purpose of getting the attention of unbelievers. Paul clearly said, "Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers. (1 Corinthians 14:22) 

       As previously discussed, it is clear that the tongues spoken at Pentecost were extant languages that where currently being spoken by those present in Jerusalem to keep the Feast of Pentecost.  Even present day tongues speakers admit to this.  Is there reason to believe that the tongues Paul is discussing in his letter to the Corinthians are something different than real languages spoken by people on planet earth?  Are the tongues Paul speaks of some kind of worship language that is not related to known human languages?  Is there reason to believe Paul is dealing with the kind of tongues presently spoken by Pentecostals and others who practice what is technically referred to as glossolalia?

       Glossolalia is a technical word often used to describe modern day speaking in tongues.  It is a compound word taken from the Greek word glossa which means tongue or language and the Greek word laleo which means to speak, talk, chat or make a sound.  Is it glossolalia, as practiced in modern day tongues speaking, that Paul was dealing with in the Corinthian church?

       In 1 Corinthians 12:1, Paul addresses the issue of spiritual gifts by saying: “Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant.”  Paul is telling the Corinthians that he wants them to have understanding regarding spiritual gifts. In verse 7 we see Paul saying “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” Paul is saying that the granting of spiritual gifts is for the common good.  In verses 8-11 Paul lists a number of spiritual gifts. 

       1 Corinthians 12:8-11: To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines. 

       Paul then goes on to analogize the makeup of the human body to that of the makeup of the church.  Paul speaks of the many parts of the human body and how all its parts play a role in how the body functions as a whole.  He sees the body of Christ in much the same way.  Its members are its parts and each part has a role to play for the good of the whole.  Paul makes this very evident when he writes the following:

       1 Corinthians 12:28-31: And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But eagerly desire the greater gifts.   And now I will show you the most excellent way.

       It is instructive that every one of the gifts Paul lists pertains to serving others in the body of Christ, the Church.  Tongues and the interpretation of tongues are listed in this grouping of gifts used to serve others.  Remember, in verse 7 we saw Paul saying “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good." Paul also makes it very evident that the various gifts of the Spirit are spread out among the Church membership and different members are given different gifts.  Not everyone is given the gift of apostleship, being a prophet, teacher or miracle worker and not everyone is given the gift of tongues or interpretation.  In verse 11 we read that, “All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines."

       It must be pointed out that Paul speaks of speaking in different kinds of tongues. This would imply extant human languages are being referenced here and not the kind of unidentifiable utterances spoken by some in today's Christian community.

       Paul appears to be saying that it is God through the Spirit who determines who has what gift.  He concludes this part of his letter by writing about desiring the greater gifts. He doesn't define what the greater gifts are. He them goes into a long discourse about how love supersedes and is far superior to the desiring of spiritual gifts.  This discourse is seen in chapter 13:1-7.  Upon completing his dissertation on love, Paul says the following:

       1 Corinthians 13:8-10 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.

       Here Paul indicates that such things as prophecy, tongues and knowledge were imperfect and will cease when perfection comes. He doesn't identify what that perfection is or when it will come. Paul goes on to admonish the Corinthians to follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially prophecy.

       1 Corinthians 14:1:  Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy.

       Paul then goes on to seemly contrast the gift of prophecy with speaking in tongues.

       1 Corinthians 14:2-5: For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit. But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort. He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified.

       The Greek word translated “mysteries” has the basic meaning of a hidden or secret thing that is not obvious to the understanding.  The basic Greek word for prophet and prophecy in the NT has a wide range of meaning.  It can mean to foretell future events. It can also mean declaring the purposes of God through reproof and admonition.  In looking at how this word is used in the NT, it appears that much of the time it is used in the context of foretelling future events. 

       Paul sees the use of prophecy as a means of edifying others.  He sees prophecy as a means of strengthening, encouraging and comforting those who hear the prophecy.  Paul contrasts this with speaking in an uninterrupted tongue which Paul sees as only edifying the self and not the church.  Paul seems intent on having spiritual gifts edify the church and not just the self.

       Paul says that one who speaks in an uninterrupted tongue only edifies himself. The Greek word translated “edify” means to build something.  Paul is apparently using this word to say that to speak in a tongue and not have such tongue interpreted is to only build up the self but does nothing to build up the church. 

       1 Corinthians 14:6: Now, brothers, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction?

       Paul continues to question the usefulness of tongues if such tongues do not bring about some revelation, knowledge, prophecy or word of instruction?  He goes on in verse seven and eight to show how sound coming from a musical instrument is useless unless there is a distinction in the sounds the instrument makes.  He then says the following:

       1 Corinthians 14:9-13: So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me. So it is with you. Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church. For this reason anyone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says.

       This is a very revealing passage of Scripture in regard to the issue of speaking in tongues.  Paul begins by saying, “Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying?” You will just be speaking into the air.  The Greek translated “intelligible” appears just this one time in the NT and it means “easy to understand” and is so translated in some other translations.  Paul is saying that unless what you are saying is easy to understand, of what value is it?  Then Paul says something very interesting.

       Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me (verses 10-11).

       The Greek translated “languages” is phonee.  As discussed in Part Two, phonee has the basic meaning of sound, tone, noise and voice as in the utterance of words.  It appears 141 times in the NT and by context can be seen to relate to the speech of someone. It is often translated as “voice” in the NT.  It is instructive that Paul, in addressing the speaking in tongues issue, says there is a lot of speech in the world and it all has meaning.  In saying this, Paul is virtually saying to the tongues speakers that what they speak has meaning, as do other languages, but that meaning can only be grasped if someone translates or at least interprets what is being spoken.  

       For this reason anyone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says (verse 13).

       It is apparent that Paul understands tongues to be actual languages that are spoken in the world and when someone having the gift of speaking in a foreign language does so, he or someone else with the gift of interpretation should interpret so that the tongues spoken can be understood by those in hearing range. Modern day tongue speaking, however, has not been shown to be actual languages spoken in the world.

       Some in the modern tongues speaking community will argue that even though modern day tongues doesn’t correspond to any know language spoken in the world, it is a divine language having meaning that can be interpreted by someone having the gift of interpretation.  Some see Paul's allusion in 1 Corinthians 13:1 to speaking in the tongues of angels as indicative of speaking in a non-human language which can be interpreted by someone having the gift to do so.  Such interpretation can be given in the interpreter’s native language so others of that same language can understand what the divine language is saying. In such cases, the divine language is not being translated into a known human language but is simply having its meaning interpreted. It is argued that interpretation is not the same as translation. 

       Translation involves taking a word in one language and finding a corresponding or equivalent word in another language that best matches it in meaning.  While some interpretation is involved here, the goal of translation is to find equivalency of meaning between two different languages.

       Interpretation, on the other hand, is applying meaning to what is expressed in language but doesn’t necessarily involve finding a word for word equivalency. Therefore it is believed that speaking in tongues doesn’t have to be a known language in order to have meaning.  Since tongues is considered a divine language, its meaning can be revealed to someone who has been given the gift of interpretation and such interpretation can be expressed in the interpreters native tongue without there being a word for word translation.

       In other words, interpretation involves paraphrasing which is the putting of what is said by someone in ones own words and not necessarily the spoken words of the person being interpreted.  Interpreters of modern day tongues speakers believe the Spirit of God is providing them with the meaning of what is spoken by the tongues speaker. Therefore, it is believed their interpretation is not their words but the words of God delivered through them.

       Is this what Paul is talking about when he discusses the tongues issue in his letter to the Corinthian church?  Is Paul talking about divine language being spoken that cannot be translated into a known human language but can have its meaning interpreted and expressed in a known human language by someone given the gift to do this?

       The Greek word translated "interpret" in 1 Corinthians 12:30, 14:5, 14:13 and 14:27 is diermeenuo. Thayer's Greek Lexicon defines this word firstly as to unfold the meaning of what is said, explain and expound and secondly to translate into ones native language. The Arndt/Gingrich Greek Lexicon defines this word firstly as to translate and secondly as to explain or interpret. It is apparent this word can be used to indicate either interpretation or translation as seen in the following examples.

       (Interpretation) Luke 24:27: And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained (diermeenuo) to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.  

       (Translation) Acts 9:36:  In Joppa there was a disciple named Tabitha (which, when translated (diermeenuo), is Dorcas ), who was always doing good and helping the poor.

       So how is Paul using this word? Is he talking about human languages being translated into other human languages or is he talking about a divine language which cannot be translated into a known human language but can have its meaning interpreted with such interpretation then expressed in a known human language?

       Paul talks about there being many languages or voices in the world and they all have meaning. He relates this to tongues speaking in the church.  He talks about speaking intelligible words when speaking in tongues.  Nothing Paul says provides any reason to believe he is talking about interpretation of divine language.  Everything he says appears to be in the context of human language and the translation of human language.  Everything he says appears to relate to translating one human language into another human language as opposed to interpreting a divine language and expressing such interpretation in a known human language. 

      As a point of interest, there is also what is called transliteration. Transliteration is the taking of letters in one alphabet and matching them to letters in a different alphabet. For example, in Acts 9:36 above, the English word diermeenuo is used which is made up of letters from the English alphabet that are equivalent to the letters in the Greek alphabet that make up the Greek word διερμηνευομένη.  Letters from the Greek alphabet that make up this word are matched (transliterated) to letters in the English alphabet. Pronunciation of the transliterated word will approximate the sound of the pronunciation of the Greek word διερμηνευομένη.

       While translation allows the meaning of words in one language to be understood by those who speak another language. Transliteration allows for the pronunciation of words in one language to be pronounced in another language but does not provide their meaning. Meaning is provided by translation. For example, διερμηνευομένη is rendered as the English word "translated" in Acts 9:36 because that is what διερμηνευομένη means in Greek.   

       When Paul uses the Greek word διερμηνευομένη/diermeenuo, he appears to be using it to designate translation and not interpretation. That Paul is dealing with known human languages is further supported by his reference to something Isaiah said.

       1 Corinthians 14:21-22: In the law it is written, With men of other tongues (Greek glossa) and other lips will I speak unto this people; and yet for all that will they not hear me, saith the Lord. Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not... (KJV)

       In reflecting on what Isaiah wrote in Isaiah 28, Paul writes of God speaking to the people through men of others tongues and lips of foreigners.  The implication is that God will use men speaking foreign languages as a sign to unbelievers.  There is nothing here to suggest these languages are something other than human languages. It should be noted that on the day of Pentecost in A.D. 31, God spoke to the unbelieving Jews through men speaking in foreign languages. Many believed but others did not. In other words, some didn't listen. The tongues speakers spoke in languages they, the tongues speakers, apparently did not understand but languages readily understood by those who spoke those languages. 

      It is apparent that when Paul writes of tongues speaking in the Corinthian church, he is talking about speaking in a tongue that is foreign to the speaker.  The speaker does not understand what he is saying unless he is given the gift of translation or what he says is translated by someone else who has been given the gift of translation.  If a tongues speaker understood what he was saying, there would be no need for someone else to translate.  There would be no need for the person speaking in a tongue to require the gift of translation as he would automatically understand what he was saying and be able to translate/interpret it for those who didn’t understand the language he was speaking.

       Therefore, it is apparent tongues speaking, as described in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, is the speaking of a language that is not understood by the person speaking and needs to be translated by someone who has the gift of translation. 

       1 Corinthians 14:14-16: For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind. If you are praising God with your spirit, how can one who finds himself among those who do not understand say "Amen" to your thanksgiving, since he does not know what you are saying?

       Paul appears to be saying that when he prays in a tongue, he is only praying with his spirit and not his mind and this is unfruitful.  Neither he nor anyone who hears him knows what he is saying.  He does not understand what he is saying and others that hear him won’t understand what he is saying either.  The solution for Paul is to pray with his spirit and his mind.  In other words, Paul is saying he needs to translate the tongue he is praying in so that he understands what he is praying and anyone who hears him understands what he is praying as well.

       In reading through 1 Corinthians 14, it is apparent that Paul’s entire discussion of the tongues issue is focused on tongues spoken in public.  Paul is concerned with how speaking in tongues will impact the church.  Paul makes it clear that he wants tongues that are spoken in the church to be translated and if they cannot be translated they are not to be spoken in the church but restricted to being spoken privately.

       1 Corinthians 14:19, 28: But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.

       Verse 28: If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God.

      All indications are that when Paul writes about speaking in tongues he is writing about speaking in a known human language that one has not learned. Paul insists that in a public setting, such as a church meeting, tongues must be translated or they are not to be spoken.  Paul appears to allow for non-translated tongues being spoken in private but even here indicates it is better to speak not only with the spirit but with the mind.  In other words, it is better to understand what you are speaking.       

Tongues as a witness to receiving the Holy Spirit:

      The NT Scriptures report that the receiving of the Holy Spirit by the Apostles on Pentecost and by others on several other recorded occasions was accompanied by speaking in tongues. Such tongue speaking appears to have taken place for the purpose of giving witness to having received the Holy Spirit. Was such witness limited to the occasions reported in the NT or were tongues to continue as a witness to receiving the Holy Spirit for all those who come to Christ throughout Church history?  

       On the day of Pentecost in AD 31, Peter told his audience to repent and be baptized and they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is reported that around 3000 were baptized that very day. We can assume they received the Holy Spirit as Peter promised. Did they receive the Holy Spirit at the time of baptism?  If they did, nothing is recorded about any of these nearly 3000 speaking in tongues. 

       When Saul was blinded, the disciple Ananias was sent to Saul to lay hands on him so he would receive the Holy Spirit. Nothing is said about Saul speaking in tongues at the time hands were laid on him (Acts 2:17-18).  However, sometime after Saul's name was changed to Paul, he does inform us that he spoke in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:18).

       Paul told the Ephesians that after having believed, they were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit. Nothing is said here about tongues being a witness to their being sealed with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13)

       Paul told the Corinthians that they were all baptized by one Spirit into one body and were all given the same Spirit. Here the Spirit appears to be the baptizing agent.  There is no mention here of tongues being spoken as a witness to this baptism. 

       1 Corinthians 12:13: For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body--whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free--and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

       As can be seen, there are times when tongues are seen as accompanying the giving of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost, house of Cornelius, Ephesus) and at other times tongues are not mentioned where receiving of the Holy Spirit is discussed. 

       Both prior to and after saying they were all baptized by one Spirit into one body; Paul discusses the issue of spiritual gifts. One of these gifts is tongues. Are these the same kind of tongues experienced on Pentecost, and on several other occasions where tongues appears to be for the purpose of witnessing that the Holy Spirit had been given?

       1 Corinthians 12:8-11: For one person is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, and another the message of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another performance of miracles, to another prophecy, and to another discernment of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. It is one and the same Spirit, distributing as he decides to each person, who produces all these things (NET).

       1 Corinthians 12:37-31: Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues ? Do all interpret? But eagerly desire the greater gifts.

       The clear indication is that different gifts are given to different people and not all receive all the gifts.  If the tongues discussed here by Paul are the same kind of tongues experienced on Pentecost, it is evident that tongues are not a requirement for receiving the Holy Spirit.  If it were a requirement, then all these Corinthians would have had to have this gift.  Yet Paul clearly teaches that tongues, as is true of all the other gifts, are selectively given by the Spirit.  Not all had the gift of tongues and yet all had been baptized by the one Spirit into the one body. 

       Furthermore, tongues should not be seen here in Corinthians as associated with being a witness to receiving the Holy Spirit.  These Corinthian converts had already received the Holy Spirit at some time prior to Paul's letter to them. Paul could not have told them they had all been baptized by one Spirit into one body if they had not already received the Holy Spirit. Paul is here dealing with the assignment of spiritual gifts after having received the Holy Spirit. Tongues are one of those gifts. 

       As cited earlier, Paul says, “Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers” (14:22). Paul sees tongues being for the purpose of being a sign to unbelievers. This is exactly how they were used in the Pentecost and Cornelius events.  At Pentecost, tongues were a sign that led to thousands of unbelieving Jews becoming believers. Cornelius was not a believer until Peter preached the gospel to him. Tongues then confirmed to the skeptical Jews that had come with Peter that Gentiles were to be equal recipients with the Israelite's as to salvation through Christ.  More often than not, modern day tongue speaking is done by believers in the presence of other believers with the total absence of unbelievers.   

       It appears the ability to speak in a language not previously learned was a gift given to some first century Christians to serve as a means of turning unbelievers into believers. Those having this gift appear to have been misusing it at times and that is why Paul had to provide guidance as to how this gift was to be used. Tongues in the presence of unbelievers were seen of value only if they were translated into languages understood by those unbelievers hearing the tongues.  

Conclusion:

       All the evidence points to tongues speaking, as seen in the NT church, as the speaking of known human languages.  This being the case, modern day tongues speaking is not what was practiced in the NT church as it has been demonstrated that modern day tongues speaking does not correspond to any extant human language.   It’s been further demonstrated that the kind of tongues speaking presently practiced within the Christian community is no different than that practiced by some non-Christian peoples.     

       As we have discussed, it is evident that speaking in tongues is not a necessary witness to having received the Spirit of God.  Speaking in tongues is not what designates one as a Christian. By and large, Christians who speak in tongues or seek to speak in tongues agree with this assessment.  They don't believe you must speak in tongues to receive the Holy Spirit.  They believe they receive the Spirit of God upon repentance and accepting Christ as savior.  Their seeking of the Holy Spirit witnessed by speaking in tongues is considered an additional blessing enabling them to live a more profound Christian life.

       The problem is that the Scriptures don't teach any such thing. As previously discussed, there is nothing in Scripture teaching we should seek speaking in tongues as a sign of being given a greater presence of the Holy Spirit or being given a special blessing so we can live a better Christian life.  While there are exhortations in Scripture to stir up the Spirit of God, there is nothing in Scripture suggesting this is done or witnessed by speaking in tongues. 

       While it is true Paul exhorted the Corinthians to eagerly desire spiritual gifts of which tongues was one of them, the tongues Paul speaks of were extant human languages as I have already demonstrated.  What is practiced today is not extant human language. Therefore, the tongues spoken by tongues speakers today is not the spiritual gift of tongues seen in the NT.  

        This being the case, what happened to the gift of tongues Paul writes about to the Corinthian Christians?  As discussed, the tongues spoken by NT Christians were extant human languages spoken largely for the purpose of bringing unbelievers into the fold. This kind of tongues speaking does not appear to have been available since the days of NT Church.  What about the other spiritual gifts extant in the NT Church?  Have they been available since the first century?   In Part Five of this series, we will address this issue.

PART FIVE