THE GIFT OF TONGUES
by R H Johnston
Tongues will cease, but this has not yet happened. 1 Cor 13:8 Along with other gifts, tongues will eventually cease. Some people claim that this took place when the last of the twelve apostles died. Such people claim that the "perfect", (1 Cor 13:10) refers to the "completed canon of scripture", and that this represents the perfection of our knowledge.
Such an interpretation (see also the appendix) cannot be sustained: Firstly, scripture itself makes no reference to such a definitive "completion of the canon of scripture" (Note that Rev 22:18-19 can be legitimately be applied only to the book of Revelation).
Secondly 1 Cor 13:12 shows how 1 Cor 13:9-10 are to be correctly interpreted - "when I know as I am known". This is certainly not true yet: it is obvious that when every Christian has this sort of knowledge, being told about it by others in prophecies will be redundant. He will need to know nothing more. Truly the perfect knowledge will have come and there will be no further need for prophecy.
Thirdly such a view fails to see that the gift of tongues has nothing to do with the definition of knowledge about God. Even if such people were right in saying that prophecies and knowledge had ended with the completion of the New Testament, this could not affect tongues. Tongues are prayer to God (1 Cor 14:2), and are not for the purpose of providing men with propositional revelation about God. Clearly the time when tongues will pass away is when we shall see God face to face (1 Cor 13:12: who can claim this is true now?).
With such perfected face to face knowledge we shall understand God Himself well enough not to have to express our prayers to God in the form of mysteries (1 Cor 14:2). Seeing God face to face, the limitations of language imposed by the confusion at Babel (Gen 11) will have come to an end, communication with God will have been perfected. This clearly remains in the future, since we do not yet know how to pray as we ought (Romans 8:26), but still see in a mirror dimly (1 Cor 13:12).
Faith, hope and love will remain features for all eternity (1 Cor 13:13), because these provide the basis for our continuing relationship with God. Instruction in handling spiritual gifts in the church.
Paul having laid out the principles that the gifts are for the purpose of building the church, rather as scaffolding is used during the construction of a building, he then goes on to show how those gifts can be used properly and in safety.
They constitute a statement of good building practice: the requirements are however mandatory (1 Cor 14:37-38). This is similar to the statutorily backed advice issued by the Health and Safety Executive in Britain for the conduct of building operations.
Genuineness of tongues never questioned Throughout 1 Cor 14, the genuineness of non understandable tongues is taken for granted, and Paul never suggests that the tongues being used at Corinth might not be genuine.
Paul never even mentions the possibility of counterfeits! However, the code of practice laid down by Paul for the use of tongues is fully sufficient to ensure that any tongues which have an improper origin will be eliminated. Paul's approach should continue to be used in the church today: Paul specifically prohibits the prohibition of speaking in tongues (1 Cor 14:39).
Many churches disobey scripture by prohibiting any use of tongues in their meetings: their purported reason, that the tongues are not genuine, cannot be justified from scripture.
Normal church tongues are not understandable 1 Cor 14:2 acknowledges that a person speaking in tongues is speaking to God, that he speaks mysteries that no-one understands. 1 Cor 14:16 amplifies this statement, showing also that the content is thanksgiving.
The tongues used in the church differ from those at Pentecost. The tongues at Pentecost glorified God in an understandable way, were languages which could be understood directly by men, and were spoken for men's benefit. By contrast, the speakers of tongues in the church are not directly understood by any one present, and they utter mysteries as prayer and thanksgiving towards God. Tongues is prayer, and spiritually strengthens the tongue speaker Paul expresses his preference for prophecy over tongues because prophecy has the power to edify more people (1 Cor 14:1-5).
1 Cor 14:3-4 shows that the purpose of prophecy is to edify the church, while the purpose of tongues is to edify (= build up, strengthen) the speaker himself. Clearly, unlike those at Pentecost, these tongues have nothing whatever to do with communication with men. Rather, the purpose of tongues, being prayer (1 Cor 14:2), is to strengthen the spirit of the believer, and so equip him for spiritual work. Just as is the case when praying in normal language, it is vitally important that the praying should be inspired by the Holy Spirit (Eph 6:18; Jude 1:20), and not be mechanical or the heaping up of empty phrases (Matt 6:7). Ideally, in a church context, the use of the tongue should ultimately lead to revelation which can be made known to all (1 Cor 14:13-16).
Prophecy better than tongues for building the church, unless interpreted (1 Cor 14:5-12) As far as the church is concerned, prophecy is more use for edifying unless the tongue is interpreted (1 Cor 14:5), when it then has equivalent edification value to a prophecy. It should be noted that given that tongues are prayers (1 Cor 14:2) or thanksgivings (1 Cor 14:16), it would normally be expected that the interpretation would be in the same form, not a prophecy directed towards men.
As far as church edification is concerned, 1 Cor 14:9 shows that the tongue without interpretation simply runs uselessly into the air. (The reader should note in passing the parallel uselessness of lifeless mechanical music which does not clearly convey a pre-defined meaning 1 Cor 14:7-8: this is relevant for "church music".)
There are many sorts of sounds (1 Cor 14:10: a different word from "languages" used elsewhere), and none is without meaning but unless the language (1 Cor 14:11) is understood by the hearer it is of no help to him. Hence, Paul says, if believers are zealous for spiritual gifts, the exercise of prophecy is preferable as it builds up the church (1 Cor 14:12). Tongue speakers should seek the gift of interpreting their own tongues Because the edification value is increased by interpretation, 1 Cor 14:13 commands tongue speakers to pray for the power to interpret. The Greek implies that he should pray to be able to interpret it himself. Thus an obligation is being placed upon the tongue speaker to seek to be able to interpret his own utterances.
A tongue speaker's spirit prays but his mind remains fallow while he speaks in tongues (1 Cor 14:14). Paul clearly does not regard it as desirable that this unfruitfulness of mind in the tongue speaker should continue (1 Cor 14:15). The reason for a tongue speaker to seek self interpretation is in order that the tongue speaker's own mind should not remain fallow.
Tongues should never be used as a means to develop or enhance the potentially dangerous mind shut-off, which provides the devil with an opportunity for implanting delusive visions. Rather, if tongues are being used properly and the person is able to interpret, the person's mind will be receiving from God the interpretation of his tongue while his spirit prays in tongues, so that both the spirit and mind of the speaker become edified (1 Cor 14:15). (It would seem desirable that this way of using the gift should be the norm for the speaker, whether he uses his tongues in public or only privately.)
Then the speaker can follow his tongue by its interpretation and so edify the other hearers, who otherwise cannot join in their Amens to back up the tongue speaker's prayer (1 Cor 14:16-17). Paul's own extensive use of tongues, privately (1 Cor 14:18-19) Paul says that he speaks more in tongues than anybody at Corinth - but much prefers to use understood language in church (1 Cor 14:18-19).
This is not, as sometimes claimed, a reference his natural linguistic ability, being used in evangelism. The immediately preceding context, especially his use of the personal pronoun I in 1 Cor 14:14-15, shows that he writing about his own use of unknown languages, which he used with the associated interpretation, in the manner he commended to the Corinthians.
In 1 Cor 14:19 Paul is quite specific that the ten thousand words he might speak in a tongue would not be understood by anybody present. If Paul used tongues so extensively, where did Paul use his extensive gift of tongues?
If it is not in church (1 Cor 14:19), and we have proved that they cannot have been used evangelistically, it must be that Paul uses this gift in his private praying. This is probably what empowered Paul's extensive prayer life and intercessory ministry, to which he repeatedly makes reference in his correspondence (Romans 1:9; Romans 10:1; 2 Cor 5:10; 2 Cor 13:7; Eph 1:6; Phil 1:4,9; Col 1:3,9; 1 Thess 1:2; 1 Thess 3:10; 1 Thess 5:23; 2 Thess 1:11; 2 Tim 1:3; 2 Tim 4:16; Philemon 1:4). Paul has made it clear that tongues strengthens the one who prays (1 Cor 14:2), and that through praying in tongues he receives the understanding of how to pray with his mind (1 Cor 14:13-15).
The effectiveness of Paul's ministry shows that the gift of tongues is certainly not to be despised, as it is an important component in the prayer life of the believer. The need for mature thinking: spiritual gifts are to build church
The Corinthians were not mature in their thinking about using spiritual gifts (1 Cor 14:20), as the gifts were not being used in a way that will build the church, but rather destroy it. As strange tongues are a sign to unbelievers of their rejection by God (1 Cor 14:21-22), if everyone speaks in tongues at once (clearly this was a problem at Corinth) unbelievers and outsiders will be put off becoming Christians because they will say that Christians are mad (1 Cor 14:23).
These verses therefore clearly prohibit the public use of tongues by everybody simultaneously. By contrast the use of prophecy discloses the heart of the unbeliever (1 Cor 14:24-25). Three stages are identified: he is convicted by all he hears, judged or called to account by all he hears, and the hidden things of his heart are disclosed (at least to himself).
Just how explicit these revelations are is not stated, but they are sufficient to bring the unbeliever to worship God and declare that God is really in His church. But it should be noted that biblical prophecy is rarely explicit as regards "background" items used to identify the person addressed. (This contrasts with the high detail of mediumistic revelations.)
The reason for this is that if background items are given too explicitly (and are correct), then it becomes very difficult for the hearer to test objectively the "unknown" part of the prophecy.
Moreover the Holy Spirit can bring true conviction without such pressure. Managing the church meeting Everyone should bring something to the meeting, those things which will build up other people (1 Cor 14:26).
Managing tongues 1 Cor 14:27 regulates the use of tongues in a meeting. There are to be only two or three tongues, in turn, apparently then to be followed by a single interpretation. On the face of it this appears to limit the total number of tongues in the meeting as a whole, but this is not the only possibility.
It may be rather saying that once at most two or three tongues have been given, then an interpretation of those tongues must be given before the meeting continues. This latter interpretation of the injunction is much more probable, since Paul's objective is not to limit the use of spiritual gifts (as is clear from 1 Cor 14:26,31), but to ensure that every manifestation of tongues is properly interpreted. (A similar question arises in connection with the limitation on prophecies (1 Cor 14:29).)
In the absence of someone able to interpret, tongues are not to be used aloud (1 Cor 14:28). Clearly Paul envisaged that people would know which people in the meeting could do this. Thus some people were known to be able to interpret tongues, and to be able to do it on every occasion that tongues is used. Managing prophecies In a similar way to the management of tongues, the number of consecutive prophecies is to be limited to two or three, and those prophecies are then to be tested (1 Cor 14:29). 1 Cor 14:31 says that all may prophesy one by one in the meeting, which makes it improbable that Paul is making a limitation on the total number of prophecies in a meeting.
What seems to be in view is that two or three prophecies are given one after another, all of which relate to the same topic. This makes sense of 1 Cor 14:30: if someone else gets an amplifying or modifying revelation while the first prophet is speaking, the first speaker must give way to him. (The general atmosphere of orderliness in the meeting is emphasized by the phrase "sitting by".)
The meeting must then pause while this group of prophecies have then to be weighed (i.e. tested) before the meeting continues. Further prophecies (1 Cor 14:31) can be given later in the same meeting, but after each group of prophecies, the same assessment process must take place. This ensures that everybody is allowed to make their God-given contribution, but in a way which allows the church to assess each contribution while they still remember the details, and each person to be built up by them.
Testing prophecy Weighing prophecies appears to be generally completely misunderstood today. Most people think it just means "receiving" what has been said. In fact the purpose is to test the prophecy, to keep whatever is good and to firmly reject what is bad, as commanded explicitly in 1 Thess 5:19-22. This should be done by open discussion, with detailed consideration of the arguments, with comparison with scripture and earlier revelations (compare, for example, Acts 11:1-18; Acts 15:1-29).
All prophecy is imperfect (1 Cor 13:9) and the discussion process is important in identifying its deficiencies, and indeed whether it is a God-given message at all. The proper exercise of this process will in itself tend to purify the meeting of spurious prophecy.
The process of discussion of the prophecies has the effect of making everyone think about them, and is an important part of making sure that the church does not miss the importance of what God is saying.
The testing should not only be of what is said, but also of the spirit of the prophet himself, and how he reacts to the discussion process. The wisdom from above has the attributes in James 3:17-18, while worldly or devilish wisdom will reveal itself by its reactions to any criticism (James 3:14-16). 1 Cor 14:30 also shows that the general church practice of allowing preachers to continue without interruption, and without subsequent discussion of what they have said is not scriptural. All may contribute, one by one 1 Cor 14:31 says that all can prophesy one by one, but subject to the "continuous assessment" process for prophecies already noted. This verse shows clearly that Paul does not intend to limit the total number of prophecies in a meeting to two or three: that would be a mistake, as the devil has only to stir up that number of rubbish prophecies to prevent God's true word being brought by others.
We should however be careful to consider whether our contribution will be helpful to teach and encourage others or best left until another occasion (1 Cor 14:31). True spirituality is under total conscious control: no confusion All God's true prophets are always in control of themselves (1 Cor 14:32).
There is no place for any kind of compulsive behavior (such is demonic) or any other manifestations which are not under the conscious control of the Christian concerned. Any one who exhibits any manifestation and says they could not help their behavior proves they were not operating under the Holy Spirit. Prophets operate best in a disciplined meeting where everyone is fully paying attention to what is going on, and where only one thing happens at a time.
This orderliness is also revealed by the fact that Paul expects the church to be sitting in an orderly way during the proceedings (1 Cor 14:30), and everyone present is under the conscious control of their own spirit.
The underlying principle is that because God is not the author of confusion, there should be no confusion (1 Cor 14:33), with everything done decently and in order (1 Cor 14:40). Where there is confusion, we may be sure that an alien spirit is operating. This should be dealt with firmly by those with responsibility to lead the meeting. An example of conduct causing confusion.
One practice which was making the meeting disorderly at Corinth was the attitude of some of the women (1 Cor 14:34-35), who were creating noise during the meeting. (NB. This is not a blanket prohibition of women taking part in the meeting, as is clear from the permission they have to prophesy (1 Cor 11:5).)
Women chattering amongst themselves, or calling out questions to husbands during the meeting (1 Cor 14:35) was not to be permitted because of the general air of confusion this caused (as it does even to this day in some Jewish synagogues). (We note in passing, that this passage may suggest that at Corinth the men and women sat separately). True spirituality acknowledges the rightness of these instructions. True spirituality is shown by acknowledging the rightness of these instructions given by Paul by command of the Lord (1 Cor 14:36-38). Those who rebel against these commands show they are "not recognized" (i.e. that they are not operating by God's Holy Spirit).
A similar statement had been previously made to the Corinthians concerning other issues (1 Cor 11:17-19). Being "not recognized" means that such people are to be avoided since they do not hold to the teachings given by God (2 Thess 3:6, with 2 Thess 2:15). Prophecy preferred but tongues not banned Although prophecy is preferred in church meetings, tongues must not be forbidden (1 Cor 14:39), but everything should be done decently and in order.
This attitude is interesting: Paul knew some would be tempted to ban the public use of tongues entirely, as being much the easiest option. Paul is determined that the Spirit should not be quenched (1 Thess 5:19): he recognizes the gift of unrecognizable languages as genuinely from God and knows personally just how useful it is. If tongues is banned in public, its use will soon die out in private, and intercession will wither.