Understanding the Gift of Tongues

From Quickverse stock: Disciples standing praying, tongues of flames, beams of light from above, and a dove descending

1 Corinthians 14
Let love be your highest goal! But you should also desire the special abilities the Spirit gives—especially the ability to prophesy. For if you have the ability to speak in tongues, you will be talking only to God, since people won’t be able to understand you. You will be speaking by the power of the Spirit, but it will all be mysterious. But one who prophesies strengthens others, encourages them, and comforts them. A person who speaks in tongues is strengthened personally, but one who speaks a word of prophecy strengthens the entire church.
I wish you could all speak in tongues, but even more I wish you could all prophesy. For prophecy is greater than speaking in tongues, unless someone interprets what you are saying so that the whole church will be strengthened.
Dear brothers and sisters, if I should come to you speaking in an unknown language, how would that help you? But if I bring you a revelation or some special knowledge or prophecy or teaching, that will be helpful. Even lifeless instruments like the flute or the harp must play the notes clearly, or no one will recognize the melody. And if the bugler doesn’t sound a clear call, how will the soldiers know they are being called to battle?
It’s the same for you. If you speak to people in words they don’t understand, how will they know what you are saying? You might as well be talking into empty space.
There are many different languages in the world, and every language has meaning. But if I don’t understand a language, I will be a foreigner to someone who speaks it, and the one who speaks it will be a foreigner to me. And the same is true for you. Since you are so eager to have the special abilities the Spirit gives, seek those that will strengthen the whole church.
So anyone who speaks in tongues should pray also for the ability to interpret what has been said. For if I pray in tongues, my spirit is praying, but I don’t understand what I am saying.
Well then, what shall I do? I will pray in the spirit,[e] and I will also pray in words I understand. I will sing in the spirit, and I will also sing in words I understand. For if you praise God only in the spirit, how can those who don’t understand you praise God along with you? How can they join you in giving thanks when they don’t understand what you are saying? You will be giving thanks very well, but it won’t strengthen the people who hear you.
I thank God that I speak in tongues more than any of you. But in a church meeting I would rather speak five understandable words to help others than ten thousand words in an unknown language.
Dear brothers and sisters, don’t be childish in your understanding of these things. Be innocent as babies when it comes to evil, but be mature in understanding matters of this kind. It is written in the Scriptures:
“I will speak to my own people through strange languages and through the lips of foreigners.But even then, they will not listen to me,” says the Lord. (Isaiah 28:11-12)
So you see that speaking in tongues is a sign, not for believers, but for unbelievers. Prophecy, however, is for the benefit of believers, not unbelievers. Even so, if unbelievers or people who don’t understand these things come into your church meeting and hear everyone speaking in an unknown language, they will think you are crazy. But if all of you are prophesying, and unbelievers or people who don’t understand these things come into your meeting, they will be convicted of sin and judged by what you say. As they listen, their secret thoughts will be exposed, and they will fall to their knees and worship God, declaring, “God is truly here among you.”
Well, my brothers and sisters, let’s summarize. When you meet together, one will sing, another will teach, another will tell some special revelation God has given, one will speak in tongues, and another will interpret what is said. But everything that is done must strengthen all of you.No more than two or three should speak in tongues. They must speak one at a time, and someone must interpret what they say. But if no one is present who can interpret, they must be silent in your church meeting and speak in tongues to God privately.”

There seems to be a misunderstanding and an improper use of the gift of tongues. Though I haven’t heard so much of it recently, there still is confusion about what it’s about and when to use it.

When we each accepted Christ, the Holy Spirit gave us each a spiritual gift. Each of us has (at least) one, and there’s not one of us who does not have one. Yet, unfortunately many times, once the gift is discovered, we don’t know how to use to glorify God and His Kingdom. Therefore, often times we either use it the way we have seen it used by others, we may lift ourselves up as ones who possess such a unique gift, or we think we are using it for God’s purpose, but actually are using it to damage Christ’s Body of fellow believers.

There was a similar situation in the days of the Apostle Paul when he ministered to and fathered the Corinthian church. First of all, in the times of the Corinthian church, we know that the locals were amused by educated speakers. In fact, the better somebody spoke, the more popular they were among the people. It’s like they gained celebrity-status.

1 Corinthians 14 tells us that the members were actually comparing tongues. So the gift of tongues were obviously seen as a big thing and got lots of attention. Plus, Corinth, being a central city for traders and foreigners, was a central city for many religious cults. And so often times these religious cults included not only praying to idols, but also, because these idols were mute, included a person who claimed to speak for the idol. So the gift of tongues was also a common religious experience among religious cults.

Keep in mind, one of the main themes in 1 Corinthians was orderly worship. Paul was responding to a letter sent to him asking about such situations, usually because somebody was being disorderly.

So according to Paul, the reasons we are given spiritual gifts is in order to use them for the common good. In the gospel of John, Jesus’ theme was loving our neighbor. Therefore, if we don’t use our gift(s) as a means of loving our neighbors, thus building them up and strengthening the Body of Christ, then we’re not using the gift correctly. The main reason God gives us spiritual gifts is to build up the Church. Any other reasons originate from pride.

Even today, many people take pride in the idea of speaking in tongues. They often think it is a sign of possessing the Holy Spirit, and if you’re not speaking in tongues, then you must not have the Holy Spirit. But we know this is untrue, for God doesn’t give everybody tongues. They get this idea from the Pentecost story in Acts, for when the Holy Spirit landed on each of them, they made such a commotion that thousands of God-fearing Jews from every nation ran to see what was happening, because “each one heard their own language being spoken.” But see how these different tongues are identified as the different languages spoken by the unbelievers in town? This gift was needed in order to witness to the unbelievers, and plead with them to repent and accept Jesus, and the result was the first mega-church. It was a gift given for the purpose of building up the church. If this had happened during the Black Plague instead, I am sure the spiritual gift would have been healing instead of tongues, for such was largely needed.

What are some of these other gifts of the spirit that may manifest within somebody? Chapter 12 lists some of them out. But once again, if the gift is not performed with of love, and for the sake of building up the Body of Christ, then it’s unfruitful and wasted.

One winter when I was at a youth retreat, a Pastor was talking about spiritual gifts. Suddenly, the fellow across the aisle from me began making some sounds that I’d never thought the human body could make. By the time he was done, others walked up to the stage and revealed to everyone the gifts they believed they had, but didn’t know who they could tell…basically, it turned into a time of people saying, “Hey, guess what I can do.” There was not an interpreter for the message of the young man whose mouth sounded like a race car’s engine, wo what was the point? Did it build up the Church any? Did it encourage anybody? (Sure, it encouraged people to stand up and boast of their own gifts, but what did it do to strengthen the Church as a whole?) If anything, it confused people. Also, when I spoke with the speaking minister from that night, he said his topic didn’t even have anything to do with the way it turned out, and he was actually frustrated that the fellow had done that.

Another time, my wife and I were visiting a church, and at one moment before the service, everybody was babbling in what they called languages of the Spirit. They may have been, but then the Pastor stepped forward, put his hands out, palms up, and started going, “a-buh- buh- buh- buh- buh- buh.” Huh? What the heck was that? It sounded more like he was preparing his voice for preaching, like those people who make weird sounds before they sing. But again, just a bunch of people making weird sounds, and nobody around to interpret what they were saying (if they were saying anything at all).

So what about this gift of tongues? How can it be used in a good way for the congregation? Paul lets us know in chapter 14 that if there’s not a translator, then the person who is speaking in tongues is speaking to God, not the Church. But the Church can’t understand what is being said, so if the person is uttering mysteries, but nobody can understand them, then nobody is being benefited by. Therefore, Paul says that he or she should pray for a translator to interpret these words to the others, or be quiet and pray to God in silence, so not to disturb or weaken others who are there to worship. In other words, if there’s not a translator, then shut up! Otherwise, you’re bringing glory to yourself, taking people’s focus off God and disturbing worship. If it doesn’t glorify and edify the Church, then keep it to yourself. However if there is a translator present, then those who are speaking in tongues, at most three at a time, should speak, and this person should translate what is being said in order for the congregation to benefit from what the Lord is saying through this person.

Now let’s say that there is an interpreter of the tongue being spoken. How do we know if this message is from God or not, for, we don’t want to obey the message if it is not from God, right? Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 11:14 that the enemy often disguises himself as an angel of light, for he once was such. Satan does this in order to confuse and hopefully harm the lives of those of us who follow his enemy. So it should not be surprising to hear that he too can give spiritual gifts for his purpose, which would be in order to deter the Church (and he will do so later on, as it’s mentioned in Revelation 13:13-14a). Therefore, when a spiritual gift is discovered, just as all spirits, it needs to be tested to see if it is in fact from God. Even the Old Testament tells us ways of testing whether a gift is from God or not. For example, if a prophesy comes true, then it is from God. But if it doesn’t come to pass, then it’s not from God. But in order to know this, all who hear it need to be patient and wait for the time to come. So coming back to the gift of tongues, if a person blurts something out in a tongue, but the interpreter translates it as a curse against God, then the source of that tongue is not from God, for no spirit from God can or will curse Him. Likewise, if the spirit is from another source, it cannot say, “Jesus is Lord.” I think it’s also important to test it in comparison to the rest of Scripture. If it doesn’t compare with the rest of what’s revealed in Scripture (the Bible), then there’s a high chance that it’s not from God.

So when it comes to members of a congregation with the gift of tongues, Paul’s instruction of orderly worship says that they should keep silent and pray by themselves to the Lord. Paul also suggests that they should pray for an interpreter, or that they can understand what is being said, for if this message is from God, then it would be good for the rest of the Body to know what He is trying to tell us through them.


  1. Ephesians 1:13–“When you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and when you believed in Him, you were also sealed with the promised Holy Spirit”. The Bible says the Holy Spirit dwells within you once you’re saved, not sometime later on, nor does it say that you must learn how to speak in tongues first–as mentioned, we all have different gifts, and may we use them to point folks to God and His coming kingdom.

    • Actually, does the Bible teach that one receives the Gift of the Holy Spirit when one is converted. Let me just re-quote the verse you quoted:

      Ephesian 1:13-14:

      “In whom ye also trusted, after ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after ye believed (pisteusantes), ye were sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise, Which is (estin) the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of his glory.”

      1. The Greek Aorist Participle, “pisteusantes” in this text refers to action previous to the main verb. This means that the translation above is correct when it says “after” ye believed, the Ephesians were sealed with the Holy Spirit.

      2. This fits with exactly with Paul’s Practice in Acts 19: (Suggesting that Paul would not teach the opposite of his practice. That would be hypocritical)

      -He ensured the Ephesians were saved.
      -He practiced believer’s baptism.
      -“Afterwards”, he laid hands on them to receive the Holy Spirit.


        • (Food for thought!)

          What do you think happens to a person who gets born again? Does not the Holy Spirit of God come to live inside that person who has believed on Jesus Christ as their Savior? If this is so, then how could it be that those disciples in Acts 19, that Paul was talking with, receive the Holy Spirit which they should have already had…if they indeed were already believers?

          Thanks for your input.

          • Hey Curt,
            Thanks for your comment on the post about whether or not God forgives all sins, and for your comment here.

            The disciples in Acts 19 said that they’d received the baptism of John the Baptist, not the baptism of Christ in the name of the Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). That’s why they never received the Holy Spirit.

            Now, it needs to also be understood that there’s no set sequence for when somebody receives the Holy Spirit. I put together some notes on this once (view it here). I think you’ll find it interesting.

  2. I read with interest your small article, for I do not believe it represents the clear Scriptural understanding of speaking in tongues. Yes, I know what you say is popular among many evangelicals, but I do not believe it represents a consistent hermeneutic on the topic.

    I am not much interested in going back and forth on your blog concerning this topic, but I would be more than interested in an online debate on the topic.


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