Interpreting messages in tongues

Unedifying Uninterpreted Tongues (1 Cor 14:6–12)

Uninterpreted tongues have no power to convey meaning, and thus no power to edify others (1 Cor 14:6–12). Paul asks the obvious question, if I came talking in tongues, “How would that help you?” Instead, he offers helpful “revelation or some kind of knowledge or prophecy or teaching” ( 1 Cor 14:6). He uses the example from music, where you must “recognize the melody,” or military bugle calls, which require “a clear call” so soldiers know their battle orders ( 1 Cor 14:7–8). The same for languages; if understanding doesn’t happen, edification is impossible ( 1 Cor 14:9–12).

Stipulations for Tongues-Speakers (14:13–20)

Verification of Available Interpretation (1 Cor 14:13–17)

The one who gives a message in tongues has a responsibility to make sure understanding occurs so edification can occur (1 Cor 14:13–17). Rather than forbid tongues, Paul says, “Anyone who speaks in tongues should also pray for the ability to interpret what has been said” (1 Cor 14:13). This isn’t only to edify the whole congregation but even to make the gift more profitable to the speaker: “If I pray in tongues, my spirit is praying, but I don’t understand what I am saying” (1 Cor 14:14). So Paul prescribes mixing two languages for anyone exercising the gift of tongues—none of this “I just couldn’t stop speaking in tongues” business: I will ask for the gift of interpreting tongues in our own language (1 Cor 14:14). Even with that, “I will pray in the spirit, and I will also pray in words I can understand. I will sing in the spirit, and I will also sing in words I understanding” (1 Cor 14:15). No one is a worshiping island.

Private versus Public Use of Tongues (1 Cor 14:18–19)

One may use tongues without interpretation in private, but public messages in tongues should always be interpreted (1 Cor 14:18–19)

Far from concluding that tongues should be dropped from the arsenal of spiritual gifts, Paul said, “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than any of you” (1 Cor 14:18). Clearly this would be Paul claiming frequent exercise of private glossolalia, where the Spirit pours out words that Paul himself couldn’t necessarily formulate intellectually, although his own spirit would be resonating with the prayer. Charismatics have come to call this a personal “prayer language,” an apt label. “But in a church meeting, I would rather speak five understandable words … than a thousand words in an unknown language,” because it’s only the understanding that allows words “to help others” (1 Cor 14:19, cf. 1 Cor 14:4, 21–22).

Only understanding allows words “to help others.”

Carson concludes: “Whatever the place for profound, personal experience and corporate emotional experience, the assembled church is a place for intelligibility. Our God is a thinking, speaking God; and if we will know him, we must learn to think his thoughts after him.”1D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12–14 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1987), 106.

Childish Use of Tongues (1 Cor 14:20)

Don’t be babies with the practice of speaking in tongues without assuring the rest of the congregation an interpretation (1 Cor 14:20). Paul says it’s childish to ignore the concern for edifying others. He refers not to the praiseworthy child-like faith that Jesus praised (Matt 10:14–15; 18:3; Luke 18:16–17; 1 Pet 2:2), but to brat-like selfishness. This probably grew out of the immaturity that he’d already noted in the Corinthian congregation (1 Cor 3:1–2, see also Eph 4:14; Heb 5:12–13; 6:1).


Author: Dale A. Brueggemann

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