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The Gift of Tongues--Part 1

Jun 11, 2010

In the second chapter of Acts, when the day of Pentecost was historically fulfilled, the 120 disciples in the upper room received the Holy Spirit and also the gift of tongues. We read in verse 4,

"And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance."

These tongues were understood by the foreigners in Jerusalem, who said in verse 8,

"And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born?"

These were real languages. Apparently, no one had been given the gift of UNKNOWN tongues, or if so, it was not mentioned. Twenty years later, however, when Paul discusses this topic in his epistles, we find the landscape considerably altered. Paul then differentiates between tongues and prophecy, writing in 1 Cor. 14:5,

"Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy; and greater is one who prophesies than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may receive edifying."

Here we see that "tongues" means a language that the church does not understand. It must be interpreted in order to be edifying to the church. Paul also implies (by the contrast) that prophecy is something understood by the people without the need for interpretation. These are distinctions that do not appear in the story of Acts 2, but by Paul's description it is plain that the 120 disciples at Pentecost were prophesying, rather than speaking in the unknown tongues that were taking place in the church twenty years later.

For this reason Peter says Joel 2:28, saying, "your young men and your daughters shall prophesy," (Acts 2:17) and again in verse 18, "I will in those days pour forth of My Spirit, and they shall prophesy."

So what happened after Pentecost, which brought about the unknown tongue, which needed interpretation? What is the purpose of the unknown tongue? Why is prophecy "greater" than the unknown tongue? Paul does not ban the unknown tongue, but he prefers that people would prophesy. Why?

To give the FULL perspective from Paul's viewpoint, we should understand that the gifts of the Spirit in general were helpful tools, but of greater importance was the fruit of the Spirit. For this reason, after discussing the gifts in 1 Cor. 12, Paul ends with verse 31,

"But earnestly desire the greater gifts. And I show you a still more excellent way."

What follows is the great "Love Chapter" in 1 Cor. 13. Love is, of course, the first and primary fruit of the Spirit in the list (Gal. 5:22, 23). Paul is saying that if we merely seek the gifts--even the "greater" gifts--we do not really have the right sense of priority in our lives. The gifts are good, but without the fruit (Love in particular) we are nothing. Paul is not discouraging people from seeking the gifts of the Spirit; he is putting the gifts into proper perspective.

In the end, when we stand before God and give an account of ourselves, God will not ask us how many gifts of the Spirit we had. We will be evaluated according to our fruit. In farming, tools are important, but they are not an end in themselves. The purpose of tools is to bring forth more fruit than is possible without the tools. The goal is to be fruitful, not full of tools.

So it is with this understanding that Paul continues his discussion on the gifts of the Spirit and on "tongues and prophecy" in particular. 1 Cor. 14:13-15 says,

(13) Therefore, let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret. (14) For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. (15) What is the outcome then? I shall pray with the spirit and I shall pray with the mind also; I shall sing with the spirit, and I shall sing with the mind also.

The word translated "mind" is nous, which is translated "understanding" seven times and "mind" seventeen times in the KJV. Paul is making the contrast between understanding and not understanding the words of the prayer. And since Paul himself could pray either with understanding or not, it is clear that Paul himself did both. In fact, he says in verses 18 and 19,

(18) I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all. (19) However, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind, that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue.

So there is a clear difference between one's personal use of tongues and the use of tongues in a group setting (the church gathering). Paul does not ban tongues in the group setting, but he does carefully regulate its use.

(27) If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and let one interpret; (28) but if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself [i.e., silently] and to God.

Not many Pentecostal or Charismatic groups actually follow these instructions today. Paul then turns to the subject of prophecy, saying,

(29) And let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment [discern the validity of the prophecy]. (30) But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, let the first keep silent. (31) For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn, and all may be exhorted.

In such a setting, prophecy was spoken in the language of the people, allowing them to "learn" and "be exhorted." Yet they were also responsible to discern the validity and had the right to question it and discuss it. It appears from verse 30 that the one prophesying was standing, in order that the others would recognize his turn to speak; but if revelation came to one who was seated, the first ought to sit down and listen.

In other words, prophecy is not generally something that spews out of the prophet uncontrollably. "The spirits of prophets are subject to prophets" (vs. 32). The spirit of the prophet does not simply "take over" the prophet. "For God is not a God of confusion but of peace" (vs. 33). 

Paul then gives his final conclusion in 1 Cor. 14:39 and 40,

(39) Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues. (40) But let all things be done properly and in an orderly manner.

Next time I will say more about 1 Cor. 14:21-25, where Paul quotes Isaiah to give us an Old Testament insight as to the purpose of tongues and prophecy. In fact, this is Paul's source material in understanding the difference between tongues and prophecy. So we will discuss this next time.


This is the first part of a series titled "The Gift of Tongues." To view all parts, click the link below.

The Gift of Tongues


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