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First Corinthians 12--Interpretation of tongues

Jun 22, 2017

The ninth and last spiritual gift that Paul lists is “and to another the interpretation of tongues” (1 Corinthians 12:10).

Keep in mind that these are spiritual gifts, not mere soulish talent as some believe. If a person learns another language, the soul is enlightened. But the gift of tongues and interpretation is something that comes through one’s spirit, not through one’s soul. So Paul said in 1 Corinthians 14:13, 14,

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 [of the soul] is unfruitful.

Anyone can use the soulish mind to formulate words in prayer. Such prayer is understandable, for the soul prays in its familiar language. But prayer that comes from one’s spirit leaves the soulish mind “unfruitful,” that is, without understanding. Prayer from one’s spiritual mind bypasses one’s soulish mind. The key is in knowing the origin of such prayer.

What Happened in Twenty Years?

On the day of Pentecost in Acts 2:3-8, the original 120 disciples in the upper room “began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.” The people hearing them speak were amazed, saying, “how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born?”

There were at least 17 different languages spoken that day, listed in Acts 2:9-11. All of them were earthly languages that were clearly understood by those attending the feast of Pentecost in Jerusalem. The gift of interpretation was not needed that day, nor is there any indication that this gift was given to anyone.

But twenty years later, the situation was quite different. Tongues needed interpretation, if not always, then at least some of the time. What happened? Did this change represent a progression into something greater or a degeneration on account of some flaw in the believers? Paul does not answer this directly, but he does tell us in 1 Corinthians 14:18, “I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all.” He gives no indication that unknown tongues are evil in any way. Whatever happened since the day of Pentecost had affected Paul as much as any other believer.

Further, Paul confessed that he prayed with his soul as well as with his spirit. 1 Corinthians 14:15 says, “I shall pray with the spirit and I shall pray with the mind also.” Paul’s spirit had a mind (or consciousness), but here Paul was referring to the mind of his soul. If one does not understand the difference between soul and spirit and that each has its own mind, then that person needs to go back and study the second chapter of Paul’s letter. Without such background, chapters 12 and 14 cannot be understood properly.

Tongues and Prophecy

As we will see later in our study of 1 Corinthians 14, Paul acknowledges this difference in his discussion about the difference between tongues and prophecy. Prophecy comes in one’s own (understandable) language and is essentially what occurred on the day of Pentecost. Tongues has become nearly synonymous with unknown tongues that need interpretation to be understandable. Hence, tongues plus interpretation is the equivalent of prophecy.

On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit created a new situation where the gift of tongues became normal in the church. Twenty years later, there was a new normal, in which tongues required interpretation to be the equivalent of the tongues spoken on the day of Pentecost. Paul’s greatest concern was that the people would remain in the dark, having no understanding of what the Spirit was saying to the church.

As we will see later, this was also the great concern of Isaiah, who prophesied of tongues and showed us the difference between tongues and prophecy. But 1 Corinthians 12:7-10 was only Paul’s introduction to the nine gifts of the Spirit. Before expounding on them in greater detail, he returned to his familiar theme of division and unity in the church.

Many Parts in the Whole

1 Corinthians 12:11, 12 says,

11 But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills. 12 For even as the body is one and yet has many members [parts], and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ.

Paul tells us first that these are gifts that are given by the Spirit “as He wills.” Secondly, these gifts are distributed among the people. One should not expect everyone to have the same gift or gifts. Paul’s point is that God has distributed these gifts in order to allow the body of Christ to work together in unity. Since it was normal for the believers to have a limited number of gifts, God ensured that we would all need each other. Only if all of the gifts operated within the body could we expect to meet all of the spiritual needs that might arise.

The divine plan, then, was designed to combat the spirit of denominationalism, wherein the people had no gifts, but had to depend upon a single leader to meet all of their needs. The spirit of denominationalism, first seen in the days of Moses at the first Pentecost at Mount Horeb, tries to solve the problem of disunity by submitting to one man. In such a system, the people depend upon one man to have all of the spiritual gifts.

But Paul shows that the gifts were distributed among the people themselves. Though Paul was the apostle to that particular church, he was not a denominational leader. He recognized the importance of spiritual gifts being distributed among the people, rather than concentrating all the gifts into one leader. Hence, whenever a spiritual gift was being manifested, the apostle himself—along with everyone else—was required to submit to the word or operation of the Spirit.

Unity does not require everyone to submit to one man (other than Jesus Christ Himself). Neither does unity require that everyone be the same, or have the same spiritual gift or gifts, or even that they all share the same understanding. Unity is a matter of working together, sharing together, and helping each other by discerning what is soulish and what is spiritual. Above all, as Paul says in chapter 13, unity is based on love, not uniformity.

Many Body Parts

1 Corinthians 12:13 says,

13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Ethnic and class distinctions are abolished in Christ. The dividing wall in the temple, which separated Jews from Greeks, has been destroyed in Christ. Later in this chapter, Paul deals with the division between men and women, which was also represented in the dividing wall of the temple in Jerusalem.

Baptism was also the same for all, “whether slaves or free.” Becoming a believer in Christ erased all class distinctions that men had imposed in society. Christianity in the first century was the great emancipator of slaves, treating all men and women as equals in Christ. With the church, God was forming a new nation with a new social order, a new culture, a new mindset, which went against the existing orders of men.

1 Corinthians 12:14-16 says,

14 For the body is not one member, but many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any less a part of the body.

Paul’s illustration comes in the context of spiritual gifts. Hands, feet, eyes, and ears all have their natural gifts and unique purposes in a body. If a man is blind, his ears and hands may supplement the man’s need to some extent, but they cannot truly replace his eyes. If a man has no feet, he might still walk on his hands, but his hands cannot truly replace his feet. All body parts are important in their own ways. So it is with parts of the body of Christ, so no one ought to feel left out by not having the gift that is given to another.

1 Corinthians 12:17, 18 says,

17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired.

Once again, Paul emphasizes the fact that gifts are given according to the will of God, “just as He desired,” or willed (Greek: thelo). There is a place for desiring the greater gifts, as Paul admits in 1 Corinthians 12:31, but we should remember that these are gifts that are given, not things that are to be demanded or taken without permission.

1 Corinthians 12:19, 20 says,

19 And if they were all one member, where would the body be? 20 But now there are many members, but one body.

Paul’s analogy is that everyone’s body is composed of many body parts, all of which have unique functions. Each part works with the other body parts, allowing the body as a whole to function properly and to meet its needs. Paul’s overriding concern was that each body part should recognize the importance of the other body parts. If any body part was malfunctioning, Paul wanted to be a healer, not a surgeon.


This is part 66 of a series titled "Studies in First Corinthians." To view all parts, click the link below.

Studies in First Corinthians


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Category: Teachings
Blog Author: Dr. Stephen Jones