Speaking in Tongues

Reflections on 1Corinthians 12-14

Spiritual Gifts…

1 Cor 12:1-2

Paul tells us everything we did back then, before we were Christians, had its roots in idolatry and worship of things that don’t speak; we have now been changed so let’s look at the now and learn about what has happened to us.

1 Cor 12:3

Don’t worry if the person next to you in a worship service is hard to understand; look at their lives and trust in God. If you know he loves Jesus as Lord, and his life attests to this, he can’t curse Jesus. Trust he is of God and what he is saying is good even if you don’t understand it .

1 Cor 12:4-7

And that’s the whole point, there will be many manifestations of the Spirit to build the church up.

1 Cor 12:8-10

Let God work in the church and trust Him.

1 Cor 12

One Body with Many Members…

1 Cor 12:27-31

In case you haven’t quite understood; here it is again; it’s the love of God and obedience to the teachings of Christ that matter and, if that is evident, then out of this love and obedience God will bring gifts.

The Way of Love…

1 Cor 13:1-13

The gifts are important, some more than others, but we must get it in proportion, it’s the heart they come from, the character that informs them, that is key. However spectacular the gifts are, if they do not come from a humble, quiet person steeped in forgiveness they are nothing. When Jesus returns we will find ourselves in the presence of the Perfect and all the gifts will have fulfilled their purpose, to build up the church. And then there will be no need for the gifts as we will have the substance the gifts point to; what we could only know in part we will know in person. It is important that we work on our character and pursue the gifts….

Prophecy and Tongues…

1 Cor 14:1

Want a definition of tongues? It does appear that all of the above is a build up to address a concern about tongues in the church. Look back to the beginning of the chapter and it has a theme: speaking.

This is what Paul is means about when he talks about tongues and forms the basis of his teaching…

1 Cor 14: 2 For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.

And prophesy? Well Paul tells us that it contrasts with tongues; you know what is being said.

1 Cor 14:3 On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their up-building and encouragement and consolation.

So that is back to chapter 12 verse 7 and 11 again. Prophecy ticks all the boxes and a prophet has a gift for this, which is why it is a higher gift, a gift for others whereas the gift of tongues builds up the speaker.

1 Cor 14:4 The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church.

Paul is a very generous man because he is speaking the words of a generous God. God wants the best so, if there are tongues in the gathering, there may be those who can interpret them as prophecy. This is a gift that some will have; I suggest it’s not an interpretation of one language to another, as by definition it is something spoken to God, not to men, which wouldn’t be true if some could understand it word for word. The interpretation will be from the heart of the interpreter, he hears and puts it into words (see v 2).

1 Cor 14:5

Again here comes a good definition of tongues in the text by contrasting it with prophecy, knowledge and revelation.

1 Cor 14: 6-7 Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? [7] If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? [8] And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?

Here is another definition of tongues…

1 Cor 14:9-13 So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air

It may be worth going back at this stage and underlining how many times Paul uses the idea of building up the church. He wants worship to be inclusive and to bear fruit in us and in those gathered. He so wants it to be inclusive he asks individuals to pray so that if they do pray to God in tongues that they will receive the interpretation themselves! This idea of being inclusive is the idea Paul is now going to lead off on. Paul is speaking about worship in a gathering where there will be believers and those who do not know Jesus as Lord.

Another definition of tongues coming up… Take a look back at the definitions already given first, this gift is quite strange and obviously needs some understanding in a public gathering.

1 Cor 14:14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful.

Here comes the practical advice…

1 Cor 14:15-16

So yes, you’ve guessed it, yet another definition of tongues has been written in the text.

1 Cor 14:17 For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up.

Paul makes it personal now, reinforcing the definition of tongues by contrast with normal speech…

1 Cor 14:18-19 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. [19] Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.

Paul brings some scripture into his teaching…

1 Cor 14:20-22

Signs can be negative as well as positive. If an unbeliever whose heart is driven by idolatry comes into your gathering and they only hear tongues then what they will know is they are separate from the gathering, they need a message that convicts them and brings them in.

I think it is made clear that the tongues spoken of here are different to the tongues spoken of in Acts 2 and 10 where the intention was that all who heard, heard the message. The tongues in Acts did not need an interpreter as they were a miracle for unbelievers, whereas the tongues spoken of here are for a different purpose and a gift to the believer for the believer himself.

1 Cor 14:23-25

Orderly Worship

So what would a public worship service look like in Corinth at the time of Paul?

1 Cor 14:26-33

This is pretty simple and good advice and for some of us a very different kind of meeting to the one we are used to especially in the type of gathering where only one or two people speak and the gathered flock sing set words and say amen to the prayers and readings of the leader.

Notice how interpretation of tongues isn’t haphazard, it is a gift that is exercised by an individual and can be called upon.If the leaders know that no one is able to interpret then they should ensure this is made clear to the gathering.

But then comes a seeming contradiction to 1 Corinthians 11:5 and 1 Corinthians 11:13 where it talks about women speaking in the church. Try reading it as if it were part of what has just been said and then see what you think.

1 Cor 14:33-35

Could it be that Paul is saying that there are those in authority in the meeting who can decide and question prophecy and interpretation and could it be that this gift is fluid but, because of the culture it would be wrong to allow a woman to take authority?

Whatever, it cannot be an absolute prohibition, as then there would be an internal contradiction within the letter.

To conclude, if tongues were merely the speaking of a prophecy in another foreign language this next bit doesn’t make sense…

1 Cor 14:39-40 So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. [40] But all things should be done decently and in order.

(1 Corinthians 12-14 ESV)

Paul has put tongues in their place and set limits to them.

Reflecting back on this piece of scripture, and what I have written, it could be countered that the gift of tongues could be a person speaking in a known language and not knowing it or tongues is not a human language but has meaning to the extent that it can be translated or interpreted. The tongue is a coded message that those who are gifted can interpret.(DA Carson, Showing the Spirit, Baker Book House Company 1987, pp.77-88)

If so, then the tongues I personally experience would not be scriptural. But my reading of the scripture stems from the conviction from the text that tongues are an outward expression of my spirit praying to God (14:5).

Silence may be another, or falling prostrate. Tongues for me are a way of praying without the mind, which, as with silence or kneeling, build me up and, in the context of public worship, need interpreting so that the unbeliever can be included.

The message seems to be that all should be in order and every church must know what God is calling them to in their cultural context. 12:29 says that not all will speak in tongues, but we must not go beyond the scriptures and forbid speaking in tongues.

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