Speaking in Tongues

Speaking in Tongues

J. M. Davies

Paul’s Attitude to it—1 Corinthians 14:1-25

Twice in the Epistle to the Corinthians the Apostle says, “Be ye followers of me.” The first applies to the example set by him in his service while at Corinth and in his attitude to division and sectarian strife (4:15). He was not the head of a party, or the leader of a faction. The second relates to the way he had exercised his liberty as detailed in chapter 9 in contrast to the way in which the Israelites had behaved in the wilderness, and as some were evidently doing at Corinth (11:1). Although he does not specifically appeal to them to follow his example in the way he viewed the gift of tongues and its exercise, it is quite evident that the personal references in the chapter are introduced for that purpose. The attitude of the Apostle and that of the Corinthians to the exercise of the gift was very different. They were poles apart. The contrast is very marked. Had they considered the gift in the same light as the Apostle did there would not have been the need for the exhortations in the chapter. Their failure called for the correction.

They were urged to covet earnestly the better gifts (12:31); to desire spiritual gifts, but rather that of prophesying (14:1). He exhorts them to seek to excel to the edifying of the Church (14:12). And while speaking in tongues was not to be prohibited, they were to covet to prophesy (14:39). The words of verse 23 and verses 33-34 indicate that there was much confusion in their gatherings, with many speaking at the same time and women taking part also. They were severely reprimanded and plainly told that God is not the author of such confusion, and that “as in all the assemblies of the saints women were to keep silence.”

The Corinthians were over-estimating the importance and value of the gift, and failed to honour the Lord in the exercise of it. The Apostle sets a three-fold limitation upon it. He shows that its value was limited in contrast to that of prophesying; that as a sign gift its purpose was limited to them that believe not; and that its exercise was to be within well defined limitations in the assembly.

The word “tongue” is used in a two fold way in the chapter. In verse 9 it refers to the physical member, as elsewhere in the New Testament, such as James 3:5. But the other references are concerned with the exercise of the gift, that is, speaking with a tongue or in tongues, therefore in a language. In the King James version the word “unknown” is introduced, but the fact that it is printed in italics shows that it is not in the text. However, even though the word “unknown” is not in the text it serves a definite purpose. The tongues spoken were unknown to those assembled, hence the need for an interpreter, that is, one who possessed the gift of interpretation. The word “unknown” must not be understood as referring to some unspoken language. This is clear from verse 10 where the Apostle says that no voice is without signification, or meaning, or is unintelligible, a mere gibberish.

Paul’s attitude to the gift and its exercise is crystallized in the verses where he uses the personal pronoun:

1. “I thank God that I speak with tongues more than ye all” (v. 18). Paul therefore possessed the gift and exercised it. He could not be charged with being envious of them. The Apostle’s words do not mean that he could speak in more languages than they all, or that he was more multilingual than they. He is referring to tongues in the charismatic use of the word.

2. “I would that ye all spoke with tongues” (v. 5). The words are almost an echo of those of Moses in the wilderness. “Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets” (Num. 11:29). Paul had no objection to them speaking in tongues, but he would rather that they prophesied.

3. “If I know not the meaning of the voice I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me” (v. 11). The three-fold purpose of ministry mentioned in verse 3: edification, exhortation and comfort, would seem to be suggested in the illustrations used in verses 7-9. A harmonious distinction of sounds is essential if the musical accompaniment is to be to comfort. The trumpet will fail to awaken or stir the heart to action if it fails to sound the alarm. And intelligible speech is an absolute necessity if the message is to be understood and to minister edification. If the language used is not known then the speaker and the hearers will be barbarians to each other.

4. “Wherefore let him that prayeth in a tongue pray that he may interpret. FOR if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful.” There could be no abiding fruit or blessing from that exercise. It would be a waste of time and energy (vs. 13-14), as without understanding there can be no edification, either to the one praying or to those who hear. “The other is not edified” (v. 17). In the light of this the words of verse 4. “He edifieth himself,” are only true if the one praying in a tongue understood what he was saying.

5. “I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the understanding also” (v. 15). Paul states emphatically that he would not pray, praise or give thanks in a tongue unless he understood what he said. This is the very evident meaning of verses 1415. “What is it then?” or what am I to conclude? or what course am I to follow? “I will pray…with the understanding also.” The word “spirit” in each case refers to his own spirit, and not to the Holy Spirit. The Apostle is not suggesting as some think that he prayed in spirit, that is in a tongue at times, and with the understanding or in a language he was familiar with at other times. On the contrary the words establish that he would not pray in a tongue unless he understood and could interpret what he said. In this way he enforces by his own example the exhortation of verse 13, “Let him pray that he may interpret.”

6. “Yet in the assembly I would rather speak five words with the understanding that I might teach others also, than ten thousand in a tongue” (v. 19). The relative value of tongues could hardly be more pointedly stated. He would prefer to speak five words such as, “Christ died for the ungodly,” or “By grace are ye saved,” than 10,000 in a tongue. To occupy time to speak so many words in a tongue which was not understood would be worse than futile. It would be an insult and an affront to the assembled company.

7. “If I come to you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you either by revelation or by knowledge, or by prophesying or by doctrine?” (v. 6). Revelation was essential to prophesying and knowledge to teaching. Thus speaking in a tongue would only be to profit if thereby he brought a revelation or knowledge referred to as mysteries in verse 2.

Let the advocates of the present Glossolalia movement and all those who profess to speak in tongues test their attitude to the exercise of the gift by comparing it with that of the Apostle. Their behaviour is more Corinthian than apostolic.

“Covet earnestly the better gifts.” “Seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the Church.” And, “Be not children in understanding.” In understanding be men, be mature, be fully grown. Cease to be children in your thinking and behaviour in all things except malice. In malice be infants, be babes (v. 20).