In our Seek the Gifts series on the gifts of the Spirit, we have been talking about the subcategory in the spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 of the utterance gifts. We spoke about the gift of prophecy in our last post.
In part 1 of our study on the gifts of speaking in tongues and interpretation, I want to focus on a broader understanding of speaking in tongues in the New Testament, the purposes of speaking in tongues, and the functions of speaking in tongues. This will help us in our study of Paul’s guidance in 1 Corinthians 14.
Speaking in tongues is one of the most controversial New Testament teachings in the Church today. Many in the Christian community have been critical of those who practice this gift, and their theology and understanding of what the Scriptures say about it.
I will partially address some of those concerns, but this post gives an introductory background to speaking in tongues before we get into how Paul talks about it in a public service as a gift of the Spirit.
Speaking in Tongues in the New Testament
Mark talks about speaking in tongues at the end of his Gospel (Mark 16:17). Acts shows that on the Day of Pentecost, the apostles received baptism in the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues (Acts 2:1-13).
Speaking in tongues appears two more times in Acts. When Peter preaches to the Gentile house of Cornelius, they speak in tongues, and that gives Peter evidence they believe in Christ and the Jewish believers should baptize them (Acts 10:44-48).
When Paul visits the Ephesian elders who have not even heard of the Holy Spirit, he preaches to them and they receive the baptism in the Holy Spirit by speaking in tongues (Acts 19:6). Paul describes “praying in the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:18) and singing in the Spirit, or spiritual songs (Colossians 3:16).
And then we see speaking in tongues and interpretation as part of the conversation in 1 Corinthians 12:10 and a lengthy discussion on tongues and prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14.
Purpose of Speaking in Tongues
In a day with translation apps on our phones and interpreters for foreign languages we encounter, many don’t understand why speaking in tongues and interpretation are spiritual gifts still used by the Spirit today. So what are the purposes for speaking in tongues?
The gift of speaking in tongues is for the Church, but it is a sign for the unbeliever (1 Corinthians 14:22-24). It’s a gift that happens when we come together (1 Corinthians 14:26). Speaking in tongues in a church service is the Spirit-given ability to speak in a tongue you have not learned or already know.
Paul calls this gift the gift of speaking in “various kinds of tongues” (1 Corinthians 12:10). Various kinds suggests that these may be languages we don’t know. The example of Acts 2:1-13 shows the apostles spoke in human language is understandable by those around them.
But when Paul takes a moment to explain the better way we can use the gifts in 1 Corinthians 13, he uses the example of gifts and says, “Weather of men or of angels” (1 Corinthians 13:1). It’s possible the language we use does not make sense on earth because it is not the language of people. It could be the language of heaven or of angels. Because we do not know for sure, and it is not for us to judge the ways of God, we must allow this as a possibility.
When unbelievers find themselves in a service where a person speaks in a tongue and someone interprets it, God confronts them with a supernatural act. It is a convincing gift that shows them God is really among us.
If people were just speaking in tongues randomly without interpretation, unbelievers would think Christians are mad. But when they speak in tongues no one knows, and then they are interpreted by another gift of the Spirit, people are convinced God is doing something impossible.
There are other purposes for speaking in tongues. It gives evidence of the baptism and infilling of the Holy Spirit, as seen in Acts, and Paul’s discussion on private prayer in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:2 and following), as we will further discuss below and in the next post.
You can magnify God when you speak in tongues (Acts 10:46). This is lifting Him high and glorifying Him. It’s praise on a high level. You also edify yourself as you speak in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:4). You build yourself up in your spirit as you connect with God on a deeper level.
Singing in the Spirit (1 Corinthians 14:15) brings joy and gladness to your heart. There’s something intimate about singing in the Spirit. You may not understand what’s being sung, but you can feel the joy in your Spirit.
Some of these purposes have to do with the personal practice of speaking in tongues, not the corporate practice. But they are all beneficial purposes to know and understand about the Spirit’s use of speaking in tongues for us.
Functions of Speaking in Tongues
People have asked me in my ministry, “What’s the difference between your personal prayer language, the baptism in the Holy Spirit, and the gift of speaking in tongues?” This is a great question! I will speak from personal experience and what I have learned from others.
I believe the deeper question they ask is if the language sounds different in these different settings. I have not found it to be different. You will most likely speak the same sounding language no matter what your context.
If you pray in your private prayer language or if you use the gift of speaking in tongues in the corporate setting, it will sound the same to you. But speaking in tongues has different functions and different contexts.
This may be what confuses many when they study 1 Corinthians 14. Paul talks about praying in tongues more than anyone (1 Corinthians 14:18). He also talks about singing and praying in the Spirit privately, juxtaposing private tongues against speaking in tongues in a congregational service.
The difference is function, not language. Paul tells the Corinthians, who are already enamored with and misusing the gift of speaking in tongues, that they must not pray loudly in their prayer language in a service. It is disruptive and distracting.
Personal prayer speaking in tongues is for the individual, not the body. But your personal prayer language does not need to be interpreted for you. It builds up and encourages you. It is an intimate moment. It does not edify the congregation of saints, no matter how spiritual we are.
It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes in our services where a person speaks loudly in their prayer language, and the leadership lovingly encourages them to either wait for the interpretation or pray in their prayer language between themselves and God.
Receiving the baptism in the Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues is the first time you experience the infilling of the Holy Spirit, as shown in Acts 2:1-13). This is the promise of the Father () promised by Jesus before He ascended to heaven.
Baptism in the Holy Spirit is not God’s act of salvation. It salvation, every believer is a sealed with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13-14). You have the presence of the Holy Spirit indwelling view at the moment of salvation.
The baptism in the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues that we are talking about shows that the Holy Spirit is moving in you in a new way. He gives you His power to do even greater works, as Jesus prophesied over His disciples (John 14:12).
The final function of speaking in tongues is in a church service or gathering in which the Spirit is moving among us. He leads the congregation, speaks to us through the gifts like prophecy, speaking in tongues, and interpretation.
We’ve covered a lot of ground so far, and we’re just getting started. Talking about the third function of speaking in tongues in a public worship service leads us into our next post. This background is essential for us to understand Paul’s teaching on the public, corporate gift of speaking in tongues.
As a Pentecostal, I am thankful for speaking in tongues. I know it sounds strange, and many people struggle with what the Scriptures say about it. But when you have such an intimate relationship with the Spirit of Jesus, you would never give it up for anything.
Every believer can seek the Spirit and His gifts for their life. He wants to have that intimate, deep calling to deep relationship with you. He does not have to be the estranged third will of the Trinity. Seek Him first, and the gifts will follow. Have you seen the Spirit and speaking in tongues in the Scriptures like this?
With this background of speaking in tongues in the New Testament, the purposes of tongues, and the functions of tongues firmly fixed in our minds, we now turn to Paul’s teaching on the difference of speaking in tongues privately and corporately, and the gifts of speaking in tongues and interpretation.