Glossa Laleō

I have been preaching through 1 Corinthians. Although I received praise for my sermon on chapter 13 (“love”) my thoughts on chapter 12 (“tongues) attracted more questions. When I decided to preach through the book, I knew much of the interpreting and application might prove controversial. I’ve gone through head coverings and now spiritual gifts. I am genuinely content to have someone correct my understanding of such things, if I have strayed, though I expect it be done by scripture and not by someone’s experiences, assumptions or a previous pastor’s pet position.

Cease or Continue

There are two main views regarding the gifts- cessationism (the gifts of the Spirit ceased with the last apostle; they are not therefore around today) and continuationism (the gifts are as much around today, or at least as available, as ever they were). Most believers fall into one of the two interpretations, and both positions can be justified from the Bible. I am somewhere in-between, which essentially means I’m likely to have offend all and satisfy none.

I am not a straight cessationist for the simple reason that I don’t see it taught in scripture. 1 Cor. 13:8 comes the closest to teaching this when Paul says:

Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away.

He says this will happened when ‘the perfect comes’. It is not clear that this means the completion of the canon (ie the final book of the Bible to be completed). I think the ‘perfect’ here more likely refers to our arrival in heaven or Christ’s Second Coming. There was therefore no sudden disappearance of spiritual gifts when Apostle John put down his pen or breathed his last. Just as the gift of administration (1:12:28) may be said to continue, so also the others mentioned.

Yet neither do I see a need for revelatory gifts when scripture is all we require for our theology and ethics. Before the canon was completed, and in the absence of a living apostle, a New Testament church may well have been blessed with the Holy Spirit revealing truth directly to them. Although the Spirit continues to prompt, convict, call to mind and lead, no truth is now revealed except what is in the Bible. Furthermore, the signs and wonders which were used in the early church to accredit and attest the apostle’s and churches’ authenticity, declined and then vanished with their passing. This authentication is no longer given, for faith comes by hearing God’s word. God may, and sometimes does, miraculously heal and provide, but this is for the particular recipients’ blessing and well-being, not an unbelieving world’s fascination and attraction. Now the Bible is complete, apostles and prophets are no more. Although individuals may share their function, eg missionaries are still sent out, preachers still forthtell God’s truth, the offices themselves are gone. There is no new revelation this side of the grave.

The prophecy we have today is not an unveiling of hidden truth, an appearing of new doctrines or a receiving of better light, but a faithful reminder and proclamation of what God has already said. People sometimes send me Bible verses in cards or by text. Often they speak to a situation I am going through, or remind me of something that I ought not have forgotten. I would consider this to be prophetic, but they that send them are not prophets. And what they said I could have found for myself in God’s word. Therefore the gifts may still be around, even though the apostolic and prophetic offices are long gone; the gifts themselves, if still about, have lost whatever revelatory power they may once have had.

Tongues: the Language

Tongues in the New Testament was real language, not a mindless, repetitive jibber-jabber. In Acts 10, the Holy Spirits enables Cornelius’ party to speak in tongues:

44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. 45 And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. 46 For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God.

First of all, note that the tongues were a sign to Jewish Christians that the gentiles were as much in receipt of the Spirit and His gifts as they were themselves. Secondly, and following on from that, the words they spoke must have sounded genuine. I’ve heard people allegedly speak in tongues in my Pentecostal days. They took a few syllables and just repeated them ad nauseum. One lady seemed to ask ‘Should I buy a coriander?’, repeatedly, with increasing rapidity. A random phrase, even in a genuine foreign language, would hardly impress the world-wide Jewish community of Acts 2, nor satisfy the sceptical Jewish Christians of Acts 10, that the gentile converts were not just making it up. Speaking a real language requires syntax and grammar, as well as vocabulary. I might even utter a genuine spoken phrase, such as je suis un imbécile, but unless I say more than that, onlookers would not accept it was a real spiritual gift; they would assume that I was babbling a phrase from rote (and, in this case, believe the words I was speaking). Any suggestion that Cornelius and his party were speaking nonsense would have had them written off as charlatans.

Human Languages

I believe tongues to have been a supernatural gifting which allowed certain people to speak human languages they had not previously learned. Languages originated in the heat of God’s judgment at the Tower of Babel. In this new gospel age, wherein God finally redeems humans from sin and judgment, the disciples of Acts 2 spoke all manner of languages that passers-by were amazed at what they heard. Some say this is a separate phenomenon to anything in 1 Corinthians, but the same word is used, so I can’t see why it is different.

It is interesting to note that the only NT church which we know employed the gift of tongues is Corinth. We do not hear of it at Rome, or Ephesus, or Galatia. Corinth was unusually cosmopolitan, a busy international port, a melting pot of different ethnicities and languages. If ever a church needed the means to communicate evangelism in different languages, it was Corinth. Many Corinthian tongue-speakers were spiritually immature and young in the faith. The gift was given them, not as a reward for long or outstanding service, but because their immediate location demanded it. Modern Pentecostals regard tongues as the evidence par excellence of a Spirit-filled life, yet the gift was most evident in the most morally compromised church of the apostolic era (sexual immorality, drunkenness at communion, etc). It was also spiritually weak, seeing as false but eloquent teachers were being held in high regard, and Paul’s own credentials were being routinely doubted. Yet it was to these people that the gift of tongues was given so generously. I would suggest that this was on account of the number of non-Greek speakers in their midst. Walking Corinth’s narrow and busy streets would have been sailors from Phoenicia, slaves from Africa and Parthia, traders from Britain and Iberia. Preaching Christ’s gospel in just Greek would not have benefited a great many who heard it.

What Paul writes below suggests to me support for tongues or languages being earthly/human. Paul seems to be objecting to gabbling in tongues so that no-one can understand it. If it is a mystical, other-worldly language, it would not have been understood no matter how well enunciated the words (verse 9):

1 Corinthians 14: 6 But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you unless I speak to you either by revelation, by knowledge, by prophesying, or by teaching? 7 Even things without life, whether flute or harp, when they make a sound, unless they make a distinction in the sounds, how will it be known what is piped or played? 8 For if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare for battle? 9 So likewise you, unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken?

Furthermore, verse 6 indicates that that the tongues-speaker has some control over the content of what is being said. If it is an unknown collection of utterances, which even the speaker does not understand, how can one know whether one is delivering revelation, knowledge, prophecy or teaching? When a soldier hears a trumpet blast, he can distinguish the different notes and act accordingly. Might it be that some Corinthians were using the languages gift to prattle on about unspiritual or insignificant matters? Here, Paul assumes that some hearers will be able to respond to the language in question, though he does not refer to interpretation. Therefore it was a human language, and the speaker, though not schooled in that language, knows what he is communicating and can control its meaning.

Further support for the languages being earthly/human comes from verses 10-12

10 There are, it may be, so many kinds of languages in the world, and none of them is without significance. 11 Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me. 12 Even so you, since you are zealous for spiritual gifts, let it be for the edification of the church that you seek to excel.

Verse 11 suggests that people in the meeting do know the meaning of the language- but the speaker must speak clearly. Verse 12 seems to say: if you want to speak in tongues, do it well, and do it to benefit the hearers, not just the reputation of the speaker.

Verse 13: Therefore let him who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret.

This interpretation, surely, is for the others in the meeting who are not acquainted with that new language. The one to whom the tongue is addressed already understands it.

Further support comes in Chapter 14:

20 Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. 21 In the Law it is written:

“With other tongues

    and through the lips of foreigners

I will speak to this people,

    but even then they will not listen to me,

says the Lord.”

22 Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers. 23 So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? 24 But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, 25 as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”

The quote from Isaiah 28:11-12 indicates that tongues were a sign to Israel that God has moved beyond their ethnic borders and shared His saving grace with foreigners and gentiles, even though many in Israel still resist their God. Verse 22 indicates that tongues are not for the benefit of those already saved, but for those who are unsaved. This fits with what I have argued previously. A non-Greek-speaker would hear the gospel in his own language, and may believe. An unbelieving Jew might recall Isaiah’s prophecy and be caused to repent his unbelief. And yet does Paul then argue against this in the following verse?

23 So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? 24 But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all.

The unbelievers or inquirers in verse 23 must be themselves Greek speakers. A prophecy delivered in Greek would make sense and might lead to their conversion. A cacophony of strange syllables however will cause such visitors to conclude the church is insane. Yet Paul says in verse 22 that tongues are a sign for unbelievers, yet in verse 23 he says it is possible tongues might put unbelievers off the gospel. I cannot imagine what he means other than:

  • A tongue in his own language, if not Greek, the unbeliever will find helpful
  • Lots of tongues, all at once, in different languages, will make a horrible sound, and will put him off.
  • If he is a Greek speaker, any other tongues may put him off anyway.

Interpreters in Acts 2

We have a Corinthian congregation of say 100 people. Of that 100, there might be ten nationalities present, including a number of Scythian sailors who visit the meeting while on leave from their ship. Someone with the gift of tongues stands up and shares with them the gospel in their own language. The Scythians are now free to accept or reject, but they certainly understand it. For the sake of others present, those gifted with interpretation relay the revelation to the rest of the congregation. Yet in Acts 2, there are no interpreters. Why not?

There were so many tongues-speakers, that each passer-by heard the speech in his own language. As it was not a church gathering with a congregation unaware of the meaning, each one heard the words and understood them. Somehow, the off-putting cacophony envisaged in 1 Cor 14 did not occur in Acts 2, certainly by divine providence.

Angelic Language

In 1 Cor 13, Paul refers to ‘tongues of men and angels’, possibly implying that some or all of the languages spoken at Corinth were heavenly, rather than earthly. I do not accept this. Paul often uses hyperbole- that is, literary exaggeration, to prove a point. In fact, he does so in the very next line:

though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge…

No prophet or prophesier has ever understood all mysteries and possessed all knowledge. Furthermore, are we saying that angels have their own language, even though language was God’s judgment on humans? They certainly have speech, and use words, but they can be understood by all. Isaiah understood them perfectly in chapter 6 of his prophecy. When angels speak, they are always understood by the hearers, even if the theological meaning is not obvious. Therefore, angels speak no language but are understood universally, just as pre-Babel human beings understood all other human beings.

Private Tongues

Paul talks about speaking in tongues (which I discussed above) and ‘praying’ in tongues. I occasionally hear people uttering unfamiliar syllables under their breath, which I think they would say is praying in tongues. In chapter 14 he writes:

14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful. 15 What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding. 16 Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how will he who occupies the place of the uninformed say “Amen” at your giving of thanks, since he does not understand what you say? 17 For you indeed give thanks well, but the other is not edified.

It seems to me that Paul is describing those Corinthians who have the gift of tongues and extend its usage from evangelistic proclamation to personal prayer. Imagine someone who can be speak fluent French from having learned it - they may preach the gospel to French-speakers but they may choose to pray in that language during their own devotions. A charismatic tongues-speaker, it would seem, may also employ the gift for private devotions. Yet Paul seems to be discouraging its use in this way- such prayer cannot be understood, and if one prays a blessing over someone in a tongue, the recipient can hardly appreciate it and say an Amen, seeing as it is gobbledegook to him. By praying with his spirit, he will pray with understanding- ie in his own language. But what about private tongues, uttered between the tongue-speaker and God? It is certainly praying without understanding, which seems to be contrary to pretty much everything else the Bible teaches about prayer. Jesus taught against the pagans’ pointless repetition, who think they are heard on account of their many words. That said, Paul does not clearly condemn the practice, he merely seems to question its value when done in front of another person. Occasionally, someone will cite Romans 8:26 as a defence of private praying in tongues:

Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.

However, it is clear that tongues-speaking is utterable and it is uttered by the human, not the Spirit, who does not suddenly take control of his throat and starts uttering away. The tongue-speaker can clearly control when he speaks, otherwise Paul would not limit the number to three. Romans 8 is not therefore talking about tongues.

J.I. Packer states:

It seems no less clear that as a devotional exercise glossolalia [ie tongues-speaking] enriches some, than that for others it is a valueless irreverence. Some who have practised it have later testified to the spiritual unreality for them of what they were doing, while others who have begun it have recorded a vast deepening of their communion with God as a result, and there is no reason to doubt either testimony. Glossolalic prayer may help to free up and warm up some cerebral people, just as structured verbal prayer may help to steady up and shape up some emotional people.

The man is obviously skilled at striking balances. Yet praying in tongues was clearly employed at Corinth and Paul does not directly forbid it, he merely questions its utility. To any today who claim to speak in tongues, either before other Christians or in private, I would ask why they are not using the gift to communicate the gospel to Non-English speakers? There are rows of houses in Burnley and Nelson where English is but a third language. Swathes of Lincolnshire hear nothing but Polish and Lithuanian; parts of London must resemble Corinth in their multilingual, multicultural identities. Why are speakers of tongues not sharing Christ with these babbling multitudes, rather that sitting at home, praying without understanding, or attending Pentecostal-style meetings using weird syntax to tell fellow believers messages from God? It is a sign for unbelievers, not believers.


I know few will agree with me. To some, I am out of order for not strictly consigning the gift to the first century; to others, I err for failing to endorse the use of strange, unintelligable syllables in public worship. I believe that:

Tongues are human languages.

They are for the benefit of unbelievers.

God no longer reveals truth via prophecy or tongues, He uses the Bible.

Praying in tongues in front of others does little to edify or help them.

We are accountable for all we say- even if we do not know the meaning.

But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. Matthew 12:36

Image by Willi Heidelbach from Pixabay