The Gift of Tongues in 1 Corinthians 12–13

Paul

1 Corinthians 12–13

This is the fourth post in a series on spiritual gifts. I would recommend that you read the previous posts before reading this one, “Why I Am Not a Cessationist,” “Why I Am Not a Charismatic,” and “The Gift of Tongues in Acts.”

At the very least, please do read the post about Acts, as it is essential to have a biblical definition of tongues from Acts before trying to understand tongues in 1 Corinthians.

I was planning to cover the gift of tongues as found through all of 1 Corinthians today, but the post was getting really long, and I want to be thorough. So today I will cover chapters 12 and 13, and tomorrow I will cover chapter 14.

The Corinthians

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians was primarily one of rebuke. These believers had an abundance of spiritual gifts. Yet they were divided. They were living in blatant and unrepentant immorality.

Worst of all, they were completely lacking in love. They desired to use their gifts to build up themselves rather than to build up the church.

Different Gifts

A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person to produce what is beneficial: to one is given a message of wisdom through the Spirit, to another, a message of knowledge by the same Spirit, to another, faith by the same Spirit, to another, gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another, the performing of miracles, to another, prophecy, to another, distinguishing between spirits, to another, different kinds of languages, to another, interpretation of languages. But one and the same Spirit is active in all these, distributing to each person as He wills. (1 Corinthians 12:7–11, HCSB)

Paul here listed several different spiritual gifts. Among them are “different kinds of languages” and “interpretation of languages.”

By stating that there are different kinds of glossa, Paul made it clear that the gift allows people to speak in multiple different languages. This is opposed to speaking in one “tongue” that is heard by others in their own language.

In fact, the word translated “different kinds” (or “various kinds”) is genos, which literally refers to family, tribe, or nationality (e.g., Mark 7:26 and Philippians 3:5). Thus the phrase could be rightly translated “languages from different nations.”

No specific definition is given for “interpretation of languages,” but it would seem to mean that one is able to understand a person speaking in another language (as opposed to being able to speak in another language).

The gifts of speaking different languages and interpreting languages may have been given together at times. However, they are clearly separate gifts. There is no indication that one was necessitated by the other when being used in the proper context. (They may necessitate each other when used in an improper context, but we’ll get to that tomorrow in chapter 14.)

Different Roles

Now you are the body of Christ, and individual members of it. And God has placed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, next miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, managing, various kinds of languages.

Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all do miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in other languages? Do all interpret? But desire the greater gifts. And I will show you an even better way. (1 Corinthians 12:27–31, HCSB)

After having gone through a few different gifts and emphasizing that they are all from the same Spirit, Paul listed several roles that believers play as members of the body of Christ. He then asked if all believers are given all the gifts—a rhetorical question with the answer of “no.”

Among these gifts, he listed speaking in other languages as well as interpreting languages. In all this, Paul was leading up to the greater gifts and the better way—love.

Angelic Tongues

If I speak with the languages of men
 and of angels,
but don’t have love,
I have become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal. (1 Corinthians 13:1, WEB)

We now come to the verse that has perhaps caused the most confusion in understanding “tongues.”

Examining the context is essential if we are to understand what Paul was saying here. Take a look at the next verses.

And if I have prophetic powers,
 and understand all mysteries and all knowledge,
and if I have all faith,
 so as to remove mountains,
but have not love,
I am nothing.

If I give away
 all I have,
and if I deliver up my body
 to be burned,
but have not love,
I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:2–3, ESV)

These statements follow a pattern. Paul spoke of a gift that he had or something he did, and then he followed it with an extreme example that he did not have or did not do.

  • Paul had prophetic powers, but he did not understand literally all mysteries and all knowledge.
  • Paul had great faith, but he never actually moved mountains.
  • Paul gave a lot, but he did not give away literally all that he had.
  • Paul suffered bodily persecution, but he was not actually burned.

In all these examples, Paul’s focus was on the fact that love is better. Even if he was given far greater gifts than he had already been given, love would still be better.

If we are to be consistent, we must interpret the first verse in the same manner.

  • Paul spoke in different human languages, but he did not speak in angelic languages.

He was not saying that he spoke an angelic tongue. Quite the opposite! He said that even if he could, it would just be useless noise without love.

We can thus conclusively say that the gift of tongues is not an angelic tongue. Rather, it is the ability to speak in human languages one does not know.

Love Never Ends

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for languages, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when the perfect comes, the partial will come to an end. (1 Corinthians 13:8–10, HCSB)

Paul continued talking about love. Love (and the Corinthians’ need for it) is the whole point of Paul’s discourse here. The gift of tongues was frankly a side issue, its abuse stemming from a lack of love.

These gifts will end at some point. I have previously written about why I do not believe this has happened yet. But love will never end.

Tomorrow, I will cover chapter 14, where Paul gave more specific instruction to the Corinthians regarding their abuse of these gifts.

Spiritual Gifts Series

  1. Why I Am Not a Cessationist
  2. Why I Am Not a Charismatic
  3. The Gift of Tongues in Acts
  4. The Gift of Tongues in 1 Corinthians 12–13
  5. The Gift of Tongues in 1 Corinthians 14

What Do You Think?

Have you looked at the gift of tongues like this before? Does seeing the pattern Paul followed at the beginning of chapter 13 help to explain the angelic tongues? Do you agree that Paul’s emphasis was on love rather than tongues?

Share your thoughts in the comments below. And if you enjoyed this post, please share it with your friends.