Besides a mention in the disputed ending of Mark (16:17, in which Jesus describes tongues as a sign accompanying belief), we are first introduced to tongues (γλῶσσα) in the book of Acts, where we find three historical occurrences of people who spoke in tongues. In Acts 2:3-4, when the church was born at Pentecost, tongues served in part as evidence that the Holy Spirit was present as Jesus promised He would be (1:5). Jewish believers were “filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues (ἑτέραις γλώσσαις)…” They were literally proclaiming the Gospel in various languages that they had not learned (2:9-11). Later, in Acts 10:44-46, gentile believers also received the Holy Spirit in the same way, and before they were even water baptized (10:47) they spoke in tongues and exalted God. Finally, in Acts 19:1-7, there were about twelve believers who weren’t present at Pentecost, and who were unaware that the Holy Spirit had been given (19:2). After being baptized, and after Paul laid hands upon them, they began to speak in tongues and prophecy (19:6).

These are the only three recorded historical instances of tongues in the New Testament. The only other discussion regarding tongues as a gift or as related to the ministry of the Holy Spirit (besides Mk 16:17) is found in 1 Corinthians 12-14. Whereas in Acts we see a few historical instances of tongues, in 1 Corinthians we find the only explanatory content about tongues. 1 Corinthians 12:10 characterizes tongues and the interpretation of tongues as manifestations of the Spirit for the common good (12:7). In 12:28 and 30 Paul discusses tongues in the context of diversity of ministries: not all speak in tongues or interpret them. To this point in the history of the early church (up to 1 Cor 12) tongues was only defined in Acts 2 (proclaiming the gospel in languages the speaker had not learned). With no further expansion of that definition, Paul has described tongues in ch. 12 as a contemporary manifestation of the Spirit. So it is notable that Paul introduces 13:1 by saying “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels…” Does this phrase constitute an expansion of the definition of tongues? Is there an application of tongues that involves speaking with the tongues of angels?

Paul may be using a literary device called hyperbole, which is from two Greek words together meaning to overthrow. It is an exaggeration to make a point. To understand whether or not this introductory clause is hyperbole, let’s consider the structure of 13:1-3. Introducing 13:2 and 3 are similar conditional clauses (employing the Greek ἐὰν):13:2 – “If I…know all mysteries and knowledge…” In 13:9 Paul says “we know in part,” using the same root for knowledge as in 13:2. This is a straightforward admission that Paul recognizes he does not have all knowledge. The conditional phrase of 13:2 is hyperbole. Paul is not writing of something that is reality. 13:3 – “If I surrender my body to be burned…” Paul had not done this, and would not do it in the future. Church history is agreed that Paul was martyred by beheading. Again, Paul seems to be using hyperbole. In 13:1 the tongues of angels phrase is likely hyperbole as well. We cannot say this dogmatically, but there is no textual or historical evidence that the gift of tongues somehow involved angelic languages. In fact, in every Biblical instance of angels speaking to or in front of human listeners those listeners always understood what was said. Further, in this context Paul’s purpose is not to expound on the gift of tongues, but rather to show the superiority of love over and against tongues and other actions and gifts. It would be odd (though not impossible) for Paul to introduce new data about the characteristics of tongues when the context is deemphasizing rather than extolling tongues. To illustrate the superiority of love over tongues, Paul draws the contrast in 13:8, saying, “Love never fails…if there are tongues, they will cease…” It is evident that tongues were temporary, but more on that later.

To review: so far in 1 Corinthians Paul has characterized tongues as a contemporary (to his time) manifestation of the Holy Spirit for the common good (ch. 12), and has argued that tongues are inferior to love and are temporary (ch. 13). In 14:2 Paul makes the strange statement that “one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God; for no one understands, but in spirit he speaks mysteries.” In this context Paul is extolling prophecy over the way the Corinthians were using tongues (14:9-12). In 14:4 Paul adds, “one who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church.” It appears, based on Paul’s hypothetical statement in 14:4, that the Corinthians were not using tongues as they were intended, but were somehow using them for self-edification (and perhaps doing so in the name of prayer [14:14]). At this point we should take note that we have not yet been told the purpose of tongues; so far we only know from this discourse that spiritual gifts are for broad rather than self-edification.

It is in this context that Paul ranks tongues and prophecy. In 14:5 he says, “I wish that you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy; and greater is one who prophesies than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may receive edifying.” Paul explains that prophecy is a superior gift to the Corinthians’ use of tongues because prophecy would edify the entire body, whereas, tongues was apparently being used at Corinth with no concern for church edification. In 14:6 Paul uses himself as an example: “But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking in tongues, what will I profit you unless I speak to you either by way of revelation or of knowledge or of prophecy or of teaching?” He notes the importance of uttering “by the tongue speech that is clear,” otherwise what is spoken cannot be known (14:9). He further confirms in 14:9-11 the idea that tongues were languages to be understood, but acknowledges that not all would know the languages being used: “Therefore let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret” (14:13).

In Acts 2:7 those who understood the dialects spoken were amazed and astonished, but in 2:13, those who did not were mocking and assuming the tongues-speakers were drunk. Those who understood were edified, but those who didn’t weren’t. Paul’s desire for the Corinthians was that they all be edified. Consequently if tongues was used it should be interpreted so that there would not be confusion.

To this point in 1 Corinthians 14 there has been nothing to suggest that tongues involved anything but various human languages or dialects; nor is there any support for tongues as a self-edifying gift. But in 14:14 Paul hypothesizes: “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful.” Once again we must consider whether Paul is speaking of a real and proper use of tongues or if he has returned to his earlier use of hyperbole.

 So far in this context (chs. 13-14) Paul has used the Greek ἐὰν (if) to introduce hypothetical or hyperbolic clauses. “If I pray in a tongue” (ἐὰν [γὰρ] προσεύχωμαι γλώσσῃ) has the same basic structure and function as “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels” in 13:1 (Ἐὰν ταῖς γλώσσαις τῶν ἀνθρώπων λαλῶ καὶ τῶν ἀγγέλων). If the conditional clauses of 13:1-3 are to be understood as hyperbole, then so should the conditional clause of 14:14. In the hypothetical scenario of praying in tongues (14:14), only the spirit is praying. But in 14:15 Paul advocates for praying both with the mind and the spirit. In short, he is renouncing prayer in tongues, because while it would hypothetically be a good way to give thanks, it does not edify the other person (14:17). If tongues was intended to be used for prayer, God would be able to understand what was being said. So in theory it could work in that capacity, but Paul gives no indication here or anywhere else that tongues is intended for prayer.

Nonetheless, it is from these passages that some conclude the gift of tongues is intended for prayer. Normally those who draw that conclusion will not regard any of the conditional clauses of chapters 13-14 as hyperbole, but will view them as legitimate possibilities (and realities). Consequently, tongues involves potentially both prayer and angelic languages. It is evident that recognizing the meaning of the conditional clauses in this context is central for understanding the use of tongues. That Paul intends them in a hyperbolic sense is consistent with the syntax, discursive structure, and theological argument of the immediate context.

As Paul continues the discussion in 14:18 he avoids the implication that he is renouncing tongues entirely, as he acknowledges his own superlative use of tongues. He reiterates the importance of utilizing both mind and spirit and of instructing in an understandable way (14:19). Paul doesn’t want the Corinthians to stop using tongues; he wants them to use the gift properly and for the right reasons. In the context of the church he would rather speak fewer words with his mind rather than many in tongues so that others might understand and be edified.

After exhorting the Corinthians to be mature in their thinking (14:20), Paul explains the purpose for the gift of tongues, quoting Isaiah 28:11-12 (loosely referencing the Law of God [His word] rather than the Law of Moses [the Torah section of the Hebrew Bible]): “By men of strange tongues and by the lips of strangers I will speak to this people and even so they will not listen to Me.” Paul reminds the Corinthians of God’s preannounced plans and then explains tongues specifically: “So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe, but to unbelievers” (14:22).

Isaiah 28:11-12 explains in the context of Israel’s judgment that God had in the past used foreigners (gentiles) to accomplish his purpose – even to illustrate God’s character and grace. For example, God extended grace to pagan Nineveh during Jonah’s ministry, and the people of Nineveh repented (Jon 3:5-10). In the same way as He did then (and in other instances) God would use gentiles to illustrate His character and grace: tongues would be a sign for unbelieving Jews, specifically, that God had indeed poured out His grace. It is notable that most of the dialects and languages (διαλέκτῳ) represented in Acts 2:8-11 were gentile dialects. In a sense, gentile believers would even provide impetus for Israel to believe in her Messiah (Rom 11:11-14). Tongues, then, served a prophetic purpose and also a practical one.

In the practical sense tongues helped confirm God’s message and that His hand was in this new work (the church). Throughout Biblical history God has used signs, miracles, and wonders to confirm His message and His work – first with Moses, then with Elijah and Elisha, then with certain prophets (including the two still yet to come), then with Christ himself, and finally with the apostles and prophets in the (early) church. (Also still yet in the future we anticipate Satan’s counterfeit of signs miracles and wonders, as he will seek to deceive many [e.g., Rev 13:11-15]). Each of these periods of signs, miracles, and wonders were specifically purposed and very, very brief.

While tongues did serve a practical purpose, Paul’s concern in 1 Corinthians 14 is the prophetic purpose: to illustrate for Israel what Peter had so boldly proclaimed in Acts 2:22-36 – that God had sent His Messiah, and that Messiah was the Lord Jesus Christ. Consequently, and with that prophetic purpose in mind, if the Corinthians were using tongues in any way not conducive with edification of the church in a broad sense, its purpose would go unfulfilled. If an ungifted person (ἰδιῶται) or an unbeliever (ἄπιστοι) entered the assembly and tongues were used with no interpreter, then the response would be ultimately the same as in Acts 2:13 – that those who were speaking were drunk or insane (1 Cor 14:23).

In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul explains that tongues is a legitimate manifestation of the Holy Spirit. In chapter 13 he explains that love is superior to tongues and other gifts, and that tongues is temporary. In the early sections of chapter 14 he explains the problems with misuse of tongues. Concluding chapter 14 he explains in simple terms how tongues should be used. All spiritual gifts are to be used for the edification (14:26) – and consistent with his earlier message, that means edification of the church, not self-edification (e.g., 14:1-19).

Tongues should be spoken by two or three at the most, each in turn, and one must interpret (14:27). If there is no one to interpret then tongues may not be used (14:28), but instead the person should speak to himself and to God.  This last clause is especially notable because of its implications for tongues as a means of prayer. While the person, in the church, is to speak to himself and God (ἑαυτῷ δὲ λαλείτω καὶ τῷ θεῷ), he is to be silent in the church (σιγάτω ἐν ἐκκλησίᾳ). In other words, if there is no interpreter, the person should speak silently to himself and God. This is further evidence that tongues was not to be used for prayer, but that prayer was to be engaged instead of speaking in tongues.

Finally, in 14:39 Paul exhorts the Corinthians not to prevent or forbid speaking in tongues (τὸ λαλεῖν μὴ κωλύετε γλώσσαις), and in 14:40 he concludes by reiterating that all things must be done properly and in good order. It is notable that Paul directly addresses the Corinthians (as ἀδελφοί) in 14:39 and uses the present active imperative in his exhortation. He does not give these instructions to the Ephesians or the Galatians or any other local church. His instructions are specific to the Corinthian church. Now, of course, that does not mean other churches could not draw a secondary application (that tongues had a valid role in the church), but we must be careful not to extrapolate that command as specifically and necessarily involving all believers without further textual warrant. (Note how specifically Paul uses the term ἀδελφοί in 1 Corinthians, especially in 1:11; 2:1; 3:1; 4:6, etc.)

Combining all that data we have on tongues (including Mk 16:17; Acts 2, 10, and 19; and 1 Cor 12-14), we may conclude that tongues was a miraculous gift, given for the confirmation (to Israel specifically) that God had poured out His Spirit (in the same manner as in Joel 2, though not in fulfillment of that passage) as a further confirmation that the Messiah had indeed come. In examining these passages we discover that tongues was very limited in its usage (with only three recorded occurrences) and that the conditions were not always the same (In Acts 2 there was no water baptism in context, in Acts 10, speaking in tongues occurred before water baptism, and in Acts 19 it occurred after). We further learn that there was temptation to use the gift improperly, as the Corinthians were apparently doing. To correct that error Paul explains scope, purpose, and proper application of the gift. Any usage outside the parameters discussed by Paul in this brief context (1 Cor 12-14) simply cannot be legitimately considered a Biblical application of the gift.

Finally, it is notable that after Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians (written around AD 54-55), there is no further mention in the entire New Testament of the gift of tongues. Not even in Paul’s soon-to-follow second letter to the Corinthians, did he mention the gift. The notable absence of any further mentions during the remaining forty years of Biblical history, coupled with timestamp passages like 1 Corinthians 13:8-10, Ephesians 2:20; 4:11-13, and Hebrews 2:2-4, begs us to consider whether the gift of tongues is foundational, fulfilled, and no longer active in the church, or whether the gift is enduring and believers have access to it in the contemporary church. That is the question considered in the next article.