Tongues & Interpretation of Tongues

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In this article I’m examining the two Manifestation Gifts of all the Charismatic Giftings that have been at the center of controversy for centuries in the Church at-large — the matter of what the King James Version renders as “diversities of tongues” and the Interpretation of Tongues.

“And God has APPOINTED in the church . . . various kinds of tongues” (1 Cor. 12:28, NASB).

“And God hath SET . . . in the church . . . diversities of tongues” (1 Cor. 12:28, KJV).

To properly understand this whole matter of “various kinds of tongues,” as the New American Standard Bible renders it, requires to first understand the matter of tongues is not a humanly-invented phenomenon, but as the above passage brings out, it was God’s idea and doing to appoint or set in the ekklesia or Church Jesus is building different “kinds of tongues.” The terms “set” and “appointed” both connote permanence. Everyone who has ever worked with cement knows well what the word “set” means, and that once the mixture is set it is permanent and immutable. So, this use by the Holy Spirit of these terms in this passage establishes that fact that God has ordained that various kinds of tongues should be operating in the assemblies of the Church for as long as the Church exists.

Nowhere does Scripture inform us that God has rescinded the appointment of the gift of various forms of tongues in the Church, though many have sought to have them “impeached” or “abrogated” from the Church without any Biblical justification for doing so. Cessationists must resort to extra-biblical theorization to support their unproven assertions, which are based virtually exclusively and entirely upon past Church history, which is the record of what the Church did vis-à-vis what God ordained and prescribed in His Word for the Church to do. The chasm between the two is vast!

The second crucial matter that must be established in examining this issue is that there are two distinct and separate manifestations or functions of tongues. Most of the confusion and distortion regarding tongues is rooted in the converging or mixing of these two separate forms of tongues together in terms of function and Biblical “rules” for their function. It is the tangled blob that results from such incorrect confluence I hope to untangle in this chapter.

The first form of tongues is tongues in the personal prayer and praise expressions of a believer who has been baptized in the Holy Spirit, such as it occurred on the Day of Pentecost, in which case the devout Jewish observers present that day heard the 120 Spirit-immersed disciples “in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God,” which event “bewildered” and wrought such “amazement and great perplexity” in them that they began saying among themselves, “What does this mean?” (Ac. 2:1-12). That bewilderment and great perplexity continues yet today for myriads who have not themselves received of the outpouring of the Spirit.

The other manifestation of tongues is a public form that occurs in a public forum. We’ll look at that form after looking at the private and personal expression of tongues in prayer and praise.

Tongues in the Form of Prayer and Praise

 “For if I PRAY in a tongue, my spirit PRAYS, but my mind is unfruitful. What is the outcome then?  I shall PRAY with the spirit and I shall PRAY with the mind also; I shall sing with the spirit and I shall sing with the mind also.” (1 Cor. 14:14-15)

Though appearing in the context concerning the proper operation of the Manifestations of the Spirit in the congregational forum, the above verses DO NOT pertain to the Manifesta­tion Gift of “SPEAKING” in tongues, but rather to the personal prayer and praise lan­guage in tongues. These verses and the preceding verse (v. 13) are the only times the Greek word proseuchomai (pray) is used in the 14th Chapter of First Corinthians. The matter of “praying in the Spirit” is mentioned here in connection with verse 13 (note the prefatory word “for” at the beginning of the verse) to illustrate the fact that when a person speaks in an “unknown tongue” an interpretation is needful because his “mind (intellect) is unfruitful”—in other words, his mind does not understand what has been said in the tongue that is unknown to him. All the rest of the usages of the word “tongues” is in connection with the Greek word “laleo” (speak). The word “speak” carries with it the connotation “to speak a message.”

Instructions pertaining to the orderly operation of “tongues” given in the dissertation of First Corinthians 12 and 14 are NOT references to the personal prayer and praise language received by believers baptized in the Spirit (Ac. 2:1‑11; 10:44‑46; 19:1‑6; Rom. 12:26-27; et al.); rather, they pertain to the congregational or public Manifestation of the Spirit of “tongues” along with its required accompanying interpretation of tongues. Ground rules for the orderly operation of the Manifestation Gifts are necessary only for their operation in the congregational forum, since it would be difficult for one to be “out of order” in the operation of the Manifestations of the Spirit in his/her private prayer and praise exercise. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a scenario in which praying, praising, or singing “in the Spirit” (in tongues) privately could possibly ever be “out of order.”

Interpretation of Tongues

 “If anyone SPEAKS (laleo, Gr.) in a tongue…let one INTERPRET….” (1 Cor. 14:27)

Every Spirit‑inspired message spoken on behalf of God in the congregational forum (i.e., proph­ecy, not prayer or praise) must be accompanied with interpretation into the common language of the hearers, because it is a message from God to the assembly, which cannot be understood unless it is interpreted into the common language of the hearers (1 Cor. 14:6‑17). If tongues are not interpreted by someone operating in the Manifestation Gift of interpretation of tongues then it is not prophecy (a message from God to the congrega­tion), but prayer and praise. Only tongues interpreted into the common language of the hearers enabling them to understand the message and be edified by it is prophecy.

 “Therefore let one who SPEAKS in a tongue pray that he may interpret…but if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent IN THE CHURCH; and let him speak to himself and to God.” (1 Cor. 14:13,28)

Messages in tongues should only be given in a public forum, i.e., in an assembly, when “one who interprets” is present, which may be the speaker himself/herself. Notice that this passage is specifically talking about “one who SPEAKS in a tongue…IN THE CHURCH.” It is not talking about when a person is offering up expressions of worship and praise and prayer out loud so that it can be heard by others. Such exultations do not have to be interpreted, because the person is speaking to God, not to people.

If no interpreter is present, then the person who has received a message from God should either pray for the interpretation if he/she is accustomed to interpreting messages in tongues, or he should keep silent in the church assembly and “speak (that message) to himself” and use his tongue to praise God, rather than to give the message to the entire congregation.

 “For one who speaks in a TONGUE does not speak to men, but to God….” (1 Cor. 14:2)

Taken out of its full context (verses 1‑5), it could appear this verse is saying that a person who speaks in tongues is speaking to God and not to men, that is, he is not speaking a message from God to the assembly. However, when coupled with the entire context, as well as when it is connected with the information contained in the rest of the chapter, it becomes clear that what is being said is that an utterance in tongues without the required interpretation in the congregational forum is directed to God as prayer and praise.

 “…for no one understands, but IN HIS SPIRIT he speaks mysteries….” (1 Cor. 14:2 )

The rest of this verse makes it clear that the reason a person speaking in a tongue without interpretation is speaking to God is because “no one understands,” and utterances in tongues spoken in the assembly as the first half of a prophetic message is intended to be understood by the entire congregation, which is why interpretation of tongues is then necessary and required.

Notice also the phrase “in his SPIRIT.”  This is where a message from God communicated in tongues is initially received—within the human spirit of the recipient. It is God communicating through the Holy Spirit to the human spirit of the person receiving the message. It is incumbent upon that person to then determine if this is a message that God wants communicated to the entire congregation. If there is not an interpreter present to interpret the message in tongues to the congregation (see below), then the person receiving the message in tongues “in his spirit” should “keep silent IN THE CHURCH (assembly)” and should “speak to himself and to God” (1 Cor. 14:28). If the message would be harmonious with the flow of the Spirit in that service, and would be “in order” in every other way, then the person should give the message in tongues, in order for it to be interpreted to the congregation. When the message in tongues is interpreted, it is no longer “a mystery”—that is the purpose of interpretation of tongues.

So, one is speaking to GOD in a tongue—that is, praying or praising—when there is no interpretation of the message into the common tongue of the congregation so that they all may understand and thus be edified. A message spoken in tongues in the congregational usage is one half of prophecy, for tongues with interpretation IS prophecy. I have found in teaching on this matter that people sometimes grasp and remember the concept better when it’s put into formulaic language:

Formula:  Tongues + Interpretation = Prophecy

All of this becomes even clearer when the first part of the full context is connected with the last part of the full context, in which case the following is the result:

“For one who speaks in a tongue (without interpretation) does not speak to men, but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries…UNLESS HE INTERPRETS, so that THE CHURCH may receive EDIFYING.” (1 Cor. 14:2‑5)

A person speaking in a tongue is speaking to God in prayer and praise unless his message is interpreted, in which case what he spoke is then a message from God to men, or the people present in the assembly, for the purposes of the spiritual edification of the congregation present, in which case the message becomes prophecy:

 “For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men, but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries. But one who prophesies SPEAKS TO MEN…one who prophesies edifies THE CHURCH….” (1 Cor. 14:2‑4)

Tongues in the Form of Message from God to an Assembly

The Manifestation Gift of Tongues in the form of a message to an assembly can be defined as a supernatural God‑inspired, ecstatic message spoken through a believer in a language unknown to the speaker and not commonly known to the hearers for the spiritual edification of the assembly that must be interpreted into the common language of the hearers present in the assembly.

 “For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men, but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries. But one who prophesies speaks to men… one who prophesies edifies the church…and greater is one who PROPHESIES than one who SPEAKS IN TONGUES, UNLESS HE INTERPRETS….” (1 Cor. 14:2‑5)

It is in verse 5 of the above Scripture that we find the explanation, as mentioned before, that tongues with interpretation is EQUIVA­LENT to and a form of PROPHECY. Again, the concept could be stated in formulaic terms as:

Tongues + Interpretation = Prophecy.

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Conversely, because a message in tongues must be interpreted in order to be a proper prophetic utterance in the congregational usage, the following would also be an accurate description in formulaic language of utterances in tongues that are not interpreted:

Tongues – (minus) Interpretation = Prayer and Praise.

Tongues Should Not Be Hindered or Forbidden

“…do not forbid to speak in tongues.” (1 Cor. 14:39)

To forbid believers to speak in tongues, as many denominations and churches do, is to forbid God from speaking, for tongues is a message from God inspired by the Holy Spirit and manifested through a human spokesperson.

No one has authority from the Scripture to forbid the speaking forth of tongues as a God‑in­spired message from God in a service that is done “decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40). Those who try to in any way hinder, suppress, restrict, demean, belittle, prevent, prohibit, or stop the free operation of this manifestation of the Spirit, does so against God Himself and the Holy Spirit, since it was God’s appointment or ordination in the Church, and since tongues is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit Himself and not of any human. Those who engage in these acts against the Holy Spirit often approach committing and sometimes do commit sin against the Holy Spirit, which Jesus said would never be forgiven (Mk. 3:28-29).

The Function and Fruit of Tongues

“So then tongues are for a SIGN…to UNBELIEVERS.” (1 Cor. 14:22)

The manifestation of tongues in an assembly is a supernatural “sign” especially to UNBELIEVERS (which, however, in no way infers that it is not to be manifested where only unbelievers are present) that has the same function and bears the same fruit as the gift of prophecy.

Primary Focus of the Fourteenth Chapter of First Corinthians

Since in all practicality it is virtually impossible for an individual believer to operate these manifestations of the Spirit in any manner other than “decently and in order” in personal and private prayer and praise, the primary focus of the instruction given in First Corinthians 14 must be concerning their operation in the congregational forum. The purpose and objective of this entire chapter is, indeed, inherent in the final and summational verse of the chapter, essentially proving they are a delineation of the rules effecting the proper and orderly operation of these “manifestations of the Spirit.”

The Manifestation Gift of Interpretation of Tongues

Simply defined, the Manifestation Gift of Interpretation of Tongues (manifested in the congregational forum) is a supernatural God‑inspired interpretation into the common language of the hearers of a message given in tongues. It is important to understand that an interpretation of tongues is not necessarily a verbatim (word-for-word) translation of the message given in tongues, but rather a verbal expression of the gist or overall essence of the message.

“If anyone SPEAKS in a tongue…let one INTERPRET” (1 Cor. 14:27)

Tongues given as one‑half of a prophecy or prophetic word in an assembly must always be interpreted, but only once. This passage could well be setting the parameter also that there should be only one person doing the interpreting in a given service, as opposed to multiple interpreters, the purpose of which would be to limit the scope and maintain continuity of the thrust of messages given in a service.

Tongues expressed in the form of prayer and praise by individuals or any number of attendees of a given service do not require interpretation because what is being expressed is being expressed to God and not to the congregants. This fact nullifies the theory given by some that praising and praying to God out loud in a service, such as commonly occurs in authentic Pentecostal and Charismatic services, is not of God because no interpretation is given.

 “For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men, but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries. But one who prophesies speaks to men…one who prophesies edifies the church…and greater is one who PROPHESIES than one who SPEAKS IN TONGUES, UNLESS HE INTERPRETS….” (1 Cor. 14:2‑5).

A message in tongues spoken aloud in an assembly that is then accompanied by an interpretation of tongues is equivalent to prophecy, and in fact, IS prophecy. While tongues are not to be in any way prohibited or even discouraged, or its significance and importance undermined, this passage indicates that prophesying, i.e., operating the Manifestation Gift of prophecy, is operating in a higher spiritual strata than simply speaking in a tongue, UNLESS the speaker also interprets the message uttered in tongues. When that happens, then we are back to the place indicated before in formulaic language: Tongues + Interpretation of Tongues = Prophecy.

An Under-valued, Underdeveloped, and Under-understood Gift

I, for one, am absolutely convinced that individual believers and the collective church have only barely scratched the surface of what the Lord wants to reveal to us regarding all of the Charismata, and their operations, as well as these two particular forms of the Vocal Gifts, namely, tongues and the Interpretation of Tongues. In a way, we may only be at the Kindergarten level, metaphorically speaking, when it comes to understanding the purposes and usages of these “Heavenly languages,” what Paul may have been referring to in the “Love Chapter” when he spoke about “tongues of men and of angels” (1 Cor. 13:1). I personally believe that there are times when the tongues that are being spoken in by Spirit-baptized believers is indeed “tongues of angels,” though it is at other times manifestly obvious that the tongues being spoken in are tongues of men, i.e., earthly, human languages. I’ve heard and discerned both. On rare occasions I knew by the Spirit without any doubt that I was hearing angelic tongues being spoken.

In my own prayer and praise times, I have spoken in various kinds of tongues; it’s not always the same tongue. I’ve heard other Spirit-baptized believers speak in “divers kinds of tongues” as well, going from one language to another as they continued to speak in tongues unknown to them, yielding their tongue to the Lord, and the Spirit giving the utterance. There is one tongue I speak in most commonly, particularly when I first start speaking in tongues, but often as I continue to press in deeper and deeper to the Spirit, my tongue begins to speak in other languages, making utterances, not gibberish, but utterances that are obviously intelligible speech in some language and possibly some particular dialect of a language, spoken by some race or people somewhere on earth.

Moreover, when I pray in tongues, I’ve noticed that sometimes, not always, but often, I seem to begin to receive what I can only describe as revelation that seems to “float up,” if you will, out of my spirit and into my mind so that I can “know” it or “understand” something I’ve never thought about or understood before. Certainly, in that respect, I can personally attest to what many Pentecostal/Charismatic forefathers have taught about tongues being the “open door” into the Spirit realm.

I almost always begin to speak in tongues when I am about to minister in the Spirit, especially when I am wanting to “search the mind of the Spirit” for a prophetic word for someone, or when the Lord begins to prompt me that He has a prophetic word He wants to speak to someone through me. In either case, as I begin to pray and praise in tongues, or sometimes that prayer and praise begins to turn into what I am aware is a message in tongues, as I continue, I begin to receive an obvious and specific unction of the Spirit—an “unction for function”—to speak or do something that I am very aware is not me or originating from me or my mind, something supernatural—a manifestation of the Spirit—begins to happen through me. It could be a prophetic word, it could be to step out in the supernatural gift of faith to minister healing or deliverance to someone present who needs a miracle.

Tongues are a supernatural catalyst and open door into the Spirit realm, there is no doubt. It also is a “dynamo of the Spirit” in just the way that Jude expressed it, that you build or charge yourself up on your most holy faith by praying in the Spirit, meaning in tongues (Jude 20). Myriads of others who’ve experienced this can testify as well that this is how it works. It’s supernatural! It cannot be explained or understood with the carnal mind or intellect, indeed, it by-passes the human intellect—it just works!

Nevertheless, as much as we DO “know” or understand about these matters, yet, there are galaxies of truth and understanding we do NOT possess about the supernatural gifts of the Spirit of tongues and interpretation of tongues. I am praying that God will begin to release some of that revelation that has been heretofore held in abeyance, more than likely because He has not yet been able to entrust that revelation unto the Church Jesus is building due to our overall lack of spiritual maturity, carnality, and continued self-centeredness. I’m praying this will all soon begin to change. I’m eager and anxious to see what God can do with and through a Church of genuine sold-out, died-to-self, flesh-crucified, obedient, Bible-believing, faith-walking, Spirit-infused, and Spirit-immersed believers! I’ll be overjoyed when we can begin to throw off, divest, ourselves of the outer garments of religious garb and clothe ourselves with the garments of the Spirit, wrapping our necks with the mantle of the Vocal gifts, anointing the entire Body of Christ as Spokespersons of the Spirit to speak Spirit-inspired messages of salvation and deliverance to a lost and dying world and Spirit-inspired messages of liberation and exaltation to an all-too passive and largely impassive Church.

A Profoundly Powerful Illustration

Several years ago I was attending a particularly Spirit-anointed Sunday Morning Church service in which the guest speaker was a Pentecostal pastor who related one of the most awesome and awe-inspiring stories I ever recall hearing involving the matter of tongues and interpretation of tongues, and the combination of the two producing a prophetic message to the believer/speaker. One Sunday night after preaching as a guest preacher in a town about 300 miles away from his home, he had decided to drive home rather than stay overnight in a hotel room and drive home the next day. For some reason he didn’t understand, he just had a strong internal desire to do that, even though it meant getting home around 3:00 A.M.

When he was only a few minutes away from his exit to home off the interstate, a few minutes before 2:00 A.M., there was one of those signs you see all along the interstate informing about an exit to a highway that intersected with the interstate about 10 miles ahead, with those little images indicating the types of services available at that exit—gas stations, stores, restaurants, et cetera. For the last hour, he had been having an unusually anointed time of praying and praising God in tongues. As he was just approaching the sign, a “thought” kind of floated up from his spirit that said, “Turn off at that exit and get gas.” Well, he thought that was kind of weird because he had been monitoring his gas gauge regularly all along the trip he had traveled many times before, and he knew he had plenty of gas—just a little less than a quarter of a tank—to make it home less than 30 miles ahead. So, he basically dismissed the “thought” and chalked it up to being exhausted and it being nearly 2-O’clock in the morning, and continued praying and praising in tongues.

But, when he got to the sign at the 5-mile mark from the same exit, that “thought” popped up again: “Turn off at that exit and get gas.” Again he looked at his gas gauge, and said to himself (he thought), “I don’t need gas; I’ve got plenty to make it home.” Again, he blew off the “nonsensical” thought, and went back to praying and praising in tongues.

At the 1-mile mark, the same thing happened again! When he got to the exit, he could literally feel his arms fighting to keep going straight and not turn off at that exit, because his mind was telling him it made absolutely no sense! But, at the last second, it was as if someone else took hold of the steering wheel and he could do nothing but watch as his vehicle slowly swerved to take that exit.

When he got to the intersection, there was only one sign for a convenience store with gas pumps, so he turned in that direction, came to the store, pulled in, and knowing he did not need gas, went around the gas pumps and pulled into a parking space at the front of the store. He said to himself, “What am I doing here?” He didn’t know the answer. But, he thought, “Well, I do have to go to the bathroom,” so he got out went in, spotted the bathroom signs, and went to the bathroom. When he came in, he made a quick glance to the counter, and saw a lone woman attendant there, who was obviously counting the cash in the drawer, apparently to close the store at 2:00 A.M. He said a terse, “Hello,” as he went toward the bathrooms, to which the woman replied likewise. All the while in the bathroom he kept saying to himself, “Why am I here? Why am I here? I don’t know why I’m here.”

When he came out of the bathroom, though his mind was telling him to get back in the car and start driving home again, something wouldn’t let him leave. With his hands in his pockets, tie loosened, sleeves of his white “preacher” shirt rolled up, he just started slowly meandering around the store looking to see if some little snack-item seemed appealing to buy to justifying his coming in and using the bathroom. The female clerk just continued to do what she was doing, not paying much attention to him.

Finally, she said, “Sir, can I help you with something?” Without missing a beat, he said he heard himself responding, “Yes, can you tell me why I’m here?” He was a little shocked he had said that, and the woman responded, “What do you mean?” Then he found himself responding, “Well, I’m a Pentecostal preacher on my way home in the middle of the night after preaching all day, and I was praying in tongues—that’s what we Pentecostals do—and three times a word came to me to take this exit and get gas, even though I don’t need gas and have plenty to make it home; can you tell me why I’m here?”

The woman immediately burst into tears, dropped the money in her hands, and said, “Yes, sir, I can tell you why you’re here!” And, with that she reached down under the counter and pulled out a .357 Magnum handgun, and through her sobs confessed, “Today, I became so despondent and depressed, and saw no way out of my problems, dropped my daughter off at my mother’s, and I had decided that after I closed the store tonight here at 2:00 A.M. and made the bank deposit at the bank down the street, I was going to take this gun I just bought yesterday and kill myself!”

The preacher said, “Yes, honey, that’s why I’m here; you don’t need to do that; God sent me here to save your life, and to lead you into the arms of the Savior, his son, Jesus.” And he prayed with her, and led her to the Lord, took the gun, followed her to her mother’s house, and continued on his journey home, with a heart overflowing with awe, wonder, amazement, and thankfulness for the supernatural gift of tongues and interpretation of tongues, thinking to himself what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than you all!”

Tongues with interpretation of tongues is prophecy, and God so desperately desires to speak to us messages straight from His heart of Love!

“The thief (Satan) came but for to steal, kill, and destroy! I came that you might have life, and have it more abundantly!” said Jesus, the Savior of all Mankind (Jn. 10:10).

Read a New York Times article concerning what scientists have discovered about speaking in tongues: A Neuroscientific Look at Speaking in Tongues

Check out the book from which this article is adapted (click on book cover):
DUNAMIS! Power From On High! by Dr. Steven Lambert

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