What Was the Gift of Tongues?
“Please explain 1 Corinthians 14:2. Would not this indicate that the ‘tongue’ was a mysterious, spiritual utterance, known only to God, rather than a human language?”
No, it wouldn’t. Note the following factors:
- The term “unknown” is not in the original text. It was added by the King James translators. It is unwarranted and unnecessary.
- The nature of the “tongues,” alluded to in this chapter, must be the same as those defined earlier in the New Testament, i.e., human languages (Acts 2:4-11), unless there is a compelling reason for assigning a different meaning to the expression. No such reason is indicated in 1 Corinthians 14.
- Unless one understands the contextual background of this statement (1 Cor. 14:2), he will not interpret this passage correctly. A knowledge of this background is determined by an examination of the chapter as a whole.
Background Context of 1 Corinthians 14
Some in the Corinthian church were abusing the spiritual gifts they possessed. There was simultaneous chattering, thus creating confusion (cf. 1 Cor. 14:26-33).
In addition, some were exercising their gift of tongues before audiences of a different language, without the use of the corresponding gift of “interpretation” (1 Cor. 12:10). It is, therefore, in this light that the apostle’s admonition is given.
In an expanded paraphrase, we may summarize Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 14:2 as follows:
For he who speaks in a foreign language [when no interpreter is present], is not speaking [meaningfully] to men, but [only] unto God; for no man [in the audience who is of an alien language] understands [what is being said]; he [the speaker] is speaking mysteries [that which the listener cannot comprehend by virtue of the language barrier], even though he speaks in the spirit.
This harmonizes beautifully with the context, and it does not force a bizarre meaning upon the term “tongues.”
A consideration of all the factors in this chapter, therefore, forces the careful student to the conclusion that the languages contemplated in this section of Scripture are human languages.
The gift of tongues allowed these languages to be spoken by those who had not learned them naturally, but who were empowered by the Spirit of God to speak in a supernatural fashion.
Those early saints were required to exercise their gifts within the bounds of divine propriety and this is the thrust of the apostle’s admonition.