What Are the So-called “Mystery” Tongues of 1 Corinthians 14?

By Wayne Jackson

“I’ve just read your article, What Are the Tongues of Angels in 1 Corinthians 13:1?. Your points are well made, but would you address 1st Corinthians 14:2 ‘For the 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’? Would you also comment on 14:28: ‘but if there is no interpreter he must keep silent in the church and let him speak to himself and to God’?”

In order for the first question to be understood, the Bible student must get a picture of the overall context of 1 Corinthians 14, and the circumstances that prevailed in the assemblies of those Christians.

Information that is provided by several passages within the chapter reveals that some of the Corinthian saints, who possessed the divine gift of being able to speak in foreign languages [ordinary human tongues] in a supernatural manner, were abusing that gift. If, therefore, a person had the divinely bestowed gift of speaking in a “tongue,” he was to exercise that gift only in an assembly where the same language was known — unless there was an interpreter present.

Let us illustrate the matter more concretely. Suppose a brother had been granted the ability to speak the Punic language, as the people of Melita did (where Paul was shipwrecked — Acts 28:1). He could exercise that gift only in a setting where the people who spoke that tongue were present — unless there was another brother nearby who possessed the gift of interpretation. In such a case, the message could be conveyed intelligibly through the interpreter.

With this background in mind, consider now the fact that Paul, in 1 Corinthians 14:2, addresses an abuse of this procedure. If we may be permitted to expand and paraphrase the apostle’s admonition, this would be the sense of it.

For the one who speaks in a tongue [to an audience unfamiliar with his language], is not speaking to men [in any meaningful way], but to God [since only God would be able to know what was being said]; for no one [in this audience] would understand, but in his spirit he [the speaker] would be speaking mysteries [that which could not be understood due to the language barrier] to his alien audience.

In the circumstance just described, the group would hear a sound, but since they could not comprehend the message, nothing would be revealed; the message would remain a mystery (obscured).

The tongue thus contemplated was not some mysterious, ecstatic utterance by which the speaker personally communicated with God (as modern Pentecostals claim); instead, it was a language inaccessible to the audience by virtue of the circumstances, but one which the speaker might exercise in personally speaking to God in prayer.

Finally, verse 28 reiterates the same point. If the person who possesses the tongue gift is within an audience that is unacquainted with the language he is able to speak, and there is no interpreter available, he must keep silent. He may commune with God silently [i.e., mentally], but his speaking would be of no use to the congregation in such a situation as that contemplated above, and thus was prohibited.

These texts, then, properly understood, provide no support for the use of so-called ecstatic tongues.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.