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What is speaking in tongues?

What is speaking in tongues?

In 1 Corinthians 14:5 and 18, Paul encourages the Corinthians to speak in strange tongues. What are these tongues? Why does God give them?

Paul doesn’t describe the tongues he mentions in 1 Corinthians 14, and therefore we can’t be certain of what they were or sounded like. However, Paul does say that “he who speaks in a tongue edifies himself” (1 Corinthians 14:4). Evidently, the purpose of God giving the gift of speaking in tongues is for that person to be built up.

As has already been said, what these tongues were actually like can’t be determined. It seems probable that they weren’t other human languages (in contrast to Pentecost, see Acts 2:4-11). Therefore the person who speaks in a tongue, speaks to God and not to man – since only God can understand it (1 Corinthians 14:2).

Is speaking in tongues important?

Even though Paul says he would like each of the Corinthians to speak in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:5), his point is not to advocate speaking in tongues. Rather, Paul’s big point in this chapter is that it is better (and more loving, cf. chapter 13), if someone can speak words in a church meeting that are intelligible to others. If someone speaks intelligibly, then the church will be strengthened, encouraged and comforted (1 Corinthians 14:3), and the church will be built up (1 Corinthians 14:4).

Paul’s conclusion is in 1 Corinthians 14:18-19:I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.

Paul’s purpose in commenting that he speaks in tongues more than the Corinthians is not a boast, but rather to illustrate the point Paul has been making throughout this section of 1 Corinthians (chapters 8-14): that he is willing to give up his rights in order to serve others. It is this principle that also runs through this chapter 14 – Paul wants the Corinthians to give up their right to speak in tongues (which doesn’t serve others in the church), and rather to speak intelligibly so that everyone can be built up.

How does this Bible passage speak to you? Please share your thoughts below!

Also read Why is pentecost important?

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James Steer

James had the privilege of growing up in Christian home, and decided to follow Jesus during his teenage years. After studying chemistry at university and working in the pharmaceutical industry, he began training for Christian ministry. After completing an M.Th. at Oak Hill Theological College he and his wife spent five years as missionaries working in Thailand. He now lives in Cambridge, England, and is the pastor for International students at St Andrew the Great church.

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