Article by Brandt Van Roekel
Aren’t the tongues of 1 Corinthians 12 – 14 the same as the languages of Acts 2?
One of the thorny issues of interpretation in 1 Corinthians 12 – 14 is this: what is Paul talking about when he speaks of “various tongues” and “interpretation of tongues?” Depending on your church background, you may have heard it argued that Acts 2 sheds light on what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians. After all, Acts 2 is straightforward and 1 Corinthians 12 – 14 seems complicated. So why not let the simpler text shed light on the more complicated passage?
In Acts 2:1 – 13, as the Holy Spirit falls on the early Christians in fulfillment of Jesus’s promise, something incredible happens:
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.
5 Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6 And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. 7 And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? 9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” 12 And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.”
In this instance, the gift of tongues appears to be the gift of speaking in other languages. And, as a result, various Jews from other parts of the world, all gathered around for the Passover, hear the “mighty works of God” declared in their own languages.
Because of this passage, it’s sometimes argued that the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians 12 – 14 is a missional gift of speaking in other languages to assist the church in the proclamation of the gospel.
And yet, though I once believed this, I don’t think it makes the best sense of 1 Corinthian 12 – 14 for the following reasons.
First, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 14:2 “For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.” If Paul had tongues as other languages in mind in his letter, this verse wouldn’t make any sense. If Paul intended to reference the gift of speaking in other languages, he would have said precisely the opposite. Perhaps something like, “For one who speaks in a tongue speaks to men in comprehensible words in order share the gospel with them.”
Second, Paul writes in 14:28, “But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God.” Paul believes that there is a specific gift of “interpretation of tongues” (1 Corinthians. 12:10). But, if the point of the text is that some spoke in other languages, then why wouldn’t Paul speak plainly about the run-of-the-mill experience of translation of languages? For example, he could have said something like this: “But if there isn’t anyone who speaks Arabic in the congregation, then let the tongue speaker remain silent.” But he didn’t say it that way. He spoke about the need for the gift of the Spirit of interpretation.
Third, when we look more closely at the account in Acts, it seems that the miracle may not actually be speaking in different languages at all, but hearing the “mighty works of God” declared in one’s own language:
And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. 7 And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? 9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God. (Acts 2:6 – 11)
In fact, it’s possible that the gift of tongues in Acts 2 is the same as the prayer language gift in 1 Corinthians. The additional piece in Acts 2 is the miracle of God working the interpretation of prayer tongues for each person in their own language. Acts 2 was a hearing miracle in addition to a praying in tongues miracle. This makes quite a bit of sense of the way that some thought the tongue speakers were babbling drunk! “But others mocking said, ‘they are filled with new wine!’” But, if the tongues of Acts 2 were people speaking in other languages—something incredibly commonplace—then why would those watching have concluded they were drunk?
Fourth, Paul could hardly be clearer in 1 Corinthians 12 – 14 that the tongues he is talking about are not understandable human languages:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. (1 Corinthians 13:1)
For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. (1 Corinthians 14:2)
If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? 8 And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? 9 So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. (1 Corinthians 14:7 -9)
Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? 17 For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up. (1 Corinthians 14:16 – 17)
If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? (1 Corinthians 14:27)
Fifth, the belief that the gift of tongues as other languages for the purpose of mission doesn’t appear anywhere in the context of 1 Corinthians 12 – 14. In fact, it is the use of tongues in the worship of the gathered church that Paul addresses in this passage. For example, in his conclusion he writes, “What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up” (1 Corinthians 14:26). If Paul believes tongues are a gift of other languages for the proclamation of the gospel, it’s striking that not even once does he encourage tongue speakers to use tongues evangelistically.
What are Gifts of Tongues?
If the tongues of 1 Corinthians 12 – 14 aren’t other languages, then what are they? I’ve become convinced that the tongues of 1 Corinthians 12 – 14 are the gift of praying to God through unintelligible languages that give expression to the longings and desires of human hearts.
Perhaps you’ve struggled to know how to pray before. Maybe you’ve longed to put words or sound to the longings of your heart in prayer for someone else, or in praise and thanksgiving to God, or in grief and anguish, and struggled to find the words. The gift of tongues is the blessing of pouring our hearts out to God, even without articulate words. Beyond the passages we’ve already looked at, I find the following texts most helpful in defense of this view:
For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. 15 What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also (1 Corinthians 14:14 – 15).
Here, Paul speaks explicitly about tongues as a prayer language to God, rather than languages for the purpose of evangelism. But why would this prayer language to God be necessary? Perhaps because of what Paul expresses elsewhere:
And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:23 – 27)
Putting the pieces together it seems to make most sense of the passage to conclude that a) Paul isn’t talking about other human languages, b) he is talking about a way of prayer to God c) and that Romans 8 helps us to see our need to give expression to the depths of the longings and desires and groanings of our hearts this side of eternity, where we are often overcome and don’t know how to pray. Certainly, praise God, the Spirit intercedes for every Christian. But, by the grace of God and the particular gift of God, some Christians have received the added blessing of a prayer language that we cannot naturally understand.
Like Paul says, we need the gift of interpretation in our public gatherings to make the gift of tongues useful to “build up the church.” And yet, I think that this gift is a tremendous blessing to all of us even when there is no interpreter. Why? Because all of us are enriched by the warmth of another member’s prayer life. I’ve been deeply encouraged many times by a brother or sister who speaks in tongues, simply because of their passion for prayer in English! It generally isn’t the tongue speakers you have to convince to attend a prayer meeting. They want to be there! They are already convinced of the blessing of relationship and communication with God. And they become catalysts for more fervent prayer for the whole church. So, with Paul, let me say, “Do not forbid speaking in tongues!” This is a good gift we should pray for, to assist us in building the church for the glory of God.
 In the following, I’m simply regurgitating some of the most helpful points raised by Anthony Thiselton in his excellent and exhaustive commentary, The First Epistle to the Corinthians.