What Kind of Tongues Are Meant in I Corinthians 12?

by Clem Thurman
in Gospel Minutes, Vol. 58, No. 47, Nov. 20, 2009.

The apostle Paul writes of various "gifts of the Holy Spirit" in I Corinthians 12-14. Notice the reading in I Corinthians 12:7-11:

"But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit to profit withal. For to one is given through the Spirit the word of wisdom; and to another the word of knowledge, according to the same Spirit : to another faith, in the same Spirit; and to another gifts of healings, in the one Spirit; and to another workings of miracles; and to another prophecy; and to another discernings of spirits; to another various kinds of tongues; and to another the interpretations of tongues; but all these worketh the one and the same Spirit, dividing to each one severally even as He will."

All of these were miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit. That is, they were given directly by the Holy Spirit and enabled the recipient to do things they ordinarily could not. For instance, the gift of prophecy enabled one to "speak for God," for that is what prophecy was. The gift of faith enabled one literally to "move mountains" (Matthew 17:20). The gift of miracles enabled one to do various miraculous things (Acts 3:7,8; 20:9,10; etc.). The gift of tongues dealt with languages. Let us see what they were:

The apostles, on Pentecost, were all "filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance ... We hear them speaking in our tongues the mighty works of God ... Behold, are not all of these that speak Galileans? And how hear we, every man in our own language wherein we were born?" (Acts 2:4,8,11). Notice that the people heard the apostles speaking "in tongues" -- but they were languages which these people had know from birth. But the apostles had never had training to learn the languages.

The apostle Paul also explains: "Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to the unbelieving" (I Corinthians 14:22). If the unbelieving could not understand them, how could it be a "sign" to them? The apostle Paul goes on to reason thus: "But now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, unless i speak to you either by way of revelation, or of knowledge, or of prophesying, or of teaching?" (I Corinthians 14:6). In other words, if others cannot understand what I am saying, my gift is meaningless to them. This makes it clear that the gift of tongues was to enable one to speak in a language he had never learned.

The apostle Paul goes on to discuss these gifts of the Holy Spirit. "Love never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall be done away; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall be done away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; but when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away" (I Corinthians 13:8-10). Of the nine "gifts of the Spirit" which he listed in I Corinthians 12:7-11, the Holy Spirit lists three of these (as representatives of them all), and says they will cease, or be done away. These gifts were each a part of delivering and confirming the Word of God to mankind. When the process was "perfect" (or, complete), then the"parts" were all done away.

Note that the Scriptures do not declare that all faith, knowledge and languages would cease. But that the "gifts of the Spirit" that granted to someone the power to do these things would cease. Today, "faith comes by hearing the Word of God" (Romans 10:17). Knowledge comes from "studying the Word of God" (II Timothy 2:15) and the use of languages comes from one studying those languages. But these were "gifts" of the Spirit as recorded in the New Testament times, given by the Holy Spirit for the special purposes of delivering and confirming God's Word for mankind. As we read, "How shall we escape, if we neglect so great a salvation? which having at the first been spoken through the Lord, was confirmed unto us by them that heard; God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and by manifold powers, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own Will" (Hebrews 2:3,4).

When His Word was delivered, and confirmed by the miraculous gifts of the Spirit, there was no further need for those gifts. So, they ceased. The abilities named would no longer be a "gift of the Holy Spirit," but would then have to be acquired through natural means.

What were the "tongues" of I Corinthians 12? They were foreign languages which were spoken by inspired men by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is what amazed the hearers -- that these uneducated (in languages) men were able to speak in languages they had never learned (Acts 2:5-12; I Corinthians 14:22). If the "tongues" of I Corinthians 12 were only unintelligible gibberish to the hearers, there would be nothing about them to amaze or confound the unbelieving hearers. But languages which were spoken by men who had never learned them would indeed be a "sign to the unbeliever," which they were. The "tongues" of the Scriptures were know languages, but unknown to the speaker as well. And the so-called "tongues" of religious people today have absolutely no basis in Scriptures.