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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Speaking in Tongues

Don Stewart :: What Is the Gift of Interpretation of Tongues?

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What Is the Gift of Interpretation of Tongues?

The Gift of Speaking in Tongues – Question 23

When the supernatural gift of speaking tongues was used in a worship service, according to Scripture the uttered message is to be interpreted. Paul made this clear when he wrote to the Corinthians. He said.

But if there is no one to interpret, let them be silent in church and speak to themselves and to God (1 Corinthians 14:28 NRSV)

Those who have the gift of interpretation of tongues accomplish this need. The Bible says the interpretation of tongues is a spiritual gift. Paul wrote.

He gives one person the power to perform miracles, and to another the ability to prophesy. He gives someone else the ability to know whether it is really the Spirit of God or another spirit that is speaking. Still another person is given the ability to speak in unknown languages, and another is given the ability to interpret what is being said (1 Corinthians 12:10 NLT).

There is a gift of interpretation of tongues.

This Is a Supernatural Gift

A number of things must be said about the gift of interpretation of tongues. First, the interpretation of tongues is not the ability to understand a language that one has already learned. It is rather a supernatural ability to understand someone speaking in a language in which they have never learned. In other words, it is a gift from God.

There Is Uncertainty about What Is Interpreted

There is uncertainty as to the nature of the tongue language that was interpreted at Corinth. There are a number of possibilities.

If the tongues in Corinth were genuine foreign languages, then anyone who knew the language, believer or unbeliever, would be able to interpret it. There would be no miracle involved in those cases.

If the tongue was a genuine foreign language that was unknown to either the speaker or interpreter, then there was a double miracle – one in the speaking and another in the interpreting.

However if the tongue speaking were merely a series of strange syllables that were broken up and disjointed, then the gift of interpretation would consist of taking these meaningless utterances and making sense out of them.

These are the three possibilities.

The Tongues Should Always Be Interpreted in a Church Context

Whatever the nature of the tongue language, the interpreter turns the attention of the congregation from the one speaking toward God. The Apostle Paul insisted that every time the gift of tongues was exercised publicly, it should be interpreted. He wrote.

If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret (1 Corinthians 14:27 ESV).

While the tongue languages which were spoken may never have been translated outside of a church meeting, it was commanded that they were to be translated during a church meeting.

From what Paul says about the gift of interpretation of tongues, we can deduce the following.

There Were Known Interpreters in the Church

It seems that from what Paul wrote we can conclude that there were people in the congregation at Corinth who were known to have the gift of interpretation. This appears to be the meaning of Paul’s statement about keeping silent unless there was an interpreter present. Indeed, for this statement to make any sense, the people in the church must have known who had the gift of interpretation. This would permit those who had the gift of tongues only to speak when the one with the gift of interpretation was present. Otherwise they would have to remain silent.

The Tongue Speaker May Have Had the Gift of Interpretation

It is possible that those who had the gift of tongues may also have had the gift of interpretation. Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the possibility of the speaker interpreting his own words. He put it this way.

Now I would like all of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. One who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up (1 Corinthians 14:5 NRSV).

Therefore, the one who utters the tongue may also be the one to interpret it.

One Interpreter Could Interpret Any Tongue Language Spoken

We can also deduce from this passage that the interpreter was able to interpret any language that was spoken. The interpreter had the supernatural gift to explain any tongue language that was spoken during the service.

Only One Person Was to Give the Interpretation

No matter how many different people spoke in tongues during a meeting, which Paul limited to three, only one person was to give the interpretation. There was not to be multiple interpreters.

There May Have Been Different Interpretations of the Same Tongue in Corinth

The fact that Paul called for only one interpreter during a meeting may mean that multiple interpreters gave multiple interpretations and that their interpretations did not always agree. This could have been why Paul made the following remark.

For God is not a God of disorder but of peace. As in all the congregations of the saints (1 Corinthians 14:33-34 NIV).

This could have been why he said the following at the end of his discourse on spiritual gifts.

But be sure that everything is done properly and in order (1 Corinthians 14:40 NLT).

If the tongue speaking was receiving different interpretations, then it can easily be seen how different doctrine could come into the church.

Paul made it clear that only God understood those who spoke in tongues. He wrote.

For 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 (1 Corinthians 14:2 NASB).

The fact that only God understood what was being said further shows the need for some interpretation of the tongue.

Since no one understood the tongue speaker, and that various interpretations may have been given, could explain the divisions that arose in the church at Corinth; the people were getting mixed messages.

Hence there was the need for one interpreter who clearly had the gift of interpretation. This way the church could be built up.

The Gift May Be Non-Existent Today

Those who believe the sign gifts have now ceased to function in the church also believe the gift of interpretation of tongues is no longer being given. The interpretation of tongues is only possible if the gift of tongues is still existent. Since the gift of tongues is looked upon as being only a temporary sign gift until the New Testament was completed, the gift of interpretation of tongues would have also passed from the scene.

However, if the gift of tongue is still a viable spiritual gift that God is giving to the church, then the gift of interpretation would still be necessary if the gift is to function in a church service. This remains an issue which good Bible-believing Christians debate.

Summary – Question 23
What Is the Gift of Interpretation of Tongues?

The Bible speaks of a spiritual gift of speaking in tongues as well as the spiritual gift of the interpretation of the language spoken.

We can define the gift of interpretation of tongues is a supernatural ability to understand the tongue language and translate it. It is not the ability to translate a foreign language. The nature of the tongue-language is debated. It was either definite foreign languages or some type of ecstatic utterance that no human could understand.

We know that those with the gift of interpretation of tongues were commanded to turn the congregation toward God – not to the speaker.

There are a number of things that can be deduced about the gift of interpretation of tongues. They include the following.

First, there seem to be known interpreters in the congregation at Corinth. These interpreters were able to explain any tongue that was spoken. Unless one of these interpreters was present the people were to keep silent as far as exercising the gift of tongues.

Also only one interpreter was supposed to practice his or her gift during the church meeting. Thus, there were a limited number of speakers as well as a limited number of interpreters.

This may mean that there were multiple interpretations of the same episode of speaking in tongues happening at Corinth. These different interpretations of the same tongue could have added to the confusion in the church. Consequently, Paul wrote this particular section of First Corinthians to solve the problems which had come about from this confusion. However, of this we cannot be certain.

There are some who believe the gift is no longer functioning among believers because the gift of speaking in tongues has been withdrawn from the church. If this is the case, then there is no need for anyone today to discover whether or she has this gift since it has been withdrawn by the Lord. As we mentioned, this is an issue that good Christians continue to debate.

Didn't Paul Have a Number of Good Things to Say about the Gift on Tongues? ← Prior Section
How the Holy Spirit Works with Each Human Being (Introduction) Next Section →
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