Summary: We are going to look at tongue-speaking through the only text in scripture that gives instruction about it.
“Relax. Start to repeat some sounds. La, la, la, la…” That was my instruction in tongue-speaking. I never could get the hang of it, even though I wanted very much to experience it. We are going to look at tongue-speaking this morning through the only text in scripture that gives instruction about it.
6 Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? 7 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.
The first characteristic we learn about tongue-speaking is that it is not intelligible to those who hear it. Paul does not say, “If I speak in tongues a language that you do not understand then I am not benefiting you.” He says, “If I speak in tongues, you will not understand.” Tongue-speaking alone is like blowing into a wind or brass instrument without making any distinct notes. It is mere noise. To speak in tongues is mere speaking into the air.
10 There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, 11 but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.
Someone might say to Paul, but I am speaking a language that has meaning. Paul’s response is “so what.” If the hearer cannot understand the language, it is still gibberish to him.
12 So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.
Speaking in tongues may be spectacular; it may be a thrilling experience for the speaker; but what matters is how well the church is being built up. Another trait to note is that tongue-speaking alone, without being accompanied with interpretation, is not a bodybuilding gift. This is a key contrast made between tongues and prophecy. Go back to verse 4: The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. Paul does not say that the tongue-speaker builds up the church in one way and the prophesier another way. Tongues builds up the individual who is speaking, but other gifts of communication are needed to build up the church.
Speaking of other gifts, there is one gift that would allow for tongues to be spoken in worship. That is the gift of interpretation of tongues.
13 Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret. 14 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.
These verses reveal another insight into tongue-speaking. The speaker himself does not know what he is saying unless he has the additional gift of interpretation. If the speaker always knows what he is saying, he does not need to pray for the power to interpret. Furthermore, Paul would not go to such length contrasting prophesy with tongues. He would merely say to the Corinthians that whenever someone speaks in tongues, he should then explain what he just said.
Someone may object. How could Paul say that the one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, if the speaker’s mind is “unfruitful”? After all, the very reason the hearers are not built up is that their minds also are unfruitful. Evidently, the answer is found in the words “my spirit.” The person’s spirit is praying and/or singing and thus he is being built up.
Though Paul uses the personal pronoun “I,” his dilemma is not how he can benefit from speaking in tongues but how he can benefit his brothers and sisters. His spirit praying is of no value to the worshipping community. He will pray and sing with his mind so his brothers and sisters can join with him in worship.
16 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.
Here we see another aspect of tongues. Personal tongue-speaking is prayer to God. We can’t be certain that it is limited to thanksgiving, but it is, nonetheless, an expression to God. Verse 2 says that “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.” The tongues that Paul is speaking here is not a communications tool to reach the lost or to build up fellow believers. It is for the speaker’s personal benefit in relating to God.