Paul’s Instructions for Speaking in Tongues

Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian church were very specific. In any given gathering, the number of people who were permitted to speak out publicly in tongues was limited two or three. They should not all speak at once, but should wait and speak in turn (see 1 Cor. 14:27).

Paul did not necessarily mean that only three “messages in tongues” were permitted, but that no more than three people should speak out in tongues in any given service. It is thought by some that if there were more than three people who were frequently used in the gift of various kinds of tongues, any one of them could yield to the Spirit and given a “message in tongues” that the Spirit desired to be manifested in the church. If this is not so, Paul’s instruction would actually limit the Holy Spirit by limiting the number of messages in tongues that could be manifested in any given meeting. If the Holy Spirit would never give any more than three gifts of various kinds of tongues in a gathering, there would be no need for Paul to give such intstructions.

The same could well be true for the interpretation of tongues. It is thought that perhaps more than one person in the assembly might be able to yield to the Spirit and give the interpretation of a “message in tongues.” Such people would be considered “interpreters” (see 1 Cor. 14:28), as they would be frequently used in the gift of interpretation of tongues. If that is true, perhaps that is what Paul was referring to when he instructed, “let one interpret” (1 Cor. 14:27). Perhaps he was not saying that only one person should interpret all the messages in tongues; rather he was warning against “competitive interpretations” of the same message. If one interpreter interpreted a message in tongues, then another interpreter was not permitted to interpret the same message, even if he thought he could give a better interpretation.

In general, everything should be done “properly and in an orderly manner” in church gatherings—they should not be a hodgepodge of simultaneous, confusing and even competitive utterances. Additionally, believers should be sensitive to any unbelievers who may be present in their gatherings, just as Paul wrote:

If therefore the whole church should assemble together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad? (1 Cor. 14:23).

That was precisely the problem in Corinth—everyone was speaking in tongues simultaneously, and often there were no interpretations.

Should Every Christian Expect to Speak in Other Tongues?

A Daily Little Lesson

Read the transcript of this video below.

Today we’re going to continue talking about speaking in other tongues, which is certainly a biblical topic. You can find it from the lips of Jesus in Mark 16. You can find it throughout the Book of Acts. You can find it in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14.

And speaking in tongues is something that millions upon millions of Christians around the world today would say they’ve experienced and experience on a regular basis during their prayer and devotional times.

Tongues and Interpretation

Fourth, Paul listed two gifts that work together, tongues and the interpretation of tongues. In Corinth, there was an overabundance and abuse of speaking in tongues. Namely, people were speaking in tongues during the church gatherings and there was no interpretation, so no one knew what was being said. We might wonder how the Corinthians could be blamed, as it would seem the fault of the Holy Spirit for giving people the gift of tongues without giving anyone the gift of interpretation. There is a very satisfactory answer to that question which I will address in a later chapter. In any case, Paul did not forbid speaking in tongues (as do many institutional churches). Rather, he forbade the forbidding of speaking in tongues, and declared this was the Lord’s commandment (see 1 Cor. 14:37-39)![1] It was a gift that, when used properly, could edify the body and affirm God’s supernatural presence in their midst. It was God speaking through people, reminding them of His truth and His will.

Paul did make a strong case in chapter 14 for the superiority of prophecy over non-interpreted tongues-speaking. He strongly encouraged the Corinthians to desire to prophesy, and this indicates that gifts of the Spirit are more likely to be manifested among those who desire them. Similarly, Paul admonished the Thessalonian believers, “Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances” (1 Thes. 5:19). This indicates that believers can “quench” or “put out the fire of” the Spirit by harboring a wrong attitude towards the gift of prophecy. That is, no doubt, why the gift of prophecy is so rarely manifested among most believers today.


[1] I am aware, of course, that there are those who relegate all supernatural manifestations of the Spirit to the first century, at which time they supposedly ceased. Thus, we have no reason to seek what the early church experienced, and speaking in tongues is no longer valid. I have little sympathy with such people who are like modern-day Sadducees. As one who has on several occasions praised God in Japanese according to Japanese speakers who heard me, and having never learned Japanese, I know these gifts have not ceased to be given by the Holy Spirit. I also wonder why these Sadducees maintain the Holy Spirit still calls, convicts and regenerates sinners, but deny the Spirit’s work beyond those miracles. This kind of “theology” is the product of human unbelief and disobedience, has no scriptural support, and actually works against Christ’s goal. It is direct disobedience to Christ according to what Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 14:37.


The Different Uses of Other Tongues

It is of utmost importance that we understand the difference between the public use of unknown tongues and the private use. Although every Holy Spirit-baptized believer can speak in tongues at any time, that does not mean God will use him in the public gift of various kinds of tongues. The primary use of speaking in tongues is in the private devotional life of each believer. The Corinthians, however, were coming together and simultaneously speaking in tongues without any interpretation, and, of course, no one was being helped or edified by it (see 1 Cor. 14:6-12, 16-19, 23, 26-28).

One way to differentiate between the public use of tongues and the private use of tongues is to classify the private use as praying in tongues and the public use as speaking in other tongues. Paul mentions both uses in the fourteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians. What are the differences?

When we pray in tongues, our spirits are praying to God (see 1 Cor. 14:2, 14). Yet, when someone is suddenly anointed with the gift of various kinds of tongues, it is a message from God to the congregation (see 1 Cor. 14:5), and it is understood once the interpretation is given.

According to Scripture, we can pray in tongues as we will (see 1 Cor. 14:15), but the gift of various kinds of tongues only operates as the Holy Spirit wills (see 1 Cor. 12:11).

The gift of various kinds of tongues would normally be accompanied by the gift of the interpretation of tongues. The private use of praying in tongues, however, would normally not be interpreted. Paul said that when he prayed in tongues his mind was unfruitful (see 1 Cor. 14:14).

When an individual prays in tongues only he is edified (see 1 Cor. 14:4), but the entire congregation is edified when the gift of various kinds of tongues is in manifestation with the accompanying gift of the interpretation of tongues (see 1 Cor. 14:4b-5).

Every believer should pray in tongues every day as part of his daily fellowship with the Lord. One of the wonderful things about praying in tongues is that it doesn’t require the use of your mind. That means you can pray in tongues even when your mind must be occupied with your work or other things. Paul said to the Corinthians, “I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all ” (1 Cor. 14:18, emphasis added). He must have spent a lot of time speaking in tongues to outdo the entire Corinthian Church!

Paul also wrote that when we pray in tongues, we are sometimes “blessing the Lord” (1 Cor. 14:16-17). Three times I have had my “prayer language” understood by someone present who knew the language in which I was praying. All three times I was speaking in Japanese. Once I said to the Lord in Japanese, “You are so good.” Another time I said, “Thank you very much.” On another occasion I said, “Come quickly, come quickly; I am waiting.” Isn’t that amazing? I’ve never learned a word of Japanese, but at least three times I’ve “blessed the Lord” in the Japanese language!

Didn’t Paul Write that Not All Speak with Tongues?

Paul’s rhetorical question, “All do not speak with tongues, do they?” (1 Cor. 12:30) to which the obvious answer is “No,” must be harmonized with the rest of the New Testament. His question is found within the context of his instruction about the spiritual gifts, which are all manifested only as the Spirit wills (see 1 Cor. 12:11). Paul was specifically writing about the spiritual gift of “various kinds of tongues” (1 Cor. 12:10) which, according to Paul, must always be accompanied by the spiritual gift of the interpretation of tongues. This particular gift could not have been what the Corinthians were always manifesting in their church, as they were speaking in tongues publicly without there being any interpretation. We should ask, Why would the Holy Spirit impart the gift of tongues to someone in a public assembly without giving someone the gift of interpretation? The answer is that He wouldn’t. Otherwise, the Holy Spirit would be promoting something that is not God’s will.

The Corinthians must have been praying in tongues out loud during their church services, without there being any interpretation. Thus, we learn that speaking in tongues has two different uses. One is praying in tongues, which Paul said should be done privately. That usage of speaking in tongues is not accompanied by interpretation, as Paul wrote, “My spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful” (1 Cor. 14:14). Obviously, Paul didn’t always know what he was saying when he spoke in tongues. There was no understanding on his part; neither was their interpretation.

There is also, however, a use of speaking in tongues that is for the public assembly of the church, which is always accompanied by the gift of the interpretation of tongues. That occurs when the Holy Spirit moves upon someone as He wills, giving him that gift. That person speaks out publicly, and then there is an interpretation given. God, however, doesn’t use everyone like that. That is why Paul wrote that not all speak in tongues. Not all are used by God in the sudden, spontaneously-given gift of tongues, just as God doesn’t use everyone in the gift of the interpretation of tongues. That is the only way to reconcile Paul’s rhetorical question, “All do not speak with tongues, do they?” with the rest of what Scripture teaches.

I can speak in tongues any time I desire, just as Paul could. So obviously neither Paul nor myself would say that whenever we speak in tongues it is “only as the Spirit wills.” It is as we will. So what we are doing whenever we desire cannot be the gift of speaking in tongues that only occurs “as the Spirit wills.” Furthermore, Paul, like me, spoke in tongues privately without understanding what he was saying, so that cannot be the gift of tongues of which he wrote in 1 Corinthians, which he said would always be accompanied by the gift of the interpretation of tongues.

It is only on rare occasions when I’ve spoken in tongues in a public assembly. That is only when I’ve sensed the Holy Spirit move upon me to do so, although I could (just like the Corinthians were doing) pray in tongues out loud anytime I wanted to in church without there being any interpretation. When I’ve sensed the Holy Spirit move upon me with that gift, there has always been an interpretation that has edified the body.

In conclusion, we must interpret the Bible harmoniously. Those who conclude, because of Paul’s rhetorical question found in 1 Corinthians 12:30, that not all believers should speak with other tongues, are ignoring many other scriptures that do not harmonize with their interpretation. Because of their error, they are missing a great blessing from God.

Questions About Divine Healing

A Little Lessons Series

Several months ago, David Servant posed the question “How Do I Know If It’s God’s Will to Heal Me?” and spent several Little Lessons answering that question. In today’s Little Lesson series, David answers additional questions that viewers have sent to him regarding what the Bible says about divine healing. Learn more!

Questions About Divine Healing by David Servant