The Proper Purpose of Tongues
Tim Temple


I Corinthians deals with the general concept of the Church as the Body of Christ, the fact that you and I as believers in Jesus Christ are literally His arms and legs here on this earth now that He has gone back to Heaven. In that general section of chapters 12-l4, chapter 14 really focuses on the actual conduct of the services in the church. We have divided the chapter into three parts. First, in verses 1-5, “The Preferability of Prophecy,” which we have already talked about, which has to do with the importance of the exposition of Scripture and the clear teaching of God's Word in the public worship services. Then in verses 6-25, “The Proper Purpose of Tongues,” which we will discuss in this lesson. Then in verses 26-40, we have “The Proper Pursuit of Worship.”

In looking at verses 6-25, we have a lot of ground to cover, and the verses hang together so we are not going to be able to stop in the middle of a section, so please stay with me because I will be moving as quickly as I can, but we need to look at this section as a unit.

We have seen in our last study that one of the problems at Corinth was the exaltation of that unusual, attractive gift of speaking in tongues. One of the major problems Paul dealt with in the first part of the book was the fact that they exalted men, they exalted ministry. They were like many Christians today, very fascinated with that which was showy, that which was unusual and that which was exciting. Throughout the book, Paul has put those things in their proper perspective. He has pointed out that those men they were exalting were godly men, worthy of attention and worthy of respect; but on the other hand, God is the one who deserves that central focus.

As we have looked at what Paul had to say about spiritual gifts, he has pointed out that all of the gifts are worthy of respect and have their own proper place of importance, but unless those gifts are used in the love and exaltation of Jesus Christ, they are really worthless. So without down-playing the men that God has used or the gifts that God has given, the focus of the book is always on the exaltation of Jesus Christ.

Distinction In Sounds

In the first five verses, Paul dealt with the preferability of prophecy, what we would call today the gift of teaching, the importance of the clear teaching of the Word of God over the other things that are done in the worship service, legitimate as those things may be. That brings us today to the second section of the chapter, which I have already pointed out has to do with the proper purpose of the gift of tongues in verses 6-25. Paul begins that discussion with some reminders of the fact that there is a distinction of sounds in the world in general, more so in our day even than in Paul's day. It is hard for us to keep that in mind, because there is a jumble of sounds all around us. Yet the Scripture tells us in the first few verses of the passage that there is a distinction to be made in sounds. The believers in Corinth were giving top billing to the more spectacular gifts, as many Christians do today, so these verses relate God's method of operation to that type of emphasis.

One of God's principles of operation is the distinctiveness of sound. This distinction can be seen in the meetings of the church, according to verse 6:

I Corinthians 14

6Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine?

Here Paul uses himself and the Corinthian church services as an example. He says, “What blessing would there be if I came to you in your church and gave you the sermon in a language you did not understand? If I spoke to you in Chinese, what blessing would there be?” This distinction of sounds can also be found in musical instruments, according to verse 7:

I Corinthians 14

7And even things without life giving sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped?

Another illustration of the same point: If someone stands up and plays the trombone, the flute or whatever musical instrument and just plays one note over and over again or even holds series of notes but with no tune in mind, we are not blessed and would not even consider it music at all. Verse 8 goes on with that point. In military signals, verse 8 says:

I Corinthians 14

8For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?

If the bugler plays the call to arms, that is fine. If he just gets up and plays something out of his own mind, without distinction, it doesn't communicate the message. Even in miscellaneous sounds this principle holds true. Look at verse 10:

I Corinthians 14

10There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification.

We don't have time to develop all of that, but it is a point of Scripture that all the sounds in the universe have their own importance, but all of these are illustrations of a specific point, and that is God's use of various kinds of sounds. This is tied in with the gift of tongues in verses 9 and 11. Look back at verse 9. We skipped over it a while ago. Verse 9 says:

I Corinthians 14

9So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air.

Then skip down to verse 11:

I Corinthians 14

11Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me.

The point is, of course, that no matter how meaningful the sounds may be, if you don't understand the sounds, they are useless. It's like talking to the animals. We have three dogs at our house, a rabbit, a parrot and a parakeet and a daughter that loves all that stuff, so we spend a lot of time talking to the animals, and they talk back to us. But I couldn't begin to tell you what Champ, the dog, or H. Ross Parrot, the parrot, tells me even though we talk back and forth a lot. We talk to the animals, but there is no communication there, and that is the point Paul is making here. You can make the sounds, but unless there is distinction in the sounds you cannot really communicate, you cannot really understand. So this is the principle of the distinction of sounds.

The Desirability of Interpretation

With that in mind, in verses 12-l9, Paul is going to build on that the desirability of interpretation. First he says that the recognition of sounds is so important that believers should seek the spiritual gifts that are understandable enough to edify other people. Look at verse 12:

I Corinthians 14

12Even so ye, forasmuch as ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church.

Another reminder of the principle that Paul dealt with thoroughly in the chapters before this is the fact that the spiritual gifts are not primarily for the user of the gifts, but rather they are for the benefit of those to whom we minister with our spiritual gifts. He elaborated at some length that we need to be careful that we do not allow ourselves to become exalted because of whatever particular gift we may have. We need to be careful that we don't allow other people to pay too much attention to us because of the particular gift that we have, because that is getting things backward. Spiritual gifts are for the edification of others. If others are blessed by our ministry, that's fine for them to tell us about it, but the real focus in all of the spiritual gifts is how those gifts can minister to others around us.

The same thing is true of the vocal gifts, the audible gifts. So the practical application of all of this is that if you seek the gift of tongues, you should also seek the gift of interpretation of tongues. Look at verse 13:

I Corinthians 14

13Wherefore let him that speaketh in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret.

The explanation of this point is given in verses 14 and 15. He's carrying on from verse 13. Without interpretation, you see, even though the emotions are stimulated, the mind gains no profit. Look at verse 14:

I Corinthians 14

14For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful.

My spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful. Incidentally, this verse shows that the intellect does have a place in the Christian life. We have been through an era–in the last decade or so we have come out of that–when some Christians have had the idea that Christianity is a leap of faith, and it doesn't really matter how much you understand or how clearly you can think through it. But this Scripture tells us that the intellect is very important. Understanding, the use of the mind, is very important in Christianity, but verse 15 says it's preferable to have emotion and intellect. When we exalt one or the other, we get in trouble. Look at verse 15:

I Corinthians 14

15What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.

Let me digress from the immediate purpose of this verse to make an application which I think fits very well in our public worship services. It says something about the way we select our music. When we select our music we need to be careful that it is chosen not just because it satisfies emotions. Sometimes people choose music because they like the rhythm or because they like the beat or because they like the tune. Now all those things have their place. They are to be considered in choosing our music, but the important thing is that it be intellectually and spiritually stimulating. This is true not only in choosing our music in our worship services, but in your own personal choices of music. It's fine if it has a beat that you like and a tune that you like or a rhythm that you like, but the best use of our time is to also select music that has some scriptural content and that has some meaningful information in it. Edifying truth in the singing also applies to thinking about the words and the meaning of the words when we are singing the songs. One of the disadvantages, or at least one of the weak areas, in attending church regularly is that we become so accustomed to the hymns that we sing them without really thinking about the words and the message at all. I wonder sometimes at the end of a service how many in the congregation could name any of the songs we sang at the beginning of the service.

The Scripture tells us that music is important in God's plan. It's a part of our intellectual stimulation. It is part of our reflection on the Lord. So he says, “I will pray with the Spirit , I will sing with the Spirit, I will sing with the understanding,” and then he also applies that to prayer. The same applications are made to prayer in this verse. It's very easy to listen to someone else pray without even thinking about what they are saying. That is partly because they are not talking to us; they are talking to God. It is easy to let our minds wander when someone else is praying. It is easy to let our minds wander in a moment of silent prayer or in a prayer meeting where some are praying audibly and where the rest of us are supposed to be praying silently. Paul says, “I will pray with the understanding also.” Those are important practical points that we need to keep in mind.

Importance of Understanding

Verse 16 brings out another interesting point. If the gift of tongues is exercised without the gift of an interpreter, the unlearned will not be able to understand. Look at verse 16:

I Corinthians 14

16Else when thou shalt bless with the spirit, how shall he that occupieth the room of the unlearned say Amen at thy giving of thanks, seeing he understandeth not what thou sayest?

Evidently in the early Church they had a special place reserved for visitors and for newcomers. Apparently the newcomers would sit in that section for several weeks perhaps or for some period of time as they began to attend the church, but the application for today is the same. Even though we do not have those reserved places, I could go into a long dissertation about how handy it is that all of you sit basically in the same pews every week. We all tend to sit in exactly the same places week after week, and that's all right. I suppose you know exactly where the air conditioner vent is going to hit you when you sit there and the lights are better, whatever the reasons are for choosing. That's one thing the preacher doesn't have to go through, deciding where he is going to sit on Sunday. We have our own places in the church, and they had areas specifically reserved, but he says, “When you speak in tongues in the public worship services, the person who is new, the person who has just come to the church, perhaps he is there for the first time, is not going to be edified unless he has the gift of interpretation.” You may give thanks eloquently. You may pray or preach eloquently, but if you do it in Swahili what good is it? How does that edify the man who speaks only German, English or Greek or whatever? In verse 17:

I Corinthians 14

17For thou verily givest thanks well, but the other is not edified.

There is nothing wrong, Paul says, with the use of the gift of tongues in it's proper context, but when it is used in the public worship service, especially with no interpretation, then no matter how eloquently you may pray or speak whatever you are speaking in that unknown tongue, it is not edifying to the church. That is the overall point that Paul is making. The gift of tongues is an inferior gift in the sense that it must be coupled with an interpretation in order to be understood, whereas the gift of prophecy or the gift of teaching is immediately understandable. Now there are no sour grapes or jealousies here. It's not that Paul is a prophet and therefore down on the tongues-speakers. In verse 18, it points out that He had the gift of tongues himself, and so he was not putting that gift or those who had that gift down. It would have only been logical, of course, for Paul, who was a world traveler, to have the gift of tongues. He went many places where he didn't speak the language, and apparently God had given him the ability to speak languages he had never studied. As we have pointed out several times in this section, that is what the gift of tongues is. The gift of tongues is the ability to speak a language one has not studied.

The Priority of Public Worship

In Romans, chapter 9, Paul said, “I could wish that I myself were accursed for the Jew's sake”. He was so anxious to reach the Jews with the Gospel that it is very logical that God would have given him the gift of tongues, but his basic philosophy in this is to let all things be done for edification. That is the point. Our purpose in the exercise of our gifts, whatever those gifts may be, whether it is the gift of tongues or some other gift, is to edify those to whom we minister. That is the rule of thumb for any church activity. That is a good way of distinguishing the gimmicks from the true ministry of the Word of God: Does it edify those who hear? There is a difference, you see, in entertainment and edification. Entertainment may keep people happy and may bring people back, but the purpose that God has for our worship services is that we be edified, that we be built up, that we be strengthened. From the context it is clear that edification along with entertainment, if that's not too strong a word, is possible, and what we should do is seek both. The most important thing is the teaching of the Word of God.

Fellowship has its place. Music has its place. Christian drama has its place. All kinds of things God uses have their place, but in the public worship service the most edifying thing that takes place is the exposition of the Word of God.

An Admonition to Maturity

If all this is true, where do tongues fit in? What is the purpose of the gift of tongues, if it is not the primary way of edification in the public worship services? In verses 20-25, we have the demonstration of that purpose. The first thing that we find in that regard is an admonition for maturity. In verse 20:

I Corinthians 14

20Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men.

It is as if Paul is saying, “Now muster all of your grace, because I'm going to speak very straightly to you; I'm going to speak very frankly to you, so gird up the loins of your minds and get ready and be mature about what I am about to say. Don't be childish.”

What does it mean to be childlike in understanding, when it says, “Do not be children in understanding.”? Many suggestions have been made, but the consensus seems to be that it means that children always choose the glittering, or at least very often choose that which is glittering, that which is attractive regardless of its worth. There are kids who do it, but very few take the time to really look at the value or the quality of that. They just choose the thing that is the prettiest, the thing that is the most exciting, and Paul says, “In spiritual things, do not be like children; don't choose just that which is the most glittering, that which is the most exciting.” In fact, he says in passing, “The only area believers should imitate children is in the area of malice.” A child can be angry one day and perfectly okay the next. In fact, a child can be angry in one hour and be perfectly okay in the next. Sometimes it takes longer than that, but most of the time little children do not hold onto anger very long. Paul says that that is what we as Christians should do. In our anger and in our malice, be like children, but in our spiritual standards let's be adults, let's be mature, let's look at the overall value of whatever it is we are choosing spiritually and not just at how glittering or attractive it might be on the surface.

A Sign to Unbelievers

That is his admonition for maturity, but in verses 2l and 22, he adds some exposition of Scripture. In verses 21 and 22, he is going to quote from the Old Testament. He says in verse 2l and 22:

I Corinthians 14

21In the law it is written, With men of other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people; and yet for all that will they not hear me, saith the LORD.
22Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not: but prophesying serveth not for them that believe not, but for them which believe.

Here Paul adds some exposition from the Old Testament in his teaching about tongues. He's quoting from Isaiah, chapter 28. Now listen carefully. There are many human explanations for the gift of tongues and because of the limitations on time we can't discuss them; but I had listed about fifteen purposes that various people who either had the gift of tongues or seek the gift of tongues have listed for that gift, reasons why they wanted that gift and reasons why they exercised that gift. Listen, the only place in the Scripture where the purpose of tongues is given is verse 22 of chapter 14. Look at that verse again. This is the only scriptural reason ever given for the gift of tongues: “Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to those that believe but to unbelievers.” The prophesying is not for unbelievers, but for those who believe. Tongues are for a sign to unbelievers.

Isaiah, chapter 28, elaborates on the fact that Israel was supposed to be God's messenger to the rest of the world; but if you know very much about the history of Israel, you know that they failed in that purpose. In fact, they refused to accomplish that purpose. God spoke to them in Isaiah, chapter 28, and He said, “With men of other tongues will I speak to you.” God said to Israel, “One of the curses that I'm going to place on you is that instead of your being the messengers of the Gospel to others, the time is going to come when you are going to hear the Gospel from others.” What a sad thing that the messengers that God chose actually wound up being the recipients of the message rather than the givers of the message. God said there in Isaiah, chapter 28, “With men of other tongues will I speak to you…”, and so the specific fulfillment of this was in the captivity of Israel by the Assyrians. They were taken out of God's mainstream.

The spiritual fulfillment of it was at the day of Pentecost when Jews from all over the world were present for the observance of the Feast of Pentecost, for the Feast of the Passover, and God gave the gift of tongues for the first time there in Acts, chapter 2. We read that men heard the Gospel in their own language. These were Jews. That is why they were there, for the observance of the Passover. They had drifted all over the world because of the dispersion as part of the curse God had put on Israel, and they all spoke the languages of the countries to which they had migrated. But now they were hearing the Gospel in languages other than Hebrew. The tables had been turned, you see. God's purpose had come full circle. Now those original givers of the message, the descendants of those original givers of the message, who were giving it in the Hebrew originally, are now hearing the message of the Gospel in other tongues. Even though it was in tongues that they spoke, because they had moved around to various parts of the world, they were hearing the Gospel in other tongues.

On every occasion where the gift of tongues is described in the New Testament after the Day of Pentecost, it was always in the context of new believers being added to the Church. There are references to speaking in tongues in I Corinthians, but those references are corrective references. Where an experience is described in the Scripture of the gift of tongues being exercised, it is always in the context of new believers being added to the Church. That's the context of the gift of tongues. In fact, it is in the context of the Gospel being given to other nationalities–not just new believers, but specifically other nationalities.

Some references that you can look at when you have the time are Acts, chapter 10, verse 46, where the Gospel was expanded to the Romans; Acts, chapter 19, verse 6, where the disciples of John the Baptist, who had not not fully understood the Gospel of Jesus Christ, were added to the Body of Christ. In Acts, chapter 8, verse 17, the Samaritans, who were hated by the Jews, began to hear the Gospel and be saved; and Acts, chapter 8, verse 17, tells us that there the same signs that had accompanied those other groups accompanied the Samaritans.

On the basis of these verses, you see, speaking in tongues is not really valid unless there are unsaved Jews present or unless it is the addition of nations to the Body of Christ. Speaking in tongues always has to do with evangelism, and it always has to do with a language group.

That doesn't fit with the ten or fifteen or so number of reasons that I had of secular people who have given their reasons for the gift of tongues. Let me tell you something. It does fit with what God gives as His reason for the gift of tongues. It cuts across the grain of what most of the Charismatic movement says today and most of the Vineyard movement, but it is what God says about the gift of tongues.

The last thing in the world that I want to do is offend anyone. That's one of my weaknesses in fact, and if you are here today and you have had a blessing from the gift of tongues, please do not accept this as any kind of criticism of you or of your experience, but please do consider the scriptural facts. Search the Scriptures, for there is where the answers are. In them you have eternal life.

Reaction of Unbelievers

Finally, in verse 23, we have the application for edification, the wrong reaction that can come to the gift of tongues:

I Corinthians 14

23If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad?

The unbelievers that he is talking about here would be unbelieving Gentiles because he has already touched on the unbelieving Jews, but really unbelievers of any kind. If they come into a worship service where the focus is on speaking in tongues or even where people are speaking in tongues, Paul's assessment is, writing under the direction of the Holy Spirit, that they are going to think you are crazy.

Down through the years the Pentecostal movement has always been the brunt of the jokes, hasn't it? It has always been the movement, the area of Christianity, that has been most looked down upon because it is just not understood. When the gift of tongues is misused in public worship services, the Word of God says they will think you are out of your mind, but the right reaction to the gift of prophecy and teaching is in verses 24 and 25:

I Corinthians 14

24But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all:
25And thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth.

If that same unbeliever comes in and hears the clear teaching of the Word of God–in Paul's day, he heard the prophecy of the Scripture; in our day he hears the teaching of the Scripture–his reaction is very different. Many times that unbeliever will accept Jesus Christ as his Savior as he hears the teaching of the Word of God. This is not meant to say that every unbeliever who hears the teaching of the Word of God is going to accept Jesus Christ as his Savior the first time that he hears it, but he is talking in a general sense about those who come into a worship service as strangers and unbelievers.

Incidentally, here is a breakdown of what happens at the time of salvation. All that is said in the teaching of the Word of God examines or judges his life in verse 24. The shortcomings in his life that he has rationalized away are shown for what they are, to be sin, and he falls down and worships. He accepts Christ as his Savior from that sin. That is the outline of the way salvation occurs in our hearts and is accomplished by the teaching of the Word of God. Conviction of sin comes not from the glittering gift of tongues or any other kind of entertainment, but it comes from the clear exposition and teaching of the Word of God. So this passage not only shows us the proper purpose of tongues, but also what results from the clear teaching of the Word of God. This is why we must keep the Word of God as the central focal point of our worship services.


It's interesting to me that this passage comes along at what is basically the last Sunday of our 50th year. Technically speaking, next Sunday is the last Sunday of our 50th year, but in the last time that we are actually looking at the text of Scripture together before the day of celebration, there is an emphasis on that which I think we would all agree has been the focal point of this ministry all these years, the teaching of the Word of God. Some would say that has been overemphasized perhaps, that the Word of God has been taught at the expense of other things that other churches do. Certainly that is possible, because we are human beings who have leadership in this church, and it's always possible to overemphasize this or that; but let me tell you something, we have the basis of the Word of God on which to emphasize the teaching of the Word of God. This is a principle that is spelled out in this passage clearly and in others as well, and by God's grace, in the coming fifty years, or whatever number of years there may be before the Lord comes back, we will continue to teach the Word of God because that is where edification comes. That is where salvation comes, and that is what it is all about anyway. Why are we here? To understand our salvation, to proclaim it to others, to be equipped for the proclaiming of it to others as we go out from here.

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