It should be pointed out that contrary to popular opinion there is no such thing as the “gift of tongues.” When listing the nine gifts of the Holy Spirit Paul specifically wrote “various kinds of tongues” (ESV). There are various, or different types of tongues both in manifestation and manner of ministry.
Not distinguishing between this variety has caused confusion for many. What applies to one type may not apply to another, and such conflicts often produce a negative view concerning tongues on the whole.
It is easily recognized that most of the Biblical commentaries begin with a negative view in mind. Paul’s view remained positive — “Now I want you all to speak in tongues” (1 Cor 14:5) and, “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you” (1 Cor 14:18).
I believe it’s important from the outset that we approach the subject with these two thoughts in mind.
First, there are a variety of tongues, or various types of speaking in tongues. Paul taught this variety exists in type of manifestation and in the manner by which tongues are ministered.
Second, Paul’s approach to the subject was not corrective, but instructive. This is important to see. Paul was not fighting against the manifestation of tongues in the Church, he was fighting for the proper and full use of this spiritual gift.
What are the varieties of this spiritual gift? What difference or types did Paul mention?
Let’s examine the language or dialect of the tongue: Paul writes, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels…” (1 Cor 13:1). The former part of this verse echoes what was experienced on the day of Pentecost. One type of speaking in tongues is to supernaturally speak in a known language of man.
When the disciples received the baptism of the Holy Spirit they “began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4) and were heard by many to be speaking “in the tongues of men,” or as Luke records the crowd saying, “how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? (Acts 2:8).
Notice this is only one type of manifestation and not the sum total of supernatural experience. Remember, in the same breath Paul wrote “tongues of men” and then finished his sentence with “the tongues of angels.”
As a young boy I listened to a minister share how he had examined the issue of speaking in tongues. He was an educated man and spoke several languages. Joined by several friends with a linguistic background, they attended a Church service where tongues were evident. Together, this group of men represented nearly a dozen different languages. His final remark cast a very negative shadow of doubt over speaking in tongues. Why? During the entire service he had not heard one manifestation of speaking in tongues that he could identify as being a known language.
Apart from the obvious (that there are hundreds of known languages beyond the scale of their small group) I remember thinking to myself, what language do angels speak?
Another type of speaking in tongues is to supernaturally speak in the language of angels. There will be then — one might assume — manifestations of speaking in tongues that go beyond the known languages of men.
Beginning in 1 Corinthians 14, Paul says much more about the exercise of this gift in its variety and diversity. Keep in mind that variety and diversity are a common element in his teaching about spiritual things: there are a variety of gifts, administrations, and operations working in the harmony of the trinity, (1 Cor 12:4-6).
Consider 1 Corinthians 14:2 in its entirety: “For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries.”
This verse leads us to make several general observations. First, notice the direction of speech: he does not speak to men, but to God. This is a main point in Paul’s mind. To whom are we speaking? This type of manifestation of speaking in tongues is not directed to man. It is directed to God. This direction is implied for the reason that “no man understands” the one speaking. God alone understands, as “in the spirit he is speaking mysteries.”
Here is a good place to notice one point of confusion. It is often said that speaking in tongues should always be interpreted. If not directly stated, it is common to infer that tongues without interpretation is at least improper if not entirely wrong.
Without a proper understanding of the “variety of tongues” this false conclusion is easy to make. Paul seems to disagree, and we would do well to take note.
There is a type of speaking in tongues that goes without interpretation entirely. In fact, it is not intended to be understood by man. It is not spoken to man, it is directed to God. It does not benefit other men, but only benefits the speaker. Verse four informs us that the one speaking in this type of tongue does not benefit the Church, but “edifies himself.”
Let’s continue further in Paul’s thought. Another type of speaking in tongues is brought out in the following verses. “Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you…” (1 Cor 14:6).
Again, notice the direction of speech. “I come to you… what shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you…” Here we have a manifestation of speaking in tongues that is not directed to God. This is clearly directed to other men. Paul shows us that speaking with other tongues can be manifested in direct speech, man to man, and contrary to that type found in verse two requires some form of interpretation. “What shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine?”
These four forms of interpretation (revelation, knowledge, prophesying, and doctrine) require a fuller discussion. For the moment, let’s acknowledge that this type of speaking in tongues carries with it the need of interpretation — for the same reason the type of tongue mentioned in verse two does not.
In verse two, the type of speaking in tongues is directed to God, not man, and therefore no man understands. In verse six, the speaking in tongues is not directed to God, but clearly directed man to man. This requires the accompanying gift of interpretation of tongues, or as Paul said, “What shall I profit you?” For the next fourteen verses, Paul continues this logic and presents the role of speaking in tongues with interpretation to benefit the Church.
Then in verse twenty-one we see another type of speaking in tongues, and again the direction of speech is a point of distinction. Notice, in a quote from Isaiah we find God speaking to man through the gift of tongues. “With men of other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people…” (1 Cor 14:21). Here, the role of speaking in tongues, as a message from God delivered to His people is made clear. It is a sign gift insomuch as the Prophet Isaiah saw it would be rejected and spurned. Sadly, this prophetic utterance concerning speaking in tongues has been thoroughly fulfilled in the history of the Church.
Paul then goes on to treat of order in the Church, the ministry of Prophets, that all things be done decently and in order. His main intent is that “all things be done unto edifying” (1 Cor 14:26).
In brief, we do our best to grasp what Paul meant when he said “various kinds of tongues” are given to believers.
First in manifestation, we have tongues of men and tongues of angels. Speaking in tongues is a supernatural utterance in a language known or unknown to men.
Second in ministry, tongues are exercised in at least three forms: man toward God, man to man, and finally God toward man.