Speaking in tongues – a way of praying 1 Corinthians 14:1-5, 13-19

1 Corinthians 14:1 says, “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy.” “Set your hearts on spiritual gifts.” “Passionately seek the gifts of the spirit.”
We have been looking at spiritual gifts, ways in which the Holy Spirit equips Christians to serve God in the church and in the world. Last week we talked about the gift of prophecy, receiving a revelation from God and passing it on. The apostle Paul tells us that prophecy is the most important of the Gifts of the Spirit. This week I am going to explain what the gift of speaking in tongues is all about, not because I think that gift is especially important but because it has certainly been the most controversial. No spiritual gift has generated as much misunderstanding and division within the church as the gift of “speaking in tongues”. So we need to approach this topic with humility, love, prayer and open minds.
This message also comes with an advisory notice. Some people may find the subject of the gift of speaking in tongues weird, confusing and even a bit unsettling. If so, I refer you to the wise advice from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Don’t panic! Hopefully by the time I have finished, everything will make sense. But if it doesn’t, don’t worry. Don’t panic! Let’s start with the obvious question

What is the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues?
Speaking in tongues is related to the spiritual gift of prophecy because both are forms of speech which are inspired by the Holy Spirit. Bishop David Pytches of St Andrews Chorleywood gave this helpful definition. Speaking in tongues is “spontaneous utterance inspired by the Holy Spirit, where the normal voice organs are used, but the conscious mind plays no part. The languages spoken or sung are entirely unlearned by the speaker.” Speech directly inspired by the Holy Spirit.
To begin with, we need to recognise that there are three distinct expressions of this spiritual gift of speaking in tongues.
1. Speech not understood by the speaker but recognised by hearers as a known human language.
This is clearly what happened on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:4-12). The first Christians heard the sound of a mighty wind and saw tongues of fire coming to rest on each of them. We read,
Acts 2 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: ‘Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? (Acts gives a list of 15 different nationalities and languages) 11 … – we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!’ 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, ‘What does this mean?’
The disciples were praising God in languages they had not learned. That spiritual gift as it was expressed in Acts 2 is still happening today. There are many reliable accounts from around the world of believers speaking in tongues in a recognised human language that they haven’t learned. Over the last century some people have thought that the gift of gift of speaking tongues should always involve only recognisable human languages, but Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians believe this is far too limiting. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:1 “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels”. 1 Corinthians 14 makes clear that there are forms and uses of the spiritual gift of tongues other than speaking in recognised human languages. Sometimes tongues will not be in a language anybody else speaks. Which brings us to the second expression of the gift.
2. The use of speaking in tongues followed by interpretation in corporate worship
1 Corinthians 14 26 What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. 28 If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.
When the earliest churches gathered in worship, in Corinth at least, part of their worship included praise or prayer expressed using the gift of speaking in tongues. They then expected the Holy Spirit to give a spiritual gift of “interpretation of tongues” to somebody else to express the meaning of the praise or prayer in the language everybody would understand. The interpretation was not a simple translation (which would be a different word). The interpretation is rather an explanation of the prayer or praise just offered. Normally tongues will be praise or prayer addressed to God and the interpretation will express that in the common language. Sometimes the combination of the speaking in tongues followed by the interpretation could be the equivalent of a prophecy. 1 Corinthians 14 shows us using these spiritual gifts in corporate worship is acceptable and pleasing to God. But Paul does say more about how they should be used.
1 Corinthians 14 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. 28 If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.
Elsewhere Paul encourages all who speak in tongues to seek the gift of interpretation as well. He discourages speaking in tongues in corporate worship without interpretations. Examples of this kind of speaking in tongues followed by an interpretation or explanation are also reported in a wide variety of churches today.
Beyond speaking in tongues in recognised human languages and the use of tongues with interpretations in worship there is a third aspect of the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues which we find in 1 Corinthians 14 and in the experience of many Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians today.
3. Speaking in tongues as a private prayer-language.
Over the last hundred years the Pentecostal Tradition has re-introduced the practice of using the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues in private prayer and worship by individual believers. Paul is talking about this kind of prayer in the passage of 1 Corinthians 14 which we just read.
2 For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. … 4 Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves
Praying using the gift of speaking in tongues is a form of prayer inspired by the Holy Spirit. In it our spirits communicate directly with God, in some way “bypassing” our minds. It edifies and builds up the speaker. This is as just as valid and beneficial as “ordinary prayer” in a language we understand. We can deduce that Paul himself prayed in that manner.
18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.
Since Paul says that in gathered worship he prefers to use words everybody understands to instruct others we can conclude that he used to exercise the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues in his own private prayers. By doing so, he says, his spirit is praying.
14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays,… I will pray with my spirit, … I will sing with my spirit.
Richard Foster calls this kind of prayer where our spirit communicates speaks directly to God “heart prayer.” Paul writes about a similar form of “heart prayer” in Romans 8.
Romans 8 26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.
This private use of the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues would make it unusual among the spiritual gifts because it primarily builds up the individual believer, but only indirectly blesses the wider church. That said, there are also instances of prophecies and messages of knowledge and messages of wisdom which are just for the hearing of the believer who receives them and are not to be passed on to the church. Very many Christians today claim to share this experience of the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues as a private language for prayer, including a number of us here today and that includes me. The gifts of the Holy Spirit were not just for the Early Church – they are still for Christians today.
People who use the gift claim that speaking in tongues is helpful to them in at least three areas of prayer. Firstly, in praise and worship. Some people describe the gift of tongues as a “love language”’ with God. Secondly, in intercession. Especially when the person is uncertain what to pray for, praying in tongues is a valid way of interceding with God. Thirdly, in spiritual warfare. The gift of speaking in tongues is very helpful in deliverance ministry in direct confrontation with evil and the demonic.
Some questions you may have –
Doesn’t Paul teach that speaking in tongues is unimportant and unhelpful to the church?
This is certainly not what 1 Corinthians 14 teaches us. Here Paul is saying that in corporate worship everything must be done decently and in order. In corporate worship, praying in tongues is unhelpful. The problem with speaking in tongues in Corinth was that Christians who had that gift were exercising it in public as a way of showing off. Paul’s criticisms of that kind of public exhibitionism do not cast any doubts on the value of tongues in private prayer. “Do not forbid speaking in tongues,” he says (v 39). Just use the gift properly!
Some people think that Paul thought the gift of praying in tongues was unimportant because he puts it last in his lists of gifts in 1 Corinthians 12. Paul clearly believed that there were other things which were more important, such as prophecy and love. And sadly some Christian traditions have tended to over-emphasise speaking in tongues. But we should not dismiss any spiritual gift or any activity of God the Holy Spirit as unimportant. Paul is enthusiastic about praying in tongues. “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues”. (v5) “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.” (v 18)
Is all speaking in tongues genuine and from God?
No. There are instances of tongues-speaking in many other religions and also in occult practices. Many of these are surely of satanic origin. It is also true that phenomena very similar to tongues can be induced psychologically through emotion and hysteria. We are called to “test the spirits”, and the spiritual gift of discernment, also called the gift of “distinguishing spirits” helps here. But just because a gift can be counterfeited does not mean that the real thing doesn’t exist.
What is the point of praying in tongues if the person is not able to understand what they are saying?
There are many benefits of speaking in tongues. Some Christians find find it gives a genuine liberty in prayer, taking prayer to a new dimension and making prayer a joy. It can give a greater depth to praise and worship, and a greater intimacy with God. Tongues accompanied by an interpretation is one channel God chooses to speak to His Church. There are reliable accounts of tongues which are human languages being recognised by others both guiding Christians and bringing non-Christians to salvation. There are also reliable accounts of praying in tongues releasing other blessings – for example of addicts coming off drugs without any painful withdrawal symptoms as they call on God by praying in tongues.
We live in an age which can be too cerebral. The gift of speaking in tongues enables communication with God at a spiritual and emotional level to supplement our rational approach to Christian things. Speaking in tongues is an exercise in faith.
Should all Christians be able to speak in tongues?
Paul would like all believers to speak in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:5). He feels the same about prophecy. However the Greek form of the question in 1 Corinthians 12:30, “Do all speak in tongues?” ,“ou me”, clearly demands the answer “NO”. Paul was saying, “Surely all do not speak in tongues?” 1 Corinthians 12 makes it clear that Paul does not expect any of the gifts of the Spirit to be exercised by every believer, and that surely applies to the gift of speaking in tongues.
At first, Pentecostal churches expected all their members to speak in tongues. Studies show that today only about half do. Most Charismatics would say that the gift of tongues will not be given to all believers. However, all believers should be encouraged to ask God to see if it will be given to them. Exercising this (or any other) spiritual gift should never be a cause of pride. Not exercising a particular gift of the Holy Spirit should never lead to discouragement or jealousy.
Let me remind you of what I said at the beginning. Some people may find this subject of the gift of speaking in tongues weird, confusing and even a bit unsettling. If that is you, don’t panic! The spiritual gift of speaking in tongues is simply another way of praying. So how do you feel about this? If God wanted you to exercise the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues how would you respond? Next week we will talk much more about what we can each do to move on with the Holy Spirit and to release the gifts of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in our church. But in case you can’t wait until next week to find out let me give you the short version. Ask God. Just ask.
Luke 11 9 ‘So I say to you: ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
We don’t have any reason to be afraid when we ask God to work in our lives.
11 ‘Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’
1 Corinthians 14:1 says, “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit,”
How much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!
Ask. Just ask!

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