The Proper Function of Tongues

Hope for Today (English)
Hope for Today (English)
The Proper Function of Tongues
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1 Corinthians 14:10-22

We may wonder where all the languages came from. We might even wonder where language itself came from. Those who advocate that we came from lower animals have a problem. Lower animals have no languages. Of course, they argue, this is a part of the evolutionary process. Yet evolutionists suggest that language began when cavemen uttered a series of grunts, which later became words. But the study of languages has revealed little about their origins. Encyclopedia Britannica suggests that languages go back about five thousand years.

The Bible tells us the first man, Adam, had language skills sufficient to name all the animals. Notice what the Bible says in Genesis 2:19-20:

And out of the ground the Lord formed every beast of the field and every fowl of the air and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them. And whatsoever Adam called every living creature that was the name thereof. And Adam gave names to all the cattle and to the fowl of the air and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a help suitable for him.

The Bible also reveals that God spoke into being the universe and all in it. At least nine times in Genesis 1 we find the statement “And God said.” We have no other adequate explanation for the beginning of language except for the Bible. Some linguists have argued that there is sufficient evidence among the various languages of the world to indicate that there was once a universal language. Of course, that is what the Bible teaches us. In fact, the Bible teaches us in Genesis 11 that God disbursed languages to frustrate the plan of the human race to build a tower to heaven. Observe Genesis 11:6-9:

And Lord said, Behold the people are one, and they have all one language, and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them which they imagine to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from there did the Lord scatter them aboard upon the face of all the earth.

As we study language, we learn that there are several different language families. There is the Indo-European language family, consisting of English, German, Latin, Greek, and others. Then there is the Semitic language family, consisting of Hebrew, Arabic, and similar languages. It is interesting that God revealed His will and word to us in two very distinct languages—Hebrew and Greek.

Paul was conversant in at least two languages. He spoke Hebrew to the crowd in the temple when he was arrested. And He spoke Greek to the elite in Athens. As far as we know, he wrote all his letters in Greek.

In I Corinthians 14 Paul took up the question of languages in the body of Christ when believers get together. Our Bible translates the word languages as “tongues.” Now I will discuss THE PROPER FUNCTION OF TONGUES, from I Corinthians 14:10-22:

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

11 Therefore 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.

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

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

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

15 What 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.

16 Else 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?

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

18 I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all:

19 Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that [by my voice] I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an [unknown] tongue.

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

21 In 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.

22 Wherefore 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.

Paul’s first ARGUMENT in The Proper Function of Tongues deals with:

THE LIMITATION OF TONGUES

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

11 Therefore 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.

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

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

The apostle said there are a multitude of voices or languages in the world. Each has its peculiar sound. Some sounds carry across from one language to another, which is what makes language families. The Indo-European language family has a number of sounds that come across in English, German, Spanish, and French; but they are specific sounds.

Each language has its peculiar sound. When that sound is strange to the hearer, there is no comprehension. Mrs. Yoder and I have traveled to a number of countries in the world. We have found it difficult in certain areas to understand people because we were not conversant in their language. In 1962, when we were traveling through the Bible lands, we went to the market to buy food. There was no way I could say what I wanted. So we pointed to the vegetable and then indicated we wanted a half kilo or a kilo. When the clerk would say, “How much?” I would indicate please write it down so I could see what the cost was, for he used Arabic numerals.

Once when we were traveling in Yugoslavia in winter, we were caught in a snowstorm. We followed the snowplow until we came to a pass where the snow was too deep. The truck driver came back and, as he knew I would speak English, said, as best he could, “Snechdief meter, nix.” That meant “the snow is a meter deep; you can’t get through.” So we turned around.

Then I went to a coffee shop and found some men playing a game. I tried to communicate, so I said, “Is there anyone here who speaks English?” No answer. Then I tried my German on them: “Sprechen sie fleichtdeutsch,” but nothing happened. One of them spoke to me in French. But I don’t understand French. So there was no communication. When the language is not common, there is no communication.

The apostle Paul spoke of how the Corinthians were zealous for spiritual gifts. But they should have been zealous about edifying the church. The speaker in a tongue or language should hope to translate from one language to another. I am glad to tell you that our radio broadcast is being translated into five languages—Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, and Guarani.

Speaking in a language that a person doesn’t understand means the speaker would be speaking only with his spirit, not with his mind. So he should pray to be able to translate so the hearers would be edified. Therefore tongues are limited: if there is no translator, the speaker has no reason to speak.

The second argument the apostle uses is:

THE APPROPRIATION OF TONGUES

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

15 What 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.

16 Else 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?

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

18I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all:

19 Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that [by my voice] I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an [unknown] tongue.

Paul does not say that tongues are sinful, but he does say it is important we understand how to appropriate tongues if indeed, they are used in the assembly. Understanding is essential for communication. When one prays in a tongue, he prays only in the spirit; he doesn’t pray in his mind, Paul says. And when he sings in tongues, he sings in the spirit, but he does not sing with his mind. Then when somebody comes into the congregation and hears someone speaking in tongues, he is not able to endorse it; he is not able to support it with his Amen because he doesn’t understand what is going on. You wouldn’t want to say Amen to something when you didn’t know what was happening, would you? So the support of Amen comes from understanding what is spoken.

It appears the apostle Paul is saying that tongues are to be used in private, in the confines of your own home and your own spirit, unless there is somebody who can translate. I prefer to use the word translate instead of the word interpret. The apostle then says that five words in an understandable language are worth more than ten thousand words in a language not understood. Millions of words that are not understood have no value. Without a translator, tongues should not be used.

When Mrs. Yoder and I lived in Jerusalem in 1961, we attended the Messianic Assembly every Sabbath morning. Brother Zvi Cofsman was the elder in the congregation. He preached in Hebrew and Yiddish. His wife said he never knew Yiddish until the Lord blessed him so that he could speak in Yiddish. When he spoke in Hebrew and Yiddish, translation was done in English and other languages, like French or Scandinavian. It was a wonderful experience to realize that believers of various backgrounds were worshiping the Lord in truth—beautiful.

Thus the appropriation of tongues is for edification to build up the church, to help the church grow and worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

The third argument for the proper use of tongues is:

THE CLARIFICATION OF TONGUES

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

21 In 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.

22 Wherefore 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 we get into a sticky understanding because some people sincerely believe tongues are the evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. But the apostle Paul tells us to be balanced. Grow up in understanding. Don’t be children in understanding. Be childlike in malice, in your relationship to others. Forget the next minute. Hold no grudges. Be balanced. The truth must get through.

I have learned that many people do not hear because they don’t want to hear, like the little boy playing in the yard. When he heard his mother calling him, he said, “My mother calls me, but I don’t hear her.” He didn’t hear her because he didn’t want to hear her. Many do not hear because they don’t want to hear. And sometimes they set up artificial barriers to understanding.

The apostle Paul then tells us that tongues are for a sign, but not for an effective sign, because observers marvel. They are surprised. Maybe that’s what created the challenge in the Corinthian church to speak in tongues.

I remember once talking to a fellow pastor who was present in a meeting where somebody spoke in tongues. He said that he was so glad because he always wanted to hear how that would sound, how that would be carried on. I said, “Isn’t that interesting? Everybody in the audience could have understood English, right?” He said, “Yes.” “Then what was the point in speaking in tongues?” I asked. “Oh,” he said, “you don’t believe in speaking in tongues.” I said, “No, that is not the point. The point is not whether I believe in speaking tongues, but if everybody there could understand English, and they could, why speak in tongues?

Prophesying is a sign to believers, for the edifying of the body. This is the central purpose of Paul’s chapter, that the church should grow. Therefore, whatever creates problems should not be on the front stage. Use what is most useful. What Paul very clearly indicates and what I mentioned in the last chapter is the Priority of Prophecy.

Tongues certainly are secondary. Nowhere do we learn that anyone is to teach others how to speak in tongues. But they do it. I was in a meeting once when the pastor was trying to demonstrate to the congregation how to speak in tongues. The Bible nowhere teaches that. The speaking should be in private unless there is one who can translate.

One evening in Ghana, West Africa, Mrs. Yoder and I were ministering in a church. We spoke in English, and because there were people there that didn’t understand our language, our words were translated into two other languages. The service was conducted in three languages: English and the other two languages we didn’t understand. So whenever a translator is present, the message can get over to the others who do not understand the language being spoken.

From Paul’s arguments, we can learn about The Proper Function of Tongues. There is

THE LIMITATION OF TONGUES

The one who is speaking should aim to edify the church.

So if by his speech he does not edify the church, as we shall see in the next chapter, he should not speak.

Then there is

THE APPROPRIATION OF TONGUES

This is a private ministry.

It is not essential in the body of Christ. For personal edification, it may be proper.

Then finally there is

THE CLARIFICATION OF TONGUES

The aim is to reach unbelievers.

Speaking in tongues will not necessarily reach unbelievers because, as the apostle says, when an unlearned person comes into the congregation, he is unable to say Amen because he does not understand what is going on.

If everybody were to observe carefully what the apostle Paul teaches concerning The Proper Function of Tongues, there would be fewer problems with this.