I just discovered that I posted a lot about speaking in tongues in May last year, but not since. However, I have continued to practice it and to reflect about it. For example, last November I led a study on interpretation of tongues for my home group. Here are my notes, slightly edited. I don’t think there is anything new here, but this may be helpful for any of my readers who are not already familiar with this:
INTERPRETATION OF TONGUES
Peter Kirk, 20th November 2008
5 I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. Those who prophesy are greater than those who speak in tongues, unless they interpret, so that the church may be edified.
6 Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? 7 Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the pipe or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? 8 Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? 9 So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. 10 Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. 11 If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker is a foreigner to me. 12 So it is with you. Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church.
13 For this reason those who speak in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. 15 So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. (1 Corinthians 14:5-15, TNIV)
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; let them speak to themselves and to God. (1 Corinthians 14:26-28, TNIV)
Should all tongues be interpreted?
Paul clearly writes in this passage that messages given in tongues in public meetings of the church should be interpreted. But he does seem to distinguish this from private prayer in tongues, which does not require public interpretation. Nevertheless 1 Corinthians 14:13 seems to suggest that one should pray for understanding of one’s own tongue, without restricting this to public meetings. In 14:15 there is an apparent reference to singing in tongues, in worship to God, implying that this too should be interpreted at least for the sake of outsiders.
According to 1 Corinthians 14:5,13, the one who speaks in tongues should interpret the message. But 14:27,28 and 12:10 suggest that someone else should interpret. I suppose this means that someone should not speak out loud in tongues in church unless they are confident that either they or someone else will be able to bring an interpretation. It should be accepted as normal if the same person brings the tongue and the interpretation.
What does it mean to interpret a tongue?
A “tongue” is sometimes a human language not known to the speaker. In Acts 2:4,6 the apostles spoke in various languages which were understood in the normal way by people present. I have heard of modern examples of Christians being given words to speak in foreign languages which they don’t know, to preach the gospel or as words of knowledge etc.
Sometimes people recognise individual words of a message in tongues as in a language they know. [Our pastor] has recognised [words in a foreign language he knows] in the private prayer language of people at [my church]; I have recognised [ones in a foreign language I know]. But in these cases there has not been a complete message in [one of these languages]. Sometimes this may be chance resemblance, or maybe the Holy Spirit is using this deliberately to reveal the meaning of part of the prophetic message.
In other cases, as suggested by 1 Corinthians 13:1, a tongue may be an angelic language. Certainly it is often a language not understood by anyone present – but then no one would recognise all of the more than 6,000 living human languages, not to mention extinct ones. The gift of interpretation, as usually understood, is about giving the meaning of a message which one does not understand in the normal way, but only as the Spirit reveals the meaning.
As such this is very similar to prophecy. While I have not personally been given a clear interpretation of anyone else’s tongue, God has showed me the meaning of visions etc reported by others. I suppose that it is in a similar way that the meaning of a tongue is revealed to the interpreter. Any experiences to share?
Also the combination of a message in tongues and its interpretation is seen as equivalent to prophecy. Is there in fact a difference, for example in the typical content?
Note 1 Corinthians 14:22-25:
22 Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers. 23 So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? 24 But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, 25 as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!” (TNIV)
In the context the tongues here must be interpreted tongues. What does this mean in practice? This passage is rather obscure but I suppose means that uninterpreted tongues make unbelievers say we are out of our mind, but interpreted tongues will have the effect of prophecy, convicting of sin leading to repentance and faith.