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Particulars of Christianity:
310 Pentecostalism,
the Charismatic
and Faith Movements



Those Who Speak in Tongues
Necessarily Understand Themselves


Specific Doctrines of the Charismatic Movement/Faith Movement
Kenotic Theology
The Anointing and Being Under Authority (Part 1)
The Anointing and Being Under Authority (Part 2)
Sickness and Healing (Part 1)
Sickness and Healing (Part 2)
Prayer, Asking and Receiving (Part 1)
Prayer, Asking and Receiving (Part 2)
Christians and Material Wealth (Part 1)
Christians and Material Wealth (Part 2)
Christians and Material Wealth (Part 3)
The "Rhema" and "Logos" Word (Part 1)
The "Rhema" and "Logos" Word (Part 2)
Those Who Speak in Tongues Necessarily Understand Themselves

Section 1 | Section 2 | Section 3 | Section 4
| Section 5



Throughout chapter 14, Paul is clear that when someone speaks in tongues, those who hear but do not speak the language are not edified because the words make no sense to them. The words have no significance or meaning, just as if they were mere "barbarian." Consequently, the speaker's words remain "mysteries" to the crowd. This is made clear in verse 9, when Paul writes, "So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken?" We see this sentiment in verses 16-17 as well where Paul writes, "when thou shalt bless with the spirit, "the "unlearned" is "not edified." And again, verse 19 similarly states, "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." Simply put, if a person does not understand the language, they will not be edified by what is said. (It should also be noted that in the phrase the "unknown tongue," which occurs in verses 2, 4, 13, 14, 19, and 27, the English word "unknown" does not occur and is not represented in the Greek, but has been inserted by the translator.)

1 Corinthians 14:2 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. 3 But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort. 4 He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church. 5 I would that ye all spake with tongues, but rather that ye prophesied: for greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret, that the church may receive edifying. 6 Now, 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? 7 And 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? 8 For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle? 9 So 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. 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.

In this passage, Paul lays out two categories. In the first category are those persons who do not understand the language. The people in this category are not edified by what is said. In the second category are those persons who hear a language that they do understand. The people in this category are edified. From Paul's comments, two questions emerge. First, in this context, does Paul allow for the possibility of people being edified without understanding? The clear answer from the text is "no." Second, according to the categories that Paul has laid out, which category is the person who speaks in tongues in? Again, the clear answer from the text is that they are in the category of people who are edified, and therefore, understand what is said. In this context, the fact that those speaking in tongues edify themselves requires that they understand themselves.

However, even though Paul is clear that edification by tongues requires understanding those tongues, within the text of 1 Corinthians 14 there are several verses, which could be used to suggest that those who spoke in tongues did not understand their own words. To answer these questions, we must simply understand Paul's words in their own context and within the light of New Testament precedent.

First, verses 14-15 include statements such as "I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful." Does the word "unfruitful" imply that the speaker's own mind does not receive or produce understanding from the things he says in tongues?

1 Corinthians 14:14 For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding (3563) is unfruitful.

To answer the question, the word "unfruitful" does not refer to a failure to understand on the part of the person who is speaking in tongues. Leading up to verse 14, Paul repeatedly states that when a person speaks in tongues without an interpreter, the tongues do not produce edification for the hearers. That is all Paul is saying here in verse 14. The Greek word for "understanding" in verse 14 is "nous" (Strong's No. 3563), which means, "the mind, comprising alike the faculties of perceiving and understanding, the intellectual faculty, the understanding." Paul's point is simply that when we speak in tongues, we do not convey to others the things we understand. Our words are nonsense to them without an interpreter. And consequently, for all our understanding and speaking, we produce no fruit in the other people.

The verses which immediately follow prove that this is Paul's meaning. In verses 15-19, Paul repeatedly states that in order for the other person to understand what he is saying and be edified, it is his preference to speak without tongues when he is the church.

1 Corinthians 14:15 What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding (3563) also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding (3563) 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 (3563), that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.

Notice that in these verses Paul refers to speaking without tongues as "speaking by his understanding." The word for understanding is the same Greek word as in verse 14. Here Paul's point is once again made clear. When we speak in tongues, the things that we understand do not produce any fruit because those who hear us don't comprehend. In order to ensure that his understanding produces fruit in others, Paul's solution is that when he is in the church gatherings, he will speak in languages that all can comprehend.

From this context, two important facts emerge. Number one, the phrase "my understanding is unfruitful" does not mean that the person speaking in tongues didn't understand himself. Instead, it means that when we speak in tongues to people who don't speak that language, we do not convey the things we understand and therefore, we produce no fruit in our hearers. They are not edified. Number two, Paul's solution is to reserve speaking in tongues primarily for preaching to unbelievers outside the church. (Speaking in tongues is, after all, intended to be heard primarily by unbelievers according to verse 22. We will cover this verse in more depth below.) Conversely, when Paul is inside church gatherings speaking to believers, he chooses to speak with his understanding in a language that his hearers know, which is to say, without tongues. Paul makes this abundantly clear in verse 19, when he says "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."

Second, English translations render verse 13 in a way that suggests the speaker should pray for the ability to interpret. This would in turn suggest that the speaker does not start off with an understanding of his own words.

1 Corinthians 14:13 Wherefore let him that speaketh in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret. The Greek grammar in verse 13 is similar in verse 27 where it is clear that Paul means someone else rather than the speaker. A side by side comparison of the two verses reveals that their content is clearly related.

1 Corinthians 14:13 Wherefore let him that speaketh in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret.

1 Corinthians 14:27 If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret. 28 But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God.

The only difference in verb conjugation is that in verse 13, the verb "interpret" is in the subjunctive while in verse 27 it is in the imperative. In both verses, the verb "interpret" is rendered in the present, active, third person singular. Despite the fact that verse 27 contains the Greek word "heis" (Strong's No. , meaning "one") while verse 13 does not, the similar content of the verses makes it clear that verse 27-38 are intended as a later, expanded repetition of Paul's instructions concerning how to remedy the undesirable, unintelligible nature of tongues. As such, it is better to understand the "third person singular" verb in verses 13 as referring to a third party, rather than to the speaker themselves. In other words, in verse 13 Paul is instructing that the person speaking in tongues isn't praying that they can interpret themselves. Rather verse 13 indicates that the person speaking in tongues should pray for someone else to interpret what they are saying. Verse 5 contains a similar grammar as well, particularly the phrase "he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret."

1 Corinthians 14:5 I would that ye all spake with tongues, but rather that ye prophesied: for greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret, that the church may receive edifying.

Here the Greek verb "interpret" is in the present, active, indicative rendering. But the important part is that it is also in the third person singular, just like verses 13 and 27. However, translations such as the New Revised Standard Version translate this phrase as, "unless someone interprets" rather than "except he interpret." The use of the word "someone" shows that while the Greek expresses a third person singular, this third person singular does not necessarily refer to the person speaking in tongues. It can refer to someone else, just as 1 Corinthians 12:4-10 and 1 Corinthians 14:27-28 demand.

This is worth hovering on for a moment or two. In one scenario, the speaker himself lacks an interpretation, in which case he does not know his own meaning. In the second scenario, the speaker doesn't necessarily lack an interpretation himself. Instead, he merely lacks a third party interpreter, someone else who hears his foreign words, comprehends their meaning, and is therefore edified. In this second scenario, the text would make no claims whatsoever about whether the speaker himself knows what he is saying. And in such a case, Paul's assertion that the person speaking in tongues edifies himself would still incontestably require that the speaker understands himself. This leads to our third and final question.

Third, Paul repeatedly insists that an interpreter is required when someone speaks in tongues in the church. Why would an interpreter be necessary if the person with the gift of tongues understood and could interpret themselves?

1 Corinthians 12:30 Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret (1329)?

1 Corinthians 14:5 I would that ye all spake with tongues, but rather that ye prophesied: for greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret (1329), that the church may receive edifying.

1 Corinthians 14:13 Wherefore let him that speaketh in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret (1329).

1 Corinthians 14:27 If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret (1329). 28 But if there be no interpreter (1328), let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God.

Here the answer is found in precedent. It arises from the purpose of tongues itself, which Paul himself asserts in verses 20-25.

The first thing to note is that the Greek words for "interpret" and "interpreter" throughout the chapter are "diermeneuo" and "diermeneutes" respectively. The definitions are provided below.

1329 diermeneuo
from 1223 and 2059; TDNT-2:661,256; v
AV-interpret 4, by interpretation 1, expound 1; 6
1) to unfold the meaning of what is said, explain, expound
2) to translate into one's native language

1328 diermeneutes
from 1329; TDNT-2:661,256; n m
AV-interpreter 1; 1
1) an interpreter

As we can see from these definitions, "diermenteutes" (Strong's No. 1328) is simply a noun derivative of the verb "diermeneuo" (Strong's No. 1329). And more importantly, the second definition of "diermeneuo" is "to translate into one's native language." It is this second definition that relates to precedent because it describes what occurred at the very first instance of speaking in tongues in Acts 2.

Acts 2 records that the disciples spoke in 17 languages to the crowds passing by on the day of Pentecost. Obviously, no one in the crowd spoke all 17 languages, although some may have understood two or three. But what do the members of the crowd say to one another? According to verses 7 and 11, they all say "hear we every man in our own tongue…we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God." Here the crowds are interpreting for each other what they are hearing in their native tongues, just as the second definition of "diermeneuo" indicates.

Acts 1:4 And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. 5 And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. 6 Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. 7 And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans? 8 And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? 9 Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, 10 Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God. 12 And they were all amazed, and were in doubt, saying one to another, What meaneth this? 13 Others mocking said, These men are full of new wine.

The most salient point here is that the crowds are the interpreters. These are not people with the supernatural gift of interpretation. They are people with the natural ability to interpret because they already spoke these languages themselves. Moreover, these crowds are unbelievers, the very type of people that Paul said tongues are intended for in 1 Corinthians 14:21-22. And what is the result of the speaking in tongues in Acts 2. The crowds are amazed. It gets their attention. They stop and listen to Peter's preaching. This is also exactly what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 14:21-22 when he said that tongues functioned as a "sign" for unbelievers.

From these comparisons it is clear that Paul's instructions are based upon the precedent of Acts 2 and the day of Pentecost. And consequently, it is clear that when Paul demands an interpreter, he is primarily demanding the presence of someone who naturally spoke the language and could recount to others nearby that Christians were supernaturally speaking God's message. Once Paul's meaning is established from precedent, it becomes equally clear that the need for an interpreter does not have anything to do with the notion that the person speaking in tongues was ignorant of their own meaning. Instead, it has to do with Paul's constant thematic assertion that speaking in tongues is pointless when there is no one present who comprehends that language already and therefore can be edified by it. In short, these verses requiring an interpreter or prayer for an interpreter to be present are nothing more than a restatement of the need to reserve tongues for occasions when those who speak other languages are present to be edified in their own native language, just like on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2.

We have now examined three arguments often used to suggest that those who speak in tongues do not understand themselves and we have seen that none of these arguments was valid.

Before we close, there are a few final points worth covering from 1 Corinthians 14 concerning the gift of tongues. The first point can be found in verses 27-28.

1 Corinthians 14:27 If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret. 28 But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God.

Here Paul specifically states that when there is no interpreter those with the gift of tongues are to "keep silence in the church." The designation "in the church" implies that the permission which immediately follows ("let him speak to himself, and to God") refers to outside the church. In short, without an interpreter, those with the gift of tongues should keep silent in the church and only exercise their gift outside the church. As Paul himself states in verse 19, when they are in the church gathering, it is better for a person to speak in their natural language than to speak in tongues. Effectively, according to Paul, the only time that tongues should be used is in the presence of those who speak a foreign language so that they might be edified by hearing God's word declared in their own language. Consequently, speaking in tongues is most suitable for preaching the word to foreign unbelievers outside the church gathering (or perhaps on rarer occasions when foreign unbelievers visit a church gathering).

Second, concerning verses 22-25, we can ask the following question. In what way are tongues a sign for unbelievers if, upon hearing the church assembly speaking in tongues, the unbelievers and unlearned would think that the church was mad? Conversely, how is prophecy a sign that is not for unbelievers if it is by hearing the church prophecy that unbelievers are convinced to worship God?

1 Corinthians 14:22 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. 23 If 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? 24 But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all: 25 And 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.

The reasons for Paul's comments here are simple. Tongues are a sign for unbelievers because through this miraculous gift the words and works of God are shared with them despite the language gap that separates them from the believers. The gift of tongues is meant to enable the church to share with those who don't speak the language of the local church community, just as in Acts 2. In this way the purpose of tongues is directed toward unbelievers who don't share our language and so tongues should be used when unbelievers are present who don't share our language.

The reason that unbelievers will think the church is mad if they come in and everyone is speaking in tongues stems from the idea that it is senseless and irrational for a group of people who all speak the same language to spend their time sharing with one another in foreign languages that none of them understand.

The Greek word for "mad" in verse 23 is "mainomai" (Strong's No. 3105). The definition is provided below.

3105 mainomai
middle voice from a primary mao (to long for, through the idea of insensate craving);
TDNT-4:360,548; v
AV-be mad 4, be beside (one's) self 1; 5
1) to be mad, to rave
1a) of one who so speaks that he seems not to be in his right mind

"Mainomai" is used three other passages in the New Testament apart from 1 Corinthians 14. In John 10, Jesus has just finished giving a teaching. It is worth noting that although the crowd does not understand Jesus' point, his words are clear and intelligible. The same is true for the other two passages. In Acts 12, Peter has been released from jail and when Rhoda hears him at the gate, she runs to tell the rest of the church. Once again, her words are intelligible, but they think she is making absurd claims, just as the crowds thought of Jesus in John 10. Lastly, in Acts 26, as Paul begins to give his testimony to Festus, Festus regards Paul's claims as irrational and absurd.

John 10:7 Then said Jesus unto them again, Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep…18 No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father. 19 There was a division therefore again among the Jews for these sayings. 20 And many of them said, He hath a devil, and is mad (3105); why hear ye him?

Acts 12:13 And as Peter knocked at the door of the gate, a damsel came to hearken, named Rhoda. 14 And when she knew Peter's voice, she opened not the gate for gladness, but ran in, and told how Peter stood before the gate. 15 And they said unto her, Thou art mad (3105). But she constantly affirmed that it was even so. Then said they, It is his angel.

Acts 26:24 And as he thus spake for himself, Festus said with a loud voice, Paul, thou art beside thyself (3105); much learning doth make thee mad. 25 But he said, I am (3105) not mad (3105), most noble Festus; but speak forth the words of truth and soberness.

The point here is that the word "mad" is typically used to describe irrational behavior (such as unbelievable claims) even when someone is speaking plainly in your own language. Consequently, Paul's use of this same Greek word in 1 Corinthians 14:23 does not imply that those speaking in tongues are babbling. The unbelievers or unlearned may well have perceived that those speaking in tongues were speaking languages (not just babbling). However, the unbelievers would have considered such behavior to be irrational or absurd given the fact that the entire church spoke the same language but did not understand the strange languages they were speaking. Speaking in foreign languages for no reason when you can't understand each other is madness, even if it's obvious that they are real languages. Consequently, Paul concludes that if the entire church is speaking in tongues without native speakers, unbelievers and unlearned people will conclude that Christians are irrational and the church is a place of irrational behavior.

Conversely, if the unbelievers come in and see the church all prophesying God's judgments and teachings in plain language to one another, such a sight would make perfect sense to them. The church will not appear to be irrational but very sensible.

Lastly, we might ask the following question. Are the supernatural gifts of speaking in tongues and interpreting tongues redundant? After all, if you have one present why do you need the other? Here again, the answer is very simple. Speaking in tongues enabled the church to declare the works of God in a language they had never learned in order to communicate with someone who did not speak their language. Consequently, tongues primarily served the need to preach God's word. Conversely, the gift of interpretation of tongues allowed the church to understand someone who spoke in another language, which the Christians present did not naturally comprehend. This, too, would be useful, particularly on a missionary journey. For instance, imagine Paul visiting a city where the people spoke Greek as a second language, but spoke to one another in a native tongue that Paul did not know. In this way, Paul could overhear their conversations and adapt a message tailored to their circumstances just as he did in Athens in Acts 17:22-23.

In addition, the distinction between these two gifts demonstrated the interdependent nature of the body of Christ.

1 Corinthians 12:4 Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. 6 And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all. 7 But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal. 8 For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit; 9 To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit; 10 To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues: 11 But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will. 12 For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. 13 For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. 14 For the body is not one member, but many. 15 If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? 16 And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? 17 If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? 18 But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. 19 And if they were all one member, where were the body? 20 But now are they many members, yet but one body. 21 And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.

Even if someone could speak in tongues and understood their own words, they might not necessarily comprehend the entire foreign language or the words of others who spoke to them in that foreign language. Likewise, the ability to comprehend what someone is saying in a foreign language does not necessarily imply the ability to construct grammatically accurate and compelling sentences of your own. Consequently, if there were foreigners that visited a church gathering, the person speaking in tongues would be dependent upon the person with the gift of interpretation in order to comprehend the foreigners and the person with the gift of interpretation would be dependent upon the person who spoke in tongues to communicate to the foreigners.