By Sam E. Stone
The first-century church in Corinth faced special challenges. One problem was that many members placed undue emphasis on those who spoke in tongues. Today we will first study Acts 2, when the church began, so that we can understand the context of Paul’s teaching on this subject to the Corinthians.
Tongues at the Church’s Birth
Acts 2:1-7, 12
The Day of Pentecost was 50 days after the Sabbath of Passover week. At that feast, Jesus had been crucified; at this one, the inauguration of the earthly kingdom took place. Luke recorded, They were all together in one place. Many Bible scholars think it is likely they were in a room in the temple area, since the disciples had been staying there continually (Luke 24:53).
At this time a sound like the blowing of a violent wind was heard—but it was not wind. In similar fashion, the Spirit of God had energized the dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision (Ezekiel 37:4-10). The divine flame separated, coming to rest above each person. Fire often symbolizes God’s presence (Exodus 3:2). In v. 4, it is clear that all of them refers to the apostles (Acts 1:12-26). In the verses that follow, it is the apostles who preach the message of salvation. Jesus had promised that he would baptize them in the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:5, 8). The disciples began to speak in other tongues. Tongues refers to the various languages in which the apostles spoke, languages they could not use in normal circumstances.
Many God-fearing Jews were in Jerusalem at this time. Some undoubtedly had come for the annual feasts, while others lived there year round. Those who joined this pilgrimage to Jerusalem were from every nation under heaven. Some of the nations are listed in 2:9-11.
The sound like a mighty wind had attracted a crowd; hearing many foreign languages spoken at once was even more compelling. Each one heard their own language being spoken. This indicates that the miracle was in the speaking of the apostles rather than in the hearing of the people. Luke heaped up descriptive words to explain the tremendous effect of this miracle. The people asked, “Aren’t all these men who are speaking Galileans?” They could recognize them by their dialect (Matthew 26:73). Luke recorded their reaction: Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
Tongues in the Church’s Life
1 Corinthians 14:13-19
When Paul wrote his first letter to the church in Corinth, a number of the members had received the gift of speaking in tongues. Some who had this ability were evidently proud of it and liked to show it off. The apostle offered them a balanced and sensible view: What is important is not that a person can speak in a language he never studied, but that those who hear him can come to understand and obey God’s message for their lives. That was what had happened on Pentecost. Those who speak in other languages should pray that they may interpret what they say. Tom Friskney explained: “The proper conclusion is that the speaker will do everything to provide understanding. Any use of spiritual gifts will be for that aim. The responsibility rests with the speaker. The principle is the same whether one considers praying or singing in an assembly of the church. . . . There cannot be edification without understanding.”
Some Corinthians evidently felt that their speaking in tongues made them spiritually superior to those who could not. Paul instructed them that interpretation of the inspired message was also needed. The hearers could not affirm the message by saying “Amen” if they did not know what was being said. The speaker may be giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified. For this reason Paul affirmed, I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. Then he concluded, But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue. Even a short thought that is understood is worth more than a whole discourse spoken in a language that hearers cannot understand.
“The great thing for the Christian,” concluded Leon Morris, “is that he may be able to edify others. While it is right for him to desire to excel in the exercise of spiritual gifts, he should seek those gifts which are useful for edification. Others are comparatively unimportant.”
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.