Sunday Morning Greek Blog

September 12, 2011

Speaking in Tongues (γλῶσσα glōssa, 1 Corinthians 12–14)

Filed under: 1 Corinthians,Biblical Studies,Ecclesiology,New Testament,Theology, Biblical — Scott Stocking @ 10:16 pm

[NOTE: Had to delete the original post because the Greek accents weren’t doing what they were supposed to do. They were okay in my other posts, and all the .html settings were identical, so I’m not sure what was going on.]

James was right when he warned believers about the deadly power of the tongue (James 3:5–12). With it we can praise God and curse men, or curse God and praise men for that matter. Of course, James was using metonymy here, with the tongue representing the words we say. But the issue of “tongues,” a special form of speech empowered by the Holy Spirit, has been just as divisive and destructive to Christian unity around the world. Some Christ-followers insist that a demonstration of tongues is absolutely essential for confirming the presence of the Holy Spirit in one’s life, while others on the opposite extreme view tongues as a gift given to the early church and only the early church—it has no place in the kingdom of God in the modern world.

Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 12–14 have been the focal point of the debate. Paul seems to think speaking in tongues is a great idea (1 Cor 14:5, 18), but he issues some caveats and warnings about the use of tongues in the life of Christ-followers and the congregations with which they are associated. I will address the key issues surrounding tongues in this blog post.

Word Studies on γλῶσσα, γένος, and φωνή

First, an examination of the word for “tongues” is in order. The Greek word γλῶσσα (glōssa \GLOHSS sah\) is used 49 times in the Greek New Testament. By far, the most prominent use of the word is in these three chapters of 1 Corinthians, where it is found 21 times. The next closest competitors are Revelation (8 times) and Acts (6 times), each of which is more than the 5 times it is found in all four Gospels combined (including one use in the spurious ending of Mark).

The word can mean the physical tongue, as in Mark 7:33. It is also used as a metonym for “speech” or “mouth” (as in James or Romans 3:13). In Acts 2, the word represents known languages miraculously spoken by those in the upper room (or miraculously heard by those in the crowd). In 1 Corinthians 12–14, Paul does not explicitly states that “tongues” is a known language, but there is an undeniable implication that tongues is capable of interpretation. The debate is whether tongues is a known language (“tongues of men”) spoken in the world at the time (or the world today), or if it is the “tongues of angels” mentioned in 1 Corinthians 13:1. My premise in this post is that the gift of tongues represents a language primarily known to the hearer, but the speaker is divinely enabled to address the hearer in his or her own language and interpreted so that the tongues-speaker can edify those of his native tongue.

The word is found four times in 1 Corinthians 12: twice in vs. 10 and once each in verses 28 and 30. The first thing to notice about 12:7–10 is that the words ἄλλος (allos \AHL loss\, ‘other’, ‘another’) and ἕτερος (heteros \HEH teh ross\, ‘other’, ‘another’) are used interchangeably; classic (mistaken) distinctions like ἄλλος being another of a different kind or another of many versus ἕτερος being another of the same kind or the other one of a pair do not hold up (Friedrich Büchsel, ἄλλος, in TDNT). As such, there is no suggestion that those identified by ἄλλος have any special reason to be given one set of gifts or that those identified by ἕτερος a different set of gifts. The word choice is simply for variety.

The second thing to notice in verse 10 (and later in 28) is that γλῶσσα is modified by the noun γένος (genos \GEH nawss\ ‘family’, ‘offspring’, ‘kind’). This is the word from which Latin speakers derived the word genus and English speakers the word “gene” and related words. Of the 18 times this word is used in the New Testament, only twice does it expressly refer to something outside of the realm of humanity, and one of those outside the natural realm. In Matthew 13:47, the word is used of all “kinds” of fish, while in Mark 9:29, it describes the “kind” of demon that can only come out through prayer. Every occurrence in Acts through Revelation, along with one other occurrence in the Gospels (Mark 7:26), refers to some form of human relationship: offspring, family, born, people (usually Israel or Jews), or native of a particular country.

The other time γένος is found in 1 Corinthians 12–14, it modifies φωνή (phōnē \foe NAY\) and refers to a foreign (human) language. Of the 138 times φωνή is used in the NT, 93 occurrences are translated “voice.” In 1 Cor 14:7–11, the word is found four times, with the first two occurrences referring to the sound of musical instruments. Paul carries over the comparison to human speech using the same word (instead of switching back to γλῶσσα), so the word is a synonym for γλῶσσα, and I don’t believe Paul intended to make any distinction between a supernatural language and natural language by using the two different words.

1 Corinthians 12–13

So how do γένος and φωνή inform our understanding of γλῶσσα? It seems very clear to me that in 1 Corinthians 12 at least, along with Acts 2, the reference is to a Spirit-enabled human language that the speaker may or may not have encountered in the past and that is (or should be) understood by native speakers of that language. Through the interpretation, it should be understood by those who do not otherwise know the Spirit-enabled language. But does chapter 14 modify this understanding? Before answering that question, there are a couple more issue to address in 1 Corinthians 12:29–30 and chapter 13.

The questions in 12:29–30 have an untranslated word that readers should understand. Each question begins with μη ( \may\), which usually means “not.” But when it begins a Greek question, it is a rhetorical device to indicate to the reader that the question has a “no” answer. So when Paul asks, “Does everyone speak in tongues?” (μὴ πάντες γλώσσαις λαλοῦσιν; Mē pantes glōssais lalousin?) the answer is an emphatic “No.” Tongues is definitely not a gift for everyone, and it’s not something to be used as a universal confirmation that a person has received the Holy Spirit.

The use of γλῶσσα in chapter 13 doesn’t have much bearing on the meaning of the word in this context. Its use in 13:1 (“tongues of men and of angels”) strikes me as more of a hyperbole rather than a statement about the type of language used. Yes, I think it is possible that angels have their own language, but if tongues is not a human language, would it be angelic, or would it be something completely different? Admittedly, if it’s not human language, I’d only be speculating about what kind of language it is. But verse 8 makes me think that tongues is indeed a human language, because Paul says tongues will cease. I can’t imagine angelic language ceasing unless angels themselves will cease to exist after God establishes his new heaven and new earth for the rest of eternity.

1 Corinthians 14

Chapter 14 is where Paul gives an extended treatise on the use of tongues in the local congregation. Γλῶσσα is used 15 times in this chapter, and Paul clearly teaches that prophecy (the speaking forth of God’s word, not necessarily predicting the future) is far more beneficial to the Christ followers than tongues. Just as the Old Testament prophets preached to Israel and Judah to call them to repentance and righteous living, so prophecy here is intended to call believers to a higher standard. That’s why Paul can say that prophecy is for believers in 14:22.

So what is the benefit of tongues to the unbeliever or seeker? I think part of that answer depends on who the local congregation leaders in Corinth were and where they met. If there were some meeting in a synagogue, it’s possible Hebrew may have still been the main language of worship, at least for some of the service. Any “foreigners” coming into the service likely would not have understood Hebrew, so God could use tongues to get the word out.

More likely, I think, is that there were several house churches that had sprung up in Corinth. Since Corinth was a crossroads for numerous trade and shipping routes, peoples of many “tongues” would have frequented the city. It would certainly make proclaiming the Gospel a challenge in a multilingual culture. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that tongues would have been a very useful gift in Corinth, because God wanted to reach the whole world. This was a truly metropolitan city, and the Gospel could certainly spread the Gospel quickly if the local church is on top of its evangelistic outreach.

This brings me to 1 Corinthians 14:2: “For those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God.” A couple verses later, Paul says that the tongues speaker edifies himself, but the one who prophesies edifies the congregation. Paul spends a great deal of time talking about who benefits from the exercise of spiritual gifts, especially tongues and prophecy. Now when our English versions say that the tongues speaker speaks “to God,” that sounds like a simple instance of an indirect object, which is called the dative case in Greek. But if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that Greek grammar is not always a matter of simple and straightforward translation. The dative case has some diversity to its usage in the New Testament.

In the case of 1 Corinthians 14:2, since Paul spends so much time speaking about who benefits from these gifts, I don’t think it is unreasonable to suggest that the dative case θεῷ·(theō, from θεός, theos ‘God’) is what grammarians call “the dative of advantage.” A clear incidence of this is found in Ephesians 5:19, “speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” Paul uses the dative of advantage in 1 Corinthians 14:3 as well: the prophet speaks to people for their “strengthening, encouragement, and comfort.” So if 14:2 is in fact a dative of advantage, what advantage does God have? It’s just as I indicated above: God takes advantage of the presence of Christ followers in a world-class city (even if it is corrupt) to get the word out to the rest of the world. Paul could only do so much as one man, but God could use his people to get the word out to rest of the world through the natural comings and goings of humans conducting their business.

But what is the edification to the tongues speaker, as Paul indicates in this passage? I think the edification is very basic: the tongues speaker knows he or she is being used of God. If the tongues is interpreted, there is a double benefit as the rest of the church will benefit. The benefit is not that this is some mysterious prayer language: if it were, Paul would not say that uninterpreted tongues is of no benefit to the speaker. The one who speaks in a tongue needs to have it interpreted if he wants any understanding of it beyond being used of God. Add to that the command that the tongues speaker keep quiet if there is no interpreter. If you know an interpreter is present, then I don’t think this is some mysterious spiritual language. It is a human language that someone in the congregation knew well enough (or had demonstrated the gift of interpretation often enough) that a reliable translation could be voiced.


Tongues, then, is a human language, divinely enabled, subject to human interpretation, which may or may not be divinely enabled. God used tongues to get the word out quickly in a world-class city with plenty of foreigners going to all points of the compass. For that reason, I do believe tongues is still manifest today, especially as missionaries continue to encounter people groups whose languages still have no written form.

I also recall an anecdotal story from a trusted colleague who had spent some time as a missionary in Eastern Europe, the Ukraine if I remember correctly. He and his wife, after returning to America, awoke one night and began praying in the Ukrainian tongue, even though they were not fluent in it. As it turned out, an earthquake (again, if I remember correctly; it was some sort of natural disaster) had hit the country hard in the area where they had ministered. They had exposure to the language as missionaries, and God used that seed to call them into service as prayer warriors united with those Christ followers through their language even though thousands of miles apart.

Everything God does through us, he does for his glory, not ours. We should not think that we are something special just because we have the ability to speak in tongues. If we speak in a tongue and we’re not interpreting, or if someone isn’t interpreting for us, it’s not doing us much good, and it’s not doing the body of Christ any good. “Everything must be done so that the church may be built up” (1 Corinthians 14:26c). Whatever gifts we have, if we’re only using them for selfish reasons, we should probably reevaluate our priorities (and I speak to myself when I write that as well).

Finally, the exhortation of 1 Corinthians 13 is most appropriate. Whatever we do, let us do it in love, because without love, all else that we do is dust in the wind.


Scott Stocking


  1. Scott: IIRC, our mutual friend Teri Lee Earl, who I trust implicitly, explicitly and completely, had a similar authentic experience of speaking in tongues.

    Comment by EricW — September 18, 2011 @ 10:37 am | Reply

    • I think I remember her saying something about that back when I was involved with the forum. The incident I mentioned came from someone on the B-Greek list. I had one hit from New Zealand on my blog a while back. “SpeakinginTongues” (or whatever his handle was) from the Harvestnet forum was from there, so I’ve been wondering if he’s been tracking me again.

      Comment by Scott Stocking — September 18, 2011 @ 5:19 pm | Reply

      • Oh, not HIM again! The guy who believed one had to speak in tongues 24/7 in order to fulfill Paul’s exhortation, the guy who used to cite all the Greek grammarians he learned from or had read, etc.? He was a real piece of work, even after he obviously went off the deep end into some state of having forgotten to take his meds, or so it seemed to me.

        Comment by EricW — September 18, 2011 @ 7:13 pm

  2. What of the prophecy of Paul that tongues would cease with the coming of the perfect thing (presumably encompassing the partials: gifts of prophecy and knowledge)? If tongues continues to be an operation of the Spirit, then is there continuing revelation by that same Spirit?

    Comment by Mark — September 23, 2011 @ 4:49 pm | Reply

    • I do not think tongues ever represented a “new” revelation from God apart from or supplemental to Scripture. As I understand 1 Corinthians, tongues is intended to be prophetic in the sense of forthtelling the established Word of God, not foretelling the future. I hold the canon of Scripture to be closed, so anyone who claims to have some “new revelation” from God through a tongues (or any other) experience is falsely prophesying. I think that tongues (rightly interpreted) serves as individual or corporate exhortation, especially in settings where language may be a barrier. I don’t see it as a “private prayer language” that people think can go uninterpreted. Good to hear from you, and thank you for contributing!

      Comment by Scott Stocking — September 23, 2011 @ 5:50 pm | Reply

      • I used to consider tongues an evangelistic tool (i.e. spreading the gospel among groups the evangelist couldn’t otherwise reach), but a reconsideration based upon what was revealed rather than on a personally projected pragmatic value, I came to recognize it as merely a sign gift (ACT 2:11; 10:46) and not a tool for multinational evangelists (as Peter in ACT 2:14 began preaching the gospel in a subsequent act to the sign gift recorded a few verses earlier). Thus it was to Paul a precious gift as given by God, but a gift the church would come to do without at the arrival of the perfect thing.

        As you might have discerned, we are at polar opposites in our view of the Spirit’s gift of tongues operating today. I realize the great draw that testimony from a “trusted colleague” might have to sway one’s understanding, but I’d sooner doubt personal testimony than apostolic testimony about tongues’ cessation. I also do not trust anyone “implicitly, explicitly and completely” when it comes to the interpretation of an experience, as the first commentor does. The full New Testament (available soon after the turn of the century) perfectly served as sign and direction from God, taking over for the imperfect distribution and exercise of the gifts of prophecy, tongues and knowledge. Many may testify to experiences and attribute them to God’s Spirit, but I hold a benevolently agnostic position to such testimonies.

        Comment by Mark — September 24, 2011 @ 7:34 pm

      • I’m not convinced “the perfect” has come, therefore, I’m not convinced tongues or any of the other gifts have ceased. I think the “perfect” is more eschatological than it is ecclesiastical. (That is, it is more about the consummation of all history rather than the church-on-earth.)

        Comment by Scott Stocking — September 24, 2011 @ 10:13 pm

  3. Yes, I understood that. As I indicated earlier, I believe Paul was (as a prophet) speaking of the constituted New Testament scriptures (which he was participating the writing of – though he likely didn’t understand it.)

    Comment by Mark — September 25, 2011 @ 6:11 am | Reply

  4. […] previous post on Tongues prompted a discussion between me and a colleague of mine from Illinois in the comments on that […]

    Pingback by 1 Corinthians 13:8–13: When Will Tongues Be Stilled? « Sunday Morning Greek Blog — October 2, 2011 @ 4:16 pm | Reply

  5. Scott, I came across this post in the process of researching for a Bible study I teach at our church. This is EXCEPTIONAL, and incredibly helpful! Thank you very much.

    Comment by Liz — December 8, 2021 @ 10:55 am | Reply

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it. Please let me know if you have any questions or suggestions. Peace.

      Comment by Scott Stocking — December 28, 2021 @ 9:44 pm | Reply

  6. […] fifth one was a total shocker to me. “Speaking in Tongues” averaged 49 views per year in the first 10 years it was online. In 2021, the post had 691 views, […]

    Pingback by 2021 Reflection and Summary | Sunday Morning Greek Blog — January 2, 2022 @ 6:38 am | Reply

  7. […] Speaking in Tongues (γλῶσσα glōssa, 1 Corinthians 12–14) […]

    Pingback by SMGB Indices | Sunday Morning Greek Blog — December 11, 2022 @ 6:59 pm | Reply

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