THE GIFT OF SPEECH
By Steve Zeisler
The ability to communicate by means of speech is perhaps the most dramatic
difference between human beings and other life forms. This God-given gift
of speech may reflect in the deepest sense how human beings are made in
God's image. God spoke, and heaven and earth came into being. And in the
Logos, Jesus himself, God communicated with man.
This morning, we will consider some themes which flow from this ability
to communicate through language as we study chapter 14 of the apostle Paul's
first letter to the Corinthians. Last Thursday, I attended my daughter's
graduation from Junior High School. During that ceremony, two eighth graders
used the time-honored vehicle of the graduation speech to share their thoughts
with the assembly in a helpful and engaging way. In closing the proceedings,
the principal in a solemn voice declared that the junior highers, having
completed their requirements, henceforth were entitled to be known as high
schoolers. I was struck by the fact that by means of a single word, the
principal was empowered to make ninth graders out of kids who had formerly
been eighth graders.
Words can be very powerful indeed, as we will see in this passage from 1
Corinthians. I will begin by reading some passages from Scripture which
illustrate just how powerful a tool is speech.
And God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light.
In the beginning was the Word (or speech), and the speech was with God,
and the speech was God.
And being roused, He rebuked the wind and said to the sea, 'Peace, be still.'
He cried out with a loud voice, 'Lazarus, come forth.' And he who had died
For the word of the Lord has exploded forth from you not only in Macedonia
and in Achaia, but also in every place.
And after these things I looked and behold, a door standing open in heaven,
and the first voice which I had heard like the sound of a trumpet speaking
with me said, 'Come up here and I will show you what must take place after
'Heaven and earth will pass away, but My word will never pass away.'
Over and over throughout the Scriptures, it is the testimony of the word
of God and of those who know God that his speech and our ability to declare
his truth have profound, eternal and life-changing consequences.
I have been further sensitized to these things by observation of events
in my home. The youngest of our three children has a communication handicap.
He is very bright little boy with a lot to say, but he lacks the ability
to say it well. Perhaps the best known example of this kind of disability
is Helen Keller, a woman with a genius IQ who was born both blind and deaf.
For years she was unable to communicate with others. At last, a gifted communicator
drew her out and she was able to declare what was going on inside of her.
Understanding can take place then, when one speaks clearly, when another
has a special ability to perceive speech that would otherwise be unclear,
or both. Whether or not we become more profound in our ability to say what
we want to say, or whether there is a listener who is profoundly able to
understand and hear what we say, in either case communication takes place
and it is a wonderful thing to experience.
All of that is by way of introduction to 1 Corinthians 14, which tells of
the significance of Christians meeting together and saying what is true
to God and to one another.
Pursue love, yet earnestly desire spiritual gifts, but especially
that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to
men, but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries.
But one who prophecies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and
consolation. One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophecies
edifies the church. Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues, but even more
that you would prophesy; and greater is one who prophecies than one who
speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may receive
But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking in tongues, what
shall I profit you, unless I speak to you either by way of revelation or
of knowledge or of prophecy or of teaching? Yet even lifeless things, either
flute or harp, in producing a sound, if they do not produce a distinction
in the tones, how will it be known what is played on the flute or on the
harp? For if the bugle produces an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself
for battle? So also you, unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear,
how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air.
There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of languages in the world, and no
kind without meaning. If then I do not know the meaning of the language,
I shall be to the one who speaks a barbarian, and the one who speaks will
be a barbarian to me.
TONGUES AND PROPHESYING
There are two kinds of verbal communication which Paul refers to in this
section-tongues and prophesying. In one of them the wonder of communication
takes place because the listener extraordinarily extends himself to understand
what is being said. In other words, God will hear the unintelligible speech
of the person speaking in tongues who himself, as we will see in a moment,
does not know what he is saying. His spirit within is causing him to utter
praise to God but he does not know the content of it, nor does anyone else.
Yet the Lord God by his perceptive listening receives praise from that individual,
and the speaker in tongues (like Helen Keller) experiences the joy that
comes with being cared for and understood.
The other kind of speech which Paul refers to is rational speech, called
prophesying. This involves taking the time to thoughtfully understand the
word of God and declaring what it says in such a way that it benefits the
hearers. Both prophesying and tongues are forms of communication-one because
the communicator is gifted at saying what he or she wants to say; the other
because the listener, the Lord God himself, invests himself in creating
understanding where otherwise there was only unintelligibility.
IN CHRISTIAN ASSEMBLY
The subject of tongues can be very controversial among Christians. It is
controversial among some in this church. Some are antagonistic towards tongues;
others think it is more important than it is. It is critical to note that
the entire section from chapter 11 through the end of chapter 14 covers
the subject of Christians meeting together to worship. This has an important
bearing on the issue of tongues. What Paul is talking about here is what
should happen when Christians come together to use their spiritual gifts,
though in verse 22, tongues spoken in a non-Christian setting-especially
among Jews-are recognized as capable of arresting attention and quickening
faith. Scripture does not promote any tongues-speaking in private.
Another misunderstanding concerns the level of control an individual has
on the use of his gifts. Tongues and prophesying are on occasion thought
of as an ecstatic, overwhelming experience, when one is spiritually taken
over and must say what is given him to say. This is not in view here either.
It is clear that Paul is saying that any gift of the Spirit (specifically
tongues and prophesying here) can be controlled by the individual. You can
either speak in tongues or not. You can be told to take your turn and control
whatever you have to say. The same is true of prophecy. So you do not have
to say anything. If you have a gift, it is your choice whether to exercise
it in a particular setting or not. We do not see here any reference to being
overwhelmed by some experience or other.
THE NATURE OF TONGUES
What then does the gift of tongues consist of? Verse 2 says that the one
who speaks in a tongue "does not speak to men, but to God." The
content of the address given in tongues by a Christian should be toward
God, not toward men. I know of settings in which individuals have uttered
in Christian meetings a series of syllables which no one present understood,
then sat down and someone else interpreted what was said in words like this:
"Thus saith the Lord to the congregation assembled here: someone in
this room has a secret sin and needs to come forward now and confess it."
These are not an expression of the biblical gift of tongues and interpretation.
Tongues is not a means by which God gives messages to us. Rather, tongues
direct praise to God.
If someone here were to speak in tongues in the biblical sense, and someone
else were to interpret what had been said, I suspect it would be something
like we find in the wonderful and awe-inspiring words of Psalm 111. On the
Day of Pentecost, those who spoke in tongues declared the mighty works of
God, as that Psalm declares. Verse 17 says that those who speak in tongues
"give thanks" to God. Tongues are addressed to God, then.
A second observation we should make about tongues is, as verse 2 declares,
that the one who speaks in tongues speaks "mysteries," and as
verse 14 says, the one who speaks in tongues does not have his mind participate
in the experience. The impression given there is that something inside your
spirit begins to express itself verbally in praise, adoration and thanksgiving
toward God and you do not know what it is you are saying. That is why Paul
tells those speaking in tongues that they should pray for the ability to
interpret their own speech, because eventually they could teach their own
minds by hearing what their spirit had said to God. It is edifying to experience
that your spirit will begin to use your tongue to express praise to God.
But tongues-speaking does not engage the mind. You do not know what you
Romans 8 tells us that there are times when we do not know what to pray
but that the Spirit prays for us. There, Paul is describing the experience
of the Holy Spirit praising in "groanings too deep for words."
I submit that that cannot be another description for tongues because tongues
is exactly words, words that are not known to you that your spirit expresses,
words that someone else with the gift of interpretation could interpret.
But a step deeper than that is the Holy Spirit who prays inside of us because
we do not know how to put into any kind of words, tongues or English, what
we want to say to God. Thus, we note that prayer which is not understood
by us is possible, offered either by our human spirit (tongues) or by the
Holy spirit (beyond words).
A RECOGNIZABLE HUMAN LANGUAGE?
One of the questions that comes up is whether or not those who speak in
tongues must do so in a language known to human beings. Is it a requirement
that the gift of tongues be an extant human language? That is a tough interpretive
call. There are good reasons to answer this question in the affirmative.
Clearly, known languages are in view in Acts 2, the only place where tongues
is described. Then, the Parthians, Medes, etc., understood what was being
uttered in their home dialect. In verse 10, Paul says that there are "a
great many kinds of languages in the world, and no kind is without meaning."
Here, the apostle indicates that some kind of human language is what he
thought about when tongues were mentioned.
The circumstances in Corinth differ somewhat from those in Acts 2, however.
It is clear that tongues were being used legitimately (with interpretation)
in Corinth when no one within earshot understood them at all. The word "barbarian"
used here was a derisive term coined by Greek conquerors to describe the
nonsensical syllables that the languages of conquered peoples contained.
Some tongues (with interpretation) are deemed legitimate therefore, although
they are unintelligible to everyone present.
So also you, since you are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek
to abound for the edification of the church. Therefore let one who speaks
in a tongue pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit
prays, but my mind is unfruitful. What is the outcome then? I shall pray
with the spirit and I shall pray with the mind also; I shall sing with the
spirit and I shall sing with the mind also. [The phrase "with the spirit,"
means "in tongues." "I shall pray with the spirit unintelligibly
to myself, but I will also pray with the mind. I shall sing unintelligibly
but I shall also sing with the mind."] Otherwise if you bless in the
spirit only, how will the one who fills the place of the ungifted say the
"Amen" at your giving of thanks, since he does not know what you
are saying? For you are giving thanks well enough, but the other man is
not edified. I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all; however,
in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind, that I may instruct
others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue.
The last point I want to make about tongues is that their use should be
edifying. However, without interpretation the only person edified is the
speaker. Paul has already said that spiritual gifts should be for the common
good. That is why he asks in verse 6, "if I come to you speaking in
tongues, what shall I profit you, unless I speak to you either by way of
revelation or of knowledge or of prophecy or of teaching?" The thrust
of his thinking here is to start with tongues, but he wants to get to a
situation where the circle is broadened and where others can be included
and encouraged. It is edifying of oneself to speak in tongues but that is
not very important. The longing is that spiritual gifts should do others
good also. If you speak in tongues, pray to interpret so that your mind
can join your spirit in being edified. If others are present, interpretation
is required so that all may benefit.
What then is prophesying? This is a greater gift than that of tongues. Verse
2: "desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy";
verse 5: "Now I wish...even more that you would prophesy; and greater
is one who prophecies than one who speaks in tongues,..." Verse 3 says
that prophesying is for "edification and exhortation and consolation."
Edification makes people more capable and less dependent than they were
before. If we were to use a human arm to illustrate these three effects,
we could say that edification would strengthen the arm. Where once there
was weakness and incapacity, now there is strength and capacity. The second
quality, "encouragement," has the same root as the Greek word
paraclete, which is used of the Holy Spirit; it means to come alongside
someone. Those who need encouragement are faltering, lonely or confused.
They need someone to come along and put an arm around them, someone to walk
alongside them and encourage them. "Consolation" is ministry to
those who are broken, who have lost hope. There we might picture someone
in the embrace of another, with both arms surrounding them to console them.
Paul is saying that this ability to declare the truth about God in such
a way that it is exactly to the point of what someone needs to know, that
it engages their thinking, has the effect of giving life to people in the
form of edification, encouragement, or consolation. It is "other"-centered,
not self-centered. It is not for self-edification, but redounds to the advantage
of others. In that sense it is the greater gift. It has a wider circle,
and thus does more good. Some good is done in the first case (tongues),
but more good is done in the second. Therefore prophesying is a greater
That is why spiritual gifts are always exercised for the common good. Spiritual
gifts must operate in the arena of love, and the most loving thing is to
do the most good for others.
I have had a number of discussions as to whether people in this church should
raise their hands while they are singing. The reason I bring this up here
is that I feel this is roughly analogous to what Paul is saying about tongues
in this section. You can act in such a way that your experience is maximized
in worship, and that is a good thing, but you do need to take others into
account. I would say that any thoughtful reading of the Bible would note
that it was the regular practice of believers in both the New and Old Testament
periods to raise their hands in worship. I do not think a case can be made
that there is a problem with raising one's hands or closing one's eyes in
The problem with this practice is that it can be engaged in selfishly. It
can be obtrusive and it can exclude others. If in your experience of worship
you have not noticed that your hands are smack in front of someone's face,
so caught up are you in your experience, and they find it disruptive, that
is wrong. It is wrong in the same way that speaking in tongues without interpretation
to the exclusion of others present is wrong.
In addition, some engage in hand-raising and other behavior that is unfamiliar
to those around them as a pre-planned attempt to infiltrate and provoke
schism in congregations that are deemed insufficiently spiritual by groups
who are intentionally subversive. Secret promotion of church splits is always
devilish, divisive and ruinous. However, having said these things, we must
note that the Scriptures specifically recognize the raising of hands in
worship (1 Timothy 2:8), and we should work toward maximum acceptance of
any action that is offered to God from a pure heart.
A SIGN FOR UNBELIEVERS
Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be
babes, but in your thinking be mature. In the Law it is written, "By
men of strange tongues and by the lips of strangers I will speak to this
people, and even so they will not listen to Me," says the Lord. So
then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe, but to unbelievers;
but prophecy is for a sign, not to unbelievers, but to those who believe.
If therefore the whole church should assemble together and all speak in
tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you
are mad? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters,
he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the secrets of his
heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring
that God is certainly among you.
What Paul is saying here appears to be contradictory. Tongues are a sign
for unbelievers, he declares, and then he says that if an unbeliever wanders
into a service and hears people speaking in tongues, he will think they
are crazy. But what the apostle is saying is that tongues are a sign for
unbelievers when they are in a worldly setting. And this is especially so
among unbelieving Jews, as Isaiah prophesied of such, that by men speaking
unfamiliar tongues, God would signify his presence. So if you are in a setting,
such as a market-place or neighborhood, in which God's power needs to be
testified to before people will listen, then speech in unknown languages
which you have never learned, but which have been miraculously given to
you by God, may in fact create interest where there was none earlier.
But if on the other hand people are already so interested that they come
to church, thereby agreeing that something worth hearing will be said, what
you need to do is speak to them in a way they can understand. Then the unbeliever
is "convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the secrets of
his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God,
declaring that God is certainly among you."
Prophesying is the clear presentation of God's truth in a penetrating way
to a specific circumstance. It will have the effect of unmasking a heart,
revealing secret fears, sins, hopes or longings. All of the weight of the
secret, inner life is broken open and the individual who does not know God
will find that God is present and he will fall on his face in worship. His
interest can be awakened by tongues, but he needs to hear the truth made
plain in order to fall on his face and worship.
THE GIFT OF SPEECH
Speech is among the greatest of God's gifts. Christians are given the right
to speak of themselves and of God. That is an extraordinary gift. If the
speech is unintelligible to us, if it is in tongues and communication takes
place because God understands when we ourselves do not understand what we
are saying, that is a good thing. It still partakes of the great gift of
being able to praise God. It is even better to be able to engage our minds,
to think through the truth. But the remarkable miracle, the humbling one,
it seems to me, is that God will let us say anything. We do not deserve
to be able to name his name. We do not deserve to be able to sing one word
of praise to him. It is a remarkable gift that he would let himself be known,
that he would let us say aloud the truth of God. Whether the language is
in tongues or prophesying is less remarkable than the fact that sinners
saved by grace may speak of him at all.
Catalog No. 4076
1 Corinthians 14:
June 17, 1988
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