9. Gifts of the Spirit: Interpretation of Spirit-Inspired Languages

This gift depends on Spirit-inspired languages (‘tongues’). Without them, interpretation would not be needed. This post gives a basic teaching of this gift.

Let’s begin with my (tentative) translation.

4 There are a variety of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 There are a variety of services, and the same Lord. 6 And there are a variety of workings, but the same God who works everything in everyone. 7 To each the manifestation of the Spirit is given towards the common benefit. 8 For to one person is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom; to another person a message of knowledge by the same Spirit; 9 To a different person faith by the same Spirit; to a different person the gifts of healings by the one Spirit; 10 To a different person workings of miracles; to a different person prophecy; to a different person discernings of spirits; to a different person kinds of (prayer and praise) languages; to another person an interpretation of (prayer and praise) languages; 11 The one same Spirit works and distributes all these things to each particular individual as he wills. (1 Cor 12:4-11)

For other translations, please click here: biblegateway.com

For my commentary on how to organize the gifts, please click here:

Gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12:7-11 and 12:28

Exegetical Commentary on “Interpretation”

Some theology: Above are three great verses (4-6) on the activity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Triunity is not an abstract doctrine, but the three persons want to invade your space and gift you, so that you can reach and help people.

Click here The Trinity: What Does He Mean to Me? and at the end of that linked ten-point post, you can click on other articles on the Trinity.

With this gift, similar to God-inspired languages (commonly called “tongues”), we are on new territory. Neither gift has clear precedence in the Old Testament.

“Interpretation”: it comes from the noun hermēneia (pronounced hair-may-nay-ah), and there are two basic definitions: “translation” and “interpretation” (BDAG, a Greek lexicon). In v. 10 and 1 Cor. 14, Renewalists (Pentecostals and Charismatics and Neo-Charismatics) like to emphasize the interpretive aspect of the noun, because a translation is very close to a word-for-word rendering, and that’s too limiting. Interpretation is more conceptual or dynamic, meaning flexibility and the import and force of the original language or ‘tongue.’ It is not word for word. Take your pick, because I can easily imagine some interpretations of a prayer language being more literal translations, while other interpretation of ‘tongues’ more conceptual or a paraphrase. But BDAG says translation and interpretation.

Defining and Describing This Gift

Let’s appeal to these theologians and Bible interpreters.

I normally would call tongues Spirit-inspired languages, but for convenience and because the theologians listed in this section use the word ‘tongues,’, I’ll do that too sometimes.

J.. Rodman Williams

For him, the gift of interpretation is not interpretation in general but is in relation to tongues. Therefore, since Spirit-inspired languages is supernatural and is most often not understood, the interpretation has to be supernatural. So interpretation is “supramental,” though it goes through the mouth of the interpreter. Williams concedes that interpretation can be a translation, which is closer to word for word, but he says that it is directed more to the meaning of the prior utterance. In fact in charismatic circles, the interpretation can sometimes be longer or shorter than the prayer and praise language (tongues).

In his section on tongues, Williams notes that this gift is for praise to God (Acts 2:11), speaking mysteries (1 Cor. 14:2), and offering supplication (Eph. 6:18); likewise, we should expect the interpretation to reflect those three elements. The interpretation should not be personally directive, for example.

Further, Paul seems to equate tongues and interpretation as equal to prophecy (1 Cor. 14:5). Williams has this formula:

Tongues + Interpretation = Prophecy.

However, he steers his readers away from assuming that tongues and interpretations are the unwanted stepchildren, while prophecy is the golden boy. Prophecy has the threefold benefit of edification, exhortation, and consolation (1 Cor. 14:3); tongues has three other purposes, as noted. Tongues has value in its own right in private devotions, and interpreting them in a community context has similar value. And since prophecy is the greater gift (1 Cor. 12:31), the gift of interpretation puts it at the top, too (Renewal Theology, vol. 2, pp. 402-09).

David Lim

He places tongues and interpretation in one section, as other Bible interpreters do. He writes: “Then when the interpretation allows the congregation to understand what is being said [in tongues], they are encouraged to worship. Praise more readily follows the gift of tongues and interpretation than it does the gift of prophecy. Prophecy is more instructive” (Systematic Theology, ed. Stanley Horton, p. 468).

Derek Prince

“Interpretation of tongues is the ability given by the Holy Spirit to speak, in a language understood by the speaker, the meaning of words previously spoken in an unknown language” (The Gifts of the Spirit, [Whitaker House, 2007], p. 154). It’s not clear what he means by “in a language understood by the speaker.” Tongues is often not understood by the speaker. In any case, Prince agrees that the interpretation of the Spirit-inspired language is not necessarily a word-for-word translation, but “a rendering of the general sense of what was spoken in the tongue” (p. 168), but the interpretation can come in “the form of a literal translation” (p. 169). Finally, if one speaks in a tongue, he should or can pray to interpret (1 Cor. 14:12-13).

Jack Hayford

He writes: “the interpretation of tongues may be given by a person other than the one speaking in tongues (1 Cor. 12:11), but the burden for the interpretation must rest with the one who speaks in tongues” (Gifts, Fruit, and Fullness of the Holy Spirit [Thomas Nelson, 1993], p. 147).  He goes on to say that the Greek noun hermeneia can mean “translation”; it also means “to put into words.” So the interpretation will most likely be the content of the tongue in words that the congregation understand, rather than a literal translation (p. 149).

Paul Walker

He writes that interpretation means: (1) supernatural ability to reveal the meaning of the tongue; (2) it does not happens in the mind of the person, but in the mind of the Spirit (though in my opinion, it is difficult to know where to draw the line, and see Williams who says the gift is ‘supramental’); (3) it is not a translation, but declares the meaning of the Spirit-language; (4) It is just as supernatural as tongues and prophecy are (The Spirit-Filled Study Bible [3rd ed. Thomas Nelson, 2018], p. 1948).

My Definition

It is the supernatural, charismatic gift of understanding a Spirit-inspired language (tongue) that offers either a word-for-word translation or a conceptual paraphrase and explanation of the spoken language that is otherwise unknown to the interpreter.

This gift of tongues in 1 Cor. 12:10 is for public use (e.g. in a church), and that’s why it is so important to have an interpretation, Pastor Hayford is right. If you speak in tongues publicly, then the burden is on your to give an interpretation. In contrast, there is a private use or practice of tongues. Here the interpretation is optional.

Scriptural Examples:

In 1 Cor. 14:6 Paul says that prayer and praise languages plus interpretations is equivalent to prophecy. He recommends prophecy over just a public display of prayer languages, unless one interprets.

Read all of 1 Cor. 14 for how they practiced this gift in Corinth. Everything should be done in an orderly way. And tongues for public use in the church should have an interpretation; otherwise, the speaker just used the public forum for his private devotion, and that is unwise and unbiblical.

How does this post help me grow in Christ?

According to J. Rodman Williams, tongues is for praise to God (Acts 2:11), speaking mysteries (1 Cor. 14:2), and offering supplication or prayers (Eph. 6:18). He’s right. Therefore, interpretations should flow or gel with those three themes. Personal, directive prophecies through tongues and interpretations are unbiblical. Don’t receive a directive word from the Lord through those two gifts. Prophecy is for that, on rare occasions.


What Is the ‘Anointing’?

Should We Call It ‘Tongues’?

The Purpose and Importance of Spiritual Languages

Questions and Answers about Spirit-Inspired Languages

What Is the ‘Anointing’?


1. Gifts of Spirit: Word of Wisdom

2. Gifts of the Spirit: Word of Knowledge

3. Gifts of the Spirit: Faith

4. Gifts of the Spirit: Gifts of Healings

5. Gifts of the Spirit: Workings of Miracles

6. Gifts of the Spirit: Prophecy

7. Gifts of the Spirit: Discernings of Spirits

8. Gifts of the Spirit: Spirit-Inspired Languages (‘Tongues’)

9. Gifts of the Spirit: Interpretation of Spirit-Inspired Languages


Works Cited

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