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

It is important to study 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 “Prayer and Praise Languages”

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.

“(praise and prayer) languages”: Should we change the terms from “tongues’ to ‘prayer languages’ or “Spirit languages’ or just ‘languages’? As I note in another post, in Greek the noun glōssa means both the physical tongue and a language. And so it is in modern French, to illustrate the similarity. Langue means both “tongue” and “language,” so Acts 2:4 is translated as “parler en langues” (“speak in tongues / languages”).

In Elizabethan English, which influenced the translation of the King James Version (King James I succeeded Queen Elizabeth I in 1603), tongue could mean both the physical tongue and language. In the early seventeenth century and later, the tongue and language were synonyms. Today, however, we don’t say, “This is the German tongue,” but “this is the German language.”

The New Century Version, the Contemporary English Version, the New Living Translation, and the Message Bible all correctly use languages in v. 4. However, if they mean the natural ability to speak languages, then those translations fall short. The editors of the Spirit-Filled Life Bible (3rd ed., Thomas Nelson, 2018) in their notes call the God-given gift “spiritual languages,” but unfortunately they resort to the archaic “tongues” in many instances.

Let’s no longer call it ‘tongues,’ and every critic or questioner of this God-given ability should at least be courteous to those of us who have received it by calling it by the correct biblical term: ‘God-inspired languages’ or ‘spiritual languages’ or ‘prayer languages’ or ‘heavenly languages.’ But I realize that the modifiers prayer and praise is only implied.

In light of all the foregoing, nonetheless,  a literal translation of the Greek in v. 10 is “languages.”

I also realize that people won’t change their label ‘tongues,’ so I am not an idealist about a change anytime soon. So I won’t make a big deal of it.

Defining and Describing This Gift

Let’s appeal to these theologians and Bible interpreters.

J.. Rodman Williams

The plural of both “kinds” and “languages” indicates that different languages are involved, since this is a manifestation of the Spirit. This gift is not the ability to speak in tongues, not is it ecstatic utterances, which is irrational. The only ability is the speaker makes himself available, and the Spirit speaks through him. So for Williams the gift is supramental.

With this gift, we are on new ground, unprecedented from the practices in the Old Testament. Paul loosely quotes a verse from Is. 28:11, which says in the Septuagint (third to second century Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible and pronounced sep-too-ah-gent) the Lord would speak to the Israelites with glōssai heterai or “other languages” or “foreign languages.” Many interpreters, Williams included, distinguish between devotional tongues and ministry tongues. There is no difference in their essence (they’re the same thing), but there is a difference in their practice. No one has to speak in tongues in the church setting for ministry, but devotionally this gift is urged on everyone to do (1 Cor. 12:10, 30).

Then Williams adds these three points. (1) The phrase “different kinds of tongues” indicates variety and multiplicity. God is creative and omniscient. He may give any kind of language that is heavenly, which no one can understand down here on earth. This point is further subdivided into praise to God (Acts 2:11), speaking mysteries (1 Cor. 14:2), and offering supplication (Eph. 6:18). (2) Tongues are a sign for unbelievers. They may mock, which brings down God’s judgment on them. A natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they seem foolish to him (1 Cor. 2:14). On the other hand, tongues may be a sign because in Acts 2, tongues were spoken and understood, because they were earthly languages that the listeners understood, but the speakers did not. (3) Tongues have a regular place in the community service. “Do not forbid speaking in tongues” (1 Cor. 14:29), but revelation and knowledge and prophecy and teaching is more profitable (1 Cor. 14:6) (vol. 2, pp. 394-402).

Wayne Grudem

He defines it in an obvious way: “Speaking in tongues is a prayer and praise language spoken in syllables not understood by the speaker” (p. 1070). He also says that the translation “tongues” is misleading, for in Greek glōssa simply means “language,” so the better translation is “speaking in languages” (p. 1069). This takes away the belief that the language is irrational or even gibberish.

Craig Keener

Tongues is biblical, is used for personal edification, and when it is interpreted, edifies the church. Much of this section is devoted to a personal story about how Spirit language helped him reconcile with his father.

David Lim

In the gift of tongues the Holy Spirit touches our spirit. We find liberation to exalt God’s goodness and we edify ourselves. We are built up spiritually as we speak (Systematic Theology, ed. Stanley Horton, p. 468).

Derek Prince

“Kinds of tongues is the ability given by the Holy Spirit to speak in a language not understood by the speaker” (The Gifts of the Spirit, [Whitaker House, 2007], p. 154).

Jack Hayford

Different kinds of tongues is the gift of speaking supernaturally in a language not known the individual. The plural allows different forms, possibly harmonizing the known languages of Acts 2:4-6 and the unknown transrational utterances in Corinthians, designed particularly for praying and singing in the Spirit, mostly for private worship (1 Cor. 14:14-19).” (Gifts, Fruit, and Fullness of the Holy Spirit [Thomas Nelson, 1993], p. 147).

Paul Walker

Spirit language is (1) supernatural utterance in languages unknown to the speaker, from a past culture or a present culture, but still unknown to the speaker, or a heavenly language.; (2) Spirit language serves as a sign of the indwelling and working of the Holy Spirit (The Spirit-Filled Study Bible [3rd ed. Thomas Nelson, 2018], p. 1948).

My Definition

It is a Spirit-inspired language, not gibberish, that is spoken by the believer’s spirit, unknown to his mind. The Holy Spirit does not physically speak it, but the believer does, because of the Spirit’s abiding presence in the believer.

This gift is for public and private use. But in 12:10, it seems to be for public use. Speaking in languages in public requires an interpretation, and if an interpretation is not forthcoming from someone else, then the speaker in languages is burdened to provide one. But devotionally, in private, the interpretation is optional.

Scriptural Examples

‘Tongues’ is the most common manifestation of the baptism with the Holy Spirit.

I Cor. 14 is all about the practice of prayer languages in one’s private life and public worship services. 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.

As noted in my translation and commentary on Acts, Luke links receiving prayer languages with being filled with the Spirit in three explicit paradigmatic or exemplary instances, and one clearly implied paradigmatic and exemplary instance, and another example that he omits entirely, but the church practiced this gift (Corinth):

1.. In Jerusalem, the 120 disciples at the birth of the church knew Jesus from the beginning or early on (2:1-4). The church was born and empowered, and the charismatic environment can now ripple throughout Acts, and this gift and the Spirit’s power are for everyone who are afar in the distance and subsequent generations (2:39).

It is important to realize three biblical facts. First, that they had already converted to and trusted in the Messiah (Luke 9:1-2; Luke 10:22; John 20:22). They had already been saved. Second, they received their prayer language as a sign of this infilling of the Spirit. Third, therefore salvation and the infilling of the Spirit are two distinct divine acts.

2.. In Samaria, in an atmosphere of Philip working signs and wonders (8:7, 13), Peter and John came from Jerusalem to endorse the evangelistic campaign and lay hands on the Samaritans. Simon the Sorcerer saw that the Spirit was given (8:17-18).

It is important to realize the same three biblical facts. First, the Samaritans had converted to and trusted in the Messiah. As a sign of their faith, they were baptized. Even Simon believed and was baptized (Acts 8:13). Second, the gift of spiritual languages is clearly implied. Luke assumes his readers would understand that the visible sign was spiritual languages, in light of Pentecost and when two prominent apostles prayed and laid hands on the Samaritans. Third, therefore salvation and the infilling of the Spirit are two distinct acts.

3.. In Caesarea, Cornelius and his household, who were Gentiles (or Cornelius was), needed their own Pentecost (10:44-48). And it is also important to realize same three biblical truths, with perhaps a compacted element. First, Cornelius and his household heard the word, so faith rose in their hearts. Second, they received their prayer languages. Third, it could be the case that salvation and the infilling of the Spirit to the point of receiving prayer languages can happen at the same time, or at least one right after the other. It is the Spirit who works both salvation and the empowering infilling.

4.. In Corinth, Paul spent eighteen months there because Jesus appeared to him in a vision and told him that he had numerous people there (Acts 18:1-18). Luke never mentions any of the spiritual gifts, including prayer languages, but Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians spells out that these believers exercised them powerfully and frequently (1 Cor. 12:7-11; 14:1-40). Once again, Luke’s omissions.

5.. In Ephesus, twelve disciples believed in the Messiah, but knew only the baptism of John (19:1-7). And, as expected, it is important to understand the same biblical truths. First, the twelve men were called “disciples,” and in every instance in Acts this refers to believers in the Messiah Jesus. And Paul even called them believers (Acts 19:2). Second, they received the fullness of the Spirit and spoke in their prayer languages. Third, therefore salvation and the infilling of the Spirit are two distinct acts of God.

These cases are paradigmatic and exemplary because they illustrate that converts to the Jesus Movement or the Way had also to be filled with power and fire and this speaking gift.

However, Paul’s experience proves that Luke does not have to explicitly link the fullness of the Spirit and prayer languages every single time. Paul received the fulness of the Spirit, but his prayer language is not mentioned at that time (Acts 9:17-18). But we know that he used this gift very often (1 Cor. 14:18).

Luke expects us to fill his omissions with the power of the Spirit because the entire sweep or context of his book is charismatic. It is similar to his omitting water baptism in key places. Often he does say that new converts got baptized: Acts 2:38, 41; 8:12-13, 35-38; 9:18; 10:48; 16:14-15, 31-33; 18:8; 19:5), Yet in other cases water baptism is not brought up for new converts: Acts 9:42; 11:21; 13:12, 48; 14:1; 17:12, 34.

How does this post help me grow in Christ?

Speaking in languages is a wonderful gift. You are praying the perfect prayer. 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.

So for thse three purposes, you should use your prayer language. Don’t let it fall into disuse. If you got it, use it! If you don’t got it and want it, seek God for it. Find someone who has the gift, and pray with him or her.


Should We Call It ‘Tongues’?

The Purpose and Importance of Spiritual Languages

Questions and Answers about Spirit-Inspired Languages

What Are Renewal Movements in Christianity?

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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