Both 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 speak about a spiritual gift called the interpretation of tongues. This spiritual gift involved the supernatural ability to interpret the words of someone speaking in another language.
The spiritual gift of interpreting tongues – What is it?
First Corinthians 12:10 first mentions "the interpretation of tongues" as one spiritual gift among many. It is clear that not every person would have this gift, but that some did, and were to use it for the encouragement of others.
First Corinthians 14:5 highlights that the interpretation of tongues is a gift dependent upon someone else first speaking in tongues: "The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up." Unlike most spiritual gifts, the interpretation of tongues must involve the work of another person.
However, it was possible for some people to have the ability to both speak in tongues and interpret: "Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret" (1 Corinthians 14:13). Those who had both gifts could better help the church by explaining what was being said.
Paul provided specific guidelines for the usage of speaking in tongues and their interpretation for the church at Corinth: "When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God" (1 Corinthians 14:26-28). 1) The goal was for "building up," 2) two or three at the most could speak with an interpreter, 3) and when no interpreter existed, no one was to speak in tongues in public.
The goal Paul gave was that, "All things should be done decently and in order" (1 Corinthians 14:40). This involved making sure the audience could understand what was being spoken through those with the gift of interpretation.
From this context, it appears that speaking in tongues referred to speaking in other known languages. Those who interpreted served as translators to the audience, offering understanding to those who did not understand the language. Seen from this perspective, it is certainly understandable that no more than two or three people would speak and that an interpreter would be required. As with all spiritual gifts, the gift of interpreting tongues was designed to build up the church and serve others.
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