The Study of the Holy Spirit

"For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit." 1 Corinthians 12:13

Part H: What is the Significance of Speaking in Tongues in 1 Corinthians 12?


H.          What is the significance of speaking in tongues in 1 Corinthians 12?

1.               1 Corinthians 12:1-14:40 is an extended passage that deals with the issues of spiritual gifts.  A spiritual gift is a God-given capacity to serve Him.  As one reads through these three chapters, he is struck with the observation that the Christians at Corinth were highly intrigued with the spiritual realm (1 Cor. 12:1; 14:1, 12, 37), and that they were obsessed with speaking in tongues, and, indeed, had been abusing the gift  (1 Cor. 12:10, 28, 30; 13:1, 8; 14:2, 4-6, 9, 13-14, 18-19, 21-23, 26-27, 39).

2.               We would do well at this point to define two gifts which will appear again and again in 1 Corinthians 12:1-14:40 – prophecy and speaking in tongues. 

a.               Prophecy is a noun and prophesy is a verb.  One who prophesies (from propheteuo1 Cor. 11:4, 5, 13:9; 14:1, 3, 4, 5, 24, 31, 39) is a prophet (from prophetes1 Cor. 12:28, 29; 14:29, 32, 37).  That which a prophet prophesies is a prophecy (from propheteia –   1 Cor. 12:10; 13:2, 8; 14:6, 22). 

1)              A prophet is one who receives messages directly from God and communicates (prophesies) these messages (prophecies) to other people. 

2)              A teacher (or preacher), by contrast, does not receive messages directly from God.  He uses a message which he receives indirectly from God through a prophet and explains the message to his audience.  I, for example, believe God has given me the gift of teaching.  But I have never received a message directly from God.  I am a teacher, not a prophet.  I explain to my audiences what Biblical prophets have written down. 

3)              Biblical prophets spoke, for the most part, in “real-time” to their contemporaries.  But so frequently that one can almost make it a general rule, prophets did at times receive messages from God that predicted the future.  Predicting the future, typically, was not the main thrust of a prophet, but it was an important part of his ministry.  Jesus was (and is) a prophet, and most of his messages from God concerned how one should live his life in the present (Matt. 5:1-7:29).  But Jesus did occasionally predict the future (Matt. 24:1-25:46).  Paul was a prophet who received his messages directly from God.  Most of his prophecies dealt with real-time topics pertinent to his listeners or readers (1 Cor. 12:1-14:40).  But Paul did occasionally predict the future (1 Thess. 4:13-18).  Predicting the future is not what makes a prophet a prophet.  Receiving messages directly from God and communicating them to others is what makes a prophet a prophet.  Nonetheless, prophets did occasionally predict the future.

4)              Because prophets proclaimed messages directly from God, that which they proclaimed carried as much weight and authority as any communication from Jesus or any Scripture.  (Scripture is simply prophecy written down.)   To me it is a very serious thing when someone today claims to have the gift of prophecy.  If he truly is a prophet, I am as obligated to obey his prophecies as I am to obey any Scripture.  Someone once told me he had dreamed a dream which depicted a nuclear exchange between the United States and some other country in April of 1992.  When that month came and went and there was no nuclear exchange, I knew that the man who spoke to me was no prophet and I was under no obligation to obey his “prophetic” utterances (Deut. 18:22).  As I see the Scriptures, it is exceedingly dangerous to claim to be God’s prophet.  God’s decree through Moses was a “zero tolerance” policy.  If a prophet spoke presumptuously in God’s name that which God had not spoken, he was to die (Deut. 18:20).  It is unclear whether the people were to stone him or whether God would put him to death.  In either case, genuine prophets of God never uttered as prophecy that which God had not authorized.  There was no margin for error.  The same holds true today.

5)              Some have opined a lesser kind of prophets or prophecy or prophesying in 1 Corinthians.  Speaking of this kind of prophets, Thomas Constable stated,

Third, they could under divine impulse utter some lofty statement or message that would glorify God (Luke 1:67; Acts 9:6; cf. 1 Chron. 25:1), or a word of instruction, refutation, reproof, admonition, or comfort for others ( 1 Cor. 11:4; 13:9; 14:1, 3-5, 24, 31, 39).  This last type of prophecy did not contain a new revelation or a prediction involving the future. The last activity is what seems to be in view in other references to prophesying in this epistle, and it suits the context here as well. (Constable, Notes on 1 Corinthians.) [Note: The last two sentences of Constable's paragraph was taken from his 2007 edition. The current edition, 2019, does not include this the final two sentences.]

6)              Linguistically or contextually, I do not see that Constable’s third element of prophecy is warranted.  His reference to “new revelation” or “prediction” in my judgment, misses the mark.  When God revealed truth to prophets it was not always either “new revelation” or a “prediction.”   What makes prophecy prophecy is that it is a revelation directly from God to the prophet. Any particular prophecy revealed by God to a prophet could well contain instances of “instruction, refutation, reproof, admonition, or comfort for others.”  That revelation might contain “brand new” information (see Paul’s frequent reference to “mystery” in the New Testament – e.g., Rom. 16:25; 1 Cor. 2:7; 15:51; Eph. 3:9; Col. 1:26-27), but more likely it would be old information repackaged.  The point is, however, that the message originated from the mind of God and was communicated directly to the prophet, who in turn communicated it to the people.  Any other kind of communication is merely teaching, exhortation, or testimony, not prophecy.  The messages I give originate in my own mind; God does not communicate truth to me directly.  Hopefully guided by the Holy Spirit, I study the Scripture and present truths from it to people.  My messages come indirectly from God through the Bible, not directly from Him.  There is only one thing that makes a prophet a prophet – his messages come directly from God, whether they be predicting the future, presenting brand new information, or repackaging truth previously revealed.  Biblical prophets could accurately say, “Thus says the Lord!” (Ex. 4:22; Josh. 24:2; 2 Sam. 7:5; Isa. 38:1; Jer. 2:2; Ezek. 2:4; Amos 1:3; Obad. 1:1; Micah 2:3; Nah. 1:12; Hag. 1:5; Zech. 1:3; Mal. 1:4).

b.               What does it mean to speak in tongues?  The word tongue itself (glossa) refers to the human organ with which one tastes and speaks.  But “speaking in tongues” obviously refers to speech, not the physical organ.  One who speaks in tongues speaks a foreign language he has not learned before.  It is a language someone else in the world knows, but the speaker does not.  These facts can be demonstrated by the first New Testament appearance of tongues in Acts 2:1-11.  There are some who maintain that the tongues spoken of in 1 Cor. 12-14 are different than the tongues of Acts 2:1-11, but this cannot be demonstrated linguistically.  The word tongue (glossa) appears twenty one times in nineteen verses in the book of 1 Corinthians (1 Cor. 12:10, 28, 30; 13:1, 8; 14:2, 4, 5, 6,  9, 13, 14, 18, 19, 22, 23, 26, 27, 39), and each time except one (1 Cor. 14:9), it refers to a language.  The lone exception (1 Cor. 14:9) refers to the human organ, but it is followed immediately by the word speech to show what is meant.

3.               In the opening paragraph (1 Cor. 12:1-3), Paul warned the Corinthians they must distinguish between true and false utterances.  Before the Corinthians became believers in Jesus, they had been involved in pagan idol worship.  The implication seems to be that they had been at least exposed to the existence of ecstatic speech in their pagan worship.  Not all ecstatic speech comes from God (see also Thomas Constable, Notes on 1 Corinthians). 

4.               In the next paragraph Paul informed the Corinthians that the Holy Spirit distributes varieties of gifts to believers as He chooses (1 Cor. 12:4-11).  They might wish to have the flashy gift of speaking in tongues (1 Cor. 14:1, 5, 12), for they seemed to place a premium on it (1 Cor. 14:13-23); yet it was not they who controlled which gift they had been given.  The Holy Spirit determines who receives which gifts (1 Cor. 12:4, 11).

5.               Paul then informed the Corinthians of the diversity and yet the interdependence of the members of Christ’s Body (1 Cor. 12:12-26).  Using the analogy of the human body, Paul explained that there are many different kinds of gifts in Christ’s Body of believers.  Again, it is God who decides who has which gifts (1 Cor. 12:18).  No one should think he is unimportant or unneeded.  There is honor and worth for each member of Christ’s Body because unity is of great importance (1 Cor. 12:25). 

6.               In 1 Corinthians 12:27-31, Paul briefly listed certain gifts according to their relative importance.  For the sake of our discussion here today, it is worth noting that speaking in tongues and the interpretation of tongues fall at the bottom of the list.

Part G: Is Speaking in Tongues a Necessary Sign of the Baptism of the Spirit? Part I:  What is the Significance of Speaking in Tongues in 1 Corinthians 13?

This study is based on, and the links to Scripture reference the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE , Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by the Lockman Foundation. (

(Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.  Used by Permission.)

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Updated July 22, 2019