The ability to speak other languages had
been bestowed by God as an express means to evangelize the world, and the
emphasis Paul gives it shows that it had become a subject of controversy.
Setting himself squarely in the center of
the conflict, he deflates the importance the Corinthians had placed on the
gift. To them it had become the supreme proof of godliness, and because of
its role in early Christianity, it attracted many converts. To believers
in mystery religions, a new faith having a God who was really three gods
in one, who gave His followers power to heal the sick, cast out demons,
and speak in mysterious tongues, Paul’s message must have seemed to be
the ultimate. Many joined because of faith in Christ, but most assuredly
others joined because of its supernatural appeal. It is presumably due to
this that the gift of tongues had begun to occupy such a prominent
position in the church—but now Paul moves in and gives it an entirely
Twice in his admonishing letter to the
Corinthians, Paul lists the various spiritual gifts, both times ending it
with tongues and interpretation, which was understandably a shock to the
In 1 Cor. 12:8-10, he mentions seven
gifts, and then, almost as an afterthought, he adds the gifts of tongues
and interpretation. That this was no mistake, but done intentionally, is
obvious when comparing it to the second list in verses 28-30. Here he also
lists seven gifts, and once again tongues and interpretation of tongues
come last of all. In the lists of spiritual gifts given in Romans 13:3-8
and Ephesians 4:7-11, they are not mentioned at all. Therefore, it was not
a manifestation revealing the doctrines and power of God as were the other
gifts, but only a communications medium to help make clear that which the
new converts were to know in their own tongue. The very nature of these
two gifts is to communicate something—and by ranking the other gifts of
the Spirit before those of tongues and interpretation, Paul practically
says that the knowledge of and about God revealed through the first five
gifts is to be relayed to others through the last two gifts; for without
divine thoughts and ideas to communicate, the gifts of tongues
and interpretation have no value.
It is worthy of note that in three of the
four listings of spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:8-10; 28-30; Rom. 12:3-8; and
Eph. 4:7-11), the gift of prophecy—that of "speaking for God,"
is listed among the top two. The references to the gifts of the Spirit in
Romans and Ephesians do not even mention tongues and interpretation.
When Paul therefore asked, "Are all
apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles?
have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all
interpret?" (1 Cor. 12:29, 30), he clearly had a reason for this
In the final verse of the chapter he
gives the answer.
"But covet earnestly the best gifts:
and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way." 1 Cor. 12:31.
In Paul’s opinion, the gifts so highly
revered by the Corinthians, tongues and their interpretation, were not
really so important. Plainly he advises them here to seek the gift with
the greatest value for the church—that of prophecy, "speaking for
God." Verse 5 of chapter 14 substantiates this: "I would that ye
all spake with tongues, but rather that ye prophesied: for greater is he
that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret,
that the church may receive edifying.’‘
Thus the Corinthians had indeed placed
the wrong emphasis on tongues. Rather than seeking a gift that would edify
the church, they sought for a manifestation that would edify themselves (1
Cor. 14:4), and in so doing they were destroying the church.