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In 1 Corinthians 14:18-19 (NIV) Paul said:

18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.

From v18 we understand that Paul was a top tier user of the gift of tongues. However, in v19 we see that Paul was rather contrary to abusing this gift in the church setting. From this it follows that Paul favored employing the gift of tongues in other contexts. What did Paul (heavily) use the gift of tongues for then?

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  • @NigelJ maybe, but what about verse 2: "For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit."? Oct 25 '20 at 5:58
  • Chrysostom argues that he is employing here the same rhetoric as in Philippians 3:4-7.
    – Lucian
    Oct 25 '20 at 10:53
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The answer to this question, "What did the apostle Paul use the gift of tongues for?" is explicitly answered several times in 1 Cor 14, namely:

  • V22 - Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers, but for unbelievers. Prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers. [That is, Paul used the gift of tonges to reach new people who did not speak the same language.]
  • V2 - For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men [because they cannot understand what is being said], but to God [because God can understand any language]. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries in the Spirit [because anyone listening cannot understand]
  • V9 - So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air.
  • V19 - But in the church, I would rather speak five coherent words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.

Thus, it appears that Paul used the gift of tongues to reach people of a different language, but in regular church gatherings he did not want the use of tongues because people could not understand - Paul tells us to speak intelligible words that those present can understand.

The experience at Pentecost in Acts 2 is a perfect example of this - tongues was used to reach people in their mother-tongue.

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  • What about the case of Cornelius and his household (Acts 10:44-46)? Whom was Cornelius reaching in their mother-tongue? Oct 25 '20 at 8:53
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator - probably reaching no one - it was simply an indication that the gift of tongues had been given to them to presumably use in outreach as per 1 Cor 14:22.
    – Dottard
    Oct 25 '20 at 9:43
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator I find it very hard to believe that anyone would be 'astounded' by people speaking similarly to what you typically hear among Pentecostalists ("were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues and exalting God."). However, it is not clear who spoke which languages in that setting. It is possible they were speaking languages spoken by others present. Aug 10 at 21:00
  • @OneGodtheFather - I think you misunderstood my point. I have no issues accepting that they very likely spoke in a language previously unknown to them but known by some of the visitors. My objection was rather that I see no basis to conclude that they were "preaching the gospel in tongues", like a sermon. According to Acts 10:46, their words were directed at God, not at the visitors. 46 For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. As a byproduct, the visitors were mesmerized because they were probably able to understand what they said, granted. Aug 10 at 21:44
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    @OneGodtheFather - One possible use of these tongues is simply to affirm the preaching of the Gospel by praising the Lord in the case of Cornelius to confirm the reception of the Holy Spirit.
    – Dottard
    Aug 10 at 23:20
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The only meaning that can be given to the words you quote, 1 Corinthians 14: 18-19 (without any further information being available) is that Paul is saying that he preached the gospel to many people in different countries in their own language.

But, in the church, he speaks intelligibly, to those present.

Else, he would not be understood.

Anyone who, in the company of others in the assembly, speaks in a language which nobody present can understand, must only be talking to God, for God alone will know what the person is uttering, 1 Corinthians 14:2. Indeed, the person may well speak to God 'in the spirit', but what they speak will be 'mysteries' for 'no man understands him'.

To read any more into the words is to add meaning to them that Paul is not actually expressing.

As Paul makes clear, anyone speaking in a language that nobody present can understand, must first ensure that they provide an interpreter to communicate the meaning. Otherwise, they are not permitted to speak in the assembly, 1 Corinthians 14:27-28. They will have to remain silent.

Even when Paul is on his own, he tells us that he will pray with his spirit and with his understanding also, or he will sing with his spirit and with his understanding also, 1 Corinthians 14:15.

By using the construction δε και (but also) Paul is indicating a simultaneity to his activity, his praying/singing being in immediate conjunction with the activity of his mind.

"καί ... δέ, but ... also, yea and, moreover also" Thayer's Greek Lexicon

So even when alone, in his own devotions to God privately, Paul was not prepared to, himself, utter a language with his mouth which his mind did not understand.

So, to answer the question,

What did the apostle Paul use the gift of tongues for ? [OP]

. . . the evidence appears to be that Paul used language (as did the eleven on the day of Pentecost, Acts 2:8) to communicate the gospel to his fellow men in their own tongue.

Intelligibly.


It is very obvious where Paul's emphasis lies for, before even addressing the subject of language in detail, he first makes clear in Chapter 13 of his first epistle to the church of God at Corinth that [KJV] :

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal ...

... whether there be tongues, they shall cease ; knowledge - it shall vanish away.

... Now abideth faith, hope and charity.

... But the greatest of these is charity.

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  • I think there is biblical support for the use of tongues in the context of prayer and singing. Check out verses 14 and 15: "14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. 15 So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding." Oct 25 '20 at 6:05
  • I think you are interpreting the "and" as meaning simultaneity in time, as if praying in the spirit and with understanding are to happen simultaneously. However, the "and" could also be interpreted as just meaning that he practiced both at different times. For instance, if I say "I will play basketball, but I will also play soccer", it doesn't mean that I will play basketball and soccer simultaneously. Oct 25 '20 at 6:31
  • Any basis to support the claim that δε και (but also) has a connotation of simultaneity in time necessarily? Oct 25 '20 at 6:38
  • (As an aside: are there examples of people using the gift of tongues to preach the gospel to foreigners nowadays?) Oct 25 '20 at 6:42
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator I would say there is widespread use of language to communicate the gospel nowadays. Many people (if they are so talented and gifted) learn languages (other than their own, native, language) - whilst at school or college - with that specific purpose in mind.
    – Nigel J
    Oct 25 '20 at 7:16
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To answer this question, let's first identify all the different functions of the gift of tongues according to Paul:

  1. Tongues can be used to edify oneself:

    4 The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. [1 Cor 14:4, ESV]

  2. Tongues can be used to edify others (provided that there is interpretation, in which case they are equivalent to a prophecy):

    5 Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up. [1 Cor 14:5, ESV]

  3. Tongues can be used in prayer and worship:

    13 Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. 15 What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. [1 Cor 14:13-15, ESV]

    The specific use in worship is confirmed by Acts 2:11 (we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God) and Acts 10:46 (For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God), and since these praises in a tongue are directed at God, they can be viewed as instances of prayer as well.

  4. Tongues as a sign for unbelievers:

    21 In the Law it is written, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” 22 Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. [1 Cor 14:21-22, ESV]

    Now, Paul doesn't elaborate too much on what he actually meant by "sign to unbelievers", but fortunately we have the case of Acts 2 to venture an educated guess: Acts 2 was an extraordinary showcase of the gift of tongues as a sign for thousands of unbelievers, as the apostles were enabled by the Spirit to speak in languages completely unknown to them. Thus, if an unbeliever whose native language is X hears a believer (who doesn't know X) speak X, it shouldn't be hard to see that the unbeliever will be in shock in the face of such a miracle. The sign comes from the surprise factor: from the unbeliever's perspective there is no way how to explain that the unbeliever is speaking language X other than to accept that God is real and that He is revealing language X to the believer. (How is it that you are speaking my language !?!)

  5. Tongues can be used to speak to oneself and to God (outside of church, probably in a private setting):

    2 For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. [1 Cor 14:2, ESV]

    27 If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. 28 But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. [1 Cor 14:27-28, ESV]

Functions #1, #3 and #5 seem to overlap a lot and make more sense in a private setting. Functions #2 and #4 make sense in non-private settings, namely, in church and in front of foreign unbelievers, respectively.

Having clarified that, let's now look at what Paul said about himself:

18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue. [1 Cor 14:18-19, ESV]

This means that Paul probably didn't make too much use of function #2 (tongues spoken in church), meaning that he probably devoted most of his tongue-speaking to functions #1, #3, #4 and #5, that is, for private self-edification, through prayer and worship, and as a sign for unbelievers (when he miraculously spoke in languages he shouldn't have known, leaving foreign unbelievers speechless, making them more receptive to the subsequent preaching of the gospel).


Responding to objections and questions in the comment section

Objection. I am not sure that your function #1 is an actual stated function of tongues - it may just be a statement of fact that if a person is speaking in a language unknown to all hearers, he is (obviously) only speaking to God and himself. The same is true of functions #3 and #5. Do not confuse a fact with an intended function. For example, when I saw a person working on a very old car using worn-out tires to hold the car weight on their sides, then I could have said, "Those tires are used to prop up the car" but that was clearly NOT their intended function - they were meant to go on the wheel hubs, not under the car body!

Answer. Function #1 (self-edification) comes from 1 Cor 14:4. If we look at the immediate context, we will notice that Paul is comparing the gift of tongues with the gift of prophecy:

Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. 2 For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. 3 On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. 4 The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church.

Paul is making a contrast: tongues edify the speaker, prophecies edify the hearers. To me, this sounds as a comparison of essential features, not just mere "statements of facts". If we see the self-edifying effect of speaking in tongues as a mere statement of fact but not as an intended feature, then we should also see the others-edifying effect of prophecies as a mere statement of fact but not as an intended feature. Otherwise, we would be falling into an exegetical double standard. (BTW, mandatory meme :-))

In the case of function #3 (1 Cor 14:13-15), Paul is not merely making "factual statements", he is actually encouraging the practice, using the first-person tense: What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. He's not rejecting the practice or merely accepting its existence -- he is actually encouraging it, but with some caveats. Verses 16-19 provide more evidence:

16 Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? 17 For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up. 18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.

For you may be giving thanks well enough - this clearly validates the practice of giving thanks to God (i.e. worshipping God) in a tongue. Are you giving thanks to God in a tongue? No problem, that's great! BUT, if you are in church, surrounded by people, and if you don't receive the interpretation and share it, then those around you will not get any edification from your words. The key is in noticing this is only an issue if you are in a church setting. In private, it is not an issue!

Lastly, function #5 makes total sense in light of what we just said about functions #1 and #3. One speaks to oneself in the sense of self-edification (function #1) and to God in the form of prayer/worship/thanks-giving (function #3).

Objection. The main problem with your position (as I understand it) is its self-contradictory nature. When a person prays to God in a "tongue" or speaks in a "tongue", that language is either known or unknown to the speaker. If it is known, then the person can translate. If it is unknown, then clearly even the speaker is not edified!!

Answer. This objection relies on the assumption that the speaker himself cannot be edified if he doesn't understand what he himself is saying. I see two possible rebuttals to this assumption:

  • Exegetical rebuttal: Although the speaker would not get edified intellectually, he would still get edified spiritually:

    13 Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. 15 What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. 16 Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? [1 Cor 14:13-16, ESV]

    If the person doesn't pray for interpretation, their mind will be unfruitful, but their spirit would still get the benefits. See How is speaking in tongues an edifying practice for individuals themselves?

  • Testimonial rebuttal (feel free to ignore it if you believe it's off-topic): There are tons of testimonies from people about their experiences of self-edification while praying in a language they didn't understand. And I'm not talking about gibberish (link, link, link).

Objection. Again, we clearly differ. Paul objects to a practice where the mind is unfruitful.

Answer. I agree that the optimal situation would be to have both your spirit and mind simultaneously edified, but from this it doesn't follow that only having one of them edified is equal to having no edification at all. If you only have your spirit edified, that's still edification nonetheless. Also, if the gift of tongues without interpretation were useless, then why would God give people the gift of tongues without interpretation in the first place? Because there is a valid use of the gift without knowing the interpretation :-) (Although knowing the interpretation would be even better, we agree on that.)

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  • I am not sure that your function #1 is an actual stated function ofr tongues - it may just be a statement of fact that if a person is speaking in a language unknown to all hearers, he is (obviously) only speaking to God and himself. The same is true of functions #3 and #5. Do not confuse a fact with an intended function.
    – Dottard
    Aug 13 at 2:45
  • For example, when I saw a person working on a very old car using worn-out tires to hold the car weight on their sides, then I could have said, "Those tires are used to prop up the car" but that was clearly NOT their intended function - they were meant to go on the wheel hubs, not under the car body!
    – Dottard
    Aug 13 at 2:48
  • @Dottard - see the last edit. Aug 13 at 5:28
  • Thanks for this clarification. We clearly differ.
    – Dottard
    Aug 13 at 5:36
  • @Dottard - do you also see the description of prophecies in 1 Cor 14:3 as a statement of fact but not as a statement of purpose? Prophecies are not intended for the upbuilding and encouragement and consolation of others? Aug 13 at 5:40

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