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1 Corinthians 14:26-28 (NIV) says:

26 What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. 28 If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.

If there is no interpreter around, verse 28 recommends to stay quiet in the church and instead to speak to oneself and to God. What I don't understand is, if we have to stay quiet in the church in the absence of interpreters, where are we supposed to "speak to ourselves and to God" then? In a private setting?

Another question I have: why would someone need an interpreter in the first place? Doesn't the person understand what they themselves are saying? Why don't they interpret themselves?

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    You seem to be gradually arriving at a conclusion I can agree with : that speaking in other (earthly) languages was a sign, temporarily, regarding the inauguration of the gospel and its proclamation to the whole world, beyond Israel. Once the inauguration was accomplished, the sign ceased and Paul regulates matters in the church, accordingly. (Up-voted +1.)
    – Nigel J
    Jan 5 at 9:47
  • “Where are w e”? Who “we”? Almost 20 century already nobody speaks other languages without learning first; so, why to bother when there is nobody to bother? Holy Writing is for life and salvation, not for theoretician-hypothetical intellectual pastime and idle curiosity. Aug 12 at 15:38
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+50

The gift of speaking in tongues without an interpreter / someone to understand the language, does not build up the church because nobody understands it. Interpretation of the speaking in tongues (no matter if it's done by the speaker in tongues himself or other) becomes a prophecy (prayer of worship, vision of the future, instruction), and Paul encourages the prophecy and the gift of prophecy. The prophecy builds up the church because it encourages, gives instructions and warnings. So if it does not build up the church, he should not speak in church, but in private, for himself.

To answer your second question, in general, the speaker in tongues does not understand what himself/herself is saying - this is why is a miracle from God: the person suddenly is given an ability that normally does not have. God sometimes can give the same person the ability to interpret, but it's not a rule.

For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. 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. 1 Cor. 14: 14 - 15

In the verses above you can see that the speaker in tongues does not understand with his mind what he is saying.

I hope this answer helps you.

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The purpose of the spiritual gift of tongues is stated in 1 Cor 14:22 -

Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers, but for unbelievers. Prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers.

Earlier in the same chapter, Paul discourages the use of the gift of tongues in the usual congregational setting. However, the need for the gift of tongues come to the fore when an apostle, like Paul, is confronted with a group of unbelievers who do not speak the same language as the evangelist.

Under these circumstances, the person with the gift of tongues can immediately, by the miraculous power of the imparted spiritual gift, speak to the unbelievers and tell them the Gospel message. This is what occurred at Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2.

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  • How is "preaching to unbelievers" = "speaking to oneself and to God"? Doesn't preaching require you to be speaking to other people (i.e. not to yourself)? Jan 5 at 9:25
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator - yes it does, agreed. That is the point Paul is making - they are using a gift designed to reach unbelievers, in the church setting where it was NOT designed to be used. Thus, if they speak an unknown language (to the hearers) then clearly the only person they are speaking to God as only He can understand it.
    – Dottard
    Jan 5 at 9:27
  • If that's the case, shouldn't verse 28 have said instead "If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and instead go preach the gospel in tongues to unbelievers who happen to speak that tongue too"? Jan 5 at 9:32
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator - perhaps but Paul would allow people to fellowship and evangelize at different times. In any case, that is effectively what V22 actually says.
    – Dottard
    Jan 5 at 9:37
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    If you read through a couple more verses, you have another purpose for speaking in tongues. 1 COR 14:4 The one who speaks in a tongue edifies himself.
    – Dave
    Jan 5 at 17:15
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The word speak appears 25 times! in 1 Corinthians 14. In this chapter, Paul focused greatly on orderly worship. Particularly, he wanted to eliminate the disorderly incidences of unruly speaking in tongues during the worship service.

If we have to stay quiet in the church in the absence of interpreters, where are we supposed to "speak to ourselves and to God" then? In a private setting?

Yes, in a private setting in the church or at home.

Why would someone need an interpreter in the first place? Doesn't the person understand what they themselves are saying? Why don't they interpret themselves?

Paul's concern was orderly worship. Even when the person understood what he was saying, by requiring a 2nd person to confirm him, a single person was not to disrupt the service. This was consistent with 2 Corinthians 13:1b

Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.

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I watched a sermon of David Pawson, where he shared his own testimony about speaking in tongues (he believes it was Russian) involuntarily, during his private prayer for a Church member who was obnoxious and troublesome in the community. The miraculous speaking in tongues comes spontaneously without our will, as seen in Acts 2. Man has no control over tongues, this is why in the case of 1Cor 14, it seems to be a church where people are imitating the tongues by themselves which they had seen in someone, as commonly seen in the Pentecostal assemblies. The Spirit would not give tongues in the assembly, which may cause disorder. Having said that, we shouldn't disregard claims of speaking in unknown tongues as well, which are not interpretable by humans. There are some prophets like Dhinakaran, who testify of speaking in tongues with his wife, spontaneously on rare occasions, where it was not in their control, and they prayed for hours without ceasing or getting tired.

So, the Spirit may occasionally give the content to us to intercede for someone, or even cause us to pray in a different or unknown tongues. It is a miracle given as evidence for oneself or others, and for intercessory prayer for others in dire need.

[Rom 8:25-27 NASB] 25But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it. 26In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for [us] with groanings too deep for words; 27and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to [the will of] God.

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  • Miraculous Intercession testimony of Alexander Ogorodnikov in Soviet Gulag. youtube.com/watch?v=09cePAhBZKk
    – Michael16
    Aug 11 at 9:30
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    Thank you for this anecdote, however I can't see that it really explains the passage being asked about.
    – curiousdannii
    Aug 11 at 11:03
  • @curiousdannii it answers the Q that private instance of tongue is for our edification or for intercession or whatever reason, and should be done in private rather than in the assembly.
    – Michael16
    Aug 11 at 11:18
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If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. (1 Cor 13:1)

Most people in apostolic times probably knew just one language; some might have known two, and an even smaller number might have known three or more languages. Thus, most people were not able to distinguish between existing earthly foreign languages and the heavenly one. So to them all word utterings they did not understand were simply labelled "tongues". Thus, "tongues" seems to have been an umbrella term for all foreign languages, be it earthly, or angelic.

"Tongues of men" is according to 1 Cor 14:27,28 to be spoken in religious gatherings when visiting speakers and interpreters are present. "Tongues of angels", on the other hand, is according to 1 Cor 14:4 a prayer language that should be used mainly in private spiritual warfare.

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