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The gift of interpretation of tongues is a very important gift according to 1 Corinthians 14. It enables the person with the gift to understand and interpret what someone with the gift of tongues is saying, so that the church may be edified by the content of the message.

1 Cor 14:1-5 (ESV):

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. 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 14:13 (ESV):

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.

1 Cor 14:26-28 (ESV):

26 What then, brothers? 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. 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.

After reading 1 Corinthians 14, one can easily get the impression that, without someone with the gift of interpretation of tongues at hand, tongues should be entirely avoided in public settings and reserved for private use only. Which makes a lot of sense, until we bring Acts 2 into the picture:

Acts 2:1-13 (ESV):

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.

5 Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6 And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. 7 And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? 9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, 11 both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” 12 And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.”

If having people around with the gift of interpretation of tongues is of paramount importance when tongue speaking in public settings, then how come that in Acts 2 there was no need for interpreters? Were tongues in Acts 2 in some sense special? How can we determine when interpreters are necessary and when they aren't?

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    At Pentecost, people heard the apostles in their own language. They needed nobody to interpret because they heard their own language. – Nigel J May 6 at 12:41
  • @NigelJ - right, but then what's the point of having interpreters? It's like Acts 2 and 1 Cor 14 were talking about different kinds of gifts of tongues. In one case you don't need interpreter and in the other you need one, correct? – Spirit Realm Investigator May 6 at 13:47
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    No, I don't think so. At Pentecost, many people from many places speaking many languages were all in one place. In a specific assembly it is highly likely all will speak one language and someone attending, speaking a different language, must ensure (before standing up to speak) that there is someone present to interpret. If that cannot be arranged (beforehand) they must remain silent. This is only good manners to do so. – Nigel J May 6 at 14:40
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    @NigelJ +1 That sounds like a great answer! – agarza May 6 at 18:42
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The gift of interpretation of tongues may have been present that day.

Purpose of the Gift of Tongues

From the New Testament (even just from the passages cited in the OP), I understand that there are 2 purposes of the gift of tongues:

A. To preach the gospel without being held up by language barriers -- this is demonstrated by Acts 2 (For what it is worth, this gift--for this very purpose--has been reported by preachers of the gospel in modern times as well).

B. To praise God -- the text tells us very little about the nuts and bolts of this, and Paul himself notes that the practical application may be limited

Tongues vs. interpretation of Tongues

I'll illustrate 4 scenarios.

  1. Tongues

Person A is preaching to person B and person C. Vulcan is the native language of B & C, but is unknown to A. A is given the ability to preach in Vulcan. This is the gift of tongues

  1. Interpretation of Tongues--human interpreter

Person A preaches a sermon to person B & person C; person A knows Quenya and preaches the sermon in Quenya. Neither B or C knows Quenya, but person B is given the ability to understand Quenya and translates for person C. This is the gift of interpretation of tongues.

  1. Interpretation of Tongues--Holy Ghost as interpreter

Person A preaches a sermon to person B & person C; person A knows tlhIngan Hol and preaches the sermon in tlhIngan Hol. Neither B or C knows tlhIngan Hol, but the Holy Ghost enables them to understand the sermon. This is the gift of interpretation of tongues as well.

  1. Both gifts

Nobody in the group knows Ewokese, but person A gives a sermon in Ewokese, and person B & person C are enabled by the Holy Ghost to understand the sermon. Both the gift of tongues and the gift of interpretation of tongues are being given. The utility of this scenario appears limited.

Which gifts were present at Pentecost?

Acts 2:4-6 looks like a pretty clear case of the gift of tongues--the apostles were able to speak in languages they did not know. The gift of interpretation of tongues may also have been in effect.

Was each apostle speaking in a different language so a different subset of the crowd could hear in their native tongue? Or were the apostles all speaking the same language and the Holy Ghost was translating? The former would be just the gift of tongues; the latter would be both.

If the gift of the interpretation of tongues was not in effect, it would be because the apostles (through the gift of tongues) were already speaking in a language the audience members could understand--no interpreter needed.

If the gift of the interpretation of tongues was in effect, the gift was given not just to one individual who would then serve as translator, but to most/all of the people in the audience.

Conclusion

It appears that Paul's counsel to the Corinthians is a polite way of saying "don't use the gift of tongues to show off."

When is an interpreter needed? When the audience wouldn't understand without one. Paul has just ruled out (most?) public use of option B (see beginning of post) without being condescending in saying so.

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You are making the assumption that there was none! In fact, an analysis of the text would show that there was some interpretation of tongues going, at least to some extent. For example, see In Acts 2:6, was the miracle in the speaking or the hearing at Pentecost?

There are two separate gifts being discussed in 1 Cor 14 as far as tongues are concerned:

  • The gift of speaking in tongues is the supernatural gift of being able to speak a foreign language unknown to the speaker in order to preach/teach the Gospel in the hearer's language (See 1 Cor 14:22)
  • The gift of interpretation of tongues is the supernatural ability of understanding a language that was previously unknown to the hearer for the purpose of spreading the Gospel as was at least in part done at Pentecost in Acts 2.

Now, if a person speaks in a foreign language, and the congregation does not understand it, the teaching 1 Cor 14 tells us that the person should not do so unless someone translates.

So we have two quite different situations:

  • Acts 2 where the disciples were miraculously enable to speak and preach in many languages to enable many foreigners to hear the Gospel
  • 1 Cor 14 where we have a local church situation who all speak (say) Aramaic and then someone gets up with a message in (say) Persian that nobody can understand - unless someone can translate, then that person should remain quiet.

Therefore, the advice and behavior of the participants is both consistent and appropriate in each situation.

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  • "The gift of interpretation of tongues is the supernatural ability of understanding a language that was previously unknown to the hearer for the purpose of spreading the Gospel as was at least in part done at Pentecost in Acts 2" - where does this definition come from? According 1 Cor 14:5 and 14:27 the one who interprets is usually a person who acts as a 'middleman' between the one who speaks in tongues and the audience. So you have in view: (1) a person speaking in unknown tongues that nobody in the audience nor the speaker themselves understand, (2) the translator and (3) the audience. – Spirit Realm Investigator May 6 at 13:40
  • The thing is that in Acts 2 there was no 'middleman' / translator / interpreter between the disciples and the astonished Jewish audience, why? – Spirit Realm Investigator May 6 at 13:41
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator - I did not wish to imply that the "tongue" was unknown to the speaker who is speaking - I never said that no did I think it - that is your definition which I do not believe is inherent in the text. Either you believe that the gift of tongues is the same in Acts to and 1 Cor 14 or not. If they are the same (as I believe) then the speaker understands what he is saying - no problem. If they gifts are different and the speaker does NOT understand what he is saying then there is a major problem with 1 Cor 14:22. – Dottard May 6 at 21:09
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator - see my comment there. – Dottard May 6 at 21:13
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At Pentecost, recorded by Luke, many people from many places speaking many languages were all in one place.

Those that heard the apostles on that occasion, each heard the gospel in their own tongue, uttered by one, or another apostle.

This was supernatural and it was a sign : a sign that the gospel was for all nations and that the whole earth should hear these glad tidings.

In a specific assembly it is highly likely all will speak one language and someone attending, speaking a different language, must ensure (before standing up to speak) that there is someone present to interpret. If that cannot be arranged (beforehand) they must remain silent. This is only good manners to do so.

Paul regulates the assembly in his first epistle to the Corinthians in order to ensure proper order and sensible conduct regarding speaking and hearing.

There is nothing in what Paul says that would suggest that anything supernatural is occurring, or is expected to occur, in the assembly he is addressing.


Edit after Comment

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Speaking to edify the congregation is a spiritual gift. Standing up and addressing the congregation in a language which nobody present understands (and not having the foresight to arrange an interpreter) is rude. And Paul regulates this unspiritual and thoughtless behaviour right out of the church. He asserts a total ban on such behaviour for the rest of time.

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  • "There is nothing in what Paul says that would suggest that anything supernatural is occurring, or is expected to occur, in the assembly he is addressing" - I agree with most of your answer, but this last part does not make sense to me. Are you suggesting that the gifts of the Spirit are not supernatural? – Spirit Realm Investigator May 7 at 0:37
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    We are not discussing the gifts of the Spirit. The question was about the sign at Pentecost which I have stated was supernatural. The regulation by Paul of the Corinthian assembly, in regard to persons standing up to edify the congregation, is nothing whatsoever to do with anything supernatural. Your own insistence that people standing up to speak in a foreign language without an interpreter (which is rude) is a supernatural matter - does not make sense to myself. I cannot understand this mentality. It is utterly beyond me. – Nigel J May 7 at 0:53
  • Isn't 1 Cor 14 about the gifts of the Spirit too? See the first two verses: 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. - the expression "spiritual gifts" is explicitly used in verse 1, and verse 2 links tongues to uttering "mysteries in the Spirit" (Spirit implies supernatural). How is any of this not supernatural? – Spirit Realm Investigator May 7 at 0:58
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    Yes. Speaking to edify the congregation is a spiritual gift. Standing up and addressing the congregation in a language which nobody present understands (and not having the foresight to arrange an interpreter) is rude. And Paul regulates this unspiritual and thoughtless behaviour right out of the church. He asserts a total ban on such behaviour for the rest of time. – Nigel J May 7 at 1:01

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