By Michael E. Brooks
“Therefore let him who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret. . . . I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all; yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Corinthians 14:13, 18-19 NKJV).
I have not yet been able to learn sufficiently well the languages of the peoples among whom I work, in order to be able to communicate with them, and I certainly cannot teach and preach in their languages.
Conversely, relatively few people in the countries I visit understand English well enough for them to learn from my lessons without interpretation. I thank God that he has given to his people those few who know both languages well enough that teaching and understanding can take place.
Though our modern practice of translation by those schooled in multiple languages is not the ancient miraculous gift of tongues, it is a gift. God has blessed some with talent to learn languages (unfortunately I do not seem to have received this gift). Their presence facilitates preaching, teaching and learning. It also promotes understanding, friendship, and fellowship in Christ.
In Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts he places great emphasis upon the importance of understanding. Prophesy was to be desired more than tongues, because the oracles of the prophets could be understood by all. Consequently, all could be edified.
Tongues, without interpretation, did not contribute to understanding, or knowledge, or edification. They caused amazement, but without subsequent understanding that ultimately did not lead to a beneficial end. For example, in Acts 2 the apostles drew an attentive crowd by speaking in tongues, then taught and converted thousands through comprehensible teaching.
Paul concludes this point by asserting, “For God is not the author of confusion but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:33). This statement is interesting in this context and especially so when contrasted with Genesis 11:1-9. In this story, set at Babel, the Lord thwarts the ambition of mankind by “confus[ing] their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech” (V. 7).
This is not a contradiction. God is the God of peace and unity. Though he has used man’s sinful tendency toward strife and division to accomplish his purpose more than once in the past (2 Kings 3:20-25; 19:36-37), God’s desire and intent is for humanity to come to a knowledge and understanding of truth, whereby they may achieve salvation (John 8:32).
God wants us to understand. He wants us to learn and to know. Towards this goal he has given us the inspired Word of Truth (Romans 10:17).
It was desirable for New Testament Christians to seek the gift of prophesy that others might be edified. It is also desirable for us today to seek the ability to explain and interpret truth to those without understanding (Acts 8:3). We are neither tongue-speakers nor prophets. Yet we can be interpreters and teachers. Let us assist all whom we can to know and understand God’s message of salvation.