Tongues and Interpretation

There is a Public Ministry of Speaking With Tongues

by John Edwards


28 And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.

Notice that each of the gifts listed in the above scripture are public ministries.

In this article I want to draw our attention to the last ministry gift listed: the public ministry of tongues and interpretation.

As a public ministry in the church, diversities of tongues was considered by Paul to be important enough to list it along with the roles in the church of apostles, prophets, teachers, miracles, then gifts of healings [evangelists], helps [deacons], and governments [pastors/elders].

Like the other offices listed above, God “hath set [or appointed] some [some members] in the church” to function publicly using the gifts of tongues and interpretation.

To make it into the same list, alongside gifts such as pastors and teachers for example, Paul obviously considered tongues and interpretation to be an important public function in the church.

Not only so, but Paul also implies that the gift of tongues has a rightful place in the main church service. Some of us run the types of services where perhaps we'd prefer to see the gift of tongues relegated to a secondary service, such as the night meeting, or maybe a home group.

But Paul, in his discussion about the gifts, says: “when the whole church be come together into one place” (I Cor.14:23). That isn't exactly talking about a cell group then, is it!

Therefore this is a challenge to us, to understand and make room for the place that God has ordained for tongues and interpretation in the local church, and to experience its full potential in our midst.

Tongues as a Distinct Public Function

To begin with, I want us to see that throughout I Corinthians 12-14, Paul is primarily dealing with tongues as it is used in a distinct public ministry, rather than discussing how the individual believer can or cannot use tongues in his prayer-life for his own private edification (benefit).

Each of the nine gifts of the Holy Spirit listed in I Corinthians 12:7-10 are dealt with as public manifestations of the Spirit during a church gathering.

Paul’s whole discussion about the gifts is in the context of what takes place, “when the whole church be come together into one place” (14:23).

So when our opening text continues on to say, “do all speak with tongues? do all interpret?” (verse 29), this is not to imply that some believers will never be meant to speak with tongues ever at all.

(All believers today who are baptized with the Holy Spirit may pray with tongues, just as in every account in bible days. Praying with tongues is personally edifying, and is to be encouraged.)

Rather, Paul is simply explaining that during any given church meeting, all of us will not need to have the same ministry function.

To some it will be given by the Spirit to address the church with tongues and interpretation.

Now let’s consider another verse which also deals specifically with tongues as a ministry in the church.


27 If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret.

28 But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God.

The above advice (limiting the number of speakers to two, or at the most three, and then only when an interpreter is present) clearly is specific to the use of tongues as a ministry to the church – otherwise we make it inconsistent with occurrences within the Book of Acts.

For example, have you ever wondered why Peter never insisted that only two, or at the most three, be allowed to speak with tongues, at Cornelius’ household? and why he never insisted that they keep silence unless someone interpreted?

“While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word”, and he “heard them speak with tongues and magnify God” (Acts 10:44,46).

We know this was no small gathering, because it says that Peter went in to the house, “and found MANY that were come together” (verse 27).

What's more, they even interrupted Peter's sermon while they spoke in tongues, for we are told that, “WHILE PETER YET SPAKE these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word” (verse 44).

At Ephesus, Paul didn’t insist on any such protocol or guidelines either. After baptizing certain disciples, we are told, “when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied. And all the men were about twelve” (Acts 19:6,7).

Clearly then, it is scriptural to have meetings like that, where the Holy Spirit falls and many speak with tongues at the same time, or everyone prophesies, or sees visions, or are filled with joy - even if no interpreter is present. We've seen meetings where all of this has happened – meetings just like the Pentecostal outpouring in Acts chapter two!

(If it’s been a while since you were in that type of meeting, you could plan such a meeting. Make it happen - like Smith Wigglesworth who said, “If the Holy Ghost doesn't move, I move the Holy Ghost”).

When Paul gave this advice then, clearly he was offering guidelines concerning the specific function of speaking with tongues as a ministry to address an intent audience in the church. By the time Paul wrote this, the Corinthian church had been established long enough for a variety of ministries to become recognized among them. So it had now become necessary for Paul to address the manner in which these gifts were expressed in public.

When it came to the public use of tongues, Paul’s advice to the members exercising this particular gift was in essence: There's not a lot of point for all of you to stand up and hold the floor, drawing everyone’s attention to yourself, to address the congregation with an unknown tongue, since no one understands you. Better to just have two or three of you speak, then let the interpreter speak as well, after you’ve had your say.

The guiding principle of all public ministry to the church, which Paul urged them to keep in mind was, “Let all things be done unto edifying” (14:26).

It’s obvious to anyone, that a person needn’t bother holding the floor to address an entire congregation with an unknown tongue – unless someone interprets. It simply wouldn’t be edifying.

However, it’s an entirely different situation if the Holy Spirit is being poured out and everyone begins speaking with tongues, like they did in Cornelius’ house, and at Ephesus, and in Acts chapter two. In such a case, no-one is holding the floor as such; everyone is being filled with the Spirit; and in fact everyone is edified – even without an interpreter.

We can have meetings today like they had in the Book of Acts. It isn’t unscriptural for a congregation to sing or pray together with tongues - because when done in unison, it isn’t obtrusive. Actually this is still decent and orderly.

But when tongues is used for the purpose of addressing a congregation, an intent audience, it is only natural then that someone should interpret, if we are to apply the advice, “Let all things be done decently and in order” (I Cor.14:40). So it is evident that Paul was talking about circumstances where tongues were being used very specifically in a public ministry function.

Making Room for the Gift

I have been witness to the powerful effect this gift can have in the church and in the community, when it’s given its rightful place alongside the other offices in the church.

In one meeting where I was part of the congregation, the Holy Spirit impressed upon a pastor that before he gave his sermon, he was to speak with tongues, and then a certain brother would interpret.

So he proceeded to speak with tongues, and then stepped down off the stage and handed the microphone to the brother to give the interpretation.

“Come and be healed. Be healed spiritually and emotionally...says the Lord.”

That was a fairly simple message, but what the Pastor did next allowed God to manifest His power to meet the needs of the people that day.

Without any further ado, the pastor led the congregation to respond by inviting people forward who needed to receive healing.

The power of the Holy Spirit manifested with many healings, and one person was delivered from an evil spirit. Needless to say, everybody was eager to hear what the pastor had to preach on after that!

That night, it was the public ministry of tongues and interpretation, coupled with the way the pastor made room for the congregation to respond, that opened-up the way for God to do what He wanted to do in the meeting – things which hadn’t otherwise been planned.

In another church where I was a guest-speaker, when I stood to the pulpit to preach—instead I began to speak with tongues. It went on and on, and I wondered when it was ever going to stop. Finally the interpretation began to flow—and I just continued preaching along the same theme as the interpretation. As a result, several were touched by the Holy Spirit with tears, repentance and reconciliation, and some were filled with the Holy Spirit and with joy.

Afterwards one of the elders of the church told me, “This is exactly what we needed.” God knows what a church needs—and sometimes it’s different to what we have in mind.

On that occasion, it was again the gift of tongues and interpretation that inspired the sermon which God wanted to be spoken in the meeting.

Smith Wigglesworth often interjected his sermons with tongues, then he’d interpret them, pouring forth heavenly revelation to the congregation.

Once during another series of meetings, I witnessed how speaking with tongues can begin to reach even the outside community.

When I stood to preach this particular Sunday morning, the anointing was so heavy that I couldn’t preach. Instead, I preached in tongues, and God used someone else to interpret. All over the building there were tears of repentance, people being reconciled, and people getting filled with the Spirit and speaking with tongues, without anybody even laying hands on them.

During that series of meetings, one person claimed he heard about a dozen young people speaking Indonesian; an overseas visitor claimed she heard a remote Chinese dialect; and another person heard his own Maranaw dialect, as people spoke in tongues. This was a sign and a wonder to them.

Many became so drunk, they spoke in tongues for days afterwards. One such girl was still speaking with tongues when she got to school on Monday. “Why haven’t you ever told me you can speak Chinese?” her teacher scolded her. So she asked God for her own language back, so she could explain. When she preached to them, the whole class fell under the power. She prophesied over them. Demons came out of many. They got up off the floor saying with tears, “What have we got to do to be saved?”

This continued for days so that classes couldn’t continue. The Principal called her parents to the school, asking them to sign an affidavit that they would forbid their daughter to preach the Gospel anymore at school, or else risk seeing her expelled. But the more their daughter tried to keep order, the more her fellow students thronged her classroom seeking prayer. Even a TV news camera crew turned-up wanting to interview her. But she didn’t want to attract any more attention to herself.

Then she thought of a way she could see the work of God continue, without attracting any more attention. She could lay her hands on her friends, imparting the anointing to them, so they could be used to spread the work of the Spirit. Everywhere her friends went, they now carried the same anointing, and the work of the Holy Spirit spread to other schools and universities. I visited one lecture hall where the whole contingent was flat on their backs under the power of God. Hundreds began coming to the church.

Notice that it was the phenomenon of speaking with other tongues that sparked this move of God in the community. Paul said, “Tongues are a sign…to them that believe not”. (I’ve always wondered how tongues will ever become a sign to unbelievers, if we never let unbelievers hear them!)

How Tongues Can Open Up a Meeting

The seemingly little gift of tongues can actually have great effect in a church and community, if we let it. To begin with, we need to admit that we need this public office of tongues in our meetings, and we ought to earnestly desire it. Then we need to be practical about giving tongues its place, either during worship, or during the Word. Then so much can be gained or lost, depending on how widely we respond to it. Sometimes instead of just moving-on with the program after an interpretation or prophecy has been given, the meeting leader could consider whether the word is meant to shape the rest of the meeting - and if so, allow time for the congregation to respond and to see the Holy Spirit move. In this way, the interpretation of tongues can have the effect of being much more than simply a word during a meeting. At times it can open up the whole meeting, or even start a whole work of God in the community, as the stories above illustrate.

Altar calls, instead of being the end of a meeting, can become the beginning of the next phase of the meeting. I have observed, after people pick themselves up off the floor and return to their seats, that quite often two people will remain under the power of God. Shortly, one of them will stand and begin to speak in tongues while the other interprets. Then they may begin laying hands on the congregation, usually with a message of repentance and of the need to preach the Gospel because of the soon return of the Lord.

All of this would have been missed, if we’d assumed the altar call was the end of the meeting.

In another use of diversities of tongues, brother Hagin would sometimes speak in tongues while his wife would interpret – as a means of giving “counseling” to someone who had come for help.

Interpreting tongues can also be useful in one’s private prayer-life, as a means of obtaining guidance and revelation from the Lord.

When we become practical about giving the Holy Spirit room to do whatever He wants, whenever He wants, through whomever He wants—then we will witness the full place and power that He has ordained for His gifts in the church.

Who May Have This Ministry?

“I would that ye all spake with tongues” (I Cor.14:5), said Paul. So we know that, while perhaps this ministry would be more prevalent in the ministry of the prophet, it is certainly not limited to members who hold another office, or a stage-ministry, in the church. No matter who you are, you may press in to God to be used in this way.