Unity & Corinth Part 4: Understanding “Tongues”

In these chapters, we sometimes tend to pass over some of these passages and note that some of these verses do not apply to us anymore. We’ve gone over I Corinthians 12-14, looking at what we can learn from these chapters, and, in this lesson, we are going to look at the nature of spiritual gifts, look at their purpose, and examine what the “partial” and the “perfect” are from this passage.

The Nature of Gifts

In I Corinthians 12:8, many of the spiritual gifts are specifically named (in context of 12:1). These are grace gifts, bestowed by the Spirit.

  • Romans 12:6-8 – Paul emphasizes the role grace plays in the bestowment of these gifts.
  • I Peter 4:7-10 – Again, Peter brings God’s grace into the gifts.

The argument is made that, since the enumerated grace gifts from Romans and I Peter, are still done today, those of I Corinthians must be also. However, in context, the gifts of Romans and I Peter are not miraculous gifts while the gifts of I Corinthians are. These are not parallel passages, and comparing these gifts is comparing apples to oranges. Specifically, in I Corinthians 13, Paul names miraculous knowledge, prophecy, and tongues, as those passing away.

Clarifying “Tongues”

What are “tongues?” In the charismatic moment today, many would say speaking in tongues is speaking in a language that is purely spiritual and foreign to any mortal. What we see in the Bible, though, is that the tongues of the New Testament are in fact human languages that the speaker had no prior knowledge of.

Acts 2:4-8 – The apostles are gifted hear with the ability to speak in the languages of their listeners, and this amazes the hearers. John 18:20, Matthew 12:46, Matthew 10:19-20 – all of these occasions use the same “speak” as in Acts 2:7 when the apostles “speak” in tongues. It is just the use of language to communicate. Acts 2:4-6, 11 – Luke uses the Greek for language and dialect interchangeably through this chapter. Much of the vocabulary describing the tongues of Acts 2 is also used in I Corinthians 13.

Acts 10:46-48 – If these “tongues” are ecstatic, how would have Peter’s companions known those in Cornelius’ household were magnifying God.  Also, in I Corinthians 14:21, Paul quotes Isaiah 28, saying that “strange tongues” will be used to communicate, and “strange” is used like the “strange woman” of Proverbs – one that is foreign or unknown.

Interpreting means to translate from one language to another. It is taking a meaning one understands and providing meaning to another. Interpreting is not giving meaning to that which is meaningless. For example John 1:42, Hebrews 7:2 – In both of these examples names are being interpreted based on the language their names were in.

What is the Perfect?

The partial are those miraculous spiritual gifts whose time is limited. In I Corinthians 13:10, Paul references the coming of the perfect as that which would cause these to pass away. Many interpret this as being Jesus.

  • II Timothy 3:16-17, I Corinthians 13:9-10 – perfect = complete, entire, or whole.
  • Some think it is the maturation of the church, the Second Coming, or the completion of God’s revelation.

Through I Corinthians 13, Paul has two main points: love never fails, but miraculous gifts will. Why? Gifts only provide a partial picture, and a point of completion is coming. He uses a maturation process as an illustration of this concept. His second illustration is the use of a dim mirror to try to see something clearly.

What was becoming clearer and helping the first-century Christians mature? It is reasonable to conclude that he is speaking of the revelation of God’s word. In Romans 16:25-26, I Corinthians 2:7, Ephesians 1:9, Ephesians 3:3, and many others passages speak of a mystery that is being revealed. Now take II Peter 3:15-16. Peter references a collection of Paul’s epistles as well as other scriptures. The revelation was already in the process of being compiled and completed.

Returning to I Corinthians 13, Paul uses “in part” at least three times. The gospel was being revealed in pieces. Once the message was fully revealed, the fragmented manner of instruction would no longer be needed. Everything Christians would need would be recorded in whole, no longer a dark mystery but a clear image of that which makes us complete.


II Peter 1:3-4 – All things that we need for spiritual growth is given. We have no need for these spiritual gifts to confirm or add to our faith. The blessing of being Christians today is the fact that we have a complete word to study from and that our knowledge can be complete should we put forth the diligence to learn and apply that word.

lesson by Tim Smelser