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As Paul delineates nine of the gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, the last on his list is “the interpretation of tongues.” Later in that chapter he again refers to interpretation in his denial that any one gift is granted to all Christians (v. 30b). In his instruction on how believers are to arrive at any particular corporate assembly, he says that whereas one may come with a hymn, another with a word of instruction, another with a revelation from God, another with a tongue, one may also come with “an interpretation” (1 Cor. 14:26).  

Here are ten things to keep in mind regarding this spiritual gift. 

(1) Paul envisions that in any meeting of God’s people upwards of “two or at most three” may speak in tongues, “each in turn,” which is to say, not simultaneously but one after the other. Once they have concluded, he insists that “someone interpret” (1 Cor. 14:27b). Although the apostle doesn’t say so explicitly, it may be that he envisions only one person to provide the interpretation of all three utterances in tongues. It is entirely possible, on the other hand, that each utterance in tongues will have its own individual interpreter. If no one is present at any particular corporate assembly, no one should speak in tongues.

(2) In 1 Corinthians 14:13 Paul exhorts the person who wishes to speak in tongues in public to “pray that he may interpret” (1 Cor. 14:13). There is no indication in what Paul says that this person had ever interpreted an utterance in tongues before. He or she may have, but it is just as likely that this would be their first experience with this spiritual gift. Paul doesn’t tell us when the prayer should be uttered, but it seems likely this should occur before the utterance in tongues is given. After all, if there is no interpretation there should never have been a word in tongues in the first place. It seems only reasonable, then, that the person who is feeling led to speak aloud in tongues should first pray for God to grant him/her the interpretation. If God does not respond to such a prayer by giving the interpretation, the person should then refrain from speaking in tongues altogether. 

(3) We should never confuse this spiritual gift with the ability of a person to interpret divine revelation on a broad scale. The person with this gift would not necessarily be extraordinarily capable or skilled in interpreting biblical texts. There are principles of interpretation in the science we call hermeneutics that are easily learned by anyone who has the time and commitment to study them. But educating oneself in the rules that govern how to make sense, for example, of John 3:16, is not what Paul had in mind when he spoke of the gift of interpretation. This gift is the Spirit-empowered ability to interpret what is spoken in tongues. There is no indication in Scripture that someone who has this charisma would be able to interpret dreams, visions, or other revelatory phenomena.

(4) This gift must be distinguished from the learned ability to translate a foreign language. I can translate Greek and a good bit of Hebrew and Latin into English, but that is not what Paul has in view. All of us are familiar with scenes at the United Nations or an international political conference where translators are employed to interpret speeches for the representatives of various countries. This is an impressive skill, but it is a natural, learned, human ability. They gained this skill through extensive education and practice. The gift Paul describes, on the other hand, is supernatural, unlearned, and is no less a “manifestation” (1 Cor. 12:7) of the Holy Spirit than the gift of miracles or prophecy. 

(5) I would define the gift of interpretation as the Spirit-empowered ability to understand and communicate an otherwise unintelligible public utterance of tongues for the spiritual benefit of the congregation as a whole. I’m hesitant to use the word “translate” to describe this gift, given the fact that this term may lead people to conclude that there will always be a one-for-one or word-for-word rendering of the tongues utterance into the vernacular of the people. But there is a spectrum from literal translation at one end to broad summation at the other end, whenever the gift of interpretation is exercised. Interpreting a tongues utterance may take any one of several forms. 

(6) Someone with this gift may provide a literal, word-for-word rendering that corresponds in every conceivable way to the content of the tongue. It would be the same in length and emphasis. If the tongue was delivered in what appear to be five sentences that lasts for 45 seconds, so too would the interpretation.

There may also be a somewhat looser, more fluid rendering that captures the essence of the utterance. Those who engage in the translation of the original text of Scripture into another language, such as English, often refer to this as “dynamic equivalence.” The totality of what was spoken in tongues is brought over into the words of the interpreter, but it may not be in a word-for-word form.

(7) At other times something of a commentary is provided in which the interpreter explains (perhaps even exegetes) the tongues utterance. After all, what is said in tongues may be enigmatic or parabolic or symbolic and thus needs an explanation. This is somewhat similar to what happens in an art museum when a scholar or historian “interprets” a painting. He or she may provide comment on the artist’s mood and background and even his/her perceived intent in crafting the painting or sculpture.  

(8) Then, of course, the interpretation may be closer to what we call a paraphrase of what the tongues utterance means. If I may again appeal to the discipline of Bible translation, I here have in mind what the Living Bible provides us as over against the New American Standard translation. The latter is an essentially wooden and quite literal rendering of each word, as much as is possible, while the former is the translator’s own effort to bring the original text into the world of the reader in such a way that the latter can make better sense of what the text is saying. 

I suppose someone may interpret an utterance in tongues by giving us a summation of the gist of what was said. No attempt is made to supply a word in the interpretation that corresponds to a precise word in the tongue. Rather, the interpreter takes the utterance in a tongue and reduces it to a much briefer and summarized statement.

(9) There is nothing in what Paul says about the gift of interpretation to preclude the possibility that the Holy Spirit might enable someone to interpret a tongues utterance anywhere along this spectrum. For example, the person with the gift of tongues might speak for five minutes while the interpreter speaks for only three. There is nothing to prevent a single utterance in tongues from being interpreted by two people whose “translations” differ in terms of length and focus. One person might provide a somewhat lengthy, seemingly word-for-word interpretation, while another summarizes its basic content or provides a more practical application of what was spoken in tongues. In any case, the movement is always from the obscurity and unintelligibility of the tongues utterance to clarity and intelligibility of the interpretation, such that everyone in the church can say “Amen” to what was said (1 Cor. 14:16). In this way the entire body is edified.

(10) It would seem reasonable to conclude that the content of the interpretation would depend entirely on the content of the tongues utterance. Therefore, we must ask another question first: what is said when one speaks in tongues? The Apostle Paul describes tongues as prayer (1 Cor. 14:2), praise (1 Cor. 14:16), and thanksgiving (1 Cor. 14:16).

If the interpretation must correspond to the utterance, the former will come forth in the form of prayers, praise, and expressions of gratitude to God. The interpretation will be a God-ward utterance, no less than is the tongues utterance on which it is based.

The standard view among most charismatic believers is that when an utterance in tongues is interpreted it becomes the equivalent of prophecy. As such, it is horizontal in its orientation, which is to say, it is directed to other individuals in the church. But if tongues is always prayer, praise, or thanksgiving, would not its interpretation be the same? Mark Stibbe writes:

“If an interpretation is offered which is not in the form of prayerful adoration, we should be cautious about regarding it as a genuine interpretation. If it is offered in the form of praise language, then it has a much better chance of being the true ‘interpretation’” (Know Your Spiritual Gifts, 179).