What does the Bible mean when it speaks of unknown tongues?

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 14:2, 1 Corinthians 14:13
First Corinthians chapter 14 seems to indicate when a person speaks in an unknown tongue, no man can understand him. How then can it be interpreted?
When you post, you agree to the terms and conditions of our comments policy.
If you have a Bible question for Pastor Doug Batchelor or the Amazing Facts Bible answer team, please submit it by clicking here. Due to staff size, we are unable to answer Bible questions posted in the comments.
To help maintain a Christian environment, we closely moderate all comments.

  1. Please be patient. We strive to approve comments the day they are made, but please allow at least 24 hours for your comment to appear. Comments made on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday may not be approved until the following Monday.

  2. Comments that include name-calling, profanity, harassment, ridicule, etc. will be automatically deleted and the invitation to participate revoked.

  3. Comments containing URLs outside the family of Amazing Facts websites will not be approved.

  4. Comments containing telephone numbers or email addresses will not be approved.

  5. Comments off topic may be deleted.

  6. Please do not comment in languages other than English.

Please note: Approved comments do not constitute an endorsement by the ministry of Amazing Facts or by Pastor Doug Batchelor. This website allows dissenting comments and beliefs, but our comment sections are not a forum for ongoing debate.

Caller: I have a couple of Scriptures I want to give you and then I'll ask you the question.

Pastor Doug: Okay.

Caller: In Romans 3:23 it says, '...for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God....' Now that means everybody right?

Pastor Doug: Yes.

Caller: So all means all?

Pastor Doug: Yes.

Caller: Okay in John 6:44 it says, '...no man can come to Me, except the Father which hath sent me draw Him: and I will raise Him up at the last day....' That means no one can go to the Father unless Jesus draws them to the Father - that means no one right?

Pastor Doug: Okay. I want to be careful you don't rope me into corral but tell me where you're haeading.

Caller: My question is in 1st Corinthians 14 verse 2 where they're speaking about tongues and it says, '...he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto man but unto God for no man understands him, howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries....' How can 'no man' mean something different here, when it means absolutely no or all in the other Scriptures?

Pastor Doug: Well actually if you look in the New King James Version, you're probably reading the King James Version?

Caller: I have a New King James Version here.

Pastor Doug: It'll say 'no one' - and the understood subject there Chris is 'nobody present understands him'. Let me see if I can give you a picture of what's going on. Every Scripture must be read in context or we can come to some convoluted conclusions.

The Corinthian church was a melting pot of people from all over the Roman Empire. It was a seaport. There were slaves that were living there that were serving the Romans and the Greeks from all over the world. They converted many of them to Christianity. In the church, because it was a seaport - it's like for instance - now if you go to Vallejo or San Francisco walking up and down the streets there are almost no two people speaking the same language.

Co-Host: That's true.

Pastor Doug: And I go to church services sometimes in those seaport cities and you've got just a melting pot of humanity. Well people were standing up in the Corinthian services and were praying in remote languages that nobody present understood. They were unknown tongues dialects to those present. And so here Paul is chiding them for doing these things, for praising and testifying in languages those present do not understand. And that's why he goes down in verse 9 he says, '...so likewise unless you utter by the tongue words easy to be understood how shall it be known what is spoken?'

Then later in the same chapter Paul says I'd rather speak five words with my voice where people might understand me and I might instruct them than 10,000 words in an unknown tongue. So the emphasis all through 1st Corinthians 14 is to speak so those present understand. So when he says in verse 2 'no one' but God understands, like right now - of course you're listening in Guam so this may not be true, but if I were to say [speaks in Panapaan], well that's Panapaan for 'good evening everybody'. Not too many of our listeners Chris understood that. Now you might have because Panapa is not too far from Guam.

Caller: Right.

Pastor Doug: But Paul is saying no one understands. He's just saying when you speak, make sure you speak in a language that those present understand. In the spirit he's speaking mysteries. He's talking about things within himself that he understands and his spirit and God understands, but nobody present understands. So the word 'no one' there means no one present.

Caller: Okay one more question.

Pastor Doug: Sure.

Caller: Verse 14 8 where it says if there is no interpreter in the church keep silent so that's assuming the person speaking can't even interpret for himself?

Pastor Doug: Where are you now? 1st Corinthians - Verse 14 8? You mean chapter 14 verse 8? Which verse is it?

Caller: Verse 14 8 - yeah I'm sorry. Chapter 14 verse 8. Oh I must have the wrong number. I have the wrong number and I can't find it right now.

Pastor Doug: Tell me the phrase.

Caller: ...But it says if there's no interpreter in the church you're supposed to keep silent so that must mean that the person who's speaking in the unknown tongue can't even interpret it himself. So he must keep silent unless there's an interpreter in the church?

Pastor Doug: Yeah verse 13.

Caller: Okay.

Pastor Doug: 'Wherefore let him that speaketh in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret.' It just means let there be a translator present.

Caller: So we can assume that maybe he couldn't even translate for himself? Because it says if there's no one to interpret, don't speak.

Pastor Doug: Yeah exactly. What Paul is saying there is if there is no one to translate your tongue it's not helping to do it. Like I said the main thrust of 1 Corinthians 14 is when you speak, make sure those present understand. That's why Paul says 'if the trumpet gives and an uncertain sound, who shall prepare for the battle?' There should be a distinction in our words so those present comprehend what we're saying. That's the main theme of 1st Corinthians 14.

Caller: I guess the difficulty I have is the absoluteness of all have sinned and come short of the glory of God - no man can come to the Lord - one is absoluteness and one isn't absoluteness and that's where I get confused.

Pastor Doug: Let me give you an example: Paul speaks about the Gospel being preached to every creature.

Caller: Yes.

Pastor Doug: Well does that mean that at that point if the Gospel was preached to every creature in South America and every creature in Alaska and every creature in Australia? Probably not. You have to read it in context. I think Paul was saying that the Gospel's been preached to the civilized world - or the world as they knew it back then. And I don't think that meant - a creature technically would also be a toad. A toad is a creature. It doesn't mean they were preaching to the toads. Paul is using sort of a poetic metaphor to say the Gospel has gone everywhere. So be careful when you read these out of context - I'm not trying to negate the importance of some of these absolutes, because I agree with the two first examples you used. They are absolutes, that all have sinned, and that Jesus loves all, and He wants whosoever to be saved okay?

Caller: Okay.

Pastor Doug: All right thanks a lot Chris.

Caller: Thank you too. God bless.

Pastor Doug: God bless you. Incidentally Chris, if you can still hear us, I've just written an article - we have a book out now called Captured by Tongues. It goes into depth in those verses that we just discussed. You can call and we'll send it to you for free. New book.

Co-Host: That number is 1-800-835-6747 Chris, 800-835-6747. Call that number and tell them you'd like a copy of Captured by Tongues. It's free and the call is free.

Share a Prayer Request
Ask a Bible Question



Prayer Request:

Share a Prayer Request


Bible Question:

Ask a Bible Question