By John Pappas, ThD
The city of Corinth was located in the great Achaia providence and served as its capital. Politically it was ruled by the Romans, which captured the area two hundred years earlier. Spiritually it was still under Greek idol worship. A significant economy was built around the building and selling of idols carved out of wood and stone. Meat markets supplied the day’s sacrifice to the many gods. Beautiful temples were built and maintained. The Greek goddess Aphrodite, goddess of love and lust, held court in her temple above the Acrocorinth - the high place of the town. It was served by more than a thousand religious prostitutes. These Corinthians at one time attended services, participating with the temple prostitutes. These early Christians had overcome a great deal of fleshly sin, yet this cultural sin continued all around them.
The letters to the Corinthians are the third written (probably AD 56). These were written after Galatians (AD 48) and after the letters to the Thessalonians (AD 51). The Holy Spirit was doing things in the Church in an active, visible, supernatural way. And as is the case, God uses man to spread His word throughout the world. The quick rise of Christian Churches throughout the region brought a rise in cultural problems within the Church. Each group had its own problems, but common to all the letters of the New Testament is sin, as the worldly desires of the flesh and self-seeking glory move into the Church. Paul points out the problem saying, let me show you a more excellent way. And he says:
"Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing. Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." (1 Cor. 13:1-7)
The statement “[t]hough I speak with the tongues of men and of angels,” expresses the thought of “all languages,” even the language of angels, if there is such a thing. Paul is addressing a perversion of their use, and indeed, the very idea of the “gift of tongues.” Originally, the Christian idea was that of Acts chapter two where the apostles were supernaturally and spontaneously gifted with all the different languages of all the Jews present that day. They were from “every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5) as they gathered for the feast day – the Day of Pentecost. And the use of tongues was to spread the gospel of Christ to all the nations – to communicate clearly the word of God.
Some of the Corinthians, however, brought their pagan culture into the Church and desired pagan tongues. Dr. Mitchell writes, “The Corinthians apparently considered these tongues to be languages of the angels. Such was the association of tongues-speaking in pagan worship at Corinth. When a priest or devotee spoke in tongues, it was considered that he spoke in the language of the gods. The first hint that the writer is concerned about syncretism is in 12:2, where he reminds his readers that they were ‘led astray to the dumb idols.’ Ironically, it was to these mute gods that many of the people were formerly drawn and with whom they communicated in various forms of ecstatic speech.” (Dan Mitchell, First Corinthians, AMG, 2004)
The application of a 'tongue' is used in a wonderful way as Paul associates the instrument (the tongue, the sounding brass and clanging cymbal) which makes a loud sound and applies it with love. A real language must be used in love otherwise it is just noise (and again, probably a reference to the pagan Greek liturgy using cymbals and other brass instruments). It is clear that at the time of writing 1 Corinthians, tongues were a supernatural gift and used in the same way as that of Acts chapter two - a known language (Greek ‘glossa’ “tongue,” used metaphorically as “language or dialect used by a particular people distinct from that of other nations”), speaking the message of God clearly.
The purpose for 'tongues' is to communicate God’s word to the world. The term prophecy has two uses in Scripture: (1) repeating Scripture; and (2) forth-telling or future telling in the classical sense. Context determines which way it is being used. In this case, it appears that there is still prophecy, namely, doctrine that needs to be spoken since the testimony of the New Testament has not yet been completed. First Corinthians is an early book and there are 22 more books that need to be written down before the Holy Spirit seals the cannon.
John Pappas, ThD, is the author of BibleGreekVpod, a website dedicated to the teaching of the original Bible languages for those who want to learn them.