Why was there a need for the interpretation of tongues?


Greetings Brother,

Thank you in advance for answering my question, which is:

Why did the disciples, who received the Spiritual gift of speaking in tongues by the laying on of the hands of the apostles, need interpreters when employing that gift and the apostles did not?

Thank you so much for your help.


There were different types of tongues because there are different types of languages. "To another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues" (I Corinthians 12:10). The gift was to the speaker. It gave them the ability to speak in languages they had not learned (Mark 16:17). Normally, the speaker would speak in a language people in the audience understood (Acts 2:8-11).

But in a group setting, understanding becomes difficult. If someone spoke, say in Portuguese, because there was a visitor in the audience from Portugal, that visitor would benefit, but what about the rest of the group? "Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me" (I Corinthians 14:11). Thus, Paul states that unless there is an interpreter for the rest, the message brought by the one speaking in a tongue is useless for the majority present. "Therefore let him who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret" (I Corinthians 14:13). The worship service is a time for all to benefit. Thus, Paul gives the rule, "If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret. But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God" (I Corinthians 14:27-28). Unless it could be arranged that everyone in the audience can benefit from the message, then the use of foreign languages was banned from the worship service.

Now, this doesn't mean that a tongue speaker couldn't interpret for the foreigner in the audience, but that the tongue speaker could not address the entire audience if he or someone else could not translate the message into languages everyone could understand. More details can be found in "Speaking in Tongues," including details on I Corinthians 14.


Brother Hamilton,

Thank you very much for your timely and informative response. However, part of my question remains unanswered:

Why did the Apostles not need interpreters? It appears to me that when the Apostles spoke, everyone present heard the words in their own language, so they needed no interpreters. Am I correct in this? If so, why did the non-apostles need an interpreter?

Again, thank you in advance for your time and effort.


In Acts 2 we have people gathered from fifteen different regions (Acts 2:7-11). The people were not just hearing a message in a common language they each understood. Rather, they were hearing their native birth language in the proper local dialect. "And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born?" (Acts 2:8).

There is a subtlety that can be easily overlooked. "How is it that we each hear them in our own language...?" All twelve of the apostles are talking. The implication is that each spoke to various individuals or groups of individuals in their birth language. "We hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God" (Acts 2:11).

"But Peter, taking his stand with the eleven, raised his voice and declared to them: "Men of Judea and all you who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you and give heed to my words. For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only the third hour of the day" (Acts 2:14-15).

Peter did not include himself with the other eleven apostles because at that moment he was addressing the crowd in his normal language -- probably Aramaic or Greek. Since Peter was not demonstrating at that moment a miraculous gift as the other eleven were by interpreting his speech into other languages, it was proper to refer to "these men." Notice that verse 14 already defines the grouping of Peter and the other eleven apostles as working jointly together.

But these men were from Galilee -- the poor district of Judea. Imagine today a group of people coming from rural Mississippi to the JFK airport in New York and then able to address each and every person who walked by, from whatever country they traveled, in their native dialect. You would be scratching your head and wondering what school these people attended. That is how the apostles captured the attention of so many people and were able to present the first sermon. Peter spoke the lesson and the remaining eleven translated it to the various people. The apostles didn't need translators because they were translating.

As I mentioned before in a worship service, the reverse problem can come into play. Someone stands up to speak in a different language -- perhaps there is a visiting family from North Africa in town. The family can understand the speaker just fine, but everyone else is left out. This is why Paul said not to do this without someone interpreting so that everyone present can join in understanding what is being said. Interpreting, in this case, is taking a foreign language and translating it back to the common language most people understood.


Thanks again, Brother Hamilton.
I appreciate your time and effort to answer my questions.  I appreciate, as well, the depth and clarity of your answer.
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