The Gift of Interpretation of Tongues

Discover the power of the Gift of Interpretation of Tongues. This gift of the Holy Spirit allows believers to bring the essence of a message spoken in an unknown tongue into their own native language.

Let's debunk the common misconceptions and explore how this unusual gift can uplift and edify both the individual and the entire church.

If you're at all curious about how this supernatural gift operates and want to learn how to interpret tongues, this article is a must-read. Gain a deeper understanding and unlock the potential of this wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit today.

Exploring the Gift of Interpretation of Tongues

By Don Bell | Reading Time: 12 minutes.

Concept Drawing of the Gift of Interpretation of TonguesThe Gift of Interpretation of Tongues
DALL-E 3 | © Don Bell

What is the gift of interpretation of tongues? For a definition, here's my understanding of this gift of the Holy Spirit:

The gift of interpretation of tongues is the God-given ability to bring in your own native language the sum and substance (gist) of a message that's been spoken in an unknown tongue, whether the unknown tongue was spoken by you or another person.

Misconceptions About Interpretation of Tongues

It's important to make clear what the gift of interpretation of tongues isn't.

  • It is NOT the ability to translate or understand foreign languages.
  • It is NOT the ability to speak a message meditated upon beforehand.
  • It is NOT a gift operated on its own; it must follow the gift of speaking in tongues.
  • It is NOT received by revelation; it's only received as it's spoken.
  • It is NOT equal to the gift of prophecy.
  • It is NOT the gift of interpretation; it's interpretation "of tongues."

Clearing up misconceptions and gaining a good understanding of the gift of interpretation of tongues helps you to use the gift effectively.

You can edify and uplift the church by confidently delivering a message in an unknown language, which will be interpreted in a known language. This way, everyone present can agree with the interpretation and offer it as worship to God.

The Gift of Interpretation of Tongues Explained

Paul explains the difference between the gift of interpretation of tongues and the gift of prophecy:

He who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands him; however, in the spirit he speaks mysteries. But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men. He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. I wish you all spoke with tongues, but even more that you prophesied; for he who prophesies is greater than he who speaks with tongues, UNLESS indeed he interprets, that the church may receive edification (1 Corinthians 14:2-5, emphasis added).

While prophecy focuses on edifying the church, the gift of speaking in tongues primarily focuses on edifying the individual speaker, UNLESS the tongue is interpreted. When the tongue is interpreted, its message can be understood and have an edifying effect on the church.

Since the message in tongues is spoken to God, it follows that the interpreted message is also spoken to God, unlike a word of prophecy where God speaks to people.

Delivering a message in an unknown tongue and giving its interpretation requires two gifts of the Spirit and two steps of faith. Each time you exercise these gifts, your measure of faith increases.

The Process of Interpreting an Unknown Tongue

Interpreting an unknown tongue you've never heard before is a supernatural action of faith. It's NOT a learned skill as in interpreting a message in a known language.

Your spirit is receiving the interpretation under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit while bypassing the understanding of your mind. The interpretation is composed on your tongue and instantly spoken in your known language.

If you know ahead of time what you're going to say, you are not bringing the interpretation by faith. Therefore, the interpretation cannot consist of something you've memorized or meditated upon beforehand. It's one hundred percent inspired by God.

Also, since an interpretation is not a revelation, you do not receive the entire interpretation at once. The interpretation is received phrase by phrase as it's formed on your tongue and spoken.

The following drawing illustrates what happens when you step out in faith and supernaturally speak the interpretation of a message that was brought in an unknown heavenly tongue.

Interpretation of Tongues IllustrationThe Process of Interpretation of Tongues
© 2023

When a believer speaks the interpretation of an unknown tongue, the Holy Spirit communicates with their spirit, which in turn instructs their brain to speak words of the interpretation in their known language, as the Holy Spirit supplies them.

The interpretation is one the person has never heard before, so their mind has no prior knowledge of the words being formed on their tongue. Similarly, listeners have never heard the interpretation before either.

Interpretation of Tongues for Yourself

There's no need to interpret your spoken tongue to yourself in private, as its message is meant for God and not you. The benefit of praying in tongues is for you; it's to build your faith and for communicating with God in prayer.

Interpretation of Tongues for the Church

The gift of interpretation of tongues has the power to edify and inspire others when it's exercised in a group of believers. Both the unknown tongue and its interpretation are inspired by the Holy Spirit. They serve to praise God for His greatness and to declare His love for His people, the church.

Hearing the heartfelt words of the interpretation can release people's burdens and strengthen their faith. It reminds them of God's unconditional love, and deepens their heartfelt commitment to live for Christ.

The phrasing of the interpreted message can sometimes resemble King David's Psalms, as the same Holy Spirit who inspired David's heart to write the Psalms now inspires the speaker and interpreter of the tongue.

Let's look closely at 1 Corinthians 14 where Paul describes the use of tongues and its companion gift, the interpretation of tongues, for the edification of the church.

Paul explains, "How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, EACH OF YOU has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification" (1 Corinthians 14:26, emphasis added).

Clearly, Paul encourages EVERYONE to take part as the church gathers by being open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. The key take-away is that EACH believer WILL HAVE something to contribute for the edification of the Body of Christ.

For instance, the Holy Spirit might prompt you to share a Psalm, a teaching, a word of revelation, or a tongue followed by its interpretation for the edification of everyone assembled.

Paul says, "Therefore let HIM who speaks in a tongue pray that HE may interpret. … Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how will he who occupies the place of the uninformed say 'Amen' at your giving of thanks, since he does not understand what you say? For you indeed give thanks well, but the other is not edified" (1 Corinthians 14:13, 16-17).

Note the obligation Paul places on the believer who speaks a message in tongues to also "pray that HE may interpret." This prayer is NOT for obtaining the gift of interpretation of tongues, as the believer has already spoken in tongues and by the same faith can interpret.

It suggests that HE should pray privately in tongues beforehand to build up faith. Then, when the Holy Spirit prompts the delivery of a message in an unknown tongue, there's faith enough to follow with its interpretation.

When the person who's delivering a message in tongues is unaware of their obligation to interpret it, or should they choose not to interpret it, the Holy Spirit will prompt someone else in the group to give the interpretation.

Who can interpret an unknown tongue? Every believer who's filled with the Holy Spirit and is willing to step out in faith to exercise the gift when prompted by the Holy Spirit.

How to Interpret Tongues

Jude reminds, "But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit" (Jude 1:20).

Begin by praying privately in tongues to build up your faith beforehand. Then, when you are with the church and sense the Holy Spirit prompting you to speak a message in an unknown tongue, you can promptly deliver it followed by its interpretation. The interpretation will flow from your mouth, and you'll know it's inspired by the Holy Spirit and not something you're making up.

That's the difference between someone who lacks understanding of the gifts and memorizes Bible verses for material to draw on. What they speak might sound inspired to an uninformed ear, but it's delivered naturally not supernaturally. Because it's delivered naturally in the flesh, it lacks anointing and falls flat, failing to edify.

Expect your words to come slowly when you first interpret a tongue, and you may find yourself pausing between phrases, as the words of the message are composed on your tongue.

Picture a PEZ® candy dispenser.1 Each time you PRESS its button, out pops another candy. Interpreting a tongue is similar, since the interpretation is uttered one word or phrase at a time, as it's spoken by faith.

Expect the Holy Spirit to start you off with a word or phrase. Speak it, and another phrase will be given. Speak it, and another phrase will be given, and so on.

For example…

  • PRESS: "My heart is full of your praises."
  • PRESS: "Your goodness and mercy surround me,"
  • PRESS: "and I place my trust in you, Lord."
  • PRESS: "Help me to follow you and not be distracted."
  • PRESS: "You are… ."

And so on, until you sense there's no more words to be added. Then, you will know it's time to stop. If you continue beyond the Spirit's prompting, you'll find yourself tripping over your words and repeating yourself.

Be careful not to pressure yourself, as it's not the speed of delivery or how many words are spoken that's important; it's whether the message is inspired by the Holy Spirit.

The interpretation of a tongue is NOT a word-for-word translation. It's similar to a paraphrase in that it offers the substance, the gist of what's been spoken.

During mission trips to St. Petersburg, Russia, my wife and I relied on our translator when communicating with the orphanage director. Fluent in both Russian and English, Irina translated our questions word-for-word into Russian and in turn translated the director's responses word for word into English for our understanding.

However, when the director and her staff spent several minutes discussing a matter, Irina afterwards turned to us and gave us a brief interpretation in English of what had transpired in Russian.

Irina's interpretation took barely a minute to relate, yet it gave us the sum and substance of the lengthy discussion, and it was similar to how messages in tongues are interpreted.

Also, the personality of the speaker is noticeable in the interpretation of a tongue. Some speakers are naturally wordy while others are less wordy, so some interpretations are shorter, while some are longer, and some will be more flowery in their delivery.

I once had a prophetic word spoken over me at a camp meeting in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It was delivered by a prophet who was clearly from South Carolina. "Y'all hear me now," he began, and the anointed word was prophesied entirely in the Southern dialect.

It's important to note that the length of the message spoken in a tongue has no relationship to the length of its interpretation. It's not the multitude of words spoken that's important, it's the substance of the message and whether it's inspired of God

Simply be yourself. Don't attempt to model the delivery of the interpretation after anyone else. It's likely your first attempts will be halting and slow, but your delivery will improve as you gain confidence through experience.

Take your time to speak clearly and loud enough for everyone to hear. Also, speak confidently in the first person (for example, "God, I praise your wonderful works…"), as you are directly speaking a message to God, only you won't know what the message is until you've finished speaking it.

Proper Order for the Church

Paul suggests, "If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret" (1 Corinthians 14:27).

One to three messages in tongues can be given either by the same person or by different persons, but each tongue must be followed by its interpretation. Also, each tongue and its interpretation must be given in turn to avoid the confusion of people speaking over one another.

However, when two to three messages in tongues are given either by the same person or by different persons, and there's been no interpretation, then whoever chooses to interpret will give ONE interpretation that covers ALL previous messages lacking interpretations.

Then, if someone follows by speaking an inspired message in their known language, it won't be the interpretation of one of the previous tongues, since they have already been interpreted, it will be a word of prophecy.

Why "two or at the most three" messages in tongues? Paul isn't suggesting there cannot be more, depending on the leading of the Holy Spirit, but limiting to three permits other believers the opportunity to follow the prompting of the Holy Spirit and share a Scripture verse, a teaching, or a word of prophecy, for the edification of the church.

When No Interpretation Is Given

Paul teaches, "But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God" (1 Corinthians 14:28).

The onus is on the speaker of the tongue to ensure the tongue will be interpreted by either himself OR by someone else present who's known to exercise the gift.

Unfortunately, there are times when a message in tongues is given and the speaker of the tongue is either unaware that he can also bring the interpretation, or he is nervous and has chosen not to.

Someone in leadership who's experienced in the gifts should gently encourage the speaker of the tongue to interpret the message and if the speaker is unwilling, invite anyone who's prompted by the Spirit to deliver it.

However, if two or three messages have been spoken in tongues, and nobody has been obedient to interpret, there should be no additional messages in tongues given to avoid confusion.

If Anything Else Is Revealed

Paul says, "But if anything is REVEALED to another who sits by, let the first keep silent (1 Corinthians 14:30, emphasis added).

The use of the word REVEALED indicates this verse has nothing to do with either the interpretation of tongues or prophecy. Paul is referring to the manifestation of one of the REVELATION gifts: word of knowledge, word of wisdom, and discernment of spirits.

Sometime, you may hear someone say, "I also had the interpretation, and that wasn't it at all!" No! That WAS the inspired interpretation. It was spoken phrase-by-phrase as it was inspired by the Holy Spirit, so nobody else could have received it.

If somebody else had received something, it was most likely a REVELATION from God that was meant solely for them, and they should keep silent to avoid sowing seeds of doubt and confusion.

The Operator of the Gift Is in Control

Paul says, "For you can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be encouraged. And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets" (1 Corinthians 14:31-32).

What Paul is saying concerning the gift of prophecy can also be applied to the gift of tongues, and the gift of interpretation of tongues.

Paul reminds that the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. This means that we are always in control of our actions. We can choose to be obedient to the Holy Spirit's prompting and bring a message of edification for the Body of Christ, or we can choose not to.

Paul ends chapter 14 with a no-nonsense caution: "If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord" (1 Corinthians 14:37).

He reminds us that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are not to be ignored or taken lightly. They are given to us to empower us for ministry and for edifying the Body of Christ. We cannot fulfill our calling using natural abilities alone. We need the supernatural abilities given us by the Holy Spirit.


1 PEZ® is a registered trademark of PEZ Candy, Inc.

Don Bell of Kingdom Anointing

By Don Bell, follower of the Christ.

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