Along with the gift of speaking in tongues is another spiritual gift mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:10—the gift of interpreting tongues. The gift of interpreting tongues is the ability to translate a foreign language into the language of the hearers. The gift of interpreting tongues is a separate gift, but it seems to have been used in conjunction with the gift of speaking in tongues.
The gift of tongues was the supernatural ability to speak a foreign language that the tongues-speaker had never learned. We see this gift in use in Acts 2:4–12, as the Jews in Jerusalem heard the gospel preached in a wide variety of languages. A person with the gift of interpreting tongues, then, could understand what a tongues-speaker was saying even though he did not know the language being spoken. This lack of prior knowledge of a language is what distinguishes the spiritual gift from the natural gift of being able to understand and speak a variety of languages. The tongues-interpreter would hear the tongues-speaker and then communicate the message to anyone present who could not understand the language. The goal was that all could understand and benefit from the truth being spoken. According to the apostle Paul, and in agreement with the tongues described in Acts, the gift of tongues was meant to communicate God’s message directly to another person in his or her native language. Of course, if those present could not understand the language being spoken, the tongues were useless—and that’s what made the tongues-interpreter, or tongues-translator, necessary. The goal was the edification of the church (1 Corinthians 14:5, 12).
One of the problems in the church of Corinth was that tongues-speakers were speaking out in the service, exercising their gift of tongues with no interpreter and with no one present who spoke that language. The result was that the tongues-speaker was commanding attention, but his words were meaningless, since no one could understand him. Paul strongly advised that all use of tongues in the church must be interpreted: “In the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Corinthians 14:19). There was no benefit to other church members in hearing something they could not understand. Exercising the gift of tongues in church, simply for the sake of showing everyone that you had the gift, was conceited and unprofitable. Paul told the Corinthians that, if two or three tongues-speakers wanted to speak in a meeting, then a spiritually gifted tongues-interpreter must also be present. In fact, “if there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God” (1 Corinthians 14:28).
The temporal nature of the gift of tongues implies that the gift of interpretation of tongues was also of a temporal nature. If the gift of speaking in tongues were active in the church today, it would be performed in agreement with Scripture. It would be a real and intelligible language (1 Corinthians 14:10). It would be for the purpose of communicating God’s Word to a person of another language (Acts 2:6–12), and it would be done “in a fitting and orderly way” (1 Corinthians 14:40), “for God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people” (1 Corinthians 14:33).