What is the heavenly language and unknown language? — 1 Corinthians 13:1
This study examines what the Bible teaches about a “heavenly language” and an “unknown language.” Some Christians believe that both refer to speaking in tongues, but what does the Bible teach?
The Heavenly Language
An exhaustive search will reveal that the term “heavenly language” does not appear in any Bible translation, including the ESV, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT and all others. Some believe that the heavenly language is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 13:1.
If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 1 Corinthians 13:1 (NASB)
That is, they believe the tongues of angels is a language spoken only by angels. They believe the tongues of angels is a heavenly language. Theoretically, it is possible that angels have a unique language when they are in heaven by themselves, but Scripture never tells us they speak a unique language in heaven. Therefore, we do not actually know that angels have a unique language because Scripture never tells us. Additionally, every time Scripture records angels speaking, humans understand them. A few examples are Daniel 10:10-21; Luke 1:11-20 and Luke 1:26-38.
It is important to notice in 1 Corinthians 13:1 that Paul is trying to impress upon us that love is highly important. In order to make his point, he says that even if you speak with the tongues of men or angels, that is not as important as love. Now he is not telling us that angels have their own unique language. Paul is writing in hyperbole. Notice the word “if” in the verse is a condition of probability. He is saying if we did speak with the tongues of men and of angels. It is interesting that Paul says, “If I speak with the tongues of men.” Obviously, all humans speak in some known tongue or language. Therefore, his point is that “if” we spoke even in the tongue of an angel. Therefore, we should conclude that Paul is writing in hyperbole. The expression “tongues of angels” is hyperbole. He is exaggerating to make a point. Even if we could speak in the tongue of angels! Paul was not trying to teach us that believers can or will speak in an angelic language. To positively conclude that the tongues of angels refers to an actual language used in heaven assumes facts not substantiated anywhere in Scripture.
The Unknown Language
An exhaustive search of every Bible translation available in 2019 will reveal that only one major Bible translation uses the phrase “unknown language.” It occurs in 1 Corinthians 14:19 in the New Living Translation Bible (NLT).
But in a church meeting I would rather speak five understandable words to help others than ten thousand words in an unknown language. 1 Corinthians 14:19 (NLT)
But the major question is why did the translators of the NLT insert the word “unknown” since the Greek text or apparatus does not contain the Greek word for “unknown”? The phrase “unknown language” is a commentary on the single Greek word glossa, which refers to a known language. A reading of Acts 2:4-12 makes this truth obvious. A reading of 1 Corinthians 14:10 and a survey of the book of Revelation reveals that glossa refers to a known language Revelation 5:9; 7:9; 10:11; 11:9; 13:7; 14:6; 17:15.
Yet, some believers state that different passages in 1 Corinthians refer to an unknown language, the gift of tongues. For example, they believe 1 Corinthians 14:2 refers to an unknown language since it says “no one understands.”
For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries. 1 Corinthians 14:2 (NASB)
They also believe 1 Corinthians 14:9 indicates the gift of tongues is an unknown language since the verse implies tongue speech is not clear.
So also you, unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air. 1 Corinthians 14:9 (NASB)
This seems convincing, but that is not Paul’s message. In verses 4-5 Paul says that prophesy is superior to tongues if there is no interpreter.
One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church. Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy; and greater is one who prophesies than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may receive edifying. 1 Corinthians 14:4-5 (NASB)
Tongues without an interpreter is inferior since it does not edify the congregation of those who hear. Then in verses 7-8 Paul gives several examples of musical instruments that produce a sound.
Yet even lifeless things, either flute or harp, in producing a sound, if they do not produce a distinction in the tones, how will it be known what is played on the flute or on the harp? For if the bugle produces an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself for battle? 1 Corinthians 14:7-8 (NASB)
He adds that if the sound is not distinct, the musical instruments are worthless. Then he states in verse 9 (see verse above) that unless tongues speech is clear, no one will understand. “For you will be speaking into the air.” That is, tongues are of no value without an interpreter.
In 1 Corinthians 14:13-15, Paul concludes his point that making an indistinct sound does not edify the body of Christ. If we pray, our minds need to understand what we are praying. If we sing, we must understand what we are singing.
Therefore let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. What is the outcome then? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also. 1 Corinthians 14:13-15 (NASB)
Then in verse 19, He commands them to either edify the body of Christ or be quiet.
However, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind so that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue. 1 Corinthians 14:19 (NASB)
Notice Paul says he would rather speak five understandable words than to speak five indistinct sounds. Paul’s point is that indistinct sounds are not a language because they do not communicate. They do not edify. To edify others is far superior!
Costi Hinn, the nephew of Benny Hinn, states that it is common for church goers to be given a class on how to speak in tongues. He writes about a woman who was teaching some children how to speak in tongues. He writes that she said,
Now kids, look at me! I want you to move your lips and just say what comes to your tongue. Sha-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba . . . Sha-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba . . . That ‘s it! Just begin to call out anything you can. Ba-ta-ba-ba-ba-ta.”
Then he added, “The coercing continued for more than ten minutes.” His point is that this is typical of how believers are taught to speak in tongues. Other churches have also conducted classes on how to speak in tongues. But this is not how the early Christians were filled with the Holy Spirit. Acts 10:44-46 is an example that reveals the filling of the Holy Spirit instantaneously resulted in the speaking in tongues. In summary, it is obvious that the modern day tongues of indistinct sound is not biblical tongues. Paul encourages us to “speak five words with my mind so that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue.”
Biblical tongues are not unknown languages or a heavenly language that no one understands. It is simply indistinct sounds that Paul rebukes. For a more detailed study, read the document “The Spirit’s Ministry – Tongues and Prophecy.”
1. Costi Hinn. God, Greed, and the (Prosperity) Gospel. Zondervan. 2019. p. 121.
Suggested Links:The Spirit’s Ministry – Tongues and Prophecy
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