The Two Modes of Operation of  Speaking in Tongues 

He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the Church (1 Corinthians 14:4, KJV)

Although the Bible does not explicitly state any differences in speaking in tongues, it does clearly imply subtle distinctions in the modes of operation of this gift, especially in 1 Corinthians 14. These two modes are speaking in tongues as prayer and speaking in tongues as prophecy.

Prayer and prophecy are closely related but distinct spiritual activities. Besides, both can and do frequently take place concurrently. While prayer is fundamentally talking to God, prophecy is talking to people or things! When we pray, we commune with God, but when we prophesy, we instruct, command, or reveal God’s words. 

Speaking in tongues can manifest as prayer or as prophecy. As prayer, it is more specifically referred to as “praying in tongues.” Paul speaks about praying in tongues in 1 Cor. 14:4: “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful” (ESV). Since praying in tongues is a personal communing with God, Paul instructs us to use wisdom when we pray in tongues in a congregational setting; otherwise, unbelievers present might think we are crazy: “If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?” (1 Corinthians 14:23 ESV).

As prophecy, speaking in tongues is declaring God’s words to others, just as “traditional” prophecy. It works in two steps. First, someone speaks in tongues, declaring a prophetic message in a different language( often heavenly, but sometimes a foreign human language). Another believer, with the gift of interpretation, hears those words in tongues, understands what is being said, and declares the interpretation in the language everyone understands. The tongue plus the interpretation equals prophecy! Tongues as prophecy only operate in the setting of a congregation of believers. This is different from tongues as prayer, which can work in private or in public. Paul spoke about this in verse 27:

If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret.” (1 Corinthians 14:27 ESV).

The most dramatic example of tongues as both prayer and prophecy in public is the day of Pentecost recorded in Acts 2. And sure enough, the onlookers said the Apostles were drunk!  

A misunderstanding or misapplication of this subtle truth underlies the misconception that speaking in tongues is a gift the Spirit uses to speak a prophetic message to others, and so it is reserved for only a few believers. On the contrary, the overwhelming manifestation of speaking in tongues in our lives and the congregation is not a prophecy but prayer. And it is often when you are alone! So speaking in tongues as prophecy is a gift reserved for a few believers but praying in tongues is available for anyone who desires it.

Therefore speaking in tongues is not always the same—it can be prayer or prophecy. If we study the scriptures carefully, we discern the subtle differences in the operation of this mysterious gift and cooperate fully with the Spirit. 


How did speaking tongues manifest as prayer and as prophecy on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2?

Apply the Word

Please know that the Holy Spirit can use tongues when you are praying alone to build you up, or He can use it when you are with other people to speak a message from God to them through an interpreter. Flame to flames this gift!


Thank the Father for the beautiful gift of speaking in tongues.

Read & Watch

Three Steps to Receive the Baptism of the Spirit and Speak in Tongues
The Mystery of Praying in Tongues
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels
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6 months ago

Short back story… Raised in very legalistic, religious environment. This topic, one of many, was preached against, hard. I’ve left that environment for many reasons, mostly due to the heresies preached there. I’m curious about tongues. I visited a church that a few members talk in tongues.. loud, with yelling, and it startles me terribly. I’m trying to set my previous teaching aside and be open-minded, but this public activity simply does not set well with my gut. It deeply disturbs me, distracts me, and snaps me out of my worship mode. I ask the Lord for discernment as I want to know truth. “If this is from You Lord then please make me to talk in tongues.” Nothing has happened yet. Thanks for any info, help, insight you can offer.