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Bible: What Does 1 Corinthians 14 Teach Us About Speaking in "Tongues" (Unknown Languages) and "Prophecy"?

Updated on August 24, 2016

The Tower of Babel


Tongues: For Today?

Do you believe speaking in tongues legitimately has ceased as a spiritual gift?

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Speaking in Languages Unknown

Christians should seek to demonstrate God’s love in every activity, and desire to show it using as many spiritual gifts as God will allow (v. 1).

In Paul’s comparison of two specific “spirituals”—namely, prophecy and tongues—, the apostle finds the former gift superior to the latter in two ways (vv. 1-5).

First, when an individual speaks a language without an interpreter (or without interpreting it himself), what he says will remain hidden (“mysteries”) to everyone except God (v. 2; cf. Acts 2:8 where the apostles spoke to people who understood).

However, when a person prophesies (that is, preaches in his native language), his words immediately build up, encourage, and strengthen his audience’s spiritual life (v. 3).

Paul next brings to light a second way prophecy is superior to tongues.

The individual who speaks in a tongue he previously did not know understands it now and helps himself spiritually, but the preacher builds up the whole church (v. 4).

Tongues are a fine gift to exercise, Paul says, but prophesying is a better one; indeed, the preacher is “greater than” the tongues-speaker, unless the latter also interprets what he says in order to edify the church (v. 5).

[Some tongues advocates were apparently keeping the gift to themselves, and using it as a prayer tongue.

When did tongues as a sign gift cease?]

The apostle now examines the tongues phenomenon in more detail (vv. 6-25).

Using himself as an example of a tongues speaker, he argues that the efficacy of his gift amounts to nothing if the message does not come from God in any of four forms: revelation, knowledge, prophesying or teaching (v. 6a).

[Apparently, some speakers abused the gift; they had no spiritual knowledge to share, but simply started speaking to others in a language they did not know.]

Paul draws an analogy from the world of music, maintaining that the notes one plays on flute, harp, or trumpet must “make sense” to others, or they will not know what song one is playing or what action to take (vv. 7-8).

In like manner, a tongues speaker must utter words understandable to his audience, or the exercise is useless (v. 9).

[Paul surely means that the interpretation of the language must be clear.

Obviously, an unknown language will remain incoherent to an audience; it does not matter how easy your words are to understand.]

The apostle prefaces his next remarks with the general statement that many languages exist, and that they all mean something (v. 10).

However, he points out that if one person does not understand the other’s language, then the two are alien to one another (v. 11).

Paul admonishes those desirous of "spirituals" to make sure that they want them for the right purpose: to edify the church (v. 12).

To excel in the use of a tongue, for instance, Paul advises that the person pray for the ability to interpret it (v. 13).

The apostle develops that thought by discussing praying in a tongue.

He notes that when one does so, one does not understand the language; one’s spirit prays, not one’s mind (v. 14).

Yet he advises that one should both pray (and sing) in a tongue with one’s spirit and one’s mind (v. 15).

[Apparently, some people emptied their minds when they prayed in a tongue; Paul, however, wanted them to engage their minds before they activated their tongues--literally and figuratively.]

People who do not interpret their message when they “bless with the spirit” do not edify uninformed believers, even though they might build themselves up (vv. 16-17).

Paul tells the Corinthians that, though he himself possesses a superior ability to speak in tongues, he prefers to preach a few words with his understanding rather than speak many words in a language unknown to his audience.

He recognizes that edifying others is always better than edifying yourself alone (vv. 18-19).

Purpose of Tongues in the Old Testament

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Addressing the Corinthians again as brethren, Paul directs them to show a mature understanding of the purpose of tongues, and not to be expert in malice (v. 20).

[Unless some folks in the church were wishing ill toward others regarding the practice of tongues, this second clause does not seem to fit with the context.]

From a passage in Isaiah (though Paul designates it as “the law”) that illustrates how God unsuccessfully communicated with Israel through the “tongues” of foreign invaders—not that He lacked the ability to communicate, but Israel neglected to obey His message to them—, the apostle concludes that the original use for tongues was to try to move unbelieving Israel to repentance (vv. 21-22a; cf. Is. 28:11-12).

[God meant these foreign “tongues” as a “sign” to show unbelieving Israel their need to turn from their sin.]

Jesus, Preacher Par Excellence


The Place Where the Church Meets for Worship


On the other hand, God intends Christians to use the gift of prophecy (preaching) primarily to edify believers (v. 22b).

If unbelievers and uninformed people should attend a tongues-speaking church, they will think the people insane; however, if an unsaved person in whom the Lord is working enters when a believer is preaching the word, the former will understand the message, learn about and confess his sin, and acknowledge God’s presence in the assembly (vv. 23-25).

Paul now prescribes the order the church should use when it conducts worship services as well as the orderliness of its conduct while assembled (vv. 26-40).

He instructs each individual to come prepared to “share” some gift with the others, listing the following examples: a teaching having an edificatory purpose; a reading from a psalm; a short exposition of doctrine; a message in a foreign language; a revelation, or an interpretation of a particular tongue (v. 26).

He stresses the need to maintain orderliness in the service; tongues-speakers should not all speak at once, but they should speak one at a time, having an interpreter for each (v. 27).

If they have no interpreters, these individuals should keep quiet, though they may privately exercise their gift (v. 28).

As for preachers, Paul suggests that the church may hear from two or three men during a service, and profit from their messages (v. 29).

He adds that if God suddenly illumines the mind of a hearer, that individual should remain silent until after the speaker finishes.

At that point, he may then share the insight with the church and thus bring them education and encouragement (vv. 30-31).

Prophets (preachers) should consider and judge the truth of each message (v. 32).

God wants peace, not disorder, in His local assemblies; an out-of-control preacher is not under God’s control (v. 33).

As for female participation, Paul strongly commands that they remain silent and submissive in the service (v. 34); he regards women preachers as shameful (v. 35).

Paul claims to speak Jesus’ commandment, and seeks to instruct certain Corinthians that they are not “the sole repository of the truth” (vv. 36-37).

[The context suggests that some church leaders were allowing emotionally-charged women to run (and ruin) the services; Paul was merely seeking to restore God’s order to the proceedings.]

Those who do not understand and accept this truth the church should not recognize as leaders (v. 38).

In sum, Paul allows both prophecy and tongues speaking as long as the people do “all things” “decently and in order” (vv. 39-40).

© 2013 glynch1


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    • glynch1 profile image

      glynch1 4 years ago

      I believe one reason why many do not speak out against "gibberish" is because our culture frowns on judging someone else's experience. Many Christians shrink away from telling the truth for fear of what others might say. If something supernatural is occurring in this "experience," it is not of God the Holy Spirit.

    • PlanksandNails profile image

      PlanksandNails 4 years ago from among the called out ones of the ekklesia of Christ

      I have experienced the gibberish. Unfortunately, not many are willing to admonish those for doing so, especially the emotionally charged woman who makes a spectacle of herself, and distracts others.

      Well presented.

    • glynch1 profile image

      glynch1 4 years ago

      It is amazing how details that we never picked up on before just pop out at us. Thanks. I appreciate your encouragement.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image

      Jill Spencer 4 years ago from United States

      Hi Greg! I had not notice the analogy to music before. How'd I miss that? PS Your hubs are getting better & better! --Jill