The Gift of Tongues in 1 Corinthians 14


1 Corinthians 14

This is the fifth post in an ongoing discussion about spiritual gifts. I started by explaining why I am neither a cessationist nor a charismatic. I then established the biblical definition for tongues in from Acts. Yesterday, I examined the gift of tongues as mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12–13. And today I will go through each reference in 1 Corinthians 14. Please read the previous articles before continuing.

In chapter 14 of 1 Corinthians, Paul really focused on the prideful use of the gift of tongues (languages). The gift was intended as a sign for unbelievers first and for building up the church second. Yet the Corinthian believers were doing neither of those, seeking rather to selfishly build up themselves.

Edify the Church

Pursue love and desire spiritual gifts, and above all that you may prophesy. For the person who speaks in another language is not speaking to men but to God, since no one understands him; however, he speaks mysteries in the Spirit. But the person who prophesies speaks to people for edification, encouragement, and consolation. (1 Corinthians 14:1–3, HCSB)

Prophecy is a gift that builds up the whole church. A prophetic message from God can be understood by all present, thus all may benefit from it.

On the other hand, speaking in another language is unpofitable if no one who understands that language is present. Only God could then understand it.

The Corinthians were pridefully flaunting their ability to speak in other languages. They were showing off.

Do Not Edify Yourself

The person who speaks in another language builds himself up, but he who prophesies builds up the church. (1 Corinthians 14:4, HCSB)

The obvious connotation here is that it is prideful and wrong to build up (or edify) yourself. Everything we do should be to serve others.

[Update: I was not as clear as I could have been. By this I mean that it is wrong to seek your own edification in the context of a church gathering. The purpose of church gatherings is the edification of the body.]

Prophecy Is Better

I wish all of you spoke in other languages, but even more that you prophesied. The person who prophesies is greater than the person who speaks in languages, unless he interprets so that the church may be built up. (1 Corinthians 14:5, HCSB)

Paul did not say that they should not speak in tongues. He wanted them to speak in tongues, but it must be done in the proper context. The purpose for tongues is communicating with those who speak other languages.

On the other hand, Paul said that prophecy is better in the church, because those gathered together already speak the same language.

However, Paul granted that if someone can interpret what is being spoken, then tongues may still serve to build up the body. This could take place if someone is present who already knows the language being spoken. Or the Spirit may choose to grant the gift of interpretation, allowing someone to understand that language.

Is the Message Being Conveyed?

But now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in other languages, how will I benefit you unless I speak to you with a revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? (1 Corinthians 14:6, HCSB)

Paul again stated that it is unprofitable to speak in tongues if no message is being conveyed.

Even inanimate things that produce sounds—whether flute or harp—if they don’t make a distinction in the notes, how will what is played on the flute or harp be recognized? In fact, if the trumpet makes an unclear sound, who will prepare for battle? In the same way, unless you use your tongue for intelligible speech, how will what is spoken be known? For you will be speaking into the air.

There are doubtless many different kinds of languages in the world, and all have meaning. Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker will be a foreigner to me. (1 Corinthians 14:7–11, HCSB)

Here Paul switched from using the word glossa to using the word phone for “languages.” Phone most literally means “a sound” and is translated as such in the previous verses.

In this case, Paul used it to mean sounds for communication. Just like trumpets are used to communicate the call to battle, so the gift of tongues should be used to communicate some message.

If no one can understand the words being spoken, then no message is being communicated, and the gift is being used improperly.

It does no good to speak a foreign language if no foreigners are present. To those who do not understand the language, it would just be unintelligible sounds. Thus there is little use for tongues in the church.

Whatever message is being spoken will be lost.

Use Gifts Properly

So also you—since you are zealous for spiritual gifts, seek to excel in building up the church. (1 Corinthians 14:12, HCSB)

Again, we are to use our gifts to edify the church, not ourselves.

Therefore the person who speaks in another language should pray that he can interpret. (1 Corinthians 14:13, HCSB)

Paul again granted that tongues may be spoken, but interpretation is needed.

Understanding Is Needed

For if I pray in another language, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful. What then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with my understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with my understanding. Otherwise, if you praise with the spirit, how will the uninformed person say “Amen” at your giving of thanks, since he does not know what you are saying? For you may very well be giving thanks, but the other person is not being built up. (1 Corinthians 14:14–17, HCSB)

Paul stated that if he prays in another language, he does not understand what he is praying. Thus if you claim to pray in tongues with understanding, you are either more spiritually gifted than Paul, or you are not really praying in tongues.

He also stated that one should praise God using an understandable language, so that those hearing him may join in praise.

We should not mindlessly agree to what we don’t understand. But that is what happens when someone praises God in a foreign language and someone else says “Amen.”

Though the praise may be sincere, it would not be edifying the body.

Not for the Church

I thank God that I speak in other languages more than all of you; yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, in order to teach others also, than 10,000 words in another language. (1 Corinthians 14:18–19, HCSB)

Paul affirmed once more that he was not against speaking other languages. He very much approved of it, and he did so himself. But it was not intended for the church.

Isaiah’s Prophecy

It is written in the law: I will speak to these people by people of other languages and by the lips of foreigners, and even then, they will not listen to Me, says the Lord. (1 Corinthians 14:21, HCSB)

Paul quoted Isaiah 28:11–12, equating to this passage a duel prophecy that included the coming gift of tongues.

Indeed, He will speak to this people through stammering lips and a foreign tongue, He who said to them, “Here is rest, give rest to the weary,” and, “Here is repose,” but they would not listen. (Isaiah 28:11–12, NASB)

Yet if we look at the original context, there is no question at all that it referred to real foreign languages. Why then, since the prophecy was for real languages, would we claim that the gift only results in unintelligible sounds or an “angel tongue” that can only be understood by certain people?

Tongues Are for Unbelievers

It follows that speaking in other languages is intended as a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers. But prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers. (1 Corinthians 14:22, HCSB)

In case you missed it before, Paul here made it perfectly clear. The gift of tongues is intended as a sign for unbelievers.

We saw this from the very first use of the gift in Acts. The Spirit granted the ability to speak in other languages so they could preach the good news those who were present.

Out of Your Minds

Therefore, if the whole church assembles together and all are speaking in other languages and people who are uninformed or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your minds? (1 Corinthians 14:23, HCSB)

Speaking a foreign language in the church would do no good for an unbeliever who might visit. Assuming he did not speak that language, it would sound just as much like babbling to him as it would to the church.

The gift was intended for communicating to unbelievers who speak a foreign language.

Don’t Abuse the Gift

What then is the conclusion, brothers? Whenever you come together, each one has a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, another language, or an interpretation. All things must be done for edification. (1 Corinthians 14:26, HCSB)

Here Paul again emphasized the need to build up the church.


If any person speaks in another language, there should be only two, or at the most three, each in turn, and someone must interpret. But if there is no interpreter, that person should keep silent in the church and speak to himself and to God. (1 Corinthians 14:27–28, HCSB)

Paul gave clear restrictions to ensure that the gift of tongues is not abused.

  1. Only three people at most may speak in a different language.
  2. They must not speak at the same time.
  3. Someone must interpret.

Don’t Forbid Tongues

Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in other languages. But everything must be done decently and in order. (1 Corinthians 14:39–40, HCSB)

Paul did not want to “quench the Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 5:19, NASB), thus he did not actually forbid speaking in tongues in the church. This is one of the biggest problems I might have with my cessationist brothers, as they generally do forbid speaking in tongues.


From this entire study, it is clear that the gift of tongues is given in the form of real human languages. And it is clear that they must be spoken so that others can understand.

There is no place for speaking in tongues when others can’t understand. When praying in tongues, you only build up yourself, and you can’t even understand it yourself.

If no one can understand it, then the gift is being abused.

Spiritual Gifts Series

  1. Why I Am Not a Cessationist
  2. Why I Am Not a Charismatic
  3. The Gift of Tongues in Acts
  4. The Gift of Tongues in 1 Corinthians 12–13
  5. The Gift of Tongues in 1 Corinthians 14

What Do You Think?

Okay, bring on the questions! Where am I off in my interpretation? What have I missed? I may do another post to address any further objections, so please let me know if you have any.

Share your thoughts in the comments below. And if you enjoyed this post, please share it with your friends.