Tongues vs Prophecy

We return to Paul’s discourse on spiritual gifts, which have been used to cause division within the local church at Corinth. There were some who, apparently, exalted the gift of tongues such that others desired the mystical gift above all else. There are many in our own day who exalt mystical sign gifts like tongues, even calling them the sign of salvation.

After teaching that Christians should not merely desire the spiritual gifts but, instead, pursue sincere love, which edifies rather than puffs up, Paul continues his admonition:

1 Corinthians 14:1-19

14.1 Διώκετε τὴν ἀγάπην, ζηλοῦτε δὲ τὰ πνευματικά, μᾶλλον δὲ ἵνα προφητεύητε.  2 ὁ γὰρ λαλῶν γλώσσῃ οὐκ ἀνθρώποις λαλεῖ ἀλλὰ θεῷ, οὐδεὶς γὰρ ἀκούει, πνεύματι δὲ λαλεῖ μυστήρια·  3 ὁ δὲ προφητεύων ἀνθρώποις λαλεῖ οἰκοδομὴν καὶ παράκλησιν καὶ παραμυθίαν.  4 ὁ λαλῶν γλώσσῃ ἑαυτὸν οἰκοδομεῖ· ὁ δὲ προφητεύων ἐκκλησίαν οἰκοδομεῖ.  5 θέλω δὲ πάντας ὑμᾶς λαλεῖν γλώσσαις, μᾶλλον δὲ ἵνα προφητεύητε· μείζων δὲ ὁ προφητεύων ἢ ὁ λαλῶν γλώσσαις, ἐκτὸς εἰ μὴ διερμηνεύῃ, ἵνα ἡ ἐκκλησία οἰκοδομὴν λάβῃ.  

6 Νῦν δέ, ἀδελφοί, ἐὰν ἔλθω πρὸς ὑμᾶς γλώσσαις λαλῶν, τί ὑμᾶς ὠφελήσω, ἐὰν μὴ ὑμῖν λαλήσω ἢ ἐν ἀποκαλύψει ἢ ἐν γνώσει ἢ ἐν προφητείᾳ ἢ ἐν διδαχῇ;  7 ὅμως τὰ ἄψυχα φωνὴν διδόντα, εἴτε αὐλὸς εἴτε κιθάρα, ἐὰν διαστολὴν τοῖς φθόγγοις μὴ δῷ, πῶς γνωσθήσεται τὸ αὐλούμενον ἢ τὸ κιθαριζόμενον;  8 καὶ γὰρ ἐὰν ἄδηλον φωνὴν σάλπιγξ δῷ, τίς παρασκευάσεται εἰς πόλεμον;  9 οὕτως καὶ ὑμεῖς διὰ τῆς γλώσσης ἐὰν μὴ εὔσημον λόγον δῶτε, πῶς γνωσθήσεται τὸ λαλούμενον; ἔσεσθε γὰρ εἰς ἀέρα λαλοῦντες.  10 τοσαῦτα εἰ τύχοι γένη φωνῶν εἰσιν ἐν κόσμῳ, καὶ οὐδὲν ἄφωνον·  11 ἐὰν οὖν μὴ εἰδῶ τὴν δύναμιν τῆς φωνῆς, ἔσομαι τῷ λαλοῦντι βάρβαρος καὶ ὁ λαλῶν ἐν ἐμοὶ βάρβαρος.  12 οὕτως καὶ ὑμεῖς, ἐπεὶ ζηλωταί ἐστε πνευμάτων, πρὸς τὴν οἰκοδομὴν τῆς ἐκκλησίας ζητεῖτε ἵνα περισσεύητε.  

13 Διὸ ὁ λαλῶν γλώσσῃ προσευχέσθω ἵνα διερμηνεύῃ.  14 ἐὰν γὰρ προσεύχωμαι γλώσσῃ, τὸ πνεῦμά μου προσεύχεται, ὁ δὲ νοῦς μου ἄκαρπός ἐστιν.  15 τί οὖν ἐστιν; προσεύξομαι τῷ πνεύματι, προσεύξομαι δὲ καὶ τῷ νοΐ· ψαλῶ τῷ πνεύματι, ψαλῶ δὲ καὶ τῷ νοΐ·  16 ἐπεὶ ἐὰν εὐλογῇς πνεύματι, ὁ ἀναπληρῶν τὸν τόπον τοῦ ἰδιώτου πῶς ἐρεῖ τὸ Ἀμήν ἐπὶ τῇ σῇ εὐχαριστίᾳ; ἐπειδὴ τί λέγεις οὐκ οἶδεν·  17 σὺ μὲν γὰρ καλῶς εὐχαριστεῖς, ἀλλʼ ὁ ἕτερος οὐκ οἰκοδομεῖται.  18 εὐχαριστῶ τῷ θεῷ, πάντων ὑμῶν μᾶλλον γλώσσαις λαλῶ·  19 ἀλλὰ ἐν ἐκκλησίᾳ θέλω πέντε λόγους τῷ νοΐ μου λαλῆσαι, ἵνα καὶ ἄλλους κατηχήσω, ἢ μυρίους λόγους ἐν γλώσσῃ.

Prophecy or tongues (v. 1-5)

Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy. 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. But one who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation. 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.

Since love edifies, Paul instructs believers to prioritize love as defined in 1 Corinthians 13. Pursue love. Desire the spiritual gifts, yes, but do not merely desire spiritual gifts or pursue them. Instead, pursue love. If you desire spiritual gifts, prioritize prophecy over the more mystical gifts like speaking in tongues because prophesy is understandable and actually edifies others. Gifts like that of tongues only edify the ones practicing.

The text speaks, again, to our motivation for desiring and practicing the spiritual gifts. If we desire spiritual gifts in order to exalt ourselves, whether it be speaking in tongues in order to be seen as more spiritual or deaconing in order to have political power or prophesying in order to be exalted as a teacher or something else, our focus is wrong. The gifts are given so that we might use them to edify others, not exalt self.

Here, we also gain some insight into the gift of prophecy. Prophecy is not always preaching. It can manifest as exhortation (teaching/preaching) and as consolation (counseling/comforting/encouraging). Prophecy can take many forms but never exceeds what is written (cf. 4:6). No matter what form it takes, whether preaching-teaching, counseling, comforting, consoling, singing, or praying, prophecy is always a proclamation of God’s word without exceeding what is written. 

Prophecy is greater than tongues because the church is edified. The only scenario in which tongues becomes an equal gift to prophecy is with the presence of an interpreter so that the church body may understand what is being said in a tongue and may be edified. Once again, we see that the gift of tongues is intelligible and interpretable, not incoherent babbling like some suggest.

For edification not self-promotion (v. 6-12)

But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking in tongues, what will I profit you unless I speak to you either by way of revelation or of knowledge or of prophecy or of teaching? 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? 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. There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of languages in the world, and no kind is without meaning. If then I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be to the one who speaks a barbarian, and the one who speaks will be a barbarian to me. So also you, since you are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek to abound for the edification of the church.

Paul appeals to music, the war bugle, and the languages of the world in order to insist that no meaningful sound is indistinct or without meaning. Every word that profits humanity carries understandability and meaning. Words spoken should be clear so that others may know what is said for their good.

Because of Paul’s use of language, here, we can deduce something about the gift of tongues. The gift of tongues does not merely refer to one being granted to speak another language on a foreign mission field or elsewhere. 1) Paul is writing to the local church in the context of that local church’s gathering. 2) Paul distinguishes, here, between the gift of tongues and the speaking of different languages by using two different Greek words—γλωσσα for tongues and φονη for languages. Paul identifies the gift of tongues as something other than merely speaking other languages—perhaps as speaking some angelic language (cf. 13:1).

Still, it remains that if one does not know the meaning of a language, the one who speaks is a barbarian to him. Therefore, instead of seeking what makes people seem like barbarians, we seek to abound for the edification of the church—we pursue love first, then desire the spiritual gifts to practice in love.

In the church (v. 13-19)

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. Otherwise if you bless in the spirit only, how will the one who fills the place of the ungifted say the “Amen” at your giving of thanks, since he does not know what you are saying? For you are giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not edified. I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all; 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.

Paul does not apply the truth of edification such that he commands people in the gathering to abstain from speaking in tongues. Instead, he recognizes the gift of tongues as legitimate within the congregation. Those who have the gift of tongues, then, pray that they may also interpret so that the mind is fruitful along with the spirit.

Thus, something more about the church gathering is revealed. Within the context of the gathering, both our spirits and our minds should be fruitful. Most often, religious people major on one or the other, and the result is either feel-good spirituality and easy-believism (e.g. prosperity gospel, word of faith) or ivory-tower religiosity (e.g. Scientology, Mormonism, Academia). Every religious group or denomination falls into these two categories. Paul, here, is admonishing Corinth—we need both so that we profit spiritually and mindfully, so that we grow in our spirit and understanding, emotionally and intellectually. We encounter the invisible realm while being grounded in the visible.

Paul claims to speak in these kinds of tongues (the tongues of angels) more than everyone in the church at Corinth. Paul uses the word, church, here to refer to the gathered saints. I hear often that one need not go to church in order to be the church. For Paul, there is no distinction. To be the church, locally, is to be the gathered body of Christ. One does not have to be in a church building to be part of the church. If one is part of the church, he or she will gather with the church body. In the gathering, he desires to speak five words with his mind (prophecy) so that he may instruct others instead of ten thousand words in a tongue. There is a place for speaking in tongues that are not being interpreted—in one’s prayer closet at home, not in the gathering. This is the only way we do not exalt ourselves in the speaking of tongues. In the gathering, we desire prophecy so that the body is edified both spiritually and mindfully—so that we profit from our gathering together.

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