1 Corinthians 14:1-5

Welcome back to my study/review of 1 Corinthians. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.

1 Corinthians 14:1-5

14 Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.


After an entire chapter of emphasizing love, and prioritizing love over spiritual gifts, Paul steers the conversation back to spiritual gifts. This section focuses on a comparison between the gift of prophesy and the gift of tongues. We can guess that the Corinthians were split as to which if these gifts was more important. Paul clarifies.

Verse 1 functions as a bridge verse between chapter 13 and what comes after in chapter 14. From Ellicott’s Bible Commentary:

(1) Follow after charity.—Better, Follow after love. The preceding chapter is parenthetical, and the Apostle here returns to the subject with which he had been immediately occupied before he branched off into that great Psalm of Love. He has spoken enthusiastically in praise of the superiority of love as the greatest amongst graces, and of all graces as superior to all gifts; but still, though we are to “do this,” we are not to leave the other undone. Spiritual gifts are to be “earnestly striven for.” As there was a priority in graces, so there is in gifts. To prophesy is the greatest gift; it is so, as we see afterwards, because it makes us useful to our brethren; therefore it is to be striven for rather than any other gift.

Paul tells the Corinthians – and us – that prophesy is the superior gift. As we will see, the reason is that this gift is expressed for the benefit of others. Thus, this gift is more in alignment with how Paul describes the character of love in the previous chapter.

Love IsLove is Not
Celebratory about TruthArrogant
Bears all thingsRude
Believes all thingsInsistent on its own way
Hopes all thingsIrritable
Endures all thingsResentful
Never endingCelebratory about wrongdoing

We do not know the specifics of the dispute among the Church in Corinth, but we might guess that the faction who was arguing that tongues were the superior gift, were doing so without a spirit of love.

Note: While many often think of “hate” as the antithesis of love, Paul’s categories above demonstrate that love’s opposite is actually “pride.” Continuing on, with The Pulpit Commentaries note for verse 2:

1 Corinthians 14:2

In an unknown tongue. The interpolation of the word “unknown” in our Authorized Version is quite unjustifiable, and shows the danger of giving way to the bias of mere conjectures. Probably it is this word, not found in the original, which has given rise to the perplexing, unhistoric, and unwarranted theory that “the gift of tongues” was a power of speaking in foreign languages. Speaketh not unto men. Because, as a rule, no one understands anything that he says. The word literally means “hears.” It may, perhaps, imply that no special attention was given to those who gave way to these impulses of utterance. The whole of this chapter proves in a most striking way the close analogy between “the tongue” and the impassioned soliloquies of inarticulate utterance which were poured forth in tones of thrilling power among the Montanists, and in modern times among the Irvingites. In the spirit. It is uncertain whether this means “in his own spirit,” or “in the Spirit of God,” i.e. as a result of inspiration. Probably the former (John 4:24Romans 8:13, etc.). Perhaps, however, the two imply the same thing. The spirit is the one Divine part of our human being, and when a man is a true Christian his spirit is in union with, is as it were lost in, the Spirit of God. St. Paul recognizes the true tongue—for it might be simulated by hysteria and even by mere physical imposture—as a result of inspiration, that is, of the overpowering dominance of the human spirit by a supernatural power. Nevertheless, he points out the extreme peril of yielding to or self inducing these emotions public, or in leaving them uncontrolled. Mysteries. Secrets revealed possibly to him, but unrevealed by this strange “tongue” to others.

The note above reflects a response to a translation, wherein the word “unknown” is inserted before tongues in this verse. One of the difficulties of translation work is the desire and need to sometimes add words, to create an accurate understanding of the underlying language, which might not be reflected well with a more direct translation. That is one of the reasons it is important to study the original language, or at least to read commentaries from those who have.

The note conjectures that this insertion has given rise to a modern interpretation of the verse which states that one who speak in tongues speaks in a foreign language. As the note follows, though, the rest of the chapter – and other places also from the text – seem to make a different point. I’ll define a couple of the terms from the note which might be unfamiliar, starting with Montanism:

Montanism (/ˈmɒntəˌnɪzəm/), known by its adherents as the New Prophecy, was an early Christian movement of the late 2nd century, later referred to by the name of its founder, Montanus. Montanism held views about the basic tenets of Christian theology similar to those of the wider Christian Church, but it was labelled a heresy for its belief in new prophetic revelations. The prophetic movement called for a reliance on the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit and a more conservative personal ethic. Parallels have been drawn between Montanism and modern-day movements such as Pentecostalism (including Oneness Pentecostals) and the Charismatic movement.

Montanism originated in Phrygia, a province of Anatolia, and flourished throughout the region, leading to the movement being referred to elsewhere as Cataphrygian (meaning it was “from Phrygia”) or simply as Phrygian. They were sometimes also called Pepuzians after Pepuza, their new Jerusalem. Sometimes the Pepuzians were distinguished from other Montanists for despising those not living in the new Jerusalem. The Montanist movement spread rapidly to other regions in the Roman Empire before Christianity was generally tolerated or legal. It persisted in some isolated places into the 6th century.

The Montanists did not want to separate themselves from the wider Christian church, and Tertullian even recorded an event where a bishop almost declared Montanism as orthodox, however changing his mind later.

Here is a little bit on the Irvingites as well:

Edward Irving (4 August 1792 – 7 December 1834) was a Scottish clergyman, generally regarded as the main figure behind the foundation of the Catholic Apostolic Church.

For years the subject of prophecy had occupied much of Irving’s thoughts, and his belief in the near approach of the second advent had received such positive corroboration by the perusal of the work of a Jesuit priest, Manuel Lacunza, writing under the assumed Jewish name of “Juan Josafat Ben-Ezra”, that in 1827 he published a translation of it, accompanied with an eloquent preface. Probably the religious opinions of Irving, originally in some respects more catholic and truer to human nature than generally prevailed in ecclesiastical circles, had gained breadth and comprehensiveness from his intercourse with Samuel Taylor Coleridge but gradually his chief interest in Coleridge’s philosophy centred round what was mystical and obscure, and to it in all likelihood may be traced his initiation into the doctrine of millenarianism.

The first stage of his later development which resulted in the establishment of the Irvingite or Holy Catholic Apostolic Church in 1832 was associated with the Albury Conferences (1826–30), moderated by Hugh Boyd M‘Neile (1795–1879), at his friend Henry Drummond‘s seat, Albury Park at Albury, Surrey concerning unfulfilled prophecy, followed by an almost exclusive study of the prophetical books and especially of the Apocalypse, and by several series of sermons on prophecy both in London and the provinces. His apocalyptic lectures in 1828 crowding the largest churches of Edinburgh on summer mornings.

In 1830, however, there was opened up to his ardent imagination a new vista of things spiritual, a new hope for the age in which he lived, by the revival in a remote corner of Scotland of those apostolic gifts of prophecy and healing which he had already in 1828 persuaded himself had only been kept in abeyance by the absence of faith.

At once, he welcomed the new powers with an unquestioning evidence that could be shaken by neither the remonstrances nor the desertions of his dearest friends, the recantation of some of the principal agents of the gifts, his own descent into a subordinate position, the meagre and barren results of the manifestations, nor their general rejection both by the church and the world. His excommunication by the Presbytery of London in 1830 for publishing his doctrines of the humanity of Jesus Christ, and the condemnation of these opinions by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in the following year, were secondary episodes that only affected the main issue of his career insofar as they further isolated him from the sympathy of the church; but the irregularities connected with the manifestation of the gifts gradually estranged the majority of his own congregation, and on the complaint of the trustees to the Presbytery of London, whose authority they had formerly rejected, he was declared unfit to remain the minister of the National Scotch Church of Regent Square.

After he and those who adhered to him (describing themselves as of the Holy Catholic Apostolic Church) had in 1832 removed to a new building in Newman Street, he was, in March 1833, deposed from the ministry of the Church of Scotland by the Presbytery of Annan on the original charge of heresy.

Having been expelled from the Church of Scotland, Irving took to preaching in the open air in Islington, until a new church was built for him and his followers in Duncan Street, Islington. It was funded by Duncan Mackenzie of Barnsbury, a former elder of Irving’s London church, and built by the Holborn firm of Stevenson & Ramage. It closed in the 1970s.

With the sanction of the power, he was now, after some delay, reordained chief pastor of the church assembled in Newman Street, but unremitting labours and ceaseless spiritual excitement soon completely exhausted the springs of his vital energy. He died, worn out and wasted with labour and absorbing care while still in the prime of life, 7 December 1834. He is buried in the crypt of Glasgow Cathedral near to the tomb of St. Mungo.

Ellicott is in agreement with The Pulpit Commentaries regarding tongues – noting that the text indicates Paul is referring to speech that is not in a known language. See the note below for verse two:

(2) For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue.—Better, For he that speaketh in a tongue. The word “unknown” is not in the original, but it has been inserted in connection with the word tongue “all through this chapter, so as to make the various passages seem to be consistent with the theory that the gift of tongues was a gift of languages. This is not the place to enter into the question of what particular external manifestation of this gift was evidenced on the Day of Pentecost. (See Acts 2:1-13.) Still, believing that the gift of tongues here spoken of is identical with the gift of tongues which was first bestowed at Pentecost, I would say that the phenomena described as occurring then must be explained by the fuller and more elaborate account of the nature of the gift which is given to us here. Against the theory that the gift was one of a capacity to speak various languages we have three considerations. (1) The word dialectos, which is repeatedly used to express languages (Acts 1:19Acts 2:6Acts 2:8Acts 21:40Acts 22:2Acts 26:14), is never used by St. Paul or by the author of the Acts in reference to the utterances of those who possessed the gift of tongues, but the other word, glossa, which is, literally, the physical organ of speech—as if the utterances were simply sounds that proceeded from it. (2) There is no trace whatever of this knowledge of languages having been ever used for the purpose of preaching to those who spoke foreign languages. The language of the Lycaonians was evidently not understood by the Apostles when they were addressed in it (see Acts 14:11), and they did not speak in it. That the hearers at Pentecost said they heard those who were filled with the Spirit “speak in our own language” would only imply, either that the outpouring on Pentecost had for the moment a miraculous effect, which immediately ceased, or that “all the various elements of Aramaic and Hellenistic speech, latent in the usual language of the time, were quickened, under the power of this gift, into a new life, sometimes intelligible, sometimes unintelligible to those who heard it, but always expressive of the vitality and energy of the Spirit by which it was animated.” (3) The description of the gift in this chapter is utterly inconsistent with it being a gift of languages. The gift was the result of a quickened spiritual power by the action of the Holy Ghost (see also Acts 2:4Acts 10:44-46Acts 19:6); it poured itself forth in wild, impassioned utterances, which were sometimes mistaken for delirium (1 Corinthians 14:23); and these were the expressions, not of thoughts, but of feelings, unintelligible always, if uninterpreted, to the listener, and sometimes to the utterer himself.

It is to be observed that very notable spiritual phenomena, not unlike what are recorded here, accompanied many periods of great spiritual revival. The histories of the early work of Wesley and Whitfield, and of Irving—to take examples in England alone—afford some very remarkable illustrations. 

I sought out the Catholic Church interpretation of what is meant by tongues. To help with understanding the excerpted section, I’ll remind you of some relevant terms:

glossolalia (speech in an unknown language)
xenoglossy (speech in a language known to others but not the speaker)

Tongues, GIFT OF, or GLOSSOLALY (yXc.RrcoXaXta), a supernatural gift of the class gratioe gratis datoe, designed to aid in the outer development of the primitive Church. The theological bearing of the subject is treated in the article Charismata (11). The present article deals with its exegetical and historic phases.

St. Luke relates (Acts, ii, 1-15) that on the feast of Pentecost following the Ascension of Christ into heaven one hundred and twenty disciples of Galilean origin were heard speaking “with divers tongues, according as the Holy Ghost gave them to speak”. Devout Jews then dwelling at Jerusalem, the scene of the incident, were quickly drawn together to the number of approximately three thousand. The multitude embraced two religious classes, Jews and proselytes, from fifteen distinct lands so distributed geographically as to represent “every nation under heaven”. All were “confounded in mind” because every man heard the disciples speaking the “wonderful things of God” in his own tongue, namely, that in which he was born. To many the disciples appeared to be in a state of inebriation, wherefore St. Peter undertook to justify the anomaly by explaining it in the light of prophecy as a sign of the last times.

The glossolaly thus described was historic, articulate, and intelligible. Jerusalem was then as now a polyglottal region and could easily have produced one hundred and twenty persons who, in the presence of a cosmopolitan assemblage, might express themselves in fifteen different tongues. Since the variety of tongues is attributed to the group and not to individuals, particular disciples may not have used more than their native Aramaic, though it is difficult to picture any of them historically and socially without at least a smattering of other tongues. 


The physical and psychic condition of the auditors was one of ecstasy and rapture in which “the wonderful things of God” would naturally find utterance in acclamations, prayers or hymns, conned, if not already known, during the preceding week, when they were “always in the temple”, side by side with the strangers from afar, “praising and blessing God” (Luke, xxiv, 52, 53).

Subsequent manifestations occurred at Caesarea, Palaestina, Ephesus, and Corinth, all polyglottal regions.


St. Paul’s Concept (I Cor., xii-xiv).—For the Biblical data thus far examined we are indebted to the bosom friend and companion of St. Paul—St. Luke. That being true, the views of St. Paul on supernatural glossolaly must have coincided with those of St. Luke. Now St. Paul had seen the gift conferred at Ephesus and St. Luke does not distinguish Ephesian glossolaly from that of Jerusalem. They must therefore have been alike and St. Paul seems to have had both in mind when he commanded the Corinthians (xiv, 37) to employ none but articulate and “plain speech” in their use of the gift (9), and to refrain from such use in church unless even the unlearned could grasp what was said (16). No tongue could be genuine “without voice” and to use such a tongue would be the act of a barbarian (10, 11). For him the impulse to praise God in one or more strange tongues should proceed from the Holy Ghost. It was even then an inferior gift which he ranked next to last in a list of eight charismata. It was a mere “sign” and as such was intended not for believers but for unbelievers (22).

Corinthian Abuses (I Cor., xiv passim).—Medieval and modern writers wrongly take it for granted that the charism existed permanently at Corinth—as it did nowhere else—and that St. Paul, in commending the gift to the Corinthians, therewith gave his guaranty that the characteristics of Corinthian glossolaly were those of the gift itself. Traditional writers in overlooking this point place St. Luke at variance with St. Paul, and attribute to the charism properties so contrary as to make it inexplicable and prohibitively mysterious. There is enough in St. Paul to show us that the Corinthian peculiarities were ignoble accretions and abuses. They made of “tongues” a source of schism in the Church and of scandal without (xiv, 23). The charism had deteriorated into a mixture of meaningless inarticulate gabble (9, 10) with an element of uncertain sounds (7, 8), which sometimes might be construed as little short of blasphemous (xii, 3). The Divine praises were recognized now and then, but the general effect was one of confusion and disedification for the very unbelievers for whom the normal gift was intended (xiv, 22, 23, 26). The Corinthians, misled not by insincerity but by simplicity and ignorance (20), were actuated by an undisciplined religious spirit (wvei ev), or rather by frenzied emotions and not by the understanding (vows) or the Spirit of God (15). What today purports to be the “gift of tongues” at certain Protestant revivals is a fair reproduction of Corinthian glossolaly, and shows the need there was in the primitive Church of the Apostle’s counsel to do all things “decently, and according to order” (40).


Faithful adherence to the text of Sacred Scripture makes it obligatory to reject those opinions which turn the charism of tongues into little more than infantile babbling (Eichhorn, Schmidt, Neander), incoherent exclamations (Meyer), pythonic utterances (Wiseler), or prophetic demonstrations of the archaic kind (see I Kings, xix, 20, 24). The unalloyed charism was as much an exercise of the intelligence as of the emotions. Languages or dialects, now rccitwatr (Mark, xvi, 17) for their present purpose, and now spontaneously borrowed by the conservative Hebrew from Gentile foreigners (grepoyh/do-o-ocs, xeL)(eo i Erip47Y, I Cor., xiv, 21), were used as never before. But they were understood even by those who used them. Most Latin commentators have believed the contrary, but the ancient Greeks, St. Cyril of AlexandriaTheodoret, and others who were nearer the scene, agree to it and the testimony of the texts as above studied seems to bear them out. (See Charismata.)

You can read the entire article from Catholic Answers HERE.

The Eastern Orthodox have their own view of the topic. I found a great video, wherein the Orthodox perspective on the topic is given, and I will share it below. In short, though, the Orthodox are highly skeptical of the modern charismatic movement.

Though there are differences, there are some consistent rules with respect to this gift, which has been the majority view throughout Church history. First, the gift must be used in love. It appears that the Corinthians were not doing so. Second, the gift must be done in an orderly way, such that it helps the ministry – and certainly so that it does not undermine and hurt the ministry. The gift of tongues when it is used in a self-aggrandizing way, or a confusing way, should be viewed with skepticism. Third, the gift is not present in every convert. You sometimes see within the Charismatic movement a belief that every Believer should be able to speak in tongues, such that tongues represent the proof of conversion. This view is not supported by the text or by Church history.

Continuing on in the text, to verse 3, from The Pulpit Commentaries:

1 Corinthians 14:3

To edification, and exhortation, and comfort. The “to” should be omitted. His words build up the Christian soul, by rousing its efforts and consoling its sorrows. The “Son of prophecy” (Barnabas) is, as Stanley points out, also “a Son of consolation” (Acts 4:36). “Support” (paraklēsis) involves “comfort,” i.e. strength and calm.

Remember that when we place this comparison, in the context of the previous chapter, prophesy’s outward focus seems to be more in line with the grace of love, than tongues, which is more self-focused. Paul makes that exact point in the next verse. Continuing on in verse 4 with Ellicott:

(4) He that speaketh in an unknown tongue.—Better, He that speaketh in a tongue. The introduction of the word “unknown” destroys the whole force of the passage. All tongues—as distinct from languages—were unknown, i.e., unintelligible. The gift of prophecy is superior in usefulness to that of tongues, and therefore to be preferred. The use of the word “edify,” as applied to an individual solely, as distinct from the individual as a part of the whole Church, is unusual with St. Paul (see Note on 1 Corinthians 8:1), but is introduced so as to make the antithesis verbally as well as logically more striking.

After establishing an order (love -> prophesy -> tongues) Paul does clarify that he desires people to have the gift of tongues. He just wants the gift to be practiced properly. From The Pulpit Commentaries:

1 Corinthians 14:5

I would that ye all spake with tongues. The language of relative disparagement which St. Paul uses throughout these chapters may lead us to regard this with surprise. Yet it is perfectly intelligible. Montanus truly said that each human spirit is like a harp, which the Holy Spirit strikes as with a plectrum, and which yields itself to the mighty hand by which the chords are swept. We have seen all along—and history has in various ages confirmed the impression, on every occasion when these phenomena have been reproduced in seasons of great spiritual revival—that the external symptoms may be imitated with most dangerous and objectionable results both to the speaker and to others. But when the expression is genuine, the fact that the tides of the Spirit can thus sweep through the narrow channels of individuality is in itself a sign that the spirit of the man is alive and not dead; and thus he is an evidence of God’s power both to himself and to others. Those who have heard “the tongue” have told me that its force, melody, and penetrative quality produced an impression not to be forgotten. When we see the stuffed and stopped-up hearts and lives of thousands of frivolous and worldly money worshippers, we might well echo St. Paul’s wish. Greater. Not of necessity greater absolutely or morally, but greater in the fact of his wider and deeper usefulness. Except he interpret. From this we infer that sometimes, when the passion had spent its force, the speaker in the tongue could give rational explanation of the thoughts and feelings to which he had given ecstatic utterance.

Paul continues on with this topic through much of hte rest of the chapter.