Evidently there were those in the Corinthian church that were asking for the miraculous gift of speaking in foreign languages. We cannot be sure "why" they were asking for this particular gift. It is possible that there were some in the congregation that did not speak the language common to them, and thus some may have been seeking the gift so that they could speak to them in their own language. However, from the way Paul handles this, it is possible that some were seeking this gift for the purpose drawing attention to themselves, that is, for selfish, carnal purposes.
1 Corinthians 14 is often greatly misunderstood and misapplied. Let us look at the verses, using the World English Bible version:
1 Corinthians 14:1 Follow after love, and earnestly desire spiritual gifts [pneumatika, spiritual things], but especially that you may prophesy.
Here the apostle tells us that we should desire spiritual abilities, especially that we may prophesy. The word "prophesy" is not used here as referring to one who receives direct messages from God about the future, but rather in the sense of the ability of speaking publicly, as before a group. Nor is the spiritual ability to prophesy necessarily obtained by a miracle of the Holy Spirit, for one could develop or acquire the ability of public speaking along more natural lines, and if he does so for the purpose of glorifying God, it is God's Holy Spirit that would lead that one do develop such a "gift" or ability.
1 Corinthians 14:2 For he who speaks in another language speaks not to men, but to God; for no one understands; but in the spirit he speaks mysteries.
Many have imagined that Paul is speaking above of one who has received a miraculous gift of speaking in an "unknown tongue", that the one having received such a miraculous gift does not speak to men but to God, etc. Actually, if one lays aside such a preconceiption, we can see that Paul was saying that one who speaks a language that is foreign to the congregation, though he may not be understood by men, he is still is understood by God. In other words, if a speaker of English goes into a congregation where no one understands English, and begins to speak to that congregation in English, no one is going to understand what is being said, thus the speaker would only be speaking to God. The Greek word for spirit is pneuma, which can refer to "spirit" in many different ways. One of the meanings of pnuema is breath, and since Paul is in the context here referring to words that are spoken, that should be understood as the meaning of "spirit" in these verses. In the spirit, therefore, refers by means of the breath, the force coming forth from the mouth of the speaker. If a speaker speaks with the breath in a language that is not understood by the hearers, what that speaker is speaking by means of that breath is to the hearers a mystery, since they do not know what is being said.
1 Corinthians 14:3 But he who prophesies speaks to men for their edification, exhortation, and consolation.
In other words, the purpose of speaking to the congregations is to edify, exhort and console those who hear, not to speak words that cannot be understood.
1 Corinthians 14:4 He who speaks in another language edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the assembly.
If one speaking to a congregation that does not understand the language of one speaking, the speaker is only edifying himself when he speaks. If a speaker is speaking to the congregation in words that are understood, then that person's words do edify the congregation.
1 Corinthians 14:5 Now I desire to have you all speak with other languages, but rather that you would prophesy. For he is greater who prophesies than he who speaks with other languages, unless he interprets, that the assembly may be built up.
Is Paul contradicting himself, saying on the one hand that he wishes for all to speak foreign languages, and at the same that he would rather that they not speak in foreign languages, but prophesy?
1 Corinthians 14:5 thelw de pantas humas lalein glwssais mallon I AM WILLING BUT ALL YOU TO BE SPEAKING TO TONGUES, RATHER 2309 1161 3956 4771_7 2980 1100 3123 de hina propheeteueete meizwn de ho BUT IN ORDER THAT YOU MAY BE PROPHESYING; GREATER BUT THE (ONE) 1161 2443 4395 3187 1161 3588 propheeteuwn ee ho lalwn glwssais ektos ei PROPHESYING THAN THE (ONE) SPEAKING TO TONGUES, OUTSIDE IF 4395 2228 3588 2980 1100 1623 1487 1487_1 mee diermeeneuee hina hee ekkleesia NOT HE MAY BE TRANSLATING, IN ORDER THAT THE ECCLESIA 3361 1329 2443 3588 1577 oikodomeen labee UPBUILDING MIGHT RECEIVE. 3619 2983 Westcott & Hort Interlinear
We believe that what Paul is saying here is that he is willing for those who speak languages foreign to congregation to speak to the congregation, only if what he is saying is translated into the language commonly spoken by the congregation, so that the one speaking can prophesy -- speak publicly -- so as to be understood by the congregation. We certainly are not given any reason to think he was saying that he wished for everyone in the Corinthian congregation to speak in foreign languages. And he was definitely not speaking of the common practice today of "speaking in unknown tongues", which does not at all appear to be for the purpose of understanding.
What we believe Paul was saying is: While I am willing for one to speak before the congregation who is speaking a foreign languages, but only if what is spoken is translated, so that what is spoken may be understood [by the congregation].
1 Corinthians 14:6 But now, brothers, if I come to you speaking with other languages, what would I profit you, unless I speak to you either by way of revelation, or of knowledge, or of prophesying, or of teaching?
If Paul came into a congregation that only spoke Greek, and he began speaking before them in Aramaic, Latin, or another foreign language, what would be the benefit to his hearers, except that he spoke to them in some way that could be understood, with something that is revealed to them, imparting some knowledge to them, presented publicly to them, or in some way teaching them, that they might understand and be edified? In other words, if he came to them speaking in a language they could not understand, it would not be of any profit to the congregation, since what he said would not contain any revealing, comprehensible, to them; if he spoke to them in language unknown to them, his words would not contain any knowledge, or any words of understanding, and the congregation would not be taught anything by the words they did not understand.
1 Corinthians 14:7 Even things without life, giving a voice, whether pipe or harp, if they didn't give a distinction in the sounds, how would it be known what is piped or harped? 1 Corinthians 14:8 For if the trumpet gave an uncertain voice, who would prepare himself for war? 1 Corinthians 14:9 So also you, unless you uttered by the tongue words easy to understand, how would it be known what is spoken? For you would be speaking into the air. 1 Corinthians 14:10 There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without meaning. 1 Corinthians 14:10 11 If then I don't know the meaning of the voice, I would be to him who speaks a foreigner, and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me.
Paul here further illustrates the need for speaking so as to be understood by the congregation, for those who would speak in a language that is not understood would be like a foreigner.
1 Corinthians 14:12 So also you, since you are zealous for spiritual gifts [spiritual things], seek that you may abound to the building up of the assembly. 1 Corinthians 14:13 Therefore let him who speaks in another language pray that he may interpret.
Example: If one who only speaks English were go into a congregation that only speaks Spanish, that person should pray that he may be able to interpet what is being said by the Spanish brothers, so that he also might be edified by what is being said. This is not necessarily saying that the person should pray for a miraculous gift of interpreting another language, however.
1 Corinthians 14:14 For if I pray in another language, my spirit [breath] prays, but my understanding is unfruitful.
1 Corinthians 14:14 ean gar proseuchwmai glwssee to pneuma mou IF EVER FOR I AM PRAYING TO TONGUE, THE SPIRIT OF ME 1437 1063 4336 1100 3588 4151 1473_2 proseuchetai ho de nous mou akarpos estin IS PRAYING, THE BUT MIND OF ME UNFRUITFUL IS. 4336 3588 1161 3563 1473_2 0175 1510_2 Westcott & Hort Interlinear
If a person prays in a language that is foreign to congregation, he may be praying with his breath, but what is on his mind when he speaks those words is not communicated to those who hear his prayer, and thus it is unfruitful.
1 Corinthians 14:15 What is it then? I will pray with the spirit [breath], and I will pray with the understanding also. I will sing with the spirit [breath], and I will sing with the understanding also.
Paul concludes that one should be not only praying with the breath without giving any understanding to the hearers of the prayer, as would be the case if he prayed in a language that the congregation did not understand, but that he should pray also for the purpose of being understood.
1 Corinthians 14:16 Else if you bless with the spirit, how will he who fills the place of the unlearned say the "Amen" at your giving of thanks, seeing he doesn't know what you say?
If you pray in a language that the congregation does not understand, asking a blessing upon the congregation, those in the congregation, unlearned in that language, cannot meaningfully say "Amen" to your prayer, since they don't know what you have said. In many churches, especially those that practice the modern-day "speaking in unknown tongues," you might see the the people routinely repeating with great emotion their "Amen!" whether the prayer was said in their language or a language they do not understand. Such mindless shouting and yelling of "Amen!" is meaningless, and falls short of the reason for saying "Amen." It should be obvious that for one to really mean "Amen" he has to understand what is being said in order to express such an agreement.
1 Corinthians 14:17 For you most assuredly give thanks well, but the other person is not built up.
No matter how well we may offer thanks, those who do not speak our language are not edified by it if we offer such thanks in a language that the congregation does not understand.
1 Corinthians 14:18 I thank my God, I speak with other languages more than you all. 1 Corinthians 14:19 However in the assembly I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I might instruct others also, than ten thousand words in another language. 1 Corinthians 14:20 Brothers, don't be children in mind, yet in malice be babies, but in mind be men.
Again, Paul emphasizes the need to speak in the congregation in a language that is understood by the hearers, that the hearers may receive instruction.
1 Corinthians 14:21 In the law it is written, "By men of strange languages and by the lips of strangers I will speak to this people. Not even thus will they hear me, says the Lord." 1 Corinthians 14:22 Therefore other languages are for a sign, not to those who believe, but to the unbelieving; but prophesying is for a sign, not to the unbelieving, but to those who believe.
Those who seek the gift of speaking in foreign languages as a sign of God's approval/presence, or for the personal emotional excitement, often misinterpreted as God's presence, seek such a gift for the wrong purpose. The purpose of the gift was so that the Word of God could be spread to unbelievers who do not speak the language of the disciple. Thus, God gave to some, not all, a special gift of the holy spirit that enabled the disciples to speak to unbelievers in a language that was foreign to the disciple. There is no evidence in the Bible, however, that when a disciple spoke to an unbeliever in the unbeliever's own language that the disciple did not know or understand what he was saying.
Usually, today, there is little need, if any, for such a gift, as there are ample provisions available to most of the disciples of Jesus so that one can learn a foreign language without having such a gift. The gift, however, in the first century was given as a sign for unbelievers, so that they could understand the good news, not something to be held up in the congregation as a "sign" of God's approval/presence, etc. Nor was such a gift meant to be an emotional outburst of words that no one understands.
1 Corinthians 14:23 If therefore the whole assembly is assembled together and all speak with other languages, and unlearned or unbelieving people come in, won't they say that you are crazy?
Again, an emphasis on speaking in language that is understood.
1 Corinthians 14:24 But if all prophesy, and someone unbelieving or unlearned comes in, he is reproved by all, and he is judged by all. 1 Corinthians 14:25 And thus the secrets of his heart are revealed. So he will fall down on his face and worship God, declaring that God is among you indeed. 1 Corinthians 14:26 What is it then, brothers? When you come together, each one of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has another language, has an interpretation. Let all things be done to build each other up. 1 Corinthians 14:27 If any man speaks in another language, let it be two, or at the most three, and in turn; and let one interpret.
Again, Paul emphasizes that if one who does not speak the language that is spoken by congregation wishes to speak, they may be allowed to speak, but only with an interpreter, so that the congregation may receive understanding.
1 Corinthians 14:28 But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silence in the assembly, and let him speak to himself, and to God.
If one does not speak the common language of the congregation, and there is no one to interpret, then that one should not be permitted to speak to the congregation, but he can still speak silently to himself, and to God.
1 Corinthians 14:29 Let the prophets speak, two or three, and let the others discern. 1 Corinthians 14:30 But if a revelation is made to another sitting by, let the first keep silence. 1 Corinthians 14:31 For you all can prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be exhorted. 1 Corinthians 14:32 The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets, 1 Corinthians 14:33 for God is not a God of confusion, but of peace. As in all the assemblies of the saints,
Here Paul emphasizes again the need for a speaker to speak so as to be understood, and thus states that each should be permitted to speak, but one at a time. This is the very opposite of what one might find in many meetings where one finds alleged "speaking in tongues," since everyone is shouting, yelling, yelping, hollering and carrying on, and most cannot understand anything that is being said by anyone. Indeed, many are speaking, shouting and yelling sounds and utterances that even themselves do not understand.
1 Corinthians 14:34 let your women keep silence in the assemblies, for it is not permitted for them to speak; but let them be in subjection, as the law also says. 1 Corinthians 14:35 If they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home, for it is shameful for a woman to chatter in the assembly.
The speaking is in reference to speaking as a "prophet", one who publicly expounds God's Word, as in giving a Bible lecture (sermon) or discourse. Many do not wish to obey this command of Jesus through his apostle Paul, and wish to explain it away, and yet, there it is.
1 Corinthians 14:36 What? Was it from you that the word of God went forth? Or did it come to you alone? 1 Coirnthians 14:37 If any man thinks himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him recognize the things which I write to you, that they are the commandment of the Lord.
Paul emphasizes that what he is saying is not just his advice, but rather they are the commandment of the Lord.
1 Corinthians 14:38 But if anyone is ignorant, let him be ignorant. 1 Corinthians 14:39 Therefore, brothers, desire earnestly to prophesy, and don't forbid speaking with other languages.
Paul shows that the brothers should have a desire to prophesy -- to become public speakers, and the those who speak other languages should also be allowed to prophesy, to speak publicly before the congregation. It should be understood, however, that such speakers would need an interpreter to translate what they were saying, else they are not be at speaking to the congregation, since the congregation would not understand what they were saying.
1 Corinthians 14:40 Let all things be done decently and in order.
Again, many today do not wish to obey this commandment of the Lord through the apostle. They would like their meetings full of emotional outbursts, without order, everyone shouting and many speaking in alleged "unknown" tongues they themselves do not understand, and surely the congregation does not understand, and all of this going on by each individual in the congregation all at the same time. Practically all are shouting, yelling and carrying on all at the same time. With everyone shouting in such pandemonium, how can anyone understand anything anyone is saying? It appears that such meetings may satisfy the flesh for emotional excitement (which emotional excitement is often mistaken for God's holy spirit) of the flesh, but it does not meet the edification that Paul speaks of.
This writer has been to some meetings as described above. Rather than the order that Paul describes, and rather than the understanding that Paul was talking about, there were a lot of shouts of "Amen" and yet who knows what anyone was saying "Amen" to? We highly doubt that the ones shouting Amen knew what they were saying Amen to, and even those speaking in their "unknown tongues" did not know what they were saying.
We would like to relate the following experience:
Related Written by Others We do not necessarily agree with all conclusions presented.Back in the 1980s, I attended at a Baptist Church, which was being led by a female "pastor," who was speaking in what she called an "unknown tongue." I asked her after the meeting if she knew what she was saying, and she said that she didn't know, that the "holy ghost" knew, and she misapplied Romans 8:26 as an alleged scriptural support for her answer. During a part of the meeting, she went through the group, saying prayers for this one and that one, and she would be speaking in an "unknown tongue," and almost everyone was shouting "Amen," and yet, I am sure that no one knew at all what they were saying "Amen" to. As she went around the small group, saying prayers in an "unknown tongue" for each person, she also got to me, and began to say a prayer for me in an "unknown tongue," which, of course, I could not say "Amen" to, so I prayed silently, ignoring what she was doing.
Glossolalia: Speaking in Tongues
So You Want to Speak in Tongues
Speaking in Tongues (pdf)
Tongues and Other Gifts of the Spirit
Glossolalia (Tongues-Speaking): What Are Its Implications?
Should Christians be Speaking in Tongues?
Should Christians Speak in Tongues?
The Speaking in Tongues Controversy
Tongues of Fire Profitless and Profitable Service
Restiturion, Faith Healing, Prayer Cures and The Gift of Healing
Decently and In Order
The Spirit of a Sound Mind
Characteristics of a Sound Mind
The Teacher and the Lesson