Troublesome Topic: Precepts about Tongues from I Corinthians 14:3-5

1 Corinthians 14:3


However, the one who prophecies speaks to men [for] building [them] up,

Go to footnote number

and [for] coming along side

Go to footnote number

[them] and [for] comfort [to them.

Go to footnote number


In contrast, the one who has been given the grace-filled gift of prophesying speaks openly to other people in order to edify, encourage, and comfort them.

1 Corinthians 14:4


The one who speaks in an [unknown] tongue edifies himself, but the one who prophesies edifies the called-out-ones.

Go to footnote number


According to what you say, the person who prays in tongues even in public (which should not happen), is personally strengthened by it himself (even though this is not the purpose of the spiritual gifts, they are always for helping others), in contrast the one who prophesies is the one who truly does strengthen other followers of Jesus in the assembly of the church.


While burdens can be expressed in various ways, there are proper and improper places for expressing them. At first glance this verse seems to present a simple contrast, but that cannot be the case. It is simply not true that any proper form of tongues was intended by God to edify only the person speaking in tongues. All spiritual gifts were given by the Holy Spirit in order to edify other people. Paul’s statement about prophecy is true, but his statement about tongues seems to be mimicking what they were reported to be saying about tongues, which contradicted everything Paul had ever taught about the purpose of the gifts of the Spirit. Verses two, three and now four all seem to be referring to the counterfeit they had devised because what is described violated at least one rule about spiritual gifts. Therefore, this verse lends itself readily to a mimicking rendering, not a simple explanation. I see no other interpretation as viable.

This is not the only time something like this is stated. You will notice various times in this chapter, as well as what we saw in I Cor 12, that all spiritual gifts have been given for the edification of others; they are not for personal use or benefit. 

You may wonder how I can say that these burdens should be expressed in private, and then say that all gifts of the spirit should benefit others, not self. My answer is that carrying a burden for someone else is about them, not about self. It is weighty work to carry such a burden. It drives us to pray to God for that person. It causes us to look for opportunities to minister to them. Indeed, such burdens end up being for the good of others, even though they start out as a private ministry that no one else knows about.

1 Corinthians 14:5


Moreover, I desire that all of you speak in [unknown] tongues,

Go to footnote number

but rather [I desire]

Go to footnote number

that you should prophecy; and greater is the one who prophesies

Go to footnote number

than the one who speaks in [unknown] tongues, unless he were to interpret, so that the church might fully receive

Go to footnote number

edification.  (See Comments below.)


Furthermore, my sincere desire is that all of you would pray in the language of groans and tears the way I do; but even more than that, I would love to hear all you speak God-given instructions and exhortations to each other. The one who gives such spiritual admonition has a greater impact on the congregation than the one who speaks unintelligible utterances in the presence of everyone at the meeting. The only way the impact of the one who speaks with unintelligible utterances can be brought up to the same level of benefit to the congregation as the one who gives spiritual exhortation is if he also could share the meaning of the message the way Peter did at Pentecost. But that same person being chosen is unlikely.   (See Comments below.)


The key to understanding this verse is that it is a comparison of two people, and their gifts. That is why Paul says “unless he were to interpret” even though this would be highly unexpected. But if Paul brought in another person at this point, he would ruin his comparison of two people. But either way, whether by needing to bring in another person, or by stating something that is unlikely, he is powerfully communicating that tongues do not make someone “great,” i.e. greatly beneficial to the congregation.

How likely is it that the same person speak in tongues and also share the interpretation?

It appears from I Corinthians 12:28-30 that we should expect a different person to be given the gift of interpretation, not the same person who has been given the gift of public tongues. God likes to spread His gifts around to lots of different people.


How do we know speaking in tongues is important?

Speaking in tongues is listed as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. If the Holy Spirit grants something as a gift of grace for ministry to others, then it will be effective and useful in ministering to others. That is the purpose and function of spiritual gifts. In God’s economy, importance is measured by how much glory it gives to God and how effective it is in ministering to others.

Counterfeits are only created for things that are important. This is true in the physical world regarding counterfeit money, jewelry, etc, and true in the spiritual realm as well. Satan has guided the creation of, or assisted in the creation of, counterfeits of tongues because he knows they are powerful and he does not want the Holy Spirit to get any mileage out of the real thing. Satan remembers the Pentecost of Acts chapter 2, he was there, and he saw the results of tongues spoken there. He also knows that tongues is much easier to counterfeit than other things such as the fruit of the Spirit.

The private use of tongues teaches us some key principles for the Christian life. I will cover those when we get to I Corinthians chapter 14. Here suffice it to say that private tongues is a powerful, beneficial thing that God desires for His church.

The proper gift of tongues is something that only God can give. That also makes it important.

Also Paul refused to prohibit the use of tongues, even though I think some people wanted him to do so.

How do we know the gift of tongues is not all-important

Not everyone should speak in tongues; that is not how the Spirit works (I Cor 12:4-20).

Paul clearly indicates that prophecy is far more important (i.e. more impactful in the lives of others) than tongues (I Cor 14:1,3,4,5).

He even implies that tongues is the undesirable, less honorable gift, needing to be concealed (I Cor 12:22-24).  In that case he was referring to private tongues which should remain private.

Speaking in tongues is only mentioned directly in 1 of the 13 epistles we know Paul wrote, in zero of the general epistles, and was never mentioned by Jesus.

The gift of tongues only appears in Paul’s two lists of spiritual gifts or roles in ministry found in I Corinthians 12 (vv. 8-11 & vv. 28-30), and the two sets of examples found in I Corinthians 14 (vv. 6 and 26). He did not mention it in the kindred lists given in Romans 12 and Ephesians 4. The four lists I have just mentioned (and the two sets of examples) are the only lists of the gifts of the spirit and their corresponding roles in ministry given in the Bible.

In I Corinthians 12:28, Paul places tongues at the end of the second half of his list, not as one of the first ones listed that are described with adjectives like, “first, second, and third.”

So, we see that the gift of tongues is important, but not all-important.


Remember that in I Corinthians 12 Paul painted a picture of tongues (private tongues here) as the spiritual gift that “lacks strength” (v 22), is “without honor” (v 23), is “shapeless or unattractive” (v 23), and “deficient” (vs 23). Private tongues is also the gift of the Spirit that requires special honor (v 23). All these are true, not because private tongues is not effective, but because it is covered up i.e. private. It should remain private, or you will violate its purpose and ruin its effectiveness.

The next lesson for the Full and Mid Length Series on Tongues is Precepts about Tongues from I Corinthians 14:6-10


1: "building up”

This word comes from their word for house and refers to building a house. It is used figuratively of building up one another by speaking words of encouragement

2: “come alongside”

This is the word that is used of the Holy Spirit in John chapter 16 when He is described as “the one who comes alongside us to comfort us and assure us, the one who is close to us, and the one who serves as our legal advocate” The word has legal overtones. He is our defense attorney on spiritual matters and comforts us with the assurance that the accusations made against us have no grounds because we have accepted the blood of Jesus to cover our sinful acts.

3: "comfort”

This word means “to speak closely.”

4: "the called out ones"

This is the Greek word for the church. It refers to those who have responded to God’s call to come out from the world and assemble together as followers of God.

5: Tongues

This is their word for “languages”.


The verb for “I desire” is not mentioned a second time but the idea of desire is carried by the subjunctive tense of the verb “prophesy”; the subjunctive denotes, among other things, action that is desired.


The one who prophecies is called “greater” within the context of the congregation because he teaches and edifies the other believers.

8: "might fully receive"

This verb is an Aorist subjunctive; the Aorist tense gives it a sense of fullness, while the subjunctive brings the idea of “might, or might be,”