Troublesome Topic: Precepts about Tongues from I Corinthians 14:4 & 5

1 Corinthians 14:4


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

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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,

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but rather [I desire]

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

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

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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. But that same person being chosen is unlikely.


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. He did not choose to bring a third person into his comparison, instead he chose to maintain his comparison between two people and state something that was unlikely to happen.

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.

The Corinthians probably knew that it was unlikely because of what Paul had taught them while in Corinth. This is one of several occasions in this chapter where Paul states something without explaining it, for he assumes his readers in Corinth needed only a reminder. The harshness of Paul’s tone in chastising them hints that they had been instructed well in the matter of tongues and knew better than to do what they did.


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 short lesson on Tongues is Precepts about Tongues from I Corinthians 14:6 & 10


1: "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.

2: 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.

5: "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,”