1 Corinthians 14:1-40

Submitted by admin on Fri, 2009-08-28 16:18.

Posted in | printer-friendly version »

Paul urged the Corinthians to pursue love, making it their aim to manifest it in all their dealings with others. His emphasis on love did not mean that he intended to minimize the value of the spiritual gifts. He did, in fact, encourage the believers to be “zealous” for these endowments, particularly the gift of prophesying. For the Corinthian believers to be zealous for the spiritual gifts would have meant to value all of them and to let all these endowments function for the benefit of the whole congregation. Especially prophesying, with its focus on consoling, edifying, strengthening, encouraging, and admonishing others, served to promote the spiritual well-being of the entire community of believers. (14:1)

Whenever no one present could translate the “tongue” being spoken, the one making expressions in an unknown language would not be speaking to “men” or to other persons, “but to God.” This would be because God understood what was being said, whereas no one else “heard” or listened with any comprehension. “To [the] spirit,” the individual would be speaking “mysteries.” This could mean that the expressions were made by or under the influence of God’s spirit. There is also a possibility that the reference is to the individual’s own spirit. (See verses 14 and 15, where Paul used the expression “my spirit.”) In that case, the speaking would be without conscious thought or previous reflection but with the intense feeling or emotion reflective of the person’s spirit or deep inner self under the power of the holy spirit. Likely the “mysteries” related to matters involving God’s will, which, though formerly undisclosed, would be expressed by the one speaking in a tongue. Another possible meaning is that, because of being spoken in a language the hearers did not understand, the words remained a mystery to them. (14:2)

The one who prophesied did speak to “men” or to others, conveying a message that served to build up or edify, encourage, or console them. (14:3) Persons who spoke in a tongue that no one else in the group understood would only be building themselves up and not the community of believers as a whole. Certain ones among the Corinthians with the gift of tongues prided themselves in having this evidence of the spirit’s operation (the very evidence that marked the reception of the spirit on the first day of Pentecost after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension to heaven) and made a show of it, making themselves seem superior to those who could not speak in tongues. (14:4)

Although problems had arisen among the Corinthian believers in connection with the gift of tongues, Paul would have wanted all of them to have this gift. His preference, though, would have been for all of them to be able to prophesy. On account of the greater good resulting to the community as a whole from prophesying (edifying, consoling, and encouraging), the apostle referred to the one who prophesied as being greater than the one who spoke in a tongue. Paul, however, included an exception. The speaking in a tongue did build up or edify the congregation when the message was translated. (14:5)

By means of a question, the apostle continued to stress the importance of imparting something valuable to the “brothers” or fellow believers. If he came to them speaking in tongues, how would they benefit unless he conveyed to them a revelation or knowledge or a prophecy or a teaching? The question implied that something meaningful would have to be imparted, something that the Corinthians could understand and from which they could derive benefit. An expression of a revelatory nature relating to God and Christ, a clarification of God’s will, an utterance that would serve to edify, encourage, or console, or a teaching about aspects of their life as believers would be more directly linked to the superior gifts of wisdom, knowledge, and prophecy. (14:6)

Illustrating the importance of meaningful expressions, Paul, with a rhetorical question, pointed out that inanimate or lifeless instruments, like a flute or a harp, can be used to produce sounds. Unless, however, the sounds are distinct notes, no one will recognize what is being played on the flute or the harp. (14:7) In the first century, armies commonly used trumpets as signaling instruments. If, though, the trumpet sounded indistinctly, who would have gotten “ready for battle”? Without a clear signal, the warriors would not have known what action they were to take. (14:8)

Likewise, Paul reasoned, speech needed to be intelligible for it to be understood. If no one comprehended what was being said, the one talking would have been “speaking into the air,” with nothing of value to anyone. (14:9)

The apostle acknowledged that there must be a great variety of “sounds [probably denoting those used for communication] in the world.” When mentioning that no sound is “soundless,” Paul appears to have meant that no sound is without any significance. (14:10)

Nevertheless, if he did not “know” or understand the “power” or intent of the “sound,” he would be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker would be a foreigner to him. Thus, by implication, Paul indicated that the manner in which the Corinthians were making use of the gift of tongues made them foreigners to their own brothers in the faith. (14:11)

Although the Corinthians were “zealous of spirits,” that is, eager for spiritual gifts, they needed to “abound” or “excel” in them for the benefit of the congregation, contributing to the upbuilding of all. Guided by love for fellow believers, the gifts would serve for the mutual strengthening and encouraging of everyone. (14:12)

From the standpoint of the community of believers as a whole, the gift of tongues needed to be enhanced through the gift of translation or interpretation. For this reason, Paul encouraged the one with the gift of tongues to pray for the ability to translate. (14:13)

Referring to himself to illustrate the matter of speaking only in a tongue, Paul said that his “spirit” would be praying but his “mind” would be “unfruitful.” Utterances originating from his spirit or inner being under the influence of God’s spirit would flow from his mouth with intense feeling, but he would not be mentally involved in formulating his words. (14:14) Also his speaking in a tongue that fellow believers could not understand would be unproductive from the standpoint of not providing anything of spiritual value to them.

He then raised the question, “What, then, is it [that I should do]?” His answer could be understood in one of two ways. (1) There would be times when he would pray in or by the spirit, expressing himself in a tongue according to the prompting of his inmost self as guided by holy spirit, and at other times he would pray with his mind, with fully engaged mental faculties when formulating his words. He would sing in or by the spirit, with the praise that he expressed in a tongue being the product of his inner self under the influence of God’s spirit, and he, with his mind fully involved, would sing or raise his voice in praise. (2) He would not limit himself to praying and singing in a tongue without engaging his mental faculties. Instead, he would do the praying and singing both with his spirit (with his inmost self) and his mind, thereby using his divinely imparted gift for the benefit of fellow believers. (14:15)

Paul next made an application to the one saying a blessing “in spirit,” that is, the one doing so in a tongue under the power of the spirit. How would the one who did not understand the words be able to say in response, “Amen” (so be it)? (14:16) The words of thanksgiving may have been expressed well in the tongue, but the one who did not understand them would not be built up or edified. All he would have heard would have been unintelligible sounds. (14:17)

The apostle had been endowed with the gift of tongues and was grateful to God that he spoke more miraculously granted languages than all of the Corinthians. (14:18) Still, when believers were assembled as a congregation, he would prefer to speak “five words” with his mind, words they would understand and from which they could derive benefit, “than ten thousand words in a tongue,” which would be meaningless to them and would fail to impart anything of value. (14:19)

When it came to thinking or understanding, Paul desired his Corinthian brothers (fellow believers) not to be children or inexperienced persons who lacked the insight to make use of their spiritual gifts for the well-being of the congregation. They did, however, need to be like babes respecting badness, living their lives free from the corrupt and debased actions and thoughts of a world at enmity with God. In all other respects, their objective should have been to be mature in their thinking or understanding. The error into which the Corinthians had fallen in regard to the gift of tongues made it apparent that it was essential for them to strive for maturity. (14:20)

To aid them to correct their thinking, Paul continued to reason with them. He referred to a passage from Isaiah as being written “in the law,” using the term “law” in the sense of instruction (as expressed in the Torah), and then quoted the words, “With other tongues and with other lips, I will speak to this people, and neither thus will they hear me, says the Lord.” In the time of Isaiah, this occurred when armies invaded the land, speaking a language that was foreign to the Israelites who had disregarded YHWH’s law and the messages he conveyed to them through his prophets. (14:21; see the Notes section.)

Based on the words of Isaiah, the apostle pointed out that tongues served as a sign for unbelievers, not believers. As a consequence of their unbelief or lack of faith as evident from their disregard of God’s law, the Israelites experienced enemy invasions and heard “other tongues” and “other lips.” That development was a confirmatory sign of their unbelief, for it was part of the judgment against them for their unfaithfulness to God. Accordingly, for certain Corinthian believers to speak in a tongue that all the other fellow believers did not understand would be treating their own brothers like unbelievers, persons without faith. In this way, they would have made God a foreigner to them, not a friend and loving Father. (14:22)

Prophecy, on the other hand, was for believers, not unbelievers. The message of prophets was not conveyed in language that the congregation did not speak or understand. Their words served to edify, console, and encourage the entire community of believers in a meaningful way. (14:22)

A mere speaking in tongues without the benefit of translation could also have a potential negative effect on unbelievers. If an entire group of believers were assembled at one location and all were speaking in tongues at the same time, an outsider (not a fellow believer) who witnessed this would conclude that they had lost their senses. (14:23)

If an outsider (not a fellow believer) entered the place where believers had assembled and all of them were prophesying, this could result in positive good. The individual would hear admonition regarding God’s will, and it would become clear to him wherein he failed to measure up to the lofty divine standard. He would thus be reproved and examined, called to account, or judged. His hearing God’s requirements would expose his own words, thoughts, and deeds as disapproved. (14:24)

The “hidden [things] of his heart,” including the motives and disposition that were the reflection of his inmost self, would become manifest. Based on what he heard, he could be deeply moved and come to recognize the assembled believers as God’s people. In that case, he would fall to his knees and prostrate himself in worship, saying, “God is surely among you.” (14:25)

Answering the question about what should take place when his Corinthian “brothers” assembled, Paul indicated that the contribution all would be making should serve for the upbuilding of the whole congregation. The expressions made could be in the form of a “psalm” or a song of praise, a “teaching” (including the imparting of knowledge regarding God’s will and purpose), a “revelation” (as would be related by one with the prophetic gift), and a message spoken in a tongue and then translated for the benefit of everyone present. (14:26)

The apostle recommended that the speaking in tongues be limited to “two or three at the most,” with each speaker taking turns and someone doing the translating. (14:27) In the event no one present had the gift of interpretation of tongues, Paul admonished that the person with the gift of tongues should not make a display of it but should remain silent, speaking “to himself and to God.” When the message conveyed in a tongue could not be understood by the congregation, it would not have served for the edification of those assembled. For this reason, the individual would appropriately make use of the gift in communing with God, the one who did understand the tongue. (14:28)

During the course of the meeting of the congregation, two or three prophets might speak. Thereafter the words of the prophets were to be evaluated, weighed, or judged. Believers with the gift to discern “spirits” (12:10) would then need to use that gift for the benefit of the congregation, making clear whether the prophetic message was indeed from God. Those assembled were not to be passive listeners who simply accepted everything that might be said. They were to be concerned about confirming the truth of the spoken word and thereafter to make it their own. (14:29; see the Notes section.)

In the event a revelation would be imparted to a prophet who was seated while one of the other prophets related his message, the believer with the new revelation was not to relate it until the first prophet had finished speaking. Based on the comments that follow, this is the apparent meaning of the words, “Let the first [one] be silent.” It seems less likely that Paul recommended that the one speaking should stop immediately and let the one with the new revelation start speaking. Without a signal from the seated believer or without miraculous discernment, the first prophet would not have known about the new revelation. (14:30)

Prophets were to take turns in relating their respective messages, not talking at the same time. This would make it possible for all assembled to learn from each prophet and to be encouraged by their words. (14:31)

Upon receiving a revelation, a prophet was not simultaneously impelled to express it. This appears to be the significance of Paul’s words, “And the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.” The “spirits” or the spirit-imparted revelations came into their possession in order for them to make them known at appropriate times. The prophets had full control over when and where they would proclaim the message they had received. This served to prevent disorder, with more than one prophet speaking at the same time. (14:32)

When prophets took their turns in speaking during meetings of the congregation, this proved to be in harmony with what God has revealed about himself. Paul added, “For God is [a God], not of disorder, but of peace.” The creation does not reflect an unpredictable state of chaos. If the prophets had all spoken at the same time, this could not have been described as orderly and peaceful, tranquil, or harmonious. (14:33) Likewise, the use of all the other gifts should have been a reflection of the one by whom they were given, God.

The maintenance of proper decorum in “all the congregations of the holy ones” (communities of believers who are holy on the basis of their faith in Christ and the resultant purity of their lives) included the way in which women conducted themselves when believers assembled. (14:33)

At such times, the women or wives were to be “silent,” not disruptive, comporting themselves as respectful listeners and learners. This would be in keeping with the subordinate role of women in the family arrangement. It would have been contrary to the sense of modesty and propriety for a woman to step out of her role as a wife under her husband’s headship and to teach him and other husbands publicly. (14:34; see the Notes section.)

Paul appealed to the backing of the law for this position regarding a woman’s proper place as one in subjection to her husband. (14:34) The law revealed that Adam was created first and that the woman was deceived, whereas Adam was not. (1 Timothy 2:13, 14) Accordingly, in relation to her husband by reason of his priority, the first woman was in the position of a learner, not a teacher. When she assumed a role of teaching him something contrary to what he knew about the forbidden fruit, she did so as a person who had been deceived.

If a woman wanted clarification about something that may have come up while the congregation was assembled, she could ask her husband about it in the privacy of their home. It would have been disgraceful for a woman to have become disruptive, speaking out and raising questions. It appears that there were women in Corinth who mistook their spiritual equality with men as authorizing them to assume a teaching role, expressing their views and raising challenging questions. The manner in which they comported themselves appears to have been disruptive to the order and peace of the congregation. (14:35; see the Notes section.)

Because many of the Corinthians had acted contrary to the expected standards of orderliness and propriety, Paul asked, “Did the word of God come forth from you, or did it reach only to you?” The community of believers in Corinth was just one of many, and the “word of God” or the message regarding his Son and what he accomplished through him had not originated with the Corinthians. At the time Paul began to proclaim the glad tidings about Jesus Christ in Corinth, other congregations were already in existence. Moreover, the “word of God” had reached many other places besides Corinth. Therefore, the Corinthians had no basis for initiating practices that departed from the pattern all the other congregations followed. (14:36)

Believers who truly were prophets and spiritual persons or possessors of spiritual gifts would have been moved to acknowledge the rightness of what Paul had written, for, as he added, they were the “Lord’s commandment.” Jesus Christ had consistently upheld the principles set forth in the law, referring to the account about Adam and Eve as revealing his Father’s purpose respecting the marriage arrangement. (Genesis 2:22-24; Matthew 19:4-6) Accordingly, anyone who considered himself to be a prophet, or to have spiritual endowments, should have accepted what the apostle said. If, though, someone refused to accept the truth of Paul’s words, then such a one could remain in his stubborn ignorance. The apostle expressed this bluntly, “But if anyone be ignorant, let him be ignorant.” (14:37, 38 [This rendering of verse 38 has the support of P46 (c. 200 CE), fourth-century Codex Vaticanus, and many other manuscripts; see the Notes section.])

He continued to lay stress on the gift of prophecy because of its great potential for benefiting the entire community of believers, telling the Corinthians to “be zealous to prophesy.” While they were to be eager to let this gift be used to the full, Paul did not want them to overact in connection with the gift of tongues. The Corinthians may have been inclined to stop all speaking in tongues to prevent the kind of abuses that had occurred, but he instructed them not to forbid the speaking in tongues. Their concern when assembling was to be that everything occurred in a fitting and orderly manner. (14:39, 40)


In 1 Corinthians 14:21, the quotation from Isaiah differs from the extant Septuagint text. The wording of the quotation from Isaiah 28:11 reflects the meaning of the Masoretic Text and the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah. Although Paul used the first person singular (instead of the third person singular), this did not alter the significance of the quotation, for the speaker is still YHWH. The extant Septuagint text of Isaiah 28:11 and part of verse 12 reads, “[It is] because of contempt of lips, through another tongue, that they will speak to this people, saying to them, This [is] the rest for the one hungering.”

Both the Hebrew text and the extant Septuagint text include the words about not “hearing” (or “listening”) at the end of Isaiah 28:12, but these words follow a positive message conveyed to the Israelites prior to the time they would be hearing the foreign speech. It appears that Paul, for his purpose, appropriated the words about not hearing, doing so with specific application to the tongues that would have sounded like gibberish to the Israelites. When the prophetic words of Isaiah were fulfilled, the people heard enemy warriors communicate in an incomprehensible language. Through these foreigners, God spoke in a manner the Israelites did not “hear” or understand. It can also be said that he thus spoke to them in expression of his judgment, but they did not listen to him and change their ways. Translations commonly render the words of 1 Corinthians 14:21 to mean that, when God would speak to them “with other tongues and with other lips,” the people still would not pay any attention to him.

Paul’s admonition about evaluating, judging, or examining the words of the prophets (14:29) points up the error of the controlling elements in movements who insist that their interpretations of the Scriptures be accepted without being submitted to careful scrutiny. Since the utterances of believers with the miraculous gift of prophecy were to be submitted to evaluation, how much more so should the words (whether spoken or written) of those who do not have this gift! Believers have a personal responsibility to use all their God-given abilities to make sure that what they are being told is in harmony with the example and teaching of their Lord Jesus Christ.

Earlier (in 11:4-16), Paul discussed the matter of women praying and prophesying but doing so with their heads covered. Here (in 14:34, 35), his words about not permitting women or wives to speak apparently relate to a different situation, for this prohibition appears in a context that specifically deals with the maintenance of proper order and decorum. This suggests that certain women in Corinth had engaged in disruptive speaking and questioning and had acted out of harmony with the manner in which the family arrangement was divinely ordained to function. Paul did not include specifics about the improper speaking. Therefore, although the Corinthians would have understood exactly what the apostle addressed, we today do not.

In a number of manuscripts, the words of verses 34 and 35 appear after verse 40. Based on this transposition and a perceived inconsistency between the discussion about women praying and prophesying with their heads covered (11:4-16) and the directive that they be silent in the congregation, some have regarded verses 34 and 35 of chapter 14 as a later interpolation. There is, however, no ancient manuscript support for this conjecture, and the passage in 1 Corinthians 14 can be understood in a way that does not contradict Paul’s earlier comments in 1 Corinthians 11.

The Greek word agnoéo (appearing twice in 14:38) can refer to “being ignorant” or “not being recognized.” In the case of the second occurrence of this verb, numerous manuscripts contain the passive form (instead of the imperative form found in other manuscripts, including P46). Many translators have chosen to render the verb according to its passive significance but with different interpretive meanings. “Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized.” (NRSV) “If he does not acknowledge this, his own claim cannot be acknowledged.” (REB) “So don’t pay attention to anyone who ignores what I am writing.” (CEV) “Those who ignore this will be ignored by God.” (NCV) “If anyone does not recognise this, it is because that person is not recognised himself.” (NJB)