In 1 Corinthians 14:1-2 Paul says the spiritual gift of prophecy is better than tongues because it better loves and edifies church members and it causes less confusion. What does I Corinthians 14:1-2 mean? That’s a great question. Let’s see what the Bible has to say.
Follow after love and desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.
For he who speaks in an unknown tongue does not speak to men, but to God.For no one understands him, although in the spirit, he speaks mysteries.
1 Corinthians 14:1-2
As usual, the context (verses before and after these verses) are important. They help us understand what the Apostle Paul is teaching.
Using Spiritual Gifts with Love
When Paul says “follow after love” he’s referring to his teaching in the previous chapter about how believers must use their spiritual gifts, namely, in love (1 Corinthians 13). He calls that the “more excellent way:”
“But earnestly covet the greater gifts. Yet I show you a more excellent way (1 Corinthians 12:31).
Using Spiritual Gifts in the Church
Even before that, in chapter 12, Paul explained that the Holy Spirit gives everyone a gift(s) when they believe. And that people receive different gifts to build up the church members; the gifting was not meant to build up, or puff up, the person gifted. When we use them selfishly, or to show off, we’re not loving others.
Using the Greater Spiritual Gift
The Corinthians overvalued the gift of tongues. In 1 Corinthians 14:1 Paul writes that prophecy is greater than tongues, so the believers should desire prophecy. That’s what Paul meant when he said, “to earnestly covet the greater gifts.” Prophecy does a better job than tongues.
“But he who prophesies speaks to men for their edification and exhortation and comfort (1 Corinthians 14:3).”
Prophecy is better because someone speaking in tongues speaks in a different language, so most people in the church won’t understand their message. But the hearers immediately understand someone prophesying because they speak in the native language. In church, God prefers a direct message over one that someone must interpret.
“He who speaks in an unknown tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church (1 Corinthians 14:4).”
Paul clarifies that–in church!–when people are around, prophecy is better than tongues because it edifies others. The person speaking in tongues only edifies himself and church isn’t the proper place for self-edification.
“I desire that you all speak in tongues, but even more that you prophesy. For greater is he who prophesies than he who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may receive edification (1 Corinthians 14:5).”
Tongues is Inferior Because it Needs a Mediator
Edifying others with the gift of tongues is a two-step process. Anyone who’s played telephone, anyone who’s tried to pass a message through multiple people, knows how that process can distort the original message. In contrast, someone prophesying gives a direct message from God to the church members. Paul points out in another passage that one reason the Gospel of Jesus is better than the Law of Moses is that angels mediated the Law, but the Gospel is directly from God:
“The law…was added…until the Seed (Jesus) should come…. And it (the law) was ordained through angels by the hand of a mediator. Now a mediator is not a mediator for only one party, but God is one (Galatians 3:19-20).”
Jesus’ message is superior to the Law because Jesus is God, and the message comes directly from Him.
Additional points in the rest of Chapter 14
- In the following verses of chapter 14 (vv. 6-21), Paul compares someone speaking in tongues to a musical instrument making an indistinct sound.
- In verses 22-25, Paul says tongues in church are a sign to unbelievers. He says if an unbeliever comes into church, and all are speaking in tongues they’ll think the church members are out of their minds!
- There’s a danger that speaking in tongues can lead to disorder and Paul expresses his concern:
“For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints (1 Corinthians 14:33, see also v. 40).”