What kind of tongue is referred to in 1 Corinthians 14:2-5? What does Paul mean when he refers to the unknown tongue and no man understanding it?

tongues     What kind of tongue is referred to in 1 Corinthians 14:2-5? What does Paul mean when he refers to the unknown tongue and no man understanding it? Also, why does he state in verse four that an unknown tongue only edifies the person speaking in the unknown tongue? Lastly, why does he wish all men to speak in tongues, as seen in verse five?


tongues     “For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto Elohim: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries. But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort. He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the assembly. I would that ye all spake with tongues, but rather that ye prophesied: for greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret, that the assembly may receive edifying,” 1Corinthians 14:2-5.

When trying to understand what Paul is conveying in the above passage, it’s important that we understand the Greek words for “tongues” and “prophesy.”

The phrase “unknown tongue” found in 1Corinthians 14:2 is from the Greek glossa. Strong’s defines glossa as, “…the tongue; by implication, a language (specially, one naturally unacquired).” Thayer’s states, “…a tongue; the language or dialect used by a particular people distinct from that of other nations.” From these sources, glossa clearly refers to a known language or dialect. This is critically important to understand. As seen in Acts 2, those gathered for Pentecost spoke and heard one another in their native language.

The word “prophesy” comes from the Greek propheteuo and means, “…to foretell events, divine, speak under inspiration, exercise the prophetic office.” Along with foretelling the future, propheteuo also conveys the thought of simply teaching under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Based on the above definitions and the context of this passage, Paul is confirming that when someone speaks in an unknown tongue, i.e., language, that he only benefits himself. The reason for this is that his language is unknown to the audience.  However, when someone prophesies, i.e., speaks under the inspiration of the Spirit, they benefit all who hear the message.

Regarding your last question as to why Paul wishes all to speak in tongues, we believe the emphasis is not on the gift of tongues, but on the gift of prophecy. He says “…but rather that you prophesied.” From verse 22, Paul verifies that tongues was a sign to the unbeliever, while prophecy was a sign to the believer.

Regarding the “Pentecostal” interpretation of tongues, this is not scriptural and not supported here or elsewhere in the Bible.

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Posted in Q&A - Misnomers, Q&A - Miscellaneous.
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