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Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 14

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

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Verse 1


(1) Follow after charity.—Better, Follow after love. The preceding chapter is parenthetical, and the Apostle here returns to the subject with which he had been immediately occupied before he branched off into that great Psalm of Love. He has spoken enthusiastically in praise of the superiority of love as the greatest amongst graces, and of all graces as superior to all gifts; but still, though we are to “do this,” we are not to leave the other undone. Spiritual gifts are to be “earnestly striven for.” As there was a priority in graces, so there is in gifts. To prophesy is the greatest gift; it is so, as we see afterwards, because it makes us useful to our brethren; therefore it is to be striven for rather than any other gift.

Verse 2

(2) For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue.—Better, For he that speaketh in a tongue. The word “unknown” is not in the original, but it has been inserted in connection with the word tongue “all through this chapter, so as to make the various passages seem to be consistent with the theory that the gift of tongues was a gift of languages. This is not the place to enter into the question of what particular external manifestation of this gift was evidenced on the Day of Pentecost. (See Acts 2:1-13.) Still, believing that the gift of tongues here spoken of is identical with the gift of tongues which was first bestowed at Pentecost, I would say that the phenomena described as occurring then must be explained by the fuller and more elaborate account of the nature of the gift which is given to us here. Against the theory that the gift was one of a capacity to speak various languages we have three considerations. (1) The word dialectos, which is repeatedly used to express languages (Acts 1:19; Acts 2:6; Acts 2:8; Acts 21:40; Acts 22:2; Acts 26:14), is never used by St. Paul or by the author of the Acts in reference to the utterances of those who possessed the gift of tongues, but the other word, glossa, which is, literally, the physical organ of speech—as if the utterances were simply sounds that proceeded from it. (2) There is no trace whatever of this knowledge of languages having been ever used for the purpose of preaching to those who spoke foreign languages. The language of the Lycaonians was evidently not understood by the Apostles when they were addressed in it (see Acts 14:11), and they did not speak in it. That the hearers at Pentecost said they heard those who were filled with the Spirit “speak in our own language” would only imply, either that the outpouring on Pentecost had for the moment a miraculous effect, which immediately ceased, or that “all the various elements of Aramaic and Hellenistic speech, latent in the usual language of the time, were quickened, under the power of this gift, into a new life, sometimes intelligible, sometimes unintelligible to those who heard it, but always expressive of the vitality and energy of the Spirit by which it was animated.” (3) The description of the gift in this chapter is utterly inconsistent with it being a gift of languages. The gift was the result of a quickened spiritual power by the action of the Holy Ghost (see also Acts 2:4; Acts 10:44-46; Acts 19:6); it poured itself forth in wild, impassioned utterances, which were sometimes mistaken for delirium (1 Corinthians 14:23); and these were the expressions, not of thoughts, but of feelings, unintelligible always, if uninterpreted, to the listener, and sometimes to the utterer himself.

It is to be observed that very notable spiritual phenomena, not unlike what are recorded here, accompanied many periods of great spiritual revival. The histories of the early work of Wesley and Whitfield, and of Irving—to take examples in England alone—afford some very remarkable illustrations. The general subject of the first part of this chapter (1 Corinthians 14:1-25) is the Gift of Tongues, and is thus dealt with:—





Tongues are the means of communion between the individual and God, whereas prophecy is communion with other men (1 Corinthians 14:2-3).


Tongues do yourself good; prophecy does good to others (1 Corinthians 14:4-6).

This truth is illustrated (a) by the variety of musical instruments (1 Corinthians 14:7); (b) by the distinction of musical notes (1 Corinthians 14:8-9); (c) by the varieties of human language (1 Corinthians 14:10-11).




What the aim and object of the Christians should be (1 Corinthians 14:12-13).


His own example (1 Corinthians 14:14-19).




The Old Testament teaches the same principle (1 Corinthians 14:21-22).


The gift of prophecy is a means of spreading Christianity, and the gift of tongues is not (1 Corinthians 14:23-25).

In the spirit he speaketh mysteries.—The utterances come, not from his mind, but from his spirit, stirred by the Holy Spirit; and he speaks mysteries unintelligible to others.

Verse 3

(3) Edification, and exhortation, and comfort.—They communed with God by the speaking with tongues; they communed with the brethren by prophecy—building up, stirring up, cheering up, as each required.

Verse 4

(4) He that speaketh in an unknown tongue.—Better, He that speaketh in a tongue. The introduction of the word “unknown” destroys the whole force of the passage. All tongues—as distinct from languages—were unknown, i.e., unintelligible. The gift of prophecy is superior in usefulness to that of tongues, and therefore to be preferred. The use of the word “edify,” as applied to an individual solely, as distinct from the individual as a part of the whole Church, is unusual with St. Paul (see Note on 1 Corinthians 8:1), but is introduced so as to make the antithesis verbally as well as logically more striking.

Verse 5

(5) I would that ye all spake with tongues.—To avoid danger of misunderstanding or misrepresentation the Apostle emphatically asserts here that the error which he is combating is the undue exaltation of the gift of tongues to the depreciation of other gifts. The teacher of religious truth to others, who thereby builds up the whole edifice of the body of Christ, is a greater one than he who is himself benefited by being possessed of profound but uncommunicable emotion.

Except he interpret.—The gift of interpreting might therefore belong to the same person who had the gift of tongues: and if he had this power of articulating for the benefit of others the emotion which he incoherently expresses in reverie, then the gift of tongues was useful to the Church at large, and so was as valuable as prophecy.

Verse 6

(6) Now, brethren.—Transferring these things to himself in an image the Apostle reinforces the preceding teaching. Now (i.e., seeing that these things are so), what profit would I be to come to you speaking in tongues? I have been telling you that you cannot profit others: I ask you, do you think I speaking in tongues could profit you?

Except I shall speak to you either . . .—Here is an expansion of the “interpretation of tongues” of the previous verse, and which is the condition on which depends any usefulness of the gift. The “revelation” and the “knowledge” are the internal gifts in the teacher himself which are the sources of his power to communicate “prophecy” (i.e., general exhortation), or “doctrine” (i.e., systematic religious instruction) to his hearers.

Verse 7

(7) And even things without life.—The pipe and harp were the best-known instruments, and the principle just laid down of the inutility of sounds unless they be distinctive is illustrated by reference to them. Whether it was a harp or a pipe which was being played you could not know unless each gives a distinct sound of its own. The point here is not, as the English seems to suggest, that there must be a difference in tune, so as know what is being piped or harped—that illustration comes in in the next verse—but that each instrument has its own peculiar sound.

Verse 8

(8) For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound.—Not only has each instrument its own sound, but in each instrument there is a distinction of notes. If a trumpet does not clearly sound the advance when it is intended, or the retreat when it is meant, the trumpet is useless, the soldiers not knowing what to do.

Verse 9

(9) So likewise ye.—This is not the application of the foregoing, but the introduction of a third illustration, viz., the varieties of human language. The “tongue” here is simply the actual organ of speech, distinguished in the Greek, by the insertion of the article, from “tongues” which flow from the spiritual gift. If a human being does not use words that those spoken to understand, it is useless; such words pass as sounds into the air and are useless.

Verse 10

(10) There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world.—There are a great many voices or languages in the world, and none of them but has a right meaning when spoken rightly and to the right person. No word in any language can be meaningless, but must correspond to some thought—for the thought exists first, and the word is invented as the expression of it.

Verse 11

(11) Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice.—Language is useless unless we know what meaning is attached to each word uttered. The hearer is a foreigner (or barbarian), then, in the estimation of the speaker, and the speaker a foreigner in the estimation of the hearer. Thus the truth that sounds of tongues are useless unless they convey definite ideas to the hearers, is illustrated (1) by different instruments of music, (2) by different sounds of an instrument, (3) by different words and languages of living men—in all of which cases the conveyance of distinct ideas is the sign and test of their utility.

Verse 12

(12) Even so ye.—Here follows the practical application of the previous teaching and illustration. The “ye” of 1 Corinthians 14:9 was addressed to them as human beings generally; but here the Apostle returns to the immediate subject in hand, viz., the exaltation of particular spiritual gifts in the Corinthian Church. He passes now from the contrast between prophecy and tongues to give practical instruction (1 Corinthians 14:12-19) as to how they should seek to use the gift of tongues. The word for “spiritual gifts” is, in the Greek, literally spirits, but is evidently meant to imply the gifts, and especially that one under consideration—the gift of tongues.

Seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church.—Better, seek, then, to the edifying of the Church, that ye may abound. The point cannot be that they were to seek to excel in spiritual gifts, that so they might edify the Church, for the next verse explains how the gift is to be sought so that it may edify others; but the force of the passage here is as given above—they are to seek this gift for the benefit of others, and so they will themselves, by serving others, abound yet more and more (1 Corinthians 8:7; 1 Thessalonians 4:1).

Verse 13

(13) In an unknown tongue.—Better, in a tongue. The gift of interpretation would make the gift of tongues useful for the edifying of the Church. This would be an object of unselfish prayer, which God would indeed answer. In the Greek it is suggested that the gift of interpretation is not only to be the object of his prayer, but that it will be the result; and this leads on to the thought in the next verse.

Verse 14

(14) For if I pray in an unknown tongue.—Better, if I pray in a tongue. 1 Corinthians 14:14-19 are expressed in the first person (except 1 Corinthians 14:16-17, which are a parenthesis), as enforcing the Apostle’s own example. A man praying in a tongue needed the gift of interpretation. The emotions of his spirit, kindled by the Spirit of God, found utterance in a “tongue,” the gift of the Spirit of God; but his intellectual faculty grasped no definite idea, and could not, therefore, formulate it into human language; therefore the prayer which is offered merely in a tongue, from the spirit and not from the understanding, is useless as regards others. The Apostle is here speaking of public worship (see 1 Corinthians 14:16), and not of private devotion; and the word “fruitless” implies the result, or rather the absence of result, as regards others.

Verse 15

(15) What is it then?—The Apostle, in answering this question—viz., What, then, is the practical conclusion of the whole matter?—still speaks in the first person, quoting his own conduct and resolution. He will not let his public ministrations as regards prayer and praise evaporate into mere enthusiasm; nor will he, on the other hand, allow a cold intellectual creed to chill and freeze the warm emotions of the spirit.

Verse 16

(16) Else when thou shalt bless with the spirit.—In this and the following verse the Apostle speaks in the second person, for they refer, not to his practice, but to that of some in Corinth. Their conduct and its results are introduced parenthetically here, in contrast with what he is laying down as his own earnest desire and practice.

He that occupieth the room of the unlearned.—Better, he that is in the position of a private individual; as we should say, a “layman”—the one who comes as a private person to the assembly, and does not lead the prayer and thanksgiving. How can he say “Amen” when he does not know what is being said? and he cannot know if you speak in a tongue, without interpreting. It would seem from this verse that from the earliest apostolic times the practice has been for the congregation to join in the thanksgiving by uttering “Amen” (the Hebrew “So be it”) at the conclusion.

Verse 17

(17) For thou verily givest thanks well.—It is here implied that speaking in a tongue was, as regards an individual, an acceptable mode of worship, and it is the public use of it that all throughout this passage the Apostle is dealing with.

Verses 18-19

(18, 19) I thank my God.—Here the Apostle resumes in the first person, coming back, after the parenthesis, to the continuation of his own desire and example. He does not undervalue that gift the misuse and exaggeration of which he is censuring; he possesses it himself in a remarkable degree; yet in the Church (i.e., in any assembly of Christians for prayer or instruction) he would prefer to speak five words with his mind rather than ten thousand with a tongue only; for the object of such assemblies is not private prayer or private ecstatic communion with God, but the edification of others. The word used for “teach” in this verse is literally our word catechise.

Verse 20

(20) Howbeit in malice be ye children.—Better, however in evil be ye infants. There are three grades spoken of here in the original—infants, children, full-grown men. Their conduct in exalting these “tongues,” against which he has been warning them, is a proof that they are yet children in knowledge. They ought to be full-grown; the only thing in which they ought to be children is evil, and in that they cannot be too young, too inexperienced; they should be merely “infants.” (A similar thought occurs in 1 Corinthians 2:6; 1 Corinthians 3:1; 1 Corinthians 13:10-11.)

Verses 21-22

(21, 22) In the law it is written.—The preceding teaching is illustrated and enforced by an appeal to Jewish history. The Old Testament as a whole was not infrequently thus designated “the Law.” (See John 10:34; John 12:34; John 15:25.) The words are scarcely a quotation, but rather an illustration taken from Isaiah 28:9-12. The passage there refers to the refusal of Israel to hearken to Jehovah when He spoke to them with clearness and simplicity, and His judgment on them taking the form of declaring that He would make a foreign people—the Assyrians—be His mouthpiece to them in the future, in a language which they knew not. It is as if the Apostle said: Remember there was a time in Jewish history when an unintelligible language was a sign sent by God, and proved unavailing as regards the conversion of Israel. The gift which you so exalt now is equally useless by itself for that same purpose.

Verse 22

(22) Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe.—This is not an interpretation of the prophecy alluded to in the previous verse, but St. Paul now returns to the gift of “tongues” as existing in the Church, and introduces a thought regarding this gift suggested by the fact mentioned, viz., that in Israel unintelligible tongues, uttered in their hearing, were for a sign to unbelieving Jews. Tongues should not be exalted in estimation above prophecy—inasmuch as the function of the latter is really grander than that of the former. Tongues were useful to arrest the attention of unbelievers, and, if rightly used, to arouse their convictions; but prophecy is in the highest sense useful for believers.

Verse 23

(23) If therefore.—Intended, as tongues were, for a “sign,” they cease to be thus useful if not properly employed. The report of the strange utterances which take place in the assembled Church may lead some unbeliever to come there: but if there be tongues alone, and they uninterpreted, the stranger will simply think those present are mad. (See Acts 2:13.) It is not meant here that all commence shouting out at the same time, neither is it in the next verse that all prophesy simultaneously; but the thought presented is the undue and exclusive cultivation of this gift by all in the Corinthian Church.

Verse 24

(24) But if all prophesy.—There is no danger of exaggeration regarding this gift. Each one uttering prophecy, telling forth the gospel truth, and revealing the mind of God, will have a message that will be useful to the unbeliever. As one after another they utter the words of divine truth, they each send something that pierces into his soul. By all of them he is convicted in his own conscience of some sin. He is condemned in his own eyes, a searching light is turned upon his heart. The secrets of his heart are made manifest, and he makes terrible discoveries of his guilt (Hebrews 4:12-13).

Verse 25

(25) And thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest.—Better, and the secrets of his heart are made manifest—such being the reading of the best MSS. It is the third result of the prophetic utterances explained in previous Note. His complete conversion is evidenced by his worshipping God and recognising the presence of God in that assembly of Christians: “He will confess that you are not mad, but that God is truly in you, and that He is the true God who is in you” (Bengel). It is to be noticed that though the Apostle speaks in this passage of an “unlearned” person (i.e., a private person, one who has no gift of prophecy or tongues), or an “unbeliever,” it is the latter that is most prominently before his mind, and the former only so far as he shared in common with the latter his ignorance and inability to understand.

Verse 26

(26) How is it then, brethren?—From a discussion as to the relative value of the gift of tongue and that of prophecy, the Apostle now turns to practical instructions as to the method of their employment in public church assemblies. He first gives directions regarding the tongues (1 Corinthians 14:27-28), then regarding prophecy (1 Corinthians 14:29-36), and the concluding verses of this chapter contain a summing up and brief repetition of what has been already laid down. In this verse he introduces the practical application of the truths which he has been enforcing, by the question, “How is it, then?”—i.e., what should follow from all these arguments?—and, instead of answering the question directly, he first recalls the existing state of confusion in their public assemblies, which had rendered necessary the teaching of the previous verses, and which is to be remedied by the practical instructions which now follow.

When ye come together, every one of you hath . . .—Better, when ye are assembling together each one of you hath a psalm, &c. The uppermost thought in each mind as you are assembling for public worship is the individual gift which he possesses. One had the gift of pouring forth a psalm of praise; another could deliver a doctrinal discourse; another could speak to God in a tongue; another had some deep insight into the spiritual world; another could interpret the tongue. If these varied gifts were employed by each for his own gratification, or even for his own spiritual advancement, they would not be used worthy of the occasion. In public these gifts were to be exercised not by each one for himself, but for the building up of the whole Church.

Verse 27

(27) If any man speak in an unknown tongue.—Better, If any man speak in a tongue. Here is the practical application of the general rule just laid down to the exercise of the gift of tongues. Those who had that gift were not all to speak together, and so cause confusion; only two, or at the most three, were to speak in each assembly, and each of such group was to speak in turn, one at a time. There was to be with each group one who had the gift of interpretation, and he was to interpret to the listeners.

Verse 28

(28) But if there be no interpreter.—But if there be no one with the gift of interpreting, then the speaker with tongues was not to exercise his gift publicly at all; he may only exercise his gift in private with himself and God.

Verse 29

(29) Let the prophets speak.—Here follows the application, to those who had the gift of prophecy, of the general principle, Let all be done to edification. Only two or three prophets are to speak in each assembly on each occasion; the others (not “other,” as in English version) who had the gift are to sit by silent and judging, i.e., determining whether the utterances were from the Spirit of God. (See 1 Corinthians 12:3, and 1 John 4:1-3.) If, however, while one prophet was standing speaking there came a sudden revelation of truth to some other prophet who was sitting by, the speaker would pause, and the other prophet give utterance to the inspiration which had come to him. The suddenness of the revelation would show that it was a truth needed there and then, and so should find utterance without delay.

Verse 31

(31) For ye may all prophesy one by one.—Better, For it is in your power all to prophesy one by one. How it is in their power is explained by the following verse. This orderly prophesying will accomplish the instruction and comforting of all; words of instruction will be interspersed with words of comfort, and so the teaching be suited to every condition of mind and soul of those present.

Verse 32

(32) The spirits of the prophets . . .—They might have said it was impossible to carry out St. Paul’s instructions; that the rushing Spirit of God overcame them—shook them, so that they could not control themselves. To this St. Paul replies (1 Corinthians 14:31; see above) that it is not so; that they can prophesy one by one; that the spirits of the prophets are under the control of the prophets.

Verse 33

(33) For God is not the author of confusion.—Better, For God is the God, not of confusion, but of peace. The Church is the Church of God, and should bear on it the moral image of its King: there should be order, therefore, not confusion, in their assemblies.

As in all churches of the saints.—It is best to make these words read as the commencement of the next subject, thus:—As in all the churches of the saints, let the women keep silence in the churches. At Corinth one evil of neglecting the principles of order just laid down was that women spoke in the public assemblies. This was not the custom in any other churches, therefore the example of other churches was against such a practice.

Verse 34

(34) But they are commanded to be under obedience.—Better (as in some of the best MSS.), but let them be under obedience. The original precept laid down in Genesis 3:16 teaches this. “The law” stands for the Old Testament generally.

Verse 35

(35) If they will learn any thing.—Better, if they are desirous to learn anything. They are not even to ask questions in public assemblies. They are to ask their husbands at home on every point on which they desire special instruction. (See 1 Corinthians 8:0.)

Verse 36

(36) What?—The church at Corinth had on some of these points acted at variance with the practice of the other churches, and in a manner which assumed an independence of St. Paul’s apostolic authority. He therefore asks them, with something of sarcastic indignation, whether they are the source from whence the word of God has come, or whether they think themselves its sole recipients, that they should set themselves above the other churches, and above him?

Verse 37

(37) If any man think himself . . .—The best evidence of the possession of these gifts would be that their conduct was the very opposite of what they seemed to think the possession of these gifts should make it. The Apostle asserts positively that what he is now writing to them are the commandments of the Lord. There could be no clearer or more emphatic statement of St. Paul’s claim to inspiration.

Verse 38

(38) But if any man be ignorant.—There are here two readings in the Greek, for each of which there is strong evidence. The passage may run, either, as in the English, if any man does not know this, let him not know it: then the words would mean that a person who could not recognise such an evident and simple truth must be of a perverse mind—his opposition would give the Apostle no further concern. The other reading is, if any man knows not this, he is himself not known: this would signify that any man who knows not this truth is not known of God (as in 1 Corinthians 8:2-3; 1 Corinthians 13:12).

Verse 39

(39) Wherefore, brethren.—The practical summing up of the whole matter. Seek earnestly to prophesy, and forbid not to speak with tongues. The phraseology intimates the relative importance of the two gifts in the estimation of the Apostle, which was inverted by those to whom he wrote at Corinth. This ought you to do, but not leave the other undone.

Verse 40

(40) Let all things be done decently.—The former verse reiterates in a condensed sentence the principles laid down regarding the gifts in the first part of the chapter (1 Corinthians 14:1-25). This verse similarly deals with the general principle laid down in the latter part of the chapter regarding the style and order of public worship. The object of all church assemblies is to be the building up of the Body of Christ, which is His Church; and therefore seemliness and ordered regularity are absolutely necessary to this end. Here again, as in so many other instances in this Epistle, while the particular and unique circumstances which called forth the apostolic instructions have for centuries passed away, the writings of St. Paul are of permanent and abiding application, because of the general and eternal principles on which his instructions are based. The strange outbursts of incoherent fanaticism which have occurred from time to time in the after-history of the Church are condemned by the principle with which St. Paul combatted the disorder of the gift of tongues in Corinth; and the practice of the Roman Church, in performing her public services in a tongue not “understanded of the people,” is at variance with the principle which in this chapter he reiterates with varied emphasis—that all public utterance of prayer and praise should be such as those present can join in, not only with emotional heart but with clear and understanding intellect.

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 14". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/1-corinthians-14.html. 1905.
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