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Read Introduction to 1 Corinthians


“For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands him; however, in the spirit he speaks mysteries.”


For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God,

The first time the New Testament uses the word “tongues” is for known human languages (Acts 2:4-12). The Greek word is glossa from which we get the English word “glossary.” A glossary is a compilation of words, something like a dictionary, which appears at the end of a book to tell us what terms mean. Every time the words “tongue” or “tongues” appears in the New Testament, it means foreign language, except for the literal tongue in the mouth or a figurative use such as “tongues of fire.”

All speaking in tongues in Acts refers to known human languages. The people also spoke in dialects of these languages (dialectos, Acts 2:6, 8 [six times in Acts, each time it refers to a known language or dialect]). The foreign language is found in the last mention in Revelation 17:15. There is no evidence that tongues in First Corinthians are different from foreign languages in Acts. The only difference between Acts and First Corinthians is that tongues in Acts were used publicly and tongues in First Corinthians within the local church.

The singular “tongue” refers to a specific human language. Paul’s use of the plural “languages” in this chapter refers to multiple languages. Gibberish cannot be plural, for there is no variety of non-language. The common, customary use of the word “tongue” is for human language, not ecstatic speaking.

Whatever tongues we understand here, the tongue was not to men but God (three references and all tongues speaking directed to God and not to people: 1 Co 14:2, 14-16, 28). Tongues were always addressed to God, not men. Only God can understand all languages known to men. Since the tongues speaker did not understand the language he spoke with the gift of tongues, he must speak to God. This is why the gift of “interpretation” or translation was meaningful. Translation implies a natural language, so the speaker of tongues could not understand the translation of the language he spoke until someone with the gift of translation exercised his gift.

The normal use of the word “tongue” in the New Testament is to communicate languages. Nowhere does the New Testament use “tongue” or language for ecstatic speech. The normal, customary use of “tongues” is human languages (Acts 2:11; Re 5:9; 7:9; 10:11; 11:9; 13:7; 14:6; 17:15). I do not believe with some that this refers to pagan ecstatic, gibberish speech because this speech does indeed “edify the self” (1 Co 14:4). Paul used the “gift” of speaking in foreign languages (tongues) without studying them to evangelize the Jews and, in doing so, edified himself.

Paul gave standards for foreign languages spoken in the local church:

To speak five words with clarity is better than 10,000 words in a foreign language (1 Co 14:19).

No more than two or three persons were to speak in foreign languages at any one meeting (1 Co 14:27).

Speakers in foreign languages were to speak one at a time (1 Co 14:27).

No one was to speak in a foreign language without a translator present (this obviously implies a human foreign language,1 Co 14:28).

Each speaker was to maintain order in the congregation by using, within certain bounds, his gift to speak in a foreign language not known to him (1 Co 14:32,33).

Women were not to speak in public in the assembly (1 Co 14:34,35). 

For no one understands him;

“No one understands” is literally, no one hears, and the metaphorical idea is that no one (who does not speak that language) understands with comprehension. This does not imply that no man living could understand, but that no one present in the assembly could understand. The context of this verse is a diverse assembly of people from different backgrounds in the congregation at Corinth. People came from Europe, Asia, and Africa to trade in Corinth, and they spoke in many languages. These people needed a translation of their languages to understand what was being said (interpretation – 1 Co 14:13). If there was no native speaker of a given language in the congregation, then the language should not be spoken (1 Co 14:10-11). All languages convey meaning (1 Co 14:10-11). If no one was there to translate, there was no point in using the gift.

however, in the spirit he speaks mysteries.

A tongues speaker spoke “in the spirit” as opposed to understanding the language (1 Co 14:14); that is part of the supernatural element of speaking in a foreign language without studying for it. If a speaker cannot understand the language he is speaking, the ideas in the language are not meaningful to him. Since this is so, only the speaker derives benefit from the intention of what he said.

The Greek idea of mystery is a truth not previously disclosed. The word “mystery” does not carry the English concept of something mysterious but something that God has not disclosed yet. The meaning of mystery lies outside the understanding until it is communicated within one’s known language.


All communication in congregational worship must carry meaning to the listeners.


The reason chapter 14 argues for the inferiority of tongues as over against the communication of God’s Word is that if a person sits in the congregation and does not know the language, it is unintelligible to him.