Paul’s purpose here is to encourage Christians to prophesy in church (14:5). That is, to speak messages from God in a language that everyone present understands. However, first he makes this interesting statement about the use of tongues.
The word ‘tongues’ means ‘languages’. It especially describes a gift of the Holy Spirit to speak in a language that the speaker has not learned. The first example of this is in Acts 2:4-11.
However, Paul’s description of tongues here is slightly different from the account in Acts 2:4-11. There, many people understood the messages. Here, only God understands. God loves variety; he carries out his work in many different ways. We should not expect him always to act in the same way.
Here, Paul is describing how a person can speak, from his spirit, in tongues to God. It is a kind of prayer that a person can only pray with the aid of the Holy Spirit. 1 Corinthians 14:18-19 shows that Paul prayed privately in this manner. Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 14:14 that his own mind could not understand this prayer. Only his spirit understood it. But that did not mean that it was without purpose to pray in tongues. 1 Corinthians 14:4 says that it makes a person stronger to pray in this manner. That must mean that it makes his spirit stronger. The speaker’s mind gains no benefit; his own words in tongues are a mystery to him.
Other people do not gain anything from a message in tongues either, unless someone interprets (14:5). That is why Paul preferred Christians to prophesy in their churches.
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© 2014, Keith Simons.