Let’s read 1st Corinthians 14:18-19: “I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all; yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue” (NKJV). Before we delve into your question, it’s important to see the theme of this chapter, which is found in verses 1-5. They say, “Pursue love, and desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy. 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. But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men. He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. I wish you all spoke with tongues, but even more that you prophesied; for he who prophesies is greater than he who speaks in tongues, unless indeed he interprets, that the church may receive edification.”

There was a very real problem in the church at Corinth and it may be summed up in a few words. The saints there were exalting the gift of tongues to the exclusion of other gifts. The irony is that it was actually the least of all gifts (see 1st Corinthians 12:7-10, 28-30). Paul was inspired to address this problem and in doing so he informs them that though the gift of tongues is important, it pales in comparison to the gift of prophesying. Why? Because when one spoke in a tongue he was the only one being edified (unless one could interpret what he was saying), but when one prophesied the whole church was being blessed with edification, exhortation, and comfort.

Now let’s delve into your question, which is a good one. It might appear that Paul was boasting when he said in verse 18, “I thank God because I speak with tongues more than all of you,” but the truth is he was simply stating a fact that would serve to show them that he wasn’t undermining the gift of tongues; it was important in its place. But in verse 19 he emphasizes again the superiority of prophesying, for he would “rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.” Sadly, there were probably some at Corinth that would “rather speak five words in a tongue than then thousand words in a language everyone could understand.”

Before we close, I want to make sure we all understand what the “gift of tongues” is. The gift of tongues was first manifested on the day of Pentecost as we see in Acts 2:4-8, “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, ‘Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born’?” The word “tongue” simply means “language” and it is clear from this passage that the apostles were given the ability to speak a language they had never learned. Jews from all over the world were in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Pentecost and they witnessed this miraculous gift. They were astonished to hear words in their own language coming from lowly Galileans. But God used this gift as a “sign” to point them to His Word which was being spoken by His humble servants. Shortly before the Lord Jesus ascended to heaven He said that tongues would be one of the signs used to confirm His Word. Mark 16:17 & 20 declare: “These signs shall follow those who believe…they will speak with new tongues…and they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and CONFIRMING THE WORD THROUGH ACCOMPANYING SIGNS.” They were so arrested by this sign that they allowed Peter to preach to them that day and the result was the conversion of 3,000 souls (see verses 14-41).

The apostle Paul goes on in 1st Corinthians 14:20-22 to remind the saints that the gift of tongues was still a “sign gift” to point unbelievers to the Word of God. Verse 22 reads, “Therefore tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers.” Yet in keeping with the subject before him he adds, “but prophesying is not for unbelievers but for those who believe.” Paul maintains what he has said all along, the gift of tongues has its place, but prophesying occupies the chief place. The gift of tongues is primarily a sign to unbelievers, though it can be used in the church if there is one that can interpret the language. The gift of prophesying is to be desired above all gifts, for it benefits the whole church. (230.5) (DO)