With no break in continuity, Paul continues his line of thinking from chapter thirteen (which was continued from chapter twelve) into chapter fourteen and writes “Pursue love and be eager for the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (1 Corinthians 14:1). Why does Paul here highlight the activity of prophecy? It is because “the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouragement, and consolation” (14:3). The contrast to the one who prophesies, for this church, are those that are engaging in glossolalia. Drawing out that contrast, Paul writes “the one speaking in a tongue does not speak to people but to God, for no one understands; he is speaking mysteries by the Spirit” (14:2).
Because Paul is engaging in a rhetorical action here, it is not appropriate to isolate the statement here in verse two or in other verses. It demands to be heard in context and in contrast. So when one hears that “the one speaking in a tongue does not speak to people but to God,” and that “he is speaking mysteries by the Spirit,” the proper response is not to throw up ones hands in a glorious salute to the person so speaking, but rather, to hear it in juxtaposition to what Paul says about the one who prophesies, who “speaks to people for their strengthening, encouragement, and consolation.”
This sufficiently directs attention away from a judgment call about the propriety of speaking in tongues, directing an observer instead to a consideration of the motivations for speaking in tongues. With the honor accorded to public speech acts, and the honor that would be accorded to the person that is said to be possessed by the spirit of a god when engaging in the ecstatic and incomprehensible speech, the motivation of those doing so in Corinth is called into question.
It follows then that when Paul writes “The one who speaks in a tongue builds himself up” (14:4a), he is not making this assertion as if it is a good thing. Once again, it stands in contrast to what follows, which is “but the one who prophesies builds up the church” (14:4b). In this case, and in consideration of the honor and shame culture, and especially what has already been seen when it comes to the meal gatherings and the divisions in the church, a person building himself up needs to be viewed as a negative (this is not a positive thing). He builds himself up because he is more concerned about his honor and demonstrating in historically acceptable ways his special relationship with his god, whereas the person that prophesies, by engaging in strengthening, encouragement, and consolation, is concerned about the church---concerned about the body.
Paul does not rule out speaking in tongues, but he also does not make it a litmus test for the identification of one that is filled with the Spirit of the God that raised up Jesus from the dead. He apparently sees it as a legitimate expression, but is concerned with why it is being employed and what results from its employment within the gathered church. To that point, he writes “I wish you all spoke in tongues” (14:5a).
Indeed, if all spoke in tongues, then there would be no opportunity for one person to gain undue honor from the practice, thus eliminating the problem as he sees it. Here, one must be careful not to assert that Paul desires for this to be the norm among Christians. It must be heard from within the context, which is that of the pursuit of honor in connection with speaking in tongues. If all speak in tongues, then there will be no special awarding or assignment of honor to the speaker. Paul understands that it is not the case, nor is it going to be the case that all speak in tongues, and concludes his statement with “but even more that you would prophesy” (14:5b).