1 Corinthians 13:1 is sometimes used to promote the teaching that Christians may acquire the gift to speak in the tongues of angels, but does Paul actually teach that believers may speak in an angelic tongue or a heavenly language in this passage? We’ll dig into that question a little bit closer.
In order to adequately address the passage in question, we must consider the entire unit that 1 Corinthians 13:1 is a part of. If we turn back to 12:1, we see the phrase, “Now concerning spiritual gifts…” Based on the usage of the phrase “now concerning…” in 7:1 and 7:25, we may discern that this is a matter that the Corinthians had previously written Paul about and that he is now addressing in his epistle. Since in chapters 12-14 we see common language, the same subject matter, and the lack of any transitional markers until 15:1 (“Now I would remind you…”), we may mark out these chapters as a single unit in the letter.
It would appear that there were rivalries and divisions occurring within the Corinthians church over the matter of spiritual gifts. In chapter 12, Paul points the Corinthians to the fact that there are multiple spiritual gifts given to the church and each is vital in its own way (12:4-26). The Corinthians were elevating specific gifts (in this context, likely the gift of tongues) over the rest. Those with the perceived “greater” gifts would appear to have been using these as a means of demonstrating how spiritual they were and how unspiritual those without the “greater” gifts were. Paul addresses this with his analogy of the body (12:12-26) and his discussion of the more honorable and less honorable parts. By doing so, he shows that those gifts that appear to be “weaker” are not so; the body requires all parts to adequately function, and so too does the church. The Corinthians could not elevate one gift (tongues) and say they had no need of the rest (12:21), for their church body would be weaker because of it.
Paul closes his initial argument with a series of rhetorical questions:“Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?” (12:29-30). The implied answer to these questions is “no”, which builds upon his previous point of the varied nature of the gifts. Yet, though Paul wants the Corinthians to desire the higher spiritual gifts, he demonstrates a “still more excellent way”: the way of love.
The famous “Love Chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13, is in effect a rebuke of the Corinthians. The purpose of the chapter is to illustrate that the spiritual gifts are useless without love. The qualities that Paul lists about love are things that the Corinthians were not: they were not patient or kind, rather they were envious (3:3), boastful (4:7), and arrogant (5:2). Because of the Corinthians’ lack of love for one another, their spiritual gifts would be of no value. With this as the backdrop for chapter 13, we turn to 13:1 itself:
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
In order to forcefully make his point about the uselessness of the spiritual gifts without love, Paul turns to the use of hyperbole, that is, exaggerated statements used for emphasis. This is the first in a series of five hyperbolic statements that illustrate love as the supreme Christian ethic. Paul is not suggesting that he speaks in the tongues of men and angels, but is rather saying that even if he could speak in these tongues (something nobody can do), they would be useless. He follows this with the exaggerated statements that even if he had the greatest prophetic powers, even if he had the greatest faith, even if he was the most generous, and even if he was the most self-sacrificial, these things are all meaningless without love. Rather than suggesting that Paul is making a statement about the possibility of speaking in angelic tongues or a heavenly language, the hyperbolic and exaggerated hypothetical nature of the passage must be allowed to stand, or else his argument breaks down.
While Paul’s reference in 14:2 that “one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God” may appear as if he is expanding upon 13:1, there is no connection between the manner in which the verses are presented. Keep in mind that 13:1 is hyperbole while in 14:2 Paul has shifted back to a more straightforward manner of speech. The greater context of chapter 14 further indicates that Paul has the languages of men in mind when he refers to tongues (see 14:6-12), though a full exploration of the topic of tongues is beyond the scope of this post.
Concern that the spiritual gifts be used in a manner that builds up the church is ultimately the focus of chapter 14. On the heels of his demonstration of how useless spiritual gifts are without love in chapter 13, Paul directs the Corinthians to specific ways to exercise their gifts in a way that is meaningful for the church and further instructs them in the purpose of the gifts. Paul’s focus on speaking in tongues here is also further indicative that this was the specific gift that the Corinthians were misusing and flaunting. I won’t go into the nature of prophecy and tongues here, but suffice to say that Paul’s main concern in the whole of 12-14 is that the spiritual gifts would be used to build up the church rather than as an arrogant personal display of pride and for building oneself up.
So does Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:1 teach that believers may speak in an angelic tongue or a heavenly language? The answer to this question is no, Paul is not indicating that believers may speak in angelic tongues. It is a hyperbolic statement; it should not be taken as affirming any teaching about believers speaking in a heavenly language. The passage should be allowed to stand in its place as a forceful illustration about the supremacy of love in Christian ethics and not torn from its context to assert any doctrine about speaking in angelic tongues.