Why so long with spiritual gifts? Why such lengths to discuss a tongues’ problem hardly applicable to us? First and most importantly, because this is God’s Word. I’m simply trying to pass along each chapter as we meet it. Second, for a minority of us, this may be an issue. That is, we may find the Corinthian tongues’ problem in our church.
In chapter 14 Paul directly addresses that problem. I’ll offer my interpretation briefly, then suggest timely applications.
SEEK PROPHECY, SO THE CHURCH MAY BE BUILT UP
Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy. For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit. But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort. He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified (1 Corinthians 14:1-5).
Paul urges the church to “Follow the way of love” and to “eagerly desire spiritual gifts.” Clearly, Paul wants spiritual gifts manifest in the church. Not however to selfishly build up oneself but to lovingly build up the church.
He calls especially for “the gift of prophecy”. Why? Because tongues are “the gift of Corinthian choice” and the tongues-speaker “speaks . . . to God”, he “utters mysteries with his spirit” and he “edifies himself”. ” . . . no one (in the church) understands him”.
On the other hand, the prophecy-speaker “speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort”. He “edifies the church”. And the gathered church should aim at church upbuilding.
Paul would like every one to privately speak in tongues. Among the gathered church, however, he’d rather they prophecy to build up the church.
Contemporary gift-opponents define prophecy as future-telling. Prophecy is a message that strengthens, encourages and comforts the church.
NO ONE UNDERSTANDS TONGUES
Now, brothers, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the flute or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me. So it is with you. Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church (1 Corinthians 14:6-12).
Intelligibility is critical. Like musical instruments that must make “a distinction in the notes”, or like a trumpet that must sound a clear call to battle, words in the church must be intelligible. The Corinthians desire spiritual gifts. So, urges Paul they should “try to excel in gifts that build up the church”. And gifts that edify must be intelligible.
IN THE CHURCH, SPEAK INTELLIGIBLE WORDS
For this reason anyone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind. If you are praising God with your spirit, how can one who finds himself among those who do not understand say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since he does not know what you are saying? You may be giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified. I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue (1 Corinthians 13:13-19).
Tongues-speakers in the gathered church should pray for the gift of interpretation, so everyone can understand the message.
Paul’s not denigrating the gift. In fact, with thanks to God, he claims to (privately) “speak in tongues more than all of you”. But in the church he would much rather ” . . . speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue”. Why? Because the gathered church should aim to build up one another.
PROPHESY FOR UNBELIEVERS’ SAKE
Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. In the Law it is written: “Through men of strange tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me,” says the Lord. Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers. So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you” (1 Corinthians 13:20-25).
Paul urges them to “be adults” in their thinking about tongues. Citing Isaiah 28:11,12, he argues that tongues are “a sign . . . for unbelievers” who may be among them. A sign of what? Of God’s judgment on them. These unbelievers misunderstand tongues and so conclude these Christians are out of their mind. Thereby, they confirm themselves in their unbelief and are lost. But if an unbeliever hears intelligible prophecy “he will be convinced he’s a sinner . . . and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare”. Consequently, he will fall to his knees in worship and exclaim, “God is really among you!” “Tongues, then, are a sign . . . for unbelievers . . . ”
I grew up in a Pentecostal church. We assumed God was really among us whenever someone “gave a message in tongues.” The congregation would fall absolutely silent as the tongues-speaker spoke and as we waited for the interpretation. As I recall, often the interpretation was not a prayer or praise to God, but an encouragement to the church (contrary to what Paul explains tongues is to be).
I presume the same remains today. Tongues is not the primary sign of God’s presence in gathered worship. Prophecy is, because prophecy–the spontaneous speaking of a message consistent with Scripture–“strengthens, encourages and comforts” the church.
Not only so, it can reveal the secrets hidden in the heart of an unbeliever who may be present. Thus he is convicted that God is really present and may bow in repentance.
I’ve urged often in this spiritual gifts section of 1 Corinthians that we pray for spiritual gifts. I do it again. In addition to–and consistent with his written Word–God has made available gifts to build up the church and convince unbelievers. We’re negligent and less strong if we don’t seek them.
Seen in that light, cessationists (who argue spiritual gifts ceased with the last apostle’s death) are especially guilty. By the way, their scriptural argument is that “perfection” in 1 Corinthians 13:9,10 refers to the completion of the New Testament canon. Only by reading a predisposed theological position into that text could one reach that interpretation!
But we continuationists (who believe spiritual gifts are for today and until Christ returns) too often hold to our continuationist belief without practice. The church isn’t a classroom where the professor-preacher lectures the Bible. Nor is it a pep rally where the worship team stirs up the congregation to enthusiastically “worship” God. Teaching and singing to the Lord are “musts”. But so is mutual edification through spiritual gifts.
In this day of spreading secularism and lukewarm Christianity, the church needs strengthening, encouraging and comforting in every way our Lord makes available. That includes spiritual gifts properly ordered.
Hear the apostle . . .
Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts,
especially the gift of prophecy
(1 Corinthians 14:1).