1 Corinthians 14a
1 Corinthians 14:1-4… Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy. 2 For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men, but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries. 3 But one who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation. 4 One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church.
In chapter 12 Paul listed some of the spiritual gifts. In chapter 13 he said that all gifts were worthless without love. So, to use the gifts of prophecy and tongues but have no love for those being ministered to would have been nothing more than an “annoying gong or clanging cymbal.” The spiritual gifts are given by God to His children so that they can minister to each other. Anytime they are used to bring glory to oneself they are abused and become worthless.
In 12:31 Paul may have condemned the Corinthians for seeking after the charismata – the showy gifts like tongues & miracles, because they brought them the attention they so desired. So, after correcting them and showing them the way of love in chapter 13, he now commands them in 14:1 to “earnestly desire the spiritual gifts.” The “spiritual” is in opposition to the fleshly desires they had in seeking praise for themselves. To “earnestly desire” means to “set one’s heart on.” They were to set their hearts on the “spiritual” as opposed to the flesh; things that truly matter as opposed to worldly pursuits like speaking in tongues for the purpose of being noticed.
The pursuit of selfish things is detrimental (v. 2). Those speaking gibberish were not speaking to men because no one understood them. When Paul says that they were speaking to God, however, he didn’t mean that their ecstatic utterances were some sort of prayer language. “God” has no definite article (i.e. “the”) in front of it in the Greek text, and it’s possible to translate it as “god” – a pagan god. Keep in mind that Paul is sarcastically lecturing this group who had been duped by the pagan practice of tongue-speaking in order to converse with the gods spirit-to-spirit through communication that transcended the mind and normal comprehension. A rough paraphrase might say, “God only knows what they’re saying; no one else does!” Also, it’s important to note that “tongue” in vv. 2 & 4 is singular, while it is plural in vv. 5-6, 18, 22-23, 39. The singular form might reference the gibberish while the plural form appears to reference the true gift. Pagan gibberish has only one form, while the factual gift includes all true dialects. The “tongues” were given as a sign to unbelieving Israel and to the Gentiles. They validated the apostolic message and showed Israel that God had rejected her. Those that spoke in this pagan “tongue” (singular) spoke “mysteries” in their spirit. They spoke to themselves without grasping.
Verse 3, “But the one who prophesies speaks to men…” contrasts the pagan tongue-speaking, which no one understood, with the one who prophesies. Prophecy “edifies, exhorts, and consoles.” To edify is to “build up”; to exhort is to “move to action”; to console is to “comfort – to give relief to.” All three benefit others, while speaking in a tongue helps no one. It only edifies the person making gibberish. In contrast, those who prophesy are selfless.
Food for Thought
Pretty much everything we want, desire, and pursue is selfish. From our children’s success to our own we seek what makes us look good. Pray today for a drastic change in your mindset. Pray for an earnest desire for spiritual matters. Instead of praying for your child’s popularity pray for his/her salvation. Instead of desiring more money and/or greater prestige at work pray instead for a life that leads others to Jesus Christ. Forget the flesh and the material wealth and pursue the spiritual. After all, the flesh dies, but the spirit lives forever.
1 Corinthians 14:5-6… Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy; and greater is one who prophesies than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may receive edifying. 6 But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking in tongues, what shall I profit you, unless I speak to you either by way of revelation or of knowledge or of prophecy or of teaching?
The gift of tongues was given as a sign to actually provoke Israel and show them that God had not only rejected them for their rejection of Him (as seen in the fact that every time they were used in the Book of Acts Jews were present), but also to give the Gentiles a confirming sign that the message of the apostles and prophets was genuine. They were a sign of God’s work designed to unite all believers under Jesus Christ. To believe that these tongues were mere ecstatic utterances serves only to introduce confusion. Paul has already made the statement that not all believers speak in tongues (12:7-10; 30). It’s simply not a gift for everyone, but one that is a small part of the whole body. So, in v. 5 when he wishes that “all spoke in tongues” he’s being straightforward in his teaching that tongues are not to be looked down upon, for they are a true manifestation of the Spirit in a believer’s life. He’s basically saying that if the Holy Spirit chose to give the gift of tongues to all believers, then he’d be thrilled, but he knows this isn’t the case.
Whatever Paul may have wished about tongues what he really wanted was for all believers in Corinth to prophesy. Now he doesn’t necessarily want them all to have the “gift” of prophecy but that they all preach. Those with that gift received God’s revelation and spoke it effectively to believers, but one does not have to have the gift to perform the work of prophecy which is nothing more than preaching God’s truth. The first century gift was receiving God’s revelation while the post-apostolic gift concerns teaching the written revelation as found in the Bible. Keep in mind that church-goers in that day did not have New Testament Bibles. Most didn’t even have copies of OT scripture. So Paul’s strongest desire was for believers to proclaim God’s truth as given to the apostles and prophets. Why? Simply because speaking God’s revealed Word builds up the church – it builds the believers in Christ. Those that spoke in tongues benefited the church only if they interpreted what they said – which translates to prophecy, the greater gift. Paul’s primary concern was that “the church may receive edification.”
In v. 6 the apostle makes a summary statement about tongues. He asks, “What does it profit you if I come speaking in languages you don’t understand?” Rather, he is more concerned with building the church up – the very reason he wrote to that church in the first place. They were filled with problems and immorality, and he wrote to correct that. God’s revelation, His knowledge, His prophecies given to man, and man’s teaching about God’s revelation spoken in a clear and understandable dialect is of utmost importance. While the Corinthians were bent on edifying themselves, Paul reminds them that God’s truth, clearly spoken, is what really matters.
Food for Thought
The church today is filled with people seeking their own glory. Some are subtle; some not so subtle. Those who interrupt church gatherings with ecstatic utterances have one goal: to call attention to the themselves. Those that feel their language is a prayer language, who themselves have no understanding of what they’re saying, are in danger of blaspheming Christ without even knowing it. Let us speak in languages that all can understand and benefit from. Let us also pray like Jesus did in his high priestly prayer in John 17 – pouring out our hearts in simple, clear, and humble language without meaningless repetition. That formula builds us, and it helps others.
1 Corinthians 14:9-12… So also you, unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air. 10 There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of languages in the world, and no kind is without meaning. 11 If then I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be to the one who speaks a barbarian, and the one who speaks will be a barbarian to me. 12 So also you, since you are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek to abound for the edification of the church.
Lifeless things like musical instruments produce various sounds, and Paul makes this analogy in vv. 7-8. The flute and harp, for instance, make sounds and have clear distinctions in their tones. If played accordingly they produce a beautiful tune. But if instruments are played with repeated notes over and over no tune is heard – only a monotonous noise. If the bugle – used to gather troops for battle in ancient Greece and Israel (a ram’s horn) – failed to make its very distinct noise, the armies it was meant to rally together would remain idle, and the battle would be lost. With all of this in mind, v. 9 sums up the matter concerning tongues. For if one comes speaking in languages that no one understands they are little more than a musical instrument in the hands of a child making annoying noises. No one knows what they’re saying – they are “speaking into the air.” This ties in with v. 2 which is often misinterpreted as promoting tongues as a prayer language (“For the one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God”). But v. 9 clearly puts indecipherable language in the same category as worthless noise from a bugle. Since man can’t decipher what counterfeit tongue-speakers are saying, then truly God only knows what they’re saying. They’re speaking into thin air believing they’re praying.
Verse 10 clarifies that there are many different languages, “and no kind is without meaning.” This means that the gift of tongues is the ability to speak in foreign languages previously unlearned by the speaker. This is in contrast to the ecstatic utterances the Corinthians (and many modern-day charismatics) were speaking so as to draw attention to themselves. The true gift can be interpreted because it’s a real dialect. The counterfeit “gift” can say anything the interpreter (often the speaker) wants it to say because he/she is making it up.
In v. 11 Paul hypothetically supposes that if he were to come to the Corinthian church speaking in tongues without an interpreter, he would sound like a “barbarian.” This word is one derived from the twin syllables “bar-bar” where it sounds like the speaker is stuttering. Anyone who did not speak Greek was considered an uneducated stuttering fool to the Greeks who were enamored with human wisdom and knowledge (a trap the Corinthians had also fallen into). Paul says that others would believe him to be crazy, not influenced by the Holy Spirit. Even if he came speaking to them using his true gift of tongues-speaking no one would understand without an interpretation. How much less then would speaking in the counterfeit gibberish?
So, in v. 12, Paul concludes: “Since you’re so eager to participate in the work of the Holy Spirit, why don’t you concentrate on doing what helps everyone?” Tongues didn’t benefit all, and all were to benefit. It actually hindered some because they thought the speaker was insane.
Food for Thought
If you’ve ever entered into a church where ecstatic utterances (thought to be the gift of tongues) are practiced you likely thought just what Paul predicted: those people are crazy! As a result you didn’t benefit from the worship, and you found another church. This illustrates the entire principle. If our churches don’t build up the body of Christ with spiritual nourishment and exhortation, then what’s the point? See to it that what you do benefits all, putting yourself aside.
1 Corinthians 14:13-15… So then, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret.14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unproductive. 15 What should I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind. I will sing praises with my spirit, but I will also sing praises with my mind.
Spiritual gifts are given by God as “He wills” (12:11), and each believer has at least one gift as their part in the body of Christ. Believers are not to pursue gifts within Christ’s spiritual body that they don’t possess any more so than a foot should seek to be a hand in the physical body. Nowhere in scripture are believers told to seek the spiritual gifts they don’t have. This is a common practice in charismatic churches that actually teach others to speak in tongues. If it’s a spiritual gift given by God then how can it be taught by a human? So, in v. 13 the conclusion is that the one speaking in an unknown tongue should pray that he may interpret what he/she is saying because an un-interpreted language is worthless to those who don’t understand it. It demands interpretation. Notice that Paul tells them to “pray” that they might interpret the gift. Up to this point “pray” has not been used; it’s all about “speaking” in a tongue or tongues, and it was to be done out loud for the benefit of those hearing. Now since Paul is speaking of the false use of tongues here (evidenced by the singular “tongue”) notice that he demands that they pray for an interpretation. But since we are not to actually seek spiritual gifts, which are given by God alone as “He wills,” it is apparent that Paul is being sarcastic in this admonition to seek to interpret. These tongue-speakers were babbling in incoherent syllables that no one could understand. This was a common pagan practice for the purpose of higher communication with pagan gods. These utterances were designed to transcend the human mind and go into the spiritual realm of the gods. As in 14:2 & 9 Paul said that only God knew what they were saying, now he tauntingly tells them to ask their “gods” for an interpretation.
In v. 14 Paul uses a hypothetical situation where he might “pray” in a tongue. This hypothetical situation concerns public prayer as evidenced by vv. 15-16, so it cannot be used to actually promote the speaking of tongues as a private prayer language, a point reinforced in the final phrase of v. 14… “but my mind is unfruitful.” In other words, in this hypothetical situation where Paul might pray in an unknown tongue he might use gibberish in his words, but his mind would understand nothing. Keep in mind that 1 Corinthians was written to correct unorthodox behavior. Chapters 12-14 are about correcting the misuse of tongues, and when taken out of that context the text can say anything the reader wants. Verse 14 teaches how absurd praying in tongues without an interpreter is. When he says, “My spirit prays” the inclusion of “my” rules out that this refers to the Holy Spirit. The word for “spirit” can also mean “breath,” so it is clear that Paul is referencing his own will that makes itself evident in his words. But when speaking in an unknown tongue his mouth says things that his mind can’t comprehend. So, in v. 15 Paul decides to nix the unknown-tongue prayer because his intellect profits nothing. The best way to pray (and sing) is in such a way that one’s mind understands what one’s mouth is saying. When he says that he will pray “with the spirit” he is not referencing the Holy Spirit, as denoted by the lower case “h” in the English text. It’s the same “spirit” or “breath” he spoke of in v. 14.
Food for Thought
The Bible says nothing about special prayer languages. Our language to God is powerful when we pray in our native tongue and in faith. And our prayers with fellow believers build the church when we praise and petition God in simplistic language and humility. That’s good prayer.
1 Corinthians 14:16-19… Otherwise, if you are praising God with your spirit, how can someone without the gift say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since he does not know what you are saying? 17 For you are certainly giving thanks well, but the other person is not strengthened. 18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you, 19 but in the church I want to speak five words with my mind to instruct others, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue.
In v. 16, one of the reasons for nixing the “prayer language” in public worship is that when an unknown tongue is spoken the “ungifted” (Greek idiotas) – the one who is ignorant of the language being spoken – won’t understand and won’t be able to say “Amen!” after the prayer. The word for “amen” literally means “so let it be!” And if anyone is at the prayer gathering where the prayer is not understood he/she can’t “amen” the message of thanks.
In v. 17 giving thanks, or blessing, without edifying the gathering of believers (the church) is no good. The text literally reads, “For you are giving thanks well, but the other person is not being built up; he is not edified.” Paul does seem to affirm, however, that the Corinthians and their tongue-speaking did in fact give thanks to God – the true spiritual gift of tongues. They were truly thankful for God’s gifts, but in thanking God for them they alienated those without the gift and exalted themselves above others with the gift. As such, no one benefited.
Verses 18-19 prove that the gift of tongues (plural) is a real spiritual gift as given by the Holy Spirit. Paul had this gift because he was an apostle. He used it properly, and he was trying to teach how the improper use of them benefits no one. In v. 18 he moves from speaking about the counterfeit gibberish to the orthodox spiritual gift. Even though there is no specific instance of Paul speaking in tongues in the Bible, he apparently had far more experience in using the gift than the Corinthians. He obviously didn’t use the gift to glorify himself, and it is clear from Paul’s own life that an orthodox understanding of the gift of tongues prevented those who had the gift from abusing the gift. Paul, as did all the apostles, primarily used the gift of tongues to speak of God’s mighty deeds (Acts 2:11) and to verify God’s work through Christ and the apostles. So, he was able to thank God that he spoke in tongues more than all the Corinthians. Notice that he uses the plural “tongues” (a reference to the orthodox gift) as opposed to the singular “tongue” (a reference to the ecstatic utterances of the pagans who worshipped false gods). But for Paul his ability to speak in tongues meant little to him in v. 19 if no one could understand what he was saying. When he gathered with other believers in worship of God (“in church”) he said that he would rather speak five intelligible words than 10,000 in a tongue (singular). The word for “10,000” in Greek is a word that denotes an uncountable sum. It’s the largest number for which Greek had a specific word. The book of Revelation translates it as “myriad” and “thousands.” For Paul, the edification of others was of utmost importance.
Food for Thought
Notice how true spirituality manifests itself through a greater concern for others than oneself. Clear teaching and prayer in public worship along with interaction and participation is what makes a true worship service. Public prayers in church should be orthodox enough to receive a resounding AMEN! from those participating in the worship. But when the church worship is done in languages the congregation doesn’t understand, like Latin or in unknown languages by one who claims to speak in tongues, the worship is meaningless; no one is edified. Through true and coherent worship Christians will be fed with true spiritual food from God’s Word. This ultimately glorifies the Almighty God, the Holy Creator and Sustainer of all things.
Tongues and Prophecy in the Church
1 Corinthians 14:1-19
The Priority of Prophecy (vv. 1-5)
- We must set our minds on what is spiritual – not on the material.
- We must strive to be effective preachers of God’s truth.
- We must use our spiritual gift(s) to build other Christians.
- Preaching God’s truth is the greatest aspiration we can have.
The Pursuit of Peculiarity (vv. 6-12)
- Our language must be clear
- Our lives must be distinct
- Our love must be selfless
Our Prayer and Our Praise (vv. 13-19)
- We are to pray simply and meaningfully
- Our public prayers should bless others
- Our words in church should build the body
I) The Inferiority of Tongues (14:1–25)… NOT the mark of superior spirituality.
A) Tongues do not edify (build up) the church (vv. 1–19).
1) Not for personal enjoyment
2) Contrasted with Prophecy
|1. Speaks to men for their good, v. 3||1. Speaks to God for the speaker’s own good, v. 2|
|2. Can be understood, vv. 2, 5||2. Not understood unless there is an interpreter|
|3. Edifies the church, vv. 3–4||3. Edifies the speaker, v. 4|
|4. The greater gift, vv.||4. The lesser gift, v. 5 (note 12:10)|
Tongues, apart from utterances that are interpreted, are of no value to the church. They bring no personal blessing to the speaker himself unless he understands what is being said (vv. 14–15). How can we edify the church if we use our spiritual gifts in private and not to serve others? And if we do not understand what is being said, how can we profit from it ourselves? It is possible for the flesh and the devil to imitate spiritual gifts and lead a believer into a religion of shallow emotionalism instead of one of solid understanding and faith. This is not to deny the place of sincere emotions in the Christian life, for the fruits of the Spirit certainly involve the emotions (Gal. 5:22–23); these emotions, however, must be instructed by the mind and controlled by the will, or they will be destructive.
B. Tongues do not edify the believer (vv. 20–21).
Though some would suggest that tongues reveal mature believes, look at the Corinthians! They were “babes in Christ” and “carnal” (3:1–4); boasted of their “spirituality” (8:1–2; 10:12), yet had to be warned by Paul and taught in the most elementary manner. Mature believers have the Spirit and the Word and don’t seek emotional experiences.
C. Tongues do not win the lost (vv. 22–25).
In Acts 2, God gave the apostles the gift of tongues that they might share the Word with the Jews at Pentecost. It was a sign to the Jews that God was at work, fulfilling Isa. 28:11–12.
We find incidents involving tongues four times in Acts, and each time they give evidence to Jews present that God is working:
(1) Acts 2; tongues are evidence to the unbelieving Jews at Pentecost;
(2) Acts 8; evidence to the believing Jews that the Spirit had come upon the Samaritans;
(3) Acts 10; evidence that the Spirit had come upon the Gentiles;
(4) Acts 19; evidence that the 12 Ephesian men had received the Spirit.
*** But tongues would never reach the unbeliever for the Lord, especially the confusion of tongues that existed at Corinth. It was another Babel! Far better that the unbelieving visitor should hear a message from the Word, something he can understand, and then make his decision for Christ, than hear a confusion of messages he cannot grasp.
Additional Notes on First Corinthians 12–14
Some charismatics claim…
A. “There is a baptism of the Spirit after salvation.”
Some teach that it is necessary to “tarry for the power” in prayer and fasting, basing this on Acts 1 and Luke 24:49. But 1 Cor. 12:13 teaches that all believers have been baptized by the Spirit into the body of Christ. This was true even of the carnal Corinthians! There are “fillings” of the Spirit after conversion, and we are commanded to be filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18); but we are never commanded in Scripture to be baptized with the Spirit. There is one baptism that takes place at conversion, but many fillings of the Spirit as we daily yield to God.
B. “The evidence of this baptism is speaking in tongues.”
If this is true, then most of the Corinthians had never experienced the baptism, because not all of them spoke in tongues (12:10 and 30). Yet 12:13 says they were all baptized by the Spirit. Therefore, if the charismatics are correct, all of the Corinthian believers should have spoken in tongues; but they did not. John the Baptist was filled with the Spirit before birth, yet never spoke in tongues. Great saints down through the ages have never spoken in tongues.
C. “The gift of tongues is a mark of spirituality.”
Not at Corinth! This was the most carnal church Paul ever had to deal with. They were babes in Christ (1 Cor. 3:1–4). Instead of being a mark of deeper spiritual life, tongues are a relatively inferior gift that has little value to the individual Christian or the church collectively. It is possible to have spiritual gifts and not have spiritual graces, and 1 Cor. 13 clearly teaches this. The important issue is not how many gifts I have, but is my life like Christ’s and am I attracting people to Him?
D. “Tongues are for the church today.”
There is every evidence that several of the gifts were temporary. Prophecy, tongues, and knowledge (the imparting of immediate spiritual truth by the Spirit) seemed to have passed away with the completion of the writing of the NT. First Cor. 13:8–13 indicates that these gifts would pass away and no longer be needed. They belonged to the “childhood” of the church. Today the church’s life and ministry are founded on the Word of God. Read Acts 20:17–38 for a picture of the ideal NT ministry; here you will find nothing about tongues.
E. “A believer can benefit from tongues privately.”
But spiritual gifts are given for the profit of the whole church (12:7), not just one saint. There is no suggestion in these chapters that any gift is granted for the private enjoyment of the believer. In fact, in 14:13–15 Paul clearly states that the private use of the gift of tongues is not right. If there is interpretation, allowing the believer to know what is being said, then there can be spiritual benefit; but without understanding, there is no blessing. The private use of tongues is contrary to the letter and spirit of 1 Cor. 12–14.
F. “The gift of tongues ties believers together.”
There is a new kind of ecumenicity among Christians in the charismatic movement that says, “You don’t have to deny your basic beliefs to be a part of our fellowship.” But did the so-called “baptism of the Spirit” unify the believers at Corinth? The church was divided four ways (1 Cor. 1:10–13)! Yet all of the believers there had experienced the baptism of the Spirit (12:13)! There was discord, division, and dispute in the church; yet there was also the gift of tongues. It has been our experience that the emphasis on “tongues” and “Spirit baptism” divides the church instead of unifying it. The “tongues Christians” think themselves superior to the others, and then trouble starts.
G. “It makes no difference what terms you use as long as you have the experience.”
This is a subtle lie of Satan. The very words of Scripture are given by the Spirit, and we must obey them (1 Cor. 2:9–16). It is wrong to confuse the baptism of the Spirit with the filling of the Spirit, for God has definitely separated them. We must base Christian experience on the Bible, and not interpret the Bible by experience. If we understand Bible words and truths, we will understand how to live the Christian life. Notice how many times Paul uses the word “ignorant” in writing to the Corinthians. “Be not children in understanding!” he admonished them in 14:20. It is possible for Satan and his demonic powers to counterfeit “spiritual experiences” for shallow Christians. But Satan cannot work where Christians understand the Word of God.