Gifts of Prophecy and Tongues
1Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy. 2For anyone who speaks in a tongue[a] does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit. 3But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort. 4He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. 5I would like every one of you to speak in tongues,[b] but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues,[c] unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified.
[a] 1 Corinthians 14:2 Or another language; also in verses 4, 13, 14, 19, 26 and 27
[b] 1 Corinthians 14:5 Or other languages; also in verses 6, 18, 22, 23 and 39
[c] 1 Corinthians 14:5 Or other languages; also in verses 6, 18, 22, 23 and 39
As a college student, I got a job one summer as a tour guide at an historical site in my hometown. One of the most amazing things about that summer was my opportunity to meet the official historian of the historical society. This man was brilliant and seemed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of history and the surrounding area. Yet, he literally worked in the attic of the historical society and rarely came downstairs during the day. On top of that, he had never written a book or anything like that. He kept all his knowledge largely to himself My meeting with him was by mere chance and I was even luckier to have had him offer to take me around the site and give me a personal tour. Some guides who had worked there for years had done little more than ever get a few glimpses of this gentlemen. He had a gift of knowledge and intellect but, for the most part, he used his gifts for his own benefit rather than building up others.
The Corinthian community of worship had broken down into a mess of competitive rivalries and jostling for ‘air time’ as each group or person sought to draw attention to themselves. Even the worship services in Corinth had deteriorated into a place where it was characterized by puffed up displays of knowledge for the private individual rather than love-driven worship that built up the community as a whole. This chapter then addresses that very issue, falling into an ABBA chiastic pattern. Verses 1-6 provide Paul’s reasons for preferring a gift that builds up the corporate; verses 6-12 give the problems with using tongues during church worship; verses 13-19 addresses a solution to those problems; verses 20-25 return to reasons for preferring a gift that builds up the community.
Before we look at these verses, we need a quick word on what the gifts of tongues and prophecy were. Acts 2 makes it clear that the gift of tongues was the ability to speak in known languages, but ones that were unknown to the speaker. Speaking in tongues was the ability to praise God (Acts 2:11, 1 Cor. 14:2) in a language that the speaker did not know so that others who spoke a different language from the speaker could understand the praise of God and be amazed by the miracle of the speaker speaking in a language he did not know; it was a sign for the unbeliever (14:22a). It was something quite different then the babbling (for lack of a better word) that constitutes what many groups refer to as speaking in tongues today. The problem was that the Corinthians were using the gift of tongues outside of its intended purpose. If one was exercising the gift in church, where it was not really intended to be used, then there needed to be an interpreter present so that the church and the speaker would know what was being said, and so be edified (1 Cor. 14:9). If the gift was employed in the church without interpretation, it utterly defeated the intended purpose. This is why Paul says “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.” He spoke tongues when it would benefit unbelievers; inside the church it was not necessary.
Prophecy, on the other hand, didn’t just mean flashes of foretelling the future or sudden flashes of inspiration (although that was no doubt part of it), but was primarily the ability to preach a directly God-given message of insight and wisdom that the Church needed to hear (note that both men and women had this gift according to 1 Cor. 11:5). Prophecy was something that was necessary before the complete inspiration of the New Testament. It was the way that Spirit guided and led the Church during and even before the time that the New Testament was being inspired. Yet it took a great deal of discernment, another spiritual gift, to determine that what was being spoken was truly from the Holy Spirit and not some evil spirit or a person’s own opinion.
Paul’s overriding point in this passage is that prophecy furthered the ethic of love because it built up the Church. Tongues was not bad, in fact Paul says he spoke in tongues, but the way they were using it was not beneficial to the body of Christ because it was a further sign of their arrogance rather than demonstrating the virtue of love. Just as they were doing more harm than good by holding a form of the Lord’s Supper in a way quite contrary to it’s purpose and intent, the Corinthians were using the gift of tongues in a way that it was not intended to be used. What possible good was being served by speaking praises to God in a language that no one present could understand, particularly if there was no interpreter there. This was nothing more than a self-gratifying beauty pageant. It certainly missed the entire point of what Christian worship was all about. Paul is clear that both gifts have value and were from God but prophecy was far more valuable during worship services because it was designed for that purpose, tongues was not. Yet, we can learn a great deal about the character of God and how he works with the Christian community in that he inspired Paul to rebuke and correct their practices, but did not ever just take away the ability to speak in tongues. God wants to influence and teach us so that we can learn and make our own right choices rather than force and bully us into proper behavior.
When Paul speaks here of speaking in tongues, we must note again that this is not remotely related to charismatic gift of speaking in tongues that is practiced in many Pentecostal and Mormon churches today. There is, in fact, virtually no claims of the biblical gift of speaking in tongues since the days of the very early church. Over 15 centuries passed before this new ‘gift of tongues’ began to appear in certain Christian circles, although many pagan religions have practiced this babbling form of tongues throughout history (see Matt. 6:7). It wasn’t until as late as the early 20th century that we see the formation and institution of the type of tongues spoken in many charismatic churches today. There are at least four problems with this form of speaking in tongues, however. First, the gift had disappeared for well over 1,500 years and appears completely unrelated to the biblical gifts of speaking in tongues. Second, the current practice of tongues in most churches that practice it, violates Paul’s demand that if tongues were spoken there must be an interpreter present. Even if the current form of tongues was biblical, this guideline is rarely followed. Third, since the guideline of interpretation is rarely followed, this gift serves no purpose of building up and edifying the community. Finally, many churches that engage in the speaking of tongues use it as a sign of salvation. They claim that anyone who does not speak in tongues does not have the Holy Spirit and this demonstrated them to not be genuinely saved (not all tongues speakers, I should note, believe this but many do). This is unbiblical and clearly goes against 1 Corinthians 12:30 which asks, “do all speak in tongues.” The obvious answer to that and the other questions Paul asks in that passage is ‘no’.
Paul wanted the Corinthians to exercise gifts that demonstrated love and built others up rather than using flashy gifts that made the individual feel good about themselves. Does this characterize your heart? Are you willing to do mundane things in the body of Christ out of love and to build up the body or would you rather do something that gains you attention? What is your motivation in using your gifts in the community of Christ?