The apostle Paul has been addressing the subject of public worship and how the believers in Corinth were to conduct themselves and treat one another whenever they assembled together for public worship. At the beginning of chapter 11 he wrote about what woman who prayed and prophesied ought to wear when they met for public worship. Then, in the second part of chapter 11 he wrote about how they should behave and treat one another when they met together to take part in the Lord’s Supper. And in chapter 12 he began to write about spiritual gifts. There are many kinds of spiritual gifts, but they all come from God and they’re to be used, not selfishly, but for the common good. And those with certain gifts — like the gift of tongues — were not to despise those who did not have that kind of gift. And those without certain gifts — like the gift of tongues — were not to envy those who had that kind of gift. Instead of despising one another and envying one another, they were to love one another. And that’s what chapter 13 was about, because Paul made the point that love is more important than any spiritual gift they might have; and the value of anything they did was undermined entirely if they did not love one another.
And so, today we come to chapter 14. There are lots of details in this chapter which are hard to understand. However, the main point of the chapter is clear, because in this chapter Paul contrasts the gift of prophecy and the gift of tongues; and he makes clear that the gift of prophecy is superior to the gift of tongues. It seems that the members of the church in Corinth considered speaking in tongues to be the most important gift; and I’ve said before that there are churches today and believers today who think the same; and they say that speaking in tongues is the sign that someone has been filled with the Spirit. However, Paul makes clear that the gift of prophecy is greater than the gift of tongues. Look at verse 5 for instance where Paul wrote:
I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather that you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues.
So, it would be great if you all had the ability to speak in tongues; nevertheless, the one who prophesies — the one with the gift of prophecy — is greater. Look also at verses 18 and 19 where Paul wrote:
I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words in instruct others than ten thousands words in a tongue.
So, Paul was able to speak in tongues more than all of them. But still he’d rather be able to speak a few words of prophecy which the people can understand than many words in tongues which they cannot understand.
That’s the main point of this passage. They were emphasising speaking in tongues; that was the most important gift, according to some of them. Many churches today say the same thing and there’s a big emphasis on speaking in tongues. But Paul regarded the gift of prophecy as better for the church. And we’ll find out why as we study the passage.
However, what does he mean by the gift of prophecy and what does he mean by the gift of tongues. Let’s begin with prophecy. I mentioned before — when we were studying what Paul said in chapter 11 about women who prophesied — that prophecy in the Bible is Spirit-inspired speech by which God reveals his truth to his people. It’s different from preaching, because the preacher works with a text, whereas the prophet does not. I start with a passage from the Bible and try to explain it to you. We go through it, word by word, or phrase by phrase, or verse by verse. That’s preaching. The prophet doesn’t need a text, because the Holy Spirit inspires the prophet to reveal God’s truth to his people directly. The prophet reveals God’s word; the preacher explains God’s word.
There were, of course, prophets in the Old Testament: men like Elijah and Elisha and Isaiah and Jeremiah. But there were also New Testament prophets. Not only does Paul refer to them here in this chapter, but he refers to them on three occasions in his letter to the Ephesians. And what’s interesting about what he says about them in Ephesians, is that they’re linked to the work of the apostles. So, in 2:20 of Ephesians he wrote about the church being built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. In Ephesians 3:5 he wrote about how the mystery of Christ was not made known in other generations, but it has now been revealed to God’s holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. And in Ephesians 4:11 he wrote that the Risen and Ascended Lord Jesus has given his church apostles and prophets as well as evangelists and pastor-teachers to equip the saints. In other words, not only were there prophets in the Old Testament, but there were also prophets in the New Testament who worked alongside the apostles.
In the second verse I mentioned — from Ephesians 3:5 — Paul indicates that the prophet’s message was a revelation from God given to them by the Holy Spirit. That’s why we can define prophecy as Spirit-inspired speech by which God reveals his truth to his people. In fact, we have a couple of examples of prophecy in the book of Acts. In Acts 11:28 we read of a prophet named Agabus who stood up among the believers in Antioch and — it says — ‘through the Spirit predicted’ that a severe famine was coming. Then in Acts 21:10 we read about Agabus again who gave the apostle Paul a message from the Holy Spirit. In both cases, Agabus was able to reveal a message by means of the Holy Spirit. Prophecy is Spirit-inspired speech by which God reveals his truth to his people.
Now, in the case of Agabus, God revealed something about the future; and that’s what we commonly think of when we think about prophecy: we think it’s about predicting the future. However, according to Paul in Ephesians 3, God also revealed to his New Testament prophets the mystery of Christ. In other words, the Spirit revealed to them a message about the good news of the gospel. Also, in 1 Corinthians 14 and verse 3 we learn that prophecy can strengthen and encourage and comfort the church; and in 1 Corinthians 14 and verse 24 we learn the prophecy can convict sinners of their sin; and in 1 Corinthians 14 and verses 29 to 31 we learn again that prophecy is a revelation from God which is able to instruct and encourage the people. That’s prophecy.
So, what does Paul mean by speaking in tongues. Well, charismatic and pentecostal believers today would have us believe that speaking in tongues refers to some kind of ecstatic speech or the ability to speak a heavenly language by means of the Holy Spirit. However, for most of the past 2,000 years Christians have taken it for granted that when Paul refers to speaking in tongues in 1 Corinthians, he’s referring to what took place on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit enabled the believers to declare the wonders of God to the people in Jerusalem in different human languages. The phrase ‘speak in tongues’ can also be translated as ‘speak in languages’ and that’s what happened on the day of Pentecost, so that all those people who had come to Jerusalem from other countries heard the believers speak to them in their own native language. The believers in Jerusalem had not previously learned these languages, but the Holy Spirit miraculously and supernaturally enabled them to speak all these different languages. And nowhere else in the book of Acts do we find any evidence that speaking in tongues meant anything else than that. In Acts 10, for instance, we read how Peter preached the gospel to Cornelius and his relatives and friends. While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit came on all those who heard the message and they spoke in tongues — or languages — and praised God. And Peter said: ‘Can anyone keep these people from being baptised with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.’ Do you see what he was saying? He was saying that their speaking in tongues in Acts 10 was the same as the speaking in tongues in Acts 2 at Pentecost. Furthermore, in Acts 11:15, when Peter was explaining to the believers in Antioch what happened in Cornelius’s home, Peter said: ‘As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning.’
What Cornelius and his friends experienced was what the believers in Jerusalem had experienced. Speaking in tongues in Jerusalem and in Caesarea where Cornelius lived meant speaking a foreign language which the speaker had not learned previously.
And so, from the book of Acts — which is the only place in the Bible where we’re given a description of what happened when people spoke in tongues — we learn that speaking in tongues means speaking in foreign languages. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 14 Paul supports what he says about speaking in tongues by quoting from the Old Testament book of Isaiah. Do you see that in verse 21? And the quotation refers to that time when the Assyrians and Babylonians invaded the land of Israel. And, of course, because they spoke a foreign language, the Israelites could not understand what they said. Paul uses what Isaiah said about foreign languages to explain what was going on in Corinth. Speaking in tongues — despite what charismatics and pentecostals have us believe — means speaking in a foreign language.
But when the Holy Spirit enabled people to speak in foreign languages like this, it was also a form of Spirit-inspired speech by which God revealed his truth to his people. Why do I say that? Well, look at the end of verse 3 in chapter 14 where Paul says that the person who speaks in tongues utters mysteries with his spirit. If you’re using the NIV, you’ll see the little footnote beside the word ‘spirit’ which tells us that it can also be translated ‘by the Spirit’. Since we’re talking about spiritual gifts, it makes more sense to translate Paul’s words in that way. So, the person who speaks in tongues utters mysteries by the Spirit. Now, I’ve said before that when we use the word ‘mystery’, we think of something that’s hard to understand; something that’s hard to make sense of and which makes us scratch our heads and think: What does it mean?
But in the Bible, a mystery is some truth about God which we could never know unless God reveals it. In the writings of Paul, it often refers to the good news of the gospel and to everything the gospel entails. In other words, when Paul says that the person who speaks in tongues utters mysteries by the Spirit, he means that the person who speaks in foreign languages is enabled by the Spirit to reveal some truth about God. So, when someone spoke in a tongue, or spoke in another language, God was revealing something about himself. Think back to the day of Pentecost when all those foreigners in Jerusalem heard the believers declare to them the wonders of God. God was revealing himself to them through these believers who were enabled by the Spirit to speak in foreign languages.
Of course, one of Paul’s points in chapter 14 is that no one in the church in Corinth can understand these revelation when spoken in a foreign language. No one can understand it, so that it does the church no good; unless, that is, there’s someone in the church who has the gift of interpretation. If there’s someone who can interpret what is said, or translate what is said, then speaking in tongues can have the same benefit as prophecy, because the church is therefore edified by what is said. We see that in verses 4 and 5 where Paul says:
He who speak 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 he who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified.
Do you see? The value of prophecy is that it builds up the church. But the church can also be built up when a message spoken in tongues is interpreted.
So, prophecy is Spirit-inspired speech by which God reveals his truth to his people. Speaking in tongues is also Spirit-inspired speech by which God reveals his truth to his people. However, because speaking in tongues means speaking a foreign language, the people in Corinth were not able to understand the revelation, unless someone was able to interpret the message.
So, having said all of that to make clear what Paul means by prophecy and speaking in tongues, let’s go through the passage briefly. And in verses 1 to 5 Paul makes the point that prophecy is better than uninterpreted tongues, because uninterpreted tongue-speaking only benefits one person — the speaker — whereas prophecy benefits the entire church. Paul says in verse 4 that he who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. The entire church is built up whenever someone comes with a message from the Lord which they can all understand. When the church hears a message from God, the whole church is strengthened and encouraged and comforted; they’re built up in the faith and they’re built up in holiness and comfort. Therefore prophecy is better than uninterpreted tongue-speaking, because it benefits the whole church and not just one person. And remember: the gifts of the Spirit are given not for my own personal benefit, but for the common good. Whatever serves the common good, whatever helps the whole church, is better than whatever benefits only me. Therefore prophecy is better than speaking in tongues because it edifies everyone, unless, of course, there’s someone who can interpret what was said in tongues. When an interpret is there, then the whole church can benefit from the message.
Then in verses 6 to 12 Paul explains that uninterpreted tongues are less helpful than prophecy because uninterpreted tongues can’t be understood whereas prophecy can be understood. And he uses two illustrations. Firstly, in verse 7: No one will know what is being played on a musical instrument unless the musician plays clear and distinct notes. So, a sound is being made, but no one benefits from it. It’s the same when someone speaks in tongues and there’s no one to interpret the message: a sound is being made, but no one benefits from it.
Secondly, in verse 8: An army will not respond to the trumpet call unless the trumpet player makes a clear sound. So, once again a sound is being made, but no one benefits from it. In the same way, when someone speaks in a tongue, a sound is heard, but no one benefits from it.
And so, Paul says in verses 10 and 11, undoubtedly there are lots of languages in the world. Each one of them has meaning. But if you don’t know the meaning of the words which are spoken, then it’s as if I’m a foreigner to the speaker; and the speaker is a foreigner to me; and I can’t understand or benefit from his words to me. So, he says in verse 12: since you’re eager to have spiritual gifts, since you desire to have them, then you should seek those gifts which will actually benefit the church. Seek those gifts which will help the church. In other words, seek the gift of prophecy or seek the gift of interpretation, because only a message which is understood can help the congregation.
In verses 13 to 19 Paul urges his readers to pray that they will be given the ability to interpret these tongues, so that others will be able to benefit from this gift of the Spirit. Uninterpreted tongues will benefit no one in the church; so pray for the gift to interpret what is said.
Uninterpreted tongue-speaking means praying and singing with your spirit only. That’s how Paul puts it in 15. Some people take this to mean that tongue-speaking takes place deep down inside us, in some deeper part of us so that the person who is speaking in tongues is experiencing God’s presence in a deeper way than we normally experience him. It’s beyond our reason and the rational part of our being. However, in the New Testament, ‘spirit’ is normally another way of referring to the mind. For instance, in Mark 2:8 we read that the Lord Jesus knew something ‘in his spirit’. There’s very little difference between spirit and mind, but both refer to the inner person or to the human heart. And so, some commentators suggest that Paul is referring, not to ‘my spirit’, but to the Holy Spirit who has been given to me or to the spiritual gift which the Holy Spirit gives to me. In that case, he’s referring to those who pray and sing by means of the Holy Spirit in a tongue. But no one benefits from that kind of message; therefore they should pray for the ability to interpret with their mind what is prayed and sung and said. When that happens, everyone in the church will be able to understand what is said so that they are built up and edified by the message.
And in case anyone accuses Paul of sour grapes — you know, for saying these things because he was jealous — he tells his readers that he spoke in tongues more than all of them. Nevertheless, he would rather say a few words that are intelligible and can strengthen the church than a million words that benefits no one.
And finally, in verses 20 to 25 Paul makes the point that prophecy is to be preferred because of what will happen whenever outsiders come into the church. If an outsider comes into the church and everyone is speaking in an unknown language, the outsider will think you’ve all gone out of your mind. Isn’t that similar to what happened on the day of Pentecost, when those who spoke in tongues were accused by some of being drunk? So, Paul imagines outsiders coming to church and thinking they’re all insane, because they’re speaking in these foreign languages.
But if an outsider comes in to the church and hears someone speak a message from God about the gospel of Jesus Christ, then look at what might happen. Verse 24: He will be convinced by all that he is a sinner. He’ll be convicted of his sin. And so, he will fall down and worship God. And he’ll say: ‘God is really among you!’ So, not only does prophecy benefit the church — by strengthening, encouraging and comforting God’s people — but it can convince and convert sinners to faith in Christ. Unbelievers will not benefit from speaking in tongues; but unbelievers, when they hear one of the prophets, will be convicted of his sin.
But what does Paul mean when he says tongues are a sign for unbelievers? Well, it’s not easy to interpret his words, but one possible interpretation is that he’s referring specifically to unbelieving Jews. You see, in the past, in the days of Isaiah, the Lord warned his people that he was going to judge them for their unbelief and rebellion. And so, when the Jews heard foreign tongues in Jerusalem, spoken by the Babylonian invaders, that was a sign to them of God’s judgment on them. That’s the point of the quotation from Isaiah 28 which Paul quotes in verse 21. Well, if you read Acts 18 you’ll discover that there were many Jews in Corinth who refused to believe the gospel. And so, they too will hear foreign tongues, spoken — not by Babylonian invaders this time — but by Gentile believers who have been accepted by God and added to his church. The Gentiles heard God’s word and believed. But the Jews heard God’s word and did not believe. And so, as a result of their unbelief, God will no longer speak to them in words they can understand, but he will speak to them in words they cannot understand as his judgment on them.
Well, that’s one possible interpretation which a number of the commentators have put forward. Nevertheless what is clear is that Paul thinks prophecy is better than speaking in tongues, because no one in Corinth could understand the tongues, unless there was someone to interpret what was said.
When we were studying chapter 12 I said that these gifts of the Spirit have now ceased. They were for that special apostolic era, before the New Testament was written; that foundational and unique period in the history of the New Testament church.
You see, when we want to know anything about the Lord today, we can turn to God’s word where he makes himself and his will known. But in the days of the apostles, the people did not have a complete Bible. So how could they know God and his will? Well, they had the apostles and prophets: they apostles were the Lord’s official eye-witnesses, appointed by the Lord himself to testify to all he said and did. And the Holy Spirit was given to them to understand God’s truth and to make it known to his people. The prophets too were enabled by the Spirit to reveal God’s truth to his people in those days before the Bible was completed.
So, before the Bible was completed, God revealed himself to his people through the apostles and prophets. And so, as Paul has been saying, the church in those days was built up and edified, and believers were built up and edified, by means of the work of the apostles and prophets and the message they proclaimed through the Holy Spirit.
But what happened afterwards, after that special apostolic era was over? Well, the church still needs to be built up; every believer needs to be built up: we need to be built up in the faith and built up in holiness and comfort and in love for one another. And for that we now have the Bible, because — as Paul wrote to Timothy — the Scriptures are God-breathed; they’re breathed out or inspired by God. And they’re useful for teaching and rebuking and correcting and training in righteousness so that the man of God — which is probably a reference to a minister — may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. Once believers relied on the Spirit-inspired ministry of apostles and prophets; but now we rely on the Spirit-inspired Scriptures. And by means of the Scriptures, God speaks to his people today to teach us what we need to know; and to rebuke us when we go astray; and to correct us when we’re in error; and to train us up in the right way. An ordinary preacher might be tempted to feel that he’s not fully equipped for the work, because he doesn’t possess the gift of prophecy or any other special gift of the Spirit. But no matter, because all he needs is the Bible in order to teach the people and to edify them. And a congregation may feel they’re missing out, because their minister is not a prophet and does not display any of the gifts of the Spirit. But it doesn’t matter, because so long as he’s preaching and teaching God’s word, the church has all that it needs; and by means of the reading and preaching of God’s word, sinners are convinced and converted to faith in Christ and believers are built up in holiness and comfort unto salvation. And so, whenever we meet for worship on Sundays, we ought to pray that the Holy Spirit will use the reading and preaching of the Spirit-inspired Scriptures to build us up in the faith.