About Prophecy and Tongues
Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: 1 Corinthians 14:1–25
1 Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you prophesy. 2 For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. 3 On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. 4 The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. 5 Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.
6 Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? 7 If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? 8 And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? 9 So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. 10 There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, 11 but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. 12 So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.
13 Therefore, 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 unfruitful. 15 What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. 16 Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say, “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? 17 For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up. 18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 Nevertheless, in church, I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.
20 Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. 21 In the Law it is written, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” 22 Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. 23 If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? 24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.
The history of human communication is a fascinating study. Recently an article caught that my eye was entitled “From Cave Drawings to the Worldwide Web.” And, as you might presume, it traced the evolution of how people have passed along messages to one another from the earliest days to the present. Living in a time when we can “instant message,” “snapchat,” and “tweet” with others near and far in “real time,” we tend to lose sight of the fact that “staying in touch” with one another was not always so easy.
Less than two centuries ago, it sometimes took weeks for a piece of correspondence to travel from one American city to another, and months (or even years, in some cases) for news to travel around the world. Today, we can “Skype” and even “FaceTime” with friends and relatives on the other side of the globe by striking a few keys or pushing a few buttons.
As hard as it may be to believe, it has been more than four decades since Roy Tomlinson wrote and sent the first “email,” and twenty-five years since Neil Papworth sent the very first “text message.” Now, more than 200 billion emails and nearly 25 billion texts pass through cyberspace everyday.
As anyone who uses those technologies knows, such forms of modern communication are not without their difficulties. If we are not careful, we may send messages to someone for whom they are not intended. And while “autocorrect” and “spell check” may prove helpful, they also create other problems—some of them embarrassing—when fail to pause and proofread before hitting “send.”
The Lord is very concerned that His message be clearly communicated so that it may accomplish the purpose for which He sent it. That’s why we have a Bible. It is God’s inspired and inerrant correspondence to us. It exposes our sinful hearts and sinful deeds and our need for a Savior, and it reveals His remedy by informing us of the sacrificial death of His Son, Jesus Christ, on our behalf.
As we learn from the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth, those lines of communication between God and His people were not always received in the manner they had been intended. Especially was this true with regard to the subject of “spiritual gifts.” And reason appears to be that the Christians there had an inflated and distorted perspective of their own “giftedness.” In fact, they seemed to misunderstand the reason God had “gifted” them in the first place. They were the most “gifted” of the churches to whom Paul had written, but they were not exercising the “gifts” in a way that brought honor to God.
First Corinthians, chapter 14 is about the effective communication of God’s message. “Communication” is what takes place when the intended message of the speaker (or writer) is the same as the message that is received and understood. In the context of this letter, God was concerned with instructing His people regarding how they were to worship Him in an appropriate way whenever they gathered. Specifically, He wanted them to have a proper understanding of the nature of “the gift of prophecy” and “the gift of tongues” and their use in the public assembly.
The point of these twenty-five verses is to demonstrate that “prophecy” is superior to “tongues” because the gift of “prophecy” edifies the church and convicts unbelievers, while the gift of “tongues” does not. In presenting his case, Paul wanted his readers to be aware of the superior nature of “prophecy,” the inferior nature of “tongues,” and the foremost reason for which God had given those two gifts.
Let’s first consider...
The superior nature of “prophecy” (verses 1-5)
...in verses 1 through 5.
We see right away from the opening verse that this chapter links closely with the previous one. As we noted a week ago, chapter 13 is the “mortar” that holds the “bricks” of chapters 12 and 14 together. Its subject was “love,”“αγαπη-love,” and we learned that without it, the “spiritual gifts” are meaningless. So, here Paul urges us to “Pursue love.” We are to make it a priority of continuously “chasing after” the way of “love,” making its attainment our goal. Everything else in the Christian life is declared “null and void” if we don’t “love the Lord” and “love your neighbor” (cf. Matthew 22:37 and 39).
We should pause here for a moment in order to briefly review what we have said over the past couple of weeks with regard to the “spiritual gifts” that God has given to His church:
- • In the first place, the Lord has apportioned “gifts” to every member of the “body,” His church (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:11).
- • Secondly, there is to be no competition with regard to the “gifts.” In other words, we are not to envy one person’s “gift” above our own, or to “play down” the importance of another’s “gift” (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:14-24).
- • And third, the “gifts” are to be exercised in “love” (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:1-3), “for the common good” (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:7), and as we shall see this morning, for the “edifying” or “building up the church.”
In the same breath, the apostle adds, “earnestly desire the spiritual gifts,” and then note, “especially that you prophesy.” So right away, the writer declares “prophecy” to have priority over all of the other “gifts.” That is because, as verse 2 points out, “prophecy” is able to communicate the “mysteries” or the “deep things of God” to men.
Paul goes on to tell us that God had a threefold purpose in mind for granting the “prophetic gift.” That purpose is to edify, encourage, and console people. Tongues aren’t able to do that. Only “prophecy—or the clear communication of God’s message—is able to “build up” the church. The Corinthians weren’t quite able to process that. They thought that “tongues,” because of its spectacular nature, was the greater “gift.” “Not so!” insisted Paul. While he concedes that the gift of “tongues” would have been nice for all to have possessed, he would much have preferred that that all had “the prophetic gift,” because “The one who prophesies is greater (in terms of communicating God’s truth) than the one who speaks in tongues.”
As he reiterates in verse 5, the goal of all the “gifts” is “that the church may be built up,” and “prophecy” is able to do that better than “tongues” can. Near the end of chapter 12, Paul had charged these Christians to “earnestly desire the higher gifts” (1 Corinthians 12:31), and by introducing chapter 14 with a similar expression and discussion, he is clearly elevating “prophecy,” rather than “tongues” as the “higher” gift.
That thought is fleshed out considerably more in verses 6 through 19, where the apostle’s instruction shifts from the superior nature of “prophecy” to...
The inferior nature of “tongues” (verses 6-19).
Paul begins this section by discussing the inherent limitations of the gift of “tongues.” Writing in verse 6, he asks, “If I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching?” It’s a valid point. If “tongues” are unable to convey God’s truth to God’s people when they gather for worship, then their value to the church is greatly diminished.
Despite the “love affair” that the Corinthian believers had for this gift, Paul reminds them that God intended for His message to be clearly communicated. It needed to be understood with the mind and not just experienced with the emotions. Despite what some may seem to believe, when we become Christians the spirit of man does not become divorced from his mind. While it is possible to become overly-analytical in our thinking, the opposite is usually the case. Most of us don’t like to think.
Writing later on to the church in Philippi, Paul exhorted them, saying, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).
In a related manner, believers are encouraged elsewhere in Scripture to “consider,” “ponder,” “realize,” and “meditate”—all cognitive tasks. As one pastor correctly put it, “Thinking is the sturdy foundation for easily misguided affections,” implying that “feelings” divorced from rational thought can easily lead into all kinds of excesses. It was Shakespeare who wrote, “My words fly up, but my thoughts remain below; words without thoughts never to heaven go.” I wonder how many of our prayers are like that.
In order to illustrate this truth, Paul cites three examples in the verses to follow. The first is that of musical instruments and is seen in verse 7: “If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played?” Playing random keys on a piano or keyboard or just beating on a drum when we are trying to sing songs together produces only chaotic noise. So it is with “tongues” if they are unable to be understood.
The second example, found in verse 8, is that of a military command: “And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?” If the officer-in-charge gives confusing orders, how are they to be understood, much less obeyed? The same holds true when “tongues” prevail in the public church gathering. Paul applies this to the Corinthians in verse 9 when he says, “So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air.”
And the third example is that of human languages. The writer adds in verses 10 and 11, “There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.” In other words, communication is greatly hindered because we cannot understand one another. The word that Paul uses in the original text is “βαρβαροs,” from which we get our word “barbarian.” It is actually an onomatopoetic term, the meaning of which is best conveyed by the sound of the word itself. “Bar, bar” would be the equivalent of today’s slang expression, “blah, blah, blah.” That is how “tongues” sound to those who have not learned those languages.
The application is again made to the Corinthians in verse 12, this time with a charge: “Since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit (or literally, ‘spiritual things’), strive to excel in building up the church.” This the crux of the entire matter, remember. The purpose of the “gifts” is the “building up” of the body so that the Lord may receive the honor and praise that He alone deserves.
Verses 13 through 19 present a hypothetical scenario intended to show why “tongues” are an inferior means of conveying God’s truth to the church. Paul begins by saying, “Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret.” The reason, of course, is that what is being spoken may be intelligible.
He then adds, “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also: I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.” So again we are reminded that unless what is being spoken is understandable, there is no edifying benefit to the body.
And neither is there value to the unbeliever, for as Paul continues in verses 16 and 17, “Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider (or literally, ‘the unlearned’) say, ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up.” “Tongues” that are left uninterpreted remain non-beneficial to both believers and unbelievers
Paul begins drawing to a conclusion his discussion of the limited value of “tongues” by next referencing himself. He personally possessed the spiritual gift of “tongues,” and as an apostle there was no one more qualified to speak on the subject. In verse 18, he says, “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. Nevertheless (a strong adversative), in church, I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.”
Notice how Paul emphasizes “the mind” throughout this paragraph, as well as stressing the priority of “instruct(ing) others.” The word for “ten thousand” (“μυριοs”) actually refers to “a very large, undefined number.” The idea is that of a “countless” total. He could just as easily said “zillions.” The point is, when it comes to comparing the value of “tongues” to “prophecy,” “the prophetic gift” is of an infinitely higher value to the church.
Although it has been necessary to devote this large section to a comparative-analysis of “prophecy” and “tongues,” it has not been for the purpose of pitting the recipients of these “gifts” one against the other. The Corinthians were already doing that. No, the reason for this lengthy discussion was to emphasize in verses 20 through 25...
The foremost reason for “prophecy” and “tongues” (verses 20-25).
Back in chapter 3(:2), Paul had charged these Corinthian Christians with being “infants in Christ,” incapable of ingesting “solid (spiritual) food.” Although there had been time for them to mature since coming to Christ, they were “stunted” in their spiritual growth. So, here in verse 20, he again encourages them to begin demonstrating “adult-level faith.” Addressing them as “brothers” (and sisters), he exhorts them, “Do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.” And while both terms—“children” (“νηπιοs”) and “infants” (“παιδιον”)—can be used interchangeably, the first term is often found within the context of education and instruction. We even derive our word “pedagogy” from it.
In order to reinforce the priority of “prophecy” over “tongues,” the writer reaches back into the Old Testament to demonstrate that “tongues” had a history there as well. We first find a multiplicity of languages as judgment at the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. Later on, when God’s people would not listen to Him speaking to them through the intelligible warnings of His prophets, he sent them foreign invaders speaking in other languages in order to judge them. In verse 21, Paul makes reference to this when he cites Isaiah 28(:11-12): “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” These invaders would pillage the land and take the people captive, a prophecy that was fulfilled to the letter in 722 B.C. when the dreaded Assyrians raided the Northern Kingdom. The “foreign tongue” that they spoke would be a “sign” that the punitive hand of God lay heavy upon them.
Two noteworthy observations are to be made from this Isaiah passage. First, the “tongues” being spoken of by Isaiah was an actual human language. And secondly, those “tongues...of foreigners” came as judgment from God. Therefore, Paul is able to conclude in verse 22 that “Tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers.” “Signs” signify something and, in this instance, “tongues” were signifying that God was bringing judgment upon the people’s unbelief.
Paul goes on to apply the principle in this way, “If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters,” it sets off the chain reaction found in verses 24 and 25: “He is convicted by all, he is called into account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so (and this is the anticipated result), falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.”
The links in this “chain” are meant to suggest that when “spiritual gifts” are employed for the purpose of building up the body, the message of the Gospel will ring forth clear and true. Especially is this true with regard to “prophecy.” For unbelievers and believers alike, as God’s Word is intelligibly declared, it will bring “conviction.” We will admit the ways that we are out of step with God’s will. To borrow Paul’s words, we will be “called into account.” God will not allow us to remain unmoved or unaffected. “The secrets of our heart will be disclosed.” We will recognize that we are being understood at the deepest level of our being. We will “fall on our faces,” assuming a posture of humility and repentance as we recognize that God is indeed present among us through His Spirit and His Word. We will “worship God” by turning away from self-interest, placing ourselves at His disposal and the service of others.
The Corinthian church seemed to have gotten it all wrong. They were expending the “grace gifts” upon themselves and not employing them for the purpose that God intended. We must continually strive not to make the same mistake. Our intelligibility and communication of the Gospel must be grounded in the intelligibility of God’s accommodating work for us in Christ Jesus.
Here is what I mean: Though He could have been self-interested, He chose to be other-interested. Though He could have come to us speaking another language—one that was beyond our ability to comprehend...a “heavenly” language perhaps—He literally took on the lingua franca. He adapted himself to our language in order that He might be understood. And in order to make clear His commitment to us, and to overcome our self-interest and sin, He gave Himself up in an intelligible and understandable way...through the cross of Jesus Christ. This single act made it forever clear and undeniable that “God so loved the world” (John 3:16).
How could He have made it any clearer? And now all of the “spiritual gifts” that He has provided for His church are intended to be used to make this redemptive act of God clear and compelling to others.
The whole point, then, is not, “Do I have the gift of ‘prophecy’ or the gift of ‘tongues,’ or any other gift?” It’s not about appearing to be impressive because a certain gift is possessed. It’s a matter of those speech gifts being used and exercised as a way of speaking into another person’s life so that the human heart will be enlarged by the reality of all that Christ has done.
Have you felt His conviction? Do you recognize that your sins have been “called to account” and that you are unable to pay the debt they have incurred? Even now, as He discloses “the secrets of your heart,” do you continue to resist Him? God is “really among” us just now. He is giving you the opportunity in these moments to humble yourself before Him, to submit to Him, and—perhaps for the first time in your life—to truly “worship” Him. As we bow our heads and sit in silence for just a moment, may we listen carefully to what the Lord may be saying to us.