Last week we considered the importance of balancing our spiritual gifts with using those gifts from a motive of love. A spiritual gift, whether a natural one like administration or a supernatural one like healing, should never be viewed as an end in itself. Rather all spiritual gifts—and we mustn’t forget that what makes them “spiritual” is that God has given them to us by his Holy Spirit; so all spiritual gifts are given by God’s Spirit that we, Christ’s church, might be edified; that we might be instructed and improved both morally and intellectually.
Now judging by the amount of space Paul has given to one particular gift, that of speaking in tongues, it would appear that this gift was especially a source of some of the division that was taking place in the church in Corinth. Not unlike what still occurs today, speaking in tongues was being championed by some as an indication that one possessing such a gift was somehow more “spiritual” than someone who didn’t speak in tongues. So though we can’t know for certain what was involved in the gift of tongues, this gift was being used improperly—as an indicator of spirituality—and thus had become part of the occasion for Paul’s writing and needing to place the gift of tongues in perspective. A way of thinking about what Paul was doing is that he was applying for the Corinthians what loving God with all of our hearts, souls, minds, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves looks like within the context of worship.
So he begins the chapter with a summary of chapters 12 and 13 in verse 1: “Follow the way of love”—discussed in chapter 13—“and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit”—discussed in chapter 12—“especially prophecy.” With the added note that prophecy is a gift that is especially to be desired, we find ourselves in an added predicament. For not only can we not know for certain what Paul meant by speaking in tongues, we also can’t know for certain what he meant by “prophecy.” Though some have suggested that Paul’s use of “prophecy” here is equivalent to “preaching,” this probably isn’t the case for at the end of this chapter it speaks of two or three prophets speaking in turn. The early church wouldn’t have had two or three sermons in a given worship service anymore than we do. I’ll be following the view of Gordon Fee, a New Testament scholar who is not only charismatic but who also wrote a commentary on I Corinthians. He believes that Paul’s use of prophecy here “does not mean a prepared sermon, but the spontaneous word given to God’s people for the edification of the whole.” This makes sense and as we’ll see, Paul’s point continues to be that whatever happens within the context of worship should be for the sake of edifying, for the sake of building up, the entire congregation.
So throughout this chapter Paul contrasts the gift of prophecy with speaking in tongues. And he makes the case that of the two, in the context of public worship, prophecy is the gift to be more desired. And the reason that prophecy is to be desired is, again, because it is better able to edify or build up the body of Christ. As we noted last week, those who speak in tongues edify themselves as their spirit converses or communes with God’s Spirit, but those who prophesy edify the entire church. Now the edifying of oneself isn’t a bad thing. But if tongue-speaking is being lauded as an indication of some believers being more spiritual than others, then there’s a problem. For in the worship service, the focus is to be other-oriented, on the edification of the congregation. This is what makes prophecy a more desirable gift in the public worship setting.
So the first contrast occurs in verses 2 and 3:
Whereas one who speaks in a tongue speaks to God rather than people and therefore no one understands them since they utter mysteries by the Spirit (verse 2),
One who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging, and comfort (verse 3). For an individual to speak to God is a wonderful thing. But the other-centered focus is what makes prophecy better in the context of worship.
Similarly, verse 4:
Whereas one who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, one who prophesies edifies the church—and, again, the latter is far better, at least in the context of worship.
Therefore, in verse 5 Paul acknowledges, on the one hand, “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues,” but despite desiring all to have this gifts, he adds, “but I would rather have you prophesy.” Again, the problem isn’t that speaking in tongues is a bad gift for it, too, is a gift from God’s Spirit. But the issue is the proper use of this gift in public worship during which time “the one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues” since by using their gift, they are strengthening, encouraging, and comforting the congregation. They are edifying, building up, Christ’s church. And then Paul provides an important caveat at the end of the verse noting that the prohibition for one who speaks in tongues exists “unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified.” Again, the problem isn’t speaking in tongues per se, but speaking in tongues without any interpretation of this spiritual language. With such interpretation, tongues can be equally edifying.
In verses 6–11, Paul proceeds to explain why speaking in tongues—except in the case of having an interpreter—is to be avoided during public worship. Speaking in tongues is useless apart from some communication or instruction from God (6). Like instruments that can either make sounds or play a tune, tongues without interpretation is nothing but sounds that are similarly in need of clarity. In the case of instruments, “how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes”? (7). It would be as though we brought a couple of cats in here and let one run across the piano and the other run across the clavinova. They might make noise, but the noise would be random and unintelligible, nothing like the music Ron and Donna use their gifts to play each week and help lead us in worship and singing. Or again, Paul asks, “if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?” (8). [e.g. child’s version: ta; ta versus ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta, “Charge!”] So it is with tongues. As Paul states in verse 9, “Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air.” So far as helping others is concerned unintelligible words will merely float into space without accomplishing their desired end. Paul continues making his point in verse 10, “Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning.” So even speaking in tongues shouldn’t be without meaning. Language, whether natural or spiritual, is meant to be understood but in the case of uninterpreted tongues, verse 11, “If…I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker is a foreigner to me.”
Donna just returned from a trip to China and I’m pretty sure that she experienced her foreign-ness repeatedly, not only because she doesn’t look Chinese but more importantly because she doesn’t speak Chinese. To be in a culture whose language you don’t know—and for which you don’t have an interpreter—can be extremely disheartening for communication with people from that culture will be difficult if not impossible. And so it is even with the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues. This is why Paul yet again states in verse 12, “Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church.” The issue isn’t desiring spiritual gifts, which is a good thing, but desiring spiritual gifts as some kind of indication of being more spiritual than others and thereby not using those gifts as God, whose Spirit gave those gifts in the first place, intended—namely, for building others up.
Again in verses 13–17 Paul provides another hypothetical analogy. The reason one who speaks in a tongue should pray for it to be interpreted (13) is that our mind might be fruitful (14). The solution then is to pray in one’s spirit and also with one’s understanding (15). This way another person who is present during the service of worship will be able to say “Amen” to your thanksgiving (16). It isn’t enough for you to give thanks by praising God in your Spirit if no one else is edified (17). As usual, Paul is exercising common sense—which is too often uncommon and lacking—in his instructions to the Corinthians. Especially in the context of worship when we are expressing not only our love for God but also for each other, everything that occurs should be done for the sake of building up all who are present.
In verse 18, Paul uses himself as an example. On the one hand, he says that he speaks in tongues “more than all of you”! He says this, no doubt, in case anyone is questioning his spiritual credentials as Christ’s chosen apostle. Since these believers seem to be elevating tongues above all other spiritual gifts as markers of spirituality, Paul is letting them know that he, too, has and uses this gift. But on the other hand, verse 19, he states that “in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.” In church—during the time of worship—it’s critical that what takes place be not simply for one’s own benefit, but for the benefit of all who are present.
Paul then exhorts the Corinthians, his “brothers and sisters” to “stop thinking like children.” He tells them to think like adults, and be infants with regard to evil, in verse 20. To view tongues as a more spiritual gift is simplistic and naïve. For they’re not children but adults who should be showing regard to those around them rather than trying to show others how spiritual they are. Paul then refers to some verses from Isaiah that tell of Israel’s lack of obedience when God spoke to them by means of “other tongues” and “through the lips of foreigners.” At the time at which Isaiah was writing, God used the Assyrians—people who were foreigners to Israel and who spoke with other tongues—to bring judgment. So, too, in the case of tongues. If it’s difficult for people to respond in faith when they understand the language being spoken, then if the language being spoken is indecipherable to the hearer, there’s no hope of being convicted and moved to respond to these words and so turn to God, their Maker and Redeemer. To speak in tongues—again apart from those tongues being interpreted—would bring judgment because those hearing the word would have no idea of what was being said and therefore would be unable to respond.
I think we sometimes lose sight of or perhaps simply take for granted the importance of hearing the Gospel in our own language. The work of organizations like Wycliffe Bible translators is so very important for this very reason—because they allow people to have God’s Word in their native language. My father was in his mid-40s when we left Cuba and moved to the United States. And though in time he became fluent in his ability to read and understand English, his spoken English was lacking to the day he died. He used to tell me that when he spoke English he felt like half a man because he couldn’t fully make himself understood. For the Corinthians to speak in tongues during worship similarly made it impossible for the Gospel to be clearly proclaimed or understood because only the speakers, not the listeners, could be edified by such a practice.
In verses 22–25 Paul adds to his comments about tongues while continuing to contrast them with prophecy. In the context of worship, tongues are a sign for unbelievers—hence the need for them to be interpreted. As he notes in verse 23, “if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” They’ll say that because if everyone was speaking in tongues, and no one was interpreting, it would be a cacophony of meaningless sounds. But if an unbeliever comes in while everyone is prophesying, because such prophesying would be intelligible, there would exist the possibility for the unbeliever to be “convicted of sin and…brought under judgment by all, 25 as the secrets of their hearts [were] laid bare.” And should this happen, then they might further “fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!’” Just because prophecy—“the spontaneous word given to God’s people for the edification of the whole”— is intended for believers, it doesn’t mean that the very clarity of the prophecy might not be used by God to touch even the heart of the unbeliever. Therefore in the context of worship prophesy is greater than speaking tongues because it has the power and the potential of convicting us all of our need for God in Christ and thus drawing us to know him more.
In verses 26–33, Paul places all spiritual gifts under the rubric of order. Whether, verse 26, “a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.” So, again, verses 27–28, “27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. 28 If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.” I mentioned last week that I’ve had occasion to worship in charismatic churches and I’ve never been in one in which tongues were interpreted. And though I’m a believer and also had a general understanding of what speaking in tongues is about, I’ve gotta tell you, it was uncomfortable for me to hear so many brothers and sisters speaking in tongues because I was clueless as to what was going on. I felt more like a spectator to worship rather than a participant. If that was true for me, who knew what was taking place, how much more uncomfortable would it be for someone who had no idea as to what these tongues were?!
But it isn’t only tongues that require discernment and order. Prophecy, this spontaneous edifying word, is under the same restraint, verses 29–32. Paul says that whatever a prophet, the speaker, states should be weighed carefully (29). And if more than one person speaks, it again should be done in an orderly manner (30). Again, the purpose of all of this is “that everyone may be instructed and encouraged.” In verse 33, Paul indicates that the ultimate reason and grounding of orderly worship lies in God: “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace….”
Paul then addresses women, stating that they are to “remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.” Again, the pagan context and the existence of young converts in Corinth may be the reason. As we saw in chapter 11 of this same letter, Paul acknowledges women who prophesy so it can’t be that within the parameters of two chapters he’s forgotten this. So this probably has to do with the importance of anyone who prophesies being mature enough to do so. As Paul notes elsewhere, an elder ought not to be a young convert. It may be that women worshipping in the Corinthian church, having no training in Scripture, were speaking out of line so Paul is having to address and correct them, indicating “If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” So Paul isn’t prohibiting women speaking in church, but disorderly speaking of any kind.
Paul then turns to the church as a whole asserting his authority and noting that “37 If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. 38 But if anyone ignores this, they will themselves be ignored.” In other words, a genuine prophet will recognize that all that Paul has had to say is true for Paul speaks in Christ’s name and by Christ’s Spriit.
And he closes with a final summary of what he’s said and reminder, “39 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.”
Well, given that we’re not a charismatic church—to the best of my knowledge, we don’t have anyone who has been given the gift of speaking in tongues or prophesy—what are we to make of this chapter? Are there any principles we might learn and apply. I think there are.
First, given that God is a God of order and peace, during our service each week, we follow a particular order and progression. We begin with a Hymn and Call to Worship, acknowledging our Lord’s presence and welcoming him into our worship with heart and voice; Next we identify ourselves with God’s ancient and ongoing church in reciting the Apostles Creed together, acknowledging key aspects of our testimony that unite us with all Christian believers past, present, and future; Then in the giving of our tithes and offerings, we provide an opportunity for all of us to acknowledge that even our material goods are on loan to us from our gracious Lord and so we can return a portion of those goods that his work might continue here and abroad. Additionally, on communion Sundays like today, we can give as well to needs within the church to the Deacons Fund or to ministry abroad to Missions; Then we bring our needs before our loving and heavenly Father as we confess and receive forgiveness for our sin, pray for one another, and own our identity as God’s family in closing with the Lord’s Prayer; and finally, we receive an exposition from God’s Word that we might better understand and obey our loving God before closing with a benediction. There’s a rhythm to our worship that seeks to acknowledge and celebrate our connection to God and one another and even in our hymns, choruses, and special music, we’re intentional about tying the music to the message each week. We seek to do all things in a fitting and orderly way as Paul exhorts.
Second, is the principle I believe underlies all Paul is saying. As I’ve already indicated, if Jesus taught that the sum of the law and the prophets is to love God with all our being and our neighbors as ourselves, then this must be true even in our worship time. When we gather each week, we have an opportunity to strengthen, encourage, and comfort one another. For this is what families do. This is what we are called to do. And again, we can do this during the service in sharing needs and ways in which we see God working but also informally before and after the service as we greet each other. And we do this as well in the regular meals we’re able to share with each other.
Third, though we are a small body, I am grateful that we’re a body in which many share their gifts and time for the benefit of the whole—whether in assisting in worship through reading, prayer, and music—or printing the bulletins—or making sure we have heat each week—or cleaning the church—or helping sort and keep track of our finances and paying our bills. In all of these ways, we are giving of our talents and time that this particular body of Christ might function as God intended. Part of the reason I encourage and welcome input is because in my heart of hearts I believe that this is how we will best know and serve our gracious Father’s will for us as his family.
Finally, I want to comment on the gift of prophecy as Fee defines it, “the spontaneous word given to God’s people for the edification of the whole.” First, on the one hand, if we genuinely believe that God wants us to tell someone something they need to hear, then we should do so lovingly and prayerfully; but, on the other hand, we should allow that we might be wrong. If I can provide an example. When I was living in Illinois and looking for full-time work after being turned down for tenure, one of my students came up to me after class and said that she kept having a vision of me teaching at Moody Bible Institute. Initially she had tried to ignore it but it kept returning so she felt compelled to share this with me. I did follow up, despite sensing that teaching there wouldn’t be a possibility for me to teach there (I was correct about this) but I think she spoke with me with precisely the right spirit—she couldn’t be certain this was from God but because it wasn’t going away, she decided to speak with me. At that point it became a matter of the ball being in my court and since I had been seeking our Lord’s leading, I thanked her and did pursue this possibility.
But second, though this may be a stretch since it isn’t exactly a “spontaneous word” given by God, I think that the kinds of conversations and discussions that take place during the Adult Ed class each week are a healthy indicator of the iron-sharpens-iron type of give-and-take that ultimately benefits us all. Speaking for myself, as we’ve been discussing homosexuality—and euthanasia—and now abortion, my own understanding and perspectives have been deepened because of the willingness of those who are attending to share their thoughts, concerns, and questions. The respect and concern shown to one another displays what I believe God would always have us do.
So let us ever seek to honor God in all that we do—even our worship—“For God is not a God of disorder but of peace” (33).
Let us pray.
 In its note on I Corinthians 12:10, the ESV Crossway Study Bible provides the following options on ways in which “prophecy” has been understood: “The word ‘prophecy’ (Gk. propheteia) as used by Paul in 1 Corinthians refers  generally to speech that reports something that God spontaneously brings to mind or ‘reveals’ to the speaker but which is spoken in merely human words, not words of God. Therefore it can have mistakes and must be tested or evaluated (see 1 Cor. 14:29; 1 Thess. 5:19–21). An alternative view  of this gift, held by some, is that it involves speaking the very words of God, with authority equal to the OT prophets and equal to the word of Scripture. A third view  is that it is very similar to the gifts of preaching or teaching. This gift is widely indicated throughout the NT churches….” [bold emphases, numbers, and brackets added]
 Verse 29: Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.
 Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 660 in the The New International Commentary on the New Testament.
 Isaiah 28:11, 12: 11 Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues God will speak to this people, 12 to whom he said, “This is the resting place, let the weary rest”; and, “This is the place of repose”— but they would not listen.
 I Corinthians 11:5: But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved.
 I Timothy 3:6: He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil.