A Study of 1 Corinthians 14
Introduction: Many years ago I went to an evangelistic meeting help at the Grand Ole Opry House by a charismatic evangelist. I can’t remember his name. I think it was on a Sunday afternoon, and it was a service that had elements like faith healing and ecstatic experiences. I went out of curiosity. It was a long time ago and I don’t remember much about it, except there was a moment in the service when the evangelist tried to teach us all how to speak in tongues. Now, I didn’t participate but I sat in the balcony and took it all in. He had the audience make some sounds with their mouths—meaningless syllables. Then he had them do it faster and faster until there was a cacophony of confused sounds filling the auditorium. There in the Grand Ole Opry House, it was like country music being played backward. Well, that is exactly what Paul is warning against in 1 Corinthians 14. As we’ve worked our way through the book of 1 Corinthians, one thing is clear. The church in Corinth was very troubled, and somehow at some level they were experiencing every kind of issue that can divide a church. Paul dealt with these issues one after another, and in chapters 12, 13, and 14 he dealt with the issue of speaking in tongues. We’ve been looking at these chapters, one chapter per night. In chapter 12, he said, in essence, speaking in tongues is not a universal sign of spirituality. If you do it, fine. But if you don’t, don’t worry about it. It’s the least important of the spiritual gifts. In chapter 13, he said that the real evidence of a spiritual church is not speaking in tongues, but loving one another. Now in chapter 14, he is going to wrap up his discussion. I’m just going to read through this chapter with you and there are two or three sentences I want to really highlight, for they have helped shaped my views of church life and public worship. I’m going to call these my “Church Life Verses” and I’ll point them out as we work through the chapter. Let’s begin here with verse 1:
Verse 1: Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy.
Chapter 13 is the greatest love passage in the Bible, and so Paul transitioned from that back into his subject, telling us to follow the way of love, to love each other and to be motivated by love. And, in love, we should desire to be of use. We should desire to serve. We should desire to be of benefit to the body of Christ. We should desire for the Holy Spirit to use us, and we should especially want to speak up and say a word for the Lord. Eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy.
Now, when we hear the word prophecy, we tend to think about foretelling the future. But the word means to preach, to teach, to speak a word for God, to communicate the Scripture. In fact, Paul goes on here to give us the definition and to tell us what he means by the word prophecy.
Verses 2-3: For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.
The best I can figure out – and there are lots of opinions on this – what was happening in Corinth is that some people were getting so excited and frenzied in their faith they just started speaking some kind of gibberish or ecstatic language. They didn’t really know what they were saying, nor did anyone else. They were like children who became so excited they just started babbling. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that, but it isn’t very helpful. But someone who prophesies speaks to people from God—from the Scripture—in a way that gives them strength, encouragement, and comfort. Years ago, I took some spiritual gift assessments, and I scored higher on the gift of prophesy than on anything else. That doesn’t mean I can foretell the future, but I love taking the Bible in my hands and teaching it in a way that imparts strength, encouragement, and comfort. That is a gift most every pastor should have. That’s a gift most LifeGroup leaders should have. The gift of preaching and teaching and sharing God word to edify others.
Verse 4: Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church.
All the way through this discussion, the apostle Paul is careful not to condemn or forbid those who get excited and speak unintelligible words. He wants them to know that it’s a odd thing, not required by other Christians. But there’s something to be said for exuberate emotions and euphoria and exhilaration in worship. We don’t have enough euphoria and exhilaration, and if someone gets excited in their prayer time, good for them. But I think Paul wants to take them to a more mature and stable place. Look at verse 5:
Verse 5: I would like every one of you to speak in tongues…
SHe had said the same thing about celibacy in chapter 7.
…but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified.
If you get excited and speak in an unintelligible way, it’s not going to help anyone if there isn’t someone there who knows what you’re trying to say and can explain it to others. How much better to speak in the local dialect and build up others with sound teaching. Now, Paul is going to use an analogy. If you go to a concert, it’s not going to be enjoyable if the musician simply plays random notes with no melodic relationship.
Verses 6-9: Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the pipe or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air.
That’s a very interesting way of putting it. If you go to a church in which everyone is speaking in tongues, they are simply speaking into the air. There is no harmony. There is no meaning to it. Paul goes on in verse 10 to say:
Verses 10-12: Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speakers, and the speaker is a foreigner to me. So it is with you. Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church.
We get the idea that Paul isn’t too keen on the exercise of the gift of tongues in the church.
Verse 13: For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say.
When you speak esoterically, no benefit can come from that unless someone else knows what you are trying to say and can explain it. The same is true even in personal prayer.
Verse 14: If I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.
If I’m spending time with the and I get overwrought, I get excited, I start speaking gibberish, that might be of some value to me emotionally, but it does not good in my thinking. One day a few years ago – I’ve told you this before – Katrina and I had some Korean Christian businessmen show up at our house. They wanted to pray for us, and I’ve never heard such praying. I have no idea what they prayed, but they raised the roof. It didn’t do me a lot of good in terms of my mind knowing what they were saying, but it did my spirit a lot of good. But all things being equal, it’s good to pray with both your spirit and your mind.
Verse 15: So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding.
Here is the first of my “church life” verses. When we pray and sing in church, it should be with our spirit and with our minds. We don’t have to limit the application of this verse to a context of speaking in tongues. It’s easy for us – me included – to be singing or to have my head bowed while someone else is praying and for our minds to be ten miles away. I try to train myself to keep my mind focused on the words of the song I’m singing and to keep my emotions engaged in that song or in that prayer. I’m not real physical when I sing, but I love it when some of you get excited in singing because it helps me keep my mind and emotions focused on the song too.
Verses 16-18: Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an inquirer, say, “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying? You are giving thanks well enough, but no one is edified. I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.
It sounds as though Paul said, “If you want to hear someone get so excited in prayer that they begin to babble gibberish, you should hear me in my private prayer. I can outtalk anyone. I can get euphoric. But that’s not what I’m going to do when I go to church on Sunday.
Verses 19-20: But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue. Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil, be infants, but in your thinking be adults.
Now, in the next verse, Paul is going to make another point, and it’s a little hard to follow. He is going to quote from Isaiah 28. In this passage, Isaiah told the Israelites they had so frustrated the Lord and so disobeyed the law that God was going to send the Assyrians to judge them. The Assyrians didn’t speak Hebrew. They would be a people in a foreign tongue. They would be speaking gibberish as far as the Israelites were concerned, but they would come to teach the Israelites a lesson. But even then the Israelites would not listen.
Verses 21-22: In the Law it is written: “With other tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers.
So in terms of believers, tongues can be a kind of excited gibberish that may emotionally lift our spirits. In terms of unbelievers, tongues can represent the fact that people can’t really understand the message of judgment. I’m not prepared to try to explain why Paul inserted that thought.
Verse 23: So 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?
Verse 24: But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”
Here is another of my “Church Life Verses.” To me, this is one of the most helpful verses in the Bible relating to the purpose of our worship services. Back when I was just getting started in my ministry, there was a great emphasis on seeker services. The idea is that the Sunday service should be geared to unbelievers. Everything should be evangelistic. Nothing should look or sound very much like church. Seeker churches didn’t have crosses or religious symbols. They were careful to make sure they didn’t sing any songs that would make unbelievers sing something that wasn’t true for them, so the songs had to be simply some truth – not a prayer, not an expression of worship. The sermons were all evangelistic. It was a fad. But this verse kept me steady. It seems to me that worship services are primarily intended in the Bible for Christians, to give us an opportunity to worship our Lord and to build each other up with the Word of God. But there is an evangelistic element too. We want unbelievers to come, because when they do so some will be converted. And notice the way it’s put: They will exclaim “God really is among you!” This morning as I saw the choir singing so beautifully, I thought to myself – why do we have a choir? We have a choir because choirs are God’s invention and 3000 years ago a choir like ours was singing at temple worship. Why do we have preaching? Because from the days of the synagogues, rabbis have been teaching the Word of God. These are forms. These are traditions. But they are more than forms and traditions. God really is among us! If God really is among us, there should be some organization to our services for God is a God of order and organization. Our services should not be chaotic. Evidently the Corinthian services were chaotic. In the next verses, Paul tries to bring some order to them.
Verses 26-32: What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has 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. If anyone speaks in a tongue, two – or at the most three – should speak, one at a time and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God. Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. The spirits of the prophets are subject to the control of the prophets.
In our setting, this is a good set of rules for our LifeGroup. When you have a discussion and various subjects come up, weigh your words and let everyone speak sensibly and in turn and under the direction of the teacher of facilitator.
Verse 33 is the third of my “Church Life Verses.” If a church is one of God’s premier institutions, it ought to be well managed. It ought to be well organized. If we have some area of our church life that is confused and mismanaged, it frustrates me, because we serve an orderly organized God.
Verse 33: For God is not a God of disorder but of peace – as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.
Here we have a verse that should be read within this context. Here Paul says that women should remain silent in church. Now, in chapter 11 he already has said that both men and women can preach and pray so long as they do it under the authority of the church governmental systems. As long as they respect and respond to the God-ordained leadership of the church and are humble and submissive, both men and women can preach and pray. But now he is talking about speaking in tongues and about the confusion when everyone is jabbering at the same time. So he said:
Verse 34: Women should remain silent in their churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 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.
The Apostle Paul does not forbid speaking in tongues in the Corinthian church, but he certainly is trying to regulate it. He says, “Don’t do it unless someone can explain what you’re saying. Don’t do it except in minimal amounts. Don’t do it if you’re a woman. It’s much better for men and women to preach and pray in a way that is truly understandable and builds up the church.”
Verse 36: Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached?
In other words, I’ve planted a lot of churches and I think I know how things should be done. Most of my other churches are orderly and worshipful and evangelistic. Do you think you have a right to do things however you want to, even if it leads to chaos.
Verses 37-40: 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. But if anyone ignores this, they will themselves be ignored. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.
And that last verse, 1 Corinthians 14:40 is the last of my “Church Life Verses”—Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way. I believe we need to bring good organization to everything we do—not just to church life, but to all of life. Everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way. God is a God of order and organization.
Conclusion: There are some difficult verses in this chapter; but here’s the best I can do with it for now. Speaking in tongues is not a universal sign of the baptism or filling of the Holy Spirit; indeed, it is not very important at all. If there are those who become excited and speak ecstatically, don’t overreact to it, especially when it’s done in private. But the primary evidence of Spirit-fullness is a loving attitude, not the exercise of any particular gift. And speaking of spiritual gifts, focus on ones that facilitate the preaching and teaching of Scripture in a way that will build others up in their native tongues. As you do so in an orderly or intelligible way, there will sometimes be unbelievers who show up. They may hear the Gospel and be saved. So live your lives, build your church, and conduct your worship in an orderly, intelligible, spiritual way—and the world will see it and say: “God really is among you.”