Spiritual Gifts: Prophecy Is Better Than Tongues

The prophet edifies others (I Corinthians 14:1-5)

While love is the greatest gift from God, it doesn’t mean that the temporary spiritual gifts were useless. Paul encouraged the Corinthians to desire spiritual gifts. Of the various spiritual gifts, the one Paul deems most valuable is that of prophecy (I Corinthians 12:31).

Paul explains why the preference by contrasting prophesies with speaking in tongues. The choice of tongues out of all the other gifts is likely because the Corinthians preferred this gift the most.

When a person speaks in another language, and the implication it is in a language that no one else present understands, God alone understands him. He might have important information to present, but it remains a mystery.

In contrast, the prophet gives a message men can understand which edifies, exhorts, and consoles the listener. Both the speaker in another language and the prophet may have the same message from the Spirit, but only the prophet is able to give that message to other people if a common language is not used. The tongue speaker might benefit from his own message, but the rest of the church is unable to gain any benefit.

Again, Paul emphasizes that speaking in another language is not useless. He would be happy if everyone had the gift of languages, but he would be even happier if everyone prophesied because prophecy was the greater gift because it gives the greater benefit to people.

Class Discussions:

  1. Charismatics use I Corinthians 14:2 to explain that when others don’t understand them, their intention is to speak to God and not to man. Is this what Paul says is the purpose of speaking in tongues?
  2. When a modern-day tongue speaker is asked what he said, the common answer is that he doesn’t personally know, it has to be interpreted by someone else. Does this match what Paul stated?
  3. Why did Paul state he wished everyone had the gift of tongues and prophecy when in I Corinthians 12:29-30 he stated that everyone doesn’t have these gifts?

Tongues without a message are meaningless (I Corinthians 14:6-14)

Speaking in another language doesn’t profit another person if there is no meaningful message to be presented. Even if the other person understood the language being used, if there isn’t information to be given, the gift becomes useless. There needs to be a:

  • Revelation: an insight into something not realized before
  • Knowledge: facts to fill in gaps in what a person understands
  • Prophesy: a presentation of God’s will
  • Doctrine: instruction or teaching from God

Except in the case of prophecy, the rest do not necessarily imply direct inspiration from the Holy Spirit.

Paul illustrates this with the use of musical instruments. If an instrument is played without a melody where the succeeding notes are not distinctive, no one will know what was being played. It would be like listening to a child play you a song, but then you have to ask what they were playing because you can’t guess the tune.

Another illustration is that of a trumpeter for an army. If the sounds being blown are not distinct so as to make the message being sent clear, the soldiers in the army won’t know what to do. A call to arms will be easily overlooked.

In the same way, if the speaker in another language doesn’t speak in a clear, understandable way, then the listeners will not understand and the tongue speaker might as well be just speaking into the air.

There are lots of languages in the world. None should be treated as insignificant. Russian is very important to someone from Russia. Hebrew is very important to an Israelite. But the importance of a language doesn’t mean it must be always used, even with speakers of that language are not present. If the tongue speaker speaks in a language that the audience cannot understand, then no communication takes place. Both parties see the other person as a foreigner.

Thus Paul encourages the Corinthians to be zealous for spiritual gifts, but not to lose sight of using the gifts to the benefit of the church. They need to excel first and foremost in building up the church. If a person speaks in another language, he needs to also pray that he can properly, clearly, and accurately interpret what he says in the language his audience understands. Paul is not saying that someone with the gift of languages cannot demonstrate his ability to speak in another language, but that demonstration cannot be solely for showing off. He must first think about benefitting his listeners with a message they can understand. A person who prays in another language, unknown to those around him, knows what he is thinking and so it is a benefit to him, but what he understands bears no fruit because no one else understands along with him.

Class Discussion:

  1. Could Paul be saying that a tongue speaker may not understand what he is praying? (Consider I Corinthians 14:4, 14).

The goal is to teach (I Corinthians 14:15-19)

Whether we are talking about prayers or songs, enthusiasm and sincerity of heart aren’t enough. When we give a prayer or sing a song, it must be something that is understood by those who hear. After all, the purpose of the church is to edify (Romans 14:19; 15:2; Ephesians 4:12, 16; I Thessalonians 5:11). The spirit must be blended with understanding (John 4:24).

When prayers are offered, others are listening and when they agree with the prayer give their “amen” (“so be it”) at its end. If a person does not understand what is being said, they cannot rightly agree with the prayer. “Uninformed” or “ungifted” in verse 16 literally means a private person; that is, is a person who is isolated from others because of his lack of understanding or skill. When all cannot understand, they are isolated from the rest. Though they came together, their fellowship doesn’t exist.

When songs are sung, they serve the purpose of teaching those present (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). If the words are not understandable, then no teaching can take place. One’s heart may be uplifted by the tune, but no real or lasting benefit is given.

No matter how well worship is conducted, if it isn’t understood by all, it lacks benefit to all.

Paul uses the gift of tongues, given to him by God, often – more than those in Corinth. Paul’s mission to the Gentiles meant he would need to speak in many different languages. Yet, in the worship assembly, Paul would rather speak a few words that are understood than ten thousand in a foreign language that doesn’t benefit those assembled.

Class Discussion:

  1. In many places congregations have members who speak different languages. How can the principles taught here be applied even though we don’t currently have the gift of tongues from the Holy Spirit?
  2. If a deaf person comes to worship, what should be done? Why?

Tongues were given to reach the unbelievers (I Corinthians 14:20-22)

Sometimes we childishly hold on to ideas even when we intellectually know they aren’t correct ones. Childishness and learning don’t belong together (I Corinthians 3:1; Ephesians 4:14). A child-like innocence to sin is appropriate (Matthew 18:3), but not toward understanding what we must do (Romans 16:19; I Corinthians 2:6).

In regards to our attitude toward malice, the word Paul uses is one for an infant child. The other word for “children” is the word for a half-grown child. The word for mature is the Greek word for a full-grown adult male.

Paul then alludes to Isaiah 28:11-12. This passage is not a prophecy about the miraculous gift of languages. In Isaiah 28:11-12, God is telling Israel that He will punish them by sending them to foreign lands where they would not be understood and where they would not understand those around them. Yet despite the punishment, they would not listen to God. They remained rebellious and stubborn. From this, Paul draws the point that foreign languages did not benefit God’s people when they were not inclined to listen to God. For the same reason, the gift of tongues won’t improve God’s people if they are not so inclined. Hearing words you don’t understand won’t change a person.

Note that I Corinthians 14:22 contains two “not ... but” idioms. These should be read as “not merely” or “not only” and “but more importantly.

If the gift of tongues is not just for God’s people, then who are they really for? Paul concludes that God gave the gift of tongues for non-believers. It allows teachers to reach people by talking to them in their own native language and it leaves a strong impression on them. It serves as a sign to the unbeliever that God is behind the message.

In contrast, prophecy is more for the believer than for the unbeliever. The unbeliever does not yet have faith in God, so God’s teachings don’t make a significant impact on their lives. Yet the child of God lives to do God’s will and the words of God from the prophets are very important to him. Seeing the truth in God’s message becomes a significant sign to the believer that God is with him.

Literary Style: Sequence

One way to make a point memorial is to give a sequence from which to hang ideas. In I Corinthians 14:20, Paul uses the development of a man from infant to child to adult to help us remember that we are infants in regards to malice, not children in regards to understanding but adults.

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