This morning, in our study of I Corinthians, we finally get to chapter 14. And our topic this morning is going to focus on spiritual gifts, especially as they relate to our time together in worship. Back in chapter 12, Paul closed out that chapter by telling the Corinthians to “earnestly desire the best gifts.” (I Corinthians 12:31, NKJV). Which raises the question, “Which gift is the best gift?” And that’s kinda like asking, “Which pair of shoes is your best pair?”
And, of course, that all depends on what you want to do. If you want to really look stylish when you come to church, you may have some shoes in your closet that would be absolutely perfect. But you wouldn’t want to wear those shoes if you plan to hike the Appalachian Trail. Those would not be the best shoes for doing that.
In the same way, the best gift of the Spirit all depends on what’s needed at the time. If somebody is going through a difficult time in their life, then the gift of encouragement is the most important gift. If somebody needs help understanding the Word of God, then the gift of teaching is best. If we need someone to lead us in our praise to God, then the gift of songleading is the gift that we need the most.
So, earnestly desire the best gifts. But the best gift depends on what the situation is. That’s why living life under the guidance of the Holy Spirit is so fun, because we encounter different situations every day that demand different things at different times from different people. And so, we all need to learn to say, “Lord, use me so that I can be a blessing to others. Help me to use the gifts that you have given me to encourage and be a blessing to others at a time when they need it the most.”
Here in chapter 14, Paul is going to focus on two particular spiritual gifts. One of them was the gift that Paul thought was the most important gift to have when we come together to worship God – and that’s prophecy. The other was the gift that the Corinthians thought was the best gift to have — speaking in tongues.
On the Day of Pentecost, some two thousand years ago, one of the most important events in the history of the Lord’s church took place. And that event was characterized by a remarkable, miraculous gift known as the gift of tongues, a gift that was so obviously an evidence of the Spirit of God, that at the end of that day, over 3,000 people were baptized into Christ.
But it raises some questions: What exactly was the gift of tongues? Is the gift of tongues still active today? And is what is practiced as tongues today the same thing as what was experienced at Pentecost two thousand years ago? Those are just a few of the questions we’re going to touch on over the next couple of weeks as we work our way through chapter 14.
But, first, let me tell you about my most memorable tongue-speaking experience. I was in Bassett, Virginia, still a young preacher; I had only been preaching for a few years. I had heard rumors that there was a man going around from church to church disrupting worship services by standing up and speaking in tongues, so I kept waiting for him to show up, but a couple of months went by and nothing happened, so I forgot all about it.
Then, one Sunday morning, I had just finished teaching the adult Bible class in the auditorium and everyone was standing up and moving around, getting ready for worship. All of a sudden, there was a man standing at the front of the auditorium, babbling all sorts of nonsense. It caught me a bit off-guard, but as soon as I regained my senses, I went over to him and I said, “I need for you to be quiet, but if you’d like to talk with our elders, they’d be happy to meet with you.” When I said that, he stormed down the aisle, and paused at the back door just long enough to shake the dust off his feet, and then he left never to be seen again.
Now, I have absolutely no idea what he was trying to accomplish by doing that because I never saw him again, didn’t know who he was and I never had a chance to speak with him. So, I don’t know what he was trying to accomplish, but I can tell you what he did accomplish – absolutely nothing.
You probably won’t be surprised to hear that we didn’t have 3,000 baptisms that day as a result of him speaking in tongues. In fact, we didn’t even have one baptism. Nobody went home that day feeling they had been encouraged or blessed in any way by what he did. In fact, the only reaction was, “What in the world was that all about?” And Paul is going to tell the Corinthians that that was exactly the same problem he had with the tongue-speaking in their church.
Chapter 14, beginning with verse 1, “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. 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. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church.
“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.” (I Corinthians 14:1-5)
Throughout this chapter, Paul is going to show the difference between the gift of prophesy and the gift of tongues, so before we go any further, we need to define exactly what is meant by those two terms.
We sometimes think that prophecy is the ability to foretell the future. But prophesy, in the Old Testament, included some prediction of what would happen in the future, but mostly, the prophet’s work was simply telling the people what God wanted them to hear. As I’ve said before, the prophets were basically preachers, except that they didn’t have to study to get their lesson together. God gave them their message directly.
And, when you get to the New Testament, you find the same thing. In fact, there’s probably even more emphasis on declaring the Word of God, and less emphasis on predicting the future. The primary purpose of the gift of prophesy, before they had the written New Testament scriptures — was to convey God’s message to the people. So, the majority of what the prophets did was to stand in front of a group of people and speak a message from God.
What Paul tells us here in this passage is that the gift of prophesy was always about edifying the body of Christ, the church. “The one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.” (I Corinthians 14:3). Or, as the NIV puts it, “The one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort
When a prophet brought a message from God, it always fell into one of these three categories — edification (which built people up) – encouragement or exhortation (which stirred people up) — and comfort or consolation (which cheered up). So, if somebody speaks a message from God, it’s going to build you up, it’s going to stir you up and motivate you to do something, or it’s going to cheer you up and comfort you.
Then we have the gift of tongues, and it’s very important that we define the gift of tongues properly. In Acts chapter 2, we find the very first mention of this miraculous gift. The gift of tongues was never found in the Old Testament.
The Greek word which is translated “tongue” can either refer to a literal tongue or it can refer to a language. When the apostles spoke in tongues, they spoke in different languages that they had never studied or learned. It wasn’t babbling, it wasn’t something that sounded like a bunch of nonsense. It was a foreign language. And it was so obvious that this was a miraculous evidence of the Spirit, that it had a significant effect on the unbelievers that were present.
You may think that perhaps the gift of speaking in tongues is found all throughout the book of Acts, but that’s not the case at all. It shows up in chapter 2 on the Day of Pentecost when the church was established. It shows up in chapter 10, when Cornelius, the first Gentile, becomes a Christian. And then it shows up again in chapter 19 in Ephesus. Those are the only three places that speaking in tongues is mentioned in the book of Acts.
And I Corinthians is the only letter that mentions speaking in tongues. It doesn’t show up in any of the other letters except I Corinthians.
And here’s the problem that Paul had with tongue-speaking. If someone stands up in a worship service and speaks in a foreign language, most of the time that’s not going to help anybody at all.
In verse 2, “For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him…”
If Justin gets up here and he does our welcome and opening prayer in Japanese, and then Tom gets up here and does our contribution meditation in Norwegian, and then Cameron gets up and leads the closing prayer in Portuguese, we may all go home being highly impressed, but it’s not going to help any of us to live out our Christianity.
There are really only two situations when tongue-speaking might to be beneficial. First of all, if the foreign language is interpreted. If Justin gets up here and welcomes us in Japanese and then Chance gets up and says, “I’ve studied Japanese. Let me interpret what Justin just said”, then we would go home being edified. I’ve attended lectureships where someone preached in Spanish and then someone else would interpret what he said into English. That was very edifying.
The second situation where tongue-speaking would be beneficial (and I think the most important) is if you are traveling to a place where you don’t speak the language. If I go to Germany and I preach to them in German (a language I know nothing about), that would be very beneficial to them. And if I go to Norway and speak in tongues in Norwegian, they would be edified.
But just to speak in a language that no one understands, that may make me feel better, it may make me feel closer to God, but for everyone else, it’s going to do absolutely nothing.
But Paul says, “On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.” (I Corinthians 14:3)
Think about what Paul has just said in chapter 13 — that everything we do as Christians should be motivated by love. And so, what that means is that I shouldn’t do what makes me feel best; I should do whatever is going to help others the most. We can go all the way back to chapter 12, verse 7, where Paul said, “A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other.” (NLT)
Now, we don’t have this same argument going on in the church today – which gift is greater, the gift of prophesy or speaking in tongues? But Paul’s point of application is very relevant. Because it’s so easy for us to get self-absorbed in our worship. And what I mean by that is that we want a worship that makes me feel good. I don’t want to sing those songs; I want to sing these other songs that I like; I feel so much closer to God when I sing these songs. And, if we’re not careful, we can leave every worship service, judging it and critiquing it based on, “How did it make me feel?”
But Paul reminds us that worship is not about us coming away feeling good, or even coming away feeling closer to God. It’s about using our time together – our time in worship as well as our time before and after worship – to edify one another, to build one another up, to comfort and encourage one another.
That’s why Paul says in verse 5 that “the one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues.” Which seems to contradict what Paul said back in chapter 12 when he said that all the spiritual gifts are equally valuable. Well, if that’s the case, then how can one gift be greater than another gift?
And I think the answer is that we need to put a little footnote here: Those spiritual gifts that edify only ourselves are always in a lower category than those spiritual gifts that edify the body. So, I think Paul is saying that prophecy and any other gift that edifies the body as a whole are greater than any spiritual gifts that would edify only myself. Because one of the primary purposes of our time together in worship is for us to encourage one another.
We may think that the primary reason we come together on Sunday mornings is for us to worship God. But, if that’s all we’re trying to do, then we don’t need to come together to do that. I can worship God in my living room all by myself. I can worship God out in the woods or on the beach all by myself. But what I can’t do when I’m worshiping all by myself is to encourage you and to receive encouragement from you. God intended that we come together so that we can encourage and edify one another, and he wants us to use our spiritual gifts to do that.
Verse 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?” (I Corinthians 14:6)
Paul says my goal in worship should be to help all of you in some way, either to build you up or stir you up or cheer you up, but if I’m speaking to you in a language that you don’t understand, then I’m not benefitting you at all. And then he uses a couple of illustrations to make his point.
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?” (I Corinthians 14:7)
Anyone can play an instrument and make noise, but noise isn’t the same thing as music. When Ryan Broglin was at Pine Forest Middle School, he was in the school band, and I was invited to one of his concerts. I went to that concert with very low expectations and I was pleasantly surprised to hear an outstanding performance. But what I expected to hear was the usual middle school band. You know, the kind where they play a song and everybody claps, but then they turn to the person next to them and say, “What was the song that they were playing because I didn’t recognize it.” Paul says that’s what it’s like when someone speak in tongues.
Verse 8, “And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?” (I Corinthians 14:8)
The bugle was used in the army to communicate both to advance and to retreat. But if you can’t tell what notes the bugler is playing, how do you know if you’re supposed to pull back, or if you’re supposed to move forward? The whole point is, if you can’t distinguish the meaning of the sound, there’s no value.
Verse 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. 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.” (I Corinthians 14:9-11)
Paul says it’s the same way with the words that we speak. If nobody understands what you’re saying, then all you’re doing to speaking into the air. You’re making sounds, but you’re not accomplishing anything. And incidentally, you don’t have to be speaking a foreign language for this to be true. I’ve heard some preachers who preached in English, but when they got done, I said, “I don’t have the slightest idea what they just said.”
All of us, but especially those of us who are preachers, need to be reminded that our goal is communication, and communication does not mean simply saying something. That’s only half of it. The other half is that our words need to be heard and they need to be understood. Because until somebody understands what we’re trying to say, we haven’t truly communicated.
Verse 12, “So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.”
Paul tells the Corinthians, “If you want to use the gifts that God has given you, that’s great. But keep in mind that our goal in worship is to build up one another.” And he says this so many times in this passage that you can’t miss it. Verse 3, “The one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.” Verse 4, “The one who prophesies builds up the church.” Verse 5, “so that the church may be built up.” Verse 12, “Strive to excel in building up the church.”
And so, by way of application, I think that Paul would want every single one of us to ask ourselves this question – “How am I using the gifts that God has given me to help everyone else in this church?” What are you doing to encourage others, to help others to grow stronger in their faith, to help others to grow closer to God, to help others to live more and more like Jesus Christ?
Verse 13, “Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret.” (I Corinthians 14:13)
Paul tells the Corinthians that if they speak in tongues (when no one can understand what they’re saying), then they should interpret what they’re saying so that everyone else can understand and be edified.
Verse 14, “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.” (I Corinthians 14:14-15)
Paul says that when we worship, there are two parts of us that are engaged – our emotions and our minds. When we pray, we engage our emotions and we engage our minds. When we sing songs of praise, we engage our emotions and we engage our minds. This is a consistent New Testament teaching: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and all your strength.”
One of the reasons why this was so important is because this was contrary to the teaching of the mystic religions. The whole point of mystic religions, both then and now, is that you kind of take your mind and put it in a passive mode, and you have some sort of an emotional experience that’s meant to represent some sort of an experience with the gods. And what made Christianity distinct from those religions is that our worship is something that engages our mind as well. Worship is not just some sort of emotional moment that’s stirred up.
And I would suggest that there are two dangers that we need to watch out for in our worship. The first is what Paul is describing here – it’s possible for us to see worship as purely an emotional experience, and so we can get all emotional and caught up in the singing, but we really don’t give it much thought. If you get to the end of a song you’ve just sung and you can’t tell me what you were singing about, then it was probably mostly emotion with very little mind.
But, it’s also possible to make the opposite mistake, and that is to worship God with our mind but not with our emotions. When worship becomes merely an intellectual process but we don’t really feel anything, then we haven’t given God everything that we have. Paul says, “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.”
Paul closes out this passage by emphasizing once again the fact that people need to understand what we’re saying if they’re going to be edified. Verse 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? For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up.
“I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (I Corinthians 14:16-19)
While it appears that this passage is all about prophecy and speaking in tongues, the truth is it’s really more about love. Paul lets us know that the gifts that God has given to us are ultimately demonstrated in our ability to love one another. And the manifestation of the Spirit, which calls us to different roles within the church, is always, always, always, for the common good. It’s always to edify the Body. It’s never for the purpose of edifying self.
And so, when we start coming to worship services in order to have our own personal experience, in order to edify ourselves, to basically fulfill our selfish goals, we’ve completely misunderstood the point. We’ve completely misunderstood the manifestation of the Spirit. It’s never about self-edification. It’s never about selfishness. It’s always to give ourselves away. It’s always for the common good. It’s always for the purpose of helping one another and bringing God the glory in the process.