Paul argues that prophecy is a better than tongues because prophecy edifies the larger body while speaking in tongues edifies only the speaker. His argument implies that we should value truth over emotion.
In 1Corinthians 12-14, Paul corrects the Corinthians’ view of speaking in tongues. After discussing the supremacy of love, in 1Corinthians 13, Paul returns to his point about the greater gifts from the end of 1Corinthians 12.
Prophecy & Tongues
Scholars debate exactly what Paul means by prophecy and by tongues in 1Corinthians 14.
Are we to understand prophecy as supernatural, direct revelation from God? Or as more what we would call teaching today?
Similarly, are we to understand tongues as the event we see in Acts where the speaker speaks in a human language he has not been taught but that his listeners understand? Or is Paul referring to a kind of ecstatic babbling that no one understands, including the speaker?
By prophecy, I think Paul means the broad concept of explaining God’s existing word that includes any kind of exhortation and encouragement.
By tongues, I think Paul is talking about the phenomenon we see in Acts where the speaker is speaking in a known human language that others present understand but which the speaker has not learned.
14:1 Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy. 2For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries. 3But one who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation. 4One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church. 5Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy; and greater is one who prophesies than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may receive edifying. – 1Corinthians 14:1-5
- Paul is speaking to a group of people who are already excited about spiritual things, and he’s trying to focus their zeal in the right direction.
- Paul contrasts prophecy (one of the greatest gifts) with tongues (one of the lesser gifts).
- Tongues: The tongue speaker speaks only to God (14:2) and edifies only himself (14:4). No one else benefits because no one else understands what the tongue speaker is saying.
- Prophecy: The prophet edifies, teaches and encourages (14:3) and edifies the entire community (14:4).
- Prophecy is greater than tongues because it edifies the entire community. The tongue speaker can only edify the community if someone can translate.
- 14:5 – “I wish you all spoke in tongues”: The sense is something like: “Don’t misunderstand. When I (Paul) say prophecy is greater, I’m not putting down tongues. There’s nothing wrong with speaking in tongues, I wish you all did. BUT if I was going to wish for everyone to have one gift, it would be prophecy. “
6But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking in tongues, what will I profit you unless I speak to you either by way of revelation or of knowledge or of prophecy or of teaching? 7Yet even lifeless things, either flute or harp, in producing a sound, if they do not produce a distinction in the tones, how will it be known what is played on the flute or on the harp? 8For if the bugle produces an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself for battle? 9So also you, unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air. 10There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of languages in the world, and no kind is without meaning. 11If then I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be to the one who speaks a barbarian, and the one who speaks will be a barbarian to me. – 1Corinthians 14:6-11
- Edification comes from communicating ideas, knowledge and content. Prophecy has greater value because ideas and truth are being imparted from one person to another.
- We don’t value noises made through a flute or trumpet. We value the melodies they play.
- Generals used bugles to signal commands to the troops on the battlefield. If the general blew a random collection of noise, the soldiers would have no idea what to do.
- If I do not understand the language you use, then we are foreigners to each other. We can’t share ideas or pass knowledge to each other. Tongues have the same effect as a foreign language, acting as a barrier between listeners.
12So also you, since you are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek to abound for the edification of the church. 13Therefore let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret. 14For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. 15What is the outcome then? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also. 16Otherwise if you bless in the spirit only, how will the one who fills the place of the ungifted say the “Amen” at your giving of thanks, since he does not know what you are saying? 17For you are giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not edified. 18I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all; 19however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind so that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue. – 1Corinthians 14:12-19
- Seek an abundance of things that edify the community. If you’ve been one of the tongue speakers, start praying that you can interpret, so that everyone can be edified.
- The mind is fruitful when the we clearly communicate the idea in it.
- The tongue speaker’s thoughts bear no fruit because no content is communicated. The people listening can’t say “Amen,” because nothing has been communicated nothing to them.
- 14:18 – I speak in tongues more than you all: 1) Paul could have learned a lot of languages in his travels; Or 2) when God called Paul to preach in a new place, God could have inspired Paul to speak in their native language (although we have no record of this).
- Paul would rather communicate one idea (like “Jesus Christ is Lord”) than speak a 10,000 words in a tongue no on understands.
20Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature. 21In the Law it is written, “BY MEN OF STRANGE TONGUES AND BY THE LIPS OF STRANGERS I WILL SPEAK TO THIS PEOPLE, AND EVEN SO THEY WILL NOT LISTEN TO ME,” says the Lord. 22So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophecy is for a sign, not to unbelievers but to those who believe. 23Therefore if the whole church assembles together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad? 24But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; 25the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you. – 1Corinthians 14:20-25
- The Corinthians’ thinking about tongues is childlike (immature). It’s okay to be have a child-like understanding of evil, but otherwise we want to think maturely.
- Paul quotes Isaiah 28:11-12.
- In the Isaiah passage, God spoke to His people in their own language through the prophets, but the people didn’t listening. To discipline them, God ceased speaking through the prophets and spoke to them through the foreign language of the Assyrians, as the Assyrians took them captive.
- Hence, prophecy is for believers who listen and obey. The foreign language of Assyria was given to those who had rebelled and stopped listening to God.
- The Corinthians are impressed and awed by tongues, which is immature childish thinking. God sends incomprehensible noise, like the foreign language of the Assyrians, as discipline.
- Paul says tongues have no place in an assembly of Christians unless the content can be translated and understood by those present.
- Paul exalts the idea of propositional truth. Edification comes through content – not emotions.
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