“Pursue love, and desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy” (1 Corinthians 14:1).
The opening verse of 1 Corinthians chapter fourteen serves as a thread that ties this portion of Scripture together with the preceding chapters: Pursue love (a reference to the subject discussed in chapter thirteen), and desire spiritual gifts (a topic that served as the primary focus of chapter twelve). Since the kind of love described in 1 Corinthians chapter thirteen is something that should be representative of God’s people, it should also guide and direct the expression of whatever spiritual gifts we may possess.
The importance of love in relation to spiritual gifts is helpful in establishing a proper understanding of this chapter. You see, love is an eternal quality while spiritual gifts are temporal and vary in degree of importance. Paul the Apostle helped to illustrate this idea in saying, “…the gift you should want most is to be able to prophesy” (ERV). In offering this counsel, we should note that Paul assigned a greater value to this particular gift than certain others.
This serves to remind us that the spiritual gifts cataloged in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, Ephesians 4:11-12, and Romans 12:6-8 are equally valid but may not be equally valuable. One way to accurately measure the value of these individual gifts is to view them in terms of how others might benefit through their use.
In commenting on this idea, one source observes, “Paul is anxious that his readers do not misunderstand him. He does not intend to mean by what he says in chapter 13 that spiritual gifts have no value at all; his concern there is only that they keep the gifts in the proper perspective.” (1) As we’ll see, this consideration will go on to become a primary focus of attention throughout this chapter.
As mentioned earlier, a genuine “prophet” can be identified as someone who possesses the ability to provide God’s direction as prompted by the Holy Spirit. We might also define a legitimate prophet as someone who conveys divinely-initiated information concerning a particular situation or future event. One commentary expands on these definitions with the following insight: “The ability to prophesy may involve predicting future events, but its main purpose is to communicate God’s message to people, providing insight, warning, correction, and encouragement.” (2)
Therefore again, we might best associate the function of a prophetic gift in a contemporary church setting with those who are prompted by the Holy Spirit to bring a fresh application of Biblical truth to a particular circumstance or situation.
(1) Hindson, E. E., & Kroll, W. M. (Eds.). (1994). KJV Bible Commentary (p. 2322). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
(2) Life Application Study Bible [14:1] Copyright © 1988, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1996, 2004 by Tyndale House Publishers Inc., all rights reserved.
“For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands him; however, in the spirit he speaks mysteries” (1 Corinthians 14:2-4).
This portion of Scripture introduces a highly controversial subject for many within the church today; the subject of speaking in tongues. Since the discussion of this particular spiritual gift occupies the entirety of 1 Corinthians chapter fourteen, it might be constructive to begin by examining the first New Testament expression of this gift as recorded in the New Testament book of Acts…
“When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, ‘Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? …we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God'” (Acts 2:1-7, 11).
One of the most important considerations involved in judging the validity of a spiritual gift (and/or other types of spiritual manifestations) concerns the need to establish a legitimate Scriptural basis for it’s appearance. If we find that we cannot verify a particular “gift” or spiritual expression as something that was taught by Jesus within the Gospels, practiced by the early church within the book of Acts, and referenced by the authors of the New Testament Epistles, then we would be wise to exercise caution before we affirm such things to represent a legitimate move of God.
With regard to the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues, we can look to Jesus’ reference to this practice within the Gospel of Mark (Mark 16:17) as well as Paul’s teaching here in 1 Corinthians chapter fourteen. We’ll take a look at the Apostle Peter’s validation of this practice in the book of Acts (and how we can use that portion of Scripture to help establish a foundation for accepting or rejecting a “spiritual gift” (and/or other types of spiritual manifestations) next.
“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” (1 Corinthians 14:2 NIV).
In the New Testament book of Acts we read, “…suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:2-4 ESV).
In response to the questions raised by these events, the Apostle Peter replied by saying, “…this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:16-18 ESV).
Its important to note that Peter offered a Scriptural basis to validate these things and how it applied to what the people had seen and heard. As a result, “…they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit ..So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:37-38, 41 ESV).
With this in mind, which of the following would seem to represent the most important occurence within this portion of Scripture?
- “…suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.”
- “Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them.”
- “…(They) began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (NIV).
The answer is that none of these events represented the most important thing that occurred within these verses. The most important thing that occurred was this: three thousand people turned to God and were delivered from an eternity of separation from their Creator. Thus, these spiritual manifestations served to fulfill an important objective: they directed others to act upon God’s Word.
“For the one speaking in a tongue does not speak to people but to God, for no one understands; he is speaking mysteries by the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 14:2 NET).
Having looked at an example of “speaking in tongues” from the New Testament book of Acts, we can now offer a Biblical definition for this practice: the act of speaking in tongues can be defined as the ability to speak in a language that is not known to the speaker as he or she is enabled by the Holy Spirit.
While we might legitimately associate this ability with the capacity to communicate in a language that is not native to our own (as demonstrated in Acts 2:1-11), the practice of speaking in tongues can also be identified with a somewhat more controversial term: glossolalia. The word glossolalia is a derivative of two Greek words: glossa (or glõssai, a word that means “tongue” or “language”) and lalia (which means “speech”). Contemporary expressions of glossolalia can often be found among those men and women of God who are members of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements, along with a number of others.
Many sources make a differentiation between glossolalia and a related term: xenoglossia or the ability to speak fluently in another human language that one has not studied or learned. Those who make a distinction between these two definitions generally associate glossolalia with unintelligible speech-like vocalizations that do not carry a humanly discernable pattern or meaning. Thus, the present-day practice of speaking in tongues may sometimes be identified with examples of ecstatic utterances or simply dismissed as gibberish by some.
In deference to this position, it should be observed that genuine, documented examples of the authentic, God-given ability to speak in a human language that is unknown to the speaker are exceedingly rare. However, those who support the modern-day practice of speaking in tongues point out that the language involved may be one that is native to another human culture or one that is unknown to others based on Paul the Apostle’s statement in 1 Corinthians 13:1: “If I speak human or angelic languages but do not have love, I am a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (HCSB).
The idea is that an angelic language is one that would naturally be unknown to human beings; therefore we should expect such languages to be unintelligible. However, this begs the question: why would anyone wish to communicate in a way that he or she cannot understand? We’ll offer some potential answers to that question next.
“But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men. He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church” (1 Corinthians 14:3-4).
Although the book of 1 Corinthians identifies the ability to speak in tongues as a valid spiritual gift, we might question how one might benefit from the ability to speak in a language that is unknown to the speaker. In other words, why would anyone wish to communicate in a way that he or she cannot understand? Well, there are a number of reasons given to support this practice by those who accept the modern-day expression of this spiritual gift.
First, a person who possesses the legitimate, God-given ability to communicate in this manner can be assured that his or her speech is entirely within the will of God. This may be what the New Testament book of Romans refers to when it tells us,“…the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26).
The spiritual gift of tongues may also help to overcome the limitations that can be found within various languages. For instance, most of us are probably familiar with the feeling of frustration that occurs whenever we must grasp for an appropriate word in order to communicate effectively with others. With this in mind, let’s imagine if someone possessed the ability to select the correct word from any available language in order to communicate with understanding. In that instance, he or she would have the perfect means necessary to completely express whatever he or she might wish to say.
We might consider the ability to speak in tongues in a similar manner- if a person is prompted by the Spirit of God to communicate in this way, then he or she would subsequently enjoy the assurance that comes with the ability to say the right thing in every instance.
In addition to ensuring that our verbal communication is in alignment with the will of God and the ability to overcome the limitations of human language, 1 Corinthians 14:4 tells us that the authentic spiritual gift of tongues also serves to edify (or build up) the person who is speaking: “A person who speaks in tongues is strengthened personally…” (NLT).
Nevertheless, there are a number of important considerations (and limitations) with regard to this practice and we will go on to consider them as we continue through this chapter.
“I wish you all spoke with tongues, but even more that you prophesied; for he who prophesies is greater than he who speaks with tongues, unless indeed he interprets, that the church may receive edification. But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you unless I speak to you either by revelation, by knowledge, by prophesying, or by teaching?” (1 Corinthians 14:5-6)
The Apostle Paul offered a contrast between two different types of spiritual gifts within this passage: “The person who prophesies is greater than the person who speaks in tongues, unless someone gives an interpretation, so that the congregation can be edified” (CJB). This distinction is important in light of the subject that Paul discussed at length within the previous chapter: love.
You see, 1 Corinthians 13:5 reminds us that “Love is not self-seeking” (NIV). In other words, a person who loves is someone who considers the needs of others in addition to (or ahead of) his or her own needs. So a person who is truly walking in love is someone who understands that the best spiritual gifts are the ones that benefit others (such as prophesy) in contrast to those that primarily offer a personal benefit (like speaking in tongues).
Later on in 1 Corinthians 14:12, Paul will go on to tell us, “…Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church” (NIV). In light of this, we should expand the subject of spiritual gifts to include the following question: “how will the church benefit through the exercise of this gift?” This consideration will help to establish the rationale behind the restrictions that Paul will place upon the exercise of spiritual gifts as we’ll see a later within this chapter
Finally Paul’s expressed desire for every member of the Corinthian church to possess this ability reminds us that spiritual gifts are not reserved for the benefit of a select few- they are potentially available to every member of the Christian community as directed by the Holy Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 12:11). As one commentary observes…
“Paul would clearly say that no one should put down those Christians who speak in tongues, and those who speak in tongues should not disparage those who do not. Paul makes several points about speaking in tongues: (1) It is a spiritual gift from God (1Co_14:2); (2) it is a desirable gift even though it isn’t a requirement of faith (1Co_12:28-31); (3) it is less important than prophecy and teaching (1Co_14:4).” (1)
(1) Life Application Study Bible [14:2-5] Copyright © 1988, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1996, 2004 by Tyndale House Publishers Inc., all rights reserved
“Even things without life, whether flute or harp, when they make a sound, unless they make a distinction in the sounds, how will it be known what is piped or played? For if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare for battle?
So likewise you, unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air” (1 Corinthians 14:7-9).
To illustrate the importance of communicating with others in a manner that they can comprehend, the Apostle Paul turned to the use of various musical instruments to illustrate his point. In considering this analogy, we should note that musical instruments become extensions of the musicians who use them- and how effectively a musician communicates through his or her instrument is often dependent on a variety of factors.
Take jazz music as an example. As a musical genre, jazz has the distinction of being extremely popular and completely inaccessible to large segments of the public. For many, the discordant notes, odd time signatures, polyrhythms, and spontaneity of jazz music (in its various iterations) often make it difficult to understand and appreciate the gifted artists who create such music. But perhaps it might be easier to recognize and appreciate this musical genre if we had a better grasp on how and why these artists express themselves in this style.
In large part, the heart of jazz music is improvisation, or the spontaneous composition of a musical piece as it is being played. Since an improvising musician will play whatever occurs to him or her at the moment, the result will often reflect a variety of influences and will never be exactly the same as anything that preceded it. For instance, an artist’s personality, emotional state, musical background, and interaction with other musicians may all combine to produce a unique interpretation of an existing song or something that is entirely new.
Once we understand how such factors influence the work of these artists, it may become easier to appreciate their creative talents. At the risk of stretching this analogy too far, we might consider the passage quoted above in a similar manner- if we cannot understand the “language” behind a musician’s use of a particular instrument, then we may fail to comprehend his or her message. As one commentator writes, “Armies in all ages have been directed by the sound of a bugle. But the loudest blast means nothing, if it does not communicate something which the hearers can understand!” (1)
(1) The Bible Study Textbook Series The Bible Study New Testament [14:8] (College Press) Explanatory notes by Rhoderick D. Ice. Copyright 1974 College Press
“Therefore let him who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful.
What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding.
Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how will he who occupies the place of the uninformed say ‘Amen’ at your giving of thanks, since he does not understand what you say? For you indeed give thanks well, but the other is not edified” (1 Corinthians 14:13-17).
When purchasing a product that has been manufactured in another portion of the world, we are sometimes presented with accompanying documentation that suffers from a clumsy (and often laughable) attempt to translate that information into our native language. These instances should serve to remind us of the basic truth found here within 1 Corinthians 14:11: “…if I don’t understand the language that someone is using, we will be like foreigners to each other” (CEV).
Nevertheless, many of these same communication challenges can often exist even among those who speak the same language. You see, there are few things in life that can be more frustrating than an attempt to communicate with someone who “just doesn’t get it.” In fact, many of the issues, difficulties, and problems we experience in life can often be traced to a failure to understand others or their failure to understand us.
While a written or verbal message may hold value for one individual, that may not necessarily be true for others. Such was the case with the spiritual gift of tongues within the Corinthian church. The question for the Apostle Paul was not necessarily related to the gift of tongues itself but rather to this question: “How will the exercise of that gift benefit others within the church?”
Much like the product documentation that is written in a language other than our own, the members of the Corinthian church received no practical benefit from those who spoke in a language that could not be readily understood. Therefore, as Paul went on to say, “Even so you, since you are zealous for spiritual gifts, let it be for the edification of the church that you seek to excel” (1 Corinthians 14:12).
Note that Paul did not attempt to quell the Corinthians’ desire and enthusiasm for spiritual gifts; instead, he sought to reorient their thinking away from what was best for the individual and redirect it toward that which strengthened, built up, and edified the other members of their fellowship. Thus, this counsel ultimately served to reinforce some important guidance from earlier within this book: “Let a man give attention not only to what is good for himself, but equally to his neighbour’s good” (1 Corinthians 10:24 BBE).
“Therefore let him who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful. What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding.
Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how will he who occupies the place of the uninformed say ‘Amen’ at your giving of thanks, since he does not understand what you say? For you indeed give thanks well, but the other is not edified” (1 Corinthians 14:13-17).
In a spiritual sense, we can associate the idea of “edification” with the actions of those who work to promote wisdom, affection, grace, virtue, and holiness in others. (1) As we’ve already seen throughout this portion of Scripture, the edification of others is something that represents an ongoing theme within 1 Corinthians chapter fourteen.
Paul the Apostle expresses this concept in very practical terms with regard to the spiritual gift of tongues here within 1 Corinthians 14:13-17. You see, it would have been virtually impossible for the members of the Corinthian church to join together in honoring God if there were some within the congregation who could not understand what was being said. After all, its difficult to say “Amen” in the presence of those who are speaking in a manner that can’t be understood.
In a larger sense, this passage also offers a practical reminder for ministers today. For instance, a good speaker does well to consider his or her potential audience in order to communicate with understanding and edify those who are listening. In like manner, a skillful music minister edifies others by making it easier for them to worship God in song even if it means playing or singing at a level below his or her true ability.
The idea is that we should not seek to place our knowledge, skills, or abilities on display but to use them in manner that serves to build others up. In the words of one commentary…
(2) Lyons, George. “(1) The criterion of intelligibility (14:1-25)” In Asbury Bible Commentary. 1013. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, © 1992.
“I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all; yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Corinthians 14:18-19).
Whenever we encourage others to make God-honoring choices, we may encounter those who seek to dismiss such efforts with the following rationalization: “You just don’t understand.” For anyone within the Corinthian church who might have been tempted to object to the Apostle Paul’s teaching on the subject of tongues in a similar manner, the passage quoted above would prove to be an effective rebuttal: “I thank God that my gift of speaking in different kinds of languages is greater than any of yours” (ERV).
In addition to the spiritual gift of tongues, it appears that Paul could also communicate in at least three human languages (Hebrew, Aramaic [a then-common language of that time], and Greek). Yet despite these capabilities, Paul offered the following assessment: “nevertheless, in public worship I would rather say five understandable words in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue [which others cannot understand]” (AMP).
As one source observes, “The contrast between his preference in church for five intelligible words to ten thousand words in a tongue is striking— all the more so because ten thousand was the largest word for a number available in Greek.” (1) This becomes even more remarkable when we stop to consider that the ratio of five intelligible words to ten thousand unintelligible words equates to five ten thousandths of a percent. Yet even that infinitesimally small number was said to be of greater value than an extensive discourse in a language that others could not understand.
This returns us again to another recurring theme within this chapter- how will the use of our God-given gifts serve to benefit others? Paul will go on to press this point by way of a not-so-subtle contrast…
“Brethren, do not be children in understanding; however, in malice be babes, but in understanding be mature” (1 Corinthians 14:20).
It appears that Paul viewed the Corinthians’ disproportionate regard for these sign gifts as a further indication of their spiritual immaturity. But what the Corinthians may not have known was that the act of speaking in an unknown language had previously served as a mark of God’s judgment. We’ll take a look at one historical example in this respect (and what we can learn from it) next.
(1) Lyons, George. “(1) The criterion of intelligibility (14:1-25)” In Asbury Bible Commentary. 1013. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, © 1992.
“In the law it is written: ‘With men of other tongues and other lips I will speak to this people; And yet, for all that, they will not hear Me,’ says the Lord. Therefore tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophesying is not for unbelievers but for those who believe” (1 Corinthians 14:21-22).
The passage quoted above references the book of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah and a prophetic message from God to the people of Israel. The context of that passage involves the ungodly behavior exhibited by the Israelites despite God’s repeated warnings to refrain from such conduct.
As a result, Isaiah informed his listeners that God would change His approach toward them. Since the people had refused to listen to God in a language they could understand, He would go on to communicate with them by way of others who spoke in a manner they couldn’t understand…
“Woe to the city of Samaria, surrounded by her rich valley—Samaria, the pride and delight of the drunkards of Israel! Woe to her fading beauty, the crowning glory of a nation of men lying drunk in the streets! For the Lord will send a mighty army (the Assyrians) against you; like a mighty hailstorm he will burst upon you and dash you to the ground…
‘Who does Isaiah think he is,’ the people say, ‘to speak to us like this! Are we little children, barely old enough to talk? He tells us everything over and over again, a line at a time and in such simple words!’ But they won’t listen; the only language they can understand is punishment! So God will punish them by sending against them foreigners who speak strange gibberish! Only then will they listen to him!” (Isaiah 28:1-2, 9-11 TLB).
So just as the unintelligible language of the invading Assyrian army signaled the fulfillment of the judgment prophesied by Isaiah, the spiritual gift of tongues (as detailed in Acts 2:1-11) should have served as a similar indicator to those who were familiar with the prophet’s warning. In light of this, Paul’s reference to this passage here in his letter to the Corinthian church also signaled the need to exercise this spiritual gift in an appropriate and responsible manner.
As one commentator has observed, “Paul now introduces an extremely sober note. Whereas the Corinthians regarded speaking in tongues as something to be desired, Paul pointed out that it might be a sign of God’s displeasure and punishment.” (1)
(1) Coffman, James Burton. “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 14”. “Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament”. <http://classic.studylight.org/com/bcc/view.cgi?book=1co&chapter=014>.
“Therefore if the whole church comes together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those who are uninformed or unbelievers, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an uninformed person comes in, he is convinced by all, he is convicted by all. And thus the secrets of his heart are revealed; and so, falling down on his face, he will worship God and report that God is truly among you” (1 Corinthians 14:23-25).
Imagine if we had the kind of technology that would enable us to return to first-century Corinth and observe a church service there. What might we find if we had the opportunity to revisit the past in this manner? Well, judging from the Apostle Paul’s description in these verses and those that follow, it appears that we might encounter a number of people who were simultaneously speaking in unknown and/or unintelligible languages while others were listening and interpreting what was being said.
If we were on hand to observe such an assembly, we might use words such as discord, clamor, and/or disorder to describe it. This kind of response was not lost on the Apostle Paul who made use of a similarly hypothetical observer with a much less charitable description: “Would they not think each and every one of you were raving lunatics?” (1 Corinthians 14:23 Voice).
This kind of disorder reflected poorly upon Jesus and those who claimed to follow Him. On the other hand, a person who was prompted by the Holy Spirit to bring forth God’s message in an understandable manner would serve to benefit anyone who was sincerely open to His direction.
As for the seeming discrepancy between 1 Corinthians 14:22-25, here is how one source responds…
“There is an apparent contradiction between verse 22 and verses 23-25. In verse 22, we are told that tongues are a sign to unbelievers whereas prophecy is for believers. But in verses 23-25, Paul says that tongues used in the church might only confuse and stumble unbelievers whereas prophecy might help them.
The explanation of the seeming contradiction is this: The unbelievers in verse 22 are those who have rejected the word of God and closed their hearts to the truth. Tongues are a sign of God’s judgment on them, as they were on Israel in the Isaiah passage (v. 21). The unbelievers in verses 23-25 are those who are willing to be taught. They are open to hear the word of God, as is evidenced by their presence in a Christian assembly. If they hear Christians speaking in foreign languages without interpretation, they will be hindered, not helped.” (1)
(1) Believer’s Bible Commentary William Macdonald Edited by Arthur Farstad Thomas Nelson Publishers [14:23]
“How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification” (1 Corinthians 14:26).
On a positive note, 1 Corinthians 14:26 seems to indicate that the various members of the Corinthian church were actively involved in some type of ministerial activity whenever they assembled together. Rather than passively attending worship services at Corinth, it appears that these believers had accepted the responsibility to use their God-given gifts whenever they assembled together as a congregation.
The problem was that the Christians at Corinth had failed to consider how their individual skills, talents, and gifts might best be utilized for the benefit of everyone. Instead, it seems that the Corinthians sought to exercise their gifts without regard for their impact upon others or how their actions might have been perceived by those outside the church.
This lack of a “perception filter” can be explained by the missing element that the Apostle Paul identifies for us in the passage quoted above: “…everything that is done must be useful to all, and build them up in the Lord” (TLB). One source explains how this idea applied to the first-century church at Corinth and provides us with a principle that we can apply today…
“When the church met, anyone was free to participate by contributing a hymn, or a word of instruction (cf. 1Co_14:6; probably a lesson based on the OT), a revelation from one gifted in prophecy (cf. 1Co_14:6, 1Co_14:29-32), or a word from one gifted in a tongue followed by an interpretation of what was said.
The controlling principle in this free participation was the rule of love. All that was said and done was to have as its goal the need of strengthening… others (cf. 1Co_14:4-5).” (1)
The controlling principle described above is one that we can practically apply in many areas of life. For example, we might consider the wisdom of sharing our viewpoints and opinions on non-essential matters whenever its reasonable to assume that doing so would not serve to edify others. As Paul reminded another first-century church, “Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them (Ephesians 4:29 NLT).
In fact, there are times when it is may be appropriate to silence ourselves in deference to others, and Paul the Apostle will go on to provide us with an appropriate example next.
(1) John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck Bible Knowledge Commentary [14:26]
“If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret. But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God” (1 Corinthians 14:27-28).
In keeping with his instruction that “All things must be done for edification” (1 Corinthians 14:26 HCSB), the Apostle Paul provided the members of the Corinthian fellowship with a few guidelines to help ensure that their services were conducted in a manner that reflected appropriately upon Jesus’ church and served the needs of everyone within the congregation.
He first began by saying, “If anyone speaks in a tongue…” This qualifying statement tells us that the exercise of this spiritual gift was not mandated but might represent a feature of their congregational meetings. Next, Paul placed an appropriate limit on the number of individuals who could engage in the expression of this gift: “…two or at the most three.” This would effectively compel those who possessed this gift to seriously consider whether they wished to prohibit anyone else from speaking if they were approaching this “three-person” limit.
The next guideline would help to produce a similar effect: “…each in turn.” At a minimum, this “one at a time” guideline served to externally motivate the members of the church to demonstrate consideration, respect, and courtesy for the others within their fellowship, qualities that appear to have been somewhat lacking among them.
“Let one interpret“ comes next. This directive reinforced a number of key points from earlier within this chapter…
“…if I should come to you speaking in an unknown language, how would that help you?”
“…anyone who speaks in tongues should pray also for the ability to interpret what has been said”
“…in a church meeting I would rather speak five understandable words to help others than ten thousand words in an unknown language” (1 Corinthians 14:6, 13, 19 NLT).
Finally, “…if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God” (ESV). Note that the person involved was not restricted from speaking in tongues but was prohibited from doing so before the rest of the congregation. This would enable those who possessed this gift to receive the personal edification that came through it’s use while sparing others from the burden of a message that could neither be understood or interpreted.
“Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge. But if anything is revealed to another who sits by, let the first keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be encouraged” (1 Corinthians 14:29-31).
Much like a number of other topics that have already been discussed within the book of 1 Corinthians, the subject of judgment is one that reappears from time to time within this epistle. As mentioned earlier, the idea of “judgment” in this context is defined by the act of forming an opinion or evaluation. As used here in 1 Corinthians 14:29, the word “judge” can mean “to separate, make a distinction, discriminate, to prefer, to learn by discrimination, to try, decide, to determine, give judgment, decide a dispute.” (1)
As with those who possessed the spiritual gift of tongues, the guidelines established here within Paul’s letter to the Corinthians also served to limit the ability of prophets to speak within a congregational setting. However, each prophetic message was further subject to the corresponding judgment of others within their fellowship. Thus, anyone who claimed to speak for God would face the scrutiny of other believers, a reality that would surely give would-be prophets cause to reassess their motives and ability to hear from God before they brought forth a “word from the Lord.”
Ideally, we would expect this kind of evaluation to be initiated and led by the spiritual leaders within the church. Since good spiritual leaders are always on the lookout for those who might bring harm to the members of a congregation (such as a false prophet, for instance), they will seek to identify those who possess the potential to inflict spiritual injury upon others.
However, it is important to note that the Spirit-inspired letter of 1 Corinthians did not assign the task of evaluating such prophets solely to the leaders of the church- instead, we’re told that it was the responsibility of “others” within the congregation to evaluate (HCSB), discern (ASV), and “…weigh what is said” (CJB). This implies that every Christian should know the Word of God well enough to separate truth from error when it becomes necessary to do so.
So these verses remind us that those who claim to occupy this kind of spiritual office are not exempt from judgment. As we’re told in the New Testament book of 1 John, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
(1) G1252 diakrino Thayer’s Greek Definitions https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G1252
“And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints” (1 Corinthians 14:32-33).
A careful examination of Scripture is always beneficial in helping us test the authenticity of a spiritual belief or practice. Consider the passage quoted above for example: “…the prophets’ spirits are under the prophets’ control” (CJB). Since the genuine ability to speak prophetically is under the control of the speaker, this would rule out the possibility of God communicating through someone in an involuntary fashion.
For instance, if we were to question whether it is possible for someone to communicate an authentic message from God through things like séances, trance-like states, automatic writing, or other, similar types of occultic activities, then the answer would be “no” based on what we read here in 1 Corinthians 14:32-33.
The reason is that a genuine Biblical prophet would retain intelligent control of his or her faculties in receiving a true message from God. This would include the ability to stop and start a prophetic message or even to defer to another person while in the midst of communicating a prophetic message (see 1 Corinthians 14:30).
We can also look to the examples of other Biblical personalities to illustrate this idea. Despite the fantastic revelations and experiences of Godly men such as Ezekiel, Daniel, the Apostle John, and Paul the Apostle, each of these men retained the ability to communicate intelligently and interact with their environments even while they were in the midst of receiving a revelation from God.
Of course, some might object by pointing to the experiences of Paul and the Apostle Peter, each of whom were said to have fallen into a trance while receiving a revelation from God. However, it is propbably more accurate to say that each of these men received visions from God on these occasions, a difference that is recognized within a number of Biblical translations. In addition, the word “trance” is descriptive of their experience in receiving a revelation from God and not the means by which they communicated those revelations to others.
Thus, we can say that God will not possess or control an authentic prophet in the manner that we commonly associate with some occultic forms of “revelation.” God will not overpower someone with a revelatory message, nor will He compel others to speak, write, or otherwise communicate against their will. Therefore, we can confidently assert that anyone who claims to have received a revelation in this manner did not receive it from God.
“The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace–as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people” (1 Corinthians 14:32-33 NIV).
While the means of prophetic revelation described here in 1 Corinthians 14:32-33 can be useful in identifying a number of illegitimate forms of “prophecy,” this passage also provides guidance for those within the church who might feel compelled to speak forth in this manner.
For instance, take the example of a person who claims to have been overcome by God’s Spirit in speaking forth a prophetic message or a revelation from God. Such a person might appeal to the Biblical book of Acts (where the Holy Spirit is said to have “come upon” people in a number of instances) in order to justify speaking in this manner (see Acts 19:6 for an example).
But no matter how well-meaning or sincere someone may be, a “prophet” who is not in control of his or her ability to speak is someone who is not aligned with the teachings of 1 Corinthians 14:32-33. Whatever it may mean for the Holy Spirit to come upon someone, it cannot refer to any type of overwhelming, involuntary action initiated by God’s Spirit.
Consider these insights from the following commentators on this subject…
“That the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets is a truth of universal application. It condemns every impulse of a religious character which is not under the intelligent control of those who display it.” (1)
“No true prophet can claim a hearing on the ground that he is under a power over which he has no control.” (2)
“Subject to the prophets is added lest someone should claim, ‘I simply can’t help myself when God brings a revelation to me from the Spirit.’ Paul teaches that the Holy Spirit does not overpower the individual he empowers. The will of the Christian is not broken but must cooperate with the work of God.” (3)
“Prophets were to control themselves when speaking, even when giving new revelation (cf. 1Co_14:27-28). The nature of this gift was that it did not sweep the prophet into a mindless frenzy. Pagans who received demonic revelations frequently lost control of themselves. Inability to control oneself was no evidence that the prophet spoke from God. On the contrary, it indicated that he was not submitting to God’s control because God produces peace, not confusion.” (4)
God’s people should never be “overwhelmed” into speaking for Him- and as one Biblical paraphrase renders this passage, “Remember that a person who has a message from God has the power to stop himself or wait his turn” (TLB).
(1) F. B. Meyer, B.A. Through the Bible Day by Day A Devotional Commentary [1Co_14:26-40]
(2) Ryrie, Charles Caldwell Ryrie Study Notes [14:32] © 1986, 1995 by The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago. Database © 2004 WORDsearch Corp.
(3) Radmacher, E. D., Allen, R. B., & House, H. W. (1999). Nelson’s new illustrated Bible commentary (p. 1484). Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers.
(4) Dr. Thomas L. Constable Notes on 1 Corinthians 2017 Edition [14:32-33] Copyright © 2017 Thomas L. Constable http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/htm/NT/1%20Corinthians/1Corinthians.htm
“Women should remain silent in the 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” (1 Corinthians 14:34-35 NIV).
If the subject of speaking in tongues was not contentious enough, 1 Corinthians chapter fourteen also presents us with another controversial passage here in verse thirty-four: “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says.” But much like the discussion of female leadership from earlier within 1 Corinthians chapter eleven, it is not necessary to insist that Paul the Apostle maintained a sexist view of women in considering this portion of Scripture.
For instance, some may attempt to use this verse to justify the exclusion of women from every ministerial position within the church. But if that was Paul’s intent, then how then could make a statement such as the one found earlier in 1 Corinthians 14:31: “For you can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be encouraged” (emphasis added), “All” would certainly include the female members of the congregation, something that would not have been possible if Paul had insisted that female prophets remain completely silent.
A far more satisfactory answer might be found within the cultural protocols of first century Corinth. Following the pattern that existed within the first century synagogue, seating arrangements were almost certainly segregated within the church at Corinth. For instance, men and women were generally not seated together as is the custom in much of the church today. Instead, a husband and wife would typically sit on opposite sides of the church’s meeting place.
Because of this, a wife who wished to communicate with her husband on a point raised during a message would have to speak “over” others, thereby disrupting the teacher and his message. Thus. the term “They are not allowed to speak…” can be understood to refer to a prohibition on the distracting and disrespectful practice of interrupting a teacher’s message.
So in keeping with his instruction that everything within their congregational meetings should be done decently and in order (as we’ll go on to read in the final verse of this chapter), Paul instructed that such discussions among the members of the Corinthian fellowship should take place at home and not at church.
“the women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak. Rather, let them be in submission, as in fact the law says. If they want to find out about something, they should ask their husbands at home, because it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church” (1 Corinthians 14:34-35 NET).
Two commentaries address a number of important questions regarding this passage of Scripture in a manner that warrants a lengthy excerpt…
“These verses have created debate among Christians, at least partly because it is not known what problem exactly Paul was seeking to correct. It has even been proposed that these verses were not part of Paul’s original letter. In view of 11:5 and other NT passages, it is certain that Paul is not absolutely forbidding women to speak in every church situation.
Paul may have been addressing a particular problem in Corinth, such as women creating disorder during the worship service. He likely has in mind a specific function, such as the evaluation of prophecy (vv. 29, 32), in which women should not participate because this is the role of church elders in their function of the doctrinal guardianship of the church (on which cf. 1 Tim. 2:11–14). Another view, supported by Paul’s direction that women should satisfy their ‘desire to learn’ by asking their husbands at home, is that the Corinthian women were disruptively interrupting prophets or other teachers with their questions.” (1)
“Does this mean that women should not speak in church services today? It is clear from 1Co_11:5 that women prayed and prophesied in public worship. It is also clear in chapters 12-14 that women are given spiritual gifts and are encouraged to exercise them in the body of Christ.
Women have much to contribute and can participate in worship services. In the Corinthian culture, women were not allowed to confront men in public. Apparently some of the women who had become Christians thought that their Christian freedom gave them the right to question the men in public worship. This was causing division in the church. In addition, women of that day did not receive formal religious education as did the men. Women may have been raising questions in the worship services that could have been answered at home without disrupting the services.
Paul was asking the women not to flaunt their Christian freedom during worship. The purpose of Paul’s words was to promote unity, not to teach about women’s roles in the church.” (2)
(1) Sproul, R. C. (Ed.). (2015). The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (p. 2038). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust. https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/reformation-study-bible/1Cor.14.34-1Cor.14.35
(2) Life Application Study Bible [14:34-35] Copyright © 1988, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1996, 2004 by Tyndale House Publishers Inc., all rights reserved.
“Or did the word of God come originally from you? Or was it you only that it reached? If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord. But if anyone is ignorant, let him be ignorant” (1 Corinthians 14:36-38).
Judging from this portion of Scripture, it appears that Paul the Apostle was well aware of the controversial nature of much of what he had written to the Corinthian church. The Living Bible paraphrase of this passage presents us with a modern-day perspective on the challenge issued by the Apostle Paul in closing out this section of his epistle…
“You disagree? And do you think that the knowledge of God’s will begins and ends with you Corinthians? Well, you are mistaken! You who claim to have the gift of prophecy or any other special ability from the Holy Spirit should be the first to realize that what I am saying is a commandment from the Lord himself. But if anyone still disagrees—well, we will leave him in his ignorance.”
This section functions much like the proverbial “shot across the bow” aimed towards those within the Corinthian church who might arrogantly seek to take issue with Paul’s counsel. You see, if the Corinthians were to actually implement these directives, it would significantly alter the manner in which they conducted their church services.
For instance, those who were comfortable with the way in which their congregational meetings were already structured (no matter how poorly they reflected upon Jesus and His people) would have to determine whether they truly wished to continue as members of the church.
In addition, those who were arrogant, self-serving, or who chose to continue in spiritual immaturity would hardly feel comfortable if the church were to implement these reforms. Others who enjoyed the attention commanded by the exercise of their spiritual gifts or those who were bent on drawing attention to themselves under the guise of “worship” would likewise be displaced unless they were willing to adopt a more God-honoring mindset.
Given the myriad of issues that existed within their fellowship, there were probably few (if any) members of the church at Corinth who could legitimately question these directives. Besides, anyone who truly possessed the spiritual gifts that the Corinthians valued so highly would know whether or not Paul’s instructions were divinely inspired.
Finally, these changes would serve one additional purpose- they would serve to reveal the ignorance of anyone who chose to oppose them.
“Therefore, brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak with tongues. Let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:39-40).
In winding up his discussion of spiritual gifts, the Apostle Paul issued his summary conclusion here in 1 Corinthians 14:40: “all things must be done appropriately and in an orderly manner” (AMP). These parameters are just as applicable today as they were in first-century Corinth for a church with a disorderly worship service says much about the spiritual priorities that are likely to exist within that fellowship.
You see, the church at Corinth was a spiritually gifted church but one that was simultaneously lacking in spiritual maturity. This unfortunate reality tells us that spiritual giftedness in and of itself may not necessarily serve as an accurate indicator of real spiritual maturity. Instead, a good benchmark for genuine spiritual maturity can be found in the following passage from the New Testament book of Galatians…
“…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23).
Rather than seeking to engage in a never-ending pursuit of those spiritual gifts that will supposedly come with a fresh move, a fresh baptism, or a fresh anointing of the Holy Spirit, we would be far better served to prayerfully seek the fruit that proceeds from the work of the Spirit in our lives. Ideally, the God-honoring characteristics that are associated with the fruit of the Spirit should always be in equal or greater proportion to the gifts of the Spirit within the lives of God’s people
Remember that Acts 2:42 tells us that the members of the early Christian community were marked by four important characteristics: prayer, Bible study, communion, and consistent church attendance. While 1 Corinthians 14:1 tells us that an earnest desire for spiritual gifts is a good thing, that desire should never take priority over the fruit of the Spirit or the four characteristics that help promote spiritual growth as found in Acts 2:42.
A church fellowship that prioritizes the gifts of the Spirit over these other qualities is one that may fall dangerously close to replicating many of the same mistakes that plagued the church at Corinth. Therefore, those who long for a greater degree of spiritual giftedness would do well to place their focus upon the Provider of these spiritual gifts and allow Him to distribute them to us as He desires.