First Corinthians 14:1–25 . . .

Gifts of Prophecy and Tongues

Reading a letter written 2,000 years ago to a church can be a challenging endeavor. It's easy to misunderstand an author's intent and what was taking place in the life of the church. Often, God's people jump to conclusions before carefully studying a biblical passage. This should give us cause to pause. Have you been guilty of this? Of course you have. Therefore, you must aim to understand Scripture in the way God intended; try not to read your own preferences or experiences into God's Word. This is very important when it regards the controversial areas of worship and spiritual gifts.

Perhaps you've wondered what the Bible teaches about a church worship service. For our next two studies we'll examine 1 Corinthians 14, learning that a church worship service must be intelligible and orderly. Today we'll look at vv. 1–25 in which Apostle Paul confidently provides two principles to guide us in our corporate worship.

1)  Clear communication in the church is critical (vv. 1–19)  Paul tells us that prophecy and tongues are important spiritual gifts; however, he insists that the gift of prophecy is particularly significant. In 14:1, Paul discloses his thesis: "Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy." First and foremost, Paul commands the church to pursue, strive for, and seek love. This command "pursue" (Greek: dioko) means "to pursue or persecute." That is, we don't find love by wishful thinking or halfhearted effort; we're to pursue it eagerly, every day, if we're going to find it operating in our lives as it should. As a church, if we make love our top pursuit, we'll discover that our capacity to minister to those around us grows every year.

After commanding the church to pursue love, Paul commands the church to eagerly desire spiritual gifts, particularly prophecy. (To prophesy is "to proclaim divine revelation" or "to speak on behalf of God." Prophecy is not preaching or teaching; it can be both spontaneous and prepared.) Throughout chapter 14, Paul suggests that all God's people can exercise prophecy. When we gather for worship, we ought to pray that the Lord will give us words we can speak to someone in and outside the church (cf. 14:26). Hence, we all come to church to minister.

In vv. 6–12 (see this passage below), Paul explains the problem of uninterpreted tongues: no one benefits from something that he or she cannot understand. He wants to be sure that what occurs in the worship service is profitable for everyone in attendance. He emphasizes gifts of clear communication, wanting everything to be done for edification. In vv. 7–11, Paul gives three analogies that expound on the necessity of intelligibility in the church, again commanding the church to seek those gifts that will build up the body, particularly prophecy. In vv. 13–19, Paul provides the solution to the problem of uninterpreted tongues: he exhorts those who speak in tongues to pray that they'll be able to interpret their own tongues and those of others.

2)  Mature thinking in the church is critical (vv. 20–25)  In these final six verses, Paul informs the church that he seeks maturity in public worship. Wanting the Corinthians to stop thinking like selfish and prideful children with regards to the gifts, he states that they should be naïve infants with regards to evil but urges the church body to think as mature believers do regarding church worship.

In vv. 21–25, Paul explains why spiritual maturity and self-control are so important in a corporate worship service. Citing in v. 21 a prophecy from Isaiah 28:11–12, Paul makes this point with that Old Testament quotation: If Israel wouldn't hear the Lord through the prophets, they wouldn't hear even when He spoke in foreign languages to them through foreign people. He clarifies in v. 22 that tongues are a sign for unbelievers while prophecy is for believers. So, Paul asks Christians: Why put so much stress on tongues?

Paul concludes in vv. 23–25 that if everyone at a worship service spoke in tongues, visiting searchers or not-yet-believers would likely declare that the worshippers were out of their minds. However, if everyone was instead prophesying, searchers and not-yet-believers would [thankfully] worship God.

It Makes You Wonder . . .
  • Q. 1  Have you been in a worship service where there's been tongues with interpretation, and/or prophecy, and/or singing in the Spirit? Has your view of tongues and/or prophecy changed as a result of this study of First Corinthians?
  • Q. 2  When you converse before and after church services, is your conversation one that builds up, encourages, exhorts, or comforts others?
  • Q. 3  What experiences do you wish you could have had in your walk with Jesus that you've not yet had up to this point?

This Week’s Passage
1 Corinthians 14:1–25

New International Version (NIV)
[You can view it in a different version by clicking here; you can also listen to this chapter.]

Intelligibility in Worship

14 Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. 2For 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. 3But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. 4Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. 5I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified.

6Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? 7Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the pipe or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? 8Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? 9So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. 10Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. 11If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker is a foreigner to me. 12So it is with you. Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church.

13For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say. 14For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. 15So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. 16Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an inquirer, say "Amen" to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying? 17You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified.

18I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.

20Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. 21In the Law it is written:

         "With other tongues
            and through the lips of foreigners
         I will speak to this people,
            but even then they will not listen to me,
              says the Lord."

22Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers. 23So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? 24But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, 25as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, "God is really among you!"