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1 Corinthians 14:1-25: The Necessity of Understanding Print E-mail
1 Corinthians
Sunday, 13 December 2015

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It is easy to forget why we gather each week as a local body of believers. Sometimes issues that are not essential lead to distraction and/or conflict in a Church. The worship wars did not begin with music and they did not begin in the last fifty years or so. There have been serious problems and conflicts on Sunday mornings since before Paul penned this letter to the Corinthians. And much of it could be resolved by simply remembering the purpose of our gathering.

It seems that in Corinth, the gift of tongues was causing serious problems in corporate worship. The Corinthians valued this gift so much that it was leading to strife and chaos when they gathered. Paul began addressing this issue all the way back in chapter 12, but he brings it into focus in chapter 14, where he deals particularly with the gift of tongues and the gift of prophecy. What are these gifts? The gift of tongues seems to refer to the ability to speak unknown languages (not human languages) for prayer and praise to God. The gift of prophecy is more broad and seems to refer to someone speaking an encouraging, convicting, and/or comforting Word from the Lord to an individual or to the Church at large. This could include preaching and teaching, but seems to refer to more than just that.  Paul makes it plain throughout the chapter that he prefers the latter over the former in corporate worship. He does not rule out tongues altogether, as our cessationist brothers want to do today, but he does teach us here about how they are to be exercised in the corporate gathering of the church and why he prefers prophecy. And in doing so, he reminds us of why we do what we do on Sunday mornings as believers. So then, what are Paul’s reasons for preferring prophecy over uninterpreted tongues in the corporate gathering?

The edification of believers (v.1-19)

As we said from chapter 12, all believers are gifted by the same Spirit for the common good of the local Church. Our motivation for using our gifts in the local congregation must be love for one another, as Paul taught in chapter 13. Without love, we are just wasting our time in gathering together on Sundays, no matter how we use our gifts. Paul draws this conclusion in verse 1. Look at that with me. As a local body of believers, we are to pursue love. We are to run after it with everything we are. And we are to put love into practice with the use of our gifts. In particular, Paul tells us to earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. I spoke a few weeks ago about the Spirit’s sovereignty over the gifts and I still believe that Paul is teaching that in chapter 12. Yet, that does not mean that we have no responsibility in seeking gifts and seeking to use our gifts in love. God is sovereign, but we are still to pursue the gifts.

Yet, why does Paul tell us to especially seek after the gift of prophecy? He answers in verses 2-5. Look at those with me. In these verses Paul begins his comparison between prophecy and uninterpreted tongues in corporate worship. The gift of tongues is limited because it speaks only to God, while prophecies are heard and understood by the rest of the Church. The one speaking in tongues will be built up, but not the rest of the congregation. However, the Church can be built up and encouraged through prophecy. Again, Paul does not rule out speaking in tongues in Church, but he does require that an interpretation be given so that the Church might be built up. The issue here is understanding. The Church is edified through prophecy because it understands what is being said, but since uninterpreted tongues are not understood by others, the Church is not edified.

Paul uses a couple of examples to drive home the importance of understanding in verses 6-12. The first example he uses is that of instruments. Look at verses 6-9. In order for instruments to be useful, in order for them to ‘communicate’ music, certain understandable notes must be played. Otherwise they are not helpful at all. They are only effective when the melody is clear and understandable. Uninterpreted tongues in corporate worship are like an instrument that is not playing a clear melody. They are only confusing and not edifying. The second example that Paul gives is that of human languages. Since he uses human languages as a comparative example, it seems unlikely that he is actually talking about human languages when he speaks of the gift of tongues. Look at the comparison in verses 10-12. If someone starts preaching in a foreign language that nobody understands, then no one will be encouraged or edified. Again, understanding is critical for edification in corporate worship.

Paul draws some conclusions in verses 13-19. A person who desires to speak in tongues in the corporate gathering should pray for someone to be able to interpret. Look at verse 13. When we come together, both spirit and mind must be participating for the sake of others. Look at verses 14-17. These verses indicate that tongues are used in prayer and praise. Yet, in the corporate gathering, the mind must be engaged so that what is being prayed or sang can be understood by others. Again, the focus is the building up of others. In order for that to happen, then your prayers and your praise must be understandable by others, which does not happen with uninterpreted tongues. For the sake of edification, Paul prefers prophecy in corporate worship. Look at what he says in verses 18-19. Paul is not forbidding tongues or looking down upon tongues, after all, he speaks them even more than the Corinthians. No, his concern is speaking in a way that will instruct and encourage others, through spirit and mind, in corporate worship. The reason we gather together is for the edification of one another. We should use our gifts in a way that encourages and convicts and comforts each other, which is why Paul prefers prophecy.

The conviction (and conversion) of unbelievers (v. 20-25)

But Paul’s concern is not just for the believers in corporate worship. He is also concerned for the unbelievers and how uninterpreted tongues will impact them. In order to address this, Paul quotes from the prophet Isaiah. Look at verses 20-22. This quote is taken from Isaiah 28:11. In context, this verse is a word of judgement against unbelieving Israel. They had mocked Isaiah as being childish for his message in the verses before the one quoted, which is probably why Paul encourages the Corinthians to be mature in verse 20. Israel had rejected the call of the prophets to repent and so God was going to send them into exile by people of strange tongues. Such tongues would be a sign of judgment for their unbelief. Paul says that uninterpreted tongues will be the same for unbelievers in Corinth. They will not understand the good news of Jesus through the use of this gift, which is the only way that they can escape judgment for their sins. Rather, they will simply conclude that Christians are crazy. Look at verse 23. Instead of being a sign that will lead people to faith, which is apparently what the Corinthians thought it would do, it is only a sign that will lead to further unbelief. Thus, uninterpreted tongues do not edify the believers and they do not help unbelievers hear the good news.

Yet, the gift of prophecy does lead to conviction and conversion of unbelievers. Look at verses 24-25. What a great description of conversion! When an unbeliever hears the Word of the Lord through preaching and teaching and prophecy, he is faced with conviction for sin. He is called to account for his rebellion against the Lord. He comes face to face with the secrets of his heart. And where does that lead him? Paul answers: ...and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you. He will repent of his sin, give praise to God, and tell others that God is at work in this place. Prophecy can lead to such a conversion, but uninterpreted tongues cannot. Prophecy can proclaim the gospel and display the power of the Spirit in an understandable way, but tongues cannot. Thus, Paul is telling the Corinthians that he prefers prophecy to tongues because of the impact on unbelievers. Through prophecy they can hear the good news, but through tongues they are left in the dark.

Paul’s reasons for preferring prophecy to uninterpreted tongues are straightforward: prophecy edifies the believers and leads to the conversion of unbelievers. The good news of Jesus is more than just a feeling. It is the understandable message that Jesus has given His life for sinners at the cross and been raised again three days later. It is the hope and promise that anyone who turns from their sins and trusts in Him can and will be saved. It is this good news that we need to understand every time we gather together at the body of Christ. Believers need to understand it so that we can be encouraged and comforted in the gospel. Unbelievers need to understand it so that they can be convicted of their sins and turn and believe in Jesus for salvation. Since this is why we gather, this is why Paul prefers prophecy to uninterpreted tongues.

Although we may not be struggling over tongues in our local gathering, we can learn an important lesson about why we gather on Sunday mornings. We, like the Corinthians and all who have gone before us, gather for believers to be edified and unbelievers to be converted. We gather for the message to be understandable to all. I have to admit that I am deeply convicted by Paul’s description of conversion in those last couple of verses. One of my commentator’s writes: “Perhaps in our domestication of the Spirit we have settled for a ‘safer’ expression of worship, one in which very few are ever led to exclaim that ‘Surely God is among you.’”1 Have we domesticated the Spirit so much in our gatherings that we have quenched the edification of the saints and the conviction of sinners? Are we so concerned with following the bulletin that we have forsaken following the Spirit, not that you can’t do both? I think Paul’s teaching on the spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12-14 should challenge us to reexamine what we do when we gather. We should long for the Spirit to empower each of us so that when we gather the Church is built up and the lost are led to faith. We do not gather to be safe, we gather to be saved. May the Lord so work in our meetings that men will declare: God is really among you. Amen.

1 Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians NICNT (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing), 1987, p. 688.

~ William Marshall ~


Last Updated ( Friday, 25 December 2015 )

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