In our last essay we studied 1 Cor. 13, Paul’s famous “love chapter.” We saw that there was both a less excellent way to deal with the gifts of the Spirit and a “more excellent way.” The less excellent way, with which Paul dealt in chapter 12, was the way of emphasis on supernatural gifts without love. And the more excellent way, with which he dealt in chapter 13, was the way of love.
All right, as we move through chapter 14, we shall see that “the more excellent way” involves more than love. Love certainly is the key. But it also involves intelligibility and orderliness.
Notice that verse one serves as a transition in two ways. First, the verse transitions back to chapter 12. Chapter 12 ends by telling the Corinthians, “strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.” When 14:1 says, “Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy,” it ties directly into chapter 12. In addition it shows that Paul considers prophecy to be the best example of a “greater gift.”
Second, verse one provides a transition from chapter 13 by commanding the Corinthians to “pursue love.” Paul has given an entire chapter to the task of convincing them that love is essential to Christian spirituality; and so he demands that they pursue it. And they should pursue it with passion! This is absolutely true for us as well. Nothing is more clearly revealed in scripture. God is love (1 John 4:8, 16); the character of godly people is love (1 Cor. 13); and we are to pursue love. The apostle John tells us that persons who do not love do not know God (1 John 4:8). And yet some people who claim to be Christians harbor hate in their hearts. Pursue love, says Paul.
In verses 2-4 Paul contrasts the gift of prophecy with the gift of tongues. One who speaks in a tongue speaks to God rather than to the people (v. 2). He speaks mysteries (meaning that what the person speaks is unknown both to the speaker and the listener) (v.2). And he edifies himself rather than the assembly (v. 4a).
This last item is interesting, because the edification is not cognitive. The person who speaks in a tongue is edified; but it is a spiritual edification, because nothing intelligible is communicated, even to the person speaking. But Paul’s main concern was the Corinthians’ selfish attitude. They were speaking in tongues and edifying themselves, while neglecting edification of the church. In other words they were exercising their gifts without love.
One who prophecies, on the other hand: speaks to men rather than God (v. 3). And prophecy edifies, encourages, and comforts the assembly, not just the speaker (vv. 3f.). Verse five summarizes. Paul does not disparage the gift of tongues. Indeed he declares that they are good. But prophecy is better. Prophecy always edifies, whereas tongues must be interpreted to edify. Therefore prophecy is a greater gift and tongues a lesser gift when compared with one another.
Paul goes on in verses 6-25 to explain why tongues do not edify. And the key factor is intelligibility. Tongues do not edify, because they are not understood; they are unintelligible.
Notice in verse six that Paul uses the word “revelation” apparently as another supernatural gift of the Spirit, which he has not listed elsewhere. It is unclear how it would relate to the other gifts, which also sometimes were vehicles for impartation of revelation. At any rate, all four gifts mentioned in verse six, revelation, knowledge, prophecy and teaching, are gifts that impart intelligible information to the assembly. Therefore they are gifts that that edify.
And then Paul illustrates with musical instruments (vv. 7-9). Even lifeless musical instruments must be played in an intelligible way in order to make music understandable. And the bugler, who calls an army to battle, must sound the call in an intelligible fashion if the army is to know what to do. Paul concludes, in verse nine: “So with yourselves. If in a tongue you utter speech that is unintelligible, how will anyone know what is being said”?
In verses 10-12, Paul continues to press the point. In verse 12 he once again uses the expression “So with yourselves” in order to apply his words to the Corinthians (14:9). Since they are so eager for spiritual gifts, they should at least strive for gifts that edify the church.
Verse 13 is another transition verse. The emphasis on praying for “the power to interpret” repeats the need for intelligibility and edification. That still is Paul’s main concern. But the mention of prayer leads to his next emphasis, which is on the relation of the gift of tongues to prayer.
First, Paul exhorts them to pray for the gift of interpretation, if they are going to speak in tongues in worship, because when one speaks in tongues, one’s mind is “unfruitful” (vv. 13-14). And intelligibility is crucial.
Second, he gives them the solution to the problem. He exhorts them to do what he does, namely, pray both with the Spirit and with the mind. He also sings both with the Spirit and the mind (v. 15). Singing traditionally was part of Jewish worship, and it naturally became a part of Christian worship.
It has been some years since I have attended a large charismatic gathering, but in the past singing in tongues as a prayer of thanksgiving and praise was a significant part of the worship services at such gatherings. I always found singing in the Spirit in those contexts to be quite beautiful and moving. It is true that no intelligible communication was going on during the singing in tongues. But there was a communion of spirits among the worshipers that was quite valuable and meaningful for all involved. On the other hand, there was much singing and speaking that was not in tongues, and the intelligible communication came from that singing and from preaching. Everyone present understood that the time spent singing in tongues was a time to glorify and praise God.
As Paul continues in verses 15-17, he points out the obvious. If they speak in tongues in the public assembly, the “outsider” (NRSV), literally the “uninstructed,” cannot say the “Amen,” because they cannot understand what is being said. “Amen” means “so be it,” or “truly.” The saying of “Amen” as a response to something said, came (like the already mentioned music) into Christian worship from Judaism.
In verses 18-19 Paul declares that he speaks in tongues more than the Corinthians. But when it comes to public worship, he would rather speak five intelligible words that instruct people than 10,000 words in an unintelligible tongue.
At verse 20 Paul shifts his focus from tongues and prayer to tongues and unbelievers. Paul begins the segment by exhorting the Corinthians to stop being children in their thinking. Where they need to be childlike, even infants, is “in evil,” meaning in their behavior. They must be “adult” or “mature” in their thinking.
In verse 21 Paul refers to Isaiah 28:11-12, which he offers as Old Testament support for his argument. He doesn’t quote Isaiah, but refers to various parts of the prophet’s two verses. The historical context of Isaiah’s statement was the fact that the people of Israel would not listen to him. So he threatened them with the “strange tongues” of the Assyrians, who were invading them. Paul was not thinking about Isaiah’s historical context. He was thinking about his historical context and that of the Corinthians.’ In Paul’s context, it was the gift of tongues, with which the Corinthians were so enamored, that was causing them not to listen to Paul.
Verse 22 tells us that tongues are a sign for unbelievers and prophecy is a sign for believers. Tongues are a negative sign for unbelievers in the sense that the tongues harden their hearts. Indeed they might think the Christians are mad (v. 23). On the other hand, prophecy is a positive sign for believers, because they are edified by it.
To summarize, Paul insists that the Corinthian’s emphasis on the gift of tongues is misdirected, because it has caused a neglect of the gift of prophecy, which is a more important gift. It is more important, because it edifies the assembly of believers, which the gift of tongues does not. But the same principle holds true in relation to the uninstructed and the unbelievers. The gift of tongues exercised in their presence causes them to judge Christians to be mad, whereas the gift of prophecy causes conviction of sin and conversion to God.