Few subjects over the past century of the Christian Church have been as controversial as that of the spiritual gift of tongues. After centuries of this phenomena not being practically at all an experience in churches, it has become prominent in many groups as a core value and defining belief since the early 1900s. Regarding the emergence of tongues, those who don’t believe it is valid would point to the history of their apparent disappearance soon after the apostolic age. Yet on the other hand, those who believe in this modern revival will point to the re-emergence as illustrative of a biblically-reference latter-day movement of the Spirit.
We don’t have the time in this setting to evaluate these complicated matters fully. My personal view, predominant also in our national affiliation, is that tongues were a unique part of the early church era that passed away (along with some other foundational gifts) with the completion and acceptance of the full, final, written Word of God. Having said that, I acknowledge that some of the finest Christian friends I have known would disagree with me on this matter.
Part of the controversy revolves around whether these tongues were known languages or, rather, some sort of heavenly language surrounding prayer and worship. And I would take the view, upon a full lexical study of the Greek terminology and usages of the word “glossa,” that these were known languages in use in the world.
The purpose of chapter 14:1-25 that we read today was to point out to the Corinthians what was the relative value of the gift of tongues as compared to the gift of prophesy (the communication of God’s truth). Though they highly valued tongues, Paul asserts that prophesy was far, far better by comparison. The Corinthians elevated the tongues speakers instead, as apparently those with this gift were using them even when there were none in attendance who needed the communication. As well, there was a gift of interpretation, so that those who did not hear the communication in their own language would be able to understand what those of that language were being told.
Therefore, without the need for the language and the use of the gift, the display of the gift was edifying only the speaker and no one else. It was self-oriented rather than others-oriented (as all gifts should be, and in keeping also with the love just spoken about in chapter 13). Therefore, it was merely like the jumbled noise of an orchestra warming up, or like a trumpet in battle that was blown without anyone knowing the intended purpose.
This week, some of our church family are in North Carolina and working there on disaster relief projects. It is rather clear from our relationships with these friends in the church that these are people who have a spiritual gift of serving. But they did not go to NC so that they could merely feel good inside about using their gifts. No, the focus was upon helping others. But even so, in the process of exercising the gift, there is indeed a concomitant personal pleasure, satisfaction and fulfillment that comes from it. But it is not the first and biggest idea.
Likewise, the Corinthians should not be using tongues for personal fulfillment and even aggrandizement. Paul was not disparaging the gift; he affirmed it in this passage. He is saying that they were upside-down in their thinking. No wonder they were so immature. The greater benefit for everyone would be to emphasize the better gift of prophesy – the proclamation of God’s word and truth. This would result in learning and spiritual growth. Everyone would be better served by this more appropriate emphasis.
1 Corinthians 14:1 – Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. 2 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. 3 But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. 4 Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. 5 I 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.
14:6 – Now, 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? 7 Even 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? 8 Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? 9 So 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. 10 Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. 11 If 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. 12 So it is with you. Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church.
14:13 – For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. 15 So 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. 16 Otherwise 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? 17 You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified.
14:18 – I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.
14:20 – Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. 21 In 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.” [from Isaiah 28:11,12]
22 Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers. 23 So 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? 24 But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, 25 as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”