By Jenny Fulton
Have you ever been surrounded by a language you don’t understand?
I have. In fact, I’ve been lost multiple times in a foreign country, surrounded by those whose words sounded, to my ears, like meaningless noise. One time, while living in China, I was trying to get back to my apartment and found myself in a room full of Chinese people who didn’t speak or understand English any better than I understood Mandarin. I could tell they wanted to help me, but the communication barrier prevented them from doing so. They went out of their way to find someone in the building who spoke English and brought him down to help me. Communicating in a language I knew was far more beneficial to me and enabled me to return home.
In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul emphasizes the necessity of our words being shared and understood for the benefit of others.
In Chapter 12, Paul began his discussion on spiritual gifts. In Chapter 13, he emphasized the necessity of love and of using the spiritual gifts from a spirit of love. Now, in Chapter 14, Paul completes his discussion on spiritual gifts.
Verses 1-6: Seek to Edify Others
“Pursue love, but earnestly desire spiritual gifts.” Paul reiterates that in Chapter 13, he wasn’t telling them spiritual gifts are bad, but was encouraging the people to pursue love more than the gifts as the highest measure and definition of a godly and mature Christian. When done in love, spiritual gifts are very good and should be desired.
Following his encouragement that these gifts from God are good and should be desired, Paul focuses on two of them: speaking in tongues and prophesy. Why these two? From the context, it seems that perhaps speaking in tongues had been lifted in esteem as the best and most prestigious gift to possess. Redirecting their focus, Paul switches the emphasis from what the gifts do for the one who possesses them, to how they benefit and edify others.
According to these verses, the one who speaks in tongues:
- speaks to God
- doesn’t speak to people
- isn’t understood by anyone else (other than one who has been gifted with interpreting tongues)
- speaks mysteries in his spirit
- strengthens himself
In contrast, the one who prophesies:
- speaks to people
- benefits others through edification, exhortation, and consolation
- strengthens the church
Because prophesying is understood by others and serves to strengthen them, Paul declares it to be the greater and more desirable of the two. This reinforces his teaching in Chapter 12 that different spiritual gifts are given to various individuals to be used for the good of many.
Verses 7-11: Seek to be Understood
In order to emphasize the point that it’s important for our speech to be understood, Paul compares speaking to playing an instrument. Anyone who has ever learned an instrument or listened to someone learning an instrument or listened to a poorly played instrument knows the importance of playing the appropriate combination of notes in the way they’re meant to be played. When played correctly, music communicates powerful messages. When it isn’t played in the way it’s intended, it becomes painful, ear-splitting noise.
In like manner, Paul says that when our speech isn’t understood, it becomes pointless noise with no meaning or message.
It’s important to note that the word, barbarian, used in these verses has the original meaning of “stammering,” “stuttering,” “uttering unintelligible sounds.” While the word later came to have the insulting connotation of an uncivilized, unintelligent wild person, all Paul is saying in verse 11 is that when you don’t speak or understand another language, that language sounds, to your ears, like a bunch of unintelligible babble.
Verses 12-19: With the Spirit and the Mind
Paul repeats his point that the main purpose of possessing spiritual gifts is to help and encourage others. “Since you are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek to abound for the edification of the church.”
If someone prays in tongues, they are praying in the spirit in such a way that their own mind doesn’t comprehend what their spirit is saying. While this may benefit the speaker of tongues, it isn’t helpful to anyone else.
Therefore, Paul says that the one who is speaking in tongues should pray for God to give them the ability to interpret – to understand with their mind what is understood in their spirit. The interpretation is what provides meaning and value to the church.
“I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also.”
The greatest edification to the church comes when both the spirit and the mind are aligned and engaged with the worship and the message.
Verse 20: Be Mature in Your Thinking
“Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature.”
What does Paul mean by this?
From my experience as an educator and a parent, I have often observed the following actions, attitudes, and thinking patterns in young kids.
- Children clamor for attention.
- They often compete with their siblings and/or peers for greater affirmation.
- If one child receives one item and another receives something different, they often fight and argue over who received the better gift.
- It’s difficult for children to comprehend the idea of separate gifts of equal value, of different strengths and abilities that are both worthy of admiration and praise.
Is this the type of thinking that Paul was encouraging the Corinthians to set aside? While he doesn’t spell it out, it certainly makes sense that this could have been at least part of what he was referring to. While the body of believers should be infants in regard to their understanding and deliberate plotting of evil, the adults of the church should have moved passed the frantic grabs for attention and the desperate desires to possess what, in their perspective, were the best gifts.
Verses 21-25: The Purpose of Speaking in Tongues
Here’s a question for you. If spiritual gifts were given by God to edify the church, and speaking in tongues without interpretation is only beneficial to the individual, why did God give the gift of speaking in tongues?
Fortunately, Paul answers that questions. In the past (Isaiah 28:11), God used the strange speech of foreign invaders to bring judgment to the (then) unrighteous people of Israel. Paul says that in a similar vein, tongues are to be a sign of God’s power and judgment to unbelievers who may be visiting the church for the first time.
However, if everyone is speaking in tongues at the same time without interpretation, what’s meant to be a powerful witness of God’s presence gets reduced to an unintelligible cacophony of chaos.
In contrast, prophesy is given as a sign to believers. When an unbeliever enters and hears the word of God in a language he understands, he may be convicted. His heart is revealed and, if he’s open to it, may be changed. If this is so, he cannot help but to worship God. This individual’s response is a sign and a witness to the believing members of the group that God is definitely among them.
Verses 26: A Model for Church Services
“What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.”
Paul lays out a model for how the spiritual gifts might operate in the church setting: each person who has been given a word from God for the encouragement of others shares, in turn, what has been given.
Verses 27-28: Guidelines for Speaking in Tongues in the Church
- Two or three take turns speaking in tongues
- One person interprets
- If there isn’t an interpreter, the one/s speaking in tongues should keep silent and let the intimate communication occur between himself/herself and God.
Verses 29-33: Guidelines for Prophesying in the Church
- Two or three take turns prophesying
- Others (prophets or collective ‘other’?) carefully consider and evaluate the words being spoken
- Prophets should control their spirits. They don’t have to speak the words in the exact moment they receive them. Instead, they can wait until the appropriate opportunity arrives.
Verses 34-35: Guidelines for Women Speaking in this Church
These verses are much less straightforward and far more difficult to understand. There are many questions surrounding their context and inclusion.
Why, in the midst of talking about tongues and prophesy and how to manage these gifts in a proper and organized manner in a church setting, does Paul suddenly switch to talking about women, rather than gifts, and then switch back to discussing tongues and prophesy?
Why would Paul, in 1 Corinthians 11:5 (But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying) indicate, without condemnation, that women are praying and prophesying in church, and then later in 14:34-35, condemn the same actions that were previously deemed normal?
While I’m not going to go in depth about the various interpretations and explanation of these verses, I will point you to a great resource that summarizes the various viewpoints, provide some general cultural factors to consider, and offer some overall thoughts.
Great Resource: Marg Mowczko has obviously studies these verses in depth and put together an excellent summary of the various interpretations — https://margmowczko.com/interpretations-applications-1-cor-14_34-35/
Cultural factors: In the Jewish temple system, women weren’t allowed in the inner courts. While they could watch and listen to the religious ceremonies, they weren’t permitted to participate.
On the other hand, in the pagan temples, women often played a highly prominent role that may have included anything from frenzied singing and dancing to immoral acts done in the service of their gods.
General conclusions: Given the extreme differences and ideas about what role women should play in the worship services, it’s no surprise that there was some confusion regarding this matter.
Because Paul clearly approved of women’s involvement in praying and prophesying in chapter 11, and because the theme of chapter 14 is centered on the church service happening in a proper and organized manner, my best explanation for these verses is that Paul is emphasizing that women’s involvement in the service should also occur in a calm, respectful manner.
Verses 36-38: Recognizing Spiritual Authority
When someone insists on speaking and being heard above everyone else, regardless of who else desires to speak or is already speaking, it suggests they believe their thoughts and words are of greatest importance.
Paul addresses this mentality in verse 36. “Was it from you that the word of God first went forth? Or has it come to you only?” In other words, to those who are interrupting and speaking over others, do you think you are the only one God has spoken to? Do you think you are the only one to whom God has given a message that is to be shared with the rest of the church?
If someone truly believes they hear from God and receive messages for the benefit of others, then that same person should be able to recognize the truth and wisdom of God’s words given through Paul in this letter.
However, if someone doesn’t recognize and acknowledge Paul’s authority as a messenger of God, then that individual shouldn’t be recognized as an authority in the faith.
Verses 39-40: Summary
At the end of this lengthier section, Paul summarizes and restates his main point: speaking in tongues and prophesying are both good as long as those gifts, along with the others, are utilized in a proper and organized manner for the benefit of others.
1 Corinthians 14: speaking in tongues and prophesying are both good as long as those gifts, along with the others, are utilized in a proper and organized manner for the benefit of others. #1Corinthians #BibleStudy #SpiritualGiftsTweet
- The gifts and abilities God has given are to be shared in love for the benefit of others.
- When God gives us a message to share, we should also pray for the words to communicate it in a way that’s understood.
- Seeking attention and admiration shouldn’t be our primary motivator for sharing our gifts with others.
- God loves order and organization. When people are gathered, proper order, organization, and respect for the various gifts and messages God has bestowed allows for each person to be heard and for God’s message to be clearly understood.
United or Divided?
What Divides Us:
- Seeking to use our gifts for the purpose of gaining attention, admiration, and/or power
- Communicating in a way that isn’t understood
- Assigning different values to each God-given gift
- Esteeming some gifts above others and lifting the possessors of the esteemed gifts to loftier positions
- Valuing what we have to say above what others have been given to say
- Forcing ourselves to be heard regardless of what messages God has given to others, how God is moving, and whether it’s the right time
What Unites Us:
- Seeking to use our gifts to build up and encourage others
- Communicating in a way that is understood
- Recognizing the great value of each God-given gift
- Recognizing that gifts themselves to not define a person’s spiritual maturity or status in God’s kingdom
- Valuing God’s message to others in equal degree to what He has given us
- Waiting for our turn and the right opportunity to share our gifts
What Do You Think?
What stood out to you from this chapter?
Are spiritual gifts still relevant today?
Do you think you have been given a spiritual gift? If so, which one?
What might exercising the spiritual gifts look like in your Christian gatherings?
In this Series
- The Church in Acts 18
- Overview: A Prominent City
- Chapter 1: Where Unity Begins
- Chapter 2: In Demonstration of the Spirit
- Chapter 3: “Let No One Boast in Men”
- Chapter 4: Traits of a Godly Servant Leader
- Chapter 5: Addressing Immorality in the Church
- Chapter 6: Concerning Lawsuits and the Body
- Chapter 7: Married or Single?
- Chapter 8: Disagreements, Freedom, and Stumbling
- Chapter 9: Equally Allowable Differences
- Chapter 10: Take Heed How You Live
- Chapter 11: Headship, Coverings, and the Lord’s Supper
- Chapter 12: Spiritual Gifts
- Chapter 13: Love Is…
- Chapter 14: Edification and Order in the Church
- Chapter 15: All About the Gospel
Women, Join In!
For almost a year, the book of 1 Corinthians has weighed heavy upon my heart. In May 2020, I joined a women’s online fellowship site, Bloom.com, and decided to lead a Bible study on this book. These musings are a summary of my findings and the relevance/application I see surrounding us today. If you’re a woman and would like to participate in the study, head on over to www.Bloom.com and join the 1 Corinthians Bible Study group where you’ll find study guides to follow and discussion threads to participate in.
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