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Tongues & Prophecy

We're dealing with the main passage about the issue of tongues ---1 Corinthians 14.

We are trying to deal with this whole issue in a careful way rather than merely “preaching to the choir.”

If you haven't listened to our previous episodes:

So far:

--- In Acts we saw that the idea of tongues speaking is simply that of speaking in a foreign language you did not know.

It is mentioned only three times in three unique events, and in no way is it treated as normative.

--- Then, in 1 Cor 12 we saw that there was a big problem in Corinth where there was a power play going on between groups of people who called themselves the “spirituals” and it centered on the showy gifts such as tongues (languages) and prophecy.

Paul does not praise them, rather he rebukes them for the divisions.  He made it clear they were anything but spiritual people.

His point was that it was God who gave the gifts and their effectiveness as He wished.  It had nothing to do with them and their spirituality.

What is important to note is that when he speaks about speaking in tongues it’s made clear that it was not a key gift, nor was it one to seek after.  This is in complete contradiction to what many churches and people teach today.

--- In 1 Cor 13 he makes it even more clear that their lack of love for each other is a huge problem that is worthy of great rebuke. Again, only a couple of references of tongues and none gives any indication that he was praising them for it nor encouraging it.

He referred to “tongues/language of angels” but only in the vaguest sense and it was to make a point about love, not some special language we are to use.  Anyone who claims they speak in angelic language is just giving empty speech because they have no way to know---they don’t even know what they claim they are saying!

So instead of fighting over which gift is better or even worrying about their individual gifts he tells them to pursue a true love for one another because that is the only thing that will matter into eternity.

Now we come to the main section and again we hope you will have your bible open if it is possible.  

Again we would ask you to compare how much talk centers upon this whole topic as compared to actual biblical text devoted to it.

Compare the tone of Paul with the tone of so many pastors and church members.

Tongues and Prophecy:

First, note the structure:

The end of chapter 12 says, “But earnestly desire the greater gifts. And I show you a still more excellent way.” (1 Cor. 12:31)

The more excellent way is to show genuine love for one another.

Then at the beginning of chapter 14 he writes, “Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.” (1 Cor. 14:1)

Right away you see that Paul is again dismissing the centrality and importance of tongues.  Rather if you had to choose, the gift of prophecy is the one to desire to see operate in the church.

Typical of Paul’s writing you find yourself asking, “Why?” and typical of Paul he then gives one reason in the very next verse, “for this reason...”

"For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men, but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries. But one who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation. One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church. Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy; and greater is one who prophesies than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may receive edifying. (1 Cor. 14:2-5)

Now this requires a bit of thought.  Often this is seen as something kind of cool and spiritual.  You will hear people say that when they are talking in what they call tongues, that it is their private prayer language and this is precious to them.

But is that the point Paul is making?  Not at all. Without interpretation there is no knowledge being transferred and the church is not built up (edified).

And this means we must remember what the purpose of all the gifts are---to build up the Body of Christ, not ourselves.

Why does Paul say what he says in verse 5?  Is he arguing for tongues? Well yes and no.

It is a legitimate gift, and he’s being rough on those who are using this gift -- so he’s now smoothing the feathers, so to speak.

But though it would be great to speak in tongues it’s not what matters in the end. Rather, prophecy is better for the church and is, therefore, the greater of the two gifts.

Only if there is interpretation does tongues rise to the same value as prophecy.

Only when we make the life of a Christian something that is private and personal can we elevate tongues to some level of importance.

So it’s here that some will make the argument for the value of tongues.  The point they will make is that it edifies them.

But this is simply missing the obvious point!  Only in a country where the individual is the most important would this make sense.

Paul is showing that tongues, without interpretation, does not help the body.  And that’s really all that matters.

Paul then gives a second reason. Vss. 6-19 shows us that though tongues can build up the church, it is only through interpretation of the tongues.

-- First, by using himself as an example.  This is big because he is an Apostle, therefore, he is at the top of the heap with his gift. Even an apostle cannot build up the church through the speaking in tongues.

At best it is like a poorly played musical instrument or a battle trumpet that doesn’t give clear tones.

"There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of languages in the world, and no kind is without meaning. If then I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be to the one who speaks a barbarian, and the one who speaks will be a barbarian to me." (1 Cor. 14:10-11)

Languages (10-11) are designed to communicate information -- there is meaning built into language or it is just babble. (We saw in Acts 2 that they were speaking in tongues. Yet as they did, they spoke of the “mighty deeds of God.”)

So then Paul makes a key conclusion in verse 12, “So also you, since you are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek to abound for the edification of the church.”  (This is a command and it’s in the present tense).  So you and I are commanded to seek to build up the church and therefore by implication, not ourselves.

So why even have tongues or languages as a gift?  He deals with that next in verses 13-19. We will change the word to “language” to make it clearer:

"Therefore let one who speaks in a tongue [language] pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue [language], my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. What is the outcome then? I shall pray with the spirit and I shall pray with the mind also; I shall sing with the spirit and I shall sing with the mind also. Otherwise if you bless in the spirit only, how will the one who fills the place of the ungifted say the "Amen " at your giving of thanks, since he does not know what you are saying? For you are giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified. I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all; however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind, that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue." (1 Cor. 14:13-19)

Paul is actually again giving a command in verse 13. He is not suggesting.

Why is interpretation so important? “. . . for.”

Because even the mind of the tongue speaker is not strengthened.

There is spiritual blessing that occurs, perhaps a sense of general well-being and pleasure.

But it is indefinite. So indefinite, so vague, that the mind does not grasp it and it cannot be explained to others so that they are helped by it.

It is no different than if I were to use my gift to preaching and teaching privately.  It is good for my soul….but so what? That is NOT why I was given this gift.

And you have to miss the whole point Paul is making over and over in this chapter to try to make private tongues speaking as good and right.

But, if there is interpretation (15-17) then the mind is strengthened.  And not just yours, but those who hear it. And again, that is what is important.

And to make this all the more clear he then writes in verses 18-19, “I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all; however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind, that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue.”

Some try to make this proof that Paul prayed in tongues, but it doesn’t actually say that.

Why would Paul need to speak in tongues so much?  Remember it is nothing more than languages and as an apostle to the Gentiles he would encounter all sorts of other languages in his evangelizing.

But when he was with the gathered church, he saw no need for it.

Finally, there is a third reason in vss. 20-25 shows us that prophecy is designed to reveal the heart of the unbeliever, while tongues, uninterpreted, only brings shame to the church and God.

"Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be babes, but in your thinking be mature. In the Law it is written, "By men of strange tongues and by the lips of strangers I will speak to this people, and even so they will not listen to Me," says the Lord. So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe, but to unbelievers; but prophecy is for a sign, not to unbelievers, but to those who believe. If therefore the whole church should assemble together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad?" (1 Cor. 14:20-23)

Paul now gently scolds them, calling them children.

Paul gives a very loose quotation of Isaiah 28:11-12 to make his point about tongues.

I don’t think he is saying that they are fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy, nor that this is the meaning of Isaiah 28:11-12. Rather, he is using it as an illustration.

In Isaiah 28, this spoke of a time when He would bring judgment upon Israel. It speaks of the times in which Israel would be taken captive and no longer would they understand the languages being spoken.

So in verse 22 he makes the simple point. You Corinthian believers seem to so desperately want all to speak in tongues. The word “sign” here means that tongues and prophecy function as apparent indicators of God’s mind.

If an unbeliever were to come into their service and hear nothing but hundreds of foreign tongues being spoken, he would not conclude that something good was taking place; rather, that God was not in this place, only madmen. So would any believer who does not interpret tongues.

But if an unbeliever comes into their service (24) or any other believer who does not have the gift of prophecy, hears prophecy, conviction can occur and true worship occur can also occur.


We will stop here and finish this chapter in the final episode.

In that episode we will deal with his restrictions and directions related to tongues and prophecy.

Then we will sum up everything we saw.

Finally, we will briefly deal with the one other occurrence, which is in Mark 16.


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