Understanding Speaking In Tongues (Part 3)

Prophesy Not Tongues (1 Corinthians 14:1-5)

  • As a side note, before we study this chapter, the following has been noted as a helpful guide to properly understanding this chapter. In the original language (Greek), there is a singular word “tongue” and a plural word “tongues”. Some translations clearly note this difference, but sometimes it is lost in translation. Thus, for a possible clearer understanding, read the singular form “tongue” used in the following verses of this chapter: 2, 4, 13, 14, 19, 27 as “untranslated language” and the plural form “tongues” used in the following verses of this chapter 5, 6, 18, 22, 23, 39 as “foreign languages”. Other uses are as follows: verse 9—“tongue” is speaking of your actual tongue; verse 21—“tongues” uses a different word but means foreign language as well; verse 26 uses a different word but it is also in the singular and thus can be read as “untranslated language”. If this is not helpful to your study, then you can simply read all the uses of “tongue/tongues” (except verse 9) as “foreign languages” for a simpler understanding of what is meant and the problems within the church.
  • 14:1 This chapter starts with three things that we should do: (1) We are to “follow after” or strive for “charity” or sacrificial love—the type of love explained in 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; (2) We are to “desire” or be zealous for spiritual gifts—every person is given different gifts by the Holy Spirit for the profit of all or the church—as explained in 1 Corinthians 12:1-10; (3) We are to a greater extent (“but rather”) be zealous that we may prophesy—communicating God’s word in the known human language of the hearers. 
  • 14:2 Paul starts by mentioning about people speaking in an “unknown tongue”—which is an “untranslated language,” a “none human language” or “gibberish”. Whatever they are “speaking,” they are not speaking to people because no one can understand what they are saying—which voids the purpose of spiritual gifts: to profit all. Instead they are speaking unto God (or they think they are)—at first glance this seems like a good thing, but here are two considerations: (1) anyone speaking gibberish to Almighty God is not respectful of Him—it was as if they were treating God like they did their idols (1 Corinthians 12:1-2); (2) they were speaking in the untranslated language and only God knew what they were saying. Also, they were speaking by their own human spirit (not the Holy Spirit) and they spoke “mysteries”—things that were not understood. Again, this can have two understandings: (1) if speaking gibberish with new mysteries—this is opposite to the other teachings about “mysteries” because God is now “making known the mysteries” (Colossians 1:25-27; 2:2-3; Ephesians 3:5-10; 1 Corinthians 2:7-14; 1 Timothy 3:16); (2) if speaking an untranslated language—it was a mystery what they were saying because now one understood and there was not translation taking place.
  • 14:3 On the other hand, the person who “prophesieth” speaks to people for their edification (upbuilding, strengthening) exhortation (encouragement, support), and comfort (consolation). This is a spiritual gift that if used properly will accomplished its intended function—especially because not translation is needed.
  • 14:4 Paul then goes on to sarcastically make a comparison: a person who speaks in an untranslated language or gibberish does so to edify himself, but a person that prophesies edifies the church. This is not a prescription for how a person should edify himself and edify the church. A few possible understandings: (1) This is a contrast. One is right and one is wrong. Edification is always other focused. See the following verses for a study in edification: Romans 14:19; 2 Corinthians 12:19; Ephesians 4:12, 16, 29; 1 Thessalonians 5:11; 1 Timothy 1:4. (2) Selfishness described as self-edification is never the goal of the spiritual gifts that we are given by the Holy Spirit and therefore to use them for to edify yourself and not the church is wrong (1 Corinthians 12:7). (3) Maybe the person understands what he is saying even though the church doesn’t so he can only edify himself, but it is still not the best way.
  • 14:5 Paul then says he “would” or wishes them all to speak in “tongues”—to have the supernatural ability given by the Holy Spirit to speak authentic foreign language. He is not contradicting what he already stated about the gifts (the Holy Spirit distributes different gifts to different members and not all will have the same gifts; 1 Corinthians 12:11, 30), but is just emphasizing through using a hypothetical situation to show that even if he could make everyone speak in tongues (foreign languages) that he would wish to an even greater extent for everyone to have the gift of “prophesy” because it is communicating God’s word in a known human language and the church would be edified. (Compare 1 Corinthians 7:7 where Paul also said that he “would” or wished all men single.) Thus, “prophesy” is greater unless it was accompanied by interpretation—translation into the language of the hearers—and thus able to edify the church.
  • Conclusion: The emphasis is on “prophesy” the superior and “tongues” as the inferior. There was a possible “false tongue” and a “real tongue” being spoken. Prophesy was better than both because of its ability to edify the church without translation. Thus, the goal of all spiritual gifts is to edify the church, in which prophecy is superior.

Excel To The Edifying Of The Church (1 Corinthians 14:6-12)

  • 14:6 Paul then says that if he came speaking to the church with the real gift of “tongue” that it wouldn’t be profitable for the church unless he was transmitting, by interpretation, understandable revelation, knowledge, prophesy or doctrine.
  • 14:7-8 To help our comprehension of this basic logic—understanding is needed for edification—Paul gives us some examples: (1) lifeless things that make sounds, such as a pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in the sounds, we won’t know what is being played; (2) if a trumpet gives an uncertain sound then people won’t know to prepare themselves for the battle.
  • 14:9-11 In the same manner as the examples above, unless we speak intelligible words —words easy to be understood—with our actual tongues, no one will know what we are saying. We are just speaking in the air. Gibberish is just speaking into the air with absolutely no benefit. There are all sorts of real human languages spoken in the world and they all have meaning and significance when they are spoken—people don’t just speak gibberish. Therefore, if someone doesn’t know a certain language when it is spoken to him, then he will be a barbarian (an incomprehensible foreigner) to the speaker and the speaker a barbarian to him. Languages spoken that can’t be understood between the speaker and listener divide not unify (Genesis 11:1-9).
  • 14:12 So the same principle applies to the church and its members who are zealous (enthusiastic and fervent) of spiritual gifts: they are to seek or strive to excel to the edifying of the church. A language spoken without significance is worthless—gibberish or an untranslated language does not build up the church.
  • Conclusion: All spiritual gifts should be used to edify the church, especially all the “spoken gifts”. This means real “tongues” shouldn’t be used unless there is translation and the church can be edified. Gibberish should never be used.

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