Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: 1 Corinthians 14:13-26
Making proper use of the spiritual gifts God provides proved to be a challenge for the Christians in Corinth. Some members of the congregation had the gift of speaking in tongues, a form of ecstatic prayer to God. Others had the gift of prophecy, the ability to encourage and console others with inspired speech. Unfortunately the variety of spiritual gifts received by believers in Corinth had evidently become another divisive factor in the life of this fractious congregation.
Therefore in chapter 12:4-11 Paul emphasizes that all spiritual gifts come from the same Spirit — God’s Holy Spirit. The variety of spiritual gifts within the body of Christ should not lead to dissension. On the contrary, Paul urges all members of the congregation to hold each other in high esteem no matter what spiritual gifts a person has. Paul’s main point is found in 14:12, “ … Since you are eager for spiritual gifts, strive to excel in them for building up the church.”
1 Corinthians 14:13-19 — Speech that builds up
Paul does not urge the Corinthians to stop speaking in tongues. However, he insists that their spirit-filled utterances require thoughtful interpretation if they are to benefit the congregation. How could anyone say “amen,” he asks, to what they did not understand?
Paul himself claimed to have the gift of speaking in tongues “more than all of you,” a claim that must have surprised many Corinthians who thought Paul lacked a charismatic presence. Nevertheless Paul preferred to speak five intelligible words rather than 10,000 words in tongues.
1 Corinthinas 14:20-25 — Prophesy attracts new converts
Paul continues to assess the value of speaking in tongues. He offers his own somewhat garbled paraphrase of Isaiah 28:11-12 to make a point about the inherent problem with speaking in tongues. Nobody — except perhaps God — can understand what is being said.
Ecstatic religious voices claiming to be divinely inspired were not unusual in Hellenistic society. But if gentiles would visit a gathering of Christians who all spoke in tongues, Paul says, they would come to the conclusion that the Christians were out of their minds. For unbelievers, that might appear to be a powerful — but ultimately mistaken — sign of God’s presence. Speaking in tongues would ultimately lead to a negative experience and therefore become a sign of condemnation.
On the other hand, if an unbeliever enters a gathering where Christians are prophesying, the response would be entirely different. Speaking prophetically, members of the congregation could convict the visitor of the need to be open to God, to worship God and to acknowledge that God really is with the Christian community. The gift of prophecy is the ability to speak God’s truth in a way that others can understand.
1 Corinthians 14:26 — Worship that makes sense
For most Presbyterians, speaking in tongues is a seldom (or perhaps never) experienced spiritual gift. We tend to pride ourselves on doing all things decently and in order, not with ecstatic speech or actions.
However a true story from my own experience suggests that a form of speaking in tongues can still occur in Presbyterian churches. I once spoke with a woman who opined that the sermon she had just heard must have been a very good one “because I didn’t understand more than ten words of it.” Like the unintelligible speaking in tongues in Corinth, some sermons can be so far removed from the daily life of believers that they are virtually unintelligible.
Paul’s remedy for such a situation is clear, but not necessarily amenable to doing everything decently and in order. All worshippers should come prepared to participate in some way. Worship in Corinth could include singing a hymn, teaching a lesson probably based on Scripture, sharing a revelation, speaking in tongues and interpreting prophetically. All of these worship activities have as their goal building up the faith of the congregation, Paul concludes.
Have you ever experienced the gift of speaking in tongues? What affect did that experience have on you? If you have not experienced speaking in tongues, what do you think your response would be if you did experience somebody speaking in tongues? What is the difference between speaking in tongues like some Corinthians did and the Pentecost experience described in Acts 2? What is prophetic interpretation? Have you ever experienced prophetic preaching?
JAMES A. BRASHLER is professor emeritus of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.