1 Cor 14:1-40

Sermon Discussion Questions:

1. Read 1 Cor 14:1-5 together. What questions do you have?
2. How should we define "prophecy" and "tongues"?
3. Why does Paul prioritize prophecy in the church? What does this tell us about what should prioritized today? See 1 Cor 14:6, 12, 26, 31.
4. "Knowledge is more important than experience." Why?
5. Our Sunday services should be marked by edifying the saints, welcoming outsiders, and peaceful order. How can you help participate in those priorities?

“So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church,” (1 Cor 14:12)


What Are Prophecy and Tongues?


Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. 2 For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. 3 On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. 4 The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. 5 Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up. (1 Cor 14:1-5)


Prophecy is held up as superior to tongues in the church because the rest of the church can understand what is being said when someone prophesies, whereas the rest of the church does not understand what someone speaking in tongues is saying, unless there is an interpretation. So, right away, we need to define some terms.


What is prophecy? Prophecy is spontaneous, divinely given speech where an individual speaks God’s words. These words, directed at others, being God’s words, then are binding and authoritative. So that if you disobey or disregard these words, you disregard God. Prophecy isn’t a strong feeling that might be misguided and should be taken with a grain of salt. Prophecy is, “Thus says the Lord…”


What are tongues? The Greek word for “tongue” can refer to the organ in your mouth, but most often is translated in Greek just as the word “language.” The gift of “tongues” therefore is to speak in another language not previously known. In the book of Acts, we see this happen at Pentecost, where the first band of disciples of Christ are given the ability to speak in a whole host of new languages that can be discerned by the multi-ethnic crowd present (Acts 2:1-13). Some charismatic Christians today want to defend that speaking in tongues doesn’t necessarily mean that one is restricted to speaking in other known human languages, but could be more like ecstatic utterances. And they point to Paul’s reference to “tongues of angels” in 1 Corinthians 13:1 or our passage today in 1 Cor 14:2, where Paul says of the one who speaks in tongues: “no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.” That’s possible, but I am persuaded that speaking in tongues is most likely limited to languages, since that is the only way we see it practiced in the Bible. Plus, all of Paul’s arguments in 1 Corinthians 14 apply to a tongue being a known human language, provided the speaker and congregation do not know the language being spoken. If you speak Swahili in a group of people who do not know Swahili, no one will understand you and you will be speaking mysteries in the Spirit.


Tongues are similar to prophecy; in that they also are divinely given speech. The significant difference between prophecy and tongues is that tongues are un-intelligible language, while prophecy is intelligible. But if the tongues are interpreted or translated, they then appear to function like prophecy. We know that because when Pentecost occurs Peter cites the prophet Joel to explain what is happening.


‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares,

that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,

and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

and your young men shall see visions,

and your old men shall dream dreams;

18 even on my male servants and female servants

in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.

(Acts 2:17-18; cf. Joel 2:28-29)


We see this overlap of prophecy and tongues in 1 Corinthians 14 when Paul applies the same strictures to prophecy and tongue-speaking in the church: only two or three at most, and one at a time (1 Cor 14:27-33). And, Paul claims that the one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues unless the tongues are interpreted (1 Cor 14:5). So, when tongues are translated, are interpreted (as they were in Acts 2), they then function like prophecy. Translated tongues and prophecy both are intelligible and thus bring about edification to the church.


But, throughout most of this chapter we see that tongues are not always translated/interpreted. Paul wants them to be, and so he tells the church: “Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret,” (1 Cor 14:13). The whole emphasis of this chapter is that tongues are only beneficial to the church when they are interpreted. But, what is a Christian to do who has the gift of tongues but there is no interpretation? Paul tells us: “But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God,” (1 Cor 14:28).


This passage tells us two things about the gift of tongues: (1) It must be restrained in the public gathering if untranslated—and therefore can be controlled—and (2) in that instance, the tongue-speaker is encouraged to “speak to himself and to God”, which opens up the possibility for a private prayer experience of tongues. What is the purpose of a private prayer language? I am not sure, but it appears that it would be another means by which one would have an increased devotional experience with God. In just a minute I will explain why I believe that the gift of prophecy has ceased today, which would entail that the interpretation of tongues has also ceased. But this wouldn’t rule out the use of tongues as a private prayer language. If you are interested in asking me more about that, feel free to ask me after the service.


So, what are prophecy and what are tongues? They are divinely given speech by which God communicates to people. The difference is that tongues manifests itself in foreign languages which the speaker does not know. But when translated, tongues function just like prophecy. Prophecy is not a strong impression that could be mixed with error, it is a spontaneous revelation endowed from the Holy Spirit where human speech now becomes God’s speech, God’s words—and that speech is binding and authoritative.


How Have These Changed?


In our Discipleship Class we have been talking about two different perspectives on the continuation of certain spiritual gifts. All Christians believe in the current day experience of spiritual gifts, no one denies that. The issue is limited to a certain group of spiritual gifts that have to do with continuing revelation. There is some debate, but generally this has to do with the gift of apostles, prophets, and tongues. One group of Christians, sometimes known as Charismatics—from the Greek word for spiritual gifts, charismata—or Continuationists, believe that all of the gifts of the New Testament continue on to today. Most Continuationists, however, believe that the gift of apostleship has ceased. The other group, often referred to as Cessationists, believe that certain gifts—like apostles, prophets, and tongues—have ceased.


Now, you may have noticed that in our church we do not have a prophet’s microphone at the front of the stage nor do we have anyone speaking in tongues in our service, so you can guess which perspective our church lands. However, if you read our statement of faith, you will notice that we do not actually say anything in our statement of faith about this issue. Why? Because we believe that this is a third-order issue. Meaning, not only do we believe that Cessationists and Continuationists should be able to affirm each other’s profession of faith, but we also believe that we could be fellow members of the same church! Now, there are exceptions to that—and I addressed that in my last Discipleship Class, there are extremes on either side that couldn’t be a member here. But, excluding those peripheral extremes, we believe that this is a matter in which we can have a good, hearty debate and discussion over, while eating at the same potluck. We need charity in discussing this matter, because it isn’t an issue that has the same level of clarity in Scripture that other issues have, like the doctrine of the Trinity or baptism or justification by faith. So, while I am convinced of the Cessationist position, I also realized that I could be wrong—there are good arguments for the Continuationist position.


Now, I am not going to rehearse the exact arguments I just gave this morning in my Discipleship Class. If you are interested in digging into this more and did not attend the class, you can find it online. So, I will just jump to the conclusion: the gift of apostleship has ceased. To be an apostle you must be an eyewitness to the resurrection, commissioned by Jesus to be an apostle, and perform signs and wonders. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:8 that he was the last of all the apostles. So, if someone tells you today that they are an apostle, you can say, “No, you are not.” And, again, this is a point that nearly all Continuationists today concede. But, in Ephesians 2:20, we see an important connection that Paul makes between apostles and prophets. There, Paul tells us that the church is built on the foundation of the “apostles and prophets.”


In what sense are apostles and prophets the foundation of the church? In the sense that they provide new revelation to God’s people. We see this in chapter three of Ephesians: “When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit,” (Eph 3:4-5).


Sometimes Christians today think that the gift of prophecy is the same thing as preaching, since both are speaking God’s Word. But Ephesians shows us the an essential difference. Preaching is expositing God’s Word, delivering a message based on Scripture as it has already been given. Prophecy, on the other hand, is new revelation. But, to return to Ephesians 2:20, the foundation of the church is comprised of apostles and prophets—which is just another way of saying that the church is built on God’s Word. The apostles and prophets were conduits of God’s Word to the early church as the New Testament is still being written. But, just as a foundation is laid, and then built upon, so too do the gifts of apostleship and prophecy function as an initial gift that was given to establish the church, but then ceased. And if we can be confident that the gift of apostleship has ceased, and apostles are linked with prophets, then we can be similarly confident that the gift of prophecy has since ceased. And since translated tongues function like prophecy, it is likely that the gift of interpreted tongues in the church likewise have ceased. And, it is worth noting, this has been the predominant view throughout most of church history, up until the Charismatic movement began in the 20th century.


But, where does that leave us with a chapter like 1 Corinthians 14? Is the whole thing now irrelevant to us? No—nor would it be cogent to assume that because the Mosaic covenant has passed away that the book of Deuteronomy is now no longer relevant. Scripture reveals to us who God is and what He wants, and even though the gifts Paul is regulating here in the church are no longer functioning today, that doesn’t mean that there is no application or meaning for us today.


How Do We Apply This Today?


I appreciate John Owen’s comments on spiritual gifts:


“But although these gifts and operations ceased in some respect, some of them absolutely, and some of them as to the immediate manner of communication and degree of excellency; yet so far as the edification of the church was concerned in them, something that is analogous unto them was and is continued.” (John Owen)


So, while Owen that prophecy and translated tongues have ceased, Owen claims that something analogous carries on to today. So, while I earlier argued that prophecy is not the same thing as preaching or teaching, notice how Paul does lump them together: “Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching?” (1 Cor 14:6). Prophecy is the delivery of a revelation; Teaching is the delivery of knowledge. Prophecy isn’t the same thing as teaching, but they are conceptually analogous to each other.


So, as we see the analogous application of these gifts today, what does this text mean for us today? Well, Paul’s entire concern in this chapter is about what takes place during the worship gathering. He doesn’t tell us everything that should happen, but his words have important consequences for what should define our services today. So, a worship service should be…


Edifying to the Church


Consider Paul’s beginning comments again: “the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. 4 The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. 5 Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up,” (1 Cor 14:3-5).


So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church,” (1 Cor 14:12).


What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up,” (1 Cor 14:26).


What appears to be Paul’s primary concern in these passages? That the church be built up. What should a church’s Sunday gathering be prioritizing? Paul says: the edification of Christians. We gather to worship God and enjoy His presence and the fellowship of each other and use our different gifts to serve the body. But the primary aim in what we are doing every Sunday is building up the church through teaching God’s Word.


This is significant: you could see how tongue-speakers in Corinth could be led to think that their personal experience of speaking in tongues would be more important than someone teaching. The power of experience speaks for itself! Look at how significant the Spirit’s influence is on me! But Paul disagrees. Paul puts a very high premium on the life of the mind for the Christian: “Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. 15 What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also,” (1 Cor 14:13-15).


Knowledge is more important than subjective experience, even more than praying. Why? Because our prayers are shaped by God’s Word. When Jesus’ disciples asked him how to pray, he gave them words. And this is what God does, not only for our prayers, but for our whole life. He gives us His Word, He speaks to us because He wants us to know Him. Mark Dever, the pastor Capitol Hill Baptist Church, points out that you may have a nice relationship with your dog, but if you were to come home today and your dog began speaking to you, your relationship with your dog would change dramatically. Faith does not come by strong emotions or ecstatic experience; faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ (Rom 10:17). You must know who God is, who His Son is, what He accomplished on your behalf to believe in Him. Or, consider, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect,” (Rom 12:2).


Experience matters, it certainly does. But experience alone does not transform us. People can have powerful experiences, but in time, those experience can fade away. And if your faith rests on powerful experience, emotional highs, then when the high fades, so does your faith. This is why Protestants have historically been such champions of education throughout history. Why have so many Protestant missionaries around the world started schools? Why do we see such high literacy rates in third-world countries where missionaries have served for so long? Because God wrote a book and you must understand it yourself. God speaks and He desires you to know Him.


So, for our church, we apply this by filling our Sunday gatherings with God’s Word. All of our songs are based on God’s Word, our prayers come from God’s Word, we read God’s Word, and the centerpiece of our service is the sermon where God’s Word is taught and applied so that the church may be built up.


Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature,” (1 Cor 14:20).


Considerate of Outsiders


Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. 23 If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? 24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you,” (1 Cor 14:22-25)


Speaking in uninterpreted tongues is a sign for unbelievers in the sense that they are a sign of their judgment. All throughout the Old Testament, hearing a language that you do not understand is universally seen as a sign of God’s judgment on you (Gen 11; Deut 28:49; Isa 28:11-12; 33:19; Jer 5:15). If an unbeliever or outsider walks into the service and hears a cacophony of noise, they will walk away from the place where they should have been hearing how they can be saved! They will barred from understanding (cf. 1 Cor 14:16). But if they hear a prophetic word that exposes their hidden sin, they will be drawn in.


This tells us that we should be considerate of how a non-Christian approaches our service. This doesn’t tell us that we create a service that is aimed at non-Christians or is catered to the sensibilities of a non-Christian. The primary aim of our church service is to build up Christians with a clear teaching of God’s word. But in our clear teaching of God’s Word to God’s people, we should think of how to be clear and intelligible to non-Christians as well.


This means that I should try to speak in normal, understandable language and use illustrations and verbiage that could be easily recognized by believer and non-believer alike. It means that I should explain to a non-Christian what they would need to believe in order to become a Christian. It also means that we should make our environment welcoming, without pandering.


Orderly and Peaceful


What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. 27 If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. 28 But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. 29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. 30 If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, 32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. 33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. (1 Cor 14:26-33).


So much to say on this, but just notice the purpose of the need for order in the church in verse 31: so that all may learn and all be encouraged. Again, Paul returns to the issue of intelligibility. Why must the service be orderly and peaceful? So that the congregation can understand the teaching.


Our services should be clear, organized, and orderly so that our worship may rightly reflect the God whom we worship.


But all things should be done decently and in order,” (1 Cor 14:40)