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Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (36)

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Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (36)

1 Corinthians 14:1-6

Broadcast: October 25, 1998; Message Number 1495

Spiritual Gifts: Tongue Speaking and Prophesying

Our studies in I Corinthians bring us to chapter 14 which deals with the controversial subject of tongue speaking. It is controversial because the question at issue here is whether spiritual gifts such as tongue-speaking, prophesying and faith healing ceased with the death of the apostles or whether the Holy Spirit still confers such gifts upon the church today. Until recently, the consensus in Protestant churches was that extraordinary gifts were withdrawn some time during the first century. After the death of the apostles and the completion of the canon of Scripture there was no longer any need for these gifts. They were given to the early Christians to help get the church established in a hostile world.

This latter view is increasingly being challenged by Pentecostals and other charismatics. They reason this way. Since God is sovereign we should not limit Him in any way. Many others, however, stay with the old view because they do not recognize present-day tongue speaking as a work of the Holy Spirit. They see it more as a psychological phenomenon or even as an indication of demonic activity.

Like everything else, tongue speaking must be tested in the light of Holy Scripture. The problem is, however, that both charismatics and their opponents appeal to the Bible in support of their position. But what does Scripture say about this issue? I could mention many texts, but for now we will focus on I Corinthians 14 because I believe it is very helpful in getting a handle on the subject.

In this chapter Paul compares two spiritual gifts, namely tongue speaking and prophesying. Both were highly valued in Corinth, but of the two, tongue speaking was getting too much attention and this caused a lot of problems. Everybody wanted to speak in tongues. If you could do that, you belonged to the spiritual elite. Paul disagreed. Tongue speaking is not the supreme gift, he argues. Actually, it is relatively unimportant. It is certainly less important than prophesying. In this chapter he explains the proper place and function of tongue speaking and prophesying and in doing so he gives us some very helpful insights on how we should view these gifts today.

The key verse is verse 1: "Follow after charity [or love] and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy." We may also translate it this way: "Let love be your highest goal, but desire spiritual gifts as well, especially prophesying."

The apostle repeats here what he has already stated in the previous chapter, I Corinthians 13, namely that love is essential. Love is the basic, biblical reason for exercising any spiritual gift. Love is the desire to reach out for someone else's benefit. Love edifies or builds up others--that is what Paul; emphasizes here. Therefore he exhorts the Corinthians to "desire spiritual gifts" in order that by using them they may be of help to fellow believers.

He does not say, every one of you should seek a gift that will benefit yourself and give you a spiritual lift or that will enhance your self-esteem. The apostle is not addressing the individual believer at all, but rather the entire congregation. All spiritual gifts must be exercised to help all the members grow in spiritual power and influence in the community.

The best spiritual gift, Paul says, is that of prophesying. The gift of prophesying in New Testament times included the receiving of new revelation and communicating it to the church. Its main function was to explain truths already revealed. That is why prophecy was a permanent gift which remained even after the canon of Scripture was closed.

In verses 2 to 5, the apostle draws a comparison between tongue speaking and prophesying and explains their relative value for the church. If your gift is the ability to speak in tongues, he says, you will be speaking to God, but not to people, because they won't be able to understand you.

The word "tongue" here refers to a language like Greek or Hebrew or English. Tongue is the common Greek word for language. It is originally a reference, of course, to that member of the body that is used in speaking---the little organ which is called the tongue. But metaphorically, it means a language spoken by that member of the body. There are numerous instances in Scripture where it is translated "language," and properly so. It is the normal word for language and therefore we have a clear hint right at the beginning of this discussion that the gift of tongues is the ability of speaking languages that were never learned. It is therefore a supernatural gift.

This supernatural gift has a certain characteristic about it, and it is a very important characteristic. A person who speaks in a tongue, Paul says, is not speaking to men, but speaking to God. Tongues are never addressed to men. You will find this confirmed in verse 28 where the apostle, still speaking about this gift, says: "...if there is no one to interpret the tongue or the language, let each speaker keep silence in church and speak to himself [that is, in his thought life] and to God." Tongues are addressed to God and not to men.

The gift of tongues was never used for the preaching of the Gospel; not in Acts 2 either. Many people simply assume that on the first Pentecost day after the one hundred-and-twenty were filled with the Spirit, they all started to preach in other languages. Not so. They all spoke in tongues, yes, but they were not preaching, but glorifying God. What that multitude of Jews and proselytes heard was not a sermon, but a doxology. The sermon came later, but first they heard the one hundred-and-twenty men and women declaring the mighty works of God.

They were praising, not preaching. In fact, that is why Peter gets up just a few moments later to explain to the assembled multitude what is happening. He preaches the Gospel to them, not in foreign tongues this time, but in his own native language which was probably Hebrew or Aramaic. Tongues were never used for preaching or exhortation, but solely for worship. It was the language of praise, prayer, singing and thanksgiving.

Anyone who speaks in tongues, Paul says, is not understood in a congregation because he speaks "mysteries in the Spirit." The reason was not that he was speaking things nobody had ever heard before; but he was simply speaking in a language they did not understand. That would, therefore, sound rather mysterious to them. In the church at Corinth people would stand up and speak in foreign languages which no one understood, so they could not know what the speaker was saying. As far as they were concerned, the person speaking in tongues was uttering "mysteries in the Spirit."

In contrast, Paul now describes the gift of prophesying (verse 3): "On the other hand, he who prophesies speaks to men for their edification and encouragement and consolation." Prophesying, says John Calvin, is "the peculiar gift of explaining revelation." It is expounding and applying the Word of God in the assemblies of His people.

It is a much needed gift in our day as well, because it has, as Paul says, a threefold effect. First, it edifies; it builds people up in the faith. Second, it strengthens people. This is where we get the word paraclete, one of the titles of the Holy Spirit. He is the Strengthener of God's people, the One called alongside them to lend support. The third use of prophesying is that of comforting, or as the Greek says, empathizing, which means letting people know that you understand how they feel because you have been there. That is what prophesying is meant to do. Have you never had the experience of listening to a Scripture passage expounded in such a way that it seemed to speak right to your problem and to your need? Then you will understand how important it is to have this gift exercised in church.

The apostle goes on to say in verse 4: "He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church." There is some benefit to the individual who is praising God in a language he has never learned and does not even understand himself. His spirit is praising God and, therefore, it is blessed, and he feels refreshed. It is of benefit to him, but he is the only one who benefits. Therefore tongues without interpretation is self-centred; it ignores the needs of others. It does not edify or build up the church as a whole. But prophesying does build up and so fulfils the demands of love.

Paul goes on to say: "Now I want you all to speak in tongues." He has nothing against tongues as such. It is a good gift; there is nothing wrong with it, but I would rather have you prophesy, he insists, for he who prophesies is greater than he who speaks in tongues, unless some one interprets, so that the church may be edified.

In the next section, verses 6 through 12, Paul develops his argument. The Corinthians were glorying in their ability to do what no natural man could do, namely speak languages they had never learned. They were very interested in this gift and sought to excel in it. They would much rather speak in tongues than listen to sermons. But Paul reminds them that they don't have their priorities straight. They are carried away with a relatively unimportant gift, while neglecting the gift which they really need: sound instruction in the truth of the Gospel.

In this section he describes the effect of uninterpreted tongues in the church. First, he says it is not profitable (verse 6): "Now, brethren, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how shall I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching?" Paul uses himself as an example. If I come to you, he says, and all I do is stand up and praise God in a foreign language in your presence, I may be blessed by it, but you won't benefit from it. I would rather give you something that will benefit you; for example, some new revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction.

This was Paul's privilege as an apostle. Christ had taught him things others did not know. That is why the writings of the New Testament are apostolic revelation. Such revelation will bless them tremendously and would build them up in the faith. But to simply stand up and speak in tongues was of no use to them at all unless somebody could explain what he had said.

What Paul says here can be applied to other situations as well and not just to tongue speaking, such as any spiritual experience that one may value and pursue for its own sake in a selfish way. What the apostle means is this: any gift that we use only for our own benefit, any experience that we enjoy, but which does not benefit others is for that reason suspect.

Paul is concerned about the well-being of the whole congregation, not just about a few exceptionally gifted individuals. That is why he offers as an alternative to tongue speaking the gift of revelation which includes what we today would call preaching the Word and sharing the Gospel with fellow Christians as well as unbelievers.

I think this needs to be stressed, also today. Believers in Christ need to see themselves as the body of Christ. We need to build up our own faith, of course, but also the faith of the entire congregation of which we are a part. The Lord does not want us to seek gifts that do little more than give us private spiritual highs. Rather, we should seek the gift of knowing and applying the Scriptures to exhort, instruct or comfort fellow believers. In that way the communion of the saints will be promoted and unbelievers entering our assemblies will be convicted and fall on their knees, worshipping God and testifying that God is really in our midst.

Are you doing that? Are you a blessing to others? Examine yourself, also on this point, for only those are true believers who love the brethren and seek the good of Christ's church.

For all my brethren and companion's sakes

My prayer shall be, Let peace in thee abide;

Since God the Lord in thee His dwelling makes,

To thee my love shall never be denied.

Additional Info

  • Audio: 1305225422
  • Speaker: Rev. C. Pronk
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