1 Corinthians 14:1-20 ESV - 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. 6 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? 7 If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? 8 And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? 9 So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. 10 There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, 11 but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. 12 So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church. 13 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. 16 Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? 17 For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up. 18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue. 20 Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.
1 Corinthians, chapters 12 through 14 are extensive apostolic teaching on the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit. Paul was inspired to write this based upon the reported misuses and abuses of the gifts of the Spirit occurring in Corinth. The infamous “Love Chapter” (13) is the centerpiece of what needs to fuel and govern the church’s use of spiritual gifts. In Chapter 14, Paul gives some insights that can apply to the church today. First and foremost, the pursuit of love for one another, for God, for the mission of the church has to be step one. There is no need to command the pursuit of love unless we find that living in a self-sacrificing manner that benefits others is so often elusive. Love is an act of the will, usually accompanied by emotion - and it always acts in the best interest of those being loved. We do not always fulfill that, which is why the first command is to pursue love rather than spiritual gifts.
Paul does not tell this rather weird church in Corinth to stop desiring these supernatural manifestations of the Holy Spirit, but rather desire them with the fuel and restraint of genuine, Christlike love that builds up the church and blesses others. Too many seek supernatural manifestations based upon their self-seeking mysticism or to validate what they perceive to be their spirituality. Yet the Corinthians had the most spiritual gift operation and were still the most sinful church with which the Apostle Paul had to deal. Seek the Giver and the benefit of others while desiring spiritual gifts, especially prophecy. Why prophecy? To build up the church! Consider the passage above…
Regarding tongues, Paul instructs the Corinthians about speaking with tongues as an ongoing exercise of their spiritual giftedness. Paul himself claimed to speak in tongues more than any of them! But the church had a misunderstanding about tongues. Let’s identify what the text states: (1) one who speaks in tongues is legitimately speaking to God (not men); (2) one who speaks in tongues legitimately builds himself up since his spirit is genuinely praying even though he doesn’t understand what he’s saying; (3) Paul wants all of the Corinthians to pray in tongues, thank in tongues, and even sing in tongues; (4) in a church setting in which others are listening for instruction, one should pray for the ability to interpret his tongues specifically so the church can have understanding and be strengthened. While uninterpreted tongues appear fine for personal prayer and worship times (including prayer meetings in which the body is gathered together but not receiving instruction or attempting to evangelize outsiders who are present), they are not to be exercised in a way that disrupts the order of a meeting unless they are accompanied by the true exercise of interpretation. Now, do you pray in the spirit? Give thanks in the spirit? Sing in the spirit?
Regarding prophecy, Paul makes it clear that prophesying is a superior gift to uninterpreted tongues. Because the Corinthians were self-indulgent in their use of tongues in church meetings, Paul explains that the bold proclamation of God’s message in a prophetic utterance (proclaiming the word of God, revealing secrets of men’s hearts, or foretelling future events) builds up the church through encouragement and evangelism in a way that uninterpreted tongues does not. Paul is not forbidding tongues - and he instructs the church not to forbid tongues either, but he is setting a chaotic church in better order, since God is not a Spirit of confusion. Paul lets this self-seeking church who apparently loves to emote with a weird abuse of spiritual gifts (especially tongues) that they need to build one another up. Prophecy does that when fueled by love and the Spirit. Prophecy speaks to people who need encouragement, comfort, and strengthening. Prophecy builds up the church. Prophecy is spoken in a way that is understood by those who hear. Prophecy instructs the church. Tongues are a valid expression of speaking to God, yet Paul wants them to do what’s best for building up others in the context of church gatherings in which instruction is going forth. To do otherwise is ultimately self-seeking religion rather than Christlike, others-focused walking in the Spirit. The early church did not necessarily have a pulpit-pew structure. Because of that, prophecy in church gatherings today, may take place over a pulpit. Or prophecy may take place during the presentation of a song service (read of the OT musicians whose ministry was considered prophetic). Prophecy frequently occurs in small groups and Bible studies, not is some spiritually-weird way that demands that someone proclaims, “Thus saith the LORD!”, but in ways that are so subtle yet so inspiring that most don’t realize the significance of what God is doing. Often, some of the most life-changing prophecies are uttered before a church service officially starts or some time after it ends. When the people of God stop focusing on themselves but become intentional about loving others - the guest, the new believer, the struggling Christian, the gift of prophecy operates with amazing effect. Some of the best and most encouraging “sermons” a Christian will ever hear comes out of his/her own mouth as he/she genuinely reaches out in love to try to connect with another in need. Loving another by genuinely speaking to them in a way that seeks their spiritual health, wellbeing, growth, future success, consolation, and encouragement is often the setting for the gift of prophecy to work best. We simply need to pray for more maturity, understanding, and boldness as we pursue love for others while desiring to exercise the gift of prophecy in its proper New Testament manner. It’s why Paul tells this immature church that apparently loved to let church services spiral out of control into mass tongue-talking gatherings to grow up and start thinking about what will help others instead of just focusing on excreting their gift of tongues in a way that was self-centered, even though they were legitimately talking to God. Like with all children, apparently the Corinthians needed to be reminded that there is a proper time and place for everything.
Can you think of a time in which God used you to speak prophetic encouragement, direction, comfort, or help to someone? Are you willing to step out in pursuit of love to see prophecy operate even more in your life? Based upon the passage above, do you think you have the proper Biblical balance of exercising gifts of tongues and prophecy - especially in a church service? Do you seek to excel in using these gifts to build up the church?