1 Corinthians 14

These notes are based on the NASB text.

14:1 Pursue [as a way of life] love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.

Christians ought to “desire earnestly spiritual gifts” and exercise them in love (chapter 13) that the church might be edified (chapter 12). Perhaps more importantly, Christians ought to desire earnestly the fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22-23). If more Christians earnestly desired the fruit of the Spirit there would probably be less problems with the gifts of the Spirit among believers.

Paul encouraged the Corinthians to especially desire the ability to prophesy or to proclaim God’s Word in a simple, intelligible, and powerful way. Phillips reads, “The highest gift you can wish for is to be able to speak the messages of God.” Paul placed the gift of prophecy at a much higher level than tongues.

14:2 For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men, but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries.

Note: Translators of the King James inserted the word “unknown” in front of the word “tongue.” The word “unknown” is not in the Greek text.

A person speaking “in a tongue” will not be understood by anyone but God, unless there is an interpreter. His hearers will not understand his words. They will only hear unintelligible sounds. His message will remain a mystery to his hearers.

14:3 But one who prophesies speaks to men for edification [contributing to the spiritual well-being of others] and exhortation and consolation.

14:4 One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies [strengthens the spiritual life of] the church.

14:5 Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy; and greater is one who prophesies than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may receive edifying.

In contrast to the “tongues-speaker” who “edifies himself,” the one who “prophesies” [preaches the gospel in an understandable language] edifies, exhorts, and consoles others. Tongues had an inward orientation. Prophesying had an outward orientation.

People dealing with life’s ups and downs and run-arounds need practical spiritual help from the church. They need to be edified or built up when they are feeling down. They need to be exhorted or encouraged and assisted to hang in there. They need to be comforted when they feel overwhelmed by their circumstances and lose sight of the bigger picture. They need a clear word from God.

14:6 But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking in tongues, what shall I profit you, unless I speak to you either by way of revelation or of knowledge or of prophecy or of teaching?

If Paul had come to the Corinthians speaking in tongues it would have been a useless visit. No one would have been able to understand him or make any sense of his speech. Paul reminds the Corinthians that, by contrast, they would profit by such a visit if the gifts of revelation (revealing truth), knowledge, prophesy, or teaching were employed.

People who don’t understand cannot be profited or edified. Paul uses three illustrations to prove his point.

14:7 Yet even lifeless things, either flute or harp, in producing a sound, if they do not produce a distinction in the tones, how will it be known what is played on the flute or on the harp?

[A] Musical instruments must make distinct sounds if the hearer is to recognize the tune being played. If someone picks up a musical instrument and skillfully plays a tune it is pleasing to hear. If someone however, picks up an instrument and just haphazardly “toots” away, the product is irritating and annoying noise.

14:8 For if the bugle produces an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself for battle?

[B] Military bugles are used to alert troops for battle, to sound charge and retreat, to wake up the troops and to send them to bed. Yet imagine the chaos if a bugler did not blow a distinct call.

14:9 So also you, unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air.

[C] Daily conversation between people must be in language and terms that both parties can understand otherwise the conversants will simply “be speaking into the air.”

14:10 There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of languages in the world, and no kind is without meaning.

This is an indication that when Paul wrote of “tongues” he was referring to known languages and not unknown ecstatic utterances.

14:11 If then I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be to the one who speaks a barbarian, and the one who speaks will be a barbarian to me.

It does not matter how sincere a speaker is in his communication if the recipient does not understand what he is saying.

The reference to “barbarian” comes from the Greek view of non-Greek speaking peoples whose speech sounded like “bar bar” to the Greeks.

Paul next issues two exhortations to the Corinthian believers.

14:12 So also you, since you are zealous [and, of course, some were “jealous”] of spiritual gifts, seek to abound [overflow] for the edification of the church.

[A] Desire those gifts that will result in the edification of the church. In fact, Paul exhorts the Corinthians to use their spiritual gifts in such a manner as to overflow in their edification of the church.

14:13 Therefore let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret.

[B] Those who speak in tongues should pray for the gift of interpretation to the end that the church might be edified. Without the gift of interpretation, the gift of tongues is useless in the church.

14:14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.

14:15 What is the outcome then? I shall pray with the spirit [that is, the inner man, as in 2:11] and I shall pray with the mind [that is, with intelligible words] also; I shall sing with the spirit and I shall sing with the mind also.

14:16 Otherwise if you bless in the spirit only, how will the one who fills the place of the ungifted [unversed in spiritual gifts or an inexpert in tongues] say the “Amen” at your giving of thanks, since he does not know what you are saying?

14:17 For you are giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified.

This is a strong word to those who claim to pray in a tongue in their private devotions. Because they do not understand what they are praying their “mind is unfruitful.” And if one prays in a tongue in a public worship setting, it is still an unfruitful exercise because those who are “ungifted” (verse 16) or have no knowledge of tongues will not even know when to say “Amen,” regardless of how well one prays in a tongue! As far as Paul was concerned, it was better to pray, sing, and bless in terms others could understand.

14:18 I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all;

14:19 however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind, that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue.

Vernon McGee comments that Paul had to speak in tongues on his missionary journeys because he traveled across regions where different tribes spoke different languages. But in the church, he spoke the language that everybody could understand.

“Paul’s use of the phrase to instruct others indicates that worship should stimulate not only the emotions but the mind” (BBC, Vol. 10).

14:20 Brethren, do not be [a command to stop an action which is in progress] children in your thinking; yet in evil be babes, but in your thinking be mature.

The Corinthians were acting like children in regard to the matter of tongues. Children often prefer that which is amusing over that which is useful. Paul wanted for the Corinthians to be like “babes” in regard to evil, but “mature” in regard to spiritual matters.

Paul next moves to a consideration of the ineffectiveness of tongues in evangelism.

14:21 In the Law it is written, “By men of strange tongues and by the lips of strangers I will speak to this people, and even so they will not listen to Me,” says the Lord.

14:22 So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe, but to unbelievers; but prophecy is for a sign, not to unbelievers, but to those who believe.

[A] Strange, or foreign, tongues were unsuccessful in bringing the Israelites to repentance in Old Testament times. The reference from Isaiah 28:11-12 is to the Assyrians who invaded Israel. The sound of a foreign tongue in the land meant that judgement had come because the people had refused to heed the clear words of the prophets.

14:23 If therefore the whole church should assemble together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted [unversed in spiritual gifts] men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad?

[B] If “ungifted men or unbelievers” entered the church only to witness everyone speaking in tongues, it might lead them to conclude that everyone was mad. Such a scene would drive men from Christ but not draw men to Christ. The church has a responsibility to present the message of salvation in clear and meaningful terms.

14:24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all;

14:25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you.

[C] If, on the other hand, “an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters” the church and hears the message of salvation in clear and unmistakable terms, it could lead him to be convicted of his sin, recognize his need for Christ, repent of his sin and be converted.

14:26 What is the outcome then, brethren? When [as often as] you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.

Therefore, in light of the previous illustrations, how should the gift of tongues and the gift of prophesy be exercised in public worship? (Perhaps there was as much confusion and chaos in their worship as in their observance of the Lord’s Supper.)

[A] “Let all things be done for edification.” Whether tongues-speaking (and the interpretation) or prophesying or the sharing of a psalm or teaching or revelation, all should be done for edification. The message should also be consistent with the Word of God.

“As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” (1 Peter 4:10).

14:27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and let one interpret;

[B] If there is to be tongues-speaking in the church it should be “by two or at the most three, and each in turn” (not simultaneously). In addition, an interpreter must be present.

14:28 but if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God.

[C] If an interpreter is not present, then there should be no tongues-speaking at all! Let the tongues-speaker “speak [silently] to himself and to God.”

14:29 And let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment.

[D] The same “rules of order” applied to prophets. They should speak “and let the others pass judgment.” The word “others” refers to “others of the same kind.” Other prophets “should judge or discern if what is being said is of the Holy Spirit” (Hobbs). Brian Harbour comments that to “judge” may mean to discuss the prophecy and its relevance/application to the lives of the listeners (Bible Book Study Commentary, page 111). We should certainly take the time to evaluate and apply the message we hear to our own lives.

14:30 But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, let the first keep silent.

[E] If another man (with the gift of prophesy) received a revelation, the one speaking must be willing to listen. According to verse 32, “the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.” A prophet should be willing to be silent and yield the floor to another prophet who receives a revelation.

14:31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted;

[F] The prophets should also speak one at a time “so that all may learn and all may be exhorted.”

14:32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets;

14:33 for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.

[G] The worship service is to be orderly.

14:34 Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law [Genesis 3:16] also says.

14:35 And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home [Wiersbe notes, “Sad to say, in too many Christian homes today, it is the wife who has to answer the questions for the husband because she is better taught in the Word.”]; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.

There are several interpretations of the meaning of “they are not permitted to speak.” (Keep in mind 1 Corinthians 11:5 and 13.)

[A] Paul did not want for women to speak in tongues. (McGee) & (J.A. Millikin, Mid-America Theological Journal, Spring 1983)

[B] Paul did not want for women to disrupt the worship service with disruptive speech or questions or arguments.

[C] Paul did not want for women to evaluate the prophetic messages (see verse 29). (Wiersbe)

14:36 Was it from you that the word of God first went forth? Or has it come to you only?

“The question is ‘were you the starting point of the gospel? or were you its only destination?’ Paul is attacking the abuses of the Corinthians by pointing out they were not the true source of the gospel.” (Rienecker/Rogers)

14:37 If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment.

14:38 But if anyone does not recognize this he is not recognized.

Prophets ought to recognize divine revelation when they see it!

14:39 Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues.

This is a restatement of 14:1. Paul urged the Corinthian believers to “desire earnestly to prophesy” for the several reasons outlined in this chapter. The gift of prophesy was profitable for “edification and exhortation and consolation” (14:2) and evangelizing the lost (14:24-25).

14:40 But let all things be done properly and in an orderly manner.

“Creating a climate in which the lost could be won was more important than creating a climate in which the Christians could do what they wanted to do” (Brian Harbour, Bible Book Study Commentary, page 112).

“These final words have become a classic slogan for the apt administration of all church affairs” (M.J. Berquist).

“The sum-total of all this is that spiritual gifts, whatever they may be, are not bestowed by the Spirit merely for personal display. They are given as a means of serving God for the good of others. Any abuse of this is not the purpose of God” (Hobbs). 

Practical Considerations

Spiritual gifts should be exercised in love.
Spiritual gifts should be exercised in love (chapter 13) for the edification of the church (14:26).

Desire also the fruit of the Spirit.
Paul encouraged the Corinthian believers to “desire earnestly spiritual gifts.” The Corinthian congregation was characterized by problems because of the abuse of spiritual gifts. If Christians earnestly desired the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) they would probably get in less fights over the gifts of the Spirit!

People who are hurting and confused and troubled need a clear word from God.
Tongues is limited in its value to a lost and hurting world. It is ineffective as an evangelistic medium. Prophesy, on the other hand, is better able to meet the needs of a hurting world. It is an excellent evangelistic medium.

Spiritual gifts should be exercised in an orderly manner in worship and contribute to the spiritual well-being of others.
“God is not a God of confusion” (14:33). Christian worship should be orderly (14:40) to the end that believers have an opportunity to exercise their spiritual gifts and others are edified through their proper use.

 “Let all things be done…”
[A] “for edification.” (14:26)
[B] “properly and in an orderly manner.” (14:40)

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