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© Rosemary Bardsley 2015


Having extolled the superiority of love in contrast to both teaching gifts and the sign gift of speaking in languages, Paul introduces his discussion of the difference between ‘prophecy’ and languages with two commands:

[1] ‘Follow the way of love’. Greek text: dioko = track down, earnestly pursue, eagerly strive for. The word occurs 44 times in the New Testament, of these 30 are translated ‘persecute’. It refers to a highly committed, one-eyed pursuit. ‘Follow’ is quite inadequate to convey the strength of the word. We are to be totally committed to loving – in the same way Saul/Paul before his conversion was totally committed to destroying the name of Jesus, in the same way an athlete has a one-eyed focus on his sole goal of winning the prize. Because love is greater than the exercise of the gifts, the expression and exercise of love should be our goal.

[2] Having said that, Paul also says ‘eagerly desire’zeloo – ‘spiritual gifts, or if we choose not to understand the word ‘spiritual’ to refer to ‘gifts’, ‘be eager for spiritual things’, especially to prophesy. Although he has disparaged even the teaching gift of prophecy in contrast to the superiority, necessity and centrality of love, he still encourages them to be eager [zealous] for the gift of prophecy.

[3] He then contrasts prophecy and languages, to impress them with the comparative uselessness of speaking in languages that are not understood by those gathered together in the church meeting.

Read verses 1-11. Make two lists – one of the things Paul says about speaking in languages, and one of what he says about prophesying.










The one who speaks in languages:

Does not speak to men, but to God [verse 2] [because God is the only one present who understands what is said.]

No one understands [2]

Utters mysteries in his spirit [or by the Spirit] [2]

Edifies himself [4]

Okay [5] [but see what Paul says later]

Lesser, unless the language is interpreted so church is edified [5]

Of no good to church unless accompanied by a message that is able to be understood [6]

Just like a musical instrument played without distinct notes [7]

Just like a trumpet trying to call soldiers to battle but not sounding a clear note [8]

Words not intelligible, no one can understand; just speaking into the air [9]

The languages of the world do mean something, but if I can’t understand them they mean nothing and are like listening to a foreigner [10-11]

The one who prophesies:

Speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement, comfort [3]

Edifies the church [4]

Better [5]

Greater [5]

Is the only thing that can make languages ‘good’ [revelation, knowledge, prophecy] [6]

Emphasis is on the value ‘prophecy’ has in building, encouraging and comforting the church.

In the above, note that the ‘languages’ are referred to as ‘all sorts of languages in the world’, and all with ‘meaning’, and listening to them is compared to listening to ‘a foreigner’. These verses [10,11] prohibit the understanding that ‘tongues’ are something other than human languages.

[4] On the basis of this contrast Paul states that, given that they are anxious for ‘spiritual gifts’ [Greek = ‘spirits’], they should try to excel in gifts that build up the church – verse 12. [Greek: to the building up of the church seek that you may excel/increase/superabound/have more of. The word ‘gifts’ is not repeated in the second half of the verse.]

The way Paul speaks here could very well indicate that he is not speaking primarily to individuals about the use of their gifts, but to the church about its attitude to the gifts – that they, as a church, were making too much of speaking in tongues and too little of teaching gifts, of which prophecy is an example. Rather than concentrating on a gift that is useless for the church the church should be concentrating on and anxious for the exercise of those gifts that strengthen the church.

For Paul, that is the important thing - the strengthening, encouragement and comforting of the church so that the church will be ‘edified’. This, Paul says, cannot be done by speaking in a foreign language unless there is someone there who can interpret/translate what is said into the local language, turning the meaningless and unhelpful babble into revelation, wisdom, prophecy and teaching that will edify the church. On the other hand ‘prophecy’ – representative of the teaching gifts - can be understood by all, and therefore builds up the church through what is taught (verse 3-5).

When Paul says that a person speaking in languages ‘edifies himself’ he is not doing this to express his approval of uninterpreted languages, but to point out the contrast of such a use of languages and the use for which the Holy Spirit gave the gifts, that is, the edification of the church. As we have already seen, the gifts are not given for personal application; nor do they have any purpose outside of the context of community. They are meaningless in isolation.


Read verses 13-20. List what Paul teaches about the use and misuse of ‘tongues’.







Because the goal is not spiritual gifts in themselves, but the edification of the church, Paul lays down some principles for the Corinthian church in their attitude to spiritual gifts, particularly languages and prophecy, in the church.

[Note: ‘prophecy’ must be given its biblical meaning: the proclamation of the word of God to the contemporary generation. Historically it is evident that ‘prophecy’, while sometimes having a predictive element, consisted in restating the word of God revealed in the past and recalling the people to faith and obedience to that word; generally the predictive element in prophecy consisted in announcing the judgment of God which would surely follow if genuine repentance did not issue in the requisite faith and obedience. To limit ‘prophecy’ to either [1] predictions of the future, or [2] to personal messages about personal details, cannot be supported by the Bible.]

Paul teaches:

[1] If anyone speaks in a language he should pray that he may interpret [14:13].

[2] This is because of the general principle of worship, that both the mind and the spirit of those present are to be involved and engaged – whether it is in prayer, or in singing, or in praise [14:14-17].

[3] Those present cannot be edified if their minds and understanding are not engaged [14:16,17].

[4] It is better to speak five intelligible words than ten thousand in a language those present do not understand. [14:18-19]

[5] To focus on and exalt speaking in languages above the teaching gifts is to demonstrate immaturity of thought [14:20].
[In verse 18-19 Paul expresses his thankfulness that he speaks in languages more than all of them. He doesn’t say why he is thankful for this, or in what context he speaks in languages. This raises the question: if he didn’t speak in languages ‘in the church’ where did he do so? Was it in private devotions, as some contemporary Christians believe? Or was it in evangelism among people whose native language God enabled him to speak? There is no evidence in the New Testament that ‘tongues’ was ever a private, devotional thing, unless we impose it onto this passage. In fact private use of tongues is in direct contradiction to the revealed use and purpose of the gifts. In the next section Paul teaches that ‘tongues’ are a sign to unbelievers – which could hardly be the case if tongues were intended for private devotions.]


Read verses 20-25. How does Paul define the purpose of languages?



Paul quotes two verses from Isaiah 28 which are part of a message of judgment on Ephraim, the idolatrous northern kingdom of Israel, anticipating the successful attack of the Assyrians. These Isaiah verses mention ‘strange tongues’. The Assyrians deported the whole population of the northern kingdom and relocated them in foreign lands. The reason for this judgment was the fundamental unbelief of the nation; as a whole the nation had forsaken the living God and embraced idols. On the basis of these verses Paul concludes:

[1] Contrary to their use in the Corinthian church, speaking in [untranslated] other languages is a sign for unbelievers, not for believers [14:22]. George Gardiner, in The Corinthian Catastrophe, limits this to unbelieving Jews. There is some merit in this suggestion, as it was the Jews who demanded ‘signs’ [several times in the Gospels, plus 1Corinthians 1:22].

Note: from this verse it is clear that Paul does not see languages as something that is done in private for private spiritual purposes. The purpose of [untranslated] languages is to be a sign to others who are present, specifically to unbelievers who are present.
In the Isaiah prophecy quoted by Paul, note the final part of the quote: ‘but even then they will not listen to me.’ The occurrence of speaking in untranslated languages is not an evidence of God’s blessing on a church [or an individual] but an expression of God’s judgment on unbelievers. To have the word of God spoken, and not be able understand it, is to be beyond the reach of that word, to have incurred the extreme expression of God’s judgment.

Consider God’s word to Isaiah:

‘Go and tell this people:
“Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
be ever seeing, but never perceiving.”
Make the heart of this people calloused;
make their ears dull and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.’

When Isaiah asked ‘For how long …?’ the Lord replied:

‘Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant,
until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined an ravaged,
until the LORD has sent everyone far away
and the land is utterly forsaken …’ [Isaiah 6:9-12].

When the disciples asked the Lord Jesus why he spoke in parables he quoted the first section of these verses [Matthew 13:10-15; Mark 4:10-12]. To hear and understand the word of God is to be blessed indeed [Matthew 13:16]; to hear the word of God and not understand is to confirm one’s condemnation [John 8:43 -47].

Languages are not for the enjoyment of the church. Uninterpreted, they are not even directed towards the church. Uninterpreted, they are aimed at unbelievers as a symbol of God’s judgment. We might ask ‘Why would God do such a thing? Why would he deliberately withhold understanding from people? If we do, we must ask the same question of Jesus Christ concerning his parables, which the disciples did, as noted in the previous paragraph.

Perhaps we can gain insight from the prophecy of Amos, where he said:

‘ “The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign LORD, “when I will send a famine through the land – not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD. Men will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the LORD, but they will not find it’.’ [Amos 8:11]

Upon people who have repeatedly rejected the Lord and his word, God imposes this dread outcome: he withholds his word. Thus, when Jesus spoke in parables to the Jews of his day, this was an expression of God’s judgment upon them.

[2] Prophecy [proclamation and application of the Word of God] is for believers not unbelievers [14:22], that is, understandable proclamation of the Word of God is for believers. As already seen in previous verses in this chapter, languages [without interpretation] do not edify the church. The gift that strengthens the church is prophecy – the proclamation of the word of God. The Corinthian church seems to have reversed this priority, making much of speaking in foreign languages in the church and giving the proclaimed word minimal significance.

[3] Paul then describes the reactions of unbelievers to the use of these two gifts in the church:

On the one hand, if an unbeliever [Greek apistos – a person without faith], or ‘some who do not understand [Greek: idiotes – an unlearned, ignorant person] comes into a church gathering where ‘everyone’ is speaking in [uninterpreted/untranslated] languages, they won’t understand a thing; they will simply think the believers are crazy.

On the other hand, if an unbeliever, or someone who doesn’t understand, comes in when the word of God is being proclaimed [when people are prophesying] that person could well be convicted of sin and come to repentance and faith because of the truth of God that was clearly taught [14:23-25].

It could thus be argued that while speaking in languages simply promotes ridicule or confirms people in their unbelief, the proclamation of the word in the common language builds the church in two ways: firstly by strengthening and encouraging the believers and secondly by adding to their number those who are convicted by the proclaimed word.

Discussion point: From what you have observed, how does the use of ‘languages’, [‘tongues’], in contemporary Christianity relate to Paul’s instructions and teaching up to this point in his letter?