Summary: There is a great deal of controversy today about the use of spiritual gifts in the body of Christ. Many more charismatic denominations feature 1st Corinthians 14 as a way of encouraging the use of spiritual gifts, but a close reading of the passage doesn’
Chapters 12, 13, and 14 address a problem Paul had with how the Corinthians were acting in their church services. They had fallen in love with the spiritual gift of Speaking in Tongues. In Chapter 12, Paul talks about how there are a variety of gifts, not just Speaking in Tongues, and that the gift is given “as He wills” (12:11). Some who exercised Speaking in Tongues apparently felt pretty superior to those who did not. So Paul makes sure they understand that each person in the body of Christ, no matter how humble their gift, is just as important as everyone else.
Further, Paul says that the greatest gift of the Spirit by far is not Tongues, but love. He spends a whole chapter decrying focus on the self and how impressive we can be, and instead talks about love being the attitudes and actions we have that are focused on the welfare of others, to see them come to Christ and be healed by Him.
So then in Chapter 14 he gets specifically to the problem of disruptions to the worship services—primarily by the rudeness of the overuse of Speaking in Tongues, the rudeness of prophets, and rudeness of some of the members of the church who couldn’t wait to get home to continue the discussion of that day’s Bible study.
Since the general topic is spiritual gifts, let’s talk about the four basic positions about the more supernatural ones, especial Speaking in Tongues:
Ignorance is bliss
The gifts left when the Bible came
Speaking in Tongues – do it early and do it often – the louder the better
The Gifts of the Holy Spirit are tools for God to help spread the gospel, not for us to show off
Paul ties Chapter 14 into Chapter 13. Pursue love. Desire gifts. I guess maybe the Corinthians had that turned around. They pursued gifts and desired to be loving, but the gifts were of primary importance. Love should always be the motivation – we are a tool in God’s hand, rather than God being a tool in ours.
Paul sets the stage. Wanting to be empowered by the Spirit in order to show God’s love is a good thing, but he corrects them because of the overuse of the ecstatic gift of Tongues.
Paul sums it up nicely at the end of the chapter—the theme: “everything must be done decently and in order.” The Corinthians were so misusing Tongues that it threw their worship service into disarray.
Over the next 25 verses he is basically saying: “say something people can understand and be edified by, or say nothing at all!”
What is prophecy, then? Pro-phe’-tes in its original form meant “one who proclaims.” It can encompass a wide range of things from declaring God’s truth, to a spontaneous utterance (probably in view here) to actually predicting the future (because, after all, there is no future to God).
Paul’s point is that anything spoken in a way that could be understood was superior to Tongues.
This is probably not the Tongues used in Acts 2. There, the apostles spoke in languages that were understood and was used as a sign to them. Paul will get to that in verse 22. But this gift is of a language no one knows. It is directed toward God in prayer or praise. No one else can understand so you are not helping anyone. One rendering says “it is all mysterious”—meaning “it’s all Greek to me!”
We come then to the heart of the matter—that our purpose in the church is to do three things:
Edification – it means to build something concretely. Is what you say going to make them stronger in the ways of the Lord?
Encouragement—means to exhort someone to a future action—in this case, of course, to trust more in the Lord and become more like Him.
Consolation—this word is related to encouragement but is looking back, comforting for what has happened in the past.
In a way you could look at these in reverse order. Prophecy can comfort for the failures and trials of the past, encourage to press on in Jesus to a good future, and then point to ways and means for that to occur. Prophecy can be future telling, but is not that most of the time.
It is true that using your prayer language, speaking in tongues, you do build yourself up as you spirit prays to and praises God. But our aim in the church should always be to build others up, and not just ourselves.
Paul again emphasizes that unless there is someone to interpret what is being spoken in tongues, then prophecy is “greater” or of more value than Tongues. It is a real gift, however, and Paul doesn’t cut it down. Used properly it is a wonderful thing. Used improperly, it can break down and push people away from Christ.