Rules for Prophecy and Speaking in Tongues Part 1

This blog post is a continuation of a miniseries on the spiritual gifts. If you’ve missed the previous posts, you can begin the miniseries here. We’ve been following Paul’s thought flow about worship, specifically the spiritual gifts within worship.

He has already covered preliminary principles for the gifts, the nine spiritual gifts used in public worship, more principles and then the foundation of love for all operations of the gifts. Now he will be more specific about the “higher gifts” (1 Corinthians 12:31).

These higher gifts that Paul will focus on are prophecy, speaking in tongues, and the interpretation of tongues. He will give further instruction to the Corinthian church, and also to us who read these chapters.

Paul has talked about the importance of all of the gifts of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12. He has laid out principles for practicing these gifts in public meetings. Then he explained the importance of love as the basis for everything we do, including the gifts in 1 Corinthians 13. Now he is going to go deep in his teaching and explain some protocols for orderly worship with the gifts.

Public Tongues and Prophecy (1 Corinthians 14:1-25)

Many have given speaking in tongues an unfair shake because they misunderstand the historical and cultural context of this chapter. Paul singled out prophecy and tongues just Corinthians misused these gifts.

They believed that speaking in tongues was the greatest spiritual gift. Because of its exotic nature, everyone in Corinth wanted to speak in tongues. But they weren’t interpreting what was said in the service.

So Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 14 to clarify the issues and tell them what the greatest spiritual gift in a public service is. It’ll sound like Paul is dogging the gift of speaking in tongues. But he is actually qualifying its use in the service and its importance.

Remember that all gifts are important when they are used at the Spirit’s leading. The right gift for the right moment is always the best gift.

Seek to Prophesy (1 Corinthians 14:1-5)

“Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. 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. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. 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.” (1 Corinthians 14:1–5, ESV)

Paul transitions from talking about love as the foundation for the operation of the spiritual gifts and links chapter 12 with chapter 14 again. This doesn’t mean chapter 13 doesn’t belong. It is crucial. But Paul transitions from 13 to remind us of chapter 12.

For the second time he tells us to earnestly desire spiritual gifts. And then he focuses in on prophecy as especially helpful to the body of Christ. The key principle is spiritual gifts in public must edify, encourage, exhort, and comfort the body of Christ.

Paul gives his reasons for why prophecy is a higher gift than speaking in tongues and interpretation. Without interpretation, speaking in tongues is directed to God instead of others in the meeting (1 Corinthians 12:2). This is not a problem in communication with God, but it doesn’t help the body of Christ without interpretation in public.

Not so for the prophetic gift. It’s already in the native language of the community. They can understand every word (1 Corinthians 12:3). Speaking in tongues builds up the individual but prophecy builds up the body (1 Corinthians 12:4).

Speaking in tongues is not a useless gift. In private, it builds up our spirits. We have an intimacy with God like no other. But in public, speaking in tongues is only helpful when it is interpreted. Unlike prophecy, it requires a companion gift to benefit the church.

In case it begins to seem like Paul is down on the gift of speaking in tongues, in 1 Corinthians 12:5 he declares that he wants every believer to speak in tongues. But in public, prophecy builds up the church. Speaking in tongues must have interpretation to build up the church.

Tongues Without Interpretation (1 Corinthians 14:6-12)

“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? If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? 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. There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, 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. So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:6–12, ESV)

Paul clarifies that tongues without interpretation in a public meeting is unhelpful for the church. He uses illustrations of instruments that just make noise if they are not played properly. People can’t enjoy the music if it is muddled.

Speaking in tongues has its place in private and in public. All speech has meaning but only if it is understood by its hearers (1 Corinthians 14:10-11). Like the Corinthians, we all should be eager to see the Spirit manifest himself and move in power through the gifts (1 Corinthians 14:12). But we must be able to interact with his message.

Tongues Benefits Your Spirit (1 Corinthians 14:13-19)

“Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. 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. 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? For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up. I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (1 Corinthians 14:13–19, ESV)

In Corinth, people publicly spoke in tongues without interpretation. They used their private prayer language for their own edification and it disrupted the Spirit’s work in the service. It became a place of chaos instead of order.

Because tongues requires interpretation, the one who speaks in tongues may pray for the interpretation (1 Corinthians 14:13). Sometimes people with the gift of speaking in tongues also have the gift of interpretation. Other times, there must be another person with the gift of interpretation. Either way, tongues must be interpreted in the public setting.

In this section, Paul speaks on the subject of the personal prayer language of tongues. When a believer is baptized in the Holy Spirit, the first thing they will do is speak in tongues. Speaking in tongues remains with the believer after Spirit baptism.

This same language is used for your prayer language and if you have the public gift of speaking in tongues. It will sound the same. But the Spirit has a different purpose and use for the public gift. Personal tongues is spirit to Spirit communication while the gift of tongues is spirit to body.

What happens when we speak in tongues in our personal prayer language? Just as the body is edified by the message that is interpreted, we don’t need to interpret our personal tongues because they edify our spirit. Our spirit benefits from intercession with God’s Spirit (Romans 8:26-28). It also benefits by giving thanks to God (1 Corinthians 14:16-17).

Praying in our prayer language doesn’t demonstrate love when it’s not interpreted for others in public. Paul talks about edifying our minds and spirits at the same time. We can pray in tongues and edify our spirit and we can think about God with our minds (1 Corinthians 14:15). I often find myself switching between the two.

He also talks about singing with our spirits and singing with our minds (1 Corinthians 14:15). There is something beautiful and intimate when the Spirit gives us songs (Jude 20). But what edifies our spirits personally doesn’t edify those around us in a public meeting (1 Corinthians 14:16-17).

It must be intelligible speech for others to agree with us in our worship. There is nothing wrong with using your personal prayer language in a public service. But you must not make it the focal point of the service or it will be distracting to what the Spirit wants to do.

Paul says that out of love we should want to speak intelligible words to others no matter how much we use our personal prayer language (1 Corinthians 14:18-19). Paul doesn’t discourage using our personal prayer language. He is saying that when we love others we speak intelligibly when they are with us.

It’s annoying when you answer your phone in a public place. You have your own personal conversation going but everyone else is annoyed because you are disrupting everything else that is happening around you.

Tongues Are a Sign for Unbelievers (1 Corinthians 14:20-25)

“Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. In the Law it is written, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.” (1 Corinthians 14:20–25, ESV)

When we use spiritual gifts, we must be mature in the way that we handle our gift and take instruction. We must be innocent of evil but wise in using our gifts. (1 Corinthians 14:20).

Paul’s quote from Isaiah may confuse us about speaking in tongues. But Paul quotes this verse because the Israelites in Isaiah’s time couldn’t understand his message to them. It was like he was speaking a foreign language. God’s message of blessing could not be understood by their unbelieving hearts.

In the same way, when unbelievers hear a message in tongues, they can’t understand it. It makes them realize they are separated from God and can’t understand God. Some people don’t use tongues in a service because it might turn off visitors. But God can use this wonderful gift to show them that they are separated from him and need him.

Unbelievers can understand the supernatural nature of speaking in tongues. Tongues may draw their interest to God. Prophecy also does this. It speaks to believers, but unbelievers can be unimpressed with it unless it pierces their heart (1 Corinthians 14:22-25).

The Spirit can use our gifts however he wishes. But we must be obedient to use them, listening to the Spirit, and ready when he prompts us to use these gifts. Not using tongues and prophecy because of visitors is a form of quenching the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19). It grieves the Spirit to not speak to us (Ephesians 4:30).

Principles for Practice

  • In the public setting, prophecy is greater than tongues because it builds up believers immediately. Tongues is useful when interpreted.
  • Speaking in tongues is valuable personally. Publicly, it must be interpreted to be valuable to the church.
  • Personal prayer language in tongues benefits our spirits. Public speaking in tongues with interpretation benefits the church.
  • Personal tongues is spirit to Spirit communication. The public gift of tongues is Spirit to body communication.
  • Personal prayer language in tongues benefits your spirit through Thanksgiving to God and intercession with the Spirit.
  • We must be wise and mature in our use of the spiritual gifts in public settings.
  • The Holy Spirit uses our gifts for unbelievers however he wishes. Both speaking in tongues and prophecy can benefit unbelievers.

Image by Ryan Morrison from Pixabay

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