Building the church
Share a time when you experienced being a foreigner! (It could be when everyone around you was speaking another language, sharing an in-joke, or participating in an activity you had no idea how to do) How did it make you feel?
(This is a little sharper and more pointed… Share a time when you were almost completely selfish and did something for yourself at the expense of the needs of others. How did that play out?)
1 Corinthians 14 continues the discussion Paul began at 1 Corinthians 12:1 about spiritual gifts (or spiritual things). We know that the church of God in Corinth was divided, competitive and boastful. They would do almost anything to one-up each other and regularly acted in ways that were not loving. Having sought to open their eyes to the radical gifting of everyone in the church from God (12:7, 27) and the importance of each other and the inter-relatedness of each other (12:14, 20, 25), Paul turned his mind to the antidote to much of the Corinthian dramas in chapter 13. They were urged not just to “love each other” but to pursue the “way” of love (12:31, 14:1). With this new understanding of the “body” and of love in front of them, Paul turns in chapter 14 to (what looks like) a specific problem in Corinth – they have determined what the “greater gifts” (12:31) are, and they have determined incorrectly! In a tongues vs prophecy showdown, they have backed the wrong team and are causing more problems!
Read 1 Corinthians 14:1-25
What did you see? (Observation)
- The greater gift is prophecy (1-5)
- The importance of making sense in the church (6-12)
- Why this matters for believers (13-19)
- Why this matters for unbelievers (20-25)
The “greater gift” is prophecy (1-5)
“v.1…especially prophecy” Paul helpfully draws the threads of ch.12-13 together and makes his point – prophecy is the greater gift.
It will be important for your group to use careful interpretive (exegetical) skills from this point forward in this study. “Prophecy” and “tongues” both carry meanings throughout this passage that are carefully defined by the passage. If your group brings its own definitions to the text (ie. prophecy is predicting the future) they will get very confused. There is a great opportunity to help your group learn again how to be great Bible readers – encourage them to allow context to determine meaning. Tongues will be defined in v.2. Prophecy will be defined in v.3.
“v.2 speaks in a tongue” You will notice in your footnote that the text may also read “in another language”. There is a debate as to whether this use of the word “tongues” refers to other languages (like the experience of the apostles in Acts 2) or a spiritual language understood to have come from God. Again, let the context of verse 2 define the meaning not a footnote or a different passage referencing tongues or languages. What does this verse say? …to God…mysteries…
One of the questions often asked is whether the gift of tongues still exists. As you read this part of the Bible, you will see that there is no reason given in the text as to why it couldn’t. Some say that now we have the Bible we no longer need mysterious or miraculous gifts for we have the voice of God in the text. That is true, but it does not negate the gift nor God’s capacity to give it! This chapter regulates how tongues ought to be used in the church and when they ought not be. In the experience of many, where tongues are spoken today the teaching of this chapter is largely ignored. The goal of Paul is to ensure that gifts are used to build up the church and not confuse or divide.
“v.3…strengthening, encouraging, comfort” Prophecy is understandable and immediately applicable to the church. Tongues are mysterious and by themselves help no one.
“v.4 …themselves…the church” the crux of the matter. When a gift is being exercised in church (the body) it ought to be for the benefit of the body (12:7, 26-27). Prophecy does that. Tongues does not.
“v.5 …greater” the conclusion to the question of 12:31. But there is a caveat here – interpretation. The key to Paul’s thinking is …edified. Therein lies his goal for activity in the church. It ought to build up and grow the church, not just individuals (12:7). Anything that happens in the church that is not for the common good ought not happen. Note here that it looks like tongues+interpretation is of equal value to prophecy. Paul will have something to say about that in v.18-25.
The importance of making sense in the church (6-12)
“v.6…revelation…” There are many gifts of “greater” value than prophecy. Not all the gifts mentioned are easily defined but what is clear that whatever the 4 speaking gifts are here they are intelligible and “good” for the edification of the church (in comparison with unintelligible tongues).
“v.7-8…pipe… harp… trumpet…” Intelligibility and clarity of sound or noise is important for interpreting the tune or message.
“v.9 So it is with you” This is a verse that shows Paul is speaking into a Corinthian issue. They are gathering in church and some people are just “speaking into the air” and not intelligibly edifying (building up) each other.
“v.12…build up the church…” Selfishness and self-indulgence are excluded in the church. If only the Corinthians had heard this (and believed this) many years before. You may want to take a moment for the group to evaluate their own hearts and motives for serving in church. Do we serve to build up the church or build up ourselves.
Why this matters for believers (13-19)
“v.14…mind is unfruitful” I don’t think this indicates that the speaker is in a trance and their mind is blank or vacant, but that there is no learning or building up or encouragement or growth from words that do not make sense. Again, let the context guide your reading!
“v.15-16…understanding… Amen…” Note the variety of ways Paul is using words that are synonymous to make his point that body work ought to be for the common good. It may be worth going back and getting the group to see them all again and see that what we do in church is for each other and not just an individualistic journey of spiritual adventure and delight. We gather to edify each other!
“v.19…ten thousand words…” Tongues are not useless but neither are they super useful in the body. Intelligible words are better than everything else.
Why this matters for unbelievers (20-25)
It seems likely that Paul is seeking for another way to show the Corinthians that the high estimation they make of tongues is misplaced so turns his mind to unbelievers. These verses appear to be the most confusing in the passage as v.22 says that tongues are a sign for unbelievers but in v.23-25 unbelievers respond negatively to tongues. It would be a good exercise for the group to lean into this confusion and to see how they respond. We want to encourage our groups to grapple with difficulty and not just throw their hands up in the air despondent that the Bible is too confusing.
Don Carson articulates 7 separate ways of viewing this contradiction, all of which have difficulties. The most likely takes account of the Isaiah quote in v.21 (surprise, surprise, the context of the passage helps!). In the days of the prophet God spoke to his people in languages they could not understand and they still did not listen and were condemned. The other languages were a negative sign for the people that did not draw them to God but continued to push them away because of their hard heartedness. Spiritual tongues do the same. The unintelligible word makes them think that believers are out of their mind and that the Chirstian message is foolishness.
But when intelligible words are spoken (v.24) they are convicted of sin and can in the end come to know God (v.25).
It appears that the key to understanding v.22 is to recognise that: (a) the “sign” of tongues is not positive but negative. (b) the purpose of prophecy in v.22 (see the word “for” and the way it indicates purpose) is that there is benefit from prophecy for unbelievers, but it’s core purpose (v.3) is for believers. No unbeliever can come and worship God if what they are hearing is not intelligible and no believer can be built unless the word they hear is intelligible.
What did we learn? (Meaning)
The purpose of our time in church is to build each other up. We ought to show ongoing concern that all the activities that take place are for this purpose. Tongues were being exalted as a spiritual language that (perhaps) the Corinthians were claiming indicated a more spiritual person. Paul says no! Tongues are not helpful and ought only be used with an interceptor so that they can be helpful but the prophetic word is best! You may see resonances with the use of tongues today. Some people will argue that tongues are a sign of genuine faith or genuine conversion. What do you think Paul would say to that?
Now what? (Application)
Topic A: What is the sign of true conversion? Some churches have argued that true conversion to Christianity and following Jesus takes place when one experiences a baptism of the spirit that leads to speaking in tongues. What are the true signs of conversion according to this passage? What are the true signs of conversion according to other passages? How might you respond to a challenge to your conversion as to its authenticity?
Topic B: Building up the Church. What takes place in church that builds up (edifies)? What takes place in church that might not build up the body? What ought we do in church to further build up the body? How do you think an unbeliever would respond if you brought them to your church service last weekend? Where are our moments of unintelligiblity?
Topic C: How are you using your personal gifts? It is always worth pausing as we did at v.12. Are we using the gifts God has given us for the building up of the church or the puffing up of self or are we just sitting in the body waiting for others to serve us? Are we working for the common good or the personal good? How might you start a conversation with someone who looks to be making church all about themselves? How do you need to change to make sure the way you are doing church is actually about others?