1 Corinthians 14

1 Corinthians 14

(Note:  Restored post 8/28/2010.  I’m not sure when part of it was lost, but presumably during a database upgrade.)

1Pursue love. Be zealous about spiritual things, but even more that you might prophesy.

Greek pneumatika (pneumatika) = spiritual things.

Again I suggest “spiritual things”? or “spirituality.”? A thought by thought translation would be:

“Pursue love, strive for spirituality, but especially that you may prophesy.”?

One may object that “prophesy”? moves from the general (spiritual gifts) to the specific and thus completes a sequence, but since “love”? begins the sequence I don’t think that is Paul’s point at all. He has just said that love is the greatest gift and he has pointed out that the presence of spiritual gifts do not successfully distinguish the spiritual person (13:1-3). He has proceeded to point out visible characteristics which distinguish love (13:4-7). He then points out the limitations of gifts and knowledge in showing true maturity and places love at the top of the list. I believe it is at the top of the list in helping to discern who is the spiritually mature person.

Then in chapter 14, he illustrates using spiritual gifts. You need to pursue spirituality, he is saying, but spirituality in itself will show nothing. What one needs to do is pursue the gifts that build, and he uses prophecy as the key example gift in his point. Note that he doesn’t compare it to other gifts in general; he compares it to another “speaking”? gift in order to show how one discerns the spiritually mature person. The spiritually mature person is the one who uses the gifts to build the church because that is the way that love (which we are to pursue) would behave.

2For the person who speaks in a tongue doesn’t speak to people, but to God, because nobody can understand. Rather, he speaks mysteries in the Spirit. 3But the person who prophesies speaks words that build, encourage, and console.

Verses 2 & 3 establish the contrast between tongues and prophecy, but Paul is not solely intent on comparing these gifts, but on applying the love principles of chapter 13 to discerning spirituality. Tongues is personal and does not build up the church as a whole. Prophecy builds, encourages and consoles.

Since he has established already that love is not just above prophecy, but is actually of a completely different order, he will now show how prophecy (or any other gift properly used) can be used in such a way as to conform to and produce love, and thus be a “greater”? (12:31) gift.

4The person who speaks in a tongue builds himself up, but the one who prophesies builds the church.

Verse 4 now makes this explicit. Tongues build up the individual; prophecy builds the church. The body metaphor in 12:12-26 has shown that building the whole body is the better plan.

5I wish that you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you could prophesy, because the one who prophesies is greater than the one speaking in tongues, unless there is someone to interpret, so that the church can receive a constructive (building) message.

6But now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you speaking in tongues, what good is it to you unless I speak some revelation, or knowledge, or prophecy, or teaching? 7Similarly, when musical instruments are played, whether a flute or a harp, how can one distinguish what is being played unless the notes are played distinctly? 8For if the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who will prepare for war? 9Thus also in your case, when you speak in a tongue that is not intelligible, how can anyone understand what is said? You’re speaking to the air!
10There are many different sounds in the world, and none of them are without some intent.

Greek afwnon (aphonon) = without sound

There is some controversy over translation of verse 10. I suggest the REB: “There are any number of different languages in the world; nowhere is without language.”? Or the CEV: “There are many different languages in the world, and all of them make sense.”? I think the CEV translation can be justified if you compare it to 12:2, and see it as a link between the introduction to chapter 12 and the discussion in chapter 14.

11So if I don’t understand the intent of the sound, I will be a barbarian to the one speaking and the one speaking will be like a barbarian to me. 12It’s the same way in your case, since you are zealous for spiritual things, aim to grow in a way that builds up the church.

Greek zhlwtai (zelotai) = those who strive, cf 12:31.
“You are, I know, eager for gifts of the Spirit; then aspire above all to excel in those which build up the church”? (REB)
“If you really want spiritual gifts, choose the ones that will be most helpful to the church.”? (CEV)

13So let the one who speaks in tongues pray that he might interpret. 14For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is not fruitful. 15So what shall I do? I will pray in the (my) spirit, but I will also pray in my mind. I will sing in the (my) spirit, but I will also sing with my mind. 16Because if you praising in the spirit, how will the one who doesn’t know what’s going on be able to say, “Amen!” to the praise, since he doesn’t know what you’ve said? 17You may have been praising quite well, but the other person is not built up. 18I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.

Compare the CEV translation for 16 & 17: “Suppose some strangers are in your worship service, when you are praising God with your spirit. If they don’t understand you, how will they know to say, ‘Amen’? (17) You may be worshiping God in a wonderful way, but no one else will be helped.”?

This translation catches the strong contrast Paul is making between spirituality which is for yourself and that which is designed to build the body.

Paul acknowledges the gift of tongues and some value in personal spiritual life, but subordinates it to the building activities which are the theme of chapter 14. The building activities are the manifestation of love through the characteristics given in 13:4-7. In particular love does not seek its own way, so how could it be zealously seeking greater gifts? How could it tell what were the greater gifts except in terms of how they build others?

19But in the church I would rather say five words with my mind, so that others could lean, than 10,000 words in a tongue.

20Brothers and sisters, Don’t be children in your thinking, but be babes in terms of evil; with your minds be mature.

Greek paidia ginesqe (paidia ginesthe) = become childish
Greek nhpiazete (nepiazete) = act like children

21It is written in the law:

In other tongues
and with other sounds
I will speak to this people
And thus they will not listen to me,
says the Lord. 22Thus tongues are a sign not to those who believe, but to those who do not believe, but prophecy is a sign not to the unbelievers, but to the believers. 23If then the whole congregation comes together, and all of you speak in tongues, and someone unacquainted with you, or an unbeliever comes in, won’t he say that you are crazy? 24But if you are all prophesying, and an unbeliever or a person unacquainted with you comes in, he’ll be rebuked by all and examined by all, 25the hidden things of his heart will become open, and thus he will fall on his face and worship God, proclaiming, “Surely God is among you!”

Isaiah 28:11 & 12. In order to follow Paul’s logic I think it is necessary to follow Isaiah’s logic. Isaiah says that God will speak in nonsense syllables to those who are unwilling to obey. These nonsense syllables will lead the people to “go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken.”? This is followed by the admonition to hear the word of the Lord. Isaiah is presenting this speaking in a foreign or incomprehensible language as something done to the disobedient or unfaithful, not to the faithful.

In fact, to make sense of Paul’s use of this passage, we need to see a bit of a play on words in the Greek.

“So tongues are a sign not to those who are believing (pisteuousin) but to the faithless (apistois) and prophecy not to the faithless, but to those who are believing.”? The present participle here should be taken with a strong continuous element, to include “those who are coming to believe.”?

Compare, however, the more detailed discussion by Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NICNT) on this passage.

(Verse 24) Greek apistoi (apistoi) = faithless or unbelievers

Here Paul switches on us the focus of apistoi from those who are faithless in receiving the message to those who simply lack belief, or the seeker. I consider this shift of focus to be the weakest point in my exegesis of verses 21-23, but it seems to me still the best explanation of a very difficult passage which has caused commentators to spill barrels of ink. I think the logic is no more difficult than Isaiah’s “God’s going to talk to you in foreign languages so you can’t understand, so listen!”?

Words which apply will confirm to the listener that God is present. This will lead to conviction and change.


Paul now distinguishes between different ways of using even those gifts he has already identified as positive and building.

26So what then, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, something in a tongue, an interpretation. Let everything be done for building!

Greek: oikodomhn (oikodomen) = building, a key word in Paul’s argument in chapter 14.

Some may have been wondering what to do about interpretation of tongues. If tongues are only for private use as Paul seems to be indicating above, then what is interpretation for? I believe this reinforces my hypothesis that Paul is not just talking about tongues and prophecy in this chapter; rather, he is taking prophecy as an example of a building gift, and tongues (without interpretation) as a personal gift. When one uses the gift of tongues (without interpretation) in a public place (where it doesn’t belong) that is simply pride and not building. Starting with verse 27 Paul apparently includes tongues with interpretation as a building gift.

We also find an occasion when prophecy is not a building gift, i.e. when it is self-seeking prophecy. To be building, any gift must be used in a way such that the gifted person “insist on its own way.”?

I find an additional point of interest in verse 26. In the modern church we use this chapter as a corrective to disorderly conduct in the church congregation. But this verse shows that we aren’t dealing with the same problem in most modern churches as they were in Corinth. Most Sunday mornings we don’t have people showing up at church bubbling over with what they have heard from the Lord during the week. Generally we come not with psalms, songs, or messages from the Lord but with a desire to relax in a comfortable seat and let someone else do all the work. We should wish we could have the problems of Corinth!!

27If someone speaks in a tongue, let them do it by turn, two or at the most three, and let one interpret. 28But if there is no interpreter, let that person keep silent in the congregation, and let him speak to God by himself.

This principle of building is illustrated in verses 27 and 28. If there is interpretation, there will be building, and it’s alright to use it. If not, keep silent. This basic principle is the touchstone. Paul says to “pursue love”? in 14:1, and then establishes the visible test of whether one is pursuing love as the “building”? test. Those pursuing love build.

29As for prophets, let two or three speak, and let the others discern. 30But if something is revealed to another who is sitting down, the first one needs to stop speaking.

Again, prophecy can be abused just as tongues can. If prophecy is presented in such a way that it doesn’t build up the church, then it too is not in accordance with love.

31For you can all prophesy one by one, so that everyone can learn and be encouraged. 32And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. 33For there is no rebellion with God, but rather peace.

Verse 31 challenges the common view that when the prophet has a message from God he or she cannot hold back, but must speak it out immediately. There are those who hold that this verse means that prophecies should be judged by other prophets. Some carry this further to suggest that those who are not prophets cannot “discern”? prophecy. In fact what Paul is saying is that each prophet has control of how he or she uses that gift. You are not forced to do disorderly things by the Holy Spirit. Again, the building test is used to discern love in action.

As in all the churches of the saints, 34Let the women be silent in the congregation. For it is not appropriate for them to speak, but rather to be in submission, just as the law says. 35And if women want to learn, let each ask her own husband at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in the congregation. 36 (Or did the word of God originate with you, or are you the only ones it’s gotten to?)

The issue here is order again. This is a case when wives ask questions of husbands while the church service is going on and not a matter of whether or not a woman could speak in the normal order of service. I suspect that women were also not a normal part of the Corinthian church service, but that only establishes the situation of the Corinthian church. The principle involved, as demonstrated in verse 35, is one of order leading to building.

Gordon Fee (op cit), on the other hand, believes that this passage is an interpolation, and he has some fairly substantive arguments in favor of his position.

37If anyone claims to be a prophet or a spiritual person, he should acknowledge the things I am writing, because they are a command of the Lord. 38And if anyone ignores it, let him be ignored! 39So, my brothers and sisters, be zealous to prophesy, and don’t forbid speaking in tongues. 40Let everything be done properly and in good order.

Since Paul is speaking under the guidance of the Spirit it is natural that he would expect others speaking under the Spirit’s guidance to agree with him.

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