Read the passage here.
Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve been continuing our journey through 1 Corinthians, looking at chapters 12-14, in particular. As you recall, these chapters involve Paul dealing with questions around spiritual gifts. And the basic issue Paul seems to be addressing is an attitude among the Corinthians that certain spiritual gifts are better than others, and that therefore those who display certain spiritual gifts are better, or more spiritual, than others. So Paul’s response so far entails:
- Ch. 12 – Paul asserts that there is no gift that is better or more important than any others. All are necessary for the well-being of the Body.
- Ch. 13 is the famous “Love chapter.” And here, Paul asserts that love is more important than any spiritual gifts. Presumably, Paul emphasizes this precisely because the actions and attitudes of some in the congregation are precisely not loving one another.
- And that brings us to chapter 14, the first part of which we are looking at today. Here, as we will see, Paul again picks up the argument that Spiritual gifts are for the benefit or edification of the Body. So let’s take a closer look at that today.
So again, here Paul picks up an assertion that he previously made in chapter 12. There, in 12:7, Paul says, “7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good”. The point that Paul is making in chapter 12 is that there is no reason to desire certain gifts over others; or to dismiss or disparage certain gifts over others. All gifts are given for the Body, says Paul, and all gifts are necessary for the Body. Though each gift is different, like each body part is different, they are all for the good of the Body.
So with that in mind, in our passage today, Paul seems to be picking up a particular issue in the Corinthian church – a particular instance of some gifts being honoured over others. Specifically, it seems that the gift of speaking in tongues has gained a reputation as being the most important, or the highest gift. Remember in last week’s passage, Paul begins the chapter with the words, “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” And this seems to indicate something of the Corinthians’ understanding – they believe that the gift of tongues is an angelic language. Again, we’re speculating a little bit here, but it seems that they think the gift of tongues indicates something like the highest state of spirituality.
Now in the very next verse in chapter 13, Paul also says, “2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” And I point that out because of Paul’s comparison in our chapter today between tongues and prophecy.
And so, Paul’s point isn’t something like, “tongues isn’t the highest gift, prophecy is.” Rather it’s more like, “Love is more important than either tongues or prophecy (among other things), but at least prophecy is beneficial to the Body.”
So by that circuitous route, we arrive back at what Paul’s point seems to be here – that is, that the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.
Now if we look at the structure of the passage, we might get something like this. Keeping in mind the overarching argument, that Prophecy is preferable to Tongues:
- In vv. 1-5: Paul says that prophecy is preferable to tongues, because prophecy edifies the Body/church.
- vv. 6-12: Paul expands on this. He says tongues without interpretation is unintelligible – therefore, what good is it? (This foreshadows the verses at the end of this chapter which we will look at next week).
- vv. 13-19: Here, Paul says that the one with tongues should pray for interpretation. And this is important because, on the one hand, Paul is in no ways saying that tongues are bad. But he is emphasizing that the desire should be to serve and edify the body.
- vv. 20-21: From here, Paul makes a reference to Isaiah 28:11,12. And of course this deserves a lot more attention, not least because Paul makes some interpretive choices around the Isaiah passage. However, the overall point seems to be that tongues cannot reveal God to foreigners. In other words, Paul is introducing another way that spiritual gifts should be of use – i.e. to reveal God to those who don’t know God. That is, spiritual gifts are used in missions. And again, without interpretation, tongues are not useful also to those outside of the Body. For example, whereas those who are part of the Body will recognize tongues as a gift of the Holy Spirit, even if they don’t understand the utterances, those outside of the Body won’t even appreciate that much.
- vv. 22-25 (together with above?): Now these verses deserve a lot more attention precisely because they are so difficult. Because the straightforward reading seems to reveal a contradiction in vv. 22 and the rest of the paragraph. In short, the difficulty is that in v. 22, Paul says that tongues are for unbelievers, not believers, and that prophecy is for believers and not for unbelievers. But in the very next verses (23-25), Paul seems to say the exact opposite.
Now I want to reiterate that this is quite a difficult problem with not a lot of agreement among the commentators on how to proceed. And I don’t want to get hung up here and spend a lot of time on it. However, following Fee (for the most part), it seems to me that we have to take our lead from what the rest of the passage seems to be saying. And that is, that tongues without interpretation does not reveal God (in this case to foreigners or non-believers). This, of course is substantially what Paul says in vv. 23-25. And we can try to wrap our heads around the apparent contradiction in v. 22 by digging into the language, the use of the Isaiah passage, and other things, but again there doesn’t seem to be a definite solution to the issue. With that (insufficiently) said, we can sum up vv. 22-25 by saying that Tongues (without interpretation), then, does not bring outsiders to God, but prophecy can. Therefore, again, prophecy should be sought more or considered “better” than tongues.
Now once again, I want to reiterate that Paul’s point is not that there is indeed a hierarchy of spiritual gifts and that the Corinthians have simply gotten the order wrong (that would seem to contradict everything he’s said in the previous two chapters). That is, he’s not saying that prophecy instead of tongues is the best gift. What he seems to be addressing is a very specific attitude of the Corinthians that tongues are the highest spiritual gift – they are, after all, speaking in the language of angels – and that those who display the gift of tongues are of the highest “rank” of spirituality (or something like that). Again, he’s addressing the very human desire to compare. And so, prophecy becomes the example of how thinking of tongues as the highest gift is misguided – such a train of thought misunderstands what spiritual gifts are for and are about. Undoubtedly, Paul could have used another example to show the futility of admiring the gift of tongues and judging oneself and others by such gifts.
Again, for Paul, what matters is not what gifts or abilities or privileges I have. What matters is the building up of the Body of Christ. What matters is how the Body works and how the Body flourishes. In other words, how the people of God experience and live out what it means to be the people of God. If spiritual gifts don’t lead us in that direction, if they don’t help us do that, then what good are they?
Now I recognize that we have gone through all of that very quickly. But I hope that by this point, we have a pretty good idea of what Paul is talking about – especially in light of the greater context of chapters 12-14. Now of course, there are a few verses left in chapter 14 that we will look at next week – these have to do specifically with the practical issue of order or intelligibility in worship. But, again, I would hope that by now we have a pretty good idea of what Paul’s concerns are.
And if I can put it very simply – recognizing of course that I have my own particularities and biases – I might say that Paul wants to say that it’s not about you (or me), it’s about the Body of Christ. It’s not about me, it’s about the kingdom people. And, it’s not about what I get, it’s about what God is doing in all of creation.
We have talked a lot over the years about the importance of community. We have discussed how scripture tells us that God is not saving disparate, isolated individuals, but that He is creating a people. And we have talked about how we, as a people, are seeking to be a sign, an instrument, and a foretaste.
The challenge is (and to be sure, there are many) that in this broken, fallen, sinful world, it’s really hard to wrap our heads around this. Sure, we may understand it intellectually. We may agree with it in principle. But it’s really hard to actually let go of the central place in our lives. It’s really hard to actually see things from a different point of view. It’s really hard to let someone else, or something else, be the main character in our story.
And on this side of eternity, we will probably never fully work that out. But in the local church, we get the opportunity to practice that different perspective. Within the community, we have the chance to pay more attention to what God is doing in the Body than what He is doing for me.
(Now I’m not here saying that we need to be unduly self-deprecating or that we should be constantly beating ourselves up. And I’m not, for example, trivializing the importance of self-care. I’m simply saying that the tendency in our (especially) western society is to think that “I” am the most important thing; that I am the only important thing.)
What I am trying to say, at least in part, is that we can put more effort and more time into thinking about how we can bless one another. As we’ve also talked about on numerous occasions, one of the consequences of a western, capitalist, industrial society is that we may have a tendency to think about church in terms of “what do I get out of it?” We shop for churches in much the same way that we shop for a hair salon, or a garage, or a supermarket. The primary question is often akin to (if not identical with) how do I get the most bang for the buck?
Instead, I am asking us to think about what we can bring to one another. How can we bless one another? How do I support, encourage, and give to the Body of Christ for the sake of the Kingdom?
Now bear in mind, I am not saying, “how do I make myself the center of attention in this community? How do I make myself an object of admiration among others?” This is very much what the Corinthians seem to be doing. Rather, how can we genuinely think of others before we think of ourselves?