In talking about spiritual gifts Paul seeks to bring harmony in an area of contention and confusion in the church’s life. In the last fifty years we’ve managed to get more confused and contentious once more over these verses. Let’s attempt, then, to trace the core lessons here without falling out or getting more confused. The health of the church depends upon it.
The big thing about tongues is that it they’re a gift which doesn’t benefit anyone apart from the speaker: “he utters mysteries with his spirit” (v.2), and who knows what he’s saying? The contrast with prophecies, where the speaker addresses the church and not God, is obvious, and so the church is edified, rather than the speaker (v.4). Prophecy, therefore, is the superior gift.
Paul’s own burden was always to build others up, and that shaped the gifts he used (v.6). He wants all believers to have the same conviction. The conclusion of vv.7-12 is simple: “try to excel in gifts that build up the church.” Some of us have enjoyed experiences which we have identified as tongue-speaking, or have heard them in Christian worship or other gatherings, exciting or impressive as this may have been. Paul is urging us to see that the Spirit of God doesn’t want to give us impressive experiences, He wants to impress His truth upon God’s people. So prophecy is superior to tongues, as a word to the church always outweighs a personal experience which doesn’t serve others.
Paul is surprisingly robust in his criticism of the tongue-speaking he observes at Corinth: tongue-speaking involves an “unfruitful mind” (v.14), no one can say “Amen” to your tongue-speaking (v.16), the man next to you “is not edified” (v.17). It’s a picture of individual enjoyment, but corporate disengagement; hence Paul’s comment that he would rather speak five intelligible words to teach others than thousands in an uninstructive tongue (vv.18-19).
And now here’s the punch: “grow up!” is the charge of v.20. Tongues, a precious gift of God which the Corinthians are getting obsessed as well as divided by, are actually a sign of God’s judgement, Paul insists. Paul quotes a passage in Isaiah in v.21 as he sees tongues as referencing the imminent judgment of God. Just think about that: it’s a “game-changer”, as they say. But we need to think about that, Paul is saying: “tongues are a sign for unbelievers” (v.22). They are a sign that God is working in His people in ways the unbeliever doesn’t yet experience, and is alien to. They are the sign of God doing something new different, just as the foreign voices invading God’s land in Isaiah’s day were a sign of God doing something new, namely, bringing judgement.
Think of Pentecost. When the Spirit came, bringing the new age of the reign of Christ, He brought tongues to the disciples in Jerusalem, and their message was heard by all. The praises of God which came in tongues was a message of praise to God for His salvation. The work of Christ now brings challenge, the call to repent or else to face judgement. Unbelievers need to hear that message, the message of the Gospel. At the moment they are under God’s judgement, even as they listen to the tongues. They need the Gospel, and when they hear that in prophecy they can encounter the Living God in His Word, for their salvation (vv.22-25).
Tomorrow we’ll think more about spiritual gifts. For now, though, there three things to reflect on:
- Spiritual gifts are inferior to spiritual obedience. Even if God were at work in the Corinthians, they were called to be obedient to God’s Word. Paul teaches us that if we have any gifts, we must use them as God directs – or not at all. That call stands today, and we must apply it to our hearts. Do we only want to receive from God, but not want to obey Him?
- Spiritual gifts are for the good of others. Your gifting is for another’s building up. Never forget that.
- Spiritual gifts best practiced show unbelievers who Christ is. Paul expects unbelievers to be present when Christians are at worship. He then expects us to be worshipping and learning in ways which are intelligible to them (as the Spirit works, or course).
These three lessons teach us that God gifts His church for our service, calls us to serve one another, and plans to use our worship to bring the lost into His Kingdom. May it be so.