The believers in Corinth liked to speak in tongues, but Paul encouraged them to focus instead on gifts that build up the church. He explains why the gift of prophesying is better than tongues for use in church meetings.
Does anyone understand? (verses 13-17)
Believers meet together in order to build one another up (v. 26). But tongues are of private value; they do not help others. So Paul exhorts, “the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say.” If they speak in tongues, they should desire that their words be explained.
“For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.” People who speak in tongues edify themselves (v. 4), but their minds are not producing any other fruit, or any other results.
Paul asks, “So what shall I do?” What is the practical action in this situation? It is to pray and to be fruitful: “I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding.” Tongues edify the speaker in a non-cognitive way, but they do not help others understand.
“I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding.” Will he alternate between tongues one minute and interpretation the next? Perhaps. But he can pray with his spirit or sing with his spirit and with understanding all at the same time, with normal words.
“Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit [in tongues], how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an inquirer, say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying?” If other people don’t know what the words mean, they cannot indicate agreement. They are like outsiders, excluded from the praise.
“You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified.” Tongues are good for private use, but not for public praise and prayer.
Do people respond with belief? (verses 18-25)
Paul knows both sides of the issue: “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.” Even though Paul spoke tongues privately, he says, “in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.” Church meetings are a place for instruction, not for using a gift that does not edify others.
He chides them, “Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.” When they use a spiritual gift for self-exaltation, they are being childish.
Tongues do not help other believers, but could they help unbelievers? To address that point, Paul quotes Isaiah 28:11-12: “With other tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.”
Isaiah was talking about the Jews being conquered by enemy nations, and in that circumstance God used other languages to speak to the people, who were essentially unbelievers. But they did not respond to Babylonian words any better than they did to Hebrew words. Paul concludes: “Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers…”
“Prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers.” When God inspires people to prophesy, he speaks to people who will respond. It is the same in the church, Paul implies. Prophecy, or inspired words of instruction, is the appropriate gift for speaking to believers.
“If the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” The visitors would hear many sounds, but would also see that no one understood anyone else. It would seem pointless, and it could repel them.
“But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare.” Prophecy helps people understand what sin is, and helps them admit they fall short and need a Savior.
So it leads to conversion and belief: “They will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!’” Prophecy is the appropriate gift to help unbelievers, too.
The Greeks had a word for it: oικoδoµή
Oikodomē comes from Greek words for “house” and “build.” It may be used in its literal sense, for constructing a house, or repairing a building. But it is often used in a figurative way, as a metaphor for helping people. Paul uses it in 1 Cor. 14:26: “Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.” He is not talking about constructing a building—he is referring to helping other people.
But what does it mean to “build” another person? The Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains gives this paraphrase: “to increase the potential of someone or something, with focus upon the process involved – ‘to strengthen, to make more able, to build up.’” In 2 Cor. 13:10, Paul refers to his God-given authority “for building you up, not for tearing you down.”
Author: Michael Morrison, 2011, 2013