Think of a time when you were helped in your walk with Christ by what other believers said. Give thanks to God for that experience as you recall it.
Intelligibility in worship
14 Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. 2 For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. 3 But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. 4 Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. 5 I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified.
6 Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? 7 Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the pipe or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? 8 Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? 9 So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. 10 Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. 11 If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker is a foreigner to me. 12 So it is with you. Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church.
13 For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. 15 So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. 16 Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an enquirer, say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying? 17 You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified.
18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.
The church in Corinth was not healthy, for its members were focused on their individual spiritual experience. Having re-centred them on love (chapter 13), Paul now directs them to build up their community of believers, rather than thinking only of themselves (v 12). This means that intelligible worship is vital. Speaking in unknown languages is fine for personal upbuilding (v 4), and Paul himself exercises this gift (v 18). But when the community of believers meets, the key question is whether others are being helped to grow in their faith. Growing requires that people understand what is said when the church meets; in that situation, Paul values prophecy over tongues-speech (vs 2–4).
Paul unpacks the importance of being understood with a series of illustrations (vs 6–12). Reflect on them, and consider if and how your church’s life falls into the trap of making the gospel culturally unintelligible.
Head and heart, mind and spirit go together in the Christian life (v 15). Paul invites us to consider how we help each other renew our minds in a Christ-centred way when we meet together – and that affects both how we act during a church meeting, and how we act over coffee afterwards.
Pray that your church will increasingly be a place where people learn and grow in their faith through good, upbuilding speech – in both services and more informal settings.
Deeper Bible study
Thank God that in Christ he has ‘pursued’ you. His love has found you. Ask that your life may be filled with his love.
So, if we’re called to love as Jesus loves, what does that mean for our practice of spiritual gifts? Paul now turns to address that question. Once we understand that this is what he’s doing, the different parts of his argument fall into place.
The burden of the passage is captured in verse 12: aim to ‘excel’ in the gifts that ‘build up’ the church. Paul is particularly concerned to commend prophecy. His comment that it promotes ‘strengthening’, ‘encouragement’ and ‘comfort’ (v 3) suggests a wide understanding of ‘prophecy’. It surely includes prophetic preaching, but it could also apply to a word of encouragement or comfort spoken informally to a fellow believer. The injunction to ‘build up’ has a wider application too, hence Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of verse 12 (The Message): ‘Since you’re so eager to participate in what God is doing, why don’t you concentrate on doing what helps everyone in the church?’ While some gifts have more potential to build others up, we can use any gift or talent selfishly, or as God intends – namely for the benefit of others.
Note that the concern for others is not limited to ‘believers’; it is extended to ‘unbelievers’ too (vs 22–25). The Corinthians were self-indulgent in their practice of tongues. Not only were they not building one another up, they were in danger of putting off ‘enquirers’ who would be bewildered by their worship times (v 23). Such a cavalier attitude disregards what we recognise now as one of Paul’s great concerns, the priority of ‘others’. Do our worship services commend Christ to outsiders? A good question to ask is, ‘Would I bring my friends and colleagues here?’ Paul begins this section by saying ‘Follow the way of love’ (v 1). Let’s apply that principle to all we do.
‘Follow the way of love.’ What difference would this principle make if we applied it to our discipleship in the church and wider world?
Bible in a year
Read the Bible in a year: Jeremiah 21,22; Psalms 117,118
Pray for Scripture Union
Give thanks too for all who have committed, with the blessing of their church, to become Faith Guides and journey with children and young people as they discover more about Jesus. (This week's prayers relate to this article)