So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. Now I want you all 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 built up. Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? – 1 Corinthians 13:13-14:1-6 ESV
Now Paul begins to differentiate between the gifts. He is not necessarily making one more important or more spiritual than another, but he is prioritizing them in terms of their particular benefit to the Body of Christ. Remember, he has just spent an entire chapter emphasizing the importance of love. Love is selfless and sacrificial. Those who practice godly love put the needs of others ahead of themselves. And the same should be true when they use their spiritual gift. Now, it seems that the Corinthians had so elevated the gift of tongues that it had become a problem within the church. And their practice of the gift was not in keeping with Paul’s admonition that love be the motivating factor behind all the gifts. For the Corinthians, the gift of tongues had become more desirable than all the other gifts. Evidently, they viewed that particular gift as more spiritual and therefore, more preferable. It was flashy and flamboyant. To be able to speak in an unknown tongue was sure to be an attention-getter. But that was a big part of the problem associated with their pursuit of the gift of tongues. Those who practiced it seemed to do so with the focus on self, rather than on the building up of the Body of Christ.
So while Paul encourages them to earnestly seek the spiritual gifts, he promotes prophecy over tongues. His explanation is simple and direct:
For if you have the ability to speak in tongues, you will be talking only to God, since people won’t be able to understand you. You will be speaking by the power of the Spirit, but it will all be mysterious. – 1 Corinthians 14:2 NLT
If no one is there who understands what you are saying, no one gets any benefit from your use of the gift. It will all be a mystery, known only to God. And while you may be speaking in the power of the Spirit of God, it will do nothing to build up those around you.
But one who prophesies strengthens others, encourages them, and comforts them. – 1 Corinthians 14:3 NLT
To prophesy meant to reveal truth from God that had not yet been revealed. It was a word from God intended for the benefit of the entire congregation. This gift was evident and necessary in the early days of the church before the canon of Scripture was complete. Those who had been given the gift of prophecy were to speak through the power of the Spirit of God for the benefit of the people of God. But tongues, at least as practiced by the Corinthians, was a more self-centered gift.
A person who speaks in tongues is strengthened personally, but one who speaks a word of prophecy strengthens the entire church. – 1 Corinthians 14:4 NLT
The one who speaks in an unknown tongue may receive a blessing from knowing that they are being used as an instrument of God, but if no one can understand what they are saying, the Body of Christ receives no benefit from it. But when someone prophesies, everyone gains from the experience. Remember what Paul said in the previous chapter? “If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-2 NLT). None of the gifts were of benefit if they were practiced without love. But tongues, because it involved speaking in an unknown language, was particularly troublesome. If you recall, the first time the gift of tongues was manifested in the church was at Pentecost.
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.
Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?” – Acts 2:1-8 ESV
The purpose behind this manifestation of the Spirit of God was the communication and comprehension of the gospel. The disciples spoke in languages they did not know, but for the benefit of the thousands of people who were there from other countries. There was no need for interpretation, because the hearers fully understood what was being said. In Corinth, the use of tongues had become self-centered and self-edifying. There were missing the point. At Pentecost, the people who heard the disciples speak in tongues, or foreign languages, were amazed. They said, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?” (Acts 2:7-8 NLT). But look closely and you will see that it was the substance of their message that got their attention, not the style. The very same people reacted, “‘we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.’ And all were amazed and perplexed” (Acts 2:11-12 NLT).
It was the content that was important, not the means by which it was delivered. For Paul, the bottom line was the spiritual edification of the church. The question to ask is, “how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching” (1 Corinthians 14:6 ESV). Speaking in a foreign tongue was of no benefit to anyone unless the message it contained was understandable and from God. We tend to think of the gifts of the Spirit as personal in nature. We seem to believe that our gift was given to us alone. But the gifts are given to individuals for the benefit of the community. My gift is for you. Your gift is for me. The one who received the gift is simply a conduit through whom God pours His blessings on others. As Paul told the Romans, when we practice our gifts in love, all will benefit.
In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you. If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well. If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly.
Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. – Romans 12:6-10 NLT