If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church. – 1 Corinthians 14:7-12 ESV
Paul is not attempting to prioritize one gift over another. He is simply trying to point out the community mindset that should always be dictate the use of the gifts. They are meant for the body of Christ, not the individual. The gift of tongues, if used in a corporate context, but without interpretation, would be useless to those who heard it. It would be unintelligible and, therefore, of little or no value to them spiritually. As Paul mentioned earlier, the unknown language was not the point, but the message it conveyed. God gave the gifts for a purpose: to build up the body of Christ. There was a time and place for each of them to be utilized. To speak in a language no one in the audience understands would be inappropriate and unnecessary. It would have no purpose. In fact, it could end up being confusing. Paul compares it to a military bugler calling the army to battle, but playing a tune no one understands or recognizes. The result would be potentially devastating.
How is anyone going to enjoy a tune being played if the notes themselves are unrecognizable? You will hear sounds, but they will be unknown to you and the tune attempting to be played will go unrecognized. Paul seems to be indicating that there is to be a purpose behind the use of tongues. God is conveying a message through the gift, but if it comes across as unintelligible to the hearers, its value is lost. Once again, Paul is trying to point out the value of the content or message. Look closely at what he says:
Even lifeless instruments like the flute or the harp must play the notes clearly, or no one will recognize the melody. – 1 Corinthians 14:7 NLT
All of this reminds me of a contemporary worship service where the music team is playing a song that no one knows and the leader is encouraging the congregation to sing along. But the tune and the lyrics are unfamiliar to them. While the worship band plays and sings with skill and confidence, the congregation is lost and unable to join in with enthusiasm. They become spectators, watching and listening, but failing to participate in the worship experience as intended. Now, imagine being in that same situation, but the band is singing in a foreign language. They are gifted, skilled, energetic and well-intentioned. The song they are playing has wonderful lyrics with a powerful message. But the audience does not understand a word that is being said. How will they benefit from the experience? How will the content of the song being played have an impact if they cannot understand the words being sung?
Paul says, “It’s the same for you. If you speak to people in words they don’t understand, how will they know what you are saying? You might as well be talking into empty space” (1 Corinthians 14:9 NLT). The objective should always be communication and comprehension for the purpose of edification. When it comes to the gifts, Paul says “seek those that will strengthen the whole church” (1 Corinthians 14:12 NLT). But the New Living Translation actually conveys an unintended message in their translation of this verse. It seems as if Paul is encouraging the Corinthians to seek out or to pursue particular gifts, as if it is somehow up to their discretion, but earlier in this same letter, he made it quite clear that the gifts are given by the Spirit. Back in chapter 12, Paul wrote, “It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts. He alone decides which gift each person should have” (1 Corinthians 12:11 NLT). We don’t get to chose our gift, it is given to us by the Spirit of God.
In the original Greek, Paul is essentially saying, “In your eagerness to have a spiritual gift, make sure you don’t forget that their purpose is to build up the church.” The Corinthians were looking at the gifts from a selfish perspective, desiring particular gifts because of the perceived status they carried with them. They desired the more flamboyant gifts. But Paul is reminding them that God’s purpose behind the gifts is the spiritual edification of others, not the prideful elevation of the one with the gift. Three times in the first 12 verses, Paul emphasizes the building up of the body of Christ – the church.
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
For prophecy is greater than speaking in tongues, unless someone interprets what you are saying so that the whole church will be strengthened. – 1 Corinthians 14:5 NLT
Since you are so eager to have the special abilities the Spirit gives, seek those that will strengthen the whole church. – 1 Corinthians 14:12 NLT
Paul emphasized the same thing in his letter to the church in Ephesus. “Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-12 NLT). Earlier in this letter, Paul wrote a very similar thing:
All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it. Here are some of the parts God has appointed for the church:
first are apostles,
second are prophets,
third are teachers,
then those who do miracles,
those who have the gift of healing,
those who can help others,
those who have the gift of leadership,
those who speak in unknown languages. – 1 Corinthians 12:27-28 NLT
God the Father has appointed the gifts to be given to the church. But it required the life of His Son, Jesus Christ, be sacrificed before the gifts could be given. And once Jesus was resurrected the Holy Spirit was free to distribute the gifts as He deems necessary, for the good of the body of Christ. As a believer in Jesus Christ, your giftedness is guaranteed. And the objective behind your giftedness is clear: The building up of the body of Christ. When God saved you, He placed you within the body of Christ. He made you part of His family, the community of believers. Your presence within that corporate body is God-ordained, and your mission is clear. You are to use the gift given to you by the Spirit to help build up, edify, encourage and strengthen those around you.
Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other. – Romans 12:4-5 NLT