So, how would Paul write 1 Corinthians 14 if he were using 21st century English instead of 1st century Greek? It may have sounded something like this:
“Eagerly pursue a love that shows preference and honor to others, and be deeply committed to spiritual gifts from God, especially prophecy - the ability to reveal the mind and message of God in a particular situation. Anyone who speaks in the tongues of a different language (from earth or heaven) does not always speak to other people in a way they can understand, even though they are speaking to God or on His behalf. Indeed, people who don’t understand them can’t learn anything from it; even though the message is from the Holy Spirit, it cannot be easily understood.
But the prophet - the one who clearly reveals God’s mind and message - speaks to people in a way that strengthens, encourages, and comforts. People who speak in a different language build their personal relationship with God, but the ones who prophesy build up the church. I would like every one of you to enjoy the gift of tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies does a greater service than the one who speaks in tongues (unless someone interprets) because the most important thing is that the church is built up.
Brothers and sisters, if I come to you and speak in another language - and I have that gift - what will be the benefit unless I reveal Christ, communicate the truth of His Word, teach you the core beliefs of our faith, and show you how to apply this wisdom to life? When musical instruments like a pipe or harp make a sound, can you tell what tune is being played if all the musicians play whatever they want, whenever they want? Or if the army’s trumpeter does not play a clear message for the troops, will the troops be ready for battle? It is no different when it comes to the use of spiritual gifts.
If you don’t speak intelligible words, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. Obviously, all languages communicate something. If I pray in a spiritual language that I don’t understand, I am speaking God’s thoughts, but neither I nor others are understanding them. When I can’t comprehend what someone is saying to me, we might as well be two foreigners trying to carry on a conversation neither one of us can understand.
It is the same way with you. You are so enthusiastic and committed to being filled with spiritual things; that is excellent, but seek to have the Spirit overflow in a way that builds up the whole church. For this to happen, those who are empowered to speak in other languages should pray for interpretation.
So what should you do? Unite the benefits of prayer. Pray with your spirit – but also in a way that you and others can understand. Sing with your spirit,- but also in a way that you and others can understand. Otherwise when you are praising God with your spirit, outsiders and inquirers can’t understand and grow from what you are offering to God, since they do not know what you are saying. What you are doing is personally commendable - but no one else is built up.
I am thankful that by God’s grace I speak in tongues more readily than most, but in the public assembly of the church I would rather speak five understandable words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a spiritual or foreign language that instructs no one.
Brothers and sisters, stop thinking with the limited perspective of children. In your ability to think about and plan evil things, be as innocent as babies, but in your ability to perceive and judge situations such as this, you must have the maturity of adults. God Himself commented on this kind of situation. He said through His prophets,
’With other tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me.'
The gift of languages is an authentication that God is present and real, not so much for the believers who already believe in the power of the Holy Spirit, but for those in the church who are incredulous or unconvinced about this part of the Christian life. Prophecy, on the other hand - the declaring of the purpose of God - will have great impact in building up those in the church who are already convinced followers of Christ.
Declaring of God’s purpose also does more to build up those who are not in the church. If the whole church assembles and everyone speaks in different languages, and inquirers or skeptics visit, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if a skeptic or an inquirer comes in while everyone is declaring God’s purposes, they will become convicted of sin and aware of judgment as the depths of their hearts are laid bare. They will humble themselves and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”
So what do I conclude, brothers and sisters? When you come together, and everyone has something to offer - a song of praise, a practical teaching, a revelation about Christ and His Word, a message in another language or an interpretation of that message – make sure that the entire church is built up. For those who bring tongues, no more than two or three should speak, each in turn, and someone must translate. If there is no one to explain what is being said, the speakers should keep quiet during the service and wait to speak until it is just themselves and God.
No more than two or three prophets should declare God’s purposes, and those who listen should investigate carefully what is said. If God shows something clearly to someone who is listening, the first speaker should defer and give time for the other. Go one by one so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. Even those whose spirits are intent on divine things can and should exercise self-control. God is not a God of disorder and confusion but of wholeness and unity —as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people...
For all these reasons, my brothers and sisters, make it your primary commitment be prophets who reveal the purpose of the Lord in any situation – but that does not mean you should stop people from speaking in other languages. No matter what, everything should be done in a way that is orderly and proper to the situation."NOTE: I have not included every portion of this chapter, as I wanted to focus specifically on Paul's teaching about the gifts of the Spirit.
If you find this study of context helpful, you may appreciate some posts focusing on 1 Thessalonians:
- What Happens in Thessalonica Stays in Thessalonica
- The Second Coming of Christ
- Faith, Hope, and Love