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Previously, in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul began to discuss spiritual gifts, but he interrupted his study in order to assert that the purpose of the gifts was to cultivate fruit—love, in particular.
The gifts are tools to produce fruit, and the chief fruit that encompasses all other fruit is love. We should understand by this that if one’s use of spiritual gifts do not result in an increase in a person’s love for God and neighbors, then the gifts are being misused in some way. Gifts are the means to an end, but love is the fruit and the goal.
In the end, when we stand before God, He will not ask us about our spiritual gifts. He will want to know if we learned to love. In that day, Jesus said, there will be many who present their spiritual gifts and miraculous deeds, but God will tell them, “Depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matt. 7:22, 23).
On the other hand, 1 John 4:7, 8 tells us,
7 Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves [agapao] is born [begotten] of God and knows God. 8 The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.
Those who love are those who know God, because the spiritual seed of the word has begotten a New Creation Man that has the character of Christ. The apostle was not talking about lesser forms of love, such as eros or phileo. He uses the term agapao, the verb of agape. Yet the point is to show that love (not gifts) is the standard by which God measures our relationship with Him.
In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul returns to his topic about spiritual gifts. 1 Cor. 14:1 begins,
1 Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.
Although love is the goal, we ought not to despise or neglect spiritual gifts. In fact, we are to “desire earnestly spiritual gifts” as we pursue our overall goal of love. More specifically, Paul singles out the gift of prophecy. Some people seem to be born with a prophetic gift, but those who are not born with this gift are urged to “desire” it. If they already had such a gift, there would be no need to desire it, for one desires only that which one does not currently possess.
Prophecy is an outgrowth of hearing God’s voice, for how can one prophesy unless he has first heard God speak? Prophecy simply repeats what God has said, for He seeks those who can speak His words, impart His wisdom, and release His creative power into the earth. One who prophesies might not even hold the office of a prophet. All are called to hear God and to share their revelation with others, whether they are prophets or not, so that others may judge (discern) and be edified.
As we learn to hear His voice, we do not hear perfectly, for we are yet learning to distinguish the voice of the soul from that of the spirit. For this reason, God has told us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together (Heb. 10:25). The purpose of an assembly (church) is to share revelation in a group setting and to discern the revelation of others, so that we can receive corrections and confirmations as we grow.
Few churches do this today, but in the days of the early church, the house meetings were more suited to such things. In this way, all believers were expected to hear God and to prophesy.
But few of these believers had the gift of prophecy from the start. The gift had to be developed as they matured spiritually. It took time and effort, and no doubt many often failed. Worse yet, when disagreements arose, some insisted that they were hearing from their spirit when in reality they were still listening to their soulish man.
Hence, as time passed, the church increasingly resolved the problem by shutting down the program altogether. To maintain unity, the professional priests and pastors were assigned the exclusive right to hear God and to tell the people what God said. The people then were expected to hear the voice of God through the leaders and to submit to their word exclusively. They did not consider how the flesh desires power over others and how this trend toward religious hierarchy might be motivated by flesh, rather than by spirit. The result was a self-inflicted spiritual mediocrity, disguised as religion and characterized by submission to men, rather than to God.
This policy was enforced by threatening dissenters with excommunication and eventually by violence and even death. Creeds replaced hearing God’s voice, submission replaced faith, and love was sacrificed on the altar of church unity.
After telling us that we should desire to prophesy, Paul says in 1 Cor. 14:2-4,
2 For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men, but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries. 3 But one who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation. 4 One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church.
In other words, when Paul speaks of prophecy, he was contrasting it with tongues. Tongues and prophecy are two different things, and prophecy is paramount. Paul tells us why. Speaking in tongues does not impart revelation to anyone else. It “edifies himself,” but not others. Tongues is not something to be despised, but we should understand that its usefulness is limited, especially in a group (or church gathering).
By definition, a “tongue” is not something that men normally understand, and so “the one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men.” But when the church assembles together, they are supposed to communicate with each other for mutual edification. If everyone spoke in tongues, then it is as if they were entering their own prayer closet, as they might do at home. This defeats the purpose of the assembly.
However, prophecy edifies, exhorts, and consoles others. Why? Because prophecy is given in the language of the people who are present. They understand it in their own language. Prophecy is useful to the whole assembly. Hence, the difference between tongues and prophecy is not that one is of God and the other is not, but rather that tongues is normally for personal edification, while prophecy edifies the entire group—including the one prophesying. In this way prophecy is better than tongues.
So Paul says in 1 Cor. 14:5,
5 Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy; and greater is one who prophesies than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may receive edifying.
Clearly, Paul did not discourage anyone from speaking in tongues—not even in a church group setting. He was just making the point that prophecy is “greater” and ought to receive higher priority, so that everyone is able to share revelation in an assembly without first having to interpret a tongue. That way, everyone can edify others, rather than just themselves. After all, love seeks the benefit of others.
Here also, Paul introduces another topic—interpretation of tongues. He says that prophecy is “greater” than tongues “unless he interprets.” In other words, if the message in tongues is interpreted so that the people understand it, then it is equal to prophecy. Prophecy is not greater than an interpreted tongue, for both are revelations from the same God. It is just that the need for interpretation is less efficient than a direct prophecy, because it takes more time to set forth the revelation.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:6,
6 But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking in tongues, what shall I profit you, unless I speak to you either by way of revelation or of knowledge or of prophecy or of teaching?
Paul says that if he were to speak great revelation in an unknown tongue, how can this be profitable to the church? It might be the greatest revelation of all time, but it would not be helpful at all if they do not understand what Paul was saying. 1 Cor. 14:7 illustrates this:
7 Yet even lifeless things, either flute or harp, in producing a sound, if they do not produce a distinction in the tones, how will it be known what is played on the flute or on the harp?
It requires no particular talent to know that music requires distinct tones, for if all the notes on the musical scale were to be played at once, no one would listen and no one would be edified. Paul continues in 1 Cor. 14:8,
8 For if the bugle produces an indistinct [adelos, “hidden, obscure, uncertain, indistinct”] sound, who will prepare himself for battle?
Soldiers were trained to listen for signals from the bugle and to know what each signal meant. But if the bugler sent out a new signal that had no meaning to the army, how could the soldiers know what to do or how to prepare? Confusion would reign, and even a well-equipped army would be in danger of losing the battle.
Communication is very important, both on the battlefield and in the church. This is why the use of tongues in an assembly must be subject to certain laws of communication. Paul’s point is that the message must be understood in order to benefit others. 1 Cor. 14:9 says,
9 So also you, unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air.
Tongues in a group setting, if not interpreted, is little more than shouting into the wind, Paul says. Neither tongues nor prophecy are ends in themselves. They are only the means to an end. If there is no clarity in one’s revelation, then its purpose is lost and the revelation which God is imparting can easily be lost in space.
I have discerned that many churches no longer expect to receive useful revelation, either in prophecy or through tongues. Believers use these gifts mostly for self-edification, which, though not bad in itself, could be more useful or practical. The quality of such revelation has more to do with the condition of the heart and whether or not the people value truth.