Last week I started a series on what is likely the single most important text in the New Testament regarding our corporate worship—1 Corinthians 14. By way of introduction, I demonstrated that the chapter is specifically addressing “when we come together,” that is, it is explicitly about the gatherings of churches, and thus this chapter presents fundamental principles that should govern our corporate gatherings today.
Paul’s discussion is, however, within the immediate context of addressing a problem in the Corinthian church regarding their exercise of spiritual gifts, something he began to address in chapter 12. Thus, the central thesis he argues in chapter 14 is specific to that problem, yet his thesis produces key fundamental principles for corporate gatherings that apply for all churches.
So what is Paul’s central thesis in 1 Corinthians 14? It is essentially this: Paul’s argument is that the believers in the Corinthian church should desire the gift of prophecy over the gift of tongues.
Notice what he says in verse 5: “Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy.” And again in verse 18: “Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.” Why is that? Determining why Paul believes the gift of prophecy is better than tongues reveals key principles about the nature of the corporate gatherings he’s addressing.
But in order to do that, we need to grasp what, exactly, these gifts were. Perhaps one of the most concise definitions of prophecy in Scripture comes in Deuteronomy 18 with the promise of a coming Messianic prophet who would follow in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets of old:
I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. 19 And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.
To prophesy is to speak the very words of God. Sometimes those words are predictive; more often those words are instructive or exhortative. But no matter the content, prophecy is the delivery of direct, divine revelation to the degree that one who prophesies can always unequivocally say, “Thus says the Lord.”
Please note that I am distinguishing the gift of prophecy from preaching; preaching is certainly the proclamation of God’s revelation, but preaching does not necessarily involve direct revelation from God, and preaching includes the preacher’s own application and exhortation from God’s revelation. I am also rejecting any claim that NT prophecy takes a different form than the standard of OT prophecy. I do not have time to defend this definition of prophecy here, but I would direct your attention to Sinclair Ferguson’s discussion in his book on the Holy Spirit or Bruce Compton’s excellent analysis in the Detroit Seminary Journal of Wayne Grudem’s position.1 The classic definition of prophecy is that it is direct revelation from the Lord.
Although perhaps more controversial, what is convenient about discerning the nature of tongues is that there are only four texts in all of Scripture in which the gift appears. First Corinthians 12–14 is one of them, and the other three are found in the book of Acts.
The first occurs on the day of Pentecost, recorded for us in Acts 2. This is the single most important text for discerning the nature of this gift. Notice, first, that Luke states in verse 4 that the apostles and 120 followers “began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” The word “tongues” there is the Greek term glossais, which is the word used to describe the literal tongue organ in the mouth, so at this point the text is not clear as to what exactly this means.
But now look down at verse 8. The Jews say, “And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?” Here the word “language” is the term dialecto, from which we get our English word “dialect,” and it is clear that they are referring to distinct, known languages—different “dialects” from the various nations from which they came, listed in verses 10–11.
What’s more, these same Jews say at the end of verse 11, “we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” The word “tongues” here is the same as verse 4—glossais, yet it is clear that they are using it interchangeably with dialecto—“languages” in verse 8. In other words, what is apparent in this first appearance of tongues in Scripture is that “tongues” and “languages” are exactly the same thing. They are interchangeable.
The gift of tongues is the ability to speak in known languages that the speaker himself does not know. And the content of the speech here in Acts 2 is important for our purposes as well: verse 11 tells us that they were speaking “the mighty works of God.” This is speech that brought praise to God, and it was speech in a known language, but one that the speakers themselves had never learned.
Now what is the function of this gift? We have to remember that up to this time, God’s focus has been exclusively upon the people of Israel. At the Tower of Babel God confused the languages, and from that point on the focus of his love and work was upon the descendents of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Salvation was of the Jews. But now, membership in the Church of Jesus Christ is not limited to one nationality. This was a concept completely foreign to a Jew, and the gift of tongues is therefore a poignant sign to the unbelieving Jews that they are no longer the exclusive focus of God’s attention and love—now there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him. It was a sign to them that God was shifting his focus away from them for a time and toward the Gentile nations.
And it is for this reason that twice more God sends the gift of tongues in the book of Acts. The second appearance of tongues comes in chapter 10 where the gospel first comes to Gentile people. Peter proclaims the gospel to Cornelius and his household in verse 34, saying, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable him.” But remember, even Peter had at first been hesitant to take the gospel to the Gentiles, so God made clear that these Gentile converts were indeed part of the church, and he did so through giving them the same sign he had given in Acts 2. In verse 46 Luke records that these Gentile converts began to speak in tongues, evidencing that they, too, had been Spirit baptized. And again, notice the content of their speech: they were “extolling God.”
The third appearance of tongues in Acts 19 is similar. While Cornelius and his household were Gentile converts within Israel, in chapter 19 Paul encounters some Gentile disciples in Ephesus who had been baptized into John’s baptism but apparently had not yet heard about Christ. Upon believing in Christ, they began to speak in tongues, evidencing that Gentile converts outside Israel were, too, now part of the body of Christ. The gift of tongues, as is evident in the three appearances in Acts along with what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14, had a very specific purpose: it served as a sign to unbelieving Israel that membership in the church was without national distinction.
These are the only records of tongues speaking in all of Scripture outside of 1 Corinthians 12–14, and what we have observed from those appearances sheds some light on why Paul would tell the Corinthian believers to prefer prophecy over tongues. Remember, Paul is specifically focusing on corporate worship, and therefore his insistence that tongues is less desirable than prophecy reveals to us some important principles about corporate worship.
Now, before we focus on the principles about corporate worship that we can derive from Paul’s discussion of tongues and prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14, I need to offer one qualification. There is, of course, debate over whether these gifts of tongues and prophecy continue today or whether they have ceased. Although I will not be able to offer a complete defense in this message, I will just note that the historically held view through the entirety of the church’s history until the nineteenth century is that that these spiritual gifts have ceased.
The sign of tongues, as we have seen, served a very limited function that is no longer necessary. And God no longer delivers new revelation through human prophets since we now have a “prophetic word more fully confirmed” (2 Peter 1:19) in the complete canon of the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments.
However, the principles concerning the purpose and nature of corporate worship found here in 1 Corinthians 14 would still apply even if these gifts still remained; and actually, the principles perhaps even carry more weight considering the fact that Paul gave them when these gifts were still in operation. In other words, reasoning from the greater to the lesser, if the principles in this passage applied when these gifts were still in operation, how much more should they apply once the gifts have ceased?
Next week, I’ll begin to unpack the core principles for corporate gatherings that come from this underlying thesis in 1 Corinthians 14.
- Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1997); Bruce Compton, “The Continuation of New Testament Prophecy and a Closed Canon: Revisiting Wayne Grudem’s Two Levels of NT Prophecy,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 22 (2017): 57–73. [↩]