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1 Corinthians 14:1-40

Week 14– Prophecy, Tongues, and Orderly Worship

1 Corinthians 14:1-40

By Michael Green


            When I first went into teaching, I taught at the high school level. Equipped with all of my training, I had the naïve expectation that a good learning environment would be comprised of 90% lesson planning and 10% classroom management. I quickly found out that it was the reverse: 10% lesson planning and 90% classroom management. I can work to have the best lesson in the world, spending countless hours in preparation, only to see it evaporate before my eyes if I can’t control the students’ behavior. When the environment descends into chaos, the lesson isn’t very fun anyway and learning certainly isn’t taking place. An orderly environment is necessary. Properly executed, it doesn’t stifle the learning, it allows it to flourish. The same is true in the church. All followers of Christ have been given spiritual gifts, manifestations of the Spirit. In chapter 14, Paul continues to educate the Corinthians on how to best implement their spiritual gifts in an orderly way that builds up the body.

Read 1 Corinthians 14:1-40 together.

Study Questions

  1. What does this passage say about God, who He is, and what He does? (Father, Son, and Spirit)
  2. What does this passage teach me about me?
  3. What comfort/promise/challenge can I take away from this passage?
  4. How will I respond or live differently because of what I’ve read?

Passage Specific Questions

  1. What do you think it means to have the gift of tongues?
  2. What do you think it means to have the gift of prophecy?
  3. Have you encountered abuses of either of the above gifts? Explain.
  4. Are there ways in which you are currently “striv[ing] to excel in building up the church”? (v. 12) Why or why not?


14:1-25 – There is great debate within Christianity about the two gifts discussed in this passage (and some of the other ones in the previous chapter, like the gift of healing for example). There are many who feel that the more dramatic gifts have stopped. In their minds, they were powerful demonstrations of the Spirit to testify to the validity of Christ as the Messiah and jumpstart the initial spread of the gospel. I can definitely see the merit in that way of thinking and listen to teachers of the Word that view Scripture through that lens. However, the Bible is the foundation for all pondering about who God is and how he works. And, I am not convinced that there is a biblical argument for the Spirit of God limiting/changing/segmenting the way he currently works in his people versus how he worked in New Testament times even though there are logical arguments that involve biblical ideas. In situations like that, I am typically very hesitant to make decisive declarations on topics that the Bible leaves open to discussion.

In addition to the idea of which gifts if any have ceased, there is much debate regarding what exactly the Bible means by the gifts of “tongues” and “prophecy.” I’ll briefly share my penny (“two cents” seems like a bit of an overestimate) on all of the above topics. First of all, there are a few biblical principles that hem me in when thinking about these things. I’ll list them below.

  1. God does as he pleases and he isn’t bound by any of my philosophical constructs. He does what he wants, how he wants, and when he wants, within and outside of time and space. (Psalm 115:3, Psalm 135:6)
  2. The Word of God is fixed, unchanging, and eternal. No one can add to it or subtract from it. (Deuteronomy 4:1-2, Psalm 119:89, Proverbs 30:5-6, 2 Peter 1:19-21, Revelation 22:18-19)
  3. God is a God of order. (See verse 33 of this chapter.)
  4. The Bible provides all the protection necessary to guard against the abuse and/or counterfeiting of spiritual gifts. (This chapter of 1 Corinthians is a great example.)

Keeping those principles in mind, let’s consider the two gifts discussed here and then see if we can’t land the discussion on the main point that Paul is making. I’ll start with the gift of tongues. While I am not convinced that any of the gifts have ceased, I do not view “tongues” here as the “ecstatic utterances” or “angelic languages” with which it is often equated. Now, there are many, many Christians that would disagree with me to be sure. Many of my brothers and sisters in Christ do believe in that version of the “gift of tongues,” and that is okay. This point of contention doesn’t deal with an essential topic of the Christian faith. I just don’t see a biblical reason to view this as anything other than languages. The only verse in Paul’s discussion here that I think could be used as a jumping off point for the contrary view is 1 Corinthians 13:1, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” However, reading that in context, Paul certainly seems to be exaggerating to make a point as evidenced by statements like a person being able to “understand all mysteries and all knowledge” (v. 2), which clearly isn’t a realistic scenario. One of the most dramatic instances of “tongues” in the Bible occurs on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. In that instance, the “tongues” being described certainly appears to be various foreign languages. Below is an excerpt from the Anchor Church Acts Community guide on Acts 2:5-13.

Many commentators have drawn conclusions from contrasting this event with the Tower of Babel as recorded in Genesis 11:1-9. In that story, humanity was united, one in language and in purpose. But, that purpose was evil and God disrupted their plans to build “a city and a tower with its top in the heavens” (v. 4) which they were doing in order to make a name for themselves. And, He did so by both confusing their language “so that they may not understand one another’s speech” (v. 7) and dispersing them “over the face of the earth” (v. 8).

At Pentecost, we see the opposite take place. Acts 1:14 tells us that Christ’s followers were united, but with a holy purpose this time. The Holy Spirit descended upon them in the form of a mighty wind and tongues of fire, and now people from every language are hearing and understanding. People from every nation are being drawn into the Kingdom and the invitation to join in cuts across cultural, ethnic, and language barriers. This good news is for every person that walks on the face of the earth. Believers from every nation are to be united under the name above all names. Humanity, which was divided due to devious schemes that dishonored God, is now being brought back together due to the redeeming purposes of Jesus Christ vividly put on display by the Holy Spirit.  

That being said, even though I view “tongues” in this way, I am not threatened by the other viewpoint. The reason is because of all of the parameters that Paul lays out to maintain order and prevent an abuse of the gift of tongues. Paul’s discourse rules out false teachings like the gift of tongues being a necessary manifestation of the Spirit indicative of regeneration, as if it were a required first rung on the ladder to ever-increasing spiritual enlightenment. Erroneous doctrines such as those do conflict with essential truths of the faith. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Chapter 12 clearly teaches that God distributes the varied gifts as he pleases. This chapter also addresses the other common abuse of this gift: church services descending into disorderly chaos. As a matter of fact, Paul seems to spend most of his time on the gift of tongues in chapters 13 and 14 puncturing an overinflated, misguided view of the gift. In chapter 12, he even exhorts the Corinthians to “earnestly desire the higher gifts” (1 Corinthians 12:31). One could argue that he doesn’t explicitly refer to tongues there, but chapter 14 makes a strong case for it being in the background of his thinking.

Whatever view of tongues you hold, what is clear is that any gift of the Spirit is meant to build up the body of Christ. Tongues without interpretation will only edify the one who is speaking in the tongue. For this reason, Paul limits how much tongues should be allowed in the body, and that it only be done if there is an interpreter. This is a major contrast from the Corinthians use of tongues—to draw attention to themselves. Instead, Paul instructs the Corinthians to declare clearly the things of God.

With regard to the gift of prophecy, whatever it means now it cannot mean the same as what it means in reference to Isaiah or Micah or Jeremiah, for example. The reason is the second biblical principle provided above. The Word of God is fixed. It can’t be added to or subtracted from. Thus, no current “prophecy” can carry that kind of authority. Thankfully, every believer has the Spirit of God within him, the Word of God in front of him, and the community of God around him, aiding him in knowing God rightly. Jeremiah 31:33-34 tells us that in the new covenant all of the children of God will know the Lord intimately.

33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

I should always reject a prophecy that contradicts the revealed Word of God. God doesn’t contradict himself. And, if I find myself in a situation where someone wants to share a special word from the Lord given directly to them for me (which I can’t say that I have ever experienced), I would first step back (just kidding). I would listen and immediately discard it if it contradicts the Bible. If it doesn’t, I would tell them, “Thanks for sharing; I will pray about that.” I would then take the matter to my Savior who I know intimately. If the Lord desires for me to know this specific fact, then he can certainly impress it upon my soul as I study his Word and pray, all under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit that abides within me. But, no words from a man should be taken to be authoritative like Scripture under any circumstances, regardless of whether he lives in the Vatican or sells healing water from his gold-embossed furniture on your television screen. The Word of God is closed. It is fixed, unchanging, and eternal.

In my opinion, the gift of prophecy has to do with a strong intuit regarding the heart and mind of God. In step with the Spirit, a person with this gift rightly knows how to apply Scripture. They know the Lord and they know the Word of God in a way that speaks powerfully into the heart of their listeners for their edification. As Paul puts it in verse 25, “the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.”The Spirit of God in conjunction with, and never in contradiction to, the Word of God manifests himself strongly when a person with this gift discusses the things of God resulting in “their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (v. 3).  One knows that he is in the presence of the truths of God being declared. He can accept it or run from it, but he knows that what is being said is from God and not from man. Again, that is just my penny.

Now that we have discussed the two gifts in view, what is Paul’s main point in the above passage? He prioritizes serving the body. Paul doesn’t want the Corinthians to become too enamored with the fancy, overt, dramatic gifts, losing sight of the beauty of using their gifts to glorify Christ and have the effects of the gifts land on others rather than just themselves. Gifts where the gift begins and ends with the individual shouldn’t be as longed for as gifts that build up the body. We should desire gifts that edify others. A catchy way that I have often heard this stated is that believers in Christ should be rivers rather than buckets. In verse 12, Paul implores the Corinthians that have such interest in spiritual gifts to “strive to excel in building up the church.” Christ-followers certainly experience great personal fulfillment in communing with God through the person of the Spirit, but there is deep soul satisfaction in pouring out your gift for the good of Christ’s bride, his Church. When others benefit from the manifestation of the Spirit, Christ is glorified and they are edified.

14:26-40 – Continuing to rein the Corinthians in on their views of spiritual gifts, Paul makes it clear that God desires order, not confusion. Confusion is associated with Satan, not the Lord. Paul provides parameters for orderly corporate worship and the godly use of the gifts of tongues and prophecy. The gifts should be used to build up the body, and executed in a systematic way with parameters. Tongues should have interpreters with only two or three sharing at the most, taking turns. Two or three prophets can speak, but taking turns as well, so that the body is built up. Again, as discussed at length, all such prophecies would not be authoritative like Scripture and all of the boundaries discussed in the previous section should be applied.

            With regard to verses 33-35, I found my ESV Study Bible notes to be particularly helpful and have included them below.

14:34-35 the women should keep silent in the churches. Since Paul seems to permit wives to pray and prophesy (11:5, 13) as long as they do not dishonor their husbands by the way they dress (11:5), it is difficult to see this as an absolute prohibition (cf. Acts 2:17; 21:8-9). Paul is likely forbidding women to speak up and judge prophecies (this is the activity in the immediate context; cf. 1 Cor. 14:29), since such an activity would subvert male headship. Law also says. Paul is probably thinking of the woman’s creation “from” and “for” the man (see 11:8-9; Gen. 2:20-24), as well as a general pattern of male leadership among the people of Israel in the OT.

Given that Paul is an apostle, his words do carry the weight of Scripture. His writings are commands of the Lord. He concludes the chapter by reminding the Corinthians of that fact. He then exhorts them again to “earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But all things should be done decently and in order.”

Gifts of the Spirit are gifts. As sinful creatures, we can make even gifts be about us. We can act as if we are the source and that the glory is ours. But gifts are manifestations of the Spirit, not of the self. They are meant to build up the body of Christ. In light of that, we should seek to pour them out for the good of others and the glory of our Maker. We should exercise them in such a way that it causes the beneficiaries to fall on their face, with hearts laid prostrate in wonderment “that God really is among [us].” (v. 25) Our design and our giftings are tailored for specific roles to be played in the body, in an orderly, reverential, and joyful manner. Our gifts and even our gender are purposeful. God doesn’t make mistakes. We are designed and gifted with intentionality, artfully crafted and strategically placed. Playing our roles in concert with one another, and not in competition with one another, makes for a true spectacle. It’s not a spectacle born out of human effort, contrivance, or manipulation. It is God dwelling among his people, making himself known through his people. And, it is a marvel to behold, bringing glory to God, good to his people, and illumination to the lost. 

The Main Point

We are to use our gifts to glorify Christ and build up the body. And, we are to do it in an orderly way as God doesn’t produce or abide chaos.

A Few Relevant Scriptures

  • Acts 2 – Pentecost
  • 2 Peter 1:16-3:7 – True prophecy from real prophets in the scriptures versus false teachings from false prophets
  • Jeremiah 31:31-40 – The New Covenant
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