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Gifts of Prophecy and Tongues September 27, 2011

Posted by flashbuzzer in Books, Christianity.
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Here are my thoughts on 1 Corinthians 14:1-25.

Summary: Paul begins by encouraging the Corinthians to pursue the way of love and seek spiritual gifts – especially the gift of prophecy. Indeed, any believer who exercises the gift of speaking in tongues only communicates with God; nobody who hears him can understand his speech while he utters divine truths under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, any believer who exercises the gift of prophecy strengthens others by exhorting and consoling them. It follows that anybody who speaks in tongues can only benefit himself. Now Paul does not mean that the gift of speaking in tongues is inherently bad – he holds the gift of prophecy in higher esteem since those who utilize it are more useful.

It follows that speaking in tongues cannot benefit others unless the speaker can also exercise the gifts of prophecy or teaching. He then illustrates his point by noting that we cannot appreciate a flute or a harp unless we can distinguish the sounds that they produce. Also, if a trumpet sounds an ambiguous call to battle, nobody will respond to it. He drives home his point by stating that unless those who speak in tongues can be understood by others, they are just speaking in vain. Now there are many languages in the world, and they are all inherently significant. This implies that if Paul cannot understand the speaker of a particular tongue, he is essentially a foreigner to him. This principle can be extended to the speaking of tongues in the church, as those who exercise this gift are regarded as foreigners by other believers; since the Corinthians are zealous for the manifestations of the Holy Spirit, they should desire the most useful gifts for the body of Christ.

Paul then infers that any believer who possesses the gift of speaking in tongues should pray that they can also receive the gift of interpreting tongues. For example, if the Holy Spirit moves Paul to pray using a tongue, others cannot understand – and benefit from – his prayer. Therefore, he aims to pray using a tongue so that others can understand his prayer; he also aims to sing using a tongue so that others can understand his song. Now if the Holy Spirit moves the Corinthians to praise God and give thanks to Him using tongues, those who cannot understand the tongues in question cannot agree with their praise and thanksgiving; each speaker may benefit himself, yet he cannot benefit others.

Paul is thankful that he abundantly possesses the gift of speaking in tongues, yet he would rather benefit other believers by instructing them with a language that they can understand. Now he wants the Corinthians to stop foolishly exalting the gift of speaking in tongues – while remaining innocent regarding evil. He then applies Isaiah 28:11-12 to show that speaking in tongues that cannot be understood is essentially a curse on those who hear them. It follows that foreign languages are God’s way of showing Himself to unbelievers, while prophecy is God’s way of showing Himself to believers. Therefore, if the church at Corinth is gathered together and those who speak use foreign languages, and some of the attendees include 1) those who do not understand the languages employed and 2) unbelievers, these attendees will receive a negative impression of their church. Paul concludes by noting that in this scenario, if those who speak are guided by the Holy Spirit to exercise the gift of prophecy instead, an attendee who 1) would not understand the previously-mentioned foreign languages or 2) happened to be an unbeliever would be convicted of his sin and guilt, and he would understand the truth of the Gospel; he would then worship God and declare that Jesus is Lord.

Thoughts: After reading this passage, I thought, “does the Holy Spirit still give the gift of prophecy to present-day believers?” Many believers, including Hodge, would assert that certain gifts, including those of prophecy and the performing of miracles, ceased to exist after the writing of the New Testament. Up until recently I completely agreed with that viewpoint; then the youth pastor at our church shared a powerful story about a dream that convicted her, and she was able to edify and strengthen the youth fellowship in the process. This leads me to conjecture that the gift of prophecy is still active, especially under difficult and trying circumstances. Also, could the gift of miracles be applied when preaching the Gospel to an unreached people group?

In verse 16, we see that Paul greatly valued other believers saying “Amen” in response to another believer speaking in tongues. Hodge offers some insights on the word “Amen”:

Amen is a Hebrew adjective meaning “true” or “faithful,” often used adverbially at the end of a sentence to express agreement with what is said, in the sense of “let it be so.” In the Jewish synagogue it was the custom for the people to respond to the prayers by audibly saying, “Amen,” by which they indicated their assent and participation in the petitions that had been offered.

At the church that I currently attend, it is rather uncommon for people to shout “Amen” during the pastor’s sermons, though that was a frequent occurrence at my previous church. I wonder if the practice of saying “Amen” during sermons varies from church to church based on demographics and denomination, e.g. it could be more common at an African Methodist Episcopal church than at a Presbyterian church. Personally I don’t feel inclined to say “Amen” during a sermon, as I’m not sure how I could benefit others with that interjection.

In verse 22, we see that God manifests Himself to believers via prophecy, while He manifests Himself to unbelievers via tongues. Hodge makes the following interesting point:

But a language may be said to be unknown either by the speaker or by the hearer. It is said to be unknown to the speaker if it has not previously been acquired; and it is said to be unknown to the hearers if they do not understand it…Speaking in tongues in the one sense was a grace and a blessing; in the other sense, it was a folly and a curse.

It follows that the gift of speaking in tongues is a double-edged sword; in one sense it benefits those who use it, and in another sense it can actually work against those who are listening yet cannot understand the tongue in question. This makes me wonder if the gift of speaking in tongues is the only gift that has this double-edged characteristic. The gifts with which I am familiar tend to benefit both those who use them and those who they are applied to.

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