Good evening. Please turn with me in your bibles to 1 Corinthians 14. 1 Corinthians 14.
Tonight we make the turn from one of the most beloved and clear passages in all of scripture, chapter 13 on love, to one of the most debated and unclear passages in all of scripture. So, for those of you that are sleepy, go ahead and prime yourself for what’s to come.
Some sermons are easy to listen to, they go down easy, like eating Jello. Others require more work, more chewing, and that’s what we have before us tonight.
But regardless of how unclear a text may seem, let us remember that the lack of clarity is no defect of scripture itself. It is only our own lack of wisdom and insight, and because of the effects of the fall and sin on our mind that we cannot see this clearly.
Additionally, we know as I preached recently what Paul said in 2 Timothy 3, that all scripture is God-breathed and profitable, and that includes even this text that seems so far removed from Montgomery in 2023.
But let’s begin in 1 Corinthians 14, I will read through the first 25 verses, and endeavor to cover those same verses this evening:
Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. 2 For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. 3 On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.4 The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. 5 Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.
6 Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? 7 If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? 8 And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? 9 So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. 10 There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, 11 but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. 12 So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.
13 Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. 15 What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. 16 Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider[b] say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? 17 For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up. 18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.
20 Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. 21 In the Law it is written, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” 22 Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign[c] not for unbelievers but for believers. 23 If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? 24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 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.
A couple of preliminary remarks would be helpful at this point at the outset of our journey through chapter 14. Many people get from this passage to left field because they forget some key and fundamental interpretive points.
For example, number 1, the context of this passage is about congregational worship. It is about what is fitting and proper within the worship services of a church. That doesn’t mean that this passage is totally irrelevant outside of that gathered context, but it does help us to understand certain things along the way, as we will soon see.
Second, we need to remember the context, not merely of this chapter, but of the entire letter. Those of you who have been following all along will remember that Paul has had to counter what the Corinthians believed to be “true spirituality.” Or to get at the point another way, Paul is having to answer this question: “What does it mean to be truly spiritual? To be a spiritual person, a spiritual man or woman, or even what does it mean to be a spiritual congregation?”
How you answer that question tells you a lot about a person’s theology and about that person’s spiritual maturity. Answering that question well can lead to increasing harmony and usefulness among the congregation. Answering that question wrongly, leads to confusion and discord among the body.
The Corinthians believed that to be a truly spiritual person you must possess impressive gifts of eloquence, gifts like tongues and prophecy, which are specifically singled out in chapter 14. If someone demonstrated some sort of ecstatic utterance, like tongues, then they MUST be a “spiritual person.”
Given that mis-understanding in the minds of the Corinthian believers, Paul has been re-framing the entire discussion in terms of love. Gifts aren’t the main point, love is. Gifts can help us to love well or to love poorly, but gifts alone don’t equal maturity. Love does.
To equate tongues with mature spirituality, is to display a measure of immaturity in one’s thinking. That’s why he can say something like verse 20, “Stop thinking like children.” The truly spiritual person isn’t merely gifted, but is motivated by love.
Next, a third key point to remember as we make our way through this chapter: the goal of spiritual gifts is edification. Edification. This theme comes up several times in our text tonight, so I won’t belabor the point here, but the goal of using our spiritual gifts ought to be edifying, building up, and SPECIFICALLY, building up THE BODY, not merely ourselves. The goal of our gifts is maximal edification, blessing many OTHER people, rather than simply blessing ourselves.
That’s how we ought to view every kind of spiritual gift we might have. When we gather together, our goal is to build up each other, to edify the congregation. That’s why how we encourage each other matters, how we greet one another, how we sing, how we dress, how we pray, how we listen to the preached word.
All of it matters because the edification of the congregation matters, and when we have hearts that are motivated by love, our orientation won’t be fixated on what builds ME up the most, but what builds up the BODY the most.
The truly spiritual person is concerned about the well-being of those around them more than they are concerned with themselves. Their goal is congregational edification, not simply personal edification.
There we go, three introductory themes to keep in mind: the context is a worship service, the gifts are to be motivated by love, and the gifts are meant to edify those around us.
With those things in mind, let’s start working through our text. I’m going to move somewhat quickly through these, so if you’re taking notes, sharpen up your pencil. Verse 1 gives us a threefold directive. A three-fold directive, starting with the command to pursue love. Pursue love.
Whatever you’re seeking to do, whatever ministry you’re starting up, whatever gift you’re seeking to exercise, do all from the starting point of love. Don’t be driven by a selfish desire to strut your stuff. Don’t seek to platform yourself, or hog the spotlight. Don’t even fall into the temptation of thinking that all this at church is really about making you feel good or important.
Rather, start with and end with, LOVE. If you’re unsure what that looks like, go back through the 8 sermons I preached from the last chapter.
Second directive: Paul says Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts. Earnestly desire the spiritual gifts. We know from chapter 12 verse 11 that God sovereignly dispenses gifts according to his will, and in all these areas of the Christian life, our Heavenly Father Always Knows best.
But just because we HAVE been gifted with something, doesn’t mean we don’t need to continue to pursue it. We need to lean into our strengths, out of love, for the good of the congregation. If you think you have been gifted to teach, then get better at it. If you’re a gifted encourager, get to work. If you’re gifted more toward acts of service, then get to serving.
But the converse is also true: just because you don’t think you’re really gifted in a particular area, doesn’t mean that you can’t grow in that area either, nor does it mean that you’re somehow excused from that kind of Christian service at all. Just because you’re not given the gift of encouragement, doesn’t mean you’re free to never encourage.
Just because you are not gifted to teach, doesn’t mean you’re excused from every having to read and study God’s word, or you’re excused from teaching your children about what the bible says. Pursue love, and pursue the spiritual gifts, seeking be faithful with the gifts and opportunities God has given to you, and especially seeking the good of the body.
That’s the third directive, at the end of verse 5, so that the church may be built up. That’s the goal of all of these spiritual gifts: the edification of the body, the growth of the congregation. Corporate worship, and my involvement in it, not principally about me.
How different this perspective is from what we have today? We tend to evaluate corporate worship in very individualistic terms. If I ask you on Monday, how was the service yesterday, how would you evaluate that? Most of the time when people say the worship was “good” they mean simply two things: I liked the songs, and the sermon wasn’t boring to me. I liked the music, and the sermon was somewhat interesting. If those two boxes are checked, then worship is satisfactory.
We’ve been trained, subconsciously, to treat attendance to the corporate gathering as akin to going to McDonalds: the service was acceptable and the meal was OK. If those two things are there, then the trip was a success.
It’s as if we expect for 300 individuals to show up on Sunday Morning and have 300 individual experiences with God. 300 isolated experiences of the music and the sermon, and then go home.
How much different would the services here at Morningview be if everyone woke up on a Sunday morning, dressed themselves in the armor of God, and viewed themselves as armed and ready for spiritual battle for the edification of the congregation?
What would it be like if our congregation walked in the door, not seeking to have their favorite songs on the list, not seeking their favorite preacher or sermon, but seeking instead the edification of the body?
What we’d see is a people intentionally seeking out the lonely and depressed, seeking to encourage them.
We’d see people greeting joyfully and sincerely, caring for one another, praying for one another, helping carry burdens for one another, checking in with one another, singing heartily next to one another.
The edification of the body is the aim, and that means it matters how we speak, how we dress, how we care, how we serve, how we love one another. So pursue love, desire the spiritual gifts, and build up the church.
Now, before we leave the first 5 verses, I know some of you want me to go back to verse 1. Paul says, earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. What does that mean? Should we all seek to be prophets? What is prophecy?
Some commentators believe that prophecy equals preaching. In fact, I bet some of you have been taught that before. But, the moment we equate preaching with prophecy then we have a problem. Paul would then here be exhorting every Corinthians believer to become a preacher, which is clearly contrary to what he has said elsewhere in this letter about how the spiritual gifts function.
Further, chapter 12 has already mentioned women prophesying, which would be a problem if that equals preaching, because as Paul wrote elsewhere, like 1 Timothy 2, women preaching and teaching in a similar congregational setting is not permitted.
So, if prophecy isn’t preaching, then what is it? When I preached through chapter 12 of this letter I examined each of the listed spiritual gifts. Prophecy in the bible is basically speaking on behalf of God. It involves Spirit-inspired utterances, applying God’s prior revelation to the current situation, for the good of the congregation.
Some people helpfully point out that Prophecy in scripture contained both foretelling, and FORTH telling. That is, prophecy doesn’t always mean predicting the future, but often times involved an element of forthtelling, of explaining prior revelation and applying it to the current moment.
So, if that was the gift of prophecy, and the gift of prophecy is now ceased, as I argued at length in my series of sermons on chapter 12, then what does this passage have to do with us today? If people today are no longer in the office of a prophet because the office of prophet was foundational to the church, like Ephesians 2:20 teaches, then why don’t we just skip over this chapter?
I think that the value for us is found in seeing that while the OFFICE of inspired prophet might have ceased today, there is by way of analogy, a similarly prophetic function that remains.
You and I might not have the role of a spirit-inspired prophet, but what we do have is inerrant, divine revelation that we can speak, we can forthtell, to all who would hear it. And who better to speak to the lost world?
I was sitting in the barber chair recently and the ladies in the room where talking about a recent shooting, and they kept coming back to the same question, “What’s wrong with people? What’s going on in this world?”
Who better to speak to these ladies than a believer armed with the truth of God? We can answer her questions. We can tell her that sin is what’s wrong with this world, that the whole world lies under a curse, that the whole of creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God, and that it is appointed for man to die once and then comes the judgment.
And when you say things like that, they will look at you and say, “What are you, some sort of a prophet?” And you can say, as a matter of fact. And then when they ask you where you got this stuff, you say I got it from my bible.
Each of us has a prophetic nature to our ministry. We proclaim God’s truth to those who need it. Sometimes the prophetic element is a word of encouragement to someone downcast, reminding them of God’s promises. Sometimes it is a word of warning to a brother or sister who is straying. Sometimes it is a word of instruction to somebody that is ignorant.
Whatever it is, we need not shy away from the prophetic nature of all the one another commands in the new testament. And that means for us then, that we need to know our bibles really well. We should all be growing in our understanding of scripture and our doctrinal knowledge. An ignorant prophet is no useful prophet at all. We need to plant God’s word deep in our heart, that we might grow in our usefulness, and maximize our edification of the body.
And to wrap up the first five verses, that’s Paul’s point about prophecy over tongues. Prophecy allows for more people to be edified, and so it is to be preferred over tongues. Verse 2, the tongue speaker speaks to God, and nobody else understands him. Speaking in tongues was a necessarily individualistic experience.
But the one who prophecies, verse 3, speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.4 The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church.
The Corinthians were privileging tongues speaking as the evidence of who was “most spiritual.” But Paul wants them to change how they are thinking.
Aim for the good of the body, not simply your own edification. Aim for the whole congregation to the built up, not just yourself.
We’ll come back to tongues in a minute, but let’s move on to verses 6-12 and see the next point: that Worship should be intelligible. Worship should be intelligible. It should be comprehendible.
In verses 6-12 Paul continues his argumentation that prophecy is to be preferred to tongues speaking, and he does this by pointing out that the gathered worship of God’s people ought to be understandable, intelligible. It ought to make sense. And tongues by itself, without interpretation, doesn’t do that.
He uses the illustration of musical instruments to make the point further. Verse 7 and 8: If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? 8 And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?
The point is plain enough. If I were to begin banging on the piano, nobody will know what’s going on. If I grabbed a trumpet and started blasting indistinct notes and noises, how would the cavalry know when to charge? They wouldn’t. It’s not intelligible music, but instead chaotic noise.
The same is true of tongues, Paul says in verse 9: So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air.
The gathered worship of God’s people isn’t meant to be chaos. It’s meant to engage the mind and heart for the edification of the church, as the end of verse 12 re-emphasizes.
Now, another related point before we move on to the next paragraph, this time involving what has been called, “private prayer languages.” Perhaps you’ve heard of such things. Some people say that they have the gift of speaking in tongues, but they don’t use it anywhere except in the prayer closet. This was popular among even Southern Baptist churches a while back, but I think it is misguided, and potentially quite dangerous.
The notion is misguided because they think that the spirit is leading them to speak in some “spiritual language” that is otherwise unknown to the rest of the world, some sort of angelic tongue, and not a known, spoken language.
But that is not how the gift of tongues is used in scripture, as I’ve already explained in this sermon series. Tongue speaking in Acts and elsewhere was an intelligible foreign language, given to the speaker as a gift of the Holy Spirit for the spread of the gospel and the edification of the church.
Additionally, Paul’s argument in verse 10-12 assumes the intelligibility of the tongues being spoken. If you don’t know the language, it is without meaning. So being in the prayer closet and speaking some tongue that you don’t understand is not helpful.
Further, these private prayer languages fail to meet Paul’s major point: building up the church. Verse 12: So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.
So don’t be led astray by people that try to make speaking in tongues a spiritual marker for maturity. The mature in Christ excel in building up the body, and to do that, you must use words, words that edify and words that are intelligible.
Moving on, let’s look at verses 13-19 and see that Worship must involve the mind. Worship that would edify must involve the mind.
Speaking in tongues, Paul points out in verse 13, without interpretation of those tongues, is unfruitful. Paul’s teaching tongues continues in verse 13:
13 Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. 15 What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.
What’s Paul getting at here? There was in the pagan religions of their day, and in our day, a temptation to make worship all about an emotion, sub-rational, ecstatic experience. This happens all the time today too. Some of you have seen this.
This kind of worship service, often found in charismatic circles and Pentecostalism, is quite a sight to behold if you have never experienced it. People are encouraged to almost disconnect their mind and just “follow the spirit” by speaking in tongues, dancing, gyrating, and doing all sorts of wild stuff.
Paul would rebuke such worship by saying that the worship of God MUST involve the mind to be fruitful. It doesn’t matter what our experience might be in the moment, it will be without the fruit of edification if it doesn’t engage the mind and isn’t marked by intelligibility. Verse 15:
15 What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.
We don’t disconnect our minds to worship God. We use our mind, taking every thought captive, and with it seek to engage the entirety of who we are in the praise of God and the edification of the body.
This necessity of intelligibility continues in verse 16:
16 Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? 17 For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up.
That means that the members of the congregation won’t be able to affirm what you’re saying, they can’t AMEN your ministry, without being able to understand what you’re saying.
Intelligible prophecy and instruction are way more edifying to the body than tongues, a point which Paul makes abundantly clear in 18 and 19:
18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.
I’d rather have 5 words spoken intelligibly, than 10,000 spoken in a tongue. That’s significant. If that is the case, then congregations who pursue the gifts of tongues in their services better listen up. It would be better to have a 5-word sermon that people understand, then 10,000 words spoken in a tongue nobody can understand.
Edification is the goal, and intelligibility is what is required in the worship gatherings of God’s people.
Lastly, let’s move on to the last 5 verses of our text and see that How we worship matters outside the church too. How we worship matters outside the church gathering also.
Paul’s main point in this section is verse 22 which says that tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign[c] not for unbelievers but for believers.
Why is this the case? Paul references the law in verse 21, meaning the Old Testament, and cites Isaiah 28, where God judges the Israelites through the Assyrians, who spoke a foreign language. Unintelligible speech is a sign of God’s judgment, just like at the tower of Babel.
Thus, if an unbeliever comes into the worship service and hears tongues being spoken and no interpretation given, they will be repulsed. That’s verse 23: If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?
That’s what we don’t want to happen, unintelligible worship that makes the gospel repulsive to unbelievers.
Instead, our aim is for clarity and intelligibility, by which the unbeliever can recognize the truth of God’s word and the presence of his spirit, verse 24:
24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 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.
What this means for us today, is that God ordinarily works to convict unbelievers through the intelligibility of the worship, and the intelligibility of the word proclaimed.
God is not honored through chaotic, disorderly, unintelligible worship, no matter how sincerely it is sought, no matter how spiritual it may feel. If it doesn’t engage the mind, it’s not godly worship. If it seeks to bypass the head and jump straight to the heart or spirit, it is not sound.
Believers know this, and even unbelievers can sense this.
Praise God that we have been given the necessary instructions in his word, for proper worship. We don’t have to wonder how God wants to be worshiped, or how the gatherings should be structured.
The necessary components are laid out in God’s word. Preaching, prayer, Lord’s supper and baptism, singing, fellowship. These simple means are enough for the edification of the body, and are the only elements of worship that God has promised to bless.
Let us be faithful to attend to them, to value them, to rightly seek them, because only in the right use of these means of grace will we be able to declare with Paul that God really is among us.
 Alistair Begg, “Building up the Church- Part 1” (Sermon, Parkside Baptist Church, Cleveland, OH, March 6, 1994), Building Up the Church — Part One – Sermon – Truth For Life https://truthforlife.org/resources/sermon/building-up-the-church-pt1/ Much of this sermon is informed by or borrowed from Begg’s presentation. I’m highly indebted to his structure, even though I don’t come to all the same conclusions that he does.