Letters to the Corinthians: Speaking in Tongues is Awesome …

Everyone knows that speaking in tongues is awesome. I had a friend who went to a tongue-speaking church with her other friend as her other friend’s guest. During the tongue-speaking part of the service, one of the other believers came up to her and pushed her on the forehead. She didn’t know that she was supposed to fall down as one who was slain in the spirit. So she just stood there. So the believer asked her: “Why aren’t you speaking in tongues yet?”; I guess the believer expected that what he or she had just done was a form of laying on hands that should have enabled her to speak in tongues. The person wandered off, not far enough though, for she overheard that person say to another: “That girl over there can’t speak in tongues, I think she’s a sinner.” Now me, I actually can speak another language – as a result of years of dedicated study. But this miracle involves skipping the study and being fluent in either a human language the speaker doesn’t know or an angelic language that nobody knows. Part of the awesomeness of that is the validation of having that gift: a person being more spiritually attuned than another manifests this ability so that everyone within earshot can hear and praise God that tongue-speaking is going on here – God is here making it happen. But Paul has just spent a lot of time talking about a variety of gifts that ought to come from a place of love. Paul, who admits to speaking in tongues himself, says that he would prefer that if the whole church were to have the same gift it would be the gift of prophecy. Let’s take a closer look at 1 Corinthians 14:1-25 and learn why he prefers another gift over his own:

Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified.

Prophecy is speaking to people for their strengthening, encouraging, and comfort – a few chapters previously, Paul recognizes that just as women pray, they also prophesy – this in keeping with the prophecy from Joel that Peter declared had come to pass at the first Pentecost: “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy …” Paul wants to get the believers to understand that Prophesy is more awesome than Speaking in Tongues because it edifies everyone – it strengthens everyone, it encourages everyone, and it comforts everyone. Like the Corinthians, we’re all too often guilty of holding up Speaking in Tongues as proof of our individual spiritual level or we don’t believe in the gifts at all. This day and age – we need more strengthening, encouraging, and comfort in our church – we need more prophesy.

Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the pipe or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker is a foreigner to me. So it is with you. Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church.

Every now and then I get an opportunity to hear a few foreign languages on t.v., but without the closed captions there would be no way to know what’s being said. Speaking a language in and of itself is only useful if someone understands and listening to music is pleasant only if there is a distinction in the notes; take this scene from Star Trek TNG:

Now imagine an entire church where everyone was saying something that nobody understands loudly enough to be heard by everyone else who likely weren’t the sort to let themselves be outdone. So they’d up the volume, trying to be sure that they can be heard over everyone else because the Holy Spirit has inspired them with the most important message of all.

For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an inquirer,say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying? You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified.

Speaking in Tongues isn’t about putting one’s mind on auto-pilot, it shouldn’t be the chief end of worship – it should be the conduit through which a message gets changed from not useful to usable, unknowable to knowable, and that’s why it’s essential to have an interpretation of tongues – so that everyone benefits. The position of the inquirer suggests an uninitiated person in the congregation – the ancient equivalent of a seeker who is very much interested, but not well-versed in the teachings or rituals of the church. Paul doesn’t want the new guy or girl to feel like more of an outsider, but to be built up in understanding also.

I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.

Paul’s gift makes sense for a mobile missionary – he’s traveled extensively over the known world and will often meet different communities with language barriers and opportunities for miscommunication even with his gift of speaking in tongues – the most famous of which was the time that Paul was mistaken for the Greek god Hermes in Lystra and Derbe in Acts 14. Corinth is a port city, so it does have it’s share of strangers coming and going – but if their worship is anything like ours – most of the time we find ourselves surrounded by the same people in the same chairs in the same rows from one week to the next. There’s not that much opportunity to speak other languages when the person who sits next to you speaks the same language that you do. So odds are the ever popular speaking in tongues probably has more to do with angel languages than human languages.

Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. In the Law it is written: “With other tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.”

That’s Isaiah 28:11,12 – “Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues God will speak to this people, to whom he said, “This is the resting place, let the weary rest”; and, “This is the place of repose”— but they would not listen.”

Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers. So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”

I always enjoyed imagining this verse: It’s time for worship and believers are probably gathering at one of the houses of the wealthier members of the church. There are some inquirers who show up trying to understand more about what’s going on. And a few unbelievers decide to come for the show. At first it goes pretty well …

Then it happens – everyone begins speaking in tongues; you’ve got hushes whispers, multi-syllabic words that keep on getting longer and longer, some are getting louder, shouting; like listening to two dozen tracks of music at once, or two dozen instruments playing to different music without rhythm or pause – nothing seems to be making any sense. The inquirers and unbelievers have never seen or heard anything like it – if they could talk to each other, they might say things like: “These people are insane!” or “This is the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen, I wonder, how much longer can they keep it up for?

Then it happens – everyone begins to prophesy. The believers begin to strengthen, encourage, and comfort one another, and for good measure, they’re able to strengthen, encourage, and comfort the inquirers and the unbelievers, too. Paul seems to think that once all their secrets are out in the open they’ll begin to worship God also. The inquirers and ready for the next step and maybe an unbeliever or two decides to come back next week as an inquirer. They both come to the conclusion: “God is really among you!

God is really among you – can that be said of our worship today?

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