By Sam E. Stone
From the day that the church began in Jerusalem, God endowed certain members with miraculous gifts. These were needed in that day. When the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, they began to preach in tongues (Acts 2:6-11). These were languages that they did not know and had not studied. As they preached, the people who were gathered there from many different countries could each understand the apostolic message in their own language.
J. W. McGarvey wrote, “Speaking with tongues was not an incoherent, meaningless jargon uttered by the speaker in ecstatic rhapsody, nor was it ‘spiritual language unknown to man, uttered in ecstacy.’ The second chapter of Acts shows us clearly what it was, and the New Testament never explains it as being anything less or different.”
1 Corinthians 14:13-17
Paul wrote this letter to Corinth perhaps 20 years after the Day of Pentecost. In chapter 14 he addressed questions relating to the gifts of prophecy and tongues. The primary value of speaking in another language comes when those who hear can understand and apply what is said. Speaking in tongues was evidently very important to the Corinthians, but their experience seems to have been the exception, not the rule. Paul also wrote letters to Christians in Rome, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae, and Thessalonica, yet he mentioned nothing in any of these letters about tongues; only in his letter to Corinth was the question addressed. None of the other New Testament epistles refer to speaking in tongues at all.
Moreover, not everyone in the Corinthian church spoke in tongues (1 Corinthians 12:4-11). Paul urged the people to have the right priorities. “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” (14:5). The apostle wanted the Corinthians to be understood, whether they were singing, praying, or speaking. Every Christian should be concerned with building up the church, not seeking to impress others with their gift!
1 Corinthians 14:18-26
Paul declared, I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. He understood the value of tongues but wanted the people to remember their purpose. Paul’s goal was for all people to hear, believe, and understand the message. Tom Friskney explained, “Even a short thought understood was worth more than a whole discourse spoken in a foreign language.” Like infants, they were to have no evil desires or wrong motives. Paul simply wanted them to be childlike—not childish!
The apostle then quoted from Isaiah 28:11, 12, describing a time when the Israelites heard the foreign language of their oppressors, the Assyrians (Deuteronomy 28:49). The principle he enunciated was, Tongues
. . . are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers.
Those who had the gift of prophecy, on the other hand, could help all Christians learn and grow. Their audience was not limited to those who could interpret and understand the particular foreign language being spoken. Prophecy is a spiritual gift too (Romans 12:6; 1 Corinthians 12:10). Through it believers come to maturity as they learn God’s Word.
Imagine how this would work out in a church service. A visitor (unbeliever) who came in and heard people speaking in different languages would have difficulty understanding or appreciating what was happening. This very thing happened on the Day of Pentecost, as a matter of fact (Acts 2:13). On the other hand, if an unsaved person hears a message that convicts him of sin and convinces him that salvation is available through Christ, it can make a tremendous difference. W. Harold Mare pointed out, “Prophecy, spoken in the vernacular language and intended for believers, turns out to have a positive effect on unbelievers because they hear and understand and are convicted of their sins.”
In verse 26 Paul restated the general principle to be employed when Christians use any gift of the Spirit: all are to be used for the edifying of the church. Tom Friskney noted, “The principle applies to what is done and how it is done.”
Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. The theme of today’s lesson—“Seek the good of others”—should be the guiding principle for every Christian, whatever his or her gifts may be.
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.