5 March 2015

1 Corinthians 14:1-12

“Since you are eager for spiritual gifts, strive to excel in them for building up the church.” (v. 12)

Psalm: Psalm 119:65-80


After his mystical reflection on the power of love in chapter 13, Paul returns to his earlier argument abut spiritual gifts in this next section which begins chapter 14. He calls on his readers to "pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts" (v. 1), but suggests that of all the gifts, the one most to be strived for is that of prophecy.

The reasons for this are set out in these next dozen verses. Paul makes his case by contrasting the gift of prophecy with that of speaking in tongues or ecstatic utterance. In making this distinction, Paul picks up again on the criterion he used earlier in chapter 12 (1 Corinthians 12:7), namely what is of most use in building up the church. Those who speak in tongues speak only to God, for no one else understands them "since they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit" (v. 2); by contrast, those who prophesy are serving to encourage and console their fellow Christians. The result is that "those who speak in a tongue build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the church" (v. 4). This is why prophecy is the greater gift, unless there is also someone able to interpret those speaking in tongues.

Paul continues to explore this distinction in his next section, asking what benefit it would bring if he were to come speaking in tongues, without some revelation or prophecy or teaching to accompany and interpret them? It would be like hearing instruments make a noise without being able to discern either the notes or music being played (verses 6-7)? Similarly this is the danger that he identifies for those speaking in tongues in Corinth; if they "utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is being said?" They will simply be "speaking into the air" (v. 9). Without knowing what the sounds signify, they are useless and unintelligible to others; so if the Corinthians are eager for spiritual gifts, they should "strive to excel in them for building up the church" (v. 12).

The fact that Paul spends so much time in this letter talking about spiritual gifts, and especially about speaking in tongues, suggests that this is a real issue of tension and division for the Christian community in Corinth. From what he goes on to write next, it appears that speaking in tongues is something that Paul is able to do in private. But what matters more is his insistence that in public the most important thing is to focus on those spiritual gifts which encourage others and build up the life of the church.

To Ponder

  • Have you experienced the gift of tongues being used in the life and worship of the Church?
  • How did it make you feel?
  • Do you think that our worship is sometimes too cerebral and doesn't allow enough space for feeling and emotion? If so, how might the balance be readdressed?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Stephen Wigley

Stephen Wigley is a Methodist minister currently serving as chair of the Wales Synod. He is married to Jenny, a priest in the Church in Wales, and they have two teenage sons, David and Andrew.