By Rev. Tim Sullivan

(Here is a link to Part One, and Part Two of this series)


In our previous lesson, we looked at the benefits of the gift of tongues in a Christian's personal life. In this lesson, we will see how the gift of tongues is best used inside congregational meetings.

Chapters 12, 13, and 14 of 1 Corinthians are a unit unto themselves. Chapter 12 begins with a call to instruction ("Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant"). It teaches us how the Holy Spirit manifests itself through the gifts it energizes, and concludes with an exhortation to use those gifts in "a more excellent way."

1 Corinthians 12:31
But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.

The "more excellent way" is the way of "charity", the Old English term for the self-sacrificing love personified by Christ. This is the kind of love that fulfills the two great commandments. And what does this love have to do with the spiritual gifts? In a word, EVERYTHING.

1 Corinthians 13:1-2
1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.

The spiritual gifts (the subject of Chapter 12) should be used with Christian love (the subject of Chapter 13). When we subject ourselves to the guiding principles of Christian love, we will use these gift in the way that most benefits the occasion. This is the subject of Chapter 14.

1 Corinthians 14:1
Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy.

The reason Paul prefers prophecy will become clear as we continue reading. But first, what is the gift of prophecy? Simply stated, it is a gift from the Holy Spirit that enables a Christian to bring a message from the LORD to a certain individual or group. This message will be in the language and within the vocabulary of the person speaking.

Having the gift of prophecy does not make someone a prophet. The ministry of a prophet is a position of spiritual leadership within the church with a special unction to keep the people in tune with God. Hebrews 5:4 says, "No man taketh this honour unto himself, but he that is called of God, as was Aaron." But all Spirit-filled Christians can be used by the Holy Spirit to bring forth an occasional word from the Lord. As 1 Samuel 10:7 says, "Do as occasion serve thee." The occasion must be right. This gift should only be used in submission to and in the fear of the LORD.

Just as the principal use of the gift of tongues is for speaking to God, prophecy is the Holy Spirit’s tool for speaking to the church.

Verses 2-3 [emphasis added]
2  For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries.
3  But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort.

A genuine word of prophecy will serve to edify, exhort, and/or comfort you. When the world is beating you down, words of EDIFICATION can build you back up. Words of EXHORTATION strengthen our resolve to fight a good fight and run a good race. Words of COMFORT soothe our pains.


Again and again, Paul uses 1 Corinthians 14 to compare the benefits of the gift of tongues to the gift of prophecy. In verse 4, we see that speaking in tongues builds up the person using the gift, but words of prophecy strengthen the entire congregation.

Verse 4 [emphasis added]   
He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church. 

God would like all his children to speak in tongues, but prophecy is the more excellent gift inside the church – EXCEPT when tongues are interpreted.

Verse 5 [emphasis added]   
I would that ye all spake with tongues, but rather that ye prophesied: for greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret, that the church may receive edifying.

Verse 5 brings in the third gift by which we can speak a new thing. The gift of the interpretation of tongues is the tool used by the Holy Spirit to restate the message that was spoken in tongues, but this time in the language of the person speaking. (The Holy Spirit is the interpreter, not the person. The person is the mouthpiece for the interpretation.)

God wants all his children to speak in tongues. But in congregational meetings, a word of prophesy is better EXCEPT when the gift of the interpretation of tongues is ALSO used. When the gift of tongues is used in tandem with the interpretation of tongues, there is the same benefit to the congregation as a word of prophecy: the church is edified.

Talking to an English-speaking audience, a French speaker would not be understood unless he had an English interpreter. But a French speaker with an English interpreter is just as effective as an English speaker. In the same way, a message in tongues with the interpretation of tongues is as effective as prophecy.


Which gift is "more excellent"? It depends on the occasion. Speaking in tongues is a wonderful way to talk to God, but it does little for the person listening to you.

1 Corinthians 14:6
Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine? 

Even a trumpet’s call to battle is useless if the signal is not understood.

Verses 7-8
7   And even things without life giving sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped?
8   For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?

Words are for communication. But if our words are not understood, they are useless to those listening.

Verse 9
So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air.

The same words that can cause men to praise you as a poet in your own country will expose you as a foreigner in another.

Verse 10-11
10  There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification. 
11  Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me.

(As an example, click HERE and listen. This is the Lord's Prayer recited in the language of the Navajo Indians. But to most of the world, it sounds like someone speaking in tongues!)

It is selfish to seek only your personal benefit. Speaking in tongues edifies the individual speaking, but only him. Our zeal for spiritual gifts must be governed by love.

Verse 12   
Even so ye, forasmuch as ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church. 

Speaking in tongues is only beneficial to the congregation when it is interpreted. That is why Paul instructs everyone who has the gift of tongues to PRAY to receive the gift of the interpretation of tongues.

Verse 13
Wherefore let him that speaketh in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret.

Speaking in tongues benefits a man’s inner being, but not his mind. And so, God gives us two ways to pray – with the spirit, and with the understanding – each one having a particular benefit:

Verses 14-15   
14  For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful.
15  What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also. 

Inside the walls of the church, we should do what is best for the ENTIRE congregation. We should pray with our understanding so people can be joined with us in spirit and heart.

Verses 16-17
16  Else when thou shalt bless with the spirit, how shall he that occupieth the room of the unlearned say Amen at thy giving of thanks, seeing he understandeth not what thou sayest?
17  For thou verily givest thanks well, but the other is not edified.

Now the love and wisdom behind Paul’s instruction is clear:

Verses 18-19  [emphasis added]
18   I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all: 
19   Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.


In verses 20 and 21, Paul ties speaking in tongues to a warning God gave the Jews hundred of years earlier. But first, he asks for maturity from the reader. Knowing that the church in Corinth was by and large a congregation of converted Gentiles, he knew that human nature would prompt them to think they were someone better than their Jewish brethren.

Verse 20
Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men.

From the beginning, God’s Word always came to earth in the language of the Jews. But Isaiah declared that the Jews’ disdain for God would compel him to speak to them in a foreign language. This came to pass in the years of the Babylonian captivity. The foreign tongue of the Babylonians was a constant reminder to the Jews that their sins had cost them their homeland.

Isaiah 28:11-12  
11   For with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people. 
12   To whom he said, This is the rest wherewith ye may cause the weary to rest; and this is the refreshing: yet they would not hear.

This is the passage Paul quotes in Chapter 14.

1 Corinthians 14:21  
In the law it is written, With men of other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people; and yet for all that will they not hear me, saith the Lord.

Taken within the context of Isaiah’s prophecy, tongues are NOT a sign to those who do not KNOW God. They are a sign to those who KNOW him but do not BELIEVE him. On the other hand, prophesying is for those with "ears to hear."

Verses 22-23   
22 Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not: but prophesying serveth not for them that believe not, but for them which believe.
23 If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad?

In verse 23, the UNLEARNED (from the Greek idiotes) are the people in the congregation who have not been properly taught. The UNBELIEVERS (apistos) are those who have been taught but reject the instruction.

Sadly, the ignorance and/or hardheartedness of the people of God in the use of the spiritual gifts has made the Holy Spirit an object of derision. Paul's warning has come to pass, and speaking in tongues is often associated with mental illness. Just consider the American Heritage Dictionary definition of GLOSSOLALIA:

1. The gift of tongues; the ability to speak foreign languages without having consciously learned them.
2. Fabricated and nonmeaningful speech, especially such speech associated with a trance state or certain schizophrenic syndromes.

When things are done the more excellent way, an entirely different effect is achieved.

Verses 24-25
24  But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all: 
25   And thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth.

The rules of the more excellent way are not complicated.

Verses 27-28  
27  If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret. 
28  But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God.


God accepts no responsibility for the disorderly conduct that is commonly associated with speaking in tongues. But this confusion does not come only with speaking in tongues. In verses 29 to 36, Paul addresses problems of disorder among the presbytery. First, the men with the ministry of a prophet were speaking over each other, each one vying with the other to be heard.

Verses 29 to 31
29  Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge.
30  If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace.
31  For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted.

Though these men undoubtedly tried to blame the Holy Spirit, this was not the working of God. The Holy Spirit never MAKES anyone do ANYTHING. These men had full control over their own mouths.

Verse 32-33
32 And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.
33 For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.

Secondly, the wives of the prophets were vying for their own place in the spotlight, bringing in more confusion with their interruptions. Paul instructed these women to do things a more excellent way.

Verses 34-36
34  Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law.
35  And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.
36  What? came the word of God out from you? or came it unto you only?

The context of this passage suggests that it is shameful for women to be DISRUPTIVE in church. While the Bible does not sanction women as leaders over men, no one should think it is sinful for a woman to pray or read from the Holy Scriptures for the assembly.

In closing, Paul asserts that no Christian should doubt the veracity of his instruction to the church:

Verse 37
If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord.

Do you remember how Paul began this three-chapter section? "Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant." Of all God's creatures, only people can choose to be ignorant.

Verse 38
But if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant.

But let us choose the more excellent way, the way that is most benefitting to all.

Verse 39
Wherefore, brethren, covet to prophesy, and forbid not to speak with tongues.

And what is the Holy Spirit’s final word of instruction on this subject?

Verse 40
Let all things be done decently and in order.




Presented 5 December 2021 in French Settlement, Louisiana