Select Wisdom Brand

Click the image to watch the video.
Scroll down for more options.



Guiding Principles for the Gifts of Prophecy and Tongues

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: 1 Corinthians 14:1–25

Spiritual gifts can be abused, misused, and misunderstood, even to the point of distracting us from the one who gave them. The apostle Paul gives us an important reminder that God’s gifts are not toys for us to use as we desire but tools for us to use for His glory.


Would you not be disappointed if you gave new parents a book you had written on the principles of parenting, only to discover that they were selling the book online soon after? How would you feel if you gave some money to believers in your church who were raising funds for their mission trip, only to discover later that they had used your financial gift to buy some new clothing?

Well, this little church in Corinth was doing something similar. They had been given spiritual gifts from God, but they were using them in a way that God never intended.

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul dealt with their unbalanced perspective on spiritual gifts, as they focused their attention on the public gifts. Paul reminded them in verses 29 and 30 that God did not give every believer the gifts of healing or speaking in tongues or prophecy. But the people in the church at Corinth wanted these particular gifts—and for all the wrong reasons.

Now we come to chapter 14, where Paul will specifically address the gift of tongues. I frankly believe this is the most ignored chapter among the charismatic movements of today, even though this chapter says more about speaking in tongues than all the other chapters in the New Testament combined. Many people are repeating some of the same mistakes today that these believers were making in first-century Corinth.

In the first twenty-five verses, Paul presents two guiding principles for the use of tongues: the principles of edification and understanding.[1]

The gift of tongues was a supernatural gift that empowered people to speak in a language they had never learned. I believe, just as it originally occurred on the day of Pentecost, that every tongue was a language known somewhere in the world.

Also at work in the early church was the gift of prophecy. Prophecy was declaring divinely received truth in the language of the listener. One of the most ignored truths that Paul reinforces in this chapter is that prophecy has greater value than tongues. Paul writes in verse 1, “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.” That is, deliver God’s word to people in a language they understand.

He explains why in verse 2: “One who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him.” Many people today use this verse to argue for a private use of the gift of tongues in their prayer closet. Beloved, no gift was meant for personal use only. That would be like someone saying he has the gift of giving, but he only gives to himself!

Suppose I have the gift of teaching and prepare a sermon and then go into my closet and preach. Then I come out and tell you, “That was a wonderful experience for me!” You would probably take me to a doctor.

Paul is not encouraging some private prayer time when you speak in a language you do not understand. In fact, Paul clearly says down in verse 14, “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also.” In other words, Paul is saying that you are closest to God in prayer when you are speaking a language your mind understands. So, Paul is not encouraging some sort of mystical prayer language that you cannot understand; he says here that would be unfruitful—unhelpful.

Likewise, in the church the need for interpretation is apparent. In fact, Paul writes, “In church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue” (verse 19). After all, what profit is there in the assembly if tongues are not interpreted?

I have heard pastors on television and in person just start rambling in some supposed language and then, without any interpretation from anyone, get back to their sermon. If the apostle Paul were in the audience, he would probably stand up and say, “Sir, what you just did might have made you feel important or look spiritual, but as far as edifying the church, it was absolutely unfruitful. It did not help anybody at all.”

Again, Paul is emphasizing the principle of edification. Back in verse 3 he writes, “The one who prophesies [speaking in the language of his audience] speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.” Now that is fruitful and meaningful.

But you might wonder about the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, when the apostles first spoke in tongues. There were no interpreters present then. Well, keep in mind that interpreters were not needed at that event, because the apostles were speaking various languages that were represented in the crowd that had gathered. Everyone heard his native language being spoken.

So, what Paul gives us here is the guiding principle of edification. Every spiritual gift from God is to be used to edify—to encourage, to build up, the church and other believers.

Second, he gives us the guiding principle of understanding. In order to benefit the believer and the church, there must be understanding. And the nature of this miraculous demonstration of the gift of tongues meant that the congregation would not have understood the language spoken, whether it was Spanish, or Mandarin, or Portuguese. So once again, Paul stresses the need for the gift of interpretation.

Note verses 10-11:

There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, 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.

Again, without an interpreter, there is no understanding of the tongue. And if there is no understanding, there is no edification. This is why Paul writes in verse 13 that the person who speaks in that unknown language should be praying for someone who is able to interpret.  

The point Paul is making is that tongues must always be accompanied by understanding, or, it’s just a lot of noise.

And what about unbelievers who show up to a church service? Paul writes rather bluntly here of their response if the Christians are speaking in tongues without any interpretation. He says, “Will they not say that you are out of your minds?” (verse 23). Without the principles of edification and understanding, neither the believers nor unbelieving visitors will benefit from this gift.

Now with that, we arrive at perhaps the most ignored verses in this chapter. In verse 21 Paul cites Isaiah 28:11-12. In these prophetic verses, the Lord says He will speak to Israel through foreign people with “strange tongues” and yet they will not listen. In other words, hundreds of years earlier, God promised through Isaiah to send foreign languages as a sign to the Jewish people that they had rejected the true Messiah.

Paul writes here in verse 22, “Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers.” Do not miss this! The gift of tongues, when properly interpreted, not only instructed the church with undeniably supernatural revelation until the Scriptures were completed, but it also sent a message to unbelieving Israel that they needed to listen to the apostles. This sign gift was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s warning: the nation had rejected the Messiah.

I have asked charismatic folks over the years how many Jewish people are being saved in their church services. They look at me rather strangely, and I remind them that this was the unique purpose of this temporary gift. Paul says right here that it was a sign to the unbelieving Jewish nation.

[1] See Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Wise (Victor Books, 1983), 134-41.

Add a Comment

We hope this resource blessed you. Our ministry is EMPOWERED by your prayer and ENABLED by your financial support.