I intended last week’s post on 1 Corinthians 14 to be a stand-alone post (see “What do we do with 1 Corinthians 14?“). However, there were several good questions in the comments, so I thought I would respond further. Last Friday, in response, I asked some questions about “1 Corinthians 14 and Leadership“. This week, I plan to post a summary of 1 Corinthians 14 in order to explain how I interpret that passage of Scripture. I originally wrote the summary as one post, but it was much too long. So, I’ve broken it into four parts. In this first part, I want to examine the context of 1 Corinthians 14, and discuss the first five verses of the chapter.
First, remember that 1 Corinthians 14 does not stand alone. It is part of three chapters that Paul wrote to the church in Corinth in order to answer their question(s) about spiritual gifts: “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed [or, ignorant].” (1 Cor. 12:1) At the conclusion of these three chapters, Paul returns to the idea of ignorance: “If anyone does not recognize this [or, is ignorant], he is not recognized [or, he is ignored].” (1 Cor. 14:38) Thus, it appears that in these three chapters, Paul tells the Corinthians what they need to know about spiritual gifts (i.e. so that they won’t be ignorant).
Also, there is something very interesting about 1 Corinthians 12-14. In chapters 12 and 13, there is only one imperative (command) which is found at the end of chapter 12: “But earnestly desire the higher [or, greater] gifts.” (1 Cor. 12:31) This command is then repeated and expanded at the beginning of chapter 14: “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.” (1 Cor. 14:1) Thus, 1 Corinthians 13 does seem to be a parenthetical statement in this passage. This does not mean that 1 Corinthians 13 is unimportant – it is extremely important. Instead, it indicates that the command in 1 Cor. 12:31 is interrupted, then continued in 1 Cor. 14:1.
So, chapters 12-14 contain only 1 command which is interrupted then continued in chapter 14. But, chapter 14 includes 21 commands – 17 of the commands are found in the last half of chapter 14. Thus, chapter 14 appears to be an application of chapters 12 and 13. Is this application for everyone at all times, or is it simply for the church at Corinth? In order to determine that, we should examine the specific way that Paul applies his teaching on spiritual gifts. Now… on to the summary.
Section 1 – vv. 1-5 – Application of spiritual gifts when the church gathers
Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up. (1 Cor. 14:1-5 ESV)
In this section, Paul begins to apply his teaching about spiritual gifts. Specifically, we see three phrases that tell us that the context for this application is the meeting of the church: “speaks to people”, “builds up the church”, and “so that the church may be built up”. Some suggest that Paul is being sarcastic when he says, “The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself.” However, there is no change between this phrase and the next: “[B]ut the one who prophesies builds up the church.” They are parallel statements. Neither appears to be sarcastic. Speaking in tongues does build up the person speaking, but exercising that gift without interpretation does not edify anyone else. Since the context is the meeting of the church, edifying others should be the focus. Therefore, prophesy is better than speaking in tongues. By extension, exercising any gift that edifies others would be better than exercising any other gift that does not edify others.
Remember that Paul has already said that speaking in tongues is a gift from the Spirit given by the will of the Spirit. However, in these first five verses of 1 Corinthians 14, Paul begins to teach that there are situations where it is not prudent to exercise some spiritual gifts. For example, in the context of the gathering of the church, believers should not exercise speaking in tongues unless there is also interpretation. Paul does not say that believers should never speak in tongues. Instead, in this chapter, he is instructing them how to apply his teachings about spiritual gifts when the church is meeting together.
Thus, this is also the context in which we should apply this passage. As the church meets together today, the people should consider Paul’s instructions. Are they exercising gifts that edify other people? We should keep this context in mind as we study the remainder of this chapter.
Series on 1 Corinthians 14:
Prologue 1 – What do we do with 1 Corinthians 14?
Prologue 2 – 1 Corinthians 14 and the Leadership
Context & Verses 1-5 – Summary of 1 Corinthians 14 – Part 1
Verses 6-25 – Summary of 1 Corinthians 14 – Part 2
Verses 26-40 – Summary of 1 Corinthians 14 – Part 3
Concluding Remarks – Summary of 1 Corinthians 14 – Part 4