Spiritually-gifted to give, not to get (1 Corinthians 14)
If Paul the apostle wrote a letter to Maida Vale, how would he describe this church?
I’m going to read what Paul wrote to the church in Corinth. But let’s pretend it was addressed to us.
How would you feel if Paul said this – not about the Corinthians – but about us all here at Maida Vale?
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge— even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you— so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.1 Corinthians 1:4-8
Would this be enough grounds to call Maida Vale a success?
Is it enough to be rich in all speech and all knowledge and not lack any spiritual gift?
Consider for a moment: If the elders at Maida Vale had prophetic powers and understood all mysteries and all knowledge; if there were people in this congregation who could speak in the tongues of men and of angels; spiritual giants who had so much faith they could move mountains…
Would this be enough to call Maida Vale a healthy church?
And, individually… what if you were the most spiritually-gifted person in the world… wouldn’t this make you a great blessing to the church?
Here’s what Paul says…
“If I have not love, I am nothing”
“If I have not love, I gain nothing”
Here’s Paul’s final verdict of the church in Corinth:
But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.CRUX: 1 Corinthians 3:1
Here’s a church with every spiritual gift described as unspiritual.
Why? Because the Corinthians weren’t a church characterized by love.
Instead, as Paul painfully points out, they were:
Arrogant, “puffed up”, quarrelsome; a church typified by disunity, division, jealousy; a church in which Christian brothers and sisters take each-other to court, desecrate the Lord’s supper, worship idols, and enjoy sexual immorality of a kind “not even tolerated amongst pagans.”
Yet, tragically, they didn’t see it. They thought they were doing fine – they even boasted about their spiritual superiority in the community.
A classic example of a spiritually-gifted unspiritual church.
Why? Because true spirituality is not found in giftedness, it’s found in love.
So today I ask you, what are you more interested in? Abounding in gifts, or abounding in love?
It’s not by accident that the two greatest chapters on giftedness in the Bible form a sandwich around the greatest chapter on love.
Here’s the point: if we don’t understand and value love, we will never understand gifts.
Without love, gifts are completely useless.
There are many churches today that are obsessed with gifts and power and signs and miracles and healings and tongues and prophecy – but without love – they are useless.
The whole point of spiritual-giftedness is to help us to love better.
This is why Paul says that it’s more excellent to strive for love, than to strive for giftedness.
Because loveless giftedness is worthless.
It’s a sobering thought to think of what our Lord said about the many gifted people who will approach him one day and say:
‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’Matthew 7:22-23
The greatest men and women this world has ever known, are remembered – not for their giftedness – but for their love.
So isn’t it a great irony that there’s been such bitter conflict and controversy over how to understand 1 Corinthians 14? Paul’s discussion on tongues and prophecy follows directly after one of the greatest chapters on love in the Bible.
Here’s what the Holy Spirit says to all of us today: (If you’re not there already, please turn with me in your Bibles to 1 Corinthians 14).
And as I read through the first 26 verses, see if you can pick up the repeated refrain.
(I’ll give you a clue: It’s not about how to speak in tongues or how to prophecy)
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. Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. 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. So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.1 Corinthians 14:1–12
Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. 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; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up. I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue. Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. In the Law it is written, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you. What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.
So what’s the main point of this chapter?
Right. The main point is that God gives us spiritual gifts not for our personal edification but “to build up the church”.
Six times in these verses he tells us to use our gifts to build others up.
So if you have a spiritual gift – it’s not for you – it’s for building up the church.
That’s why the longest chapter on tongues and prophecy in the bible begins with these two words: “Pursue love.”
And if there’s one thing we should remember from the greatest chapter on love in the whole Bible, 1 Corinthians 13, it’s that love is not self-seeking.
Love finds joy in serving others not ourselves.
So when we take giftedness and turn it into self-love – a means of making a name for ourselves, or finding our identity in the world – we undo the purpose for which the gifts were given to begin with.
That’s how we’re supposed to understand the close connection in verse 1 between pursuing love (which is the big idea) and “earnestly desiring the spiritual gifts” (which supports the big idea).
We earnestly desire the spiritual gifts so that we can love eachother and build each other up.
We don’t desire the spiritual gifts so that we can strive to become a tongues-speaking, mountain-moving jedi.
So how does the gift of tongues become a problem?
The gift of tongues becomes a problem when it doesn’t build up the church.
And at this time in history, with the spread of the gospel into many nations it was both strategic and necessary for many Christians to be given the ability to speak in other languages – so that the church could be built up (which is the purpose for ALL spiritual gifts)
We see this most clearly at Pentecost in Acts. Here’s an example of tongues being used in a healthy way:
And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”Acts 2:4-11
And what was the result? 3 000 people from all over the known world were saved.
But when a person’s spiritually-empowered linguistic ability becomes a monument to self-importance – the gift becomes a curse.
If I decided to preach in Latin just to impress you, this whole exercise would be a total waste of time.
Sadly, that’s exactly what “the gift of tongues” has become in many churches around the world – a useless unintelligible noise to distract us from the main reason tongues were given in the first place: to clearly communicate the precious truth of the gospel.
To see why I adopt this interpretation, let’s look a little more closely at Paul’s argument.
The 1st thing Paul wants to do here is put tongues in its rightful place. He’s already left it at the bottom of 3 lists in chapter 12.
Now Paul explains why prophecy is superior to tongues, stating up front in verse 1 that desiring the spiritual gifts should logically give us a greater desire to prophesy than to speak in other languages.
Here’s his reasoning in verse 2…
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.
In other words, people who speak in foreign languages can only be understood by God because others won’t be able to understand what they are saying.
That’s why prophesying is better… because it builds up the church.
On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.1 Corinthians 14:3
That’s what happens when the church hears God’s word. It builds them up; it encourages them and it consoles them. It brings us closer to each other and to God in love.
Which is why Paul tells us in Romans 15:4…
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.Romans 15:4
In other words, all the prophecies and proverbs, songs, stories and statutes in the Old Testament have this purpose for us Christians today… to encourage us and give us hope.
So here’s the comparison again, verse 4:
The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church.1 Corinthians 14:4
Some folks want to make a whole theology of tongues around that first clause when the point is this:
Tongues was not given to “build up” the individual – it was given like every other gift, for the building up of the church!
Just like we were told way back in chapter 12 verse 7:
“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit – not for each individual’s personal edification – but for the common good.”1Corinthians 12:7
This explains why Paul concludes in chapter 14 verse 5:
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.1Corinthians 14:5
The measure of the greatness of any gift of the Spirit is how much it builds up other people in the church.
There’s no place in the church for giftedness that doesn’t give to others.
So just in case we didn’t get it, here’s Paul again in VERSE 6-9:
Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air.1Corinthians 14:6-9
In other words, if tongues isn’t being used to communicate something helpful – don’t use it!
We don’t want to go back to the tower of Babel. We wanted to be united in understanding. This is how we love each other and build each other up.
And now we come to what I believe to be the most important verse in this whole chapter:
So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.1Corinthians 14:12
In other words, don’t make giftedness your goal. Make other people your goal.
And God will supply what we need to love others.
So what does this mean for tongues? Verse 13…
Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret.1 Corinthians 14:13
Interpretation unites believers in the truth; foreign languages divide us.
We all know what it’s like to feel on the outside of a conversation because we don’t speak the language. This is not love. Love doesn’t seek to exclude, it seeks to include.
Love wants there to be good communication between us.
So tongues have no place in our community unless they bring us together.
Look at how Paul explains himself. Verse 14…
For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful.1 Corinthians 14:14
In other words, praying in another language when there are people out there who don’t understand what you’re saying isn’t using your mind to glorify God – it’s completely unfruitful. The gift of tongues is completely unfruitful if we don’t use our minds.
The kind of worship that God seeks is this: to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul… and with all your mind.
Or in Romans 12:2
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.Romans 12:2
Here’s the point: speaking in tongues when you know that other people won’t understand you is not only unkind – it’s mindless.
When you’re on your own you can pray and sing in any language that you choose.
But in the church, praying or praising God in languages that no one else understands is inherently a mindless process.
So Paul says:
What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up.1 Corinthians 14:15–17
(And that’s the whole point). That’s why Paul tells us in VERSES 18-19
I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.1Corinthians 14:18-19
This is Paul’s polite way of saying – if tongues are not being used to communicate truth – don’t use them in the church!
Some commentators try to make the case here that what Paul is saying by an “unfruitful mind” is that those who speak in tongues cannot understand what they themselves are saying. But this doesn’t make sense of how the word is used in the rest of the NT and it doesn’t make sense of this passage – in particular VERSES 27-28…
If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God.1 Corinthians 14:27–28
You cannot speak to yourself if you cannot understand yourself. And to speak things to God that we ourselves don’t understand is meaningless, disrespectful and dishonouring to him because it isn’t worshiping God with our minds.
This is a serious matter, which is why Paul doesn’t mince his words in verse 20… (notice the emphasis on using our minds)
Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.1 Corinthians 14:20
And then he makes the case that not only is tongues an unfruitful, mindless exercise when we don’t use the gift to build up others in love – tongues can also be a form of judgement upon us.
This is where he quotes from Isaiah 28….
In the Law it is written, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers.1 Corinthians 14:21–22
Back in Isaiah’s day, when Israel refused to listen to the word of God in their own tongue, here’s how God made his judgment known to them: by taking them to Babylon where they would be surrounded with people who spoke an entirely foreign language.
It was God’s poetic justice – because they refused to listen when his words could be understood, now they will be condemned to hear words spoken to them in a language that they cannot understand.
So when our speaking in church deliberately causes a breakdown in communication amongst us, it is tragically reminiscent, not only of Babel, but also of Babylon.
The gift of tongues was never given to cause confusion. It was given to cause communication.
It’s a great irony and sadness today that so many churches are experts in the one and not the other.
Paul paints for us two radically different church scenarios.
If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.1 Corinthians 14:23–25
Which one of these scenarios should we strive for? Paul hopes it’s obvious.
And this brings us to the conclusion of the matter. Verse 26…
What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.1 Corinthians 14:26
The bottom line is this: are we building up the church with our gifts or not?
This is the refrain that defines this chapter.
It’s a great travesty that 1 Corinthians 14 for many Christians has become a DIY manual for tongues and prophesy when it was never given to us for that purpose.
This is why 1 Corinthians 14 is relevant to us all here at Maida Vale despite the fact that none of us speaks in tongues or prophesies or raises the dead or does miracles.
So instead of worrying about the gifts we might or might not have, let’s strive to build each other up.
Then we will find that God will indeed equip each one of us in various exciting ways to make that possible.
Because that’s how he has planned for his church to be built up in love.
So what does a spiritually-gifted unspiritual church need to realise?
The same things that we here at Maida Vale need to learn all over again:
• We are spiritually gifted to give, not to get.
• Loveless giftedness is worthless: the gifts are there to help us love
• The goal of giftedness is the building up of the church, not ourselves (when it doesn’t build up, it’s not a gift, it’s a curse)
With that said, let’s pray that Maida Vale would be a church where our desire for spiritual gifts serves a deeper passion to pursue love and the building up of other people. Let’s pray…