Trying to understand the concept of “Tongues” vs. Prophecy, and Paul


Trying to understand the concept of “Tongues” vs. Prophecy, and Paul

I have a break in my classes, so I was just reading and thinking about 1st Corinthians 12-14. Paul does a lot with this section (my quotes come from the NIV version).

I want to focus on the idea of words as revealing or diminishing from God’s truth for a moment. I know that as humans, we each have the power to conceal or make known certain things with words. I’m fascinated by how Paul describes this.

In 1st Co 13:1, a lot of scholars focus on the latter half of the sentence “If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but I have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” These words are true, but it is also important to look at the first couple words of it, and what it may imply.

“If I speak in the tongues of men.” What could that mean? Speaking in the tongues of Angels is clearly a divine thing, but what constitutes a tongue of men/humans? I am not sure what a “tongue” signified to Paul when he wrote this letter, or generally in his day, but the idea is that it was probably a collection of words that were distinct and could point to some meaning, or most likely, a language. Could Paul also simply be talking about the manner in which someone explains or says something?

I think he might be. The Bible is composed of infinite layers of meaning in single verses alone, and it would not surprise me in the least if Paul was addressing not only the specific verbal language people use (as in, English), but their word choice, way of speaking, and most importantly, the purpose in which they speak. There is so much hinging on a decent explanation, not only for the listener, but as a set of words that reveals the intentions of a speaker and where he or she places his or her trust, knowledge, and faith. If you speak without love, to me, that most implies that you are not polite. Then again, I am pretty blunt sometimes, and it does not always work out in my favor.

Furthermore, wouldn’t it stand to reason that “speaking without love” could be slightly more challenging in one area or another for a person, based on his or her specific spiritual gifts? Paul tells us that “love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”  

Paul supports this in 1st Co 14:3. Paul has been leading up to discussing the difference between prophecy and speaking in tongues (tongues of men). He discusses in 14:22 that “tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers.” Paul goes on to say that if “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?”

It is fascinating, because in the early days of the Church, one might imagine that prophecy (which is inspired by the [Holy] “Spirit” (14:2), was meant to be taken surely, as clear evidence of Jesus Christ revealed through the Holy Spirit and his resurrection. That is probably idealism, but it shouldn’t be. Clearly, immediate acceptance of the Gospel didn’t really happen. In order to really clarify, Paul states in 1st Co 14:3 that the purpose of prophecy is to for “up building and encouragement and consolation”, and specifically, “to excel in building up the church” (14:12).

So where does the distinction between tongues and prophecy come in, then?

Well, tongues need interpretation (14:13). The person who speaks “in a tongue should pray that he may interpret.” Thus, the person speaking in a tongue can ask God to help him interpret what he is saying. If prophecy is for believers, and tongues are a sign for unbelievers, why does Paul ask that the Church would prophecy, in order to spread the Gospel to unbelievers?

The answer may be in 14:24-25: “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.”

If a person cannot physically understand what God happens to be saying, or something is spoken in a way that would cause misunderstanding, then what is the point of it being said at all? If speaking the truth from the Holy Spirit is meant to up build, encourage, and console, can those things be done without being able to speak in a way that another person might understand? It seems that speaking in a way that will be understood is the entire point here, and given that Paul traveled to various places preaching the Gospel, in languages he was not born into, I assume he knew a thing or two about what we now call culture shock and not understanding how to convey a message. He had the Holy Spirit, which pretty much took care of that problem for him, so that he might share the Gospel. But at the same time, does any good thing do any good if it is not given in a way that it might be understood properly? I don’t think so.

It is like when people jokingly wrap Christmas presents in boxes that are much too big, and then put the present, which is actually physically quite small, in a series of increasingly smaller boxes, with the hope that the recipient would have to unravel it down. The present still remains the present, but it is inside a giant box that is rather misleading, and it takes a lot of effort to get to it for the person that receives it. The Gospel is a lot like that, in terms of gifts. In 1st Corinthians 12:28, Paul says “And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues.”

I think that portion could seem offensive and out of place if Paul didn’t clarify that the greatest gift (higher than all of them, and accessible to all) is love (1st Co 13 as a whole). Paul notes that there is a specific order that gifts come in, appointed by God, and that all gifts are part of the same body of Christ, and should be used for its common good (12:12-26).

Referring to that sameness in 1st Co 12:4-7, Paul is really able to explain to his audience what exactly he means later on. The way he does that is masterful, because he uses repetition to underscore the fact that although the body of Christ has differences, each member serves the same God. It gets even better, because Paul speaks to the Corinthian church on gifts because he does not want them to be “uninformed” (12:1). I like his emphasis on that particular feature. It just makes sense.

Paul traveled all around in order to spread the Gospel, and writing letters seems like the only real viable way of contact he had, having sent them with specific people, who from what I can tell, were his disciples and travel buddies. It’s strange to think about now, given the Internet. But still, he had to put a LOT of effort into making sure that some of those truths were properly circulated and that the teachings of Jesus were not lost. He wrote so much of the New Testament. It’s really impressive, I think, because there was no way he’d know what exactly would come from most of what he was writing. I still don’t think he was anywhere near perfect, because he was human. But even with all the imprisonment and what not, he seemed to have led a pretty full life, in terms of the Holy Spirit.


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I am a teacher-to-be who loves people. I am not afraid of many things. I like to explain my thoughts logically on a very birds-eye view level--I was born thinking that way. I follow Jesus Christ, and I accept only that label to describe my identity--that I am a child of God, as are infinite others, regardless of their other identities. Christ is my one thing.

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