1 Corinthians 14:6-19

Growing in the Gifts of the Holy Spirit
1 Cor 14:6-19
Intro: As we pursue love and desire spiritual gifts to make our church stronger and to encourage one another to persevere to the end, we must keep in mind that those who are maturing spiritually cannot be self-absorbed. The real mark of spiritual growth is concern for others in the congregation. They belong to the multitude of people the Father has given to the Son. Consider how precious our fellow believers are to the Lord. By faith, we belong to the group that makes up the radiant bride of Christ. All efforts to build up the church are worthy of our time and devotion. 1 Corinthians 14 is a rock-solid argument by the Apostle Paul extolling the simple truth that everything we communicate in our church meetings, whether teachings, prayers, singing or prophetic words, should be easy to understand. There should be no confusion. There should be no mysterious language. Clarity must characterize what we convey. No code words. No secret handshakes. No inside jokes. No innuendo. Everything spoken must be for the edification of the church. Paul outlines two specific truths with corresponding subpoints in these verses.


Since tongues without interpretation do not edify, what good would it do the Corinthians if Paul came speaking in tongues unless the message he brought were understandable?

1 Cor 14:6 But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you unless I speak to you either by revelation, by knowledge, by prophesying, or by teaching?

Paul pictures his next visit to Corinth and supposes that he does nothing there except speak in tongues in their meetings. What good would that be to anyone?

(a) normal life teaches this through choices

Paul lists four kinds of messages, three of which belong to the broad category of prophetic gifting that searches out some of the deep things God.

Knowledge, prophecy and teaching we know…revelation is new, though.

In the NT, it appears to be a specific matter that God reveals to one of the believers, who then passes it along to other Christians.

Gal 2:2 And I went up by revelation, and communicated to them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to those who were of reputation, lest by any means I might run, or had run, in vain.

Note that the conditions are stated as possible, not factual.

The apostle is not saying that he will come to them speaking in tongues, but only that if he were to do so, it would be futile unless he brought an understandable message.

But he does champion the liberty to choose what to bring into the assembly so long as it builds up. It must give a message that anyone and everyone could understand.

(b) normal life teaches this truth through music

1 Cor 14:7 Even things without life, whether flute or harp, when they make a sound, unless they make a distinction in the sounds, how will it be known what is piped or played?

Imagine you attend a concert…

“Flute” represents wind instruments in general, and “harp” (kithara, “guitar”) stands for all stringed instruments.

Neither flute nor harp makes sense unless there is a meaningful variation in the sounds produced. Music is nothing more than senseless sounds without definite differences in pitch and tone and time. An aimless jingle means nothing.

1 Cor 14:8 For if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare for battle?

Imagine you are a soldier on the battlefield…

Everyone, regardless of background, would understand the war trumpet illustration.

Num 10:9 When you go to war in your land against the enemy who oppresses you, then you shall sound an alarm with the trumpets, and you will be remembered before the Lord your God, and you will be saved from your enemies.

Joshua 6:4 And seven priests shall bear seven trumpets of rams' horns before the ark. But the seventh day you shall march around the city seven times, and the priests shall blow the trumpets.
Joshua 6:5 It shall come to pass, when they make a long blast with the ram's horn, and when you hear the sound of the trumpet, that all the people shall shout with a great shout; then the wall of the city will fall down flat. And the people shall go up every man straight before him.

The trumpet conveys the orders of the commanding officer to his soldiers who are remote from him.

Therefore, nothing is more important than blowing the trumpet for battle with a clear blast that can be understood. If the sound is not clear, and the troops do not know whether it means “advance” or “retreat,” it has failed its purpose. It is useless.

The church is engaged in the cosmic conflict of the ages. The souls of men are at stake. This verse suggests that public speech in the Christian assembly should awaken members of the church to action.

The indistinct sound of incoherent speech in tongues does nothing to marshal the troops for battle.

1 Cor 14:9 So likewise you, unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air.

Applying these two illustrations, Paul says that it is not the mere sound of speaking that is important, but whether the sounds can be understood by the hearers.

The Corinthians had delighted in unintelligible tongues, but speech is either understandable or nothing more than talking into the wind.

(c) normal life teaches this truth through language

1 Cor 14:10 There are, it may be, so many kinds of languages in the world, and none of them is without significance.

Imagine you are invited to a conference to learn…

The word translated “languages” (phōnē) here is not the same word translated “tongues” (glōssa) in the rest of the chapter.

When Paul refers to known human languages in his most extensive treatment of the gift of speaking in tongues, he differentiates the two ideas with two completely different words.

1 Cor 14:11 Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me.

Rev 5:2 Then I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and to loose its seals?”

“Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language…” – “meaning” = “power” (dynamis). “If I don’t know the power of the language…”

Speech understood is effective communication, but speech not understood has no “power” at all.

This is the human experience of alienation from those who speak a language that we do not know. It is the “Babel-effect.”

“Foreigner” is translated from “barbaros” (barbarian). It means someone whose language sounds like childish sounds as they are learning to talk by repeating the same syllable over and over (“bar, bar”) – i.e., someone whose language makes no sense.

The term is often used in a derogatory way. It belongs to those who must live outside the developed world. They must be uncivilized.

Speaking in tongues was often regarded by outsiders to the Corinthian church as nothing more than the babbling of bush people – native nonsense – the way illiterate and unsophisticated people would communicate. This was more offensive to Greeks than us.

1 Cor 2:1 And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God.
1 Cor 2:2 For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
1 Cor 2:3 I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling.
1 Cor 2:4 And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power,
1 Cor 2:5 that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

Paul’s demonstration of the Spirit’s power was not the gifting to speak in the tongues of angels, but the faithful preaching of the cross.

In the same way that he pulled the rug out from underneath the treasured wisdom of the Greeks, he yanks the same rug out from underneath the celebrated tongue-speaking of the Corinthian believers since they were indifferent to interpreting them.

1 Cor 2:14 But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

Paul’s point is that there is no real difference between being unintelligible and being uneducated or even unable to speak.

In each case, lack of communication makes the sounds worthless, and in the last example it even distances us from the one who is speaking. The whole point of language is to communicate meaning.

The same is true of uninterpreted tongues in the assembly of the church.


1 Cor 14:12 Even so you, since you are zealous for spiritual gifts, let it be for the edification of the church that you seek to excel.

Paul is a master-teacher, so he employs the power of repetition. He keeps coming back to the thought that building up others with your spiritual gifting is what matters.

Spiritual gifts are incompatible with spiritual selfishness.

It is indeed right to desire to excel in the exercise of spiritual gifts, but only the ones that edify others are important. If they do not build up, they do not matter.

(a) it is my responsibility to help others understand

1 Cor 14:13 Therefore let him who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret.

The person who speaks in a tongue should not be content with simply having the gift. Its value it too limited, and he should pray to understand what he said in the tongue.

With the possibility of a non-understood tongue before them, Paul now urges them to seek its interpretation.

This will benefit both the hearers and the speaker since no one understands what was communicated in the tongue apart from it being interpreted.

1 Cor 14:14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful.

Up to this point, Paul has concentrated on the value of the gifts to people other than those who exercise them. Now he looks within.

Anyone who prays in a tongue is not using his “understanding” or mind.

Paul notes that his mind is in neutral and “fruitless.” This means that the mind does not intelligently share in the blessing of the man’s spirit (lit. “my mind produces no fruit from it”).

The “understanding/mind” is that faculty involved in the conscious reasoning of a thinking person.

The Christian life is much more than a mental exercise, but anyone whose mind is unfruitful leaves off a significant part of his heavenly assignment.

This passage is so helpful simply for how it emphasizes the rightful place of the intellect in the Christian faith. It does so without diminishing spiritual fervor and the role our emotions play in our walk with the Lord.

The apostle would never argue for an academic version of faith in Christ. There is a place for enthusiasm that is so strikingly illustrated by speaking in tongues. But it must be combined to a fruitful use of the mind, which tongues by itself does not provide.

Paul desires the Corinthians to have a complete blessing here, both in their spirits and in their minds.

(b) it shows my love to exercise wisdom and restraint

1 Cor 14:15 What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding.

Clearly Paul is not looking for unintelligible prayers or songs chosen on the basis for their pretty melody rather than the theology they express. The understanding mind must be active in both!

1 Cor 14:16 Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how will he who occupies the place of the uninformed say “Amen” at your giving of thanks, since he does not understand what you say?

Praying and singing in the spirit and in the mind are involved in praising and giving thanks to God, all of which are parts of coherent Christian worship.

Eph 5:18 And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit,
Eph 5:19 speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord,
Eph 5:20 giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ

“he who occupies the place of the uninformed” = “the inquirer” or “the seeker” or “the unlearned” (idiōtēs) – outsider to the congregation who is investigating the claims of Christ.

Acts 4:13 Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marveled. And they realized that they had been with Jesus.

Paul argues, “How can he say ‘amen’ and mean it, when he does not understand what he has heard?”

The “amen” = “it is true” or “so be it” comes from OT worship.

Neh 8:6 And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God. Then all the people answered, “Amen, Amen!” while lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

“Amen” means to confirm. By using it at the end of a prayer uttered by someone else the worshiper makes the prayer his own.

The inquirer (idiōtēs) cannot do this with a prayer spoken in a tongue because he does not know the content of the prayer. He cannot understand it. It needs interpreting.

The same would be true for everyone else in the room; to not understand uninterpreted tongues puts other believers in the position of feeling like outsiders in the church.

But in a church gathering, a sensitive congregation would be especially concerned for the real outsider, the one who occupies the place of the uninformed, who has been kicking the tires of the Christian faith in their fellowship.

They have been praying for his/her to believe the Gospel. They want the seekers to understand everything being said about God in their meetings. (illus: seeker-driven church has a better ring to it than idiot-driven church, right?!?)

The prayer offered in a tongue may be a perfectly good prayer, but since no one understands it, why benefit does it give?

1 Cor 14:17 For you indeed give thanks well, but the other is not edified.

Paul’s effort to re-rank tongues in the Corinthian church from first and only in the list of the gifts to near the bottom did not arise from “sour grapes.” He is no disgruntled operator. In fact, he’s more of a veteran of tongues than them!

Conclusion: Paul has held back one important bit of information that he now drops for rhetorical impact!

1 Cor 14:18 I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all;
1 Cor 14:19 yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.

The apostle has now played his ace, seeking to trump the Corinthians’ claims. He could beat them at their own game of super-spirituality, he says, but he has chosen not to play that game because he has another goal in mind.

Paul would easily choose a short sermon on basic biblical truth (katēcheō) in the language of everyone’s hearts over speaking volumes in an unknown tongue that does not communicate.

It is better to be useful than brilliant.