There I was again ready to read through 1 Corinthians 12-14.
Before I began I felt somewhat agitated – sure chapter 13 is a great chapter on love, but this stuff about spiritual gifts, order in the church and the enormous debate concerning cessationism always makes this section of Scripture seem complicated and difficult to understand.
As I read through these chapters though, I was struck in chapter 14 at the weight that Paul puts on prophecy over and against speaking in a tongue. This chapter struck me with a new clarity that I had not picked up on before.
In this I saw Paul speaking about the primacy of preaching.
I do not want to enter into the cessation/continuation debate here. I understand prophecy here to be a message delivered in the local language, which is clearly understandable to the congregation. Additionally, it seems there is a strong case for this being a forth-telling as opposed to a fore-telling (Check out the ESV Study Bible notes on this passage and 1 Cor. 12:10).
What does Paul say?
Paul begins by encouraging the Christians at Corinth to earnestly desire spiritual gifts, especially prophesy (v1). The reason for this is prophesying builds up the church, encourages those gathered and offers consolation to those who need it (v3-4). Hence, it is to be desired above a tongue (v5).
Paul proceeds to argue, with a list of illustrations, that prophesying is of greater benefit than speaking in a tongue (v6; v7-11 for illustrations). So much so that Paul would rather speak five words that could be understood by the Corinthian Christians than 10,000 words in a tongue (v19).
As the chapter begins to close Paul offers one final argument for the primacy of preaching – the conversion of unbelievers. Paul assures the congregation that if an unbeliever were to enter a meeting and hear prophecy they would be convicted, called to account, fall on their face and worship God (v24-25).
Paul says ‘earnestly desire to prophesy’ (v39).
Let’s return to the beginning of chapter 14 now and consider the limitations that Paul mentions concerning speaking in a tongue.
Paul begins by warning that speaking in a tongue only communicates with God, not men (v2). Immediately this identifies limits to its use – most prominent, in a congregational setting, is that speaking in a tongue only builds up an individual (v4). Therefore, prophecy is greater than a tongue (v5).
Subsequently, Paul asserts that there is little benefit to speaking in a tongue in a congregational setting (v6). In fact, he goes as far as to say that a tongue is unintelligible – it cannot be understood (v9). Furthermore, Paul then states that praying in a tongue is unfruitful for the mind (v14).
As the chapter heads toward a conclusion Paul then draws the distinction between prophecy and a tongue. While prophecy may call an unbeliever to salvation, a tongue will only encourage them to think that believers are out of their minds (v23).
Paul clearly puts speaking in a tongue in a secondary position in this chapter.
Whether or not you hold that sign gifts have ceased or continue to this day – the implication from this chapter is the same: There is a primacy for a message delivered in the local language in an intelligible way.
In other words, there is a primacy in preaching.
While much, much more could be said on this topic I have cut this post short to encourage you to take 5 minutes to now read 1 Corinthians 14 and see this for yourself – don’t just take my word for it.
If you have longer than 5 minutes I would encourage you to read the whole section, 1 Corinthians 12-14.