My prayer with this commentary on 1 Corinthians 13-14 is to be able to glorify the Holy Spirit and inspire all His children to eagerly seek His gifts. For the most part the commentary is basic, however, at different points I get a bit technical but I still try to remain brief. I believe Paul wrote these chapters, inspired by the Holy Spirit, with one interpretation in mind- this is my best attempt by God’s grace to offer that clear explanation. Click here to read the previous commentary on 1 Corinthians 12.
1 Corinthians 13:1-13, “Love”
1 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
Paul states that if he speaks in languages (or tongues; Greek, “glōssa,”) of men and angels and has not love his is just making a loud annoying sound.
2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
Paul said if he didn’t have love (possess strong desire for people’s well being; Greek, “agapē,”)- but he could prophesy, understand mysteries, have all knowledge and faith… he would be worth nothing (useless in God’s Kingdom).
3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Even if Paul gave his body to suffer and be burned- without love he would gain nothing. Thus, Paul makes three profound statements concerning the absence of love:
- Without Love Tongues Becomes an Annoying Sound, v. 1
- Without Love Spiritual Attributes and Knowledge Become Useless, v. 2
- Without Love Physical Suffering Gains No Rewards, v. 3
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails.
Paul gives the sixteen attributes of godly love:
- Does Not Envy
- Does Not Boast
- Is Not Proud
- Does Not Dishonor Others
- Not Self-Seeking
- Not Easily Angered
- Keeps No Records of Wrong
- Does Not Delight in Evil
- Rejoices With Truth
- Always Protects
- Always Trusts
- Always Hopes
- Always Perseveres
- Never Fails
8 But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.
Paul lists three things in comparison to love that will pass away (“cease”):
9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
Paul wrote that we prophesy in part but when the “completeness” (perfection; Greek, “teleion,”) comes the partial will disappear. Some theologians believe that the “completeness/perfection/teleion” referred to by Paul is the canon of the New Testament. Thus, they believe that once the entire New Testament was canonized (twenty-seven books were gathered, recognized, and brought into one book) the sign gifts mentioned in v. 8 “ceased.” Those who hold this belief are known as ““cessationists.”
Cessationism is an error because of the following four reasons:
- Completeness Refers to the Resurrection Body | Completeness (or a state of perfection) does not refer to the canon anywhere in the Bible itself. However, “perfection” is used by Paul elsewhere in Philippians 3:12, “Not that I have already obtained it or have already become “perfect (teleioo),” to refer to the perfect state that he desired to have at the resurrection with a new body like Christ’s.
- Knowledge Hasn’t Ceased | If tongues and prophecy were to have “ceased” after the NT was canonized then so did knowledge. However, we know by the Word of God (2 Peter 1:5) and experience that knowledge, in the traditional sense of learning, is still in continuation.
- We Currently Don’t See God Face-To-Face | The context of now seeing things “only through a reflection as in a mirror” in v. 12 speaks of life in the earthly body, thus, when man sees God face to face the need for spiritual gifts will pass away, along with gaining knowledge by reading and studying. Thus, until we see God face-to-face spiritual gifts are needed.
- We Currently Don’t Fully Know Everything | Paul said in v. 12, “then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known,” therefore, unless each disciple “knows fully” everything about God, spiritual gifts along with knowledge and learning are still needed.
Therefore, the best interpretation based on the text and the writings of Paul is that the “completeness” and “the ceasing” of the gifts will not occur until Christians, (a) receive their resurrected bodies and (b) see Jesus face-to-face.
13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
Paul concludes his writing on love by stating that three things will remain for eternity- faith (trust in God), hope (good will for the future), and love (strong emotional desire for God and mankind). And the greatest is agape (love) for God, because Himself is Love, 1 John 4:8.
1 Corinthians 14:1-40, “Spiritual Order”
1 Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy.
Paul continues from his statement from the latter part of 1 Corinthians 12:31, “Now eagerly desire the greater gifts…” Thus, verses 1 Cor. 12:31 and 1 Cor. 14:1 can be seen as the buns or book ends and the whole of chapter 13 is the meat or the center. Meaning, spiritual gifts are important, but the “meat” and “center” of Christianity is “love.”
While the disciple is “following the way of love” they should also, (a) not neglect or be ignorant of spiritual gifts, (b) they should rather desire to be used in the spiritual gifts, and (c) understand that some gifts like prophecy are considered greater than the other gifts because they edify and build up the church.
2 For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit.
Paul now makes it clear that the speaking in tongues (as given from the baptism of the Holy Spirit as seen in Acts, which everyone present always received and spoke without an interpreter) is different from the gift of tongues. Why? Because the one speaking in tongues is not speaking to “people” but to “God.”
Therefore, the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the tongues it produces can be seen as a “prayer language” directed towards God and the gifts of tongues with interpretation can be seen as a “prophetic word” directed to the church.
One is meant to be understood and interpreted, while the other is only meant for God. Plus, the very things being prayed in tongues are “mysteries by the Spirit,” thus even if they were understood in the sense of language the prayer probably wouldn’t be understood due to its content.
3 But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort.
Prophecy, unlike praying in tongues, is meant for people. Paul now gives the three-fold definition of prophecy:
- Prophecy Strengthens
Therefore, though prophecy can involve “foretelling,” it is primarily used in the church as an encouragement from the heart of God in the mouths of His people. The “message of wisdom” is used mainly to give people a specific message regarding the future. Plus, like with the “fruit of the spirit” (love, peace, patience, etc…) the “gifts of the Spirit” are used often times together and without interruption.
For example, someone in the church could give a prophecy that contains a message of wisdom and knowledge. “I sense God is letting me know that some of you are going to face a hard time this year with your finances because a recession is coming (message of wisdom). However, God wants you to know that you’re not alone and that He is with you (prophecy). God wants you to not foolishly spend your money for the next three months, but rather save so when the hardship comes you will have more than enough (message of knowledge).” The previous example was taken from the example of Agubus in the book of Acts regarding the church facing a drought, Acts 11:27-30.
4 Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church.
Once again Paul makes it clear that simply “speaking in tongues” is like prayer because it edifies the believer personally- not others. However, prophecy builds up and strengthens the church (body of believers).
5 I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified.
Paul makes it clear that he “would like every one” to “speak in tongues,” like prayer- however, for the sake of building up the church he would rather have them prophesy (unless the tongue is interpreted).
It is impossible to diminish Paul’s respect for praying in tongues from these passages, however, it is clear he placed edifying the body above personal edification. For Paul clearly said in Romans 12:10, “Honor one another above yourselves.”
Question | Can the same “private” language of spiritual tongues be interpreted as a message or are the tongues which can be interpreted a different spiritual language from the one in which the person prays with?
This question is never addressed in the text. However, it does seem that the prayer language can be used at different times to be directed towards others, like at Pentecost in Acts 2. Those who have experienced giving a message in tongues have testified to them both being used- sometimes the tongue sounds the same as the prayer language and other times it sounds different. Thus, I believe God can give a message from the tongues used in prayer because the content of the message itself is no longer a mystery like in prayer, but a message everyone can understand. Plus, I also believe the Spirit can give a message in tongues that sounds different than the prayer language.
6 Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction?
Most likely the Corinthians were so blessed to have the prayer language of tongues given when they were baptized in the Holy Spirit that they were speaking in tongues before the people in the church for a sign of possessing spiritual power. They probably did this to the point that they actually neglected speaking in known languages to the rest of the church and visitors. Therefore, Paul begins to make his point that unless the one speaking in tongues keeps it between them and God, it will do no good to speak them to the church.
7 Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the pipe or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? 8 Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? 9 So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air.
10 Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. 11 If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker is a foreigner to me. 12 So it is with you. Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church. 13 For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say.
Paul then gives multiple examples to demonstrate the need for public messages to be in known languages- “pipes, harps, battle trumpet, public speeches.” Therefore, Paul encourages the “tongue-talkers” to either prophecy to the church or pray to interpret what they are speaking to the people.
Notice, that tongues were (a) not forbidden, (b) nor unusual, (c) but rather common to their church services, and (d) many, if not most of the people did it. Therefore, though the Corinthians had “wild fire” it was the Spirit’s fire nonetheless. On the other hand, many of the “frozen chosen” churches of today that avoid tongues altogether quench the Holy Spirit and have “no fire!”
14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. 15 So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding.
Paul gives the clear evidence that he both encouraged tongues among the people and thought of the tongues given at the baptism of the Holy Spirit different from the message of tongues with interpretation.
Two Evidences for Paul’s Love of Personal Tongues & Differentiation from the Message of Tongues:
- Paul Can Initiate the Praying and Singing in the Spirit | Notice how Paul compares praying and singing in the spirit (with unknown languages/tongues) to praying and singing with his mind (known languages). Meaning, unlike the message of tongues which can only be given as the Holy “Spirit wills,” the act of praying and singing in the spirit can be started and stopped just like praying/singing in known languages.
- Singing/Praying in Tongues Is Never Said to Be Interpreted | Therefore, the singing in the spirit is not the same as the message of tongues because it never is meant for people only God.
16 Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an inquirer, say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying? 17 You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified.
Paul then makes the comparison between “church edifying praying/singing” and “private edifying praying/singing.” One is for everyone, the other is just for the individual. Though they both can be done in church- only one can be directed to the church.
For example, many churches in their services have the people pray privately to God. However, at those times the church is not asking people to present their private prayer to the congregation but simply to God. Like the “prayer of repentance.” The leader may call for everyone to privately pray to God out loud and repent of their hidden sins. Though it’s appropriate for the person praying repentance to do so out loud to God in the church- it would not always be inappropriate to have them come forward publicly and repent of their sins before the whole congregation. They would only need to publicly come and repent of their sins if it involved the church and public discipline. The same is true with praying and singing in tongues in the church.
For Paul it was totally appropriate for people to sing and pray in tongues out loud (with their voice) in the church, however, it wasn’t appropriate to do this in front of the church as a message for them, unless it was interpreted for the church to understand the message and say, “Amen.”
18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue. 20 Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.
Paul reminds the people that he loved to speak in tongues- even more than everyone in Corinth, however, when it came to “instructing” people in the church he would rather speak “five known words.” Paul then rebukes them for thinking that praying and singing in tongues was a good thing for the sake of the church by comparing their actions to “children.”
For example, instructing the church publicly to “Live for Jesus Christ everyday” is better than just praying and singing in tongues in front of them for hours.
21 In the Law it is written: “With other tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” 22 Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers. 23 So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?
Paul quotes Isaiah 28:11 to make the point that praying/singing in tongues to God privately in public is a sign to unbelievers because it makes the sinners realize they are on the “outside” looking into a spiritual experience. However, though the sign is a good thing it only results in them thinking the “tongue-talkers” are out of their mind. Thus, it is not enough to win them to Christ- just enough to peak their interest and get them questioning what is happening.
On the other hand, prophecy is a sign for the believer because it lets them know the church has Jesus as its head. Thus, a Christian looking for a good church should seek the sign of “prophecy” in their midst.
24 But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, 25 as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”
Paul contrasts the personal praying in tongues with the gift of prophecy now in relation to the Gospel. He boldly proclaims that prophecy can be used by God as a soul-winning message to the lost because it exposes their hearts.
Notice how he doesn’t contradict himself and call prophecy a “sign to the unbeliever,” but rather he explains its result or outcome to the unbeliever. To the believer prophecy is a sign for finding a church where the Holy Spirit is present and talking. At the same time, prophecy can potentially bring the sinner to their knees in confession of sin and worship to God!
26 What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. 28 If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.
Paul now begins to close out his instruction by giving the order that he used in his churches- all the activities whether they be instruction, singing hymns, sharing a revelation should be done “so that the church may be built up.” He limits messages in tongues to 2-3 and requests that if the tongue is not a message that it should be “quiet” in the church and only spoken to God. Meaning, it should never be used in the time of instruction.
29 Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. 30 And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. 31 For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. 32 The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. 33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace —as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.
Paul gives practical advice when people are prophesying to not interrupt each other and for the leaders to judge (discern) what is being said. This is where the gift of “discerning of spirits” is used. The leaders must spiritually discern if the messages are from, (a) a human spirit, (b) God’s spirit, or (c.) a satanic spirit.
Paul also adds that people being used in the Spirit cannot act immoral or disrupt the peace of the church and claim, “God made me do it.” But rather, “the spirit’s of the prophets are subject to the control of the prophets.”
34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
Paul now changes the subject to the role of women in his churches, also found in 1 Timothy 2:11-12. More than likely this command of silence referred to women not being able to talk or instruct during the time of the preaching and teaching of the Word. Paul had previously mentioned in 1 Cor. 11:4 that women praying and prophesying in the church would need to cover their heads. Thus, women would probably participate in what we now call the “worship service” but would be quite during the preaching.
Paul’s churches were mostly home churches and under 30 people, thus the preaching and teaching time included questions and interactions from the disciples listening. As a result, Paul’s church services would be most like our modern day “home groups,” also known as “cells or small groups.”
Most scholars conclude that these instructions by Paul in Ephesus (where Timothy resided) and Corinth were written because Paul was walking a tight rope between the old customs of the Jews having women remain silent and sit in a different section than the men and the outspoken disruptive nature of women in the contemporary pagan religions (even including temple prostitution). In turn, Paul, at different times, commended women for their great work in the church such as Junia (a female apostle) Romans 16:7 and Phoebe (a deacon), Romans 16:1.
Therefore, I believe that unless the church is going to not allow the women to participate in Bible studies and mandate they cover their heads when praying- it would be good to consider this instruction in light of culture. For more on the Biblical role of women please click here to learn of my affirmative stance.
36 Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? 37 If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. 38 But if anyone ignores this, they will themselves be ignored.
Paul makes a forceful statement to declare his apostolic authority over their church services. He clearly states that if people in the church ignore his instructions, they should be ignored.
39 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.
Paul ends the chapter just like it began- encouraging believers to seek spiritual gifts. He goes out of his way to be perfectly clear in his affirmative stance on private tongues assuming there might have arisen misunderstandings. He commands them to not forbid speaking in tongues, “privately singing and praying in the spirit.”
Some believe that Paul was referring to tongues “without interpretation;” however, he would have no need to state that because it was clear tongues with interpretation was always allowed. However, by him leaving out the phrase, “unless it has in interpretation” it is clear he is referring to the kind of tongues that was bringing all the confusion in the first place- tongues without interpretation.
Therefore, he clears the air by stating we should never forbid the praying in tongues and should always seek to do everything in a God-fitting kind of way.
Eight Concluding Points From 1 Corinthians 12-14
- Don’t be ignorant or uniformed about spiritual gifts, 1 Cor. 12:1.
- All of the gifts of God (spiritual, service, and workings) are for every born again believer, 1 Cor. 12:6.
- The Holy Spirit gives the gifts as He wills so don’t be prideful, self-loothing, or jealous, 1 Cor. 12:11.
- Love for God and people must always be at the center of all the church does- especially when it comes to the spiritual gifts, 1 Cor. 13:13.
- Eagerly desire all the spiritual gifts- especially the ones like prophecy and tongues with interpretation because they edify the body, 1 Cor. 14:1.
- Remember there is a difference between praying/singing in tongues for private edification and giving a message in tongues with interpretation to the church to serve as a prophecy, 1 Cor. 14:1-15.
- Don’t forbid people in church speaking in tongues privately to God, 1 Cor. 14:39.
- Keep the order of the Spirit so that God will always be glorified, people will get saved, and the believers will be built up, 1 Cor. 14:40.
Paul gives the reader this clear command for all people to follow in every church, “Eagerly Desire Gifts of the Spirit!”
For further study read Dr. Gordon Fee’s Commentary on “The First Epistle to the Corinthians,” and Dr. Stanley Horton’s book, “What The Bible Says About the Holy Spirit.”