Bible Study with Jairus – 1 Corinthians 14
God’s Principles Regarding Tongues and Prophecy
And how to apply those principles to specific situations
When discussing 1 Corinthians 14, several intriguing questions often come to the forefront. The first is, “Is it possible that speaking in tongues is not of the Holy Spirit?” Some people who oppose speaking in tongues say that some tongues are from the enemy. They believe that if you speak in tongues, you are cursing God. How can we make sense of these objections?
In extreme cases, these concerns may be valid. But generally speaking, tongues are a faith-booster. They help increase our faith. Speaking in tongues is also a way for the Holy Spirit to speak through us, so we don’t need to fear. Rather, we should follow Paul’s teaching: “Each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.” (ESV, 1 Corinthians 14:26).
The second question that comes up in the study of this chapter is, “Why did Paul say that women should not speak in church?” (1 Corinthians 14:34). My answer is that we need to distinguish between universal principles of God and specific leading for specific situations. I think verses 1-26 are Paul’s explanation of the general principles of prophecy and tongues, while verse 27 starts a section with specific instructions for the Corinthians’ situation. This section deals with specific details about tongues, prophecies, and women speaking in the church of Corinth. Matters of principle do not change with time and circumstances, but matters of leading do.
Let’s look at these issues a little more closely.
Where do Tongues Originate?
A woman was baptized by the Holy Spirit and began speaking in tongues because of my ministry. But she still felt confused about the issue of tongues. She said, “A pastor who spoke in tongues encouraged me to change how I spoke in tongues, meaning to pray in different tongue. But in my experience, I am only saying a few simple repeated words. Is this normal?” From my own limited experience, I feel this is normal. The tongues we first speak when praying in tongues may be very simple and repeated words, or simple words of praise to God. As Paul said, one of the functions of tongues is to praise or thank God. When Paul mentioned tongues in verse 17, he said, “For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up.”
One of the functions of praying in tongues is to give thanks. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” The Bible says we should give thanks in all circumstances and that believers should be “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20). But in our actual experience as Christians, it is difficult to pray without ceasing and give thanks in all circumstances. We don’t give thanks to God the Father very often. This is why the Holy Spirit comes to help us, and one of the ways he does this is through tongues. Many times, we do not know how to pray, so the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words (Romans 8:26). This intercession is sometimes through tongues. When we pray in tongues, our spirit prays but our mind is unfruitful (1 Corinthians 14:14). When we pray in tongues, we give the Holy Spirit freedom to help us pray. We surrender our bodies, and our tongues, to the Holy Spirit in faith, and the Holy Spirit gives us the appropriate words in prayer through our tongues.
The woman also mentioned that some pastors reminded her that speaking in tongues may originate from evil spirits. They threatened her not to pray in tongues.
“Of course, it is possible that tongues originate from evil spirits,” I replied. “Sometimes we drive our cars into a ditch. But this does not mean that we cannot drive. I’ve seen some people who are just learning to drive who are scared to drive on the highway. But when they practiced more, they got the courage to do so. Why? Because their faith and their ability grew. The same goes for tongues. After our faith increases, we will receive an increased ability and more faith to pray in different prayer languages in tongues.”
Tongues is a faith booster
Receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit is a leap of faith. Many evangelical Christians who are against the baptism of the Holy Spirit worry that if they are baptized by the Holy Spirit, they will unintentionally accept evil spirits instead. This teaching originates in fear. Luke 11 clearly says that God gives the Holy Spirit to those who ask. “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13) It clearly says that the Father gives the Holy Spirit when we ask. If we ask the Father to baptize us with the Holy Spirit in the name of Christ, we will surely receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
All true Christians believe we are saved by faith. We have not seen the Lord, but we believe in Him. This is a leap of faith. Every one of us must go through such a leap of faith in order to be saved. Receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit is no different. It is the second leap of faith. After we have received the baptism of the Holy Spirit, we need a third leap of faith: believing that when we open our mouths, the Holy Spirit will give us utterance (Acts 2:4). We are responsible for opening our mouths, and the Holy Spirit is responsible for giving us words to say. Because the tongues we speak are often words that our minds cannot understand, it’s easy to doubt this promise. When other people inject doubts into our minds—“What if the tongues I speak are from evil spirits?”—our faith will inevitably be shaken. That is why praying in tongues is a leap of faith.
Principles of Tongues and Prophecy
In 1 Corinthians 14:1-26, Paul explains universal principles about prophecy. These general principles do not change with time, place, or circumstances. For example, God is love. This is a basic principle. It will not change with time, place, or circumstances. But even though God is love, and He loves every one of His children, He leads us differently. This is the difference between God’s principles and His leading. Let’s look first at the principles that Paul gives in verses 1-26.
What is the first principle of prophecy? It is that love and spiritual gifts, especially prophecies, are related. In the first verse, Paul continued the conversation on love that he started in 1 Corinthians 13. We need to pursue love, and we also need to earnestly desire spiritual gifts, especially prophecy. Many have spoken against the pursuit of spiritual gifts and prophecy, saying we should only focus on love. These people want only the fruit of the spirit (including love) and not the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are controversial. But that’s not what Paul is telling us here. Paul explicitly mentions that we should pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.
What is the second principle of prophecy? It is that the purpose of prophecy is to build others up, comfort, and encourage them (1 Corinthians 14:3). We certainly need to pursue love in our lives. But how do we help others feel the love of God? This is where prophecy is indispensable. When we prophesy and disclose the secrets of others’ hearts, they will fall on their faces and say that God is really among us (1 Corinthians 14:24-25). Why? Because prophecy (including tongues that are interpreted) becomes a tool or a bridge that connects people to God’s love.
The essence of the first principle of tongues is to talk to God and love Him. 1 Corinthians 14:2 says, “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.” If the main purpose of tongues is to talk to God, then Paul’s words “I speak in tongues more than all of you” (1 Corinthians 14:18), and “If we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you” (2 Corinthians 5:13) are very logical. Paul encourages everyone to pray and talk to God more, and praise God by speaking and singing with our minds or through the language of tongues or spirit (1 Corinthians 14:15). This is the first function of tongues. It is wrong to forbid or even discourage speaking in tongues, just because you cannot understand them. The first principle of tongues is to talk to God. This falls under the greatest command: “love the Lord your God with all your heart” (Matthew 22:37; Luke 10:27).
The second principle of tongues is to be considerate of others, especially those who don’t understand them. If others don’t understand tongues, you still need to give thanks and praise. But those who don’t understand the languages will not be built up and may even stumble. In such cases, those who speak in tongues should be restricted. When it’s absolutely necessary for them to speak in tongues, they should interpret what they say as much as possible (1 Corinthians 14:6-13; 14:16-19). This principle falls under the second command: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).
Matthew 22:37-40 records, “Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Here, Jesus clearly said that the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love others. When we pray in tongues and praise God, it shows we love God. “If anyone loves God, he is known by God” (1 Corinthians 8:3). When we avoid speaking in tongues on certain occasions out of consideration for others, it means we love and care for our neighbors. So these two principles about tongues are actually consistent with the very essence of Jesus’ teaching about the Law and the Prophets.
The principles of love and prophecy also fall into the categories of loving God and others. People who pursue love and utter mysteries to God in tongues are those who love Him; people who prophesy are those who love others. Speaking in tongues and praying means you love God; you worship and give thanks to Him. Interpreting tongues means you love others and have taken their needs into consideration so they can understand what you’re saying. Therefore, regardless of whether you’re pursuing prophecy or speaking in tongues, the fundamental principle is to love God and others. That’s why Paul strongly encourages us to interpret what we say while speaking in tongues. The purpose is to be considerate of others and show love to them. But that doesn’t stop us from falling madly in love with God in private.
The third principle of tongues is to build ourselves up (14:4). We need to focus on growing spiritually, increasing our faith, and “building ourselves up in our most holy faith” (Jude 1:20).
In 1 Corinthians 14:26 Paul said, “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.” I believe verse 26 is the conclusion of Paul’s train of thought. He had stated some general principles about speaking in tongues, prophesying, and pursuing love towards God and others. Now, he summarizes his message: “Let all things be done for building up.” When we gather together as a church, we may use any method that builds others up.
Paul’s Specific Leading on Tongues, Prophecy, and Women Speaking
From verse 27 onwards, Paul turns his mind to God’s specific guidance to the Corinthian church. Although this specific leading does not violate the basic principles mentioned in the first part, it will vary according to circumstances, time, and situation. Why do I say that from verse 27 onwards, Paul starts talking about God’s leading in a particular situation in the Corinthian church? Let’s look at this verse. Verse 27 says, “If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret.”
I asked everyone in the meeting, “Does this sentence show Paul’s general principle about tongues, or is it a special leading for the Corinthian church?” I think it’s a special leading. Think about it: how many believers were in the Corinthian church at that time? How long were their weekly gatherings? Let’s assume there were 100 believers who gathered for three hours every week. In such a situation, it would be appropriate for only two or three people to speak in tongues. And it was best to interpret the languages being spoken.
Now suppose we are visiting the church of David Yonggi Cho in South Korea. There are hundreds of thousands of people holding meetings together for three days. Should there be only two or three people who speak in tongues in the church? In these circumstances, there would be plenty of time for more speakers to have a turn.
In other words, different circumstances call for different responses. We must interpret these verses in light of the general principles mentioned above, and we must focus on being considerate of others and loving our neighbors. The point of the passage is not the exact number of speakers that we must have in a given service, but that we should conduct orderly meetings that show consideration to others. We cannot always take God’s words in their most basic and literal sense.
Throughout the ages, there has been a lot of controversy about how Christians interpret God’s words. One of the reasons is that it is difficult to distinguish which words reveal God’s principles and which give certain people some specific leading in a specific environment. We must not violate God’s principles, nor should we treat God’s specific leading as universal truth. For example, when Moses allowed the Israelites to divorce their wives, they mistakenly thought this was a universal principle of God. But Jesus clearly told them that this command was only given because they were hard-hearted at that time. But God did not intend it to be that way from the beginning. The principle established by God was, “What He has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:3-8). The teaching on divorce was God’s specific leading, intended for a specific period of time. It was a concession made because of his patience with human weakness.
Is there a specific context to Paul’s words in verses 27-40? I think there is. One Corinthian believer must have been wrongly exercising the gift of tongues and the gift of prophecy. Paul attempted to correct his behavior in this passage. Verse 28 says to keep silent if there is no one to interpret. Verse 29 says that when two or three prophesy, the others must weigh what is said. Verse 30 says that if a revelation is made to another, the others must give him a chance to speak, and the first person must keep silent. Verses 31-33 say that everyone can prophesy—but don’t be confused, because the spirits of the prophets were subject to the prophets and God was not a God of confusion. Clearly, these words were meant to clear up confusion in regards to specific situations in the Corinthian church.
Similarly, the instructions about women not speaking in church meetings must have related to a particular situation in the Corinthian church and were not a general principle of God. In other places, Paul praised many of his female coworkers. For example, he praised Phoebe, a deaconess (Romans 16:1). The instruction about women was not necessarily a universal principle of God, but a special leading intended for the chaotic situation in the Corinthian church. When Paul talked about women being silent and not speaking in meetings, he even specifically mentioned: “Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached?” (1 Corinthians 14:36). It is not difficult to guess that there may have been some women in the Corinthian church who were too proud and even thought that the word of God had reached them only. So Paul’s criticism may have been directed against this problem.
The second half of verse 34 says, “They should be in submission, as the Law also says.” But this is not enough to prove that the law does not permit women to speak. The law does require women to obey men, but there is no law expressly stating that women should not speak. Even though the law originally stipulated that a woman could not inherit her father’s land, Zelophehad’s daughters appealed to Moses and God, and God added a provision just for them. If there was no man in the family, God said women could inherit the land (Numbers 27). Clearly, God’s law does not discriminate against women.
In verse 39, Paul reminds believers to be eager to prophesy and not to forbid speaking in tongues. Verse 40 says that everything should be done decently and in order. This concludes this chapter. I’ll reiterate the difference between the sections in this chapter. Verses 1-26 talk about Paul’s general principles on how to love God and others when exercising spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues and prophesying. Verses 27-38 give specific leading based on the chaotic situation in the Corinthian church. In verses 39-40, Paul returns to giving general principles about prophesying and speaking in tongues. We must understand which sections contain God’s universal principles (which cannot be changed) and which contain His specific leading for certain circumstances. We must understand the way God’s Holy Spirit leads us in different circumstances. And we should seek to interpret God’s word in the most accurate way possible.
 All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.