“Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially
that you may prophesy. 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. On the other hand, the one who prophesies
speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and
consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself,
but the one who prophesies builds up the church.”
In a small village in Colombia, a young woman came to me for prayer during the altar ministry. She explained in English about the pain in her heart concerning the loss of her child through a miscarriage. She felt it was because of sin in her life that this happened. She was full of shame and guilt. I wanted to pray for her, but I motioned the translator to come and help so there would be clarity. Continuing in English, I asked the young lady to tell the translator her story. She looked at me blankly. I asked her again. Still blank. Then I asked the translator to have her explain the story she just told me in English. There was a moment of astonishment when the lady said she could not speak any English at all! It seems she heard herself speaking in Spanish, but I heard what she said in English!
Paul beautifully continues with the spirit of fatherly love in this letter to the believers at Corinth. Our beloved apostle disciples the saints to always act in honor and to glorify the name of Jesus Christ through the gifts of love and fellowship found only in Him. Believers who possess a genuine brotherly love for others in the body of Christ must aspire spiritual gifts in order to be able to help, comfort, encourage and strengthen those in need. To earnestly desire means we should not wait passively for God to give the gifts of the Spirit, but rather deeply desire them. The Greek carries the idea of being moved by white-hot jealousy. That means we should intensely crave and even ache for spiritual gifts. It is evident the Corinthian church greatly desired spiritual gifts and were very eager to use them. That was not the problem!
The concern is edification. Tongues are not understandable and cannot edify the church. Prophecy is addressed to people precisely for their edification and in that sense is the greater gift. There is little question that Paul prefers prophecy to tongues in the assembly. But, the real issue is not tongues per se, but uninterpreted tongues since an interpreted tongue can also edify. So, the real issue is intelligibility. Obviously, Paul is not disapproving tongues. The contrasts between tongues and prophecy do not have to do with their inherent value, but with the direction of their edification.
The way of love implies that without love, the “spiritual” person amounts to nothing! We are not left questioning Paul’s reasoning since he is clear on the operation of both gifts. Verse 14 shows us the one who speaks in tongues speaks to God, not to people. Verse 17 continues the teaching by showing us that the one who prophesies speaks edification, encouragement, and comfort to people. The one who speaks in tongues edifies himself. The one who prophesies edifies the church. The edifying of oneself is not a bad thing; it simply is not the point of gathered worship.
Our experience with the young lady responding to an altar invitation helps put perspective on this teaching. There was a Christian woman with deep hurt and disillusionment about the loss of her child. By the power of the Holy Spirit through the gift of tongues, she was able to communicate her pain clearly to a foreigner. As a result, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we prophetically ministered to the young lady with the belief that deep healing would come to her heart. Love ties it all together. If we stay fixed on demonstrating God’s love through what we say and do, He will be glorified, people will receive what they need, and we will remain humble as we continue to desire the greater gifts that build the body of Christ.