Evaluating Spiritual Gifts

We have all had classes in school that were “required” but we had no idea why they were required.  We endured the material we had little interest in, all the time looking for a glimmer of relevance.  As the years passed we often found that those classes actually were important (if only we had realized it at the time).  They were building blocks for our future understanding, learning, and functionality in the world.

This morning’s text in 1 Corinthians 14 can seem like one of those “required classes”. A debate involving tongues versus prophecy may seem on the surface to be quite irrelevant to our daily lives. However, I believe it is an important passage. In this passage Paul will give us some principles for evaluating our spiritual gifts and also some important guidelines for any ministry that we engage in as His followers.

First, let me give you a little background.  Paul was writing this church in Corinth that was fraught with division.  He rebuked the church for their party divisions and urged them to recognize that God created them to work interdependently.

In chapter 12 Paul taught that God has given each person in the church a spiritual gift. This gift is a unique equipping of the individual by the Holy Spirit that is to be used in the ministry of the church. Some of these gifts are easily identifiable; others are more subtle and quiet.  All of them are needed for the church to function effectively. He gave us several important principles,

  1. All the gifts are important (12:12)
  2. God determines who gets which gift  (12:11,18)
  3. No one has all the gifts (12:25)
  4. No one gift is meant for all (12:20-30)
  5. Gifts should be exercised with love (1 Cor 13)


As we move into chapter 14 we need to define two terms. The first is the phrase “speak in tongues”.  What are “tongues”?  In the book of Acts we are told that on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:2-6)

Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language

On the day of Pentecost a miracle took place. Foreigners who were in Jerusalem each heard the disciples speaking in “his own language”.  Either the miracle was the fact that the gospel was being proclaimed in languages that the speakers did not themselves know (in other words one person may have been speaking Latin, another French, still another Spanish) and each person was able to distinguish the words of the person speaking his language; or it was a miracle in the hearing of the listeners.  It seems reasonable to think the disciples actually spoke other languages.  When we read about interpreting tongues, the word used for interpreter is used most often for someone who translates a foreign language.

There are three additional accounts of people speaking in tongues in the book of Acts.

In 1 Corinthians 12-14 Paul may be using the idea of “tongues” in a different way.  In v 2 he says the tongues speaker is uttering mysteries in his spirit. In v. 4 Paul said the tongues speaker edifies himself.  It is possible that Paul is referring to some kind of  “language of prayer” that may or may not be a known language.

What is Prophecy?  When we hear the word prophecy we think of foretelling the future.  That is much too narrow an understanding. Prophets foretold the future in some cases but most often were involved in forth-telling; the presenting of the truths of God. The leaders of the Reformation (Calvin, Luther, Wesley) believed sermons were a form a prophecy.  I tend to stand with the Reformers on this one. Others believe prophecy is unique from preaching and must be a spontaneous and Spirit-inspired message delivered to the people.  Either way, prophecy was and is about much more than predicting the future.  Having defined our terms let’s look at Paul’s instruction.

The Principle of Edification

Paul began this discussion in 1 Corinthians 12 and in the middle took a detour to talk about love.  He begins chapter 14 telling them to follow the way of love and pursue the greater gifts. It seems clear that something lacking love was going on in the church related to these gifts.  One cannot help wonder if what was happening back then was the same thing that happened in the United States.

  • Tongues became prominent once again in 1906 with a revival that began in Wales which also moved to Los Angeles in a church on Azusa Street. More recently in the 1960’s the “Jesus People” movement brought the movement into the forefront of the contemporary church.
  • During this time a large number of people claimed to have the experience of speaking in tongues
  • Some of these people viewed tongues as a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit and a “second blessing” of conversion.  It was soon seen as the ONLY evidence of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (in other words their experience became the norm by which others were measured)
  • Many desired the gift of tongues so strongly that true and counterfeit gifts became hard to distinguish
  • Many churches split over the issue

I remember purchasing a tape series on “How to be be filled with the Spirit”. Like most believers, I wanted to know God’s presence and power in my life.  I told the Lord that if speaking in tongues was what was needed to be filled with the Spirit . . . then I wanted to be able to speak in tongues. One of the tapes in the series gave instruction on how to be filled with the Spirit.  The speaker said you needed to focus your mind and then just start making sounds.  I was assured that if I did this I would eventually experience this gift.  I gave it a shot but frankly, it seemed absurd.  As I checked the Bible I saw there there were no scriptural instructions to this effect. In fact, 1 Corinthians 14 seemed to caution me against such actions.

Perhaps this same kind of thing was happening in Corinth. What was of primary concern to Paul was that the Corinthians were emphasizing personal experience over corporate unity. They were focusing on gifts that made them feel close to God and missed the fact that the gifts were intended for the common good. (v. 7)

Paul told the Corinthians that rather than focus on tongues, they should pursue the gift of prophecy. He said, even though the gift of tongues is personally enriching; prophecy enriches the entire body.

For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit. But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort. He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. (14:3-4)

Paul was not diminishing the gift of tongues.  In verse 5 Paul said, “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues”.  In verse 18 he said that he spoke in tongues more than they did.  Paul seems to feel that it is a personally satisfying gift.  However, in both places Paul qualifies his words by saying, “I would rather you prophesy . . . so that the church may be edified”.  In other words, Paul chose not to use the gift of tongues in public unless others could derive benefit.

Paul illustrates why the proclamation of truth was more desirable by giving three illustrations. The first illustration is that of a musical instrument.  If someone just sits down at the piano and starts banging on the keys the person doing the pounding may be having a good time but those around that person only hear a harsh noise. To those listening to those speaking in tongues it is noise, not music.  It is not enriching, it is annoying.

The second illustration is that of a trumpeter or a bugler. If the people hearing the sounds from the bugle cannot distinguish between the sound of “retreat” or “charge” the sound of the bugle might as well not be sounded because it is of not help at all.

The third illustration is from language.  Paul points out that there are many languages in the world, but if I don’t understand that language it is merely frustrating. Have you ever been in a situation where you were surrounded by people speaking another language?  You feel foolish.  It seems that everyone is talking about you and what they are saying is not complimentary.

There is an application here for contemporary ministries and programming.  The focus should not be on what will draw a crowd or on what will make me “feel good”.  (You can draw a crowd with a circus!) Our focus should be on what will encourage, comfort and strengthen the body of Christ. We should pursue those things which teach, instruct, and encourage the body of Christ.  We should be more concerned about doctrine than we are experiences.

I am not saying that emotion should be absent in worship. Worship is not a class we attend, it is meant to be a vital encounter with God that involves our head as well as our hearts. However, I suspect Paul would tell some churches to focus less on creating experiences and focus more on solid instruction from the Word of God.

The Principle of Participation

In 1 Corinthians 14:13-25 Paul gives us a second principle related to the issue of spiritual gifts: We should desire gifts that allow others to share in the goodness of God.

Paul told those who speak in tongues to pray that God would also give them the gift of interpretation so that what they were saying would be of benefit to the others who listen.

The argument is simple: If you are simply praying with your spirit (in an unknown tongue) it is impossible for other people (including you) to fully participate in your worship.  Paul said, “You may be giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified.”

Most people are confused by verse 22, “Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers.”  This seems to be just the opposite of his argument.  Paul quotes Isaiah 28:11 in verse 21 as his support.  In this case tongues were not a sign to unbelievers of God’s presence . . . it was a sign of judgment.  The tongues of the Assyrians were not a sign that God was reaching out . . . it was a sign to the unbelievers of their hard hearts!

Paul argues in effect, that if we want to reach out to unbelievers we need to talk to them in a way that they can understand.  If a non-believer comes into a church where everyone is speaking in tongues he will not be drawn to the Lord, he will think they are all crazy.

A friend of mine who was new to Christianity went to a church one night where all the people were speaking in tongues during the time of worship.  He came home and called me and asked, “What is with these people?  This was a scary experience.  I felt like I was caught up into some cult!”  He was not drawn to the gospel through those things, he was pushed away.

On the other hand, if a non believer comes into a church where someone is explaining the gospel in an understandable way, those people may be “convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare.  So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!’” (v. 24-25).

When the truth is presented clearly is will do several things,

  1. It will make a person aware of their own sin.  A friend of Socrates used to say, “Socrates, I hate you, for every time I meet you, you make me see what I am.”  That is what the gospel should do.  It confronts us with the truth about ourselves.
  2. It will alert a person to the reality of judgment and eternal consequences of our choices here on earth.
  3. It brings a person to their knees before God.  The clear gospel message helps people understand that they cannot be saved apart from God’s grace.  They will come to see that there is no way for us to earn favor with God.
  4. Hopefully, the clear message of the gospel will lead people to seek God’s grace and forgiveness, so that they can experience the acceptance and new life that comes from trusting Christ.

The application for us is simple: we should do things that will help other people understand the truth and share in the life and worship of God.  Do you realize we can speak in English and still sound, to the unbeliever, like we are speaking in tongues?  If we use Christian clichès and theological terms that we never define we are speaking in a way that sounds like a foreign language.  If we are constantly talking in Shakespearean English we are in essence speaking in a foreign language. The listener will not understand what is being said (which is why we use a more modern translation of the Bible).

Suppose you are in a room with a bunch of computer geeks. They can have a very animated conversation talking about code and ISP’s and BUS ports and Registry changes and all I hear is “Blah, Blah, Blah”.  It doesn’t take long before I tune out entirely.

You can be around people who begin an animated conversation about cars, medicine, electronics, and you hear “blah, blah, blah”.  You can even listen to your kids talk in slang and hear only “blah, blah, blah”.

The gospel is important truth.  We must communicate it clearly!  To this end, we must define theological terms so that others understand.  We structure worship with the visitor always in mind.  We want to help them understand what we are doing. We want to embrace visitors rather than push them away.  Paul worked hard to speak the language of his listeners….we should endeavor to do the same thing.


In the area of spiritual gifts, the Corinthians were missing the point.  They were craving the gifts that were “cool” or “flashy”.  They wanted the gifts that made them personally feel more spiritual. Instead, they should have been pursuing gifts that would help others to grow in the faith.

At the end of chapter 12 Paul told us to desire the greater gifts.  I don’t believe he was so much telling us to crave specific gifts . . . he was telling us to yearn for gifts that will impact the lives of others.  We must always remember that God brought us together so we could spur one another on to growth and Christlikeness.

God’s primary concern is not that we have a good time or even that we “feel” spiritual.  That is a childish approach to worship. God is concerned with communicating His character and heart to His children, and the truth of His love to those who are lost and in desperate need of God’s forgiveness and new life. True worship is not about whether we were touched but rather whether or not God was honored.  It was not whether or not we felt God’s presence but whether or not we were fully present before the Lord.

In short, God wants us to love people enough that we willingly take our eyes off of ourselves and our experience and enthusiastically use whatever gift we have at our disposal to reach spiritually dying people with the message of hope and new life.  This is a lesson we must learn.  Until we fulfill this requirement we will be severely limited in our effectiveness in living for the King.  We would be wise to pay attention.

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