Through the New Testament in a Year

Alternative Reading   -      Old Testament Readings

1 Corinthians 14:20-40 – God making his presence felt

God’s word, declared in plain language is his gift to his believing people, designed to promote faith and to build them up in knowledge of him.

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Some Christians at Corinth seem to have placed great value in forms of ecstatic speech, claiming that their ability to speak in what they perhaps claimed to be the tongues of angels was evidence of their superior spirituality to those who lacked such ability. Paul, in effect, tells them to stop being like infants who babble in words that they alone can understand; he urges them to grow up (1 Corinthians 14:20).

Paul then quotes from Isaiah 28:11,12, “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.” The context in Isaiah is a word from God about the northern kingdom of Israel just before its defeat by the Assyrians in 722 BC. The rulers in Samaria have been complaining that the prophet who has been bringing God’s message to them was treating them like children with his infantile words of judgment. It’s just ‘la la la,’ they mocked. God’s response is that, if they will not listen to simple instruction, he will send them off into exile. There they will have to listen to instruction in a foreign language they cannot understand. That truly will be to them like infantile babble, ‘la la la’.

Paul sums up the point he is making from this quotation by saying “Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers (14:22). Incomprehensible language was God’s judgment upon the Israelites for their failure to believe the words plainly declared to them by the prophets; it’s a sign for unbelievers. God’s word, declared in plain language is his gift to his believing people, designed to promote faith and to build them up in knowledge of him.

Having delivered this stinging rebuke, Paul does not forbid the exercise of tongues within the church; instead he insists that they be interpreted when not being used in private worship. Nevertheless, he argues that when the church meets together, prophecy is more beneficial than tongues since prophecy can be understood. God wants us to understand what he has to say to us and to respond in faith, thanksgiving and obedience.

Paul also encourages congregational participation when they meet together for worship, but he is concerned that it does not become a disorderly competition for the right to speak. Everything should be done in an orderly manner, designed to build up the faith and understanding of fellow Christians and to act as a witness to others that God is in this place and is addressing the hearts and lives of those present.

And surely this is our desire for the churches that we attend. We long that when we meet together there will be both abundant life and peaceful order. We long that God will speak in power into our lives, to continue his work in those who have already come to faith, transforming them the more into the likeness of Christ. And we long that God’s presence may be so very real, both in the proclaiming of his word and in every other aspect of our worship, that those who do not yet know him may be convicted of their sin and drawn to faith in Jesus Christ.

Lord, turn us away from childish things and from the desire to impress others. Give us ears to hear what you are saying to us and hearts that respond readily to all that you have said and done. Glorify your name among your people today and make your presence known and felt. And, as we meet together, may many be drawn to faith in the Lord Jesus that they too may rejoice with us that you are the living God who has rescued us from exile and brought us into the kingdom of your dear Son.


Peter Misselbrook