1 Corinthians, Lesson 23: Seek the Understandable Word, not Intelligible Sounds

Person Speaking (610x352)Starting with chapter 12, Paul has dealt with the topic of spiritual gifts, which many in the congregation at Corinth were abusing. Last week, Paul focused on the greatest expression of the Holy Spirit’s work in someone: agape love. He now revisits the proper use of “the Spirituals,” focusing on speaking the Word (prophecy) and the use of one’s tongue (speaking in tongues).


The Difference between Speaking in Tongues and Prophecy

In this section, Paul repeats the language he used earlier in chapter 12: “the Spirituals.” He is focusing on the Holy Spirit and what comes from Him first, the result of what He does. 

Read 1 Corinthians 14:1-3

“Pursue”: This is an imperative, a command. It’s the same word to describe a hunter chasing after prey.

“earnestly desire”: not a command. An active state of being; it’s actively being in a state of eagerness.


Lesson 23, Agape Love and Its Relation to the Spirituals


  • What does Paul want to shape the Christian in what he does and how he does it? (vs. 1)


  • When it comes to using the tongue, in what way does Paul prefer that Christians use it? (vs. 1)


Prophecy: Often we think that “prophecy” is the foretelling of future events. This is largely because the prophets in the Old Covenant spoke God’s Word, pointing forward to the Messiah to come. But “prophecy” is primarily speaking God’s Word to encourage the Body of Christ, the Church (1 Corinthians 14:3, Acts 15:32).

  • In Acts chapter 2, when those in the Church spoke in tongues, they spoke in understandable languages. What, instead, was happening at Corinth? (vs. 2)


  • Can the use of “tongues” do what Paul describes in verse 3? If so, then what is Paul really doing concerning the public use of someone’s tongue within the Church?


Read 1 Corinthians 14:4-5

  • Whom had the speaking in tongues at Corinth built up? (vs. 4)


  • What is Paul’s implication of the individual being built up in relation to the congregation? (vs. 4)


  • How does Paul transfer the congregation’s focus toward that which builds up the congregation instead of the individual? (vs. 5)


  • If such “speaking in tongues” only builds up the person, when is it permissible to use such tongues in the congregation? (vs. 5)


Decreasing the Value of Speaking in Tongues (at least as it took place in Corinth)

Read 1 Corinthians 14:6-11

  • What value does “speaking in tongues” have if no one understands what you say? (vs. 6)


  • What takes place if tongues are used properly within the congregation? (vs. 6)


  • Paraphrase Paul’s argument when he used the words, “Speaking into the air.”


Paul’s First Conclusion 

Read 1 Corinthians 14:12-13

  • Toward what, and away from what, does Paul focus the Corinthians’ zeal for “the Spirituals”?


Worship Includes the Whole Person, Spirit and Mind

Read 1 Corinthians 14:14-17

In these verses, Paul does not bring out the outward—the posture of worship, being prostrate before God (proskeneuo); lifting hands in prayer; or women wearing veils to show that they are not being rebellious like Eve was during humanity’s fall into sin. Instead, Paul goes to the interior of the person during worship.


Lesson 23, spirit and mind


  • What principle does Paul bring out when it comes to worshiping God?


  • Paul says, “If you give thanks with your spirit, how can [another] say ‘Amen,’ is he doesn’t know what you are saying?” What does this show about the communal nature of worship?


The Proper Use of Tongues

Read 1 Corinthians 14:18

  • In this verse, how does Paul establish his credibility for those in Corinth who think that “speaking in tongues” shows who the most spiritual Christians are?


  • What does this allow Paul do when he removes “speaking in tongues” off its vaunted pedestal?


Read 1 Corinthians 14:19

  • Earlier, Paul had said to worship God with your spirit and mind. In this verse, when it comes to speaking the Word, which supersedes the other—what comes from one’s mind or one’s spirit?


The Conclusion Lesson 23, Chiasm of 1 Corinthians 14.20

Read 1 Corinthians 14:20

  • How mature was the Corinthian congregation’s understanding of “the Spirituals”?


  • When Paul told the Corinthian Christians to “be infants when it comes to evil,” what does that say about what they were when it came to such “evil”?


  • In the context of these verses, what was the specific “evil” that the Corinthians Christians were doing in the life of the congregation?


  • Based on this “evil,” in what direction has Paul gradually been moving the congregation at Corinth when it came to “speaking in tongues”?


  • When Paul tells the Corinthians to be “mature in their thinking,” what is he tearing down and what is he building up?


Read 1 Corinthians 14:21-22

Paul now adapts Isaiah 28:11-12 to drive home his point. The original context of that Old-Testament passage was that God was punishing His people because of their unfaithfulness. God would do that through foreigners, the Assyrians, who spoke a different language, a language that native, Hebrew speakers could not understand. And, yet, God said of that, “Even then they will not listen.”


Lesson 23, Function of Non-Understandable Tongues


When Paul says that “tongues are a sign for… unbelievers,” he does not mean that such unintelligible tongues-speaking was meant for unbelievers to hear. We know that because, in the next verse, Paul speaks about the theoretical uselessness of such unintelligible tongues-speaking. And so, when Paul says that “tongues are a sign for… unbelievers,” he means that it testifies to unbelief among God’s people—just as the unintelligible Assyrian language testified to the unbelief of Israel before their exile. 

Read 1 Corinthians 14:23-25

  • What is the value of unintelligible tongues? (vs. 23)


  • What is the difference between prophecy and speaking in tongues (at least as it took place in Corinth)? (vs. 24-25)


  • Following the progression of Paul’s description of what such spoken prophecy does, what is the content of that spoken Word? (vs. 24-25)


  • Is the power of the Word in Christ’s Church based on the sounds made or the understandable meanings attached to those sounds?


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