Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I help you unless I speak to you with a revelation or with knowledge or prophecy or teaching? – 1 Corinthians 14:6 (NET)
When we consider the act of speaking in tongues, we simply must be aware of the fact that this particular spiritual activity was in no way confined to Christian gatherings, as it was an accepted religious practice of the day, and had been for quite some time. So it appears that Paul is dealing with an instance of the believers of Corinth importing the values of their society into the gathering that was supposed to reflect their life in pursuit of God’s kingdom. It was not the practice of speaking in tongues that was problematic, or even really the issue, or even Paul’s concern. Rather, it was the values that stood behind and motivated the practice that were the cause for concern. It was a common and featured belief of religious assembly that a god could possess a believer or worshiper with their spirit, leading that person to communicate directly with the god in what sounded to onlookers and gathered hearers like unintelligible speech. Paul echoes this with “the one speaking in a tongue does not speak to people but to God.” Again, this activity is in no way isolated to the church.
Unfortunately, what appears to be happening in this church is that the believers were allowing for the establishment of a new social hierarchy, not unlike that with which they were familiar, on the basis of spiritual abilities, with those capable of speaking in tongues (regularly understood as the god communicating through them) receiving the greatest honor. Paul takes great pains to repudiate this practice of creating social divisions on the basis of spiritual ability , strongly emphasizing that their spiritual activities (even the limited list to which the Corinthian church seems to have confined and contented itself, according to chapter twelve) are gifts from God. Paul insists that they are not going to divide based on the abilities of teachers, ethnicity, wealth, or any other societal value, so why would should we allow for divisions based upon those things that are perceived to be randomly distributed gifts from God and therefore even less appropriate as a basis for divisions than other societal constructs.
Consequently, the use of these gifts is to be modeled upon the example of their Lord, enacted on the basis of love and self-sacrifice, as demonstrated at Jesus’ meal tables, His socially flattening activities (reaching out to lepers, tax collectors, children, women, Gentiles, etc…), and His cross. With the words about love expressed in chapter thirteen of the letter, Paul is adamant that they are nothing without love and that they are of no real benefit unless they are being used to build up the entire community of believers, rather than just one or two people. With his words that opened the fourteenth chapter, as they would have built on all that has come before, Paul relativizes that which is the most prized of their spiritual expressions, emphasizing prophecy in its stead. The contrast is stark. Not only does prophecy have an entirely different motivation and outcome, but it seeks to communicate in comprehensible language. Realizing the importance of a self-sacrificial as the controlling ethic for Jesus believers, this prompts us to reconsider Paul’s insistence to “Pursue love and be eager for the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.”
Moving along to the sixth verse of this chapter, we hear Paul saying “Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I help you unless I speak to you with a revelation or with knowledge or prophecy or teaching?” (14:6) Now, it is worthwhile to take this opportunity to point out that “prophecy” is not simply the offering up of words concerning future events. Prophecy is simply speaking the word of God or words about God---that which reveals His character and teaches us about His nature. Likewise, we must not confine our thinking about “revelation” to mysterious language, but must understand that the word that Paul uses is “apokalupsei,” or “apocalypse,” which basically means to “go behind the veil.” Apocalyptic language is not restricted to the book of Revelation (officially known as “The Apocalypse,” but can be seen throughout Scripture, and is employed to provide gravity to a subject, as the one that employs apocalyptic language attempts to communicate what he believes to be God’s perspective on events.
Continuing with this thought, Paul writes “It is similar for lifeless things that make a sound, like a flute or harp. Unless they make a distinction in the notes, how can what is played on the flute or harp be understood? If, for example,” as Paul employs what would be a familiar example in his world (this is not necessarily a component of his eschatology), “the trumpet makes an unclear sound, who will get ready for battle? It is the same for you. If you do not speak clearly with your tongue, how will anyone know what is being said? For you will be speaking into the air” (14:7-9). As part of his battle against divisions and the honorific elevation of those that speak in tongues, Paul asks how, if distinct language is not used, if instructions are unclear, knowledge is not being passed along, and the ecstatic speaker is simply speaking into the air (as we catch the subtle shaming of the elevated speakers in tongues, along with their elevators, that is occurring), then how is the body benefited?