Seek To Build Up The Whole Church—1 Corinthians 14:1-19


Levi Durfey




Since chapter 12, Paul has been discussing spiritual gifts. We’ve learned about the variety of gifts, the giver of the gifts, and the fact that every Christian has at least one gift. We’ve seen that spiritual gifts are meant to be used to help others, not to make ourselves look good. To emphasize that last point, Paul wrote an entire chapter about love. Now, in chapter 14, Paul reemphasizes that point. He says first that…




1 Corinthians 14:1

Follow after charity, 

and desire spiritual gifts, 

but rather that ye may prophesy.

1 Corinthians 14:2

For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, 

but unto God: 

for no man understandeth him; 

howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries.

1 Corinthians 14:3

But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, 

and exhortation, 

and comfort. 

1 Corinthians 14:4

He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; 

but he that prophesieth edifieth the church.


Let me stop here and explain what speaking in tongues was (and I mean “was,” for I think that the true gift of speaking in tongues came to an end when the New Testament was finished being written). 


Speaking in tongues was a spiritual gift whereby a person spoke in another language that was “unknown” to them. One use of the gift of speaking in tongues is found in Acts 2 at Pentecost—


4 And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. 5 And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. 6 Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. 7 And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans? 8 And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? (Acts 2:4–8)


This is a clear example of the best and proper use of speaking in tongues. It was a way to help others hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. But by the time we get to Corinthians, it was being used in a way that only benefited the person speaking (unless there was an interpreter). It became a mark of spiritual superiority, instead of a way to build up others. Paul continues and says…


1 Corinthians 14:5

I would that ye all spake with tongues, 

but rather that ye prophesied: 

for greater is he that prophesieth 

than he that speaketh with tongues, 

except he interpret, 

that the church may receive edifying.


The main theme of this chapter comes out crystal clear in these verses. It’s very important, when a church is meeting together, to do things that edify or build up the entire body. Paul points out a major difference between speaking in tongues and prophesying. Speaking in tongues, unless it’s interpreted, doesn’t benefit the whole body. Prophesying, on the other hand, does benefit the whole church.


That speaking in tongues couldn’t build up the church as a whole is obvious—it would just be babble to everyone else and, really, even the speaker. But Paul admits, in verse 2, in some sense, speaking in tongues did benefit the speaker in some way in that they were speaking “unto God” and speaking “mysteries” in the “spirit.” What he means by that is debated, but without an interpreter, that’s as far as the benefit would go.


Prophesying, on the other hand, does build up the entire church. Prophesying is generally thought of by people as making a prediction about the future. An example of predictive prophecy is in Acts 21:10-11, when Agabus prophesied that the Jews would deliver Paul to the Gentiles. So there is some prophesying that is foretelling. 


But prophesying is also a way of preaching that presses the Word of God into the hearts of the people. Instead of foretelling, it could be called forthtelling. Someone has described the prophet as man with a newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. Most often in the Bible, that is what the prophet is doing. He’s looking at what is happening in the culture around him and calling the people to obey the Bible and not the culture.


If a prophet is mainly about forthtelling and not foretelling, then what’s the difference between a preacher or teacher and a prophet? A teacher helps people understand the Bible—he is concerned about the mind. A prophet also helps people understand the Bible, but he is more concerned about pressing the Bible truth home to their hearts.


You can see how the gift of prophecy, whether you take it as foretelling or forthtelling, is far more beneficial to the church body than speaking in tongues. This is Paul’s point—he wants the Corinthians to be desiring to build one another up in the faith, not going around bragging about how they can speak in tongues. To press his point, he then explains that…




The Corinthians may have thought, as many Christians today do, that the gift of speaking in tongues was a great and awesome gift—the best thing since sliced bread. But Paul explains to them the limitation of tongues.


1 Corinthians 14:6

Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, 

what shall I profit you, 

except I shall speak to you either by revelation, 

or by knowledge, 

or by prophesying, 

or by doctrine?


“Okay,” he says, “suppose I were to visit and all I did was speak in tongues? How would that help you?” It would be better to speak some teaching or exhortation that they could understand. Paul goes on to show them some examples of what he means.


1 Corinthians 14:7

And even things without life giving sound, 

whether pipe or harp, 

except they give a distinction in the sounds, 

how shall it be known what is piped or harped?


[Kid’s Sermon: To show you what Paul is doing here, let me invite the children to come forward. We’ll have a little contest. Have a piano player play several simple songs that the kids can guess the name of. Those who guess a tune get a piece of candy (just one per child). Every now and then throw in a random, nonsensical tune. At the end, ask the kids if the nonsense music helped anyone get a piece of candy.]


Just as nonsense music doesn’t help anyone, so speaking in tongues doesn’t help the church to grow spiritually. Then Paul says…


1 Corinthians 14:8

For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, 

who shall prepare himself to the battle?


It used to be that when an army was ready to attack an enemy, the bugler would sound the call. Charge! Well, just imagine being on the line, waiting for the battle call to sound. Then, wafting through the air, you hear the bugle: Pfft! Tweet! Screech! What do you do? Do you charge? Do you retreat? Do you fall down laughing?


For people to know how they are to serve God, how they are to grow, they must be able to understand.


1 Corinthians 14:9

So likewise ye, 

except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, 

how shall it be known what is spoken? 

for ye shall speak into the air.

1 Corinthians 14:10

There are, it may be, 

so many kinds of voices [languages] in the world, 

and none of them is without signification.

1 Corinthians 14:11

Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, 

I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, 

and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me.


The word “barbarian” (βάρβαρος, βάρβαρος, JNSM) refers to a foreigner who speaks a different language. Not long ago, we had a missionary and his wife here at the church. He did not speak English too well, so he spoke to us in French. How did we understand what he said?


His wife translated for him as he went along. I enjoyed hearing a different language, but if she had not translated for him, his preaching would have not benefited us at all.  


Or, to switch things around a bit, if I were to go to a foreign land, like a Middle Eastern country, and I spoke to those folks in English, unless it’s interpreted for them, it would be of no use to them. In order to benefit people in the church, you must communicate to them in a way that they can understand. Speaking in tongues did not do that, unless, they were interpreted by someone else.


1 Corinthians 14:12

Even so ye, forasmuch as ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, 

seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church.


It was good and fine that they Corinthians were “zealous of spiritual gifts,” but the main thing that Paul urged them to do was “excel to the edifying [the building up] of the church.”


Why was speaking in tongues ineffective in building up the whole church? Because speaking in tongues only benefited one person, unless it was interpreted. There are many ways that we, in the modern church, fail to benefit everyone. Here’s one:


We get in our favorite groups and we do not talk to other people, especially the newer people in the church. A pastor is expected to visit everyone on Sunday morning one-on-one for twenty minutes each. That’s quite impossible you know. Everyone needs to be involved in talking to everyone. Some of you folks are really good at that. 


Others might tend to get locked into a certain group. Ask yourself: Did you talk to someone different today? Or did you talk to the same three or four people? If you are stuck in the same group Sunday after Sunday, it’s like you are speaking in tongues because you aren’t edifying the whole church.


Paul goes on to explain how, in Christianity…




Our minds are essential to how we live. It’s what sets us apart from the rest of Creation. First, Paul says that…


A. Understanding Is Essential To Personal Growth


1 Corinthians 14:13

Wherefore let him that speaketh in an unknown tongue 

pray that he may interpret.

1 Corinthians 14:14

For if I pray in an unknown tongue, 

my spirit prayeth, 

but my understanding is unfruitful.

1 Corinthians 14:15

What is it then? 

I will pray with the spirit, 

and I will pray with the understanding also: 

I will sing with the spirit, 

and I will sing with the understanding also.


Paul says that when we pray or sing, we need to pray and sing with “the understanding”—our minds. We must understand what we are praying or singing in order for it to be helpful to us. There is nothing spiritual about not using our minds in prayer or any other spiritual activity. The Bible says that our mind is very important to our spiritual growth:


2 And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. (Romans 12:2)


23 And be renewed in the spirit of your mind; (Ephesians 4:23)


10 And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him: (Colossians 3:10)


Never buy into the idea that you need to check your mind at the door to be really spiritual. That’s just not Biblical. Spiritual growth involves more than the mind, that’s true—but spiritual growth never excludes the mind (MacArthur).


One area of application here is that we need to not only read the Bible on a daily basis, but we need to also understand what we read. Many Christians take a “chapter a day keeps the devil away” approach to the Bible. They read their devotional and a few verses and then walk away, thinking that they’ve done something. 


But did they understand anything they read? Did they understand something new about God, His character, or His promises? Did they understand a duty they need to be doing? Did they understand a sin that they need to confess? It’s a good practice not to let go of your Bible reading until you’ve understood something that you’ve read. Back up and reread the chapter. Ask questions of the Bible. But don’t let it go until you’ve understood something—whether it’s learning a new truth or reaffirming an old truth.


Understanding is essential to personal spiritual growth. Whether it’s speaking in tongues, or reading the Bible but not understanding what you read, if you aren’t understanding, you aren’t growing.


Next, we see that…


B. Understanding Is Essential To Help Others Grow


1 Corinthians 14:16

Else when thou shalt bless with the spirit, 

how shall he that occupieth the room of the unlearned 

say Amen at thy giving of thanks, 

seeing he understandeth not what thou sayest?

1 Corinthians 14:17

For thou verily givest thanks well, 

but the other is not edified.


The phrase “he that occupieth the room of the unlearned” refers to someone who doesn’t have knowledge of what the speaker is saying. In the case of speaking in tongues, that would have been everyone! 


Paul was saying that how could anyone agree in prayer with you (by saying “Amen”) if they cannot understand what you are saying? That’s what would happen if tongues were used (without interpretation) in a worship service.


What the Corinthians were doing (and what many Christians who think that they can speak in tongues today do) is stand in worship and speak in tongues as a means of showing off their spirituality. Those listening, even though they cannot understand one word of it, are supposed to nod in agreement and shout “Amen,” like something super spiritual is happening. But nothing is happening. Why? Because no understanding is taking place. There are those who want to divorce understanding from the spiritual. To be spiritual, they claim, you have to turn off your mind. The technical term for this is “A bunch of hooey.”


1 Corinthians 14:18

I thank my God, 

I speak with tongues more than ye all:

1 Corinthians 14:19

Yet in the church I had rather speak five words 

with my understanding, 

that by my voice I might teach others also, 

than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.


Paul says that he spoke in tongues more than all the Corinthian Christians. Yet, what did he value more? He valued speaking words of understanding than words in an “unknown tongue,” by a margin of 2000 to 1 (not to be taken legalistically!). 


Paul knew the proper use of tongues, perhaps he used it as it was used at Pentecost, to bring the gospel to someone whose language he could not speak. But, here’s the thing, Paul didn’t think much of speaking in tongues. Paul never mentioned tongues in his writings except for 1 Corinthians, and that was to correct the abuses of speaking in tongues. Other than here, he never talks about speaking in tongues. 


He much preferred that others understood him. That should be our goal also. Speak to be understood. When you are sharing the gospel with someone, be sure that they understand exactly what you are saying. Don’t dumb things down to be understood—a lot of Christians seek to do this and the gospel becomes nothing but “Jesus loves you and so you should love Him.” I mean, if there are tough words, explain them. But the words they stumble over are often the words that we think are obvious: sin, saved, holy, and so forth. So ask them questions like:


  • Do you understand what it means to be a sinner? (It means that you’ve rebelled against God and His standards—Romans 3:23).
  • Do you understand that the punishment for sin is eternal damnation in Hell? And that you cannot in any way earn, buy, or con your way out of that punishment?
  • Do you understand that God, being a just and holy God, but also a loving God, sent His own Son to take that punishment for you?
  • Do you understand that when you receive Christ as your Savior by faith, your sins will be totally and permanently forgiven? Do you trust (which is what faith is) Jesus Christ as your Savior?




Paul’s main thrust in this passage is that when we are together as believers, we are to seek to build up the whole church. The Corinthians weren’t doing that—they were bragging about being able to speak in tongues, but that did nothing for building up the church. Let us, as Paul says in verse 12, seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church in everything that we do.




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