Self-Edification Is Not Enough (1 Corinthians 14:1-25)
Written by R. Fowler White |
Wednesday, May 10, 2023
A key enduring takeaway for us from Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 14:1-25 would be that, as God’s temple building project continues, we must be careful to use our gifts not merely to edify ourselves, but to edify others also. Self-edification is just not enough.
Having established love as the precondition for fruitful ministry through the Spirit’s gifts, the Apostle’s attention in 1 Cor 14:1ff. turns back to two of those gifts, one greater, one lesser: respectively, that of prophecy and that of tongue-speaking. His treatment of these gifts is crucial for our understanding of the purpose for which all gifts are given to Christ’s church.
For what follows, we’ll understand that both tongue-speaking and prophecy have ceased (a point raised and discussed elsewhere on this blog), but when they operated, they involved the God-given ability and aspiration to minister to His people by communicating His inerrant word to them. The two gifts differed, however, in that tongue-speech was spoken in a language understood by the speakers themselves but not by their hearers, while prophecies were spoken in the language of both speakers and their hearers.
Two additional observations may also help us. First, let’s note that the phenomenon of tongue-speaking is not unique to Christ’s church. For instance, tongues-speech, dreams and visions, and other extraordinary experiences took place in Corinth’s temples to Apollo and in Egypt’s palaces. Even today, tongue-speaking can be heard among certain Muslims. We should not think, then, that tongue-speaking has its source always and only in the Holy Spirit. Scripture is clear that such occurrences may have their source in ‘the flesh’ (i.e., sinful human nature) or even in servants of Satan disguised as apostles or prophets of Christ (e.g., Acts 16:16-18; 2 Cor 11:13-15). Second, let’s remind ourselves that by the Spirit and His gifts Christ is building His people as His ‘sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true.’ (This divine building project is a topic about which Paul, Peter, and John wrote.) For that work to be done, our gifts must be used not merely to build up ourselves, but to build up others too. In 1 Cor 14:1ff., Paul’s concern about that project focuses on the Spirit’s gifts of prophecy and tongue-speaking. His remarks are blunt: the lesser gift—tongue-speaking without translation—had no place in public worship because such tongue-speaking built up only the speakers themselves, not other believers also. Let’s take a look at the particulars of those remarks.
Paul launches his argument in chapter 14 by restating in 14:1 God’s order of priorities for fruitful ministry in congregational worship. Priority #1 is to pursue love for others, because love is the precondition to a congregation becoming a sanctuary pleasing to God. Priority #2 is to maintain an eagerness for spiritual gifts, for by them God makes the many members one body. Priority #3 is to edify others in public worship. It is Priority #3 that is in focus in 14:2ff. as Paul contrasts prophecy and untranslated tongues-speech. The basis of his preference for prophecy reduces to this: self-edification by any gift may be beneficial, but it is not enough. In fact, the gifts have never been given to edify oneself alone. They are given to edify all (14:4, 18-19). As for tongue-speakers, Paul says, unless their speech was translated, they built up only themselves, not others too. As a result, untranslated tongue-speech had no place in public worship.