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God’s Word for You

1 Corinthians 14:4-5 To edify the church

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Wednesday, June 7, 2023

4 The one who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. 5 I would like all of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified.

Paul continues his cautions about speaking in tongues following his command: “Pursue love!”

3, Third, someone who speaks in tongues only edifies or builds up himself. In these verses, “to prophesy” means to proclaim the word of God (preach or teach) in the language of the listener as opposed to another tongue, whether human or not. To prophesy is to build up the congregation.

4, Fourth, Someone who speaks in tongues has a lesser gift than one who prophesies, unless he has someone who can interpret. In fact, speaking in tongues without an interpreter is not only a lesser gift, but one that is hardly useful at all.

The better gift to pursue, then, is still love. We can pursue love by edifying or building up the church. Paul says, “Let us make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (Romans 14:19). We see Abraham doing this when God gave him the promise that his offspring would be given the land of Canaan. He built an altar to the Lord, and then he built up the faith of his wife and nephew and their servants by preaching and proclaiming the name of the Lord in the hills near Bethel (Genesis 12:7-8). In Ezekiel’s vision of the ideal temple, he describes the structure and the base of the temple, the foundation that was secure and helpful to the rest of the great church (Ezekiel 41:7-8), and the very description of the ideal temple was a proclamation of law to condemn sin (Ezekiel 43:10) and gospel to show the atonement for sin (Ezekiel 43:19,27). Even such visions are better than the unknowable gibberish of tongues, because they can be properly understood and applied to the hearts of God’s people.

When Paul says that the one who speaks in tongues “edifies himself,” how can that be, if even that man doesn’t understand what he has said? This might be because he knows he has received a rare blessing from the Lord. Even though he is not sure how to use it or apply it, he has it, and therefore he knows he has been blessed by the Lord.

And again, love will want to pursue the better gift that will build up the church. The gift of tongues is not something Paul despised. Not at all! He says here, “I would like all of you to speak in tongues.” But the greater gift is prophecy or preaching. We might compare this to certain very specialized chefs in the world who are able to make extremely difficult, fancy, and expensive dishes in the restaurants with the highest prices. But if such a chef can’t make a meal for children or sandwiches for Sunday lunch, his gift has a lesser value for his family.

We see, though, that if there was someone to interpret the message spoken in a tongue, then it was no different than prophecy and would be just as useful and edifying for the church. Both bring a message to God’s people.

When God commands us to remember the Sabbath day in the Third Commandment, he wants us to regard his word as holy, and gladly hear and learn it. This command exposes certain sins in a man who wants to pursue speaking in tongues for his own glory rather than to truly build up the church, especially today when truly speaking in tongues is rarely if ever given as a gift to anyone. Whoever does not listen to God’s word sins, and tongues without interpretation are no different than a Bible verse written in Latin for most of our people: It will carry no meaning and no comfort at all.

Likewise, whoever hears the word of God and does not try to understand it sins, and since our people know this and show it by asking questions and coming to Bible class again and again, what would they think if someone spoke in tongues without a true interpreter? Their consciences would be struck because they could not understand, and they might wrongly believe that they were sinning by not pursuing the matter with all their hearts to try to understand whatever gibberish they heard. This would be an awful and a sinful burden on their consciences. The one so recklessly speaking in tongues would be sinning against the church.

What our people should be doing instead is what, for the most part, they are already doing. They should serve God, gladly hear and learn the word of God in their own language, teach it to their children, and offer their lives and their work to God as a humble offering of faith.

The sin of misusing tongues or abusing the gift for one’s own benefit, is also a sin that can be forgiven. Just as Peter made mistakes as a leader in the church (Galatians 2:11), and just as Mark made his mistakes (Acts 15:38), they were forgiven and were able to do good service for the kingdom of God (Philemon 1:24; 2 Timothy 4:11).

Whatever gift any of us has, we should pursue love, or pursue our other gifts with love, so that we can be faithful to God’s message and help God’s people. This is our goal, whatever our gift may be (Leviticus 25:35; 1 Timothy 5:16; Hebrews 6:10). As God commands: “You are to help your brothers” (Joshua 1:14).

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith
About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please visit the St. Paul’s Lutheran Church website.


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