Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy. For those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God; for nobody understands them, since they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, those who prophesy speak to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. Those who speak in a tongue build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the church. Now I would like all of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. One who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.
Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I speak to you in some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? It is the same way with lifeless instruments that produce sound, such as the flute or the harp. If they do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is being played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves; if in a tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is being said? For you will be speaking into the air. There are doubtless many different kinds of sounds in the world, and nothing is without sound. If then I do not know the meaning of a sound, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. So with yourselves; since you are eager for spiritual gifts, strive to excel in them for building up the church.1 Corinthians 14:1-12
Most of us would know from a very early age that we speak in order to be understood. I remember an incident in which my daughter was trying to communicate something to our guest at the dinner table. She had trouble conveying her intentions because of her insufficient grasp of the English language. When none of us were able to understand her, she got so frustrated she broke down in tears. If others are unable to understand what we’re speaking, all our utterances are futile.
This is why the Apostle Paul criticized the Corinthian Christians when they spoke in tongues during their gatherings. It’s uncertain what “tongues” mean in this context. Certainly, on the Day of Pentecost after the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples in Jerusalem, they were speaking in intelligible tongues such that foreign Jews were able to understand them. Whether it’s the same phenomenon in the Corinthian church is unclear, but it’s certain that no one (perhaps apart from the speaker) understood what was uttered. Not only that, they were speaking in a way which was disorderly and manic. From what Paul writes, it seems that they were babbling ecstatically in unintelligible tongues—”speaking mysteries in the Spirit” and seemingly “out of [their] mind” (14.2 & 24).
Interestingly, Paul doesn’t discount the Corinthians’ “tongues” as a genuine spiritual phenomenon, yet he deems it extremely unhelpful for the gathered community because they’re unintelligible. Of what use is speaking in the gathering if nobody present understands you? It threatens to descend into an attention-seeking display of spiritual endowment. Speaking in tongues have a place in the gathering only if someone is able to translate them into a common tongue.
Instead of the whole business of tongues, Paul would rather they prophesy. Here, prophesying isn’t about primarily about foretelling the future but about speaking truth revealed by the Spirit to the gathering so that everyone may be built up in faith. Later in the chapter, Paul considers prophecy to also have the function of convicting unbelievers of sin through the Spirit’s provision of insight to the conditions of their hearts.
In some ways, the gift of prophecy is meant to be possessed by all Christians, something made clear by the quotation of the prophet Joel in Acts 2:
In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.
Concerning this, the Eastern Orthodox theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes,
Rather than reducing it, as we usually do, to the mysterious ability to foretell the future, we must see it as the Scripture reveals it to be: the power given to man always to discern the will of God, to hear His voice and to be—in creation, in the world—the witness and the agent of Divine Wisdom. The prophet is the one who hears God and therefore can convey God’s will to the world, the one who “reads” all events, all “situations” with God’s eyes and therefore can refer all that is human and temporal to that which is divine and eternal; the one, in other words, for whom the world is transparent to God. And such is the true vocation of man, his true nature.
To claim that prophecy is foretelling the future is simply trivialising it, reducing a gift of the Spirit to a mere baptism of clairvoyance or fortunetelling. Rather, prophecy is a fundamental gift that grants Christians the grace to “receive everything as coming from God and leading to him, or, in other words, of giving everything meaning and value.” This is, of course, conditioned by the Word of God.
Therefore, instead of the gathering becoming an unintelligible babbling mess, it must be supra-intelligible. It must comprise of the speaking of God’s wisdom into the lives of people so that all may know and understand God’s will for them in a messy and ever-changing world. Through this lucid wisdom, all may perspicuously perceive the world and their own hearts from “God’s eyes.” In other words, when the church gathers, it’s an event of God’s communication. Unintelligible utterance would be a travesty of this.