Bible croppedThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

1 Corinthians 14:13-19

13 Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. 15 What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. 16 Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider[a] say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? 17 For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up. 18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.


Last week’s post discussed Paul’s condemnation of the Corinthians’ use of tongues, which was no more than gibberish. No one, not even the speaker, could interpret what was being said. They spoke that way to recapture the ecstasy of their old pagan ways of speaking when worshipping their gods.

Paul continues his discourse by saying that whoever speaks that way should pray for the gift of interpreting the message (verse 13).

John MacArthur is certain that Paul was being sarcastic (emphases mine):

The effect of tongues is emotional rather than mental. And that’s what he hits on in verse 13. Now watch: “Wherefore, let him that speaks” – and here we go with the singular again – “in gibberish, pray that he may interpret.” Now this is a very difficult verse to interpret. I’ve thought many times as I read this verse, I’m praying, Lord, may I interpret this verse; it is difficult. But, “Let him that speaks in gibberish pray that he may interpret.”

What is he saying? As we know from our study already, they were speaking in this private kind of ecstatic communication with their god, in the language of their god, thinking it was the true God and it was truly of the Spirit. But praying in gibberish was not ever the intention of the gift; it was always the perversion. And Paul is saying, “Look, you who or praying in gibberish,” – or the one praying in gibberish literally – “let him pray with the purpose of translating, or with the purpose literally of interpreting.” In other words, I think it’s a little sarcastic. “Hey, you that’s so busy praying in your gibberish, why don’t you pray for something that will have some meaning to somebody?”

And in case you think that’s forcing the issue, if you read through Corinthians carefully, you’ll find that such sarcasm and such irony is introduced on many, many occasions. In other words, “Let the one who is so anxious to pray in his private little language pray instead for the gift that’s intelligible. While you’re praying in your gibberish, ask God for something that some of the rest of the body can be benefited by, because what you’re doing is so very selfish.”

Now somebody’s probably saying, “Boy, John, you really pushed that into that verse.” Well, there’s another alternative. The other alternative is this: “Wherefore, let him that speaks in an unknown tongue pray that he may receive the gift of interpretation.” Now if we take it that way, then that means that we can seek certain gifts – right? – that if we want the gift of interpretation, or the gift of anything, all we have to do is pray for it. Right? Is that true?

First Corinthians 12:11 says, “The Holy Spirit gives the gifts to whomever He wills.” First Corinthians 12:30 – now watch this. First Corinthians 12:30 says, “Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?” And what is the answer implied by the Greek construction? No. No. God never said that we can pray for any gift you want, you can seek for any gift we want. This verse can’t be saying that we ought to seek the gift of interpretation.

I’ll show you another reason. Look at verse 28 of chapter 14, verse 28. Watch this: “If there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church.” In other words, if somebody is going to even use the true gift – listen to that – that some pagan present would understand, he shouldn’t even do it unless he knows that there is an interpreter there who will interpret it. And let me add this, folks: they must have known then who had the gift of interpretation, and to such the gift was limited. You see? It was so limited that they couldn’t even do it if that person wasn’t present.

So there’s no way that verse can be teaching an individual to seek the gift of interpretation. The only other alternative is that Paul really riding them a little bit and saying, “While you’re jabbering, why don’t you pray something intelligent, like ask God for something that will mean something to us.” I hope that helps you understand the point.

Paul goes on to say that if he speaks in such a way — hypothetically — then his spirit is drawn in but his mind does not benefit (verse 14). In short, Paul is saying that he is merely blowing hot air.

MacArthur explains the use of the Greek word pneuma here:

Verse 14. He says, “Because if I pray in gibberish,” – now watch this. The word is pneuma. I like to think that it could be translated this way: “My breath or wind prays, but my mind is unfruitful.” So you know what I’m doing; blowing air into the air, that’s all. Pneuma can be translated “spirit,” “breath,” “wind.” Some would even say it refers to feeling or inner-feeling.

The Charismatic folks, for the most part, make it the Holy Spirit. That’s really not fair, because it says, “My spirit prays.” And they say, “But the Holy Spirit is my spirit.” Yes, but it’s compared with “my understanding.” And if you’ve got human understanding as one end of the comparative, you’ve got to have the human breath or the human spirit as the other end of the comparison. You’ve got to be balanced and careful there.

So he says, “If I’m praying in gibberish, my wind may be praying, but my mind is unfruitful.” In other words, “There is nothing beneficial occurring; there is no fruit bearing. Tongues praying then, or gibberish, is mindless. If I pray in an unknown tongue, it’s just my breath, or my wind, or my spirit, or my inner feeling, whichever term you want. It’s just blowing air into the air like the heathen. I don’t understand what I’m saying, you don’t understand what I’m saying; I’m blowing air into air.” So the counterfeit gift just set up an emotional experience; it had no mental benefit.

Paul poses a question in verse 15 and answers it by saying that, whether he is praying or singing, he should so in a way that involves the mind.

It seems that the Corinthians sang in ecstatic tongues, too.

MacArthur says:

We have that today among Charismatics who sings in tongues too. Paul says, “I don’t do that. What purpose is that, except to give off the idea to everybody that I have this private little prayer language between me and God that hooks me up in a special way.” Very selfish.

So Paul says, “Listen, I’ll pray with my breath and my mind, and I’ll sing with my breath and my mind, not mindlessly.” Listen, you pray in English, and God understands; and you sing in English, and God understands. Beloved, let me tell you, that is far superior than to talk to God in some kind of gibberish, no matter what anybody tells you. God doesn’t need that.

MacArthur adds an interesting footnote about the original meaning of singing, which is connected with the harp:

Interesting footnote. The word “sing” originally meant “to play the harp.” Then it came to mean – listen to this: “to sing to the accompaniment of the harp.” There are some people who say today that the church shouldn’t have musical instruments. The very word “sing” originally meant “to sing to the accompaniment of a harp.” That’s the way it was used in the Septuagint; and no doubt, that’s the way it was understood in the New Testament. So we do use instruments.

Returning to Paul’s discourse, he asks how an outsider — one without spiritual gifts — can understand what he is agreeing to by saying ‘Amen’ if he cannot understand the thanksgiving prayer or the song (verse 16).

Paul says that the person praying or singing might understand — or believe to understand — what he is saying, but the outsider has no way of being edified (verse 17).

Henry says:

Note, There can be no concurrence in those prayers that are not understood. The intention of public devotions is therefore entirely destroyed if they are performed in an unknown tongue. He who performs may pray well, and give thanks well, but not in that time and place, because others are not, cannot be, edified (1 Corinthians 14:17; 1 Corinthians 14:17) by what they understand not.

Paul says that he is grateful for having the true spiritual gift of speaking in tongues: foreign languages that can be easily understood by those who speak them (verse 18).

MacArthur explains:

Verse 18. Now Paul does what he does earlier in the chapter. He says, “I’ve been kind of hard on this thing, and I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about tongues,” – or languages – “I believe it is a true gift.” So he says, “I thank my God, I speak with languages.” Notice this in the plural again; and here he’s referring to the true gift, I think. “I think my God that I speak with languages more than all of you.”

Now, he says, “If you’re wondering whether I’m a little on the outside and don’t quite understand all of this phenomena, I just want you to know that I’ve probably done this more than any of you.” He had the true gift. He was an apostle, he had the gifts of an apostle according to 2 Corinthians 12:12. He exercised those gifts, and no doubt, as he traveled around, he used this gift.

How did he use it? Well, number one, I’m sure he didn’t use it as a private prayer language. Number two, I’m sure he didn’t use it in Christian meetings to show he was spiritual. Number three, I’m sure he didn’t use it for his own benefit. I’ll tell you how he used it: he used it in occasions where he traveled to a place where there were people who spoke a foreign language; and he was given the ability by God to speak that language, that they might know God was present, and a miracle had happened. And then he would speak to them the truth of God, and they would be converted.

He was a missionary to the Gentiles; and no doubt, in the case of many times in his missionary travels, he could have used this gift. But it’s interesting to me that he ranked it so very low, that never any time in his entire ministry and in his writings, does he ever refer to using it except here, and gives no illustration.

Paul says that he would rather speak five words with his mind in order to edify others than 10,000 words in incomprehensible gibberish (verse 19).

MacArthur explains the original Greek used:

Do you know what ten thousand is? It’s the Greek word murios, and it is the word that is used here, because it is the largest number in the Greek mathematics for which there was a word. Do you get that? For example, in Revelation, you remember when it talked about the angels, it says, “And there were ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands”? It just keeps repeating murios and murios, and chilioi and chilioi, because that’s the biggest word there was for a number. And so he’s saying – literally in the English, we would say it this way: “I would rather say five words with my understanding than quintillion words in gibberish. There isn’t even a comparison. I would rather say, ‘I have something to say,’ and sit down, than say a quintillion things in gibberish.” That’s his point. Why? “Because nobody is going to learn, and I want to use my voice to teach others also.”

In closing, MacArthur says:

Beloved, you know as well as I do that there is never a time in the Word of God when God wants us to be mindless. Would you agree with that? There is never a premium set on your brain being turned off, never. There is never a time when God wants us to function on pure emotion without understanding, never. And here, what you have is a wrong thing. You have a mindless, emotional experience that has no meaning, no meaning.

Another thing for us to remember is that the gift of tongues died after the Apostolic Era. God granted it for a limited time in order for the Church to grow and expand.

MacArthur has this to say about today’s Charismatics:

Now let me tell you something; this is very important as I conclude. What are the lessons here? Now listen. Does this passage tell us how to govern tongues in the church today? No, not really, because they ceased.

What does it show us? Number one: It shows us that the modern Charismatic Movement is – now watch this; and I say this with great love and great concern; but I believe this in my heart – that the Charismatic movement today is the same old Corinthian problem all over again. Listen. Why? They use them in their assemblies today. They speak in gibberish. They do it for private self-edification. They seek the emotional experience rather than the intellectual understanding. They sing in tongues. They are absorbed in their own experiences. They glory in the unintelligible as if it were some secret communion with God. They do it among believers. And their missionaries do not have the true gift to reach people with different languages. And so what I see there is a mirror of this problem.

What do we to learn from this? Here we go. Learn, one, to exalt the proclamation and teaching of the Word of God, to come together to hear God’s Word so that we can understand it, to do whatever we do with whatever gift we have to build up somebody else, to never seek a selfish spiritual experience, to never relish the emotional but knowledge, to watch out for Satan’s counterfeits, to do all things with a clear mind open to God’s truth. And, beloved, the greatest tragedy arising from the modern tongues movement is that they miss the true work of the Holy Spirit.

Remember the dog in the ancient fable who, while crossing a bridge with a bone in his mouth, looked over the edge and saw in the water the reflection? And the bone in the reflection looked so good, better than the one in his mouth, that he dropped the substance for the shadow, and went hungry. And I’m afraid that many of our dear friends in this movement have dropped the substance and the reality of Ephesians 5:18 for the shadow of a Charismatic experience, and they’re going to go hungry.

Paul has more to say about speaking in tongues. More to follow next week.

Next time — 1 Corinthians 14:20-25