These three chapters continue the theme of public worship started in chapter eleven. Here
Paul is responding to a question in their letter to him, as he starts the section with the words, “Now
concerning spiritual gifts” (14:1). It would appear at first sight that Paul is addressing the public
exercise of spiritual gifts within the context of the church meeting. However, the word used is
'pneumatikoi', which can either mean 'spiritual things', or 'spiritual people'. The word has a broader meaning than particular spiritual gifts, but would include a general understanding of spirituality. He says that he does not want them to be ignorant about spiritual things. The Corinthians had a great interest in spiritual manifestations and would think they understood them, but their understanding needed much correction by Paul.
Today there is great interest in these chapters, particularly in Pentecostal and Charismatic
churches, because here is are one of the few places in the NT where there is teaching on the spiritual
gifts. However we should be careful not to use the church in Corinth as a model for modern worship,
as Paul is attempting to bring order to their rather chaotic worship and to challenge some very
Characteristic of pagan religion and especially of the Greek mystery religions was the use of
ecstatic utterances and frenzied behaviour, in which the worshipper lost control of themselves as they
came under the control of the supernatural. Manifestations would include going into a trance,
speaking in a strange language and unusual ecstatic behaviour. This was considered to be a sign of
being one of the spiritually elite, those who were considered to be particularly close to the spiritual
world, or to the gods. This understanding was brought into the church by those converted from a
pagan background. Through many of his letters Paul was seeking to correct this elitist understanding.
He shows that the same Holy Spirit came upon all believers, and that the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-
23) shown in Christian behaviour was more important than ecstatic manifestations.
The divisions in the church already shown by the favouring of different apostles, the lawsuits
between the rich and the poor, as well as the selfish and greedy behaviour at the Lord’s supper were
also being exposed through their use of spiritual gifts during public worship. Instead of the gifts
being used for the benefit of other believers, they were being used to display their own spiritual pride.
Some of the Corinthian believers appear to be measuring their level of spirituality by the amount they
spoke in tongues in the church meetings. This shows that they had a very limited understanding of
spirituality and spiritual things. In his response, Paul is attempting to broaden their understanding of
what it means to be 'spiritual'. Being 'spiritual' is far more than speaking in tongues, as Paul lists
a further eight manifestations of the Spirit (12:8-10). In the same chapter he also includes a selection
of ministries in the church, including apostles, prophets and teachers (12:28). Elsewhere, he also
includes less spectacular gifts such as celibacy and marriage (7:7). He shows that the most
convincing indication of the presence of the Holy Spirit is through the expression of Christian love.
This is why the well-known chapter on love (ch 13), is sandwiched between chapters twelve and
fourteen, which talk about spiritual gifts, especially the gift of tongues and prophecy.
Curses in Jesus’ name (12:1-3)
He begins with what seems a strange statement to us today. The idea of saying, “Let Jesus be
cursed”, would be unimaginable in any church. However because there is no verb in the Greek, it is
not clear how the phrase should be translated. It could either be, “Let Jesus be cursed”, or “Jesus grants a curse”. If this is the case, then he is looking back to their pagan past when religious curses were regularly used to call upon a particular deity to send some evil against a rival in various areas, including sport, romance, politics, business or litigation. The Corinthians must certainly not use the name of Jesus as part of a curse formula against their opponents. Such a curse, or cursing the name of Jesus could not possibly be prompted by the Holy Spirit. All genuine manifestations of the Spirit will acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus, will bring glory to him, and will never oppose him.
To be truly spiritual does not mean a person has to have various dramatic spiritual experiences, but is someone who is fully committed to Jesus as the Lord of their lives, and who functions as a committed member of his body here on earth, the church. True spirituality is focussed on Jesus, and is corporately expressed in the church, rather than merely individually. This truth is particularly important today, with the rise in interest in spirituality. Many people are searching for spiritual experiences, but are looking in the wrong places.
Varieties of gifts from one source (12:4-11)
The Corinthians had a tendency to elevate one gift above the others, particularly the gift of
tongues, and to see some believers as more important or more spiritual. Paul shows that all spiritual
gifts have the same source, they come from the same Holy Spirit. These gifts of the Holy Spirit have
the purpose of edifying the whole congregation, not to boost the pride of one particular individual
(12:7). The different manifestations of the Spirit are for the common good (12:7). Paul’s key
throughout this passage is unity and diversity, so equality does not mean sameness or uniformity,
and difference is not something to be ranked in importance or value. This is a difficult balance to
achieve in practice.
The Greek word for gifts here is 'charismata' (12:4), from which we get the word 'charismatic', as in charismatic worship. It is based on the word for grace, showing that the gifts are freely given by the Spirit. It normally describes the special operation of the Spirit in people. We should also notice that all three members of the Trinity are involved in the distribution of spiritual gifts and ministries, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Even within the godhead there is unity and diversity. It is important to remember that church is a place to serve one another with our gifts, and not a place to perform or show off our talent. We should take care not to speak of 'my gift' or 'my ministry', as all gifts come from God, and we only exercise these gifts by his grace. We need to keep our focus on Jesus, otherwise we will find ourselves following the ways of the Corinthians.
In a number of places in his letters, Paul gives lists of spiritual gifts and ministries, including
12:28, Rom 12:6-8, Eph 4:11. These lists are not all the same, and when brought together give an
extensive list of around twenty different spiritual gifts and ministries, showing the wide variety of
spiritual gifts. It is not necessary to think that the lists give all the possible spiritual gifts. Some gifts appear to be more practical like serving or giving, others are more supernatural like speaking in
tongues or healing. All gifts come from the same Holy Spirit, and are given to different believers as
he determines (12:11). All gifts should work together for the purposes of God. They are not earned,
and their presence does not indicate that any one believer is more superior than the others. It can be
interesting to consider the difference between natural talents and supernatural gifts. Sometimes God
will use our natural talent for his kingdom, as we submit our God-given skills to him. At other times
he will call people to lay down their talent, until they learn to use it for his glory, and not for self-
gratification or public acclaim. Some gifts are clearly more supernatural, although it should be noted
that most if not all can be mimicked in other religions and in occult practices, so great discernment is
Paul now lists nine specific gifts of the Spirit (12:8-10). The list continues the same theme of
a diversity of gifts which are inspired by the same Spirit, which are given for the common good of the
1. Utterance of wisdom, or word of wisdom
This can be word that brings the wisdom of God into a difficult or confusing situation. It is an explanation from the mind of God. Solomon was given such a word when faced with the two women who both claimed the living baby belonged to them (1 Kg 3:16-28). We should also remember from the first chapters of the book of the importance of wisdom in Corinth, and that true wisdom ultimately only comes from God, and is found in his Gospel of Christ crucified.
2. Utterance of knowledge, or word of knowledge
Knowledge was also very important to the Corinthians. This gift is when God gives supernatural knowledge, perhaps about a particular person. For example, Jesus knew that the Samaritan woman had been married to five husbands and was now living with another man (Jn 4:18).
This should be seen as being distinct from the general gift of faith given to all those who respond to the Gospel in repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The gift here appears to be a special gift of faith given to particular people to believe God for the miraculous, whether for physical miracles, or his supernatural provision. Hebrews chapter eleven lists the 'heroes of faith', who heard God’s Word and believed his promise.
4. Gifts of healing (notice that it is the plural - gifts of healing)
This is when God brings supernatural healing, either directly, or through the prayers of another Christian. James told the sick to call for the elders of the church to pray, so God can heal them (James 5:14). In the gospels, physical healing was a sign of the coming of the kingdom of God and the dawn of the messianic age. However, Jesus does not always bring physical healing, and ultimately all physical healing is only temporary, as we will all die. We live in a fallen world, subject to sickness and death, but look forward to eternal life in glory where there is no sin or sickness. It is important that claims of miraculous healing are verified, especially by people who are medically trained. This will avoid spurious claims, which ultimately dishonour Jesus and bring discredit to his church. Even Jesus insisted that his healings were verified. After he cleansed the leper, he told him to show himself to the priest, to show that he was clean (Mk 1:44). It was one of the jobs of the priests to declare lepers clean (Lev 14:1-9).
5. Working of miracles, or workings of powers
The Book of Acts records a number of miraculous acts performed through the apostles, including raising the dead, deliverance from demons, or even pronouncing judgement on Ananias and Sapphira. Miracles were also the sign of apostleship (2 Cor 12:12).
We should remember that a word of prophecy is not always predicting the future, but is a word from God into the current situation, and calling on a response from the hearers. The OT prophets spoke the word of God by the inspiration of the Spirit, addressing their current religious and political situation, and called for repentance. The response will often determine what will happen in the future. Paul will bring a greater focus on the gift of prophecy in chapter fourteen. The OT prophets always remained completely in control of themselves as they spoke God’s word, and did not exhibit any ecstatic, trance-like, or frenzied behaviour characteristic of pagan prophets.
7. Discernment of spirits
The purpose of this gift is to discern the origin of a particular spiritual manifestation. As all
these gifts can be mimicked by Satan, it is very important that the church exercises discernment. The church should not be gullible by following any teaching or being impressed with any spiritual manifestation or miracle. There are three main sources of manifestations: the Holy Spirit, the human spirit or emotion, or Satan. Some so-called charismatic manifestations may not come from God, but may either be evil, or merely due to human emotionalism, or a combination of the two. Paul was able to discern that the slave girl in Philippi was controlled by an evil spirit, even though what she said about Paul was true (Acts 16:16-18). Jesus often showed that he could distinguish between sickness caused by demons or by a medical condition. This is particularly seen in Mark’s Gospel. Paul instructed the
Thessalonians not to despise the words of the prophets, but to test everything, and hold fast to what is good (1 Thess 5:19-22). All words of wisdom or prophecy should be tested against the word of God, not with a critical spirit, but with a desire to hold on to what is good, and to lay aside what is not from God.
8. Various kinds of tongues
9. Interpretation of tongues
Again, Paul will focus his attention on these gifts in chapter fourteen. Paul has probably placed tongues and interpretation at the end of the list because the abuse of tongues is the particular problem in the Corinthian church. He wants to show them that there are many other spiritual gifts, which they are probably ignoring. He is wanting diversity, not uniformity.
All these gifts are activated by the same Spirit, who gives them to individual people has the
Spirit chooses. We should notice that it is the Spirit who gives the gifts. They are allocated by the
Spirit, not determined by individual believers.
One body with many parts (12:12-36)
The Corinthians did not have an adequate understanding of the church as a corporate identity.
They had a more individualistic understanding, bringing their habits from pagan religion into the
church. They had competitive motives in using spiritual gifts to demonstrate their higher level of
spirituality. Their attitude to others was, “I don’t need you” (12:21), with the consequence that others felt devalued and unwanted (12:15-16). It was an urgent priority for Paul to put a stop to this pride and competition, and bring a more godly attitude to Christian ministry and the use of spiritual gifts.
To correct their selfish attitudes he picks up on the metaphor of the church as the body of Christ which he had already alluded to in the discussion of the Lord’s supper (11:29). A human body is one unit, but with diversity. It is a living organism, not an organisation. All parts of it are necessary and important, even those which appear to be less honourable. The same is true with the body of
Christ, the church. All members of the church have received the gift of the Holy Spirit, whether they
came from a Jewish or Gentile background (12:13). Different believers have received different
spiritual gifts, but everyone has the same Holy Spirit. There is no elite group who have been baptised
in the Spirit. Every true Christian has been baptised into the one body of Christ, and have drunk from
the same supernatural source (12:13). Paul makes a similar statement in Romans when he says that
the Spirit of God dwells in the believer, and anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not
belong to him (Rom 8:9). It is the presence of the Spirit that makes a person a new creation in Christ,
and changes them from being a pagan to a follower of Jesus, immersed in the body of believers. Jesus
described this as being born from above or being born again (Jn 3:3). Any attempt to claim a greater
level of spirituality through the ability to speak in tongues is completely opposed to Paul’s teaching
Within the unity of the body there is also a diversity. Different believers receive different
gifts. No believer should consider themselves superior because they have a particular gift, and none
should feel inferior, or be considered inferior for lacking a particular gift. No gift is received by all
believers, there are no universal gifts, just as human body does not only have a single part. No part of
the body is inferior or unnecessary, so no gift is inferior or dispensable (12:21). Even the weaker or
less presentable parts of the human body are needed, but these are given greater dignity. Greater
honour is given to the inferior member, which removes any excuse for dissension. All spiritual gifts
have the same value, which should eliminate competition between Christians over the gifts. Instead,
all believers should have concern for others, in suffering or in rejoicing (12:26). All members of the
body of Christ have equal status as forgiven sinners.
Diversity of ministries in the church (12:27-31)
Paul actually ranks three particular ministries in the church, apostles, prophets and teachers
(12:28). Other gifts and ministries are not ranked. These include some gifts listed in the nine gifts of
the Spirit (12:8-10), as well as very practical ways of serving in the church. He does give a priority to
the three ministries of apostle, prophet and teacher because they are the foundation of the church and
the preaching of the Gospel, so the order could refer to chronology, rather than importance. Finally
using a series of rhetorical questions, he shows that there is no universal gift. Believers need to seek
those gifts that build up the church, these are the greater gifts. The Corinthians thought the greater
gifts were the more sensational gifts, especially speaking in tongues. For Paul, the greater gifts are
those that build up the church, and those that truly express and are motivated by Christian love,
which is the most excellent way. What Paul says here seriously challenges the common
understanding in many Pentecostal or charismatic churches, that all believers should speak in tongues
as a sign of being baptised in the Spirit. Paul clearly indicates here that no gift is universal.
Love: the most excellent way (13:1-13)
This well-known chapter on love, often read at weddings, should be properly understood in
its context of Christian love within the church. Here it comes as a great challenge, calling the church
to keep its focus on Jesus and the exercise of love as the motivation of all activities in the church.
Paul now begins to focus on the two gifts that Corinthians were particularly interested in:
tongues and prophecy, but particularly tongues. Love is not placed in contrast to tongues, or as a
replacement to tongues, but is the necessary motivation for all spiritual gifts. The purpose of all gifts
is the edification of the church, which is the effect of Christian love, but is what tongues without
interpretation fails to achieve. Without love, all spiritual gifts are useless, tongues without love is just a noise, faith without love is nothing, even being martyred without love achieves nothing.
It appears that the Corinthians referred to tongues as the language of angels (13:1). Some
may have considered themselves to be truly spiritual, like angels, so they do not need sexual
relationships in the present (7:1-7), or a physical body in the future (ch 15). They would think that
speaking in tongues, the language of angels, showed that they have arrived at a higher level of
spirituality, and even that they are already living in the age to come. This would explain why they
were so enthusiastic about this particular gift. Theologically speaking, they had an over-spiritualised,
or over-realised eschatology.
The exercise of love appears to be in contrast to the behaviour of the Corinthians, who were
envious, boastful and rude (4:18). They were self-seeking, while love always seeks the good of
others. Spiritual gifts are only temporary, but love will last for ever (13:8-10). These verses have
caused a huge and continuing controversy in the church, between the Pentecostals and Charismatics
who say that spiritual gifts are still available to the church today, and others who say that they were
only for the early centuries. This belief is known as cessationalism. They claim that the gifts were
only given as a temporary measure until the canon of the NT was complete, after which the gifts
ceased. Extreme cessationalists claim that any such manifestations today are either of the flesh or
even of the devil. The problem with this view is that Paul says in this passage that the gifts will
remain until the perfect comes (13:10), when we will see him face to face (13:12). This description
surely is of the end of the age and the return of Christ, rather than of the completion of the writing of
the NT books.
A rather ironic note from church history is that cessationalism was particularly taught by the
Brethren church, who also developed dispensationalism. The dispensational understanding of
eschatology was later adopted by the Pentecostal church. So the church that was founded on the
understanding of the modern experience of the spiritual gifts actually adopted an eschatology that
Tongues and prophecy (14:1-25)
In this chapter Paul brings his correction to the particular issue in the Corinthian church,
which is the abuse of the gift of tongues. He brings a strong contrast between the gift of tongues and
prophecy. The Corinthians had a preference for the gift of tongues, but Paul preferred prophecy. For
Paul, tongues were unintelligible and meaningless, while prophecy was both inspired and intelligible,
even to unbelievers.
There appears to have been three basic problems in the church:
a. They were using tongues to edify themselves, rather then edifying others through prophecy
b. All were speaking in tongues at the same time without interpretation (14:13, 18-19, 23)
c. All were prophesying at the same time without judging the prophecies.
His main concern is for order in public worship. Instead of waiting for the first person to
finish, they were interrupting each other to show off their spirituality, with the result that the meeting degenerated into chaos. In response, Paul emphasises the need for order in worship and the need to respect each other. The same basic issue underlies this issue as it did the other issues Paul addresses through the letter: pride and selfishness.
The purpose of prophecy is to build up the church (14:1-5)
The foundation of Paul’s teaching is that the purpose of spiritual gifts is for the common good
(12:7), to edify the church, therefore the motivation for their use must be Christian love. This means
that he can assess the relative value of tongues and prophecy by the extent that they edify the rest of
the congregation. If no one can understand what is said, then it has little or no value.
His first point is that tongues are addressed to God (14:2), not to other people, while
prophecy is a message from God which is addressed to his people to edify the whole congregation
(14:3). Tongues are appropriate for personal devotions to God, to express personal thanksgiving,
whose result is self-edification. It should be noted that tongues are not a message from God to the
church, but precisely the reverse. So there is no such thing as a 'message in tongues'. Tongues is
really a means of personal prayer and praise to God. So Paul is happy for tongues to be used in
private devotions, but they are not appropriate for public worship, unless they are interpreted. He
does not forbid the use of tongues as he uses tongues himself (14:18), but urges that they are used in
the right context. Prophecy has much greater value to the church because the message can clearly be
understood by the people.
Prophecy is not the same as a prepared sermon given in church, but is a more spontaneous
word given by God to a particular person to be communicated to the rest of the congregation for their
edification. However, there is no reason why a word of prophecy cannot be included in a sermon. In
fact this can happen (and perhaps should happen) even without the preacher being aware of it, so his
words bring a specific word from God to particular individuals or to the whole church. Paul will later
note that a person bringing a word of prophecy remains in control of themselves (14:32), and can
therefore wait to bring the message at an appropriate time.
Speaking in tongues is not intelligible (14:6-12)
Speaking in tongues in a public meeting has no value as the sounds have no meaning. It
would be like listening to someone speak a foreign language. The motivation should be to edify the
church, which can come through an intelligible message of knowledge, prophecy or teaching.
Pray for the power to interpret (14:13-19)
If people want to speak in tongues in the meeting, then they should pray for the power to
interpret the sounds. Again he states that tongues is a means of bringing thanksgiving to God. Other
people cannot respond in agreement with the word, 'Amen', if they cannot understood what was said.
Tongues as a sign for unbelievers (14:20-25)
Looking back to the prophets, Paul notes that strange tongues were actually a sign of judgement on the Israelites. One of the covenant curses of Deuteronomy was that Israel would be invaded by a nation that spoke a strange tongue (Deut 28:49). Paul quotes Isaiah, who predicted that this curse will certainly come to pass through the Assyrian invasion (Is 28:11-12). Because they have ignored God’s Word which can clearly be understood, he will speak to them through the tongues of foreigners. So in this case, speaking in tongues was a sign of judgement, not of blessing. Paul’s point is that speaking in tongues is not necessarily a sign of God’s approval. If unbelievers attend a church meeting, and hear people speaking in tongues, they will think the Christians are insane, and will not be brought to repentance. A clear message of prophecy in an intelligible language can have the effect of bringing an unbeliever to repentance and faith in Jesus.
It may be helpful at this point to look at the use of tongues in other places in the NT. In Acts
the believers spoke in other known languages on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4), which those
listening understood. After Peter preached to the Gentile Cornelius the Holy Spirit came upon them
and they spoke in tongues, extolling God (Acts 10:46). We should notice here that once again tongues
were addressed to God. Also when the Holy Spirit came upon the followers of Apollos in Ephesus
they spoke in tongues and prophesied (Acts 19:6). In Paul’s letters, the only place where tongues are
mentioned is in 1 Corinthians, so it is not known whether speaking in tongues was known in other
churches. There is also a continuing and often heated debate over whether the gift of tongues is a
known language as it was on the Day of Pentecost, or whether tongues are not a human language.
Order in public worship (14:26-40)
Paul’s desire is for order in public worship, and for everything to be done for edification of
the whole church (14:26). Therefore tongues should only be used in public worship if there is an
interpretation, either if the person themselves can bring the interpretation, or if they know there is
someone else in the congregation who has the gift of interpretation. Otherwise it should be kept for
private devotions. Those with a word of prophecy should have the courtesy to wait until the first
person has finished, and not interrupt the person already speaking. The important point is that no
spiritual gift takes over a person’s self-control (14:32). The person remains in control of themselves,
and can decide how and when to bring the word of prophecy. This shows the contrast with pagan
worship, with its frenzies and ecstatic behaviour.
The difficult passage on women being silent (14:34-35)
A number of different views exist on this passage:
1. Take it literally.
That women should not speak in church, either not at all, or preaching from the pulpit. The problem with this view is that Paul noted that women were praying and prophesying during the church meetings and did not forbid it (11:5).
2. These two verses are a quotation from the Corinthian church
Paul’s response, “What! Did the word of God originate with you?” (v36). Paul is correcting their view that women should not speak in church, and allowing them to contribute to the public meeting. This is possible, but there is no real way of deciding whether this view is correct or not.
3. The two verses are not by Paul and should not be there.
We should notice that v33 flows directly on to v36, but this passage is not missing in any manuscripts. However, in some manuscripts (particularly western manuscripts) it is placed following v40, at the end of the chapter, so it may be a later addition by a scribe.
4. When referring to speaking, Paul is meaning ecstatic speech as in pagan cults
5. The speaking means talking, that the women were being disruptive in church meetings.
Because women did not have an education, they are calling out questions to their husbands, who were perhaps sitting separately in the meeting, thus causing an interruption to the meeting. This would fit with the instruction for the women to ask their husbands at home (14:35). It would also continue the series of instructions to be silent: speakers in tongues should remain silent if there is no interpretation (14:28), prophets should remain silent until the previous person has finished (14:30), and women should remain silent and not interrupt with their questions to their husbands (14:34). All three: tongue-speakers, prophets and women should be in submission to others, the whole church, so all things are done in order.
Be eager to prophesy (14:37-40)
Anyone who is a true prophet, someone who can hear the word of the Lord, will surely agree
that Paul’s instructions are correct, and will agree with them. He urges the church to be eager to
prophesy, not to forbid the use of tongues, but to use them within the restrictions Paul gave. And his
ultimate point is for Christian worship to be done in order, with respect for each other, so the whole
church is built up.
I suggest that you take the opportunity to continue your studies by reading the various
commentaries on this section, as well as books which express differing views on the use of spiritual
gifts, so you can come to your own conclusions on this contentious issue in the church.