(1Co 14:16-17 ESV) 16 Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit [NIV/NASB: “in the S/spirit”], how can anyone in the position of an outsider 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.
“Give thanks with your spirit” seems to mean “Give thanks while speaking in tongues.” And while it seems clear, as discussed in prior posts of this series, that the speaker does not know what words he is saying — or else why would Paul urge the tongue-speaker to pray for the gift of interpretation? — nonetheless, the tongues express the heart of the speaker. How else could Paul say “you may be giving thanks well enough”?
This should remind us —
(Rom 8:26 ESV) 26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.
I do not take this passage to be a reference to tongues. Paul uses “groanings” to speak of the yearnings of the creation itself in vv. 22-23, and so he’s not being quite so literal. But he is certainly saying that the Spirit knows our yearnings better than we do, and so it makes sense that the Corinthian “tongues” could be a Spirit-aided expression of the speaker’s deepest feelings.
The other point Paul makes is that the impression we make on outsiders (NJB: “uninitiated”; NIV: “inquirer”) matters. Those who sneer at “seeker sensitive” services have not been reading this chapter very closely. Paul plainly cares a great deal about how non-Christian visitors react to the assembly.
For those who sneer at inviting non-members to the assembly (because that would be an “attractional” strategy), well, obviously the practice in Corinth was to routinely have non-members present — or else why would Paul be so concerned about their reaction to tongue-speaking?
On the other hand, Paul speaks first and at most length about the impact on the members — those who are to be edified. The assembly is not a show targeted at the lost to convert them, but a gathering of the saved for their spiritual formation — to help them in their efforts to follow Jesus — but with great sensitivity to the impression made on visitors — with the expectation that visitors will ordinary be present.
And v. 16 adds thanksgiving (or praise, depending on the translation) to the purposes of the assembly. It’s not just edification, but Paul uses edification as his litmus test throughout the chapter.
“I speak in tongues more than all of you.”
(1Co 14:18-19 ESV) 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.
Some use this verse to argue that “tongues” in Corinth are actual human languages. And there is indeed support in Acts 2 for this point of view. We covered this in prior posts. Here, Paul is likely contrasting his private devotions, rather than his evangelistic efforts, with the assembly.
“In church” means, of course, in the assembly — although the Greek is ἐν ἐκκλησίᾳ (en ekklēsia), that is, “in church.” Which seems kind of trivial until you realize how much some want to complain about saying “going to church” when “the church” is the people and not the bricks and mortar. But we are in fact “going to the assembly” which is “going to the church.” After all, ekklēsia means “assembly.” It’s just that the church is more assembled on Sunday mornings than most of the rest of the week — if that makes any sense.
That is, sometimes we outsmart ourselves trying to show how much smarter we are than anyone else. It’s a hard habit to break, but we really need to stop showing off by criticizing perfectly biblical phrases such as “in church.” I prefer to say “the assembly” to avoid say “worship” because “worship” colors our conclusions — tricking our minds into not noticing what else the Bible says about the purpose of the assembly — such as Paul’s repeated emphasis on edification. I mean, why not “Five Acts of Edification”? Because we start with our conclusion — assuming worship to be the singular purpose of the
worship hourassembly, thereby blinding ourselves to other things.
A sign for unbelievers
(1Co 14:20-22 ESV) 20 Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. 21 In the Law it is written, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” 22 Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers.
Paul paraphrases —
(Isa 28:11-12 ESV) 11 For by people of strange lips and with a foreign tongue the LORD will speak to this people, 12 to whom he has said, “This is rest; give rest to the weary; and this is repose”; yet they would not hear.
Isaiah here is prophesying the coming destruction of the Northern Kingdom (“Ephraim”) at the hands of the Assyrians. It’s a bitterly sarcastic denunciation, accusing the leaders of chronic drunkenness.
God spoke to that age even if it had to be through drunken prophets/priests and through the Assyrian invaders.
John D. W. Watts, Isaiah 1–33 (Word BC 24; Accordance/Thomas Nelson electronic ed. Waco: Word Books, 1985), 430.
Paul’s point in vv. 21-22 is that God speaks to the lost — those under judgment — by the voices of foreigners and drunkards — that is, languages that cannot be understood. And I admit that’s an odd way to make his point.
The connection with the present argument is not obvious. Perhaps Paul means that, as those who had refused to heed the prophet were punished by hearing speech that was not intelligible to them, so would it be in his day. Those who would not believe would hear unintelligible ‘tongues’, but be quite unable to understand the wonderful meaning.
Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale NTC 7; IVP/Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 189.
I rather like the explain from the Pillar commentary —
[T]ongues are a sign to unbelievers in that the public experience of unintelligible communication from God highlights the sense and reality of alienation between the speaker(s) and those being spoken to. Such an experience was only intended for God’s people while they were in a state of rebellion and unbelief and suffering the curses of the Mosaic covenant.
Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 703.
But the text becomes even more paradoxical as we continue …