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CHAPTER 3-section 3

The ability to speak other languages had been bestowed by God as an express means to evangelize the world, and the emphasis Paul gives it shows that it had become a subject of controversy.

Setting himself squarely in the center of the conflict, he deflates the importance the Corinthians had placed on the gift. To them it had become the supreme proof of godliness, and because of its role in early Christianity, it attracted many converts. To believers in mystery religions, a new faith having a God who was really three gods in one, who gave His followers power to heal the sick, cast out demons, and speak in mysterious tongues, Paul’s message must have seemed to be the ultimate. Many joined because of faith in Christ, but most assuredly others joined because of its supernatural appeal. It is presumably due to this that the gift of tongues had begun to occupy such a prominent position in the church—but now Paul moves in and gives it an entirely different place.

Twice in his admonishing letter to the Corinthians, Paul lists the various spiritual gifts, both times ending it with tongues and interpretation, which was understandably a shock to the Corinthians.

In 1 Cor. 12:8-10, he mentions seven gifts, and then, almost as an afterthought, he adds the gifts of tongues and interpretation. That this was no mistake, but done intentionally, is obvious when comparing it to the second list in verses 28-30. Here he also lists seven gifts, and once again tongues and interpretation of tongues come last of all. In the lists of spiritual gifts given in Romans 13:3-8 and Ephesians 4:7-11, they are not mentioned at all. Therefore, it was not a manifestation revealing the doctrines and power of God as were the other gifts, but only a communications medium to help make clear that which the new converts were to know in their own tongue. The very nature of these two gifts is to communicate something—and by ranking the other gifts of the Spirit before those of tongues and interpretation, Paul practically says that the knowledge of and about God revealed through the first five gifts is to be relayed to others through the last two gifts; for without divine thoughts and ideas to communicate, the gifts of tongues and interpretation have no value.

It is worthy of note that in three of the four listings of spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:8-10; 28-30; Rom. 12:3-8; and Eph. 4:7-11), the gift of prophecy—that of "speaking for God," is listed among the top two. The references to the gifts of the Spirit in Romans and Ephesians do not even mention tongues and interpretation.

When Paul therefore asked, "Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles? have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret?" (1 Cor. 12:29, 30), he clearly had a reason for this repetitious text.

In the final verse of the chapter he gives the answer.

"But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way." 1 Cor. 12:31.

In Paul’s opinion, the gifts so highly revered by the Corinthians, tongues and their interpretation, were not really so important. Plainly he advises them here to seek the gift with the greatest value for the church—that of prophecy, "speaking for God." Verse 5 of chapter 14 substantiates this: "I would that ye all spake with tongues, but rather that ye prophesied: for greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret, that the church may receive edifying."

Thus the Corinthians had indeed placed the wrong emphasis on tongues. Rather than seeking a gift that would edify the church, they sought for a manifestation that would edify themselves (1 Cor. 14:4), and in so doing they were destroying the church.


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