Notes on Prayer: 1 Corinthians 14:13-15

1 Corinthians 14:13-15

“Therefore, the (one) speaking in a tongue must speak out toward (God) (so) that one might explain (it) thoroughly. [For] if I speak out toward (God) in a tongue, my spirit is speaking out toward (God), but my mind is without fruit. What is it then? I will (indeed) speak out toward (God) in (the) spirit, but also with (the) mind; I make music with (the) spirit, but I also make music with (the) mind.”

In the previous study, we saw the importance of prayer within the congregational worship. Public (spoken) prayer was treated by Paul in 1 Cor 11 along with prophecy—that is, a gifted person who communicates the word and will of God to the congregation. In this context, both prayer and prophecy were special gifts of the Spirit, and the speaker should be understood as one speaking under the inspiration of the Spirit. As a spiritual gift, prayer and prophecy were available to both men and women (so long as they were genuinely gifted). Paul affirms the ability of a woman to fulfill this role in the congregational worship, so long as a certain gender-distinction was maintained (symbolized by the use of a head/hair covering).

Paul’s main concern was that everything in the congregational worship be done in an orderly manner, so as to avoid divisiveness and disunity within the congregation. He has the same goal in mind when addressing the congregational worship in chapter 14.

Paul discussed the matter of different spiritual gifts in chapter 12 (vv. 1-11), maintaining as the principal point, that the different gifts (and the individual use/expression of them) must serve the unity of the congregation—i.e., the illustration of different members comprising a single body (vv. 12-31). The single body (of Christ) is parallel to the idea that a single Spirit (of God and Christ) works through all of the different gifts (vv. 4-11).

Along with the Spirit, the unifying bond among the congregation is that of love (chap. 13). All of the gifts which individuals may use within the congregation are subservient to the principle of love.

It is in this context that Paul addresses the spiritual gifts again in chapter 14, focusing on the same two phenomena within the congregational worship that he discussed in chapter 11 (cf. above and in the previous study): prayer and prophecy. With regard to prayer, Paul deals with the specific phenomena of praying (lit. “speaking out toward [God],” vb proseu/xomai) “in a tongue” (glw/ssh|). This raises the longstanding question regarding the early Christian phenomenon of “speaking in tongues”.

In the book of Acts, the coming of the Spirit upon believers frequently results in their “speaking in tongues”. The principal episode in the Pentecost event (2:3-4ff), where it is clear that the “tongues” are actual foreign languages (v. 11). This is tied to the central theme of the book of Acts: the proclamation of the Gospel out into the surrounding nations (1:8, etc). The speaking in foreign languages symbolizes the early Christian mission and illustrates the empowerment of believers (by the Holy Spirit) for this task. The same phenomenon (apparently) is mentioned in three other narratives, with the “speaking in tongues” occurring in the same manner, following the coming of the Spirit, usually after the laying on of hands by an apostle (19:6, cf. also 8:17-18), though on one occasion (10:46) the Spirit comes upon believers prior to baptism (and the laying on of hands).

Elsewhere in the New Testament, ‘speaking in tongues’ is mentioned only in 1 Corinthians, where it seems to have a somewhat different meaning—as a specific gift possessed by only certain believers. Also, Paul’s language strongly suggests that the gift involves a special (heavenly) prayer-language, rather than an actual foreign language. It is, however, a strange/foreign tongue that other people would not normally be able to understand. That is why Paul mentions both the gift of speaking in tongues and a separate gift of interpreting such speech (12:10, 28, 30).

If we read between the lines in chaps. 12-14, it would seem that some believers at Corinth were particularly enamored with the gift of tongues, and Paul carefully (and gently) seeks to dissuade them of this. Chapter 13, which emphasizes the subordination of the spiritual gifts to the principle of love within the congregation, begins the point of contrast, notably, with the gift of tongues (vv. 1, 8). Moreover, in chapter 14, Paul is quick to point out the superiority of prophecy over the gift of tongues. The reason for this is, among other things, the practical reality that many people simply will not understand something spoken in tongues, compared with a prophetic message in the hearers own language (vv. 1-5ff).

Paul’s specific instruction in vv. 13-15 involves speaking in tongues. The implication is that the gift of tongues is a gift for prayer, a kind of heavenly ‘prayer-language’ that one uses in speaking to God (vb proseu/xomai). Paul warns against using this prayer-language in public, in the congregational worship, unless there is someone who is able to interpret (explain, vb diermhneu/w) the words. One suspects that some in Corinth were doing precisely what Paul warns against—that they were eagerly speaking in tongues (praying) in public, without anyone interpreting.

As mentioned above, the ‘gift of tongues’ seems to relate to a special prayer-language, that one utters, speaking to God in an inspired state, speaking with one’s spirit. The Spirit touches the believer’s own spirit, inspiring (gifting) it to be able to pray to God in a kind of Spirit-language. This is almost certainly what Paul is referring to in Rom 8:26-27. In any case, he clearly states here in v. 14 that, when one prays “in a tongue”, it is with the spirit, and not the mind, that one prays. That is to say, it is not prayer made in ordinary, intelligible language, but rather a special kind of prayer. Paul emphasizes, however, that it is also important to pray “with the mind” (tw=| noi+/), especially when prayer is made in the congregation, so that all people can understand. One ought not to pray in tongues in the congregation without an interpreter.

Paul himself prayed in tongues (as he states in v. 18), but his instruction in verse 19 comes right to the point:

“But in the e)kklhsi/a I wish to speak five words with my mind [i.e. in normal intelligible language], (so) that also others I might teach, rather than a multitude of words in a tongue.”

The term e)kklhsi/a here retains the basic denotation of a public gathering to which the people have been “called out” (vb e)kkale/w) to attend. In this context, of course, it refers to the congregational worship meeting.

Paul’s main concern, again, is that the congregational worship proceeds in an orderly way that will benefit all of the people who attend. This reflects the principal theme in 1 Corinthians, of the need to preserve unity among believers, and to avoid anything that might cause division. His advice regarding speaking/praying in tongues in eminently practical in this regard. He would not wish to deny the use of tongues in the worship, but only sets the requirement that they should not be used unless someone is present who can interpret the language. That point is made again in verse 28, along with the directive that only two or three people at the meeting should speak in tongues, and that they must proceed in turn, in an orderly manner.

In next week’s study, we will turn to Paul’s references to prayer in 2 Corinthians.

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