Having concluded that the most important thing we can do is to build up the church, Paul continues by comparing speaking in tongues and prophesying:
“Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. 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” (1 Cor 14:13-15).
Paul is drawing a distinction not only between speaking in tongues versus prophesying, but also between spirit and mind. Perhaps he is saying that there is risk of disunity within us?
“Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up” (1 Cor 14:16-17).
Again Paul emphasizes that what we must do to promote unity is to build up the church by building up each and every person who comes our way. Paul then draws this conclusion:
“I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Cor 14:18-19).
Building up the church is all about correct instruction, which can also be called prophesying, and not about our own personal spiritual edification. The former unifies and the latter divides:
“Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. 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.’ Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers” (1 Cor 14:20-22; Isaiah 28:11-12).
So speaking in tongues is a legitimate spiritual sign of warning to unbelievers only. Prophecy – teaching, instructing, and building up – is a sign to believers to use their minds as well as their spirits to create an environment of grace.
“If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you” (1 Cor 14:23-25).
“Prophesy” is not a word used often in most churches today. The general sense of the word is to predict future events, and that is how Webster’s Dictionary defines it. But would a visitor to your church be converted to life in Jesus by predicting a future event? Perhaps. But Webster notes under “Rare” that prophesy can also mean teaching. And this is clearly how Paul is using the word by contrast to speaking in tongues, and that is not as rare as Webster thinks.
In most churches it is the pastor’s sermon that is used to teach and convict both believers and unbelieving visitors. Whether you have an altar call every week or you quietly serve and greet visitors, one of whom might be overcome with emotion, Paul’s words ring true. That visitor, if he or she heard nothing but indistinguishable language, would think the church is crazy.
So let us be adults in our thinking how we can best cultivate a garden of truth, peace, and solid teaching. These are the foundations of perfect unity in a church as reflected upon the neediest one who walks in the door.
Prophesy – with your mind and your spirit!