1Co 14:4-8 “He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church. 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. Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine? And even things without life giving sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped? For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?”
Paul makes it very clear here that speaking in an unknown tongue has benefit for the speaker; he is edified (built up) by it. He that is able to prophesy, or speak plainly by divine inspiration, edifies the church body. There is certainly a time and place when it is perfectly fine for us to edify ourselves individually. To this end, Paul expressed that he was not opposed to all of the brethren being able to speak in tongues.
However, this cannot be read as Paul commanding to speak in tongues to the general assembly of the saints. He goes on to say he would prefer (rather) that the gift of prophesy was being exercised. The reason is quite simple. Unless the one speaking in tongues is able to interpret to the whole body, there is greater good to the church in speaking by prophesy.
Using himself as an example, Paul asked them what profit there was to them if he came speaking in tongues unless he could show them, by God’s grace, what he was seeing and why it had meaning to the church. Later in this letter, Paul gives thanks to God for his ability to speak in tongues more than all of the church at Corinth. Yet, he affirms that he would rather speak five words with his understanding so that the church might be edified than to speak ten thousand words in an unknown tongue (1Co 14:18-19). Again, there is no injunction here against speaking in tongues, but recognition of the truth that doing so usually benefits only the individual.
Paul’s example of musical instruments giving a certain sound is one that I can identify with on a very personal level. My wife and daughters presented me with my first banjo for my 50th birthday. I would sit and plink away at it day after day. Once I had mastered a few chords I began to try and play some specific songs. It wasn’t long before I could clearly hear the melody I was playing in my mind and took a lot of pleasure in working with my banjo.
As I began to hear those melodies, I would ask Leah if she could recognize the tune I was playing. Over and over she would reluctantly confess to me that she had no idea what I was trying to play. One day she walked through the living room as I sat playing on my banjo and said “That was In The Sweet By and By.” My playing no longer only edified me. I was now able to present the sound in such a way that others in the room knew what was being played.
When we speak in a way that edifies us and allows us to glorify God in our spirit, it is a wonderful experience. It is something that Paul would have liked for all the saints at Corinth to experience. Yet, this was not the focal point or the most important part of their gifts. In Paul’s estimation as an apostle of the Lord, Jesus Christ, it was better for the church that words be plainly and fitly spoken so that the church could grow together and be built up to God’s honor and glory.
May God give us the grace to glorify Him to our personal edification in due time and season, but to always desire above all else to see the church edified to His praise and glory!