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Tongues are good. Prophesy is better! Keeping in Tune

Sermon passage: (1 Corinthians 14:1-19) Spoken on: October 20, 2019
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Keng Wan Ling
For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: 1 Corinthians

Tags: 1 Corinthians 哥林多前书

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About Keng Wan Ling: Deacon Keng was theologically trained in TTC, and currently serves as the worship ministry chairperson.
Bible passage (ESV) of the sermon can be found at the bottom of the page.

Title: Tongues are good. Prophesy is better! Keeping in Tune
Date: 20 October 2019
Preacher: Dn Keng Wan Ling

Good morning brothers and sisters. Our sermon title is: tongues are good, prophesy is better, but keeping in tune (love) is the key.

In this passage, Paul goes through in detail first on tongues and then on prophesy, addressing a church that sounds like its public worship has gone somewhat chaotic! We get the impression that members are clamouring to speak in tongues at service, so that he has to scold (v 26ff), LOOK! At MOST there should only be 2 or 3 of you speaking in tongues at our gatherings, and even then, only if there is interpretation. One wonders exactly how many were sprouting tongues!

Tongues and prophesy seem to have a little bit of mystical, renegade, outlier vibe for some of us. What do you associate with them? Do you think of speaking gibberish, or, a “word from the Lord” ? Mega churches or charismatic churches, or Korean churches, with tongues aplenty.  Can you associate tongues and prophesy with yourself, your life, your family, your own spiritual walk?

A personal reflection please. Do you speak in tongues? Prophesy? How often? Where and when? When did you start? If you do, is it something your friends (church or outside) and family know about- and are comfortable with?

Unlike the Corinthians church, Jubilee has noticeably less people speaking in tongues at service (if at all!). For today’s sermon, I will suggest that these are things that all of us can benefit from- putting on our radar, to know more about them, and to practice them as important skills.

Skills? Did I just say skills? What is this, a SkillsFuture talk?

One definition of a skill is- an ability and capacity acquired through deliberate, systematic, and sustained effort to smoothly and adaptively carry out complex activities or job functions . 【1】Note the key words: Ability. Capacity.

Let’s start with tongues. Some questions:
(a) Is it actual human language (just happens that the speaker doesn’t understand it)… or “angelic language”? At the birthplace of tongues, on the day of Pentecost, the Apostles spoke in human language. (Acts 2:5–11).
(b) Is the gift still relevant today? There are those who believe that modern day (i.e. after biblical times), believers no longer speak in tongues (John Calvin being one of those).
(c) And if so, are ALL believers meant to speak in tongues? If it’s so normal and common place, why don’t all Christians do it? Why isn’t it something that you, your father, mother, son, and daughter all often and casually?

I’m going to conveniently sidestep most of these questions for today, and take Paul on his terms.

Paul says that that all believers have the ability and capacity to speak in tongues, and I’ll accept that for now (that also happens to be my current personal thinking about tongues at the moment).

All believers have the ability and capacity to speak in tongues, because it is a spiritual gift; we have been hearing for weeks about these gifts, so I test you.

 What’s the 3 point summary about spiritual gifts?
1. Where do they come from? They are initiated by God, but are manifested or distributed through us
2. Is having the gift same as bearing the formal office? NO! (e.g. being pastoral vs being a pastor).
3. What are these gifts to be used for? The good for the church or the community.

Ok very good. Pass; so we can move on.

What’s the point of speaking in tongues anyway?

Paul says that the one who speaks in a tongue "speaks not to men but to God" (1 Cor. 14:2). This means that tongues is a form of prayer (1 Cor. 14:14), of praise (1 Cor. 14:15), of giving thanks to God (1 Cor. 14:16-17), and a way in which we edify or strengthen ourselves. (1 Cor. 14:4).

Are Christians the only one who speak in tongues? The root word used (in Acts, 1 Corinthians) is “glossa” which means “language” (from which we get the word “glossary”). Glossolalia (language + tongues) is the technical word is the phenomenon of (apparently) speaking in an unknown language, especially in religious worship (Oxford dictionary).

Seen this way, then there ARE other religious instances where believers speak in words not theirs, in languages they don’t understand. In extreme cases, we might call it possession- where the believer has no control, or awareness what is happening.

These are NOT the situations that we’re talking about. We are talking about where believers retain some control, they know what is happening and can choose to voice out, even if (using their words), the utterances are divinely inspired.

How can tongues be prayer, praise, thanksgiving if it’s gibberish? Can’t I just pray and praise and give thanks using normal words?

(A) One analogy might be when you speak to new born babies.
Do you understand you when you baby talk at them? No. Is it still a form of connecting? Yes. There’s a connection that goes beyond words, that transcends words. Words are powerful, but there’s more than, JUST words. My own opinion is that cultivating tongues help us to be in a posture where orientate ourselves to God.

(B) Another analogy might be music.

You can hum a tune or make music without words, but that melody can have a character and a life of its own. When you listen to music in a language that you don’t understand (Japanese? Korean?), you can still feel its vibe and its underlying intent. This is the equivalent of body language!

My own take is that, as you sound out the notes, and more importantly, as you focus your attention on God, and open yourself up to Him, those notes may take on a new meaning.

I think that spoken words, meaningless as they seem, these utterances can be channel for you to focus your intentions and your attention on them; be sensitive to the leading of the Sprit, and unhindered by the need to express yourself in words or language, you will explore a new way of communing, and communicating with, God.

How can tongues be edifying?

Our human soul is made out of intellect, emotion and will 【2】. It could be that to balance out our over-use of the intellect, we sometimes need to turn off that rationale, cognitive part for a while.

An MRI Story: A small experiment was carried 【3】by a doctor, Dr Charles Limb, who also is a musician. He put pianists into an MRI machine and got them to play. First was scales; then a learned melody over a backing track; and then improvise over the track. The MRI showed that:

a) There was a deactivation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which among other functions acts as a kind of self-censor, and
b) A greater activation of the medial prefrontal cortex, which connects to a brain system called the “default network”, that is linked with introspective tasks such as retrieving personal memories and daydreaming. It has to do with one’s sense of self.

The aim of the experiment was to see what happens when musicians improvise, with the bigger picture of throwing light on creativity.

But the findings- it turns off our self-censoring and overthinking mind, and allows us to be more introspective, are relevant to our discussion today about tongues. Because I do think that’s exactly what we are doing when we speak or pray in tongues. We turn off the naysaying mind, and allow our mind to flow freely, BUT still within certain paths.

Eugene Peterson translates the verse this way: “Do both. I should be spiritually free and expressive as I pray, but I should also be thoughtful and mindful as I pray.”

Back to Paul:

The apostle Paul believed that a spiritual experience beyond the grasp of his mind, which is what I mean by "trans-rational", was yet profoundly profitable. He believed that it wasn't absolutely necessary for an experience to be rationally cognitive for it to be spiritually beneficial and glorifying to God.

Paul says that he speaks in tongues more than any of the Corinthians members!! (v18) This is the Apostle Paul we are talking about, who was known to history as the greatest theologian outside of Jesus himself; who took on the Athens philosophers (Acts 17). His incomparable mind and powerful logical argumentation ( for example, see the book of Romans) was potent indeed, leaving his opponents helpless.

And yet. And yet. YET this is the man whose ministry had some pretty remarkable visions.

He was converted by a vision to the road on Damascus. He says he saw a third heaven and paradise (2 Cor 12:1-2).

So Paul is a man whose towering intellect is matched, is complemented by his emotion, and the non-rationale things. One might say impact of his ministry is largely because of this potent combination.

In my mind, I imagine that Paul must have endured and faced all his suffering ( 2 Corinthians- prison, flogging, hit with rods, pelted with stones, danger from bandits) with no less than communicating with God, BEYOND WORDS.
Cold, naked, hungry, thirsty Paul 【4】…. What kind of utterances might he have made to God when shipwrecked? Romans 8:26 “ we do not know what we should pray, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” This extreme follower of Christ says, he speaks in tongues plenty! And he tells us… tongues are good! A man builds himself up with tongues.

Paul writes, "The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church" (1 Cor. 14:4).

What is prophecy? The simplest explanation is: it’s the word of God given through a believer. It’s speaking forth the of God’s word into a specific situation or context. However, this word of God via prophecy is not on par with the Scriptures, and like other gifts, susceptible to human judgements, errors and misinterpretations. 【5】

NT prophecy had elements of fortelling (predicting future events), as well as forth-telling (exhorting God’s people, and maybe His enemies, about God’s will for their present circumstances).【6】

Does it have to be given off-the-cuff? Does it have to be a prediction? Again, I’d like to scope our current discussion prophecy to Paul’s context.

For Paul, prophecy is: 【7】

(a) What? The communication of intelligible content, with sound instructional and exhortation component.
( b)Why? For strengthening, encouraging and comforting
(c) How? Empowered by the Holy Spirit, and
(d) What does it look like? It includes the spontaneous reception of divine revelation 【8】but is NOT ecstatic and uncontrollable. In fact, he is chastising the Corinthians church and says one should speak after another, in an orderly manner.

I would add (d) NT prophecy could also include conventional preaching (like now!) where the speaker is guided by the Spirit on what to preach, and convicted of its relevance, although that’s not what he’s scolding the Corinthian church for right now.

So Paul is correcting the church, and saying, in a meeting 【9】
a) few people should speak in prophecy
b) The other members should weigh carefully what is said 【10】by asking:
o Was this a true word from God?
o If so, how is God speaking to me personally and how should this affect my life?
 Testing prophecy is biblical (1 Thessalonians 5:21), not a sign of unbelief.

What does this mean for us?


I don’t think Paul’s advice about order in service applies to us directly, but I think what he says about tongues and prophecy is worth learning about. Listen to Paul, people!! Seek the gifts of tongues and prophecy!!

• When we receive the Holy Spirit as believers, the Holy Spirit indwells us. (Rom8:9).
• The Holy Spirit connects our spirits to the deep things of God, to the mind of Christ (2:10‐ 16) as the conduit of God’s wisdom, knowledge, and power in and through us.
• Thus, any Spirit‐indwelt believer can – at any time – be used by God in gifts such as tongues and prophesy.

How? Ask God to show you. These are spiritual gifts, given for the good (James, every good and perfect gift).

For tongues, to cultivate a prayer and personal prayer language with God:

1) Use music. Take a tune you know, but trying singing it without words, or voicing different words as you feel led.
2) Use lyrics. Take the words of an old song (say, Amazing Grace), and see if you can sing a different tune for it.
3) Use sounds. Use a refrain or a phrase (e.g. Lamb of God, have mercy on us; How great is our God) and voice it in as many ways as you can think.

Some practical suggestions

Some thoughts from John Piper 【11】in relation to tongues and prophecy:
a) Be patient. Recognize God’s complete sovereignty in giving gifts freely to whomever he wills (1 Corinthians 12:11; Hebrews 2:4).
b) Recognize that not all will become prophets (1 Corinthians 12:29).
c) Be grateful for the gifts you do have; use them to the full; rejoice that others are different from you; and avoid all jealousy (1 Corinthians 12:14-29).
d) Muster the courage to speak out what you believe (with more or less confidence) may be given to you from the Lord in gatherings designed for this less-structured expression (1 Corinthians 14:26).
e) Have humble expectations that the prophecy will not be taken as a word of Scripture but as a Spirit-prompted human word to be weighed by Scripture, and by mature spiritual wisdom. For a prophecy to be accepted as valid it should:
a. find an echo in the hearts of spiritually mature people.
b. be confirmed by biblically saturated insight; and
c. find a resonance in the hearts and minds of those who have the mind of Christ and are ruled by his peace. (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21; Colossians 1:9; 3:15; Ephesians 5:15-17; Romans 12:1-2; Philippians 1:9-10).

I need to distinguish this from the popular practice of meditation, sometimes associated with mindfulness. In meditation, you are seeking to still and tame the mind, to focus and contain (control) your thoughts. It’s like going inwards. However, for me, speaking in tongues, you have a counterpart- God! You’re opening yourself to Him.

I also need to say something here about prophetic art and prophetic dance.

Like spoken prophesy, they involve discerning God’s word for someone, but it is then expressed through painting or drawing, and through dance. Do note that prophetic dance is different from worship dance, the latter is done during service, choreographed, and more like a performance. Of course, God’s word could be given to a congregation as it could to an individual, so that’s not to say prophecy (words, dance, art) never can take place at service, but the origin and intent is different.

Please see the slides for an example of prophetic art- done by my friend who is with her church group of artists. It’s on facebook【12】 and shared with permission. Her interpretation is:

a) The impression given to me was that God reveals His plan and we work together with Him in the course of planning.
b) And the words “chart a course” appear. This is not just any ordinary course but a privileged, protected one. It is a direction, a continuous progress with advance knowledge in planning and it requires a certain mode of conduct or behaviour.
c) It is when we seek Him, the map would be laid out and we get to see it clearly with Him.
d) So if we have plans, commit to Him and see if they aligns with His plan.
e) Bearing in mind we have to be steadfast with our conduct as instructed in His word. And as we see His plan for us, we get to chart a course together with Him. How exciting ! 

How exciting indeed. That we have the Spirit inside us and, if we are sensitive to it, able to express it in our own way.

Like anything else, YOU MUST PRACTICE!! But will people want to hear what I prophesy?
Today more than ever, people need God.

• In this world of increasing confusion and complexity, the Word of God (rhema) needs to be sharp and focussed and relevant! Sharp as a double edged sword, dividing even bone and marrow. Who will give His word? You and I will.
• In this world of increasing automatic, commercialism, AI and bots and analystics seem to be poised to take over, people need to know they’re loved and important, and that God is there for them. Who will give this encouragement and edification? You and I will.

So practice in your circle of influence. Pray for others at Ministry Time, at cell group, in your family, among your friends.

A note about staying in tune…

In tune with God: Using the analogy of an instrument that needs to be loud and clear, we are reminded to make a sound for God. Not just any sound, clangy and unpleasant, off-putting to those who hear us, but a clear and distinct sound.

I think we need to stay in tune with God. Musicians will know that any instrument needs to be constantly in tune.【13】 Some really delicate ones even need re-tuning while you’re performing!

In tune with our brothers and sisters: And I think we need to make not just a sound alone, but music together in a way that reflects the God that calls us, and to whom we belong.

Example 1: We need to work hard (like strings that get out of tune) to be in sync with our fellow brothers and sisters. I found something interesting. Apparently, it’s impossible to tune a piano strings to be perfect intervals with each other 【14】. It just doesn’t add up! Some intervals are slightly flat and some sharp, but in the end, after 8 notes, it all evens out! Amazing right?

 So we don’t need to be the same! Because, by the grace of God, it evens out!! Lol

Example 2: I shared just now about how musicians were put into an MRI machine while they played music. I want to add on more- they were actually jazz musicians, which is why improvisation was a big thing. Even more so, in jazz there is a tradition where musicians take turn to solo, and they riff and improvise, playing off each other, doing their own thing in a solo but still keeping to the beat, grove. So they had the musicians do what’s called “trading fours” – mean, you play 4 bars, I respond playing another 4 bars. It’s also called “call and response”; kinda like a musical dialogue. When that happened, the language centres lit up. So as a jazz musician, they need to move between improvising, doing their own thing, yet listening to their partners, so that they can respond.

 We adapt with practice and training.【15】 Just like the musicians progress from playing scales, to a memorised piece, to improvising, to improvising with others!
 The Word of God in the bible is logos- like a score or a script. We as the instruments need to play or act it so that the people of the world can see!!


I’d like to play this video – As The Deer【16】 sung in different languages. As I invite the worship team to come up, after the video, let us also sing this song, tell God we desire after Him, and speak to Him, with words or with your private prayer language.

【2】 A nice illustration is given in
【4】 2 Corinthians 11:16-33, where Paul boasts about his sufferings
【6】Bomberg, ibid, pg 244.
【8】1 Corinthians 14:29–30 says, “Now let two or three prophets speak and let the others distinguish. If [something] is revealed to another while he is sitting, let the first be silent.”
【10】“Weigh carefully” (NIV), “weigh”(NRSV), “judge” (KJV) is diakrinō, “separate, differentiate,” here, “to evaluate by paying careful attention to, evaluate, judge.”
【12】 Post is dated August 2019
【13】 talking about Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. (Proverbs 4:23, NIV)as cited in
【14】 for a video on why it’s impossible to tune a piano perfectly and also
【15】See the example of classical vs jazz musicians
【16】 for the how this song came to be written

1 Corinthians 14:1–19 (Listen)

14:1 Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.

Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. 10 There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, 11 but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. 12 So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.

13 Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. 15 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. 16 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? 17 For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up. 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.