“Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy. . . He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:1, 4, KJV)
I used to work for a company in a German speaking part of Switzerland and very often would have to travel there and to Germany on business. One of my first trips there was extended, lasting about three months. About half-way through my trip, my employer decided to fly my wife and daughter over to be with me. Along with working, on my off time, weekends and evenings, we did some sightseeing. In these trips we purchased a lot of souvenirs.
A few days before we were to leave, we realized that we had accumulated so many souvenirs that we could never get them on the airplane with our luggage. I was in Germany at the time and decided to mail them back home. So, we began to search for a post office on Saturday in a little German village. Unfortunately, after driving around for a while, I just could not find it. Thus, I did the last things guys want to do. I sought someone to ask for directions.
Now, I spoke enough German to ask for directions and understand them when received. I saw a man on the street and asked him in my best German, “Where is the post office?” He responded and I could not understand a thing. I mean, I didn’t get even one word of what the man said. I repeated what I said more slowly and then in a different way. I still could not understand the man. Finally, I spoke slowly in English. He then responded in broken English, “Me not German. Me Greek.” He had been responding to my question in Greek, trying to tell me that he did not speak German.
Now, I clearly heard what the man was saying in Greek, but had no clue as to what he was saying. On the other side, he had the same problem. He could hear my German, but could not understand either. We did not have true communication only confusion. This is exactly Paul’s point in writing to the church at Corinth regarding the speaking in tongues.
In Corinth, many were speaking in languages that no one else in the congregation knew. The result was not communication but confusion. True communication requires utterance combined with understanding. Utterance without understanding results in confusion and this will not benefit anyone, except perhaps the one giving the utterance. I admit, I was quite proud of my ability to communicate in German, a foreign language. However, my only benefit from speaking to this Greek man was to stroke my own ego. The only way our communication would have been beneficial was if there was a translator present. This is what Paul goes on to say (v5, 13).
In the church context, true utterances that build others up are those that can be clearly understood. Paul used the verb “prophesy,” which in this context has to do with setting forth a matter of divine teaching (Thayer 161). It is speaking forth declaring the things that God has revealed in His word as it applies to relevant situations and issues, under the influence of the Holy Spirit. This type of communication is that which will edify the hearer through comfort and encouragement, and exhortation and challenge.