Chapter 13 of the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians begins with Paul’s address to those who speak in tongues. Unless love is the controlling virtue in one’s life, a spectacular faith, a powerful prophetic message or even the gift of tongues are of no value (cf. v. 1-3). He infers that love and the peace of Christ are to ever remain the arbiters among disputing peoples.
Characterizing love, he notes how it is "patient and kind," neither jealous or boastful; nor arrogant or rude; and never insisting on its own way (cf. v. 4-6). Further, love "does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things [without ever being wishy-washy], hopes all things, endures all things. [Divine] Love never ends" (v. 7-8). Paul knows that divine love does not come naturally to humans; rather, it is always a gift of purely supernatural grace.
He writes, "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up my childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love" (v. 10-12). Our American connotation of "love" pales in comparison to the love expressed through deeds of self-sacrifice that Paul speaks of in this chapter.
He again addresses the gifts of tongues in Chapter 14. He places the gift of prophesy as more valuable than the gift of tongues, except in instances where the tongue is interpreted, because prophesies edify the whole church (cf. v. 5). If all spiritual gifts are given for the common good, he observes that those who speak in tongues should speak in intelligible tongues and pray for their tongue’s interpretation (cf. v. 7-10). Note that the interpretation of tongues does not mean a translation, for interpretations always convey a spiritual message beyond the jots and tittles of any message. When in church, Paul would rather "speak five words with [his] mind, in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue" (v. 19).
He heightens his tone by urging the Corinthians to maturity and wisdom (cf. v. 20). To understand the larger context of his powerful statement in verse 22, "Thus, tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers," one must thoroughly digest Isaiah 28. He concludes the chapter by masterfully instructing his wayward church on the proper use of tongues, prophesy and silence in their worship and communal life.
Music: Moritz Moszkowski’s 4 Moments Musicaux Op. 84 – Animato ma non troppo, from the album Moments Musicaux, performed by Elizabeth Wolff. www.magnatune.com