Several problems related to corporate worship in first-century Corinth had to be addressed by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians. Having dealt with the issues of head coverings and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:2–34), Paul moves on to the exercise of spiritual gifts. Introducing this topic with a “now concerning” (12:1), the Apostle likely is addressing something that the Corinthians wrote to him about (see 7:1).
First Corinthians 12 and 14 indicate that the Corinthians likely exalted some spiritual gifts above others. Specifically, it seems the Corinthians inordinately emphasized the gift of tongues. Paul’s emphasis on the need for all the gifts of the Spirit and the extensive instruction on the gift of tongues tells us as much. Before addressing these problems, however, Paul provides a principle to distinguish true spiritual gifts from false ones. Again, the gift of tongues in particular seems to be in view. Apparently, the Corinthians thought that the mere exercise of tongues identified a person as belonging to Jesus, but that is mistaken, as we will see in 1 Corinthians 13.
Importantly, we must note that speaking in tongues was in its outward manifestation not a uniquely Christian phenomenon in the ancient world. In worship, pagans frequently engaged in ecstatic speech under the supposed inspiration of their gods, so it could be difficult to tell the spiritual gift of tongues apart from its imitation. So, Paul notes that what is seen in the worship of gods other than the one true creator God and Lord of Israel is not actually the speech of a deity. The Apostle reminds the Corinthians of their past as pagan gentiles who “were led astray to mute idols” (12:1–2). Paul here echoes the Old Testament critique of false gods as idols that cannot speak (see Ps. 115). As we have seen, this is not to say that nothing spiritual happens in false religions, for demons stand behind the worship of beings other than the God of the Bible (1 Cor. 10:20). But Paul can call these idols mute because they do not speak as actual gods. The ecstatic speech found in non-Christian religions is from demons, not from God.
True spiritual speech, on the other hand, is evident in those who say, “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor. 12:3). Anyone can say those words, so Paul does not have the mere verbal utterance of a statement in mind. He is referring to the confession of the deity of Christ, that Jesus is the Lord of Israel who made heaven and earth.