1 Corinthians 14 – Tongues, Prophecy and Public Worship
A. The contrast between tongues and prophecy.
1. (1) The guiding principles.
Pursue love, and desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.
a. Pursue love: Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, brilliantly declared the preeminence of love for Christians in 1 Corinthians 13. Now, since love is the greatest, we must pursue it.
b. Desire spiritual gifts: There was nothing wrong with the Corinthian Christians’ desire for spiritual gifts. But they made a godly desire into an obsessive pursuit, when the main pursuit for Christians should be love.
c. Especially that you may prophesy: In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul spoke of prophecy and the gift of tongues only in the context of the other gifts of the Spirit. Now, he will focus on the gifts of prophecy and tongues, and how they should function in church body life. Obviously, in the Corinthian church, there was an over-emphasis on tongues and an under-emphasis on prophecy.
d. That you may prophesy: What does it mean for someone to prophesy? Many who believe miraculous gifts are no longer given by God regard prophecy as simply “inspired preaching,” and not “inspired” in a direct way.
i. Paul will tell us much more about prophecy in this chapter. Yet, we know he does not mean prophecy is identical to preaching, because there was an ancient Greek word available for “preaching” (kerusso), and Paul did not use this ancient Greek word.
ii. “Preaching is essentially a merging of the gifts of teaching and exhortation, prophecy has the primary elements of prediction and revelation.” (Farnell, cited in Kistemaker)
2. (2-3) Prophecy and tongues contrast in whom they speak to.
For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands him; however, in the spirit he speaks mysteries. But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men.
a. He who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God: With the gift of tongues, the speaker addresses God, not men. Disregard of this principle leads to one of the most significant misunderstandings regarding the gift of tongues – believing tongues is a supernatural communication “man to man” instead of “man to God.”
i. If we misunderstand this, we misunderstand Acts 2 and think the disciples preached to the crowd in tongues on the day of Pentecost. Instead, they spoke to God and the multi-national crowd overheard their praise to God. Acts 2:11 says, we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God. Later, Acts 10:46 describes the hearing of the gift of tongues: they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God.
ii. If we misunderstand this, we misunderstand what really happens when someone attempts to interpret a tongue and addresses his or her message to men. A true interpretation of the gift of tongues will be addressed to God, not men. It will be a prayer, praise, or some other communication to God.
iii. If we misunderstand this, we can be led to believe the gift of tongues is just the ability to speak another language, and all Paul means here is interpreting the preacher’s sermon in someone’s native tongue. But no one needs to interpret the preacher’s sermon for God’s sake.
iv. If we misunderstand this, we can misuse the gift of tongues, using it in a way that draws unnecessary attention to ourselves. God does not give anyone the gift of tongues for the direct sake of others (though indirectly others are edified), but for that believer and God alone.
b. He who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God: Because this simple statement is so devastating to the idea that tongues is just a human language spoken for human benefit, many of those who believe the miraculous gifts have passed have trouble with this verse. Some even try to claim Paul speaks sarcastically here and that he criticizes the Corinthian Christians for using the gift of tongues to speak to God instead of men.
i. Paul uses plenty of sarcasm in the Corinthian letters, but certainly not here. If we can say Paul means the exact opposite of the plain meaning of the words here, we are on dangerous ground. Why not apply the same interpretive principle (“he really means the opposite of what he seems to be saying”) to other passages of Scripture?
c. For no one understands him: Paul recognized that normally, when someone spoke in tongues, no one else could understand him. The reason is simple: with the gift of tongues, the intention is to speak to God and not man. Therefore, it is fine if no one understands him, because God understands him.
i. The exception to no one understands him is when the tongue is publicly interpreted. Even then, it is not the tongue itself that is understood, but the interpretation of the tongue.
d. In the spirit he speaks mysteries: When the tongues’ speaker cannot be understood, it does not mean it isn’t really language, or that they are merely speaking “gibberish”; It means they speak in the spirit and that they speak mysteries.
i. Many have done linguistic analysis of people speaking in tongues and have “concluded” they are not speaking a “real” language, but just jabbering in “gibberish.” Of course, it sounds like nonsense to human ears, because it was never intended for human ears. We should expect it to sound like nonsense, because Paul plainly says, in the spirit he speaks mysteries.
ii. However, this does not mean that all intelligible speech is the legitimate gift of tongues. Some, not understanding the gift, may imitate it, or fake it, just to “prove” something.
iii. Does in the spirit refer to the speaker’s spirit or to the Holy Spirit? It could be either one, because both are true. The translators of the New King James Version believe it to be the speaker’s spirit, because they used a lower-case “s” in spirit.
e. But he who prophesies speaks… to men: In contrast to the gift of tongues, the gift of prophecy is directed to men. It is God speaking supernaturally (often “naturally supernaturally”) through people to people.
f. But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men: Not only is the gift of prophecy directed towards men, it is also largely positive in its character. Often, when a “negative” word is spoken, it is not truly a word from God at all, or it is a word meant only for the individual, not for someone else.
i. Edification is “building up.” It is a construction term, and speaks of our being “built up” in the Lord. A word of prophecy will build someone up, not tear him or her down.
ii. Exhortation is encouragement. It is like the speech from the coach in the locker room before the big game, rallying the team to go out and perform as they were trained to perform. A word of prophecy will encourage someone, not discourage him or her.
iii. Comfort has the idea of not only consoling, but also strengthening. It doesn’t just cry with someone hurting, it puts its arms around them and strengthens them to carry the load. A word of prophecy will strengthen, not weaken someone.
3. (4-5) Prophecy and tongues contrast in whom they edify.
He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. I wish you all spoke with tongues, but even more that you prophesied; for he who prophesies is greater than he who speaks with tongues, unless indeed he interprets, that the church may receive edification.
a. He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself: Some have wrongly thought Paul says this as a criticism. Their idea is that Paul meant something like this: “You selfish Corinthian Christians! You use tongues to only edify yourself, when you should use it to edify others!” This is wrong. Paul is simply stating the nature of the gift of tongues. Since he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God (1 Corinthians 14:2), it follows that it is a gift primarily for self-edification, not church edification.
b. He who prophesies edifies the church: Because prophecy can be understood by all, a true word of prophecy builds up everyone.
c. I wish you all spoke with tongues: Paul was positive about the gift of tongues! Because of the tone of this chapter, it is easy to think he was “down” on the gift of tongues. Not at all; Paul valued the gift of tongues in his own life. In 1 Corinthians 14:18, Paul wrote I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all. This passage shows that Paul also wanted other Christians to speak with tongues.
i. Why did Paul wish you all spoke with tongues? No doubt, because he knew the value of it in his own life. Paul was able, when in the spirit he spoke mysteries, to unburden his soul before God in a way beyond human language and intellect. He could pray, praise, and intercede beyond his ability to understand and articulate. Paul wanted every Christian to know this same blessing.
d. But even more that you prophesied: As good as the gift of tongues is, Paul sees prophecy as better for the church as a whole. Why? Because He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. And the focus here is that the church may receive edification more than the individual.
i. Paul’s context in 1 Corinthians 14 is more focused on what the Corinthian Christians do when they come together as a church than on what they do in their own devotional life. There are things that are fine for a Christian to do in their own devotional life, which may be disruptive, annoying, or self-exalting for a Christian to do in a church meeting. The gift of tongues is one of those things. Since Paul focuses on when the Corinthian Christian comes together as a church, it is clear why he regards the gift of prophecy as greater.
ii. However, if one were to ask Paul, “Which is greater for one’s devotional life: the gift of tongues or the gift of prophecy?” He would no doubt say “the gift of tongues,” because who do you prophecy to when you are alone with the Lord in your prayer closet?
4. (6) In Paul’s ministry, he spoke so all could profit.
But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you unless I speak to you either by revelation, by knowledge, by prophesying, or by teaching?
a. If I come to you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you: Paul recognized the gift of tongues was valuable for himself, because in 1 Corinthians 14:18 he wrote I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all. But it was not valuable for him to speak to others with the gift of tongues. They could not understand him, so they could not be edified.
b. Unless I speak to you either by a revelation, by knowledge, by prophesying, or by teaching? Here, Paul describes different ways he might communicate which would be edifying to others.
i. Revelation: Paul may speak of his own awareness of unique inspiration as an apostle. There may have been times when Paul knew with apostolic authority His words were directly and infallibly from God.
ii. Knowledge: Paul may speak of his own knowledge, or by supernatural knowledge given by the Holy Spirit. Whichever, the knowledge was communicated in the language common to all, so all could profit.
iii. Prophesying: Paul knew he could speak by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, with a sense his thoughts and words were guided and blessed by the Holy Spirit.
iv. Teaching: Paul could also profit others by speaking to them from the Scriptures themselves, teaching them as was his pattern in the churches he founded (Acts 15:35, 18:11, 28:31).
5. (7-9) Examples demonstrating the importance of speaking so all can profit.
Even things without life, whether flute or harp, when they make a sound, unless they make a distinction in the sounds, how will it be known what is piped or played? For if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare himself for battle? So likewise you, unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air.
a. Unless they make a distinction in the sounds, how will it be known what is piped or played? Musical instruments must use a certain pitch and beat to communicate a song. If they do not, the music is not accessible to the listener. Sounds come forth, but they cannot be understood. The same is true for a trumpet that makes an uncertain sound. It is of no profit for others.
i. It may feel good for a child to bang on a piano, and they may like the sound, but for anyone else, it is unpleasant. Even so, someone talking to God with the gift of tongues may be blessed, but no one else is. Therefore, if someone is going to make an uncertain sound (speak in tongues unto God), let them do so unto themselves, and not among others.
b. For you will be speaking into the air: Speaking in tongues at a meeting of the church benefits no one else; it is simply putting sounds into the air, not words and ideas into the minds and hearts of others.
i. It may satisfy curiosity to hear someone else speak in tongues, but it does not edify spiritually. We may think it is “neat” to hear others speak in tongues, but that is more of a soulish curiosity than a spiritual edification.
6. (10-11) All languages can be understood if one knows the meaning.
There are, it may be, so many kinds of languages in the world, and none of them is without significance. Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me.
a. None of them is without significance: Language itself is a gift from God. We can communicate with language because we are made in the image of God.
b. So many kinds of languages in the world: Modern linguists know man could not have invented language, any more than we could have invented our own circulatory system. Most modern linguists who reject God believe language is so unique that it “must” have been part of a unique evolutionary process. It’s far more logical to believe God created man with this unique capability, as part of creating man in His own image.
i. Language could not be the product of man putting together sounds all by himself. For example, there are many universal human sounds (like the “raspberry” sound) which are not part of any human language. If man invented language on his own, it would make sense for some language to use that sound.
ii. Language is so complex because languages exist as whole systems, not as small parts put together. Most modern linguists believe all languages come from one original language.
c. So many kinds of languages in the world: Knowing language is a gift from God, and all languages have meaning, we can trust that if we speak in the gift of tongues, God understands, even if no one else – including ourselves – can.
7. (12-14) Why the nature of the gift of tongues makes it less usable for edifying the whole church.
Even so you, since you are zealous for spiritual gifts, let it be for the edification of the church that you seek to excel. Therefore let him who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful.
a. Let it be for the edification of the church that you seek to excel: The goal must be mutual benefit at church meetings. If there must be tongues, there must be interpretation, so there can be edification.
i. If tongues are directed to God, how can a legitimate interpretation be edifying to others? The same way our reading of Psalms can edify. The prayer, praise, or plea of another unto God can identify powerfully with our own heart before God, and we can agree with what someone else says to God.
b. Therefore let him who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret: Here, Paul points to a way of giving the interpretation of the tongue, without necessarily speaking forth the tongue itself. He suggests the tongues’ speaker himself prays that he may interpret. Then, the uncertain sound of 1 Corinthians 14:8 need never be public, yet the whole church is edified by the interpretation of the tongue.
c. My spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful: Speaking in tongues communicates with God on a spiritual level, passing by our understanding. My understanding does not benefit when I speak in tongues (it is unfruitful), but my spirit prays.
i. In saying my spirit prays, Paul again emphasizes the essential function of the gift of tongues: to communicate to God and not to man.
ii. For some, this bypassing of the understanding is undesirable. They never want to relate to God except by and through their understanding. While we value our intellect and understanding, and while we dedicate ourselves to loving God with all of our mind (Matthew 22:37), we also appreciate the limitations of our understanding, and thank God for a way to relate to Him that goes beyond intellect.
iii. If someone is perfectly satisfied with their ability to relate to God through their understanding, they really have no need for the gift of tongues. But if the day comes when they desire to relate to God beyond their ability to understand, they should seek God for the gift of tongues.
iv. If our understanding is unfruitful, then how does one actually speak in tongues? Everyone’s experience may be slightly different, but generally, we can make some observations.
· It doesn’t happen as one just opens their mouth and God “takes over” their tongue.
· It doesn’t happen as they begin to wiggle their tongue and God “takes over.”
· It doesn’t happen as they are told to repeat a nonsense word or phrase faster and faster until God “takes over.”
v. Actually, the language of tongues works much like languages we understand. A word or a sound occurs to our mind, and we vocalize that word or sound. In the gift of tongues, one simply continues to speak the words and sounds coming into their mind, trusting God is prompting them, and He understands what they say, and that in the Spirit what we say is perfectly appropriate for the moment.
vi. Is it possible that one could speak in tongues, and without knowing, say the most horrible blasphemies? No, it is not possible. Paul began this whole section on spiritual gifts with the principle: Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed (1 Corinthians 12:3). Also, Jesus reminded us: For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. If a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent instead of a fish? Or if he asks for an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him! (Luke 11:10-13) We don’t need to fear we will find Satan when we sincerely seek God.
vii. We can also remember another general principle relating to the gifts of the Holy Spirit: And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets (1 Corinthians 14:32). The Holy Spirit does not make us do strange, bizarre things. He will never make someone shout in tongues, or speak in tongues in a strange manner, though they may do it on their own initiative. But they should never credit or blame the Holy Spirit for what they have added.
8. (15-19) The result: when and when not to use the gift of tongues.
What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding. Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how will he who occupies the place of the uninformed say “Amen” at your giving of thanks, since he does not understand what you say? For you indeed give thanks well, but the other is not edified. I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all; yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.
a. I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, I will also sing with the understanding: Paul will use the gift of tongues, both in prayer and in song, and he will use it often. Yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding… than ten thousand words in a tongue. Therefore, Paul’s use of tongues was focused in his devotional life with the Lord.
i. Paul here makes reference to how we can sing in the spirit. God can give us the freedom to exercise the gift of tongues in a melodic way, so it flows in with worship. However, based on the principles in this chapter, if this is done, it should never be done in a way that would draw attention to itself or distract others.
b. Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how will he who occupies the place of the uninformed say “Amen” at your giving of thanks: If no one understands my blessing of the Lord, if no one understands my thanks to God, they can’t say “Amen” with me. When I am gathered together with other believers, I can’t just do my own thing and say, “Well, it blesses me.” I must have a concern for others, also.
i. Apparently, it was the custom in the early church to say “Amen” when someone else prayed, and perhaps during a message. “It was very frequent in primitive times to express their approbation in the public assemblies by Amen. This practice, soberly and piously conducted, might still be of great use in the Church of Christ.” (Clarke)
ii. According to Clarke, some ancient Jews thought it very important to say “Amen,” to the point where “they even promised the remission of all sins, the annihilation of the sentence of damnation, and the opening of the gates of paradise, to those who fervently say Amen.”
iii. There is certainly nothing wrong with an “Amen” from the congregation today, as long as it is consistent with everyone being blessed, not just the one saying it!
c. You indeed give thanks well, but the other is not edified: Paul is completely consistent in his emphasis on tongues being directed to God. Just in this passage, he points out what we do with the gift of tongues: we pray, we sing, we bless, and we give thanks. All of these we do unto the Lord, not unto man, with the gift of tongues.
d. I thank my God I speak with tongues more than you all: In this we see that Paul saw great value in the gift of tongues for his own devotional life before the Lord: Yet, when he gathered with other Christians, his concern was to be a blessing, not with getting a blessing.
9. (20-25) The gift of tongues and unbelievers at church meetings.
Brethren, do not be children in understanding; however, in malice be babes, but in understanding be mature. In the law it is written:
“With men of other tongues and other lips
I will speak to this people;
And yet, for all that, they will not hear Me,”
says the Lord. Therefore tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophesying is not for unbelievers but for those who believe. Therefore if the whole church comes together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those who are uninformed or unbelievers, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an uninformed person comes in, he is convinced by all, he is convicted by all. And thus the secrets of his heart are revealed; and so, falling down on his face, he will worship God and report that God is truly among you.
a. Do not be children in understanding: In their selfish desire to edify themselves at the expense of others in the meeting, the Corinthians showed themselves to be children, and selfishly immature. Paul points them to a higher call.
b. In the law it is written: Paul here quotes from Isaiah 28:11-12. In Isaiah 28, the prophet Isaiah announces judgment to the people of Israel. They did not receive the word of the prophets who spoke to them in Hebrew, so now they will hear the voice of men with other tongues and other lips. The Assyrian invaders spoke a language the Israelites could not understand, and it was an example of judgment to the Israelites. “And yet, for all that, they will not hear Me” says the Lord.
c. Therefore tongues are for a sign: In the Isaiah 28 passage, tongues were a sign of judgment upon the Israelites. Foreigners who spoke in unknown tongues invaded their country. Paul is saying that today also, tongues are for a sign.
i. In Isaiah 28, the strange tongues were not a blessing, but a curse. Paul is warning, “Take heed that it be not the case now: that, by dwelling on the gift, ye forget the Giver; and what was designed for you as a blessing, may prove to you to be a curse… God may curse your blessings.” (Clarke)
d. Not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophesying is not for unbelievers but for those who believe: Here, the straight reading of the text presents one of the most difficult passages in the New Testament. In the straight reading of the text, Paul is plainly saying tongues is a sign to unbelievers, and prophecy is a sign for those who believe.
i. The problem comes when we see what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:23-25. First, that if unbelievers hear tongues in a meeting, they will not be blessed, but will say that you are out of your mind. Second, if unbelievers hear prophecy and are convicted in their hearts, their reaction may be to worship God and report that God is truly among you. So, in 1 Corinthians 14:23-25, Paul seems to indicate that tongues are not beneficial in ministering to unbelievers, while prophecy is beneficial to unbelievers. So, how then can tongues be a sign to unbelievers, and prophecy be a sign better suited for those who believe? There seems to be a contradiction between 1 Corinthians 14:22 and 1 Corinthians 14:23-25.
ii. Perhaps Paul is saying that tongues are indeed a sign to unbelievers, but not a positive sign. They are a sign of judgment, as the unknown tongues of the Assyrians were in Isaiah’s day. In this way, tongues indeed are a sign to unbelievers, but it is a sign that condemns them as they regard tongues speakers as being out of their minds.
iii. Others have thought that the real problem here is an error made by someone who copied the verse very early in the history of the Bible. For example, respected translator J.B. Phillips thinks an ancient scribe mixed up Paul’s word order in 1 Corinthians 14:22, and the verse should read: That means that tongues are a sign of God’s power, not for those who are unbelievers but to those who already believe. Preaching the word of God, on the other hand, is a sign of God’s power to those who do not believe rather than to believers. It is important to note that Phillips does not believe the Holy Spirit made an error, but he believes that a copier of what the Holy Spirit inspired made the error.
e. A good principle of understanding the Bible is always to interpret what is hard to understand in light of what is easier to understand. 1 Corinthians 14:23-25 seems easier to understand, because it is easy to see how an unbeliever hearing Christians speaking in tongues might say that you are out of your mind. It is also easy to see that prophecy could convict the heart of an unbeliever, causing them to repent, and to worship God and report that God is truly among you. So, while we may not exactly understand what Paul means by tongues are a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers, we know he does not mean tongues “minister” to or edify unbelievers. Tongues do nothing to bring the unbeliever closer to God; they may instead turn him off.
i. We also can understand that this is not the primary reason for the gift of tongues. They are not mainly intended by God to be a sign to unbelievers. Even assuming that is what Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, originally wrote, Paul has much more to say about the role of tongues in the believer’s personal communication with God. Perhaps Paul is saying something like this: “If you insist on speaking in tongues in your church meetings, instead of in your own personal devotional life, the only good that comes from that use of tongues is that is a sign of judgment to unbelievers. Because they think you are crazy when they hear you speaking in tongues, it simply shows they don’t understand the things of God and are headed towards judgment. But how much better if you were to emphasize prophecy instead of tongues, then everyone could be blessed, believer and unbeliever together!”
f. And thus the secrets of his heart are revealed: This can be done through the gift of prophecy, either by an “evident” word of prophecy, or by a spontaneous word of prophecy “hidden” in the message of the teacher or preacher. Many come to a unique conviction from the Holy Spirit in this manner.
B. Applying these principles to public worship.
1. (26) A general principle to guide gatherings of the church: let all things be done for edification.
How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.
a. Whenever you come together: Paul is writing here, as in the previous portion of the chapter, of the conduct of the Corinthian Christians when they come together for fellowship and the Word.
b. Each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation: Paul sees the gathering of the church as a time when people come to participate and to give to one another, not merely to passively receive.
i. We can easily picture how this dynamic would work among the Corinthian Christians. They would, out of necessity, meet in small groups in different homes. There would be many “house churches” scattered all over the city of Corinth. As they would meet in these small groups, there would be a freedom and a responsibility to not only receive but to give. So, one might give by reading or singing a psalm. Another might offer a word of teaching. Someone might pray in a tongue, along with an interpretation. Still someone else might have a revelation, a word from God’s heart and mind to the gathered church. In a small, home-fellowship type setting, this is how the church should work together.
ii. When more people are gathered together, this “everybody shares something with everyone else” becomes more difficult. Among ten people, ten can share something with all the other ten. But among thirty, or sixty, or a hundred people, there isn’t time to allow everyone to share something with everyone else. Plus, in a larger group, the “I want to feel important by talking to everybody” dynamic is much more present. It can be there among ten people, but how much more among a hundred people! This is why so many are blessed and find great spiritual growth through a home group, because it provides a perfect context for the “everyone shares something with everyone else” idea. The hunger for this has also led to the great growth of the home church or house church movement in our generation.
iii. At the same time, there are potential pitfalls in this approach. It is easy for people of poor doctrine or weak character to dominate the group. It is easy for the group to focus not on the truth of the word, but on how one “feels” about the word. Spurgeon once described a man coming from such a gathering, and meeting a friend. “How was the meeting?” the one asked. The other answered, “Oh, it was wonderful. No one knew anything and we all taught each other!”
iv. It is safe to say that when it comes to the “house church” or “larger church” issue there is no “right” or “wrong.” God has used both, is using both, and will use both. Both are essential and greatly needed for the health and the strength of the whole body of Christ today.
v. At the same time, the heart of “everyone shares something with everyone else” can take place in a larger church gathering. But it is more expressed in “everyone shares something with someone else.” It says, “I am coming to church, but not only to receive a blessing. I am coming to give a blessing to someone, and I will ask God for an opportunity to bless someone today.” This way of thinking can make the fifteen minutes before a church meeting, and the thirty minutes after, the best and most exciting time of ministry. It is a big mistake for anyone to think, “If I’m not up on the platform, I can’t minister to someone else today.” Instead, they should be on the lookout for opportunities to pray with people, encourage people, help people, meet people, and love people every time they come to church.
c. Let all things be done for edification: The goal of coming together as a church is not to be entertained, nor even to be “pleased” with a “blessing.” We gather for edification, for the spiritual building up we need to live lives that glorify Jesus Christ outside the walls of the church. As Paul said in Ephesians 4:12, the goal is the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ. Our Christian lives are lived on the outside, and we come to be strengthened, built up, and equipped when we come together as a church family.
i. Let all things be done for edification also looks outward. It doesn’t mean, “let everything be done for my edification.” It means, “let everyone come to church with a heart to build up someone else.”
ii. “Spiritual self indulgence is a monstrous evil; yet we see it all around. On Sunday these loafers must be well fed. They look out for such sermons as will feed their souls. The thought does not occur to these people that there is something else to be done besides feeding.” (Spurgeon)
2. (27-28) Instructions for speaking in tongues publicly.
If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret. But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God.
a. If anyone speaks in a tongue: Clearly, Paul will not prohibit speaking in tongues in a church meeting, though we remember he primarily has in mind the meeting of house churches. He will not prohibit it, because if the tongue has an interpretation, there is a potential for blessing others. Yet, he will not encourage it either.
b. So, tongues in a church meeting are to be carefully regulated.
· Two or three at the most: If you must speak in tongues at your church meetings, do not do much of it. Don’t focus on tongues.
· Each in turn: more than one person should not be speaking in tongues to the congregation at any one time.
· And let one interpret: don’t speak in tongues at all – even two or three at the most or each in turn – if you will not have an interpretation.
i. Speaking in tongues in a church meeting that does not observe these Scriptural guidelines is wrong. It might be well motivated, it might be done with a good heart, but it is still wrong, because it goes against the plain teaching of the Bible.
ii. How do some churches justify their practice of all speaking in tongues at the same time, rather loudly and demonstratively? Many make a false distinction between speaking in tongues and using a prayer language. They would say Paul regulates speaking in tongues here, but using your prayer language is nowhere regulated. This is a false distinction, and an excuse for not obeying the Scriptures.
iii. What about occasions where it seems that many spoke in tongues at the same time, and without interpretation, such as on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2? We could say that in their enthusiasm and excitement, they went beyond Scriptural order. No harm came of it, although in Acts 2 the unbelievers did believe the tongue speakers were drunk. We must never be too afraid of a little occasional excess, which can always be gently guided into Scriptural order. If we are too afraid of it, we will never be freely led by the Holy Spirit, and instead have the “order” of a dead body. It is “safe,” but there is no life.
c. If there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church: Paul here makes it plain that the gift of tongues is under the control of the person with the gift. They are not “compelled” by the Holy Spirit to speak out in tongues. If there is no interpreter present, the tongues’ speaker is fully able to keep silent in church.
i. Keep silent in church also reminds us Paul is speaking about the use of the gift of tongues in a church meeting, not in one’s own personal devotional life.
d. Let him speak to himself and to God: In one sense, the issue isn’t whether a person can speak in tongues during a church meeting. The issue is if they can speak publicly in tongues during a church meeting. They are always free to speak in tongues to himself and to God.
i. Again, to God reminds us of the audience of the gift of tongues: God, not men. Though tongues is said to be a sign for men (1 Corinthians 14:22), it does not mean it is ever addressed to men, or primarily intended for men. When one speaks in tongues, they speak to God.
3. (29-33) Prophecy must also be conducted in order.
Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge. But if anything is revealed to another who sits by, let the first keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be encouraged. And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.
a. Let two or three prophets speak: Even as tongues are to be regulated in meetings of the church, so is the gift of prophecy. The whole meeting should not be given over to prophecy, but only two or three should speak at any given meeting.
i. Though Paul is far more positive about the use of the gift of prophecy in church meetings than the use of the gift of tongues, he still believes prophecy should be regulated. The gifts of the Spirit are never to be made the focus of congregational life. Worship and the Word are the focus, and the gifts flow under God’s direction around the focus of worship and the Word.
b. Let the others judge: Even as prophets speak, others are to judge. No “word from the Lord” should to be received without careful consideration by the leadership of the church present at the meeting. As John said in 1 John 4:1, Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
i. Indeed, Paul wrote in Galatians 1:8, But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. Even if an angel from heaven came with a message, it must be tested and judged.
ii. What are the standards a prophecy should be judged by? First, it should be judged according to God’s established, revealed word. God will never contradict Himself. Also, He will not give the same gift of perfectly hearing Him He gave to the apostles and prophets who wrote the New Testament and gave the foundation for the church (Ephesians 2:20). It is wrong to assume anyone perfectly hears God, so it is also wrong to put too much trust and faith in a prophecy. It is probably a bad idea to record them, and meditate on them. Thank God for the edification and exhortation and comfort prophecy brings (1 Corinthians 14:3), but don’t let it eclipse God’s eternal Word.
iii. Tom Stipe, in the forward to the book Counterfeit Revival, speaks to this problem of prophecy eclipsing the Word:
After only a couple of years, the prophets seemed to be speaking to just about everyone on just about everything. Hundreds of… members received the ‘gift’ of prophecy and began plying their trade among both leaders and parishioners. People began carrying around little notebooks filled with predictions that had been delivered to them by the prophets and seers. They flocked to the prophecy conferences that had begun to spring up everywhere. The notebook crowd would rush forward in hopes of being selected to receive more prophecies to add to their prophetic diaries…
Not long after ‘prophecy du jour’ became the primary source of direction, a trail of devastated believers began to line up outside our pastoral counseling offices. Young people promised teen success and stardom through prophecy were left picking up the pieces of their shattered hopes because God had apparently gone back on His promises. Leaders were deluged by angry church members who had received prophecies about the great ministries they would have but had been frustrated by local church leaders who failed to recognize and ‘facilitate’ their ‘new anointing.’
After a steady diet of the prophetic, some people were rapidly becoming biblically illiterate, choosing a ‘dial-a-prophet’ style of Christian living rather than studying God’s Word. Many were left to continually live from one prophetic ‘fix’ to the next, their hope always in danger of failing because God’s voice was so specific in pronouncement, yet so elusive in fulfillment. Possessing a prophet’s phone number was like having a storehouse of treasured guidance. Little clutched notebooks replaced Bibles as the preferred reading material during church services.
iv. There is another standard to judge prophecy by: the standard of agreement. 2 Corinthians 13:1 states a principle repeated at lease six times in the Bible: By the mouth of two or three witnesses every word shall be established. God will confirm His Word to the heart of the leadership present at the meeting. Therefore, a “prophecy” may be judged as not from God, not because it contradicted the Scriptures, but because the leadership judged that it simply wasn’t what the Lord wanted to say to the church body at that time.
v. What should be done with someone who speaks forth a prophecy and it is judged to be not from God? Given the environment at most church meetings, the church leadership should gently say that they don’t bear witness with that word. And, the person, given they have the right heart, should never be branded a “false prophet” or a danger. They may have simply taken something meant just for them, or just for another individual and said it to the whole group. Or, they may have not said all God wanted them to say, or added to what God wanted to say, and that substantially changed the message. If a person has a right heart, they should be encouraged to keep stepping out in faith and trusting God that He wants to use them. Of course, if a person has a wrong heart or chronically speaks wrong words of prophecy, they need to be confronted.
vi. But rightly used, the gift of prophecy can be a great blessing in a church. Not only will it operate spontaneously through the preaching, but it will also come through members of the church family. In the late second and early third century, early church leader Tertullian (160-215) describes how it worked in their church services:
We have now among us a sister whose lot it has been to be favored with sundry gifts of revelation, which she experiences in the Spirit by ecstatic vision amidst the sacred rites of the Lord’s Day in the church; she converses with angels, and sometimes even with the Lord; she both sees and hears mysterious communications; some men’s hearts she understands, and to those who are in need she distributes remedies. Whether it be in the reading of the Scriptures, or in the chanting of psalms, or in the preaching of sermons, or in the offering up of prayers, in all these religious services matter and opportunity are afforded to her of seeing visions… After the people are dismissed at the conclusion of the sacred services, she is in the regular habit of reporting to us whatever things she may have seen in her vision; for all her communications are examined with the most scrupulous care, in order that their truth may be probed. . . the apostle most assuredly foretold (1 Corinthians 12:1-11) that there were to be Spiritual gifts in the Church. (Tertullian, “Treatise on the Soul,” chapter 9 – Ante Nicean Fathers, Volume III, page 188)
vii. This writing from Tertullian seems to describe an exercise of spiritual gifts, which is both dynamic and tempered with Biblical balances. We note an individual who prophesies. She hears the Lord’s voice, sees visions, and is speaking forth words of knowledge and encouragement. Of special note, her “revelations” are not shouted out in the midst of the congregational meeting, but are meekly presented to the church leadership after the general assembly is adjourned. The church leadership does not incredulously receive her sayings, but judges them with wisdom and discretion. God can still speak this way.
c. Let the first keep silent… you can all prophesy one by one… the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets: Here, Paul makes it plain that no one is “overwhelmed” by prophecy. They are still in control of the exercise of the gift, even when the Holy Spirit is moving upon them. The Holy Spirit does not take control like a demon does in demonic possession!
i. How do we explain the actions of those that shout and writhe and jump or act weird, supposedly under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit? Often, they are actually resisting the Holy Spirit, and this leads to stress, which finds an outlet in strange actions.
d. That all may learn and be encouraged: This is the goal. The gifts are merely servants to this purpose. The purpose is never to have a tongue or a prophecy at a meeting. You can have a hundred tongues, or a thousand prophecies, but if no one learns or is encouraged, there is no point to it. And if God chooses to bring the learning and encouragement apart from showing the gift of prophecy or tongues, that is up to Him. We judge the success of a meeting not by if tongues or prophecy were present, but by if God’s people learned, were encouraged, and were built up and equipped.
e. God is not the author of confusion: If there is confusion and disorder at a church meeting, it isn’t from God. God may do things we don’t understand, and things that seem strange or unpredictable to us, but there will not be a general atmosphere of confusion or weirdness.
i. Some, in justifying their strange and unbiblical practices at church meetings, have declared this spiritual principle: “God cannot reach the heart without offending the mind.” This is unscriptural nonsense. It results in the attitude that the more confused and crazy and weird it is, the more it must be from God. How different from the teaching of Paul here!
4. (34-35) Women should not judge prophecy or disrupt meetings.
Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.
a. Let your women keep silent in the churches: Paul has already assumed the right of women to pray or prophecy publicly (as stated in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16). Here, he probably means that women do not have the right to judge prophecy, something restricted to the male leadership of the church.
i. Instead of judging prophecy, women should be submissive to what the leadership of the church judges regarding words of prophecy.
b. If they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home: In the ancient world, just as in some modern cultures, women and men sat in different groups at church. Among the Christians in Corinth, there seems to have been the problem of women chattering or disrupting the meetings with questions. Paul is saying, “Don’t disrupt the meeting. Ask your questions at home.”
i. In the Jewish synagogues, men and women sat apart. But if a woman chattered or called out to her husband sitting far off, she would be dealt with severely. The Corinthian church may have adopted the same kind of seating arrangement, but with many women from Gentile backgrounds, they did not know how to conduct themselves at a church meeting. Paul teaches them how.
c. It is shameful for women to speak in church: Again, because Paul assumed the right of women to pray and prophesy under proper authority in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, the context suggests speak refers to either the judging of prophecy (something for the leadership of the church to do) or to disruptive speaking.
i. Alan Redpath points out that Paul uses the ancient Greek verb laleo, which means, “to talk, question, argue, profess, or chatter.” Redpath says, “It has nothing to do with prophecy or prayer; it is not public speaking as such.”
5. (36-38) Paul insists on his authority in these matters.
Or did the word of God come originally from you? Or was it you only that it reached? If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord. But if anyone is ignorant, let him be ignorant.
a. Or did the word of God come originally from you? Paul wonders if some of the Corinthian Christians want to contend with him on these matters. If so, he will have none of it. The word of God did not come from the Corinthian Christians; it came to them from Paul. They need to sit and listen and be teachable instead of contending with the apostle Paul.
b. If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual: We might imagine at the next meeting among some of the Corinthian Christians, someone standing up with a “word from the Lord,” saying, “Paul is all wrong!” Paul forewarns them, saying that if anyone is really a prophet or spiritual, they will agree with Paul.
i. Some people think that if they are really spiritual, they don’t have to obey God’s word on these matters. In their own minds, they are so spiritual that the rules don’t apply to them. But if we are really spiritual, we will stick to the Word of God, and not go “beyond” it.
c. But if anyone is ignorant, let him be ignorant: Paul pretty much describes how he regards those Corinthian Christians who must contend with him on these matters; they are ignorant.
6. (39-40) A fitting summary of the chapter.
Therefore, brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak with tongues. Let all things be done decently and in order.
a. Desire earnestly to prophesy: When you come together as a church, it is far better to be a blessing to someone else; therefore, prophecy is much more useful than tongues.
b. Do not forbid to speak with tongues: Though Paul will carefully regulate, and even discourage the use of tongues in the church, he will not forbid it. At the same time, he will greatly encourage its use in one’s personal devotions.
i. The gift of tongues is not to be despised. It especially has a valuable place in personal devotional time. But the gatherings of the church should emphasize prophecy and mutual blessing.
c. Let all things be done decently and in order: God is a God of order and peace, and He wants order when the church comes together. When the gifts of the Spirit are given an unscriptural focus, it discredits the true work of the Holy Spirit, and often leads people to deny the gifts because they see unbiblical excess.
i. “How often is a work of God marred and discredited by the folly of men! For nature will always, and Satan too, mingle themselves as far as they can in the genuine work of the Spirit, in order to discredit and destroy it.” (Clarke)
d. Let all things be done decently and in order: However, the order should always be the order of the living, not of the dead! Some have cultivated an atmosphere of gloom and depression among Christians in the name of Let all things be done decently and in order.
i. “Why, brethren, true praise sets the heart ringing its bells, and hanging out its streamers. Never hang your flag at half-mast when you praise God; no, run up every colour, let every banner wave in the breeze, and let all the powers and passions of your spirit exult and rejoice in God your Saviour. They rejoiced. We are really most horribly afraid of being too happy. Some Christians think cheerfulness a very dangerous folly, if not a ruinous vice.” (Spurgeon)
ii. “Propriety very greatly objects to the praise which is rendered by the Primitive Methodists at times; their shouts and hallelujahs are thought by some delicate minds to be very shocking. I would not, however, join in the censure, lest I should be numbered among the Pharisees who said, ‘Master, rebuke thy disciples.’ I wish more people were as earnest and even as vehement as the Methodists used to be. In our Lord’s day we see that the people expressed the joy which they felt; I am not sure that they expressed it in the most tunable manner, but any rate they expressed it in a hearty, lusty shout.” (Spurgeon)
©2018 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission