Paul has been talking about how every member of the body is different and necessary. I’ve always had a bit of a challenge in seeing how a ministry of vacuuming the church building amounted to manifesting a gift of the Spirit. Is it necessary? Can it be a ministry? Sure, but is it also a spiritual manifestation if the church board decides to pay a janitorial service for this service? I think Paul meant something more than the “gift of helps” when he said that to each of us is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the benefit of all. In 1 Corinthians 14, he gives us some hints as to what the typical meeting of the church in his day was like. He isn’t criticizing the basic pattern here, but rather giving some fine-tuning to the method of ministry to one another that he himself had taught the Corinthian church to follow.
I like this photo of the forest in Spearfish Canyon. There are so many different kinds of trees shown, yet they all make up one forest. Even in a healthy coniferous forest you see such a diversity in the plants that grow there. Should the church be like this? With every member sharing himself and the particular gifts God has planted in his life with the his sisters and brothers?
This is a segue from chapter 13. (Not that Paul would have known or expected that his writings would be divided up into chapters and verses.)
Love is the foundation and the highest goal. Without love, none of the stuff that follows makes much difference just as the sleekness of the bathing suit, the oiling and shaving of a swimmer’s body, his or her highly developed musculature and the best of coaches make no difference if the swimmer doesn’t know how to swim.
In the next breath, Paul says that, given that love is our foundation, we should desire spiritual gifts and especially the ability to prophesy. Prophesy is here seen as a believer being used by God to deliver a word of encouragement and exhortation to the brothers and sisters. Sometimes prophesy included knowledge of future events, but in most cases it consisted of the word of God delivered through a believer for the building up of fellow believers.
Speaking in tongues (languages, whether earthly or heavenly, not known to the speaker) is not jabbering to the air. It is, in fact, talking to God, but doing so in a way that others (and in most cases the speaker himself) could not understand. There is a proper time and place for speaking in tongues, as Paul will later explain.
Prophesy imparts benefits to others rather than to the speaker only. Strengthening oneself in the Lord is important–vital–but it is an activity to be engaged in at the right time. Since this activity does not strengthen the whole church, the meeting of the church for mutual exhortation and corporate worship is not the time for it.
Apparently all of the Corinthian believers had not received the gift of speaking with tongues. Paul says he wishes they all did have this gift, and some have interpolated from this remark that all believers can and should receive the gift of speaking in tongues. It does seem to have been a very common gift, but I don’t agree that Paul’s statement indicates that God desires to give it to all believers. Paul says next that he wishes even more that all the believers could prophesy, and yet I’ve never heard it argued that believers who do not prophesy haven’t really received the baptism in the Holy Spirit. I have heard that argument, and frequently, with regard to speaking in tongues.
Tongues plus interpretation together amount to pretty much the same thing as a gift of prophesy, although not in as compact a package. One person speaks out in tongues and another (or the same) person delivers an interpretation of the message. Because prophesy (or tongues plus interpretation) strengthens the whole church rather than strengthening only the individual exercising the gift, it is considered a superior gift.
Speaking in tongues without an interpretation is compared to coming into a room full of Armenians and speaking to them in Mandarin. It’s not that your words mean nothing, but the words mean nothing to the Armenians and do them no good. If you were to come into the room speaking Armenian or speaking with an interpreter and tell the people that, for example, dinner is served and they should all head for the cafeteria, then you will do them some good.
Paul expands on his explanation. The Corinthians must have really been in love with the gift of tongues. Remind you of anyone? Full disclosure here–I do speak in tongues in my personal prayer life and have done since I was a teenager. I do find that it strengthens me spiritually. I don’t understand why, and as far as I know, I’ve never had anyone interpret anything I said in this way. To do this in a room full of believers as part of a church meeting would be silly. What good would it do?
If I were to pick up a flute and play a wandering, meandering spontaneous melody, no one would recognize it; it would not bring praise to God, nor build anyone up, though I might enjoy it and it might even have a pleasant sound. To actually communicate, I’d have to play a recognizable tune and preferably one whose lyrics pointed men to Jesus. If I used a bugle to call the city to arms, but didn’t know how to play “Charge!”, that wouldn’t work very well. (I can play “charge” on the flute. Does that count?)
Paul insists that speaking with tongues is not meaningless gibberish (“you may indeed give thanks well”), but that, to a person who doesn’t know the language, it is useless. Meetings of the church are designed to help and build up the church. Speaking in uninterpreted tongues during this type of meeting is selfish. During a specified prayer meeting or worship session, this may be appropriate, but not during the regular meeting of the church.
Essentially, “Grow up.” Paul sees his exhortations as common sense and appeals to the Corinthians to use reason in the matter.
The Gentiles were destined to preach God’s word back to His own people, but this preaching would be ineffective. For the believers, preaching to one another in foreign languages was not only ineffective but inappropriate as well. Because of God’s judgment toward the Jews, foreign and unintelligible preaching had been prophesied and was therefore a sign. To the believers, God gave the privilege of hearing His word in a way they could understand, and in their own language.
This doesn’t contradict Paul’s earlier statement, as the earlier statement refers particularly to unbelieving Hebrews. He fully expects the intelligible prophesying of the church to speak to unbelievers attending their meetings.
When was the last time you saw an unbeliever fall to his knees in the midst of a typical church service and declare that God was truly there among you? Is something wrong with the unbelievers these days, or is it the Holy Spirit Who isn’t getting the job done? Or could it possibly be the way we conduct “church”?
Paul now describes what he sees happening in a typical meeting of the Corinthian church and gives a few instructions. One has a song, another a teaching; someone else shares a revelation and another person speaks a message in tongues which is then interpreted by someone different. All these things that are done in the church, Paul says, must be things that will strengthen the church.
Note here: Paul doe
s not say that all these things should be designed to appeal to seekers or unbelievers. He doesn’t exhort the Corinthians to always present the basics of the salvation message or to make sure their music is culturally relevant and attractive to pagans.
This is my speculation and something I’ve mused over for a long time. Have you ever noticed that with the things of God our first inclination is usually wrong?
We want to be holy so we get out the rule book and determine to obey God’s law. BEEP. Wrong answer. Rest in God and depend wholly on His grace. Draw near to Him and He will draw near to us. (James 4:8) Only He can change us. If we walk in the Spirit, we won’t fulfill the lusts of the flesh. (Galatians 5:16)
We want to live; Jesus tells us we must lose our lives if we are to find them. (Matthew 16:25)
We want lots of stuff. Jesus tells us to lay up treasures in Heaven by giving up the treasures of earth. (Matthew 6:19-21)
We want to lead; He tells us to be the servant of all . . . to be like the youngest . . . to follow Him. (Mark 9:35, Matthew 18:4, Luke 22:26)
Could it be that if we want to reach the lost what we really have to do is to build up the body of Christ so that a true picture of Jesus shines forth to unbelievers all around us? That all we have to do is to shine with His light and that He will do the rest, through His submitted and glorious church? That no matter how great our music; how talented our orators; how edgy our visuals, it doesn’t matter? All that matters is that people see Him in our midst? And if they don’t see Him, the rest of our efforts are worse than useless? (John 3:14-15, John 12:32)
Don’t overdo it on the tongues and interpretation thing, Paul tells the Corinthians. He knows you really have to spell things out for kids, especially with kids enamored of a new toy.
Two or three (not one gifted individual) people are to prophesy, and this prophecy is more of a conversation than a sermon. Others are allowed to interrupt and interject a thought God has given them. God gets to direct the meeting, not just be the “honored guest”. And don’t try to hog the floor, Paul says, by saying that “God had a hold of me and I just couldn’t stop talking.” The spirit of the prophet is subject to the prophet.
I’m going to go into this and the other “limiting passage” in a separate post . . . maybe directly after this one, or more likely when I’ve finished the entire letter (as I’m near the end).
Paul puts the Corinthians in their place here. Like a teacher saying, “I don’t want to hear it!” to their expected objections. “You’re not the first nor the only to have heard the word of God, and if you’re really a prophet or spiritual, you should easily see that this teaching I’m giving you is in accord with Jesus’ teachings.
Jesus taught that we should love and be considerate of one another. Paul is teaching the same, with some specifics appropriate to the subject at hand thrown in. Paul is really just giving the Corinthians a lesson in good manners and he expects them to see that this lesson is consistent with Jesus’ teachings on loving one another and denying oneself.
Lest the Corinthians go overboard and end up in the opposite error by forbidding to speak in tongues (as is consistent with their impetuous and immature nature), Paul specifically tells them not to forbid people from speaking in tongues. I’ve heard pastors grudgingly admit this verse and their implication seems to be: “Do it in private if you must, but I don’t ever want to hear it or to hear about it.” That attitude might not be quite in line with the spirit of what Paul is saying here.
The main thrust of this passage is to correct some points of order and to curb excesses in the Corinthians’ meetings. Paul once again exhorts them to do everything properly and in order. This is a message that goes beyond the specifics addressed in the chapter to the heart of the matter, namely that the meetings of the church should be a time of each member building up the others, taking turns and being polite and considerate, having as their motivation the benefit of their brothers and sisters, not their own aggrandizement. Not a bad lesson for any part of our lives.