This morning we have come in our continuing studies in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we’ve come to chapter 14; 1 Corinthians chapter 14. If you would take your Bibles and turn there with me now please, I’d be grateful. You’ll find it on page 960 if you’re using one of our church Bibles. Paul, you may recall, has been writing to combat a prideful, divisive spirit at Corinth, especially when it came to the way that spiritual gifts were functioning in the life of the church. And in chapters 12 and 13, he has tackled that problem at the level of general principles. You will remember in chapter 12 he spoke about celebrating our unity and cherishing our diversity. We are, he said, “one body with many members.” That was chapter 12. Then, in chapter 13, he called us to the exercise of costly, sacrificial, Christlike love. He called it “the more excellent way.” The operating system that needs to be in place and functioning in our Christian lives in order for the church to be one in the exercise of its many and diverse gifts. That was chapter 13.
And now that he has those large, foundational principles that will establish Christian unity in place, he begins in chapter 14 now to deal with matters with a great deal more specificity. He’s going to get down to details. If you’ll look back for a moment at the last verse of chapter 12, you will see that Paul exhorts the Corinthians to earnestly desire spiritual gifts, especially what he calls the “higher” spiritual gifts. And he sort of leaves us with a question. “Paul, which are these higher spiritual gifts we are earnestly to desire?” And then he doesn’t answer it for the whole of chapter 13. He sort of presses “pause” on that issue and makes sure that we understand that we must have love, Christian love, sacrificial, Christlike love, working in our lives and in our church if spiritual gifts are not going to become toxic in the way that they are used. And now that he has said that in chapter 13, look at chapter 14 verse 1. He picks up the same language you see at the end of chapter 12. He repeats it over again so as to signal to us that now he is ready to resume the discussion where he left off. So chapter 12 verse 31, “earnestly desire the higher gifts.” Chapter 14 verse 1, “Pursue love and earnestly desire spiritual gifts,” it’s the same language. And so our question comes back into play. “Okay, well which are the higher gifts, Paul, that we are earnestly to desire? That’s what you told us to desire most, the higher gifts, in chapter 12 verse 31, so which are they?”
Look at chapter 14 verse 1. “Pursue love and earnestly desire spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.” At Corinth, the believers thought that the mark of true, spiritual maturity, the really advanced spiritual people, could speak in tongues. And Paul is arguing here that it's not tongues, but prophecy that is, among the gifts, best and most useful and helpful for the local church. And the rest of our passage this morning through verse 25 of chapter 14 is really an extended discussion of why prophecy and not tongues will edify and help and be useful for the church.
Now let me say up front that I believe that the miraculous sign gifts that we find in the New Testament belonged exclusively to the apostolic age. They were given to the church to validate the ministry and message of the apostles, they communicated authoritatively to the church under the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit the meaning and significance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And when the canon of holy Scripture was at last complete and we had a full New Testament written at last the whole Bible became the possession of the whole church, then those revelatory gifts became obsolete and ceased to function in the church. We have now a more-sure word in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament. We don't need any more words from the Lord today. We have His Word, complete and sufficient in the Scriptures.
And that means, despite the mistaken convictions of charismatic brothers and sisters, that the gifts of prophecy and tongues have ceased to function in the New Testament church today. And that is the special subject of Paul’s discussion in chapter 14 which may leave you wondering, “Why in the world would we bother talking about it? If prophesy and tongues don’t operate in the church anymore, surely we can skip chapter 14 and move right on to chapter 15!” Well, not so fast. There’s still some important principles taught here, still some common mistakes that the Corinthians make. They seem to value and prize the wrong things in ways that we continue to struggle with today. And what Paul has to say to them about the way that Christian worship should be ordered for the glory of God and the good of one another remains urgent and necessary and helpful in our day just as much as it did in Paul’s.
And so let me invite you if you would, to look at chapter 14 for a moment, verses 1 through 25. There are really only two fundamental priorities for public worship that Paul presses upon the Corinthians here. There are many others we need to glean from the New Testament, but these are the two that he is pressing upon the Corinthians for their attention. First of all, he says that public worship is for edification. That is, public worship is for building up the body of Christ, the believers in the local church. And then secondly, he says public worship is for evangelism, for reaching out to the lost. Okay? So those are the two priorities Paul sets in front of the Corinthians that I want us to consider. Public worship is for edification and public worship is for evangelism. Before we do that, let me invite you first of all to pause and pray with me. Let us pray.
Father, we now do need very much the work of the Holy Spirit, the illumination of the Spirit, to open our hearts and minds to receive the Word. Help us to receive the milk of the Word meekly. We pray that the seed of the Word would be planted deeply to bear much fruit in all our lives, for the glory of Jesus. Amen.
1 Corinthians chapter 14 at verse 1. This is the Word of God:
“Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.
Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.
Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up. I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. Nevertheless, in church, I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.
Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. In the Law it is written, ‘By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.’ Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.”
Amen, and we praise God for His Word.
Public Worship is For Edification
We have, as you can see, a lot of somewhat complicated teaching to get through, so let's dive right in without any delay and think about the first thing I want you to see here. Public worship is for edification; it's for building up the church. As we saw in verse 1, very clearly, Paul tells the Corinthians to privilege prophesy over tongue speaking in their assemblies. And in verses 2 through 6 he explains why. Look at verse 2 with me, please. "We are to desire gifts, especially that we may prophesy, for" – here's his reason; here's why we are to desire that we may prophesy especially – "for one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; no one understands him, he utters mysteries in the Spirit." Unless there's someone present with the gift of interpretation of tongues to explain what is being said for everyone's benefit, the only person who knows what in the world is being said is God Himself. Not even the speaker who speaks in tongues understands his message.
On the other hand, in verse 3, "The one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church." Now Paul is not saying how things ought to operate both for tongues and for prophecy. Rather, he's saying, "Here are the consequences of the misuse of tongues at Corinth." If you don't have an interpreter, well, your speaking in tongues, the person who's speaking in tongues, all they're doing is building themselves up, which he's already told the Corinthians is the very thing we are not to do. Chapter 10 verses 23 and 24, "All things are lawful but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful but not all things build up.” That’s Paul’s concern here in chapter 14 – building up the church. And so his conclusion in chapter 10 verse 24, “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” And so here in chapter 14, Paul is concerned with building one another up and he’s applying that principle, the same principle from chapter 10. We are not to build ourselves up and seek to make ourselves look good. Rather, in all that we do, in all the exercise of any gifts God has given us, we are to look out for the good of others. We are to build one another up.
Necessity of Revelation
And so, Paul says, verses 5 and 6, “I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up. Now brothers if I come to you,” he says, “speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring some revelation or knowledge or prophesy or teaching?” So are you following the argument so far? Tongues are unintelligible and help no one unless they are interpreted. When they are interpreted, they function as the equivalent of prophecy. They bring new revelation from God for the good of the whole church and everyone is built up. "What they really need," Paul is saying, "if they're going to benefit and grow and be built up, isn't the spectacular or the esoteric or the eerie. What they really need is a word of revelation or knowledge or prophesy or teaching. They need clear, Biblical truth, explained and applied with clarity and understanding in the power of the Holy Spirit to the hearts of those who hear. That is the only way, the only way, to build up the church."
And then he uses two illustrations in verses 7 and 8 to drive the point home further. Look at the first of them in verse 7. He takes us into the concert hall, to the orchestra in verse 7. “Even if lifeless instruments such as the flute or the harp do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played?” In 1999, 2,000 people or so packed the National Auditorium in Madrid, Spain for a performance of Ravel’s Bolero by the famous Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. And as the orchestra was seated, everything was going as expected, and the audience settled in for what they were anticipating would be a delightful evening of musical entertainment. But it was not to be. "Grumbling began Tuesday night," the press report says, "when the sounds of the oboe, a principal instrument of the piece by French composer, Maurice Ravel, went astray." So one instrument went off on its own and started to make mistakes, which would be enough to ruin the performance to be sure, but it didn’t stop there. Soon, the horn and the trombone were following the oboe until the symphony became a cacophony and – get this. Picture the scene – this ornate auditorium, all the men are in their tuxedos with their black tie; the women are in formal gowns, and they begin to shout, “Off! Off! Off! Off!” and they boo the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra off the stage.
That, Paul says, is what worship at Corinth was like. It should have been harmony, symphony, with each member bringing a distinct contribution, but for the good of the whole. The oboe isn’t supposed to rebel and take the horn and trombone with him. Instead of the audience being edified, they were horrified. Instead of the congregation being built up, they were confused and frustrated and divided.
Or look at the other illustration in verse 8. “If the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?” This time it’s a military metaphor. I looked up the US Army daily schedule of bugle calls and it is bewildering. There can be up to twenty-five distinct bugle calls possible on any given weekday, each of them communicating quite different orders to the troops. Here’s the list on the US Army homepage. They are: first call, reveille, assembly, mess call, sick call, drill call, another assembly, first sergeant’s calls, officer’s call, recall, mail call, mess call, drill call, another assembly call, recall, first call, guard mounting, yet another assembly call, adjutant’s call, retreat, to the color, mess call, tattoo, call to quarters, and taps. Now that’s a potentially pretty confusing array of different bugle calls! And if the bugler is only interested in playing improvisational jazz, while Miles Davis might enjoy what he does, but none of the soldiers will have a clue what’s going on. It would be chaos!
Do Not Alienate One Another
“So with yourselves," verse 9. "If with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said?" This isn't complicated, is it? You're speaking into the air. What a waste of breath that would be. Now, look at verse 10. There are doubtless many different languages in the world; just a reminder. That's what the gift of tongues was in the New Testament – earthly, human languages the speaker had not learned, enabled by the Spirit to speak. There are doubtless many different languages in the world, none is without meaning, but if I don't know the meaning of the language, I'll be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. The word is actually "barbarian" in the original. You see what he's saying? "If we let this continue, the church is going to disintegrate. People will be alienated from one another. It will create barriers, not bring about the unity of which I have been speaking now for three chapters," he says. We become like foreigners to one another. "So with yourselves. Since you’re eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.” Everything we do in public worship must tend to the building up of the church.
Edification by the Truth
Now just so we’re clear, building up the church, edification, isn’t the same thing as having your tastes and preferences met. We mustn’t hold the church hostage to our personal predilections and legitimize them by saying, “I’m not being edified unless you change this or you do it that way; unless you do it my way, I’m not being edified.” That’s not what edification is at all. The key, Paul says, to being built up and to being edified, is understanding the truth. How do we build one another up in the use of our gifts? We are to speak truth in love to one another. We are to be transformed by the renewal of our minds as the truth penetrates and renovates how we think and how we behave.
Which is exactly the point in verses 13 through 19. Change comes as we engage brain. Look at verses 13 to 19. For, “one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also.” We should probably pause there for just a moment to clear something up and deal with an important issue. These verses, along with verses later on in the chapter, verse 28, are taken by some of our charismatic brothers and sisters are warrant for the use of the gift of tongues, or the alleged gift of tongues, as a private, personal devotional language. They say what Paul is teaching here in the verses we’ve just read, verses 13 and following, is that we are to pray, we may pray privately in tongues. But look at what he’s saying again. “If I pray in tongues, I don’t even know what I’m saying. My mind is unfruitful. That’s not a good thing!” That’s what he’s been saying all along. “That’s not good. Don’t do it!” He’s not commending it; he’s warning against it. “What will I do,” he says, “if there’s no one to interpret my tongue’s speaking? Well, I will pray with my spirit but I will also pray with my mind. I will pray intelligibly. I will pray with the understanding. I will sing praises with my spirit, but I will also sing praises with my mind.”
Similarly, if you look down at verse 28 for a moment, another verse that charismatic friends appeal to as a proof text that tongues are a private prayer language. The context here is still public worship. The church has gathered, but there’s no one who can interpret the gift of tongues. So what should the tongue speaker do then if there’s no one to interpret? Verse 28, Paul says, “Let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and God.” “Well see! Right there is says the tongue speaker should pray quietly in tongues to himself if there’s no one available publicly to interpret!” But that’s not what it says at all. If I might paraphrase what Paul says is, “If you have the gift of tongues and there’s no one to interpret, shut up and pray! Don’t use the gift of tongues unless there’s an interpreter so that everyone may be edified. Period.” Other people, he says, have to be able to say “Amen” to whatever is done in public worship. And they can’t, verse 16, if all they hear is meaningless noise.
Value of Biblical Instruction
Now verse 17, Paul gives thanks that he speaks in tongues. And yet listen to this; is this clear enough? Verse 17, “In the church, I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.” Five intelligible words of Biblical instruction are more valuable than ten thousand mysterious or ecstatic utterances. Now we live in a day that values the mysterious and the dramatic and the emotionally charged, don’t we? We live in a day that teaches us to long for shortcuts. We’re suckers for shortcuts to spiritual power and intimacy with God. As a young Christian, as some of you may know, I myself was swept up into the charismatic movement. And I was taught, in those days, that tongues speaking is a way to bypass the intellect and circumvent the mind so as to allow more immediate, direct communion with God. Your mind is the problem that has to be gotten out of the way so that you can have real, experiential fellowship with the Lord. That’s what I was taught. And tongues speaking was a way to get your mind out of the way.
And there’s an appeal to a promise of such direct, immediate experience that can lead very many of us astray and we turn off the main path into bypath meadow very easily at the promise of that kind of teaching. But brothers and sisters, that is a promise the Scriptures never make, never. They never make a promise of intimacy with God, of experience of His power, of His grace, of His presence that calls for you to put your brain in a box, to shut your intellect away. If you really want to worship, if you really want to know God, meet God, it’s only ever going to come the way Paul, for example, prays that it would for the Ephesians. Ephesians 1:15 and following, Paul says, “We will know God when the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, in the knowledge of God, enlightens the eyes of our hearts that we may know what is the hope to which we are called.” Did you see the “knowing” vocabulary in that prayer? How will the Ephesians have real communion with God? How will you or how will I? It is when the “Spirit of wisdom and revelation and knowledge enlightens our eyes” – gives us understanding. How will you be transformed? How will you have communion with God? It will be through the Word of God enlightening your mind and informing your understanding. Word-centeredness, word-centeredness is the key to knowing God. Edification, building one another up by means of the intelligible communication of Biblical truth, that’s what we need today more than ever; more than ever. Public worship, Paul says, is about edification.
Public Worship is about Evangelism
Then secondly and very quickly, look at verses 20 through 25 where Paul says public worship is also about evangelism. And he starts out in verse 20 with something of a rebuke for the Corinthians, doesn’t he? “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.” “It’s time to grow up, guys! The way you are playing with the sensational and the spectacular, trying to make yourselves look like spiritual bigshots, it is frankly juvenile!” That’s what he’s saying to them; it’s juvenile. Mature understanding of this whole question of tongues and prophecy and what is healthy and good for the church thinks about edification. “Will it be a blessing to one another?”
But it also thinks, as he’s about to teach us, it also thinks about evangelism. “What will non-Christians make of all of this? If an unbeliever comes in among us, what will how we worship do to them? What will they think about it?” He quotes from the prophecy of Isaiah chapter 28. You'll see that in verse 21 if you look there for a moment. "By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” Isaiah, in context, is speaking about the invading Assyrian army that God was sending to judge His people for their failure to believe. The foreign tongues they would hear was the strange language of the Assyrians who were executing the wrath and judgment of God. And so when Paul says tongues are a sign for the unbeliever, that’s what he means. In verse 23, he says, “If you’re all speaking in tongues and there’s no interpreter to explain what in the world is going on, and a non-Christian comes into your assembly, what will the result be? They will turn tail and walk out, shaking their heads in amazement saying, ‘Those people are looney toons! They’re out of their minds!’ And they’ll be hardened in their unbelief and in their rejection of God. It will be a sign to them of judgment!”
To Attract Non-Christians
And Paul says that is not our business this side of the return of King Jesus. When non-Christians come, we want to attract them to Christ, not repel them from Him. We want to draw them to the Savior and never push them away. And so instead, verse 24, if a non-Christian comes into your worship services and what he hears is prophesy, look what happens – "he is convicted by all, called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed and so, falling down on his face, he will worship God and declare God is really among you!”
Now, granted the gift of prophecy no longer continues today, nevertheless, the prophetic dimension that is inherent in the Word of God in Holy Scripture continues to operate with precisely this kind of force. And some of you have experienced that for yourself. You come to church one Sunday morning, you find your pew, and while you're waiting for the service to start you look up in the bulletin where the Scripture passage will be, you flick through the Bible till you find it, you read it, you look at it, you think, "Wow! This has nothing to say to me! I guess I can tune out and visit the land of Nod while the preacher drones on for a while!" And then quite contrary to expectation, something begins to happen as the Bible is explained and you're pointed to Jesus and the preacher begins to talk about the ways we deceive ourselves and lie to ourselves about our sin and need of a Savior. It begins to show us ourselves in the mirror of the Holy Scriptures. And you feel almost as if he's been reading your diary. "How could he have known that was my struggle? This is my burden! Here is precisely where I find my greatest shame!" It's as though he hacked your emails; he's been reading your texts. And you come to understand, yet though you've been trying to hide from the gaze of God, He sees it all. You are guilty in His sight and there is nothing you can do to change it and you are convicted, profoundly, of sin and need of a Savior.
The Explanation and Application of God’s Word
And then the preacher goes on to point you to Christ and you hear the good news, a message you may have heard a thousand other times about the cross where Jesus bore the wrath and curse of God for every believing sinner so that there is hope for you. There’s liberty for the captives; freedom from the bondage of sin in Jesus Christ. He has come to set you free. And suddenly, you don’t have to work it up. Your heart is running, it’s running to Christ. You’re crying out with urgency for cleansing and pardon and renewal and you are swept up into the peaceful fellowship of the people of God with the Lord Jesus Christ our only Savior. Some of you know exactly that experience. Isn’t that what we need so very much in our day? That God would take His Word and as it is explained and applied in the dynamic of the Holy Spirit, God cracks open our hearts and pours His grace in, shines the light of His Word into those dark places where we’ve squirreled away our pet sins where we thought no one could ever see them, and He begins to bring us to the end of ourselves at last and then He draws us back, or draws us for the first time, to the Lord Jesus Christ.
That’s what we need today. That is what God is still sometimes pleased to do in the ministry of His Word. That is the reality for which we all ought to be praying. God may yet do it among us – take His truth and draw you to Himself, irresistibly and wonderfully, for His own glory. Maybe, maybe we need to think more about, think again about public worship in the light of the teaching of this chapter. Worship is about edification – building one another up by the communication of rich, Biblical truth. It is not about entertaining or being diverted for an hour or so. Public worship is about being built up in the truth. And public worship is about evangelism. Worship should open the heart with the light of the Word as the Gospel of Jesus is applied to our spiritual condition till we all fall down on our faces again and worship God and say, not because of some ecstatic, irrational experience but because of the light of truth gripping our minds we say, “God is truly among you! I’ve met Him. I’ve heard His voice. And nothing can ever be the same again!” May God make it so.
Let us pray.
O Lord, we recognize that we are easily, we are easily diverted by counterfeits. We are attracted and enticed by the promise of shortcuts. We love the idea of experiences that we don’t have to think about, of immediacy and of raw power. Yet You teach us in Your Word that the place where You will meet us is in the Scriptures. So please, would You keep us there and open our hearts to receive its truth that we may indeed know You, and knowing You become like You. For Jesus’ sake we pray, amen.
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