RPM, Volume 14, Number 37, September 9 to September 15, 2012

1 Corinthians 14:1-5


A Sermon


By   Scott Lindsay    


  Diw¿kete th\n aÓga¿phn, zhlouvte de« ta» pneumatika¿, ma◊llon de« iºna profhteu/hte.  2 oJ ga»r lalw◊n glw¿sshØ oujk aÓnqrw¿poiß lalei√ aÓlla» qewˆ◊: oujdei«ß ga»r aÓkou/ei, pneu/mati de« lalei√ musth/ria:  3 oJ de« profhteu/wn aÓnqrw¿poiß lalei√ oi˙kodomh\n kai« para¿klhsin kai« paramuqi÷an.  4 oJ lalw◊n glw¿sshØ e˚auto\n oi˙kodomei√: oJ de« profhteu/wn e˙kklhsi÷an oi˙kodomei√.  5 qe÷lw de« pa¿ntaß uJma◊ß lalei√n glw¿ssaiß, ma◊llon de« iºna profhteu/hte: mei÷zwn de« oJ profhteu/wn h£ oJ lalw◊n glw¿ssaiß e˙kto\ß ei˙ mh\ diermhneu/hØ, iºna hJ e˙kklhsi÷a oi˙kodomh\n la¿bhØ.  

Now, if you’re sitting there saying to yourself, “I don’t have the foggiest idea what that man just said” - then you are in the same situation that the average Corinthian found himself or herself in every time they came together as God’s people. Lots of people were saying lots of strange things using languages that nobody could understand. But that wasn’t the only thing going on.  

From what Paul writes in this letter, it seems pretty clear that when they DID come together - all sorts of other things were happening - and, in fact, too many things were happening - and all at the same time. In other words, their church gatherings were both confusing and chaotic - for a number of different reasons - and Paul has a lot to say about that in this chapter.  

For our purposes this morning, however, we are only going to focus on one reason why there was so much chaos and confusion amongst the Corinthians, and it’s found in the opening five verses of chapter 14, which I just read to you in the Greek. With these verses, Paul finally begins to address the specific issues that he has been preparing to talk about ever since chapter 12.  

If you recall, in chapter 12 Paul began responding to their questions about the spiritual gifts by giving some general instructions on the gifts as a whole. In that chapter he focused on both the diversity of the gifts and the distribution of the gifts amongst the people of God. Then in Chapter 13 he talked to the Corinthians about love as being the single most important factor in this whole matter. His goal there was to show them that without love, all their great giftedness meant nothing and that love was the context from which they were meant to exercise their gifts. Sadly, as we have seen, it was also the thing that was so clearly missing in Corinth.  

And so, having laid that sort of foundation, Paul is finally ready to move from the general to the specific - addressing the Corinthians on two gifts in particular - tongues and prophecy - and especially upon how these things ought to be used and regarded within the congregation.  

Now, because this is an important issue, and a complicated issue, and a much debated issue, I don’t want to rush through this chapter. At the same time, I don’t want to make more of these matters than we should and so we will be taking a middle way. My hope is to take 3-4 weeks to work our way through which, hopefully, will be enough time to address the main issues without getting caught up in too much minutiae.  

And even that may seem too much time to some, I realize. But let me tell you something - We live in Baton Rouge, La. And if you have spent any time at all in this city, then you will know that this is a place where you can find all kinds of ideas about the Holy Spirit, and spiritual gifts, etc. And I am certainly not suggesting that in the space of a few weeks we are going to be able to work out a complete and satisfying doctrine of the Holy Spirit - or anything close to that.  

But I do think there is a very good chance that some questions about some things can be answered, and some issues clarified, or at least further clarified. And so I hope this time will be useful to us, as a church, in promoting greater understanding as to what we do and do not believe on these matters. Further, I hope that it will promote not only greater understanding but also greater charity toward believers who may see things a little differently.  

And in a place like Baton Rouge, where there are great differences of opinion on these matters - anything that sheds a little light and promotes greater charity - I reckon that’s a good thing. Before we go any further, let’s pray....  

Father in heaven, you who have created us and set your love upon us, you who have come to dwell not only among us but within us by your Spirit - would you now by that same Spirit open our eyes to see the truth and our hearts to receive the truth that you have preserved for us in Your word? Would you be kind to us, in our simplicity and confusion, to grant us insight - so that we would understand better the things you would have us understand, and so that through these things we would know YOU better and love you more deeply, and love our neighbors more obviously, and ultimately become more and more like Your Son, In Jesus name, Amen.       

(Read 1 Corinthians 14:1-5)

  Before we think about some of the specifics in this text, and because it is so central to the matters being discussed here, I want to begin our time by saying some things about tongues and prophecy, by way of definition. But permit me a few comments before we proceed TO those definitions....  

Firstly, as we do this, please keep in mind that we are talking about prophecy and tongues as they appear in the NT and not the practices which go by the same labels, and which are occurring in our own day. My hope is to say something about the current status of the NT gifts and how they may or may not relate to what is going on in our own day - but not just yet.  

The second comment is simply this - definitions are always hard because the point of a definition is to bring clarity and focus and understanding - which is not always easy to do when the biblical data from which you draw your definitions is not crystal clear in every place. The definition is even further complicated when the person giving it to you (ME) is himself still struggling to formulate an understanding of these things that deals fairly and consistently with all the biblical evidence.  

So, please be kind and patient, and if you lose patience with me - please read Chapter 13 again....  

The third comment - which is really more of an informational bulletin - is to say that I am making available to you some further thoughts on the issue of NT prophecy which I chose not to include in this morning’s sermon simply because it would make it far too long.  

However, I do regard these comments as important and will be leaning upon them in the weeks ahead as we talk further about this subject. It’s not absolutely necessary that you read what I have written, but you may find it more difficult to follow what is being said if you don’t. So, I will be printing those up and they will be available next week. They will also be available on the church web site, in the Sermon Archive, under the “Topical” section, hopefully sometime later on today.  

Well, what can we say about NT prophecy? Again, without going into the details of the article just mentioned, the conclusion of the whole thing is this: NT prophecy seems to have been a Spirit-inspired insight or revelation, given to a person who then communicates what he/she has received to others in an intelligible, but not necessarily infallible, manner.  

Further, the biblical evidence seems to indicate that NT prophecy is not to be regarded as the same thing as OT prophecy. NT prophecy seems to have enjoyed a lesser authoritative status than that of OT prophecy and therefore must be weighed/evaluated as to its relative merits and not simply accepted un-critically. Some important passages to look at in this regard are: Acts 16, Acts 21, 1 Corinthians 11, 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21.  

What about tongues? What is Paul talking about here? The first thing to say is that, when all is said and done, it seems that the gift of tongues was the Spirit-given ability to speak a real language that one did not previously know. To expand on that slightly, it would seem from what Paul says later on in chapter 14 that in exercising this gift, the person remained in control of himself/herself but did not know what he/she was saying - even as it was being said. The exception to this was if the person speaking was also granted the ability to interpret tongues - but this does not seem to have been an automatic thing or even a guaranteed thing but, instead, was something that had to be asked for by the speaker.  

Even further, the fact that tongues could be and were supposed to be interpreted, at least within a community setting, means that they must contain cognitive content and, therefore, were not merely gibberish or ecstatic utterings of meaningless sounds. Passages like Acts 2 seem to point most clearly to this reality. That does not, however, settle the question of whether the languages being spoken were always human languages. Other passages, such as 1 Corinthians 12:10 and 1 Corinthians 13:1 seem to allow for the possibility that there is such a thing as angelic language and, if that is the case, then it is likely that some instances of speaking in tongues might have involved such a thing. Now, of course, a lot more could be said about both of these things - and will be said as we go along. But for now, let’s take those brief descriptions as starting points and working definitions as we turn to the passage before us to glean whatever additional information might be found there.  

In verse 1, Paul says, “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.” Having just made his case for the priority of love - he urges the Corinthians now to pursue it - and yet in the same breath he tells them that they should also desire the extraordinary gifts, prophecy in particular.  

As we have seen before, Paul’s goal all along has not been to de-value the gifts, only to set them in their proper context. The gifts themselves are good, and so should be desired. But when their use is not tempered or controlled by love, that’s when the trouble begins.  

Now, you have to read Paul’s words here about “earnestly desiring the spiritual gifts” in the light of what he has already said, in Chapter 12, about the diversity and distribution of the gifts within the Body of Christ. As you may recall, Paul made it very clear in chapter 12 that there is a wide variety of gifts in the church and that no one person has all the gifts - and, conversely, there is no gift which every person has in common. Not everyone is given the gift of prophecy, not everyone is given the gift of tongues, or of interpretation, etc.  

And so, in light of these things, when Paul tells the Corinthians to “earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially prophecy” he is not retracting his former statements but is simply expressing his wish and hope that they will continue to value the gifts - all of them - and will continue to see them as good things, especially the gift of prophecy. Paul knows, of course, that not everyone will receive or practice that particular gift. He’s already said so. But that does not stop Paul from hoping that many, many people will.  

But why is prophecy so important to Paul? Why does he clearly have a preference for that gift over the gift of tongues? That answer to that is found in verses 2 and 3. Firstly, consider verse 2:  

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...
  Paul says that the ultimate audience for the person speaking in tongues....is God. To be sure, the things uttered by the tongues-speaker will be heard by others, but it will not be understood by them, unless interpretation takes place. But Paul seems to have in mind those instances where no such interpretation is happening. When that is the case, the only one who can make any sense of what is being said is God and so the benefit of such an exercise is more limited in scope - It is beneficial for the tongues-speaker himself (see vs 13-15) and is received by God. Now look at vs 3:  
On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.
The audience for the one who prophesies is the entire congregation which includes both believers and unbelievers alike - as we will see later on. But, whereas tongues must be interpreted, prophecy works “as is” and so is understandable by all and thus more widely beneficial.  

So, again, why does Paul prefer prophecy to tongues? Because, as vs 4 says, The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. And as you read these words, you hear the stinging echo of 1 Corinthians 13, don’t you?  

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal....Love....does not insist on its own way....
  Why is Paul going to such lengths to promote the priority of prophecy over tongues? Because the Corinthians have been doing just the opposite. For them, tongues was everything. And it was being promoted and practiced in very un-loving ways. Despite the fact that no interpretation was happening, it seems the Corinthians were still making use of the gift of tongues in their corporate worship - even though it was unhelpful and unproductive for them to do so. Concern for self reigned supreme in Corinth. Concern for others was a distant second.  

Now, to be sure, Paul is not belittling the gift of tongues here. Using for effect the same sort of exaggerated language that he used earlier in this letter - when he said that he wished everyone was single like him - so Paul here wants to make it clear that he values the gift of tongues-speaking; so much so, that he wishes everyone could do it - even though he knows that they will not.  

But as much as he values tongues and would want everyone to be able to exercise this gift, the reality is - he values prophesy even more, because of its potential for building up the entire congregation, as opposed to one isolated individual.  

Now the exception to all this, of course, is if the tongues that are spoken are then interpreted and made plain. In cases such as that, even though the tongues speaking is still directed toward God, there is benefit for all since the things being said are now clearly understood.  

And so, at the end of the day, the clear principle that comes through in these first five verses is this: the “bias” or “default mode” for God’s people is that they should prefer those things that will build up the congregation as a whole, over those things which will only be beneficial to themselves, or perhaps to a handful of people.  

That is not to say that “building up yourself” is a bad thing. In verses 13-19, as we will see soon enough, Paul seems to indicate that engaging in self-edifying activities such as tongue speaking is permissible and that, in fact, he engages in it even more than the Corinthians do! But he again makes it clear in those verses, as he does here in verses 1-5, that his preference is to do those things which are more beneficial for everyone concerned. Philippians 2:4, another letter of Paul’s, makes the same appeal.  

Well, when it comes to working out the significances of these verses for the church today, a certain amount of application is dependent upon your understanding of the status of the extraordinary gifts like tongues and prophecy in our own time. As I said earlier, my intention is to address that question sometime before we finish our look at chapter 14. Still, the fact that we haven’t yet worked through all that does not stop us from thinking through how these verses can be significant for God’s people in differing circumstances.  

So, for example, for those who believe that the NT gifts of prophecy and tongues are still extant, then the first and most immediate application that comes from these verses is for these people and churches to conform themselves to the sort of attitude and actions and emphases that Paul outlines here for the Corinthians. To highlight just one aspect - if Paul says that prophecy is to be preferred above tongues - then that ought to be reflected in the practices of those churches.  

Clearly, this is a word for our brothers and sisters in the Pentecostal and so-called “Charismatic” traditions. Whether or not we agree on all these things, the reality is that if there was more concern to take seriously, and put into practice, the things that Paul says - the distance that is sometimes felt between us and them would, I am quite certain, be diminished.   For those who would place themselves in another category - who feel that the gifts are no longer extant - or else are unsure - then there is still the broader principle to be applied, and which is useful for every church, regardless of its position on the gifts. God’s people today are to have and pursue the same emphasis that Paul outlines here - preferring that which edifies the body of Christ as a whole to that which edifies or “builds up” the individual.  

When we ask the question, “What does that look like?” A number of Scriptural examples come to mind to help us think about it. First off, there is the supreme example of Christ Himself who willingly went to the Cross for His people. That action - which was personally disadvantageous for him, was mercifully and greatly advantageous for His people. Christ was willing to suffer loss personally in order that none of his would be lost in the end.  

Or look at the Apostle Paul who made it clear, in Philippians 1:19-26, that his personal desire was to be done with this life and to go and be in the presence of the Lord. Nevertheless, as he wrestled with conflicting concerns, he came to the conclusion that the better thing would be for him to remain in the flesh, continue his fruitful labor in the Gospel, and continue to promote the progress and joy of those whom God had saved through His ministry. In short, Paul was willing to put aside personal benefit and gain, for that which would best serve the Body of Christ.  

Taking our cue from these things, then, it should be our prayer that God would develop within us a desire like Christ’s and like his servant, Paul’s - a desire to be more concerned for that which builds the church as a whole, as opposed to that which merely promotes ourselves in some way. Our hope should be to become a people who want to put the needs of the community ahead of their own personal preferences and agendas.  

Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of our knee-jerk response to so many things being - “What’s in it for me?” it became “What’s in it for the people of God? What decision will be best for my church family? How will my saying or not saying, doing or not doing, being a part of, or not being a part of, going or not going - how will the day to day, decisions of my life impact on the community of faith to which I belong, and in and through whom I have pledged to seek, above all else, the honor and glory of God?  

When I look at my own heart and my own track record here, I see how very Corinthian I am, how seldom I consider things beyond their impact on me or my immediate family, and how seldom I even think to ask the question - what will be best for the people of God - what will best build them up?  

But I am hopeful in the midst of my despair. All is not lost. Because the one who, “...although he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” , the one who, “... made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant”, the one who, “...humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross....” – I am hopeful because that one - the one who did so well what I so seldom even think to do - who placed the redemption and building up of His people ahead of His own personal benefits - that one has seen fit to call me and to call you, his own, and to send His Spirit to live within us, and to make real within our lives that which we, with a million years of good intentions, and unlimited resources, would never be able to bring about on our own.  

All praise and honor to the Lord Jesus Christ, who loves us so well, and by whose other-centeredness, we are redeemed from our self-centeredness.  

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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