RPM, Volume 14, Number 47, Novembr 18 to November 24, 2012

1 Corinthians 14:20-25

By Scott Lindsay

We are continuing this morning with our study of Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, picking up at verse 20 of chapter 14, and working through to verse 25.

In this letter the Apostle Paul has been doing two things:

1) Responding to reports of things going on in the Corinthian congregation (chapters 1-6) and 2) Responding to questions they have directly asked him (chapters 7 to the end).

We have been in this latter part of the letter for some time now, most recently looking at how Paul responded to their questions about spiritual gifts in chapters 12-14. It is clear from Paul's response that this was a hot topic in Corinth and something over which there had been a great deal of controversy and trouble, and Paul has been concerned to try and straighten the Corinthians out on these matters.

In order to do that, he starts his response to their questions by giving them a kind of general framework for understanding spiritual gifts in chapter 12. He then, in chapter 13, describes the context out of which the gifts were supposed to operate - the context of love.

Finally, in chapter 14, he brings the implications of what he has said thus far to bear on one gift in particular - speaking in tongues - which has been at the heart of all their troubles. Along with that he talks about the gift of prophecy, which was also practiced in Corinth - but not nearly as enthusiastically or as frequently as Paul would have liked.

In talking about all this, while Paul says some things which do help us to understand a little bit about what these gifts were and how they functioned, his main concern has centered upon the manner in which tongues speaking, in particular, was being used by the Corinthians. They had taken this very good gift and used it in a way that was very un-loving, and which was more concerned with building up individuals than building up the congregation as a whole.

Which is why, in verses 1-5 of chapter 14, Paul promotes prophecy over tongues as a superior gift for the gathered church. Because, as we've seen, prophecy does build up the Body of Christ as a whole while tongues, unless interpreted, only builds up individuals. And even when tongues are interpreted, while they may be edifying for the congregation in that form, Paul still does not seem to be nearly as enthusiastic about the use of tongues as he is about prophecy.

Well, after his opening statements in verses 1-5, Paul goes on, in verses 6-25, to expand on what he has said about the relative superiority of prophecy over tongues. Firstly, in verses 6-19, which we saw last week, Paul talks about the principle of intelligibility and what that meant for their use of tongues when they were gathered together. And yet, once again, even given the arrangement where one might speak in a tongue, followed by an interpretation of that tongue - even after presenting that as a model for how they should handle public tongues-speaking - Paul goes on to say, at the end, that he would still rather speak five words with his mind than 10,000 words in a tongue. In other words, while he is regulating the manner in which they ought to use tongues - if they did - it is clear that Paul's preference was for them to use other, more immediately intelligible gifts, like prophesying, for instructing others.

Now, I suppose Paul might have left things at that. I mean, he has already made some pretty strong points. And yet, he still has more to say. Not only is prophecy greater than tongues because it builds up the church as a whole, and not only is it more useful for instructing believers because of its immediate intelligibility, but it is also greater than tongues because of its effect upon unbelievers who might be present when God's people are gathered together.

That reality will be the focus of our time together this morning, as we concentrate on verses 20-25 of chapter 14. Before we go any further with these matters, let's pray and then we'll read the text together....

Great Father in Heaven, as we gather around to hear you speak to us through your Word this morning, please help us to embody the opening charge found in verse 20 where Paul exhorts the Corinthians to "not be children in their thinking" but to, instead, be mature. Lord, that is what we desire, in our more sane moments, and so we ask that you would use this time to move us in the direction of maturity. Please apply these always relevant truths to our often irrelevant pursuits. Help us to approach them, not from above, as if we stand in judgment upon them, but from below, recognizing your voice and so their authority, recognizing that it is these truths that stand in judgment upon us. Father please examine and try and shape and mold us in whatever ways are necessary to conform us to your Son's likeness. Finish that good work in us, we pray, in Jesus' name. Amen.

(Read 1 Corinthians 14:20-25)

Paul's opening words, in verse 20, where he challenges the Corinthians to NOT be like children in their thinking are, no doubt, motivated by the bad behavior of the Corinthians. We have seen their misbehavior on display in a number of places and it certainly does mark them out as a people who need to grow up - who need to think about and approach their Christian life in an entirely new way. Their use of tongues and their attitudes toward that gift were clear evidence of their lack of maturity and their shallow understanding of things.

In order to demonstrate this, Paul takes them back to a former time, quoting to them from the Old Testament scriptures, the book of the prophet Isaiah, chapter 28,

...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...

Now the obvious question is: what is this quotation all about? Why is Paul referring to something Isaiah said so many years before? Well, the passage quoted to you comes in the midst of Isaiah's speech about God's judgment on His people in Ephraim (Samaria) and Jerusalem. In both of these situations, God sent his prophets to his people, warning them of their faithlessness, rebuking them at specific points, and calling them to return to the Lord. Sadly, the people of God did not, on the whole, respond to God's appeal. And so, as the prophets continued speaking to these people, the words of potential judgment became warnings of impending judgment.

And what was the form that God's judgment upon his people took in the OT? In both the Northern and the Southern kingdoms, God sent invading armies from foreign lands to come and capture the people and carry them off into captivity, preserving only a small remnant of his people to carry on. And so, when Isaiah says,

...by people of strange lips and with a foreign tongue the Lord will speak to this people...

...he is talking about judgment. God has sent his prophets to come and instruct and warn and rebuke and exhort his people. And they have not responded. And so judgment is sent. M/p>

And what is the sign that they are under judgment? When they are surrounded by all these strange people, who have invaded their country, and are speaking in a tongue that they do not understand. That's a sign of judgment.

And Paul clearly sees a parallel between that situation and what was going on in Corinth, especially in the particular way that they seemed to be misusing this gift - with everybody speaking at once, and nobody interpreting. The response of unbelievers to that sort of Corinthian chaos, Paul anticipates in verse 23, will only demonstrate how unhelpful and un-productive this sort of activity is. The Corinthians' use of tongues wasn't going to lead to any good outcomes for the unbelievers in their midst. It was only going to result in a lot of unbelievers walking off, shaking their heads and saying, "These Christians are nuts...they've lost their minds!"

And so, over against the Corinthians who were apparently making a big deal about how their possession of the gift of tongues was a "sign" of their great spirituality - over against that Paul says, no, the "sign value" of tongues is seen in what it says about the unbelievers in your midst and the effect it has upon them.

It is a sign which points out their status as unbelievers, to be sure, but it does nothing more than that. It finds them out, but then it leaves them as it finds them. And so tongues, while useful for believers in some particular ways, remains at the same time a sign for unbelievers - a sign of judgment.

Prophecy, on the other hand, is a sign for believers and it, not tongues, was the "sign" that the Corinthians ought to have been much more concerned about. Now, what is prophecy a "sign" of? Well, if we think about the quotation from Isaiah again, and the OT context alluded to there, clearly God's sending prophets to his people was a sign of the Lord's concern for his people. And so, in that sense prophecy, at least in the first instance, is a sign of God's compassion and patience.

However, the prophet's words, as gracious as they might be, always carried within them, as we have seen, the threat of potential judgment that might well become impending judgment - if God's people did not respond to the prophet's words. And so prophecy was both a sign of God's compassion, as well as a sign of judgment.

But it is this reality that, among other things, sets prophecy apart from tongues and makes it much more useful for their church gatherings. This is where Paul wants them to be more mature in their thinking - he wants them to think about the value and effect of what they are doing not only upon themselves but upon the unbelievers in their midst. If someone comes in amongst them while all are speaking in tongues, then the effect will be that the outsider will think they are crazy. If, on the other hand, the unbeliever comes in and there's prophesying going on - people speaking intelligible messages, giving spirit-inspired insights and revelations intended to instruct, encourage, rebuke and exhort one another - if the unbeliever walks into the midst of that sort of thing, then Paul envisions a very different kind of response.

And that has to do not only with the fact of intelligibility but with the nature of prophecy, over against the nature of tongues. The tongues speaker, says Paul way back in verse 2 of this chapter, "speaks not to men but to God". And so tongues is a form of prayer which, yes, when interpreted, can have some edification value for others (verse 5), but un-interpreted remains valuable only to the individual and, in any case, whether interpreted or un-interpreted, is still, essentially, God-ward in its direction. It's vertically oriented.

Conversely, the one who prophesies, says Paul in verse 3, "speaks to people for their up-building and encouragement and consolation." In other words, prophecy is essentially "people- ward" - if I can say something as silly as that. It moves in a more horizontal direction. And so whereas the edification potential for tongues is real, but indirect, the edification value for prophecy is more direct and immediate.

Which is why Paul is far more confident and hopeful about the effect of prophesying on the unbelievers who happen to be in the midst of God's people as they are gathered together. It is part of the very intent and nature of prophecy to directly confront those toward whom it is delivered. Its design is to address the conscience. It aims toward the heart and even if the initial intent and trajectory of a prophecy is through one believer and towards other believers, Paul clearly sees that unbelievers can and will get caught in the crossfire, and be convicted and brought to their knees, and worship the living God. Paul clearly believes that this sort of thing will happen through prophesying in a way that he does not believe will happen through the exercise of the gift of tongues.

To be sure, not every believer will respond to prophecy in this way. And whenever that happens then for that unbeliever the potential judgment that is resident within and behind every prophecy, becomes actual judgment as they, in unbelief, reject the compassionate and gracious word of the Lord. Still, Paul's conviction - and thus his desire for the Corinthians - is that their becoming zealous for prophesying - as opposed to tongues speaking - will be the occasion of many people coming to know the Lord in their very midst, as they are gathered together to build up one another, and honor the Lord.

Now, there are a number of points of contact between what Paul says here and the church in our own day - and all of them seem to cluster around this whole matter of what happens, what should happen, and what can happen - when God's people are gathered together. So, let me make a few observations that, I believe, flow out of some of the things we have seen this morning. You may see others.

For starters, there is Paul's call to maturity in their thinking that, in this context, meant that they needed to stop only thinking about themselves with regard to their corporate gatherings. In other words, the Corinthians do not seem to have been sufficiently aware of or concerned for how their actions were being regarded by unbelievers or what effect their actions were producing among them - in this case mockery and derision.

Taking our cue from this passage then, we need to examine ourselves to see whether or not, or to what degree, we may or may not be making the same sort of mistakes. Or, putting it more positively - we need to at least consider how the things that we do when we are together are, or at least may be, regarded by the unbelievers in our midst. We need to think about what effect the various things we are doing will have upon lost people.

To be sure, this is not the only thing that we need to take into consideration when we think about our corporate gatherings. As we saw last week, one of the main things we need to think about in this regard is the tremendous amount of value the NT places on our building up one another when we are gathered together.

So, that reality too needs to be factored in and, when we do, we have to conclude, on the basis of the NT's emphasis, that the concern for building up one another in the Lord takes precedence over considering the effect of what we do upon unbelievers.

Still, while consideration of how what we do affects unbelievers does play a lesser role in our thinking, it still enters into it. It still can make a difference at various times and on various occasions as we have choices to make and - all things being equal - we decide to do the thing that will create the least amount of unnecessary stumbling blocks for the unbeliever who happens to be among us. To put it another way, in those situations where we are able to - we should choose the thing that will communicate most clearly and which will more effectively bring the unbeliever face to face with the truth of God.

A second thing to notice here is that Paul's word for the unbeliever in their midst is just that - unbeliever. He doesn't refer to the person as a "seeker" or as someone who is almost or nearly there. He calls this person an unbeliever, not a seeker. What is a seeker? Well, in the parlance of much that is written about worship these days, a seeker is this sort of imaginary, well-intentioned person, who is out there looking for God and is really close to the kingdom, and they just need a little help and a little encouragement, and they'll come good.

And so, because they are "seeking" already - or so it is believed - then we basically just have to provide a smooth path for them to keep on going in the direction they are already traveling. And, according to this thinking, what we need to do is minimize the distinctions between the church and the world so that the transition from one to the other is almost seamless. And, of course, as part of that whole process we need to make sure we only say encouraging things to people and avoid talking about matters that are terribly jarring or upsetting or socially controversial. Like sin, for instance.

But Paul knows better than that. This is the same Paul who wrote in chapter 3 of Romans, "None is righteous, no not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one..." This is the same Paul who wrote earlier in this letter, "The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned..."

The lost people, the unbelievers, that the NT knows about may be seeking a lot of things, but God isn't one of them. They may have questions about many things, and they may not know what the answers are, but they're pretty sure they know what the answers aren't. And, to their mind at least, the answers don't have anything to do with God.

That is the mindset that we ought to expect to encounter, not one that says the average lost person coming to church is just right there on the edge so that, if we are careful, they will just sort of "fall" into the kingdom of God, almost by accident. On the contrary, we ought to expect to encounter hearts that are hard and unresponsive to the things of God, hearts that need to be pierced by truth, recognizing that in the end it is only by the Spirit's agency that they come anyway. In short, we don't need to worry about saying hard things.

Notice Paul's language in verse 24 and 25. He talks about unbelievers being convicted and called to account and having the secrets of their hearts disclosed. There's nothing "seeker sensitive" about any of that. To Paul's way of thinking, taking into consideration the fact that there are unbelievers among you meant, not tip-toeing around and worrying about what you shouldn't do and say, but rather it meant making sure that you do and say the things that most need to be done and said - and in a way which will be intelligible and direct and will bring them face to face with the living God.

The third and final thing to highlight, and which has already been alluded to, is this whole matter of the evangelistic potential of our corporate gatherings together, or what some writers refer to as "doxological evangelism" - the word "doxology" here referring to "worship". And there is, indeed, great evangelistic potential for our times together.

But we have to be careful here. Because the evangelistic potential does not come because we misconstrue the purpose of our time together as being evangelistic. This is the mistake that can too easily be made and is illustrated in various ways as people talk about "being a church for the unchurched" or being "seeker-oriented" in their worship. To do such a thing is to put the methodological cart before the theological horse. It is to confuse the means and ends of a thing.

When we come together our purpose, as the NT points out in a number of ways and in various places, is to honor and glorify God through building up one another in various ways, and as an expression of our love for one another. That is why we come together. That is the thing that can happen when we are together that cannot happen when we are apart. That is why we are not to forsake our meeting together - as the writer of Hebrews says, because to do so would cause us to miss out on opportunities to encourage one another.

And so the evangelism of unbeliever is not the purpose of our coming together, but it may well be the result of our coming together and, as such, deserves at least some consideration on our part. But it is not meant to be the main purpose for our time and so should not be the major controlling factor in our decisions about our time together - what we do and don't do, etc.

When this sort of thing happens, when people are confronted and converted in our midst, it ought not be happening because we have abandoned our biblical purposes for some extra-biblical criteria such as "church expansion" or "being seeker-oriented". It ought not happen because we have adopted some marketing technique that says we should use Harley Davidsons and balloons and clowns and parachuting hippos to gather a crowd. When we do that sort of thing we confuse a crowd with a congregation - and they are not the same thing - and more importantly we forget that what you win people with is what you win people to. But that sort of thing is not the way forward for God's church.

The reason that people will and ought to be coming to Christ among us is not because we are giving them some diminished, world-defined, alternative version of ourselves, which hides or masks who we really are and what we really are all about. No, the reason that people come, and ought to come, to the realization of God's greatness in our midst is simply because we are being who we are with all the passion and conviction we can muster, coming together in all our glory and all our shame, with all of our joys and all of our sorrows, laboring heavily underneath our imperfections, but with the hope of what God is doing, and will bring to completion, firmly fixed in our hearts, and evident in our eyes.

It ought to happen because we have clearly come together to build up one another, and to honor the Lord, and our words and deeds are driven by an obvious desire to show love to God and our neighbor in this place, to put the needs of others ahead of our own, and the building up of others ahead of our own personal advancement.

In short, it ought to happen because we are being the people of God - in full flight - not holding anything back, pulling no punches, obscuring no truth, making no compromises. And the unbeliever who finds himself/herself in the midst of that sort of thing, will be caught up in the authenticity of the moment - maybe the only authentic moment in their entire life - and will hear the Gospel and see the Gospel and experience the Gospel. And in the midst of that the Lord comes, by his Spirit and through His Word, and beautifully and mercifully takes them down, exposing their hearts, reaching behind the air of self-sufficiency and humbling them before his awesome holiness.

That is the sort of thing that Paul is talking about happening among the people of God as they are gathered together. And it is what I hope and pray will become a reality for this congregation. It is a reality that I hope will begin to characterize our own times together. And there is no reason to believe that this sort of thing could not happen in this place. And there is every reason to believe that it will.

Father, you really do inhabit the praises and practices of your people as we are gathered in this place. Help us to show by our actions that we really do believe that. Help us to trust you and your ability to save those whom you will, and to show our trust in the way that we think about our times together. Help us to be neither complacent nor manipulative about these things. Help us, instead, to be genuine and authentic - to pursue wholeheartedly the building up of one another, for your honor and glory, and in the presence of those that do not know you. And would you please be gracious to work through that seemingly unlikely, and not terribly market-savvy approach, to honor yourself further as you draw people to yourself, and in our midst. Amen.

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