1 Corinthians 14:1-12
January 27, 2019
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 16:10 in the audio file.
Or, The Distinctive Note of Congregational Worship
Jesus said that He would build His church. Jesus had asked His disciples what people were saying about Him; who did they think He was? Peter replied that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Then Jesus credited His Father in heaven for revealing this to Peter, and followed it with this great declaration:
On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18)
One drum to beat in the second phrase is that the “gates of hell” are defensive; the church is on offense against hellish unbelief and rebellion. Another drum to beat in the first phrase is that Jesus is the subject of the action and the church is the object, meaning that Jesus builds, the church is being built by Him. We believe that this is true because Jesus said it, so it’s not our worry to make the church what it’s supposed to be. Much man-centered ministry which aims to attract and appease men would stop if we took this to heart.
That said, Paul uses the same language of building the church and says that it is a work of the church. In Ephesians 4, God gave church leaders to equip the saints for “building up the body” and when “each part is working properly” the body “builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:12-16). This church body building effort is also the theme of 1 Corinthians 14. And it’s interesting, there is a connection between a man-centered focus as the opposite of building the body, while a focus on right worship is what does the best building.
Part of me has been dreading this chapter. It’s not as much that I’m anxious about holding an unpopular interpretation about tongues and prophecy but rather that the interpretation is challenging. While there is still more work to do, what I’ve realized is that, rather than avoid it, this would have been the perfect passage to teach through years ago for sake of our congregational worship. In particular, there may be no better text in the Bible to explain and exhort the worship of the assembly, of each and every part of the body, rather than to see corporate worship as an individualistic experience, let alone to cater to a consumer minded audience. The teaching about head coverings (chapter 10) was surprisingly applicable without requiring that women wear head coverings today, and there is similar relevance here.
We’re back to the topic of spiritual gifts. Paul started talking spiritual gifts in chapter 12, and ended chapter 12 with “earnestly desire the higher gifts.” Chapter 14 begins with, “earnestly desire the spiritual gifts.” In between, obviously, is the lovely 13, about the exercise of gifts in love. No love? Then there is no help, no profit, no nothing. With love something happens to the body. And this is what we should covet.
As Christians there are only so many things we’re allowed to covet. The tenth of the 10 Commandments prohibits us from coveting our neighbor’s goods, but it does not prohibit coveting good for our neighbor. We’re (apparently) allowed to covet prayers. And in chapter 14, believers are to covet a building, that is, not the noun (a building with walls), nor the building up of themselves, but the building of the whole body.
The chapter has two emphasis: 1) otherly worship (verses 1-26) and 2) orderly worship (verses 26-40). We’ll start with the first part of worship focused on others in the congregation and we’ll see the importance of consolation and clarity.
Paul hasn’t specified it yet, but since the start of chapter 12 he’s been aiming to knock down (but maybe not out) the gift of tongues. The Corinthians saw tongue-talking as the gift par excellence, while Paul instead has made the general case that all gifts are from God and all gifts are for the good of the body and no gift is good without love. Now he drills down to compare two speaking gifts, not because the other gifts, including the non-speaking gifts, aren’t important, but because these two, tongues and prophecy, confront their selfish spirituality and best illustrate bad and good worship.
Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophecy. Love covers a lot. It is the make or break of spiritual gifts. With or without it the church is built or broken. Get love. Then covet spiritual gifts that build up the body, one of which is prophecy. It was Tyndale who first translated the word for earnestly desire as “covet.” Want it badly, deeply, seriously.
The explanation beginning in verse 2 answers why he picked out prophecy in verse 1. He already said that not everyone is a prophet (12:28), that the Spirit gives “to another [the gift of] prophecy” (12:10). There are various gifts apportioned and empowered by the same Spirit (12:11). But apparently the Corinthians had been elevating tongues as the one gift above them all. So Paul selects another speaking gift for comparison’s sake, and prophecy shows how the body should be working.
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. This verse has been used to define tongues as a private prayer language, useless in the congregation but useful in the prayer closet. This verse has also been taken as the first sarcastic shot against babble, understanding the singular “tongue” not as a language but just as noise; mumbo jumbo is all one thing. There are other times in the chapter when the plural “tongues” is used, and that would be a reference to the many different human languages such as spoken by the apostles on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2.
If Paul is being sarcastic it is difficult to prove, but it is completely unnecessary to his point. His point is that tongues can’t do what prophecy can. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. That is a prophetic trifecta. Such positivity is probably not the first thing that comes to mind thinking about the Old Testament prophets, but Paul states clearly that strengthening and coming alongside comforting are a key part of the New Testament prophet’s task. Upbuilding of the “building” (3:9) heads the list and the chapter (see οἰκοδομή also in verses 4, 5, 12, 17, and 26). Encouragement is “emboldening another in belief or course of action” (BAGD). Consolation is “encouragement to one who is depressed or in grief” (BAGD). Don’t lose heart!
Here’s the main difference between the two spiritual gifts: The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. Even if building up oneself was acceptable rather than self-indulgent, the relative value is low by comparison; it’s just not as good (see also verse 5). We should covet a building of the whole body, not our own individual benefit. It also means that it’s more important to know our brothers and concern ourselves with strengthening them rather than to give them a show.
Paul concedes to a point. Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophecy. The one who prophecies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up. He doesn’t really expect that they will all speak in tongues or prophecy, but for the sake of argument, the valuation standard is measured according to the benefit brought to others. And if you want to bring something of value, why dig for a treasure if there is treasure laying on the surface? To show off your shovel skills? What is the benefit of adding the middle step?
So far tongues is the inferior spiritual gift because it concentrates on the exerciser not on edifying. Prophecy focuses on others, on the congregation, on consolation for others. In a bit I’m going to say that I don’t think prophecy is a gift for today any more than tongues, though the gifts of exhortation and teaching function more like prophecy. I also believe that these gifts can be just as preacher-centric and therefore just as wrong as the Charismatic attention on self.
Paul gets more personal in this paragraph, and also more particular on why prophecy is better. He proposes a thought experiment. 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? He’s not saying that tongues could provide content if done correctly, he’s saying that tongues don’t, by themselves (without interpretation) by definition, bring benefit to the body.
The reason that tongues don’t benefit and build is that they lack clarity. If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? These are both musical instruments. The flute is a melodic, wind instrument, but what if the holes were drilled randomly along the tube? The harp was a stringed instrument, but if the notes aren’t distinct, as if you played with your knees, how will anyone know the song?
And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? The trumpet is a military instrument. They didn’t have the valves like our modern trumpet, but the player could purse his lips and make different pitched sounds and hold different lengths of notes. According to one source there were all sorts of calls to action: “muster, alarm, ambush, pursuit, reassembly, enlistment, encampment, battle formation, funeral, retreat, and homecoming” (Ciampa and Rosner). But the notes had to be clear and differentiated.
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 is song and there is signal and then there is just noise. “No one knows what are you talking about?” If it is not “clear” (NAS) then nothing can be recognized. If the sounds are unintelligible, then the listeners will be unintelligent, at least on this issue. The tongue-talkers thought they were virtuosos of spirituality and knowledge, and they were more like 1st graders playing broken recorders badly.
Of course, bad preaching can muddy the water just as badly. Not knowing what you’re talking about in English isn’t helpful just because it’s English.
Here’s a fourth illustration. 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. The worship of the church should be a place where people feel native, where “there is one body and one Spirit…one Lord, one faith” (Ephesians 4:4-5). When one talks in tongues, another brother who should feel like family feels like a stranger, like a foreigner, from the onomatopoetic Greek word βάρβαρος; it sounded like bar-bar-bar like our blah-blah-blah. That sort of unintelligent babble has the effect of Babel, scattering rather than building.
So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church. This is exactly it. Covet being the kind of people where God’s Spirit lives and through whom God’s Spirit works. Covet the Spirit’s manifestations, and that will be evident in our desire and our efforts to be building up the church. Covet a building, not with bricks, but of the body.
So what about tongues in private? What about tongues as an irrational (see verses 14-15), uninterpreted private prayer language? Does this give “access to the unconscious dimensions of the soul and allows repressed impulses access to the consciousness” (Theissen, quoted by Garland)? There is no example of it in the Bible, it is contrary to the example of tongues in Acts, it is contrary to the purpose of tongues as stated in 1 Corinthians 14:21-22, and it is contrary to the point of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:7 and 14:5, 12. So, no.
When tongues was understood by the hearers because they spoke that language (Acts 2) or interpreted (1 Corinthians 14) it gave infallible revelation. That is not private. Likewise prophecy, when tested and discerned (1 Corinthians 12:10, 14:29) gave infallible revelation. I believe God’s giving of special revelation is complete, so both tongues and prophecy are no longer necessary. There is, however, application for other speaking gifts that depend on God’s Word such as exhortation and teaching and preaching.
It still clarifies the distinctive note of congregational worship: loving and clear building building by the Spirit.
The question, what good will I be to you? is the one he would like every believer to ask as part of their evaluation of their use of their spiritual gifts and their other activities and/or behavior when gathered for worship. (Ciampa and Rosner)
The building to covet is the building of the whole body.
Usually when we go to Jude for the final blessing we look forward to hearing that God is able to get us to great joy in the presence of His glory. And that’s good. But before that Jude reminds the beloved to watch out for scoffers who don’t have the Spirit, and then exhorts the believers to stay in the love of God and build themselves up, not just individually, but all together. So likewise, you, beloved, strive to excel in building up the church.
But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. (Jude 20–21, ESV)