While this chapter is entitled "The Local Church and its Communications", it might be helpful, first of all, to set the subject in its wider context. 1 Corinthians chapter 12, which introduces the subject of assembly communications, is the first of a trilogy of chapters that examines the provision and exercise of gifts in the local church, and we should notice the connection between the three chapters. In general, chapter 12 deals with the way in which gifts have been provided; chapter 13 deals with the atmosphere by which they must be permeated; chapter 14 deals with the principles on which they must be practised.
The changes produced by conversion to God are to be seen both individually and collectively. In the case of the assembly at Corinth, this was particularly true in the realm of communications: "Ye know that ye were Gentiles, carried away unto these dumb idols, even as ye were led. Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed: and that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost" 1 Cor.12.2-3. It has been said that the Corinthian believers were people of extremes: once they served "dumb idols", but now they were particularly concerned with speaking in tongues. They had swung from one extreme to the other. It is often true that extremism in one direction tends to breed extremism in the opposite direction!
In the past, prior to their conversion, the Christians at Corinth had been given to idolatry, and Paul uses significant language when describing their spiritual condition at that time: "ye were Gentiles, carried away ... as ye were led." This refers back to 1 Cor.10.19-20: "What say I then? that the idol is anything, or that which is sacrificed to idols is anything? But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils." But like the Thessalonians, the saints at Corinth had "turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God" 1 Thess.1.9, and had therefore become subject to a vastly different spiritual authority. Christ, not idols, had become supreme. The Holy Spirit, not demons, now directed their lives. The contrast could not be greater: the idols at Corinth did not and could not communicate with their devotees (see Ps.115.4-7), but the believers at Corinth were now the children of God, and He did communicate with them. There was no communion between heathen gods and their devotees, but at Corinth men now spoke "by the Spirit of God".
It is generally understood that the words, "Now concerning …" (7.1; 7.25; 8.1; 12.1; 16.1), indicate that the Corinthians had raised these particular matters with Paul, who deals with each in turn. It is significant that in this epistle, Paul deals first with matters about which he had not been asked, before answering questions put to him by the assembly. In this particular case, 12.1, they had evidently asked him about oral participation in assembly gatherings. This is evident from the way in which, having referred to "spiritual gifts" v.1, he immediately proceeds to "speaking" and "saying" v.3. It must be borne in mind that the word "gifts" has no counterpart in the original, and the words, literally translated, are, "now concerning spirituals". From what follows in vv.2-3, it is clear that Paul comprehends both beneficial and harmful powers in the expression. Hence the use of pneumatikos as opposed to charismata. Paul therefore refers here to the whole realm of spiritual utterances, whether good or evil, and not to the activities of the Holy Spirit alone. With this in mind, translators have supplied the word ‘manifestations’ in place of the A.V. italicised "gifts", and this conveys more accurately the original meaning while maintaining good sense in English. See, for example, J.N.D: "Now concerning spiritual manifestations brethren, I do not wish you to be ignorant."
In dealing with the subject, Paul commences with a warning. Having said, "I would not have you ignorant" v1, he continues, "Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed: and that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord but by the Holy Ghost" v.3. He demonstrates that there are two types of spiritual manifestations: those attributable to the Holy Spirit, and those attributable to satanic power. It was therefore a matter of great importance that the saints at Corinth should be in a position to ascertain the true source of what was said in the assembly. Hence the need for the gift of "discerning of spirits" v.10. The importance remains to the present day, but at Corinth there was the added necessity to fully clarify the matter. Chapter 14 makes clear that tongues were used excessively and in an atmosphere where so many were evidently participating, it would be easy for all to claim the direction of the Holy Spirit, when in point of fact, their contributions did not derive from Him at all.
Ministry in the assembly, and particularly here in terms of oral participation, will recognise and maintain the Lordship of Christ: "no man can say that Jesus is the Lord but by the Holy Ghost", or "No man can say Lord Jesus, unless in the power of the Holy Spirit" (J.N.D.). It is significant that the unclean spirit cried, "Let us alone, what have we to do with Thee, Thou Jesus of Nazareth? art Thou come to destroy us? I know Thee who thou art, the Holy One of God" Mk.1.24. Undoubtedly, demons are most intelligent beings. They fully recognise and accept great fundamental facts that are largely rejected by men - professing Christians often included. In Mark chapter 1, the deity of Christ is admitted by the demon, together with admission of His holiness. James states that demons believe in the Godhead (see Jms.2.19, J.N.D.). But recognition of His Lordship, that is, willing submission to His authority, is another matter entirely. Demons do not own Him as Lord. It is therefore to be expected that in the assembly there will not only be recognition of Divine truth, but willing submission to Christ’s authority. This involves glad acceptance of "all the counsel of God" Acts 20.27. Genuine recognition of His Lordship will obviate the sad censure, "And why call ye Me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?" Lk.6.46.
In short, the spiritual source of a man’s ministry would be revealed by what he says about Christ. The criterion by which all ministry is to be judged, and all personal character is to be assessed, is not how attractive, charming or refined, the persons concerned happen to be, nor how professionally qualified they are to pass judgement, but rather, how faithfully they honour the Lord Jesus. This is the test. No man can "speak as the oracles of God" 1 Pet.4.11, without honouring God’s Son.
Having noticed the basis on which this trilogy of chapters rests we can now proceed to examine our subject in detail. Paul makes the very important statement in chapter 13 that "whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away", and continues, "For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away" vv.8-10. He points out that prophecy, tongues and knowledge belong to the infancy of the church. Hence the reference to childhood: "I spake as a child (compare, "tongues ... shall cease"), I understood as a child (compare "knowledge ... shall vanish away"), I thought as a child (compare "prophecies ... shall fail") …" v.11. Continuing the analogy of childhood and manhood, he emphasises that the time would come when these things would no longer be necessary. The word "perfect" (teleios) means "having reached its end (telos), finished, complete, perfect"1, and evidently refers to the completion of the New Testament canon.
1 W. E. Vine. "Amplified Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words." Published by World Bible Publishers, Inc. 1991.
The contrast between childhood with its immaturity or to use Paul’s expression "in part", and manhood with its completeness or to use Paul’s expression "perfect", continues in v.12: "For now we see through a glass darkly ("in a mirror darkly" R.V.); but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know as also I am known." Partial vision or understanding would give place to clarity. Bearing in mind that the passage deals with the communication of God’s Word, the words "face to face" (evidently referring to Num.12.8) refer to "clear vision through possession of the complete Word of God".2 It is suggested that in this context the words, "but then shall I know as also I am known", indicate that Paul then expected to understand up to the measure of his God-given capacity to do so. God knew his capacity and would impart His Word to him accordingly.
2 W. E. Vine. "The Collected Writings of W. E. Vine - Vol.2." Published by Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996.
This leads us to observe that it is in chapter 13 we are clearly told that tongues with other gifts necessary for the well-being of the early church would cease, and that chapter 14 does not deal with their cessation but with their regulation. This explains such statements as: "Desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy" v.1; "Now I would have you all speak with tongues, but rather that ye should prophesy" v.5; "Wherefore, desire earnestly to prophesy, and forbid not to speak in tongues" v.39. 1 Corinthians chapter 14 therefore teaches that the gift of tongues and the gift of prophecy were to be regulated while they existed. Whilst both gifts were temporary they were quite different. The first involved speaking in a language foreign to the local church. The second involved speaking in the language of the local church.
This brings us to the heart of the subject. 1 Corinthians chapter 14 deals specifically with communications in the local assembly, and in examining the chapter we must notice important governing principles. While the chapter is far more than a diatribe against speaking in tongues, we should nevertheless make some general observations about the subject.
All gifts are charismatic. The word "gift" (charisma), meaning "a gift of grace, a gift involving grace",3 is widely used in the New Testament. See, "Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us" Rom.12.6; "Ye come behind in no gift; waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" 1 Cor.1.7; "Stir up the gift of God, which is in thee" 2 Tim.1.6. It is quite wrong to designate some gifts as ‘charismatic’ to the exclusion of others.
The gift of tongues was not given to every believer. Hence, "Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles? have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret?" 1 Cor.12.29-30. The answer is clear. It is a resounding "No!" The suggestion therefore that ability to speak with tongues is evidence of true salvation cannot be substantiated and is totally misleading.
Tongues are temporary in character, as we have seen. They are mentioned in 1 Corinthians which is an early epistle, but not in Romans and Ephesians which are later epistles. This shows that the use of the gift was diminishing even in New Testament times. In the words of the late Harry Bell, "The gift of tongues ceased after the kingdom ceased to be offered to Israel."
The Corinthians were putting first what God put last. "God hath set some in the church; first, apostles; secondarily, prophets; thirdly, teachers; after that, miracles; then gifts of healing, helps, governments, diversities of tongues" 1 Cor.12.28. See also 1 Cor.12.10.
The gift of tongues was a known language. "And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues (glossa), as the Spirit gave them utterance" Acts 2.4. With this result, "the multitudes came together and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language (dialektos)" Acts 2.6. Luke continues, "And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these that speak Galileans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue (dialektos), wherein we were born" Acts 2.8. Luke continues further, "Cretes and Arabians we do hear them speak in our tongues (glossa) the wonderful works of God" Acts 2.11. Quite evidently there is no essential difference in meaning between the two words employed here, any more than we speak of our ‘mother tongue’ as opposed to ‘another language’. This is clear from the fact that the word dialektos is used in Acts 2.6, "every man heard them speak in his own language"; but glossa in Acts 10.46, "they heard them speak with tongues". The use of glossa in 1 Corinthians chapters 13-14 must therefore refer to a known language, not to some ecstatic utterance. Hence, "with men of other tongues (glossa) and other lips will I speak unto this people" 1 Cor.14.21. It should be noted that expression in this chapter "unknown tongue" vv.4,14,19,27, must be amended to simply "tongue". The A.V. translators have italicised "unknown" to indicate that it does not exist in the original text.
3W. E. Vine. "Amplified Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words." Published by World Bible Publishers, Inc. 1991.
We should notice that Peter did not preach in tongues. Their use arrested the attention of the crowds, causing them to say, "Behold, are not all these which speak Galileans? And how hear we every man in our tongue, wherein we were born?" Acts 2.7-8.
The gift of tongues was a sign. It therefore follows that it must be a known language. "Barnyard gibberish"4 would be a sign of insanity. As we shall see it was a sign to unbelievers. 1 Cor.14.22 refers to Isa.28.11-12. The late J. H. Large stated, "Owing to the people’s unbelief and disobedience, God was going to punish them by bringing in the invader. They would not heed God’s plain messages delivered in their own tongue so they would have the unusual experience of hearing God speaking providentially to them by the fact of foreign conquerors coming into their midst speaking other tongues, namely not unintelligible sounds but meaningful language - very meaningful! When this came to pass they would very forcibly be reminded of God’s warnings, yet even so they would not, as a people, turn to the Lord. The ‘tongues’ at Pentecost were a sign to the Christ-rejecting nation of Israel that God was fulfilling His word; see, for example, Acts 2.36."
4 J. M. Davies. "The Epistles to the Corinthians." Published by Gospel Literature Services, Bombay, 1975.
In this connection we should notice Mk.16.17-20, "These signs shall follow them that believe. In My name they shall cast out demons, they shall speak with new tongues, they shall take up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick and they shall recover ... and they went forth, and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following."
The fact that the use of tongues was a sign is confirmed by its effect on the three occasions in Acts on which the gift was employed:
The first is, "And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance" Acts 2.4. With the result: "the multitudes came together and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language (glossa). And they were all amazed and marvelled." The Jewish setting should be noted.
The second is, "And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost. For they heard them speak with tongues (glossa) and glorify God" Acts 10.45. The presence of Jewish observers should be noticed. The gift of tongues on this occasion was a sign to prejudiced men of the circumcision party that the gospel embraced Gentiles as well as Jews, and on the same terms.
The third is, "And when Paul laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came upon them; and they spake with tongues (glossa) and prophesied" Acts 19.6. It was a sign of something new in their experience. They had moved from being disciples of John to faith in Christ, of whom John spoke. Once again, the Jewish setting should be noticed: "And he went into the synagogue" v.8.
Heb.2.4 encapsulates the same thought, "God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to His own will." Hence 1 Cor.14.22, "Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not."
The gift of tongues was no evidence of spirituality. Corinth was the most carnal of the assemblies! See 1 Cor.3.1-4: "And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal … For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men? For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal?"
The gift was to be used with dignity and consideration. It was to be under control. There was no wild abandon with an undignified cacophony of sound. "If any man speak in an (unknown) tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret" 1 Cor.14.27.
1 CORINTHIANS CHAPTER 14
We shall observe the way in which Paul deals with the subject in 1 Corinthians chapter 14. His purpose is to demonstrate the superiority and value of prophecy, that is, "not necessarily, not even primarily, fore-telling … it is the forth-telling of the will of God". Prophecy, which evidently passed away with the completion of the canon of Scripture, was the "direct revelation of the mind of God for the occasion", as opposed to the message of the teacher today which "is gathered from the complete revelation contained in the Scriptures".5
5 W. E. Vine. "Amplified Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words." Published by World Bible Publishers, Inc. 1991.
The chapter can be divided in the following way.
The relative profit of tongues and prophecy vv.1-19. Paul here determines the value of tongues and prophecy in edifying the church. The gift must be regulated by the test of edification.
The relative purpose of tongues and prophecy vv.20-25. Having demonstrated that tongues do not edify the church, Paul determines the reason for their existence at all. His conclusion is clear: the gift of tongues was a sign to unbelievers.
The participation in tongues and prophecy vv.26-35. In this section Paul sets out the principles that were to govern their use in the local church.
The conclusion vv.36-40.
THE RELATIVE PROFIT OF TONGUES AND PROPHECY - vv.1-19
This section comprises three paragraphs, each of which constitutes a test:
Which edifies - tongues or prophecy? vv.1-5;
Which makes for clarity of utterance - tongues or prophecy? vv.6-11;
Which makes for intelligent understanding - tongues or prophecy? vv.12-19.
Which Edifies - Tongues or Prophecy?- vv.1-5
In these verses three couplets are in view: "For he that speaketh in a tongue ... but he that prophesieth" vv.2-3; "He that speaketh in a tongue ... he that prophesieth" v.4; in summary, "He that prophesieth ... he that speaketh with tongues" v.5.
The following ought to noted:
The apostle is not stating that the gift did not exist, but that it was not to be used by itself in the assembly. The possession of the gift was no reason for its indiscriminate use. The assembly is not the place where we display our gifts to self-exaltation, but the place where believers act in the spirit of mutual consideration.
"He that speaketh in an (unknown) tongue, speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him" v.2. That is, the gift is used in the wrong place. Since the gift was a sign to unbelievers, not the Lord’s people, none would hear with understanding. Only God could understand the substance of the utterances.
"But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification (to build up), and exhortation (to stir up), and comfort (to cheer up)" v.3. Notice the order: "edification" referring to doctrine; "exhortation" referring to the practice of the doctrine; "comfort" referring to the strength that doctrine imparts. We should remember that whilst the teacher has superseded the prophet (the prophets with the apostles were connected with the foundation of the church Eph.2.20), the principle in this verse most applicable today. Bible teachers now speak in the same way: "to edification, and exhortation, and comfort." Their communications are of little, if any, value if this is not the case.
"He that speaketh in an (unknown) tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church" v.4. The phrase "edifieth himself", must mean that he understood what he said, since what cannot be understood cannot edify. This is confirmed in v.28, "But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God."
"I would that ye all spake with tongues, but rather that ye prophesied: for greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret, that the church may receive edifying" v.5. Paul desired the best for the saints: hence, "But covet earnestly (as an assembly) the best gifts" 12.31. That is, those gifts which would edify the church, particularly prophecy. The results of prophecy emphasise the superiority of the gift.
The words "except he interpret", show us that the ability to interpret makes the gift of tongues edifying in the same way as prophecy. If tongues can be interpreted the church can then be edified. If a man can interpret tongues as well as speak in them then there was no need to speak in them in the first place. See v.13 and compare vv.27-28.
But how is this edification to be achieved? This brings us to the second and third points in connection with the relative profit of tongues and prophecy. It will be achieved by clarity of utterance and understanding.
Which Makes for Clarity of Utterance - Tongues Or Prophecy? - vv.6-11
Paul deals with this by referring to himself v.6; to musical instruments vv.7-8; to the Corinthians themselves vv.9-11.
Referring to himself - v.6. "Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine?" There would be no profit if he spoke to them in tongues. Notice that he refers to the means of acquiring truth: "by revelation ... knowledge"; then to the means of imparting truth: "by prophesying ... doctrine." The New Testament prophet was involved with "revelation" and "prophecy", the Bible teacher is involved with "knowledge" and "doctrine" (teaching). This suggests a transition from the temporary ministry of the New Testament prophet to the ongoing ministry of the teacher. Compare 2 Pet.2.1, where "false prophets" in the past give place to "false teachers" in the future.
Referring to musical instruments - vv.7-8. "And even things without life, giving sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped? For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?"
These instruments can be subdivided. The pipe and harp bring joy and pleasure. The trumpet brings warning and direction. However, all are valueless unless played clearly. If the saints are to be helped in either way, they must be able to understand what is said.
Referring to the Corinthians themselves - vv.9-11. "So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? For ye shall speak into the air. There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification. Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian; and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me."
Whilst in the context Paul is referring to tongues, it is well to make an application here. We need to appreciate the value of using "words easy to be understood". For example, Gospel preaching must be simple even though the subject matter is profound. We need to bear in mind the ability and capacity of our hearers. The word "meaning" (dunamis) signifies the force or power of what is spoken.
By referring to "so many kinds of voices" v.10, Paul is evidently referring to human languages. This is clear from v.11, where the word "barbarian" signified "one who speaks a strange or foreign language".6 Vine continues, "It then came to denote any foreigner ignorant of the Greek language and culture … ‘Berber’ stood similarly in the language of the Egyptians for all non-Egyptian peoples."
6W. E. Vine. "Amplified Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words." Published by World Bible Publishers, Inc. 1991.
In summary, whether Paul, musical instruments, or the Corinthians themselves, nothing could be accomplished without clear expression.
Which Makes for Clarity of Understanding - Tongues Or Prophecy? - vv.12-19
These verses emphasise the need for clarity of understanding on the part of the speaker, vv.13-15, and clarity of understanding on the part of the hearer, vv.16-19.
Clarity on the part of the speaker - vv.12-15. "Even so ye, forasmuch as ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church. Wherefore let him that speaketh in an [unknown] tongue, pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in an [unknown] tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful. What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also."
Spiritual enthusiasm should be tempered by spiritual motives. The believers at Corinth were "zealous of spiritual gifts" or "desirous of spirits" (J.N.D.). While the word here, pnuematon, perhaps having the meaning of ‘spiritual powers’, differs from the word employed in 12.1 and 14.1, pnuematikos, it is not easy to clearly distinguish between them. The overall meaning is quite clear: "There must be no mere self-gratification; all must be done for the welfare of the whole assembly. The aim of oral ministry in a gathering must be the spiritual edification of all present."7 Hence, "seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church" 14.12, recalling the exhortation "covet earnestly the best gifts" 12.31. The word "excel", perisseuo, means "to be over and above" as is seen by its use in Lk.15.17, "have bread enough and to spare".
7W. E. Vine. "The Collected Writings of W. E. Vine - Vol.2." Published by Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996.
Since the "edifying of the church" should always be kept in mind, the man with the gift of tongues was to "pray that he may interpret". The reason follows: "For if I pray in an [unknown] tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful." That is, by praying in a foreign language, his personal understanding of what he was saying would be unfruitful for others: they would not understand what was said. The verse does not mean that the man himself did not know what he was saying. That would reduce him to the level of a robot, and completely negate the emphasis on the word "understanding", nous, which occurs four times in vv.14-20. It is worth saying that those who participate orally in assembly gatherings should understand what they are saying, especially if they are quoting somebody else!
Contribution to the assembly must be twofold: "with the spirit", that is, with joy, whole-heartedness and spiritual enthusiasm; "with the understanding", that is, with spiritual understanding and intelligence. Unless the speaker is intelligible to others, his participation will be without effect, as the following verses show.
Clarity on the part of the hearer - vv.16-19. "Else, when thou shalt bless with the spirit, how shall he that occupieth the room of the unlearned, say Amen at thy giving of thanks, seeing he understandeth not what the sayest? For thou verily givest thanks well, but the other is not edified. I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all: yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an (unknown) tongue."
The "unlearned" (see also vv.23-24) is undoubtedly a believer, and indicates "to be without any means of understanding, as by the help of interpretation. Such would, therefore, be prevented from taking part in worship."8 He would therefore be unable to say "Amen". This scriptural practice is far more than a nicety: it expresses acquiescence, reminding us that prayer and thanksgiving should always be undertaken with a sense of representation. A brother should never express his view in prayer in a matter over which there is a divided mind in the assembly. It is not unknown for brethren to pray horizontally rather than vertically. It should be noticed that the "giving of thanks" edifies fellow-believers. Paul was an example of his own ministry. The oral ministry by brethren in the assembly is enhanced when it is exemplified in their personal lives. The Lord Jesus censured the religious hierarchy of the day who "say, and do not" Matt.23.1-3.
8 W. E. Vine. "The Collected Writings of W. E. Vine - Vol.2." Published by Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996.
In summary, all must be undertaken lovingly, helpfully, intelligently and considerately. Having considered the relative profit of tongues and prophecy, Paul now turns to:
THE RELATIVE PURPOSE OF TONGUES AND PROPHECY - vv.20-25
These verses illustrate the way in which we should study our Bibles. We ought to ask ourselves: what does the passage say? v.21; what does the passage mean? v.22; how does the passage apply? vv.23-25.
This section of the chapter commences with an exhortation to maturity. They should have known better than to conduct themselves as they did. "Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men" v.20. The words employed should be noticed. "Brethren, be not children in understanding." The word "children", paidon, means a ‘little or young child’. It is used of the disciples in Jn.21.5, perhaps significantly in view of the circumstances, "Children, have ye any meat?" But another word is used next: "howbeit in malice be ye children". Here the Greek word is nepos, meaning ‘a babe’. That is, someone unable to think or speak maliciously. Sadly, assembly malice seldom has such juvenile qualities! Believers can be well developed in malice. Paul has something far different in mind: "but in understanding be men." The word means ‘perfect’ or ‘full grown’. This emphasises the need for maturity in assembly conduct. The word translated "understanding", phren, refers to the mind, reminding us that assembly fellowship demands spiritual maturity and responsibility.
They should have understood that "In the law it is written, With men of other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people; and yet for all that will they not hear me, saith the Lord" v.21. As already noted, Paul refers here to Isa.28.11-12: "For with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people ... Yet they would not hear." "This people" is the Jewish people. Since there was a synagogue at Corinth, Acts 18.3, it is understandable why the gift of tongues had been bestowed upon members of the assembly there.
The words "In the law it is written" v.21, refer to the Old Testament in general. See, for example, Jn.10.34, "Is it not written in your law, I said, ye are gods" (referring to Ps.82.6); Jn.12.34, "We have heard out of the law that Christ abideth ever" (referring to Ps.72.17); Jn.15.25, "That the word might be fulfilled that is written in their law, They hated me without a cause" (referring to Ps.69.4).
In the Old Testament the un-interpreted tongue was a judicial sign. In Isaiah chapter 28 God stated His intention to speak to His people through a foreign power, Assyria, thus pronouncing judgment on them, for the following reasons:
Because They Had Rejected God’s Word. They had heard the message, "This is the rest wherewith ye may cause the weary to rest; and this is the refreshing", but they did not respond: "yet they would not hear" v.12. Whilst the "rest" and the "refreshing" are not defined here, there can be no doubt that they are explained by Isa.8.13-14 which refer to similar circumstances: "Sanctify the Lord of hosts Himself; and let Him be your fear, and let Him be your dread. And He shall be for a sanctuary." The Lord Himself would be their "rest" and their "refreshing" in the same way that six hundred years later the Lord Jesus said, "Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest … and ye shall find rest unto your souls" Matt.11.28-29.
Because Of How They Regarded God’s Word. It was nothing more to them than childish and annoying repetition: "But the word of the Lord was unto them precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little" v.13.
The invasion by the Assyrians, with their foreign tongue, was therefore a sign of pending judgment. So it is here, tongues as a sign to Israel, were indicative of judgment on the nation. Tongues were not a sign of salvation, but of judgment. In this connection it is important to differentiate between the purpose of these utterances, and their content. Although there is no reference to tongues at Antioch, their purpose could be summarised by Paul’s warning there: "Beware therefore, lest that come upon you, which is spoken of in the prophets; Behold ye despisers, and wonder, and perish: for I work a work in your days, a work which ye shall in no wise believe, though a man declare it unto you" Acts 13.40-41. As to the content of the utterances in the book of Acts, we have only the three bare statements: "we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God" 2.11; "they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God" 10.46; "they spake with tongues and prophesied" 19.6. In each case, it is evident that the gift was not used in preaching and teaching, but in praise. As to the first, J. M. Davies observes, "They were declaring the wondrous works of God, doubtless rehearsing Old Testament portions in the languages and dialects of the Jews and Proselytes gathered at Jerusalem for the feast."9
9J. M. Davies. "The Epistles to the Corinthians." Published by Gospel Literature Services, Bombay, 1975.
In view of the fact that Isaiah chapter 28 refers to the unbelieving Jew, Paul concludes: "Wherefore tongues are for a sign (i.e. of judgment consequent upon unbelief), not to them that believe, but to them that believe not" 1 Cor.14.22. The purpose of prophecy is quite different: "But prophesying serveth not for them that believe not, but for them which believe" v.22. This is applied in vv.23-25 where Paul visualises "the whole church ... come together into one place". See also v.26. We must notice the phrases "whole church" and "together into one place". There were evidently no ‘house-meetings’ (in the modern sense of the expression) at Corinth: there were no fragmentary groups. Compare 1 Cor.11.18, "when ye come together in assembly" (J.N.D.); 1 Cor.11.20, "When ye come together therefore into one place". Paul visualises two scenes in the assembly:
"All Speak With Tongues" - v.23
"If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad?" For the meaning of "unlearned" see the definition given in connection with v.16. Whilst it could be argued that the "unbeliever" would not be a Jew, since the use of tongues was a sign to the Jews; it seems more likely that Paul is describing the effect upon any "unbeliever" if "all speak with tongues". The confusion would be indescribable. Hence the need for the gift to be properly regulated, see vv.7-28.
"All Prophesy" - vv.24-25
"But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all: and thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face, he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth." These verses emphasise the power of God’s Word. It will have a fourfold effect on the visitor.
"He is convinced of all" or "he is convicted by all" (J.N.D.): his conscience is touched.
"He is judged by all" or "he is judged of all" (J.N.D.): the word "judged" (anakrino) is rendered "examined" in 1 Cor.9.3, that is, the teaching searches and sifts him.
"And thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest." This does not infer public exposure, rather that his very life and character are brought before him.
"And so, falling down on his face, he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth." W. E. Vine suggests that this indicates conversion, and this may well be the case. At the very least, he will acknowledge that he is in the presence of God, not amongst a bunch of lunatics.
PARTICIPATION IN TONGUES AND PROPHECY - vv.26-35
What kind of meeting will make for the result above? The answer is clear from these verses: it will be an orderly meeting. We should notice the following in this section: the regulating principle v.26; participation in tongues vv.27-28; participation in prophecy vv.29-33; participation by sisters vv.34-35.
The Regulating Principle - v.26
"Let all things be done unto edifying." This principle is to govern both the contributions and the contributors. Paul looks at assembly meetings in Corinth, asks the question "How is it then brethren?", and then proceeds to answer for them, "when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation." W. E. Vine10 suggests that this indicates that believers were coming together having predetermined what they would say and how they would contribute, and that this made for confusion. It was therefore of utmost importance that all brethren should regulate their contributions with reference to the overall welfare and well-being of the assembly. The principle remains - favourite hymns and passages are not necessarily edifying and helpful at all times in assembly gatherings. It is also far from helpful to arrive at the meeting fully determined to address the assembly on a particular subject whether or not it is suitable for the occasion. Such so-called ‘ministry’ is often unsuitable for any occasion! The principle on which participation should be made is expressed here, and in 1 Cor.12.7 "But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal".
10 W. E. Vine. "The Collected Writings of W. E. Vine - Vol.2." Published by Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996.
Participation in Tongues – vv.27,28
"If any man speak in an (unknown) tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret." Paul states some important principles:
The use of tongues was not to be excessive: "let it be by two, or at the most by three".
Brethren were to take part one at a time: "and that by course", or "and separately" (J.N.D.). Participation was to be orderly.
There was to be one interpreter: "and let one interpret". This could mean that one was to interpret for them all, or that only one was to interpret at any given time: interpretations were not to be given simultaneously. As J. Hunter observes, "if this (the first case) were so it would fully ensure that only one could take part at a time, the next speaker having to wait until the interpretation was finished." 11 "But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God." Compare v.4, "he that speaketh in an (unknown) tongue edifieth himself".
11 J. Hunter. "What The Bible Teaches - Vol.4." Published by John Ritchie, 1986.
Participation In Prophecy - vv.29-33
"Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge. If anything be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace. For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and that all may be comforted. And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints." We should notice the following.
As with tongues, participation in prophecy was not to be excessive. "Let the prophets speak two or three." We also notice that there was no question of one man in control.
The prophets were to be listened to with discernment: "and let the other (Greek allos, of the same kind: i.e. another prophet) judge."
The prophets were to participate with mutual consideration. "If any thing be revealed to him that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace." "No one was to prolong his speaking so as to occupy the whole time, or even extend his speaking to an undue length. Each was to recognise that others possessed the gift besides himself."12 Attention is drawn to the expression, "If any thing be revealed to him that sitteth by". The gift of prophecy involved direct revelation.
The prophets were to be orderly in participation. "For ye may all prophesy one by one." Such orderliness would promote the benefit of the company: "that all may learn, and that all may be comforted (exhorted)." It does not take too much imagination to visualise a meeting in which several people are all trying to speak at once!
The prophets were to exercise self-control. "And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets." They were to take part with intelligence and understanding. They were not to be excitable, and certainly not to lapse into an ecstatic condition. Their business was to communicate the Word of God clearly and intelligently.
12 W. E. Vine. "The Collected Writings of W. E. Vine - Vol.2." Published by Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996.
These important principles reflect the harmonious way in which God Himself acts: "For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints" v.33. Hence, "Let all things be done decently and in order" v.40. In summary, a local assembly should be characterised by Divine order, reverence, harmony and mutual consideration. It is clear that no assembly is free to ‘do its own thing’: "For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints." See also 11.16.
Participation By Sisters - vv.34,35
"Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak: but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church." This is the last of three prohibitions so far as public participation in the assembly gatherings is concerned. Regarding tongues he says "But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church" v.28. Concerning prophets he says "If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace" v.30. Now concerning sisters he says "Let your women keep silence in the churches" v.34. Only the men are to participate audibly in the gatherings of the saints: the sisters have no part in the oral ministry of the assembly. We should notice:
"Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak." The "silence" here must be the same as in v.28, "let him keep silence in the church". The word "speak" here must have the same meaning as throughout the passage. It cannot mean ‘chatter’: otherwise vv.28-29 would become a nonsense: "But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him ‘chatter’ to himself, and to God. Let the prophets ‘chatter’ two or three, and let the other judge". There is no need to say more about this ridiculous suggestion.
"Let your women keep silence in the churches." Notice "churches" in the plural here, following the plural in v.33. Whereas in v.28 it is in the singular referring particularly to Corinth where the gift of tongues existed. Compare 11.16 which shows that "Corinth was alone in allowing women to be uncovered".13 Evidently Corinth was also alone in the matter of sisters’ participation.
"They are commanded to be under obedience (J.N.D. ‘but to be in subjection’), as also saith the law." This is the second reference to "the law" in this chapter, see v.21, and again indicates the Old Testament generally, with particular reference to Gen.3.16: "Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee." The reasons are given in 1 Tim.2.11-15: "Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman, being deceived, was in the transgression." Teaching in connection with participation in the assembly prayer meeting is given in the same passage: "I will that the men (aner: male persons) pray in every place" 1Tim.2.8 (J.N.D.).
"And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home" [J.N.D. "ask their own husbands at home"]: for it is a shame for a woman to speak in the church." J. Hunter is worth quoting in full here: "Leadership is vested in the man. Both the man and the woman occupy a place of honour bestowed upon them by God, and all godly persons will acknowledge this to be so, and submit to the ordering of the wisdom of God. The women, if not clear in their minds concerning any matter, must not ask questions publicly, but seek help of the men-folk at home. The word rendered "husbands" (aner) while used in certain contexts in that way, is really men as distinct from women. The matter is concluded by the strong statement: "it is a shame for a woman to speak in the church."13 The word translated "shame" means ‘disgraceful, unbecoming, indecorous, indecent’.
13 J. Hunter. "What The Bible Teaches - Vol.4." Published by John Ritchie, 1986.
CONCLUSION - vv.36 - 40
The assembly at Corinth was not to regard itself as a law unto itself. Paul advances two reasons:
The Word Of God Did Not Originate In Them
"What! came the word of God out from you?" v.36. Since they did not originate the Word of God, they could not set their own precedents in the matters discussed. If the Word of God had found its source in them, then they might well have the right to interpret it. But this was not the case. They were not free to do as they pleased. Once again J. Hunter’s telling comments are worth quoting: "Being the first of the churches to depart from the Word of God, especially in relation to women taking part (the immediate context), they were setting themselves up as a superior authority, so the apostle censures them."14
The Word Of God Did Not Come To Them Alone
"Or came it unto you only?" v.36. It was not a special revelation to them, making them different to everyone else. They were given no ‘special treatment’. J. Hunter again: "Were they the sole recipients and repositories of such a revelation that they could introduce such practices? Could they act on their own and ignore other churches? This was arrogance indeed. Independent authority was not invested in them. Yet, today, we have the same attitude, and the same claim to be progressive and liberated. But it is progressing away from the Word of God; liberation from obedience to it."14
Paul’s teaching in respect of the local church is as mandatory as his teaching elsewhere: "If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord" v.37. As J. Hunter rightly observes, "The unmistakable claim of Paul, that he is writing the Word of God, cannot be ignored, and everyone must submit himself to the teaching marked by apostolic authority, no matter what experience he may claim."14
Paul concludes, "Wherefore, brethren, covet to prophesy, and forbid not to speak with tongues" v.39. The chapter therefore ends as it begins, "Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy" v.1. In this way, the two gifts were to be valued and regulated whilst they existed. The overall principle was "Let all things be done decently and in order", that is, "in a seemly manner, and according to Divine arrangement".15
Happy is the assembly whose communications are governed by the principles taught in this passage of Holy Scripture.
14 J. Hunter. "What The Bible Teaches - Vol.4." Published by John Ritchie, 1986.
15 W. E. Vine. "The Collected Writings of W. E. Vine - Vol.2." Published by Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996.