1 Corinthians, Part 6

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As we all know by now, the church at Corinth was a troubled church; it had all manner of problems, spiritual and otherwise. It was a big church. It was a diverse church. It was an ambitious church. It was a church that desperately needed help. To their credit, the leaders of the Corinthian congregation knew they were in “over their heads” and they reached out to the apostle Paul. They wrote him a couple of letters describing their problems, sure that he could offer solutions. One of their issues Paul picks up in chapter 12.

Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. (1 Corinthians 12:1. TNIV)

The Corinthians had questions about spiritual gifts, and Paul approached that topic in a general way in chapter 12. We’ll later find out that not only did the Corinthians have questions, but that they also had problems with one gift in particular, the gift of tongues. But in chapter 12, he made sure that they understood all the spiritual gifts had value; they all contributed to the health of the Body of Christ – the Church.

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. (1 Corinthians 12:7 TNIV)

That verse actually says a lot more than meets they eye. That “common good” refers to what is good for the Church – what is good for the congregation at Corinth in particular. Spiritual gifts are of no value to the world outside the Church because the world without Christ has no spiritual understanding and they can’t appreciate the Holy Spirit and what He does.

But that verse also tells us something very important: “each one” or each member of the church is given “the manifestation of the Spirit.” In other words, all Christians have been given the ability to exercise whatever Spiritual gift or gifts they have been given. I say this is important because, as we will see, the Corinthians were crazy about Spiritual gifts and it seemed like just about everybody was exercising them. Paul wanted to make sure they understood that it wasn’t just pastors who were endowed with the gifts of the Spirit, but that these Corinthians were right in wanting to use their gifts. They just needed to be taught how to do it properly. The church today probably has the opposite problem. Most churches know in a vague sort of way that there are gifts of the Spirit but make no effort to encourage their members to discover what gift they have been given. That’s why so many churches are, well, sort of dead. They have the knowledge of Spiritual gifts, but little or no experience.

Here are the gifts –

To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. (1 Corinthians 12:8 – 10. TNIV)

We assume that this big church had all these gifts being manifested to varying degrees by its members, but the gift of tongues was being abused. And that’s the reason for chapter 13. This isn’t the so-called “love chapter” at all. Paul is still dealing with Spiritual gifts in chapter 13, but from the perspective of how to use them: use them in love.

If I speak in human or angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1, 2. TNIV)

In those two verses, Paul uses three gifts as examples – tongues, prophecy, and faith – to say that if he exercised those gifts without love, then he’s wasting his time. He then goes on to describe love, but with the aim of teaching the Corinthians that that’s how they should be exercising the gifts of the Spirit: with patience, kindness, humility, to honor others, with joy and in truth, and so on. We do a great disservice to 1 Corinthians 13 by always reading it at weddings. It has nothing to do with marriage but everything to do with how Christians are to treat each other with regard to the Spiritual gifts they may or may not have.

Finally we get to chapter 14 and Paul chooses one particular gift, prophecy, which in modern language we might refer to as the gift of speaking or preaching the Word. It’s not necessarily foretelling future events. Paul chooses this gift of prophecy or speaking to show that another gift, the spiritual gift of tongues (regardless of what you may think it means) isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It seems like members of this church were obsessing over and clamoring for this gift of tongues; there was an undue stress on it getting it and using it. So Paul contrasts it with what he considered a more useful gift, the gift of prophecy.

Paul’s preferred gifts?

Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy. For those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. (1 Corinthians 14:1, 2. TNIV)

In chapter 13, Paul pushed the way of love, and here he writes that as we pursue love, we ought to pursue spiritual gifts with just as much vigor. In the pursuit of Spiritual gifts, Paul advised the Corinthians to give first place to the gift of prophecy, which is associated with preaching. This was his advice to the Corinthians, confronting a problem in that church: Too many were pursuing the gift of tongues or exalting those who were manifesting that gift. The weakness with the gift of tongues as it was being used in the Corinthian church, was that, as Paul wrote, “no one understands them.” Elsewhere in his writing, Paul wrote this –

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. (Romans 8:26, 27. TNIV)

These “wordless groans” are what Paul probably had in mind; a form of the gift of tongues meant to be used in private, in prayer, between the one praying and his God. These “groans,” what we refer to as “praying in the Spirit,” don’t do anybody any good except for the one praying. When one is praying in the Spirit, he’s praying to God, not talking to anybody else, and in fact, nobody else can understand him. That’s why Paul makes it clear that when it comes to edifying the Body of Christ, preaching in the common language is better than praying in tongues. Paul isn’t dissing praying in tongues, he is putting these two gifts in perspective. They are both indispensable in the life of the Christian, but within the life of the Church, prophecy or preaching is better because everybody can benefit from the use of that gift.

But those who prophesy speak to people for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort. (1 Corinthians 14:3. TNIV)

So this gift of prophecy, then, is an “inspired utterance” which the whole congregation can understand; the message (sermon or Bible study, perhaps) will build up Christian character in people, or encourage them and strengthen them.

But, don’t dismiss the gift of tongues out of hand, though –

I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. Those who prophesy are greater than those who speak in tongues, unless they interpret, so that the church may be edified. (1 Corinthians 14:5. TNIV)

Paul isn’t forbidding tongues but he wanted his Corinthian friends to use common sense in the pursuit of Spiritual gifts. And the common sense approach to pursuing spiritual gifts is that they must – MUST – benefit the church. It may well be that in another church, more praying in the Spirit was needed and less prophesying. Remember, he’s simply addressing a problem in this particular church.

But then notice what he wrote about speaking in tongues. If somebody bursts forth in an ecstatic spiritual utterance, and a bunch of people overhear him, then he is obligated to interpret what he said in tongues. Why? Again, it makes common sense. People who overhear his speaking in tongues may be confused; they may not know what he said or what’s going on. Therefore, the onus is on the one who gets carried away speaking in tongues too loudly to explain what he said or why he did what he did. And when he does that, he will be edifying the whole church.

For this reason those who speak in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. (1 Corinthians 14:13, 14 TNIV)

Paul is nothing if not Mr Practical! In all things in the church, the mind should always be engaged. Emotions are good but people often get carried away by their emotions. When that happens, we’re no longer following the way of love, we’re doing what makes US feel good. Speaking in tongues may make US feel good, but not anybody else. Love is not all emotion-based, the mind is involved. We must always be careful in all our interactions within the church, and especially in our use of any Spiritual gift, to make sure that we are benefitting others, not just ourselves.

…when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can the others, who are now put in the same situation as an inquirer, say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying? You are giving thanks well enough, but the others are not edified. (1 Corinthians 14:16, 17. TNIV)

Those are actually very telling verses. Even in services where there is a lot of “praise and worship” going on, the people in the pews should be built up and edified. Even as we worship and extol the Lord we need to be mindful of the people around us. That’s part of pursuing love.

Verse 20 is about as blunt as Paul ever gets in his letters –

Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. (1 Corinthians 14:20. TNIV)

Godet, in his opinion, writes this about what Paul meant:

It is indeed the characteristic of the child to prefer the amusing to the useful, the brilliant to the solid. And this is what the Corinthians did by their marked taste for glossolalia (tongues).

He’s right. The Corinthians were behaving like children in regards to their foolish pursuit of a Spiritual gift like tongues.

Paul’s point: Orderly worship always

What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way. (1 Corinthians 14:26, 33, 40. TNIV)

The overarching principle of Paul’s approach to Spiritual gifts and the Corinthians’ childish obsession with tongues is that church services must always be orderly. Spiritual gifts are to be desired, they come from God, they benefit the whole church, but they need to be manifested in an orderly fashion.

Chapter 14 if a fascinating if fuzzy glimpse into what things were like in the big Corinthian church. Without regard to precisely what Paul meant by “tongues” and his thoughts about women keeping quiet in church (that’s a topic for another day), we understand that in this chapter Paul is advocating orderly church services and his advice was designed to correct abuses the Corinthians were allowing. In all, his “theology of worship” boils down to three points:

• Everything that happens in a church service must be done for the purpose of strengthening the church;
• The God we worship is a God of order, not of disorder, and He desires peace not confusion;
• Everything, even the working of His spiritual gifts, must be done in a loving, orderly way, with the goal of encouraging and strengthening others.

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