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Bible Commentaries

Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary

1 Corinthians 14

Verse 15


‘I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also.’

1 Corinthians 14:15

In these words St. Paul, the greatest preacher of Christ the world has ever seen, declares that he, at any rate, must combine the claims of his emotions and heart with those of his reason and understanding. Moreover, he presses on his Church at Corinth the absolute duty of doing the same. ‘In understanding’ they are to ‘be men.’ The Christ Whom he preached appealed to their reason. This duty is not always felt as such by religious people. They are sometimes content that the understanding should be in abeyance. Let us consider from some points of view the relations in our own case of the spirit to the understanding, to use St. Paul’s terms; or, as we should now express it, of faith to science. And the point of view that is perhaps most illuminating and least familiar is the consideration of the gains to faith from the advance of science. I am not speaking to men of science; I am speaking to an ordinary congregation. How is science helping our faith as Christians?

I. The most obvious, though not the greatest, gain to faith consists in the vast extension of our knowledge of the material world and of the system of Nature of which our bodies and minds form a part. It was the sight of Nature that first brought to men’s minds the conviction of the existence of the Supreme Object of faith. ‘O Lord our Governor, how excellent is Thy Name in all the world; Thou that hast set Thy glory above the heavens,’ was the natural exclamation of a sensitive and reasoning mind which had nothing before it except the most obvious facts of Nature. The heavens and the earth, the mystery of physical life, and the working of God’s Spirit in mind and conscience and heart—these are the ever-present marvels that lift man’s thoughts to God. Nature has spoken in this way to all ages and peoples. No comparison can be made between the conceptions as to the extent of the universe, the nature of matter, and the evolution of life and mind of even a hundred years ago and those of to-day. The grounds for the old inference are therefore greatly extended. If the works of Nature were wonderful and inexplicable to our fathers, and lifted their thoughts to God in adoration and humble service, to us they are a thousand times more wonderful and more inexplicable.

II. In the next place, greater even than the gain of an extension of knowledge is the gain of new standards for estimating and graduating knowledge, and of a new temper in which knowledge is regarded. It is from scientific investigation that the world has first thoroughly learnt that human faculties for knowing are narrowly circumscribed by our senses, and therefore that there are regions of knowledge which lie beyond our reach; that human knowledge admits of every imaginable degree, varying from mathematical certainty to the faintest surmise; that the right attitude towards most statements of physics is one of provisional acceptance, subject to correction; that suspension of judgment is a wholesome and rightful attitude of mind on many points of intellectual interest; and that truthfulness of mind is of such importance to character that to fear investigation, to conceal difficulties and slur over inconsistencies, to overstate convictions, to become an advocate instead of a truth-seeker, are faults that darken and degrade the soul. These postulates of scientific method, with the patience and loyal sincerity they bring, the humble waiting for new light, and the reliance on facts, have revolutionised the methods of human thought. They have been universally accepted in science. And now they claim and are gaining admission in theology. That is one of the great gains that have come to faith from the advance of science. Science has taught the world that truth is not won by a priori methods, by deductions from authority, or from axioms, however obvious they may seem; still less from insistent and menacing asseverations. The whole story of the growth of natural knowledge is one long refutation of the method of guessing at principles and then laying them down as absolute facts; it is one long vindication of the opposite method—of studying what is; of provisionally generalising from what we see; and constantly correcting our generalisations. It has taught the world that creation is a process, life is a process, knowledge is a process, revelation is a process; and that of none of these processes can we see the end. This lesson has profoundly altered the method in which men now must study all subjects, including theology.

III. Science, further, therefore helps us to see that the different forms of faith and worship are not related to one another as one true, and all the rest false; but as higher and lower, as adapted to varied stages in intellectual and moral development, as processes of approximation to truth, of education of the spirit of man. It is therefore making possible not only a spirit of tolerance, but, what is far greater, the existence of a really Catholic Church, in which in all humility the various Christian bodies in our own land, and on a wider scale all the nations of the world, will be content to do their work side by side, not as jealous and aggressive rivals, but as ministering to different temperaments and types and stages of development amongst men, exponents of the manifold wisdom of God. Surely thus our world must appear in the eyes of the All-seeing Father.

IV. And finally, perhaps the greatest of the gifts which science is indirectly conferring on the Christian faith is this—it is opening our eyes to the fact that in reading the Bible and in interpreting Christianity men have hitherto largely misplaced the emphasis—we have not placed it where Christ and His Apostles placed it; and the result of our mistakes has been our divisions, our antagonisms, and the ineffectiveness of the Christian spirit to grapple with the evils in national life and the inborn propensities of human nature. It may be that science, in roughly dissipating some of our illusions, is an instrument in the hands of God for revealing to us realities, and is opening the way to a fuller realisation of Christ’s mind and purpose than the world has yet seen. Is not the core of the Christian revelation the fact that by the revelation of Himself Christ has shown us our power of rising through sonship to the new life of personal holiness and social righteousness? And is not the evolution of thought making this rising to a new life more and more evidently the substance of our faith, and hope, and effort?

Science cannot touch this belief, nor philosophy overturn it. Here the soul has her own sanctions and experiences; here we come to the ‘things which cannot be shaken’—the duty to live the life of Christ on earth; literally and truly to be His Body, the means through which His Spirit shows itself in acts of love and fellowship.

—Rev. Canon J. M. Wilson.


‘To nearly all men, as they grow older, the veil of words becomes more transparent and more obviously a mere veil, and discussion about the veil becomes of less interest, and the tenacity of disputants, who seem unaware that it is a veil, seems surprising, even childish. And what is true of most of us individually, as we grow old, is true of the generation in which we live. The world is growing older; our children are born older than we were; more of them see that it is a veil which is put before them in theology, and they cannot interest themselves in it so eagerly as our fathers did. We need not regard this as want of faith, but as the search for better forms in which to clothe it, and as part of the natural growth of the world towards fuller knowledge.’

Verse 20


‘Brethren, be not children in mind: howbeit in malice be ye babes, but in mind be men.’

1 Corinthians 14:20 (R. V.)

Two kinds of childishness are indicated by the Apostle, the one to be deprecated, the other to be desired.

I. The child is offered as the example of what Christians ought to be.—No doubt the words of our Lord were much in the mind of the Apostolic Church. ‘Verily, I say unto you, except ye turn, and become as little children, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven.’ The humble station and low social rank of the primitive converts gave an obvious propriety to their description of themselves as possessing the characteristic qualities of children—simplicity, weakness, innocence. In the Epistle to the Romans St. Paul exults in the ‘obedience’ of his converts, and declares that he would ‘have them wise unto that which is good, and simple unto that which is evil,’ an aspiration which lies open to the objection that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are not always clearly marked, and that it is not very easy to secure that the ‘wisdom’ which shall be available for one class of experiences shall co-exist with the ‘simplicity’ which is proper for another.

II. There are in the text two distinctions which we must mark and appreciate.—There is a sphere within which experience and knowledge are injurious—the sphere of moral wrong-doing. There is a sphere within which experience and knowledge are indispensable—the sphere of the intellect. ‘In malice be ye babes, but in mind be men.’ That is one distinction—a distinction of spheres or of subject-matter. By his emphatic association of ‘mind’ with manhood, St. Paul indicates the importance which he claims for the intellect in the life of the Christian and of the society of Christians. It is possible, he would say, in your abhorrence of moral corruption to exalt an universal childishness as the proper temper of a disciple. But herein you avoid one error only to fall into another. Innocence ceases to be admirable when it certifies immaturity. Christianity is not a religion for the cradle and the nursery only, or mainly, since Christianity is the religion of God manifest in man, and man is then most competent to fulfil his service when he brings to it the plenitude of his powers. St. Paul contrasts the ‘man’ and the ‘babe,’ and he tells us that the Christian is to keep the balance and obey the law of his manhood. ‘In mind be men.’

III. St. Paul seems to mark off sharply the moral from the intellectual obligation of discipleship.—The one resolves itself into a jealous vigilance against every form of evil; the other exacts an honest and arduous service of every kind of truth. Fidelity to a standard once established is the dominant aspect of the one; progress and growth, the recompense and result of discipline and effort, are the leading features of the other. Abstinence and acquisition, to hold fast and to attain, to become as a little child, and, ‘forgetting the things which are behind, and stretching forward to the things which are before, to press on toward the goal,’ it is by such phrases, divergent in suggestion yet correlated in religious experience, that the duty of the Christian is expressed in the New Testament.

—Rev. Canon Henson.


‘It is related of the famous Cambridge don of the seventeenth century, Joseph Meade, that he pursued with his pupils a somewhat unusual method, choosing rather to set every one his daily task than constantly to confine himself and them to precise hours for lectures. In the evening they all came to his chamber to satisfy him that they had performed the task he had set them. The first question which he used then to propound to every one in his order was “Quid dubitas?”—“What doubts have you met in your studies to-day?” For he supposed that to doubt nothing and to understand nothing were verifiable alike.’



What did Christ mean by saying that we are to become like children? It is not the goodness of children which our Lord praises. It is certain natural qualities of children that have a sad way of vanishing as we grow older, but which, if they are lost, we must do our best to recover. What are those qualities? If we recall the circumstances in which our Lord spoke about children, we shall at once see that the prayer, ‘I thank Thee that Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes,’ was uttered after His rejection by the chief priests and elders, and of His acceptance by the band of Apostles, and it must refer to that.

I. Candour and simplicity.—Is not one of the most characteristic and delightful qualities of children their habit of looking straight at what is before them and judging it to the best of their power, without prejudice or fear of consequence, on its merits? A child’s candour and simplicity sometimes, by clashing with our polite conventions, causes momentary annoyance, but it is, in essence, a most valuable quality, as we cannot deny even while we suffer from it. And it is this childlike quality in the Apostles which distinguishes them from the Pharisees and enables them to receive the new revelation of Christ. While some were saying, ‘Jesus cannot be a prophet because He was born in Nazareth,’ the Apostles, looking neither before nor behind, having neither prejudice nor fear of consequence, looking straight at their Master, discovered that He had for them the words of eternal life. And so they made the confession on which the Church is founded: ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Now this sincerity, this true thinking and plain speaking, which is natural to children, often tends to be worn away as we leave childhood behind us, by the proper and natural desire to stand well with the little world of society, politics, or religion in which we happen to move, and, if so, it must be recovered, and we have to set it before us as a virtue to be attained; we have to turn and become in this respect once more like little children.

II. The absence of self-importance.—And the second childlike quality which also we must labour to get back again is absence of self-importance. You will remember that our Lord’s putting the little child in the midst followed upon the wrangling of the Apostles as to their order of precedence. Children are not, as a rule, concerned with themselves in such a way as that; they look away from themselves. And this self-importance brings in its train vices which are objectionable to others and excruciating to ourselves, one of which the Apostle notices in the text—Malice. Do not be malicious: children are not. Malice springs out of jealousy, and jealousy is the other side of self-importance. To be wrapped up in one’s own consequence is to be intolerant of the consequence of others; and of all vices surely jealousy is the most mean and, alas for human nature, among the most widely diffused. If it creeps in, how can we banish it? How can we get rid of it? Of course we cannot recover the unconscious un-pretentiousness of childhood: we come to know our own measure too exactly for that; but we can do this—we can endeavour to take a real and unaffected interest in other people for their own sakes, to look on their good qualities without envying them. Surely it lies well within the power of us all to let no malicious word pass our lips; and in that endeavour do let us press into service all the powers of our nature to help us to preserve a frank interest in other people for their own sake, and not as they compare with or affect us. If we have humour, let our humour show us the absurdity of the self-wrapt jealous heart. If we have imagination, let it remind us how disagreeable we find the self-centred person. And if we have common sense, let us apply it here as throughout the realm of our spiritual concerns.

III. Man’s judgment the outgrowth of a child’s sincerity.—And that word brings us back to the second part of our text—‘In understanding be men.’ Common sense, wisdom, comes as near as we can get to what St. Paul is here urging upon the Corinthians. He is not exhorting them to any great effort of intellect, nor to accept the foundations of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. St. Paul is always telling them that the Gospel appeals to the child more than to the grown man. In the apprehension of the message it is the child in us that comes into play—the frank outlook, the instinct for goodness, humility—all childlike qualities. It is to them the Gospel appeals. And so St. Paul is not contradicting his Master; he is urging that, when the Christian faith has been received, there is room in our religious life, as much as in any other life, for the exercise of a man’s faculty of judgment, common sense. And, if you think about it, the child’s virtue of sincerity and the man’s faculty of judgment are very closely allied, and one is really the outgrowth of the other. I dare say you have often remarked the judgments of Christ. Those judgments of His which enraged the Pharisees, and almost His own disciples, were simple judgments of common sense, guided by sincerity. It is not enough that we the clergy, or you the laity, should be as ‘harmless as doves,’ if we are not also as ‘wise as serpents.’ It is not enough to be children in malice; let us also ‘in understanding be men.’

—Rev. Canon Beeching.


‘Sir Thomas Browne wrote as a physician, but his exaltation of reason and learning are not less befitting other Christians, and his quaint yet penetrating words do not wholly lose their relevance when the subject of our inquiry is not Nature but Revelation: “The World was made to be inhabited by Beasts, but studied and contemplated by Man; ’tis the Debt of our Reason we owe unto God, and the homage we pay for not being Beasts. Without this, the World is still as though it had not been, or as it was before the sixth day, when as yet there was not a Creature that could conceive or say that there was a World. The Wisdom of God receives small honour from those vulgar Heads that rudely stare about, and with a gross rusticity admire His works; those highly magnify Him, whose judicious inquiry into His acts, and deliberate research into His creatures, return the duty of a devout and learned admiration. Therefore,

Search while thou wilt, and let thy Reason go,

To ransome Truth, even to th’ Abyss below;

Rally the scattered Causes; and that line,

Which Nature twists, be able to untwine.

It is thy Maker’s will, for unto none

But unto Reason can He e’er be known.

Teach my endeavours so Thy works to read,

That learning them in Thee, I may proceed.

Give Thou my reason that instructive flight,

Whose weary wings may on Thy hands still light.

Teach me to soar aloft, yet ever so

When near the Sun, to stoop again below.

Thus shall my humble Feathers safely hover,

And though near Earth, more than the Heavens discover.

And then at last, when homeward I shall drive,

Rich with the spoils of Nature, to my Hive,

There will I sit with that industrious Flie,

Buzzing Thy praises which shall never die,

Till Death abrupts them, and succeeding Glory

Bid me go on in a more lasting story.” ’

Verse 26


‘How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things he done unto edifying.’

1 Corinthians 14:26

I wish to speak to you about the necessity of keeping up certain simple religious forms and observances if we wish to preserve any reality, vitality, and vigour in our religious life.

The idea of the Reformers was to give the congregation as much to do in the service as they could.

I. The service.—There was a bad time in days of deadness when there was a duet between minister and clerk; but the sole performance by priest and choir, except in vast cathedral churches, is to my mind as bad, as unscriptural, as destructive of the rights and interests of the laity. Wherever you worship, I ask you to insist upon it that, whatever may be the case in the antiphonal parts, verses and responses, the general parts should neither be intoned nor monotoned, but left entirely to the congregation to say in their own natural voice. I mean such parts as the General Confession, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Creed. Do not underrate your power in these things. A strong body of laymen in a congregation, who have clear ideas in their heads, and who are determined in all Christian firmness and humility to execute their privileges as full members of Christ’s Church, will in most cases be met with attention and acquiescence. Here I would ask you to see to it, according to the utmost exercise of your influence, that the singing should be simple and congregational. We are greatly indebted to our choirs; but the chief grace of a choir is to remember that the choir exists for the congregation, not the congregation for the choir. Of course an anthem beautifully sung, if the words are known previously by the congregation, has in all cases a profoundly emotional or pathetic effect; but in parish churches I have no hesitation in saying that all other musical portions of the service should be of the most popular character, and such that their greatest glory and success should be that the congregation joined heartily in every part.

II. Again, as to sermons.—Sermons will be very largely what you make them. If the preacher fires them off over your head, and you take no notice of them, and never let him know whether you agree or disagree, whether you understand or were puzzled, whether you were moved or remained cold, what can he do? He knows nothing of what you are thinking and feeling. If you want sermons to be a reality and a living sympathetic help, you must let the preacher know your doubts and difficulties; you must tell him what kind of effect his discourses have had; you must suggest subjects which you wish to hear treated; you must encourage him without reserve to be practical, effective, useful, and suggestive; bringing the light of the Gospel of Christ into every department of human life. He will be greatly indebted to you on his side; and you will find the interest of the weekly exhortation or discussion so growing and increasing that you will never wish to be absent from it. You have lost your right of free speech in the Christian assembly by reason of ancient disorders; but in this way you can still exercise its equivalent. It is in your own power to make the pulpit as vigorous, effective, real, and pertinent for every aspiration of your heart, and every inquiry of your mind, as it was in its most powerful and popular days.

III. There is another religious observance which I must urge very strongly upon you, and ask you to do your utmost to restore its regular recognition amongst your friends. That is, participation in the memorial feast of the sacrifice, death, passion, and atonement of Christ. In early days no Christian ever thought of being absent, still less of not communicating if present. If a man was absent three successive Sundays he was ipso facto excommunicated. The Prayer Book, by using words from St. Paul about eating and drinking condemnation which applied to a time when the Corinthians made an unseemly picnic of the Lord’s Supper, and some even got drunk at it, has, by being misunderstood, frightened thousands of steady Christian men from taking part in what seemed so alarming and repelling a rite. But it is really the nearest, most delightful, most real means of meeting the God of Love, and of reviving our spiritual life. And all that is required of us is to examine ourselves, to see whether we truly repent us of our former sins; to have a lively faith in God’s mercy through Christ; and to be in love and charity with all men.

IV. Family prayers.—I earnestly beseech you, for the sake of your own souls, for the sake of your families and households, to keep up this united daily recognition of God as a family. It can bring nothing but happiness and blessing on you and your work. Let me urge you to do your utmost to see it established in every working man’s house or rooms wherever you have any influence. In Scotland, except amongst the crowded populations of the great cities like Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Dundee, it is almost universal; and Burns’s matchless poem of the ‘Cotter’s Saturday Night’ is still as true as ever. There is a passage from Washington Irving which illustrates this: ‘The dullest observer must be sensible of the order and serenity prevalent in those households where the exercise of a beautiful form of worship in the morning gives, as it were, the keynote to every temper for the day, and attunes every spirit to harmony.’

V. There are three more short recommendations which I should like to give you.

( a) One is to encourage the habit of mental daily prayers.

( b) Another is, not to neglect the good old English habit of grace at meals, and to make a solemn reality of it, not a mere spell or charm.

( c) The last is to attend personally to the moral and religious training of your children.

It is by constant attention to small details that in these things, as in everything else, we achieve great results. God grant that we may all serve Him more truly, really, earnestly, and effectively!

—Archdeacon W. M. Sinclair.


‘As one in days of old would fly

To some protecting shrine,

From dread pursuers threatening nigh,

And panting there recline—

Lord, to Thy dwelling I repair,

And cling around Thy altar there!

‘Or, as the swallow, chased away

From cruel man’s abode,

Beneath Thy sacred wall will lay

Her cherished young, O God!

So there I oft that peace obtain

Which elsewhere I have sought in vain.

‘When sheltered safe, well pleased we hear

The waves and tempests roar;

And raging winds without endear

The warmth within Thee more;

O then I feel from peril free

Retired within Thy sanctuary!’

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Bibliographical Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 14". Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary. 1876.