Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 14

Barclay's Daily Study BibleDaily Study Bible

Search for…
Enter query below:
Additional Authors

Verses 1-40

Chapter 14

THE FALSE AND THE TRUE WORSHIP ( 1 Corinthians 14:1-19 )

14:1-19 Pursue this love. Covet the spiritual things, especially the gift of forthtelling the truth to others. For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one can understand. By the Spirit he speaks things which only the initiated can understand. But he who forthtells the truth to men speaks something which builds them up and encourages them and comforts them. He who speaks in a tongue builds up his own spiritual life, but he who forthtells the truth builds up the spiritual life of the Church. I wish that you could all speak with tongues, but I wish still more that you could all forthtell the truth. He who forthtells the truth is greater than he who speaks with tongues, unless the tongues are interpreted so that the Church may receive spiritual upbuilding. Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking with tongues what good would I do you? I cannot do you any good unless I speak to you through some special message given to me direct by God, or with some special knowledge, or with the forthtelling of the truth, or with teaching. There are instruments which, though they are lifeless, have a voice--for example, the flute and the harp but if they do not observe the correct intervals between the notes, how can the tune that is being played on the flute or the harp be recognized? If the trumpet gives a meaningless sound who will prepare for the battle? So, too, if you produce in a tongue speech the meaning of which cannot be grasped, how can what is being said be understood? You might as well be talking to the air. There are so many voices--whatever the number of them may be--in the world and nothing is without a voice. So then if I do not understand what the voice is trying to say, I will be a foreigner to him who speaks and he who speaks will be a foreigner as fir as I am concerned. So, when you are eager for spiritual gifts, be eager to excel in gifts which are useful for the upbuilding of the Church. Therefore let him who speaks in a tongue pray to be able to interpret what he says, for, if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind gets no benefit at all. What then emerges from all this? I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with my mind too. I will sing with the spirit, but I will sing with my mind too. For if you are blessing God in the spirit, how can the man who occupies the position of a simple layman say the customary Amen to your thanksgiving, since he does not understand what you are saying? It is a fine thing that you give thanks, but the other man receives no spiritual upbuilding. I thank God that I can speak with tongues more than any of you. But in any Christian gathering I would rather speak five words with my intelligence, so that I may teach others as well, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue.

This chapter is very difficult to understand because it deals with a phenomenon which, for most of us, is outside our experience. Throughout Paul sets two spiritual gifts in comparison with each other.

First there is speaking with tongues. This phenomenon was very common in the early Church. A man became worked up to an ecstasy and in that state poured out a quite uncontrollable torrent of sounds in no known language. Unless these sounds were interpreted, no one had any idea what they meant. Strange as it may seem to many of us, in the early Church this was a highly coveted gift. It was dangerous. For one thing, it was abnormal and was greatly admired and therefore the person who possessed it was very liable to develop a certain spiritual pride; and for another thing, the very desire to possess it produced, at least in some, a kind of self-hypnotism and deliberately induced hysteria which issued in a completely false and synthetic speaking with tongue.

Over against this speaking with tongues, Paul sets the gift of prophecy. In the translation we have not used the word prophecy, for that would have further complicated an already complicated situation. In this case, and in fact usually, it has nothing to do with foretelling the future but everything to do with forthtelling the will and the message of God. We have already said that preaching very nearly gives the meaning, but in this case we have kept the literal meaning and have translated it forthtelling.

In this whole section Paul deals with the dangers of the gift of speaking with tongues, and the superiority of the gift of forthtelling the truth in such a way that all can understand it.

We can best follow Paul's line of thought by analysing the section.

He begins by declaring that tongues are addressed to God and not to men, for men cannot understand them. If a man exercises this gift of tongues he may be enriching his own spiritual experience, but he is certainly not enriching the souls of the congregation because to them it is unintelligible; on the other hand, the gift of forthtelling the truth produces something which everyone can understand and which profits every man's soul.

Paul goes on to use certain illustrations and analogies. He is going to come to them; but if he came speaking with tongues what use would that be? They would have no idea what he was talking about. Take the case of a musical instrument. If it obeys the normal laws of harmony, it can produce a melody; but, if it does not, it produces simply a chaos of sound. Take the case of a trumpet. If it plays the correct call, it can summon men to advance, to retreat, to sleep, to wake. But if it produces simply a medley of meaningless sound, no man can know what to do. There are in this world many kinds of speech; but if two men meet each other who do not understand each other's language, the speech of each sounds like gibberish to the other and makes no sense.

Paul does not deny that the gift of tongues exists. Nor can anyone say that with him it is a case of sour grapes, for he possesses the gift more than anyone else does; but he insists that any gift to be of value must benefit the whole congregation, and therefore, if the gift of tongues is used, it is useless unless it is interpreted. Whether a man is speaking or praying or singing, he must do it not only with his spirit, but with his mind. He must know what is going on and others must be able to understand it. And so Paul reaches the blunt conclusion that in a Christian congregation it is better to speak a few intelligible sentences than to pour out a flood of unintelligible sounds.

Out of this difficult section emerge certain valuable truths.

1 Corinthians 14:3 succinctly lays down the aim of all preaching. It is threefold. (i) It must aim to build up; to increase a man's knowledge of Christian truth and his ability to live the Christian life. (ii) It must aim to encourage. In every group of people there are those who are depressed and discouraged. Dreams will not come true; effort seems to have achieved so little; self-examination serves to show nothing but failures and inadequacies. Within the Christian fellowship, a man should find something to cheer his heart and nerve his arm. It was said of a certain preacher that he preached the gospel as if he were announcing a deep depression off Iceland. A service may begin by humbling a man through showing him his sin, but it is a failure unless it ends by pointing him to the grace of God that can enable him to conquer it. (iii) It must aim to comfort. "Never morning wore to evening but some heart did break." There are what Virgil called, "the tears of things." In any company of people there will always be some whom life has hurt; and within the Christian fellowship they must be able to find beauty for their ashes, the oil of joy for mourning and the garment of praise for the spirit of their heaviness.

1 Corinthians 14:5 gives us the things which for Paul were the background and the substance of all preaching. (i) It comes from a direct revelation from God. No man can speak to others unless God has first spoken to him. It was said of a great preacher that ever and again he paused as if listening for a voice. We never give to men or to scholars truth which we have produced, or even discovered; we transmit truth which has been given to us. (ii) It may bring some special knowledge. No man can possibly be an expert in everything, but every man has special knowledge of something. It has been said that any man can write an interesting book if he will simply set down completely honestly all that has happened to him. The experiences of life give something special to each one of us, and the most effective preaching is simply witness to what we have found to be true. (iii) It consists of forthtelling the truth. In the early Church the first preaching given to any fellowship was a simple proclamation of the facts of the Christian story. Certain things are beyond argument. "Tell me of your certainties," said Goethe, "I have doubts enough of my own." However we may finish, it is well to begin with the facts of Christ. (iv) It goes on to teaching. There comes a time when a man has to ask, "What is the meaning of these facts?" Simply because we are thinking creatures, religion implies theology. And it may well be that the faith of many people collapses and the loyalty of many people grows cold because they have not thought things out and thought them through.

From the whole passage two broad principles regarding Christian worship emerge.

(i) Worship must never be selfish. All that is done in it must be done for the sake of all. No man in worship, whether he leads it or shares in it, has any right to direct it according to his own personal preferences. He must seek the good of the whole worshipping fellowship. The great test of any part of worship is, "Will this help everyone?" It is not, "Will this display my special gifts?" It is, "Will this bring all here nearer to each other and nearer to God?"

(ii) Worship must be intelligible. The great things are essentially the simple things; the noblest language is essentially the simplest language. In the end only what satisfies my mind can comfort my heart, and only what my mind can grasp can bring strength to my life.

THE EFFECTS OF FALSE AND TRUE WORSHIP ( 1 Corinthians 14:20-25 )

14:20-25 Brothers, don't be childish in your judgment. True, you must be innocent babes as far as evil goes, but in your judgments you must be mature men. In the law it stands written, "With people of a foreign tongue and with the lips of aliens I will speak to this people, and not even so will they listen to me, says the Lord." So you see tongues are meant for a sign not to believers but to unbelievers.

Suppose, then, the whole Christian congregation meets together, and suppose all speak with tongues, and suppose some simple folk or some pagans come in, will they not say that you are raving mad? But suppose all forthtell the truth, and then suppose some pagan or some simple person comes in, his sin will be brought home to him by all, he will be brought to judgment by all, the hidden things of his heart will be brought to light, and so, falling upon his face, he will worship God, and will tell all men that God is really among you.

Paul is still dealing with this question of speaking with tongues. He begins with an appeal to the Corinthians not to be childish. This passion for and over-evaluation of speaking with tongues is really a kind of childish ostentation.

Paul then finds an argument in the Old Testament. We have seen over and over again how Rabbinic exegesis--and Paul was a trained Rabbi--can find in the Old Testament hidden meanings which were certainly not originally there. He goes back to Isaiah 28:9-12. God, through his prophet, is threatening the people. Isaiah has preached to them in their own Hebrew language and they have not listened. Because of their disobedience, the Assyrians will come and conquer them and occupy their cities and then they will have to listen to language which they cannot understand. They will have to listen to the foreign tongues of their conquerors speaking unintelligible things; and not even that terrible experience will make an unbelieving people turn to God. So Paul uses the argument that tongues were meant for a hard-hearted and unbelieving people and were, in the end, ineffective to them.

Then he uses a very practical argument. If any stranger, or any simple person, came into a Christian assembly where everyone was pouring out a flood of unintelligible sounds, he would think that the place was a madhouse. But if the truth of God was being soberly and intelligibly proclaimed, the result would be very different. He would be brought face to face with himself and with God.

1 Corinthians 14:24-25 give us a vivid summary of what happens when the truth of God is intelligibly proclaimed.

(i) It convicts a man of his sin. He sees what he is and is appalled. Alcibiades, the spoilt darling of Athens, was the friend of Socrates, and sometimes he used to say to him, "Socrates, I hate you, for every time I meet you you make me see what I am." "Come," said the woman of Samaria in shamed amazement, "see a man who told me all that I ever did." ( John 4:29). The first thing the message of God does is to make a man realize that he is a sinner.

(ii) It brings a man under judgment. He sees that he must answer for what he has done. So far he may have lived life with no thought of its end. He may have followed the impulses of the day and seized its pleasures. But now he sees that the day has an ending, and there stands God.

(iii) It shows a man the secrets of his own heart. The last thing we face is our own hearts. As the proverb has it, "There are none so blind as those who will not see." The Christian message compels a man to that searing, humiliating honesty which will face himself.

(iv) It brings a man to his knees before God. All Christianity begins with a man on his knees in God's presence. The gateway to that presence is so low that we can enter it only upon our knees. When a man has faced God and faced himself, all that is left for him to do is to kneel and to pray, "God be merciful to me a sinner."

The test of any act of worship is, "Does it make us feel the presence of God?" Joseph Twitchell tells how he went to visit Horace Bushnell when Bushnell was an old man. At night Bushnell took him out for a walk on the hillside. As they walked in the dark, suddenly Bushnell said, "Let us kneel and pray," and they did. Twitchell, telling of it afterwards, said, "I was afraid to stretch out my hand in the darkness in case I should touch God." When we feel as near to God as that, we have really and truly shared in an act of worship.

PRACTICAL ADVICE ( 1 Corinthians 14:26-33 )

14:26-33 What then emerges from all this, brothers? Whenever you meet together, let each have his psalm, let each have his teaching, let each have his message direct from God, let each have his tongue, let each have his interpretation. Let all things be done for the spiritual upbuilding of the congregation. If anyone speaks with a tongue, let it be two, or at the most three, and let them do it by turns, and let one interpret. If there is no interpreter present, let him who has the gift of tongues keep silent in the congregation, and let him speak to God when he is by himself. Let two or three forthtellers of the truth speak, and let the others exercise the gift of discernment. If someone who is seated is conscious that he has been given a special message, let the first be silent, for you can all forthtell the truth one by one so that all may learn and may be encouraged--and the spirits of those who forthtell the truth are under control of those who do forthtell the truth, for God is not the God of disorder but the God of peace, as we see that he is in all the congregation of his dedicated people.

Paul comes near to the end of this section with some very practical advice. He is determined that anyone who possesses a gift should receive every chance to exercise it; but he is equally determined that the services of the Church should not become a kind of competitive disorder. Only two or three are to exercise the gift of tongues, and then only if there is someone there to interpret. All have the gift of forthtelling the truth, but again only two or three are to exercise it; and if someone in the congregation has the conviction that he has received a special message, the man who is speaking must give way to him and give him the opportunity to express it. The man who is speaking can perfectly well do so, and need not say that he is carried away by inspiration and cannot stop, because the preacher is able to control his own spirit. There must be liberty but there must be no disorder. The God of peace must be worshipped in peace.

There is no more interesting section in the whole letter than this, for it sheds a flood of light on what an early church service was like. There was obviously great freedom and an informality about it. From this passage two great questions emerge.

(i) Clearly the early Church had no professional ministry. True, the apostles stood out with special authority; but at this stage there was no professional local ministry. It was open to anyone who had a gift to use it. Has the Church been right or wrong in instituting a professional ministry? Clearly it is essential that, in our busy age when men are so preoccupied with material things, one should be set apart to live close to God and to bring to his fellows the truth and the guidance and the comfort which God gives to him. But there is the obvious danger that when a man becomes a professional preacher he may sometimes be in the position of having to say something when he has really nothing to say. However that may be, it must remain true that if a man has a message to give his fellow men no ecclesiastical rules and regulations should be able to stop him giving it. It is a mistake to think that only the professional ministry can ever bring God's truth to men.

(ii) There was obviously a flexibility about the order of service in the early Church. Everything was informal enough to allow any man who felt that he had a message to give to give it. It may well be that we set far too much store on dignity and order nowadays, and have become the slaves of orders of service. The really notable thing about an early Church service must have been that almost everyone came feeling that he had both the privilege and the obligation of contributing something to it. A man did not come with the sole intention of being a passive listener; he came not only to receive but to give. Obviously this had its dangers, for it is clear that in Corinth there were those who were too fond of the sound of their own voices; but nonetheless the Church must have been in those days much more the real possession of the ordinary Christian. It may well be that the Church lost something when she delegated so much to the professional ministry and left so little to the ordinary Church member; and it may well be that the blame lies not with the ministry for annexing those rights but with the laity for abandoning them, certainly it is all too true that many Church members think far more of what the Church can do for them than of what they can do for the Church, and are very ready to criticize what is done but very unready to take any share in doing the Church's work themselves.

FORBIDDEN INNOVATIONS ( 1 Corinthians 14:34-40 )

14:34-40 Let women keep silent in the congregation, for it is not permitted to them to speak, but let them be in subjection even as the law says. If they wish to learn about anything, let them question their husbands at home. It is a shameful thing for a woman to speak in the congregation. Was it from you that God's word went out? Or, was it to you alone that it came?

If anyone thinks that he is a forthteller of the truth, or that he has a special spiritual gift, let him understand what I write to you because it is the Lord's command. If anyone does not understand it, let him remain in his ignorance.

So then, my brothers, be eager to have the gift of forthtelling the truth and do not forbid speaking with tongues. Let everything be done with propriety and with order.

There were innovations threatening in the Church at Corinth which Paul did not like. In effect, he asks what right they had to make them. Were they the originators of the Christian Church? Had they a monopoly of the gospel truth? They had received a tradition and to it they must be obedient.

No man ever rose completely above the background of the age in which he lived and the society in which he grew up; and Paul, in his conception of the place of women within the Church, was unable to rise above the ideas which he had known all his life.

We have already said that in the ancient world the place of women was low. In the Greek world Sophocles had said, "Silence confers grace upon a woman." Women, unless they were very poor or very loose in their morals, led a very secluded life in Greece. The Jews had an even lower idea of women. Amongst the Rabbinic sayings there are many which belittle their place. "As to teaching the law to a woman one might as well teach her impiety." To teach the law to a woman was "to cast pearls before swine." The Talmud lists among the plagues of the world "the talkative and the inquisitive widow and the virgin who wastes her time in prayers." It was even forbidden to speak to a woman on the street. "One must not ask a service from a woman, or salute her."

It was in a society like that that Paul wrote this passage. In all likelihood what was uppermost in his mind was the lax moral state of Corinth and the feeling that absolutely nothing, must be done which would bring upon the infant Church the faintest suspicion of immodesty. It would certainly be very wrong to take these words out of their context and make them a universal rule for the Church.

Paul goes on to speak with a certain sternness. He is quite certain that, even if a man has spiritual gifts, that gives him no right to be a rebel against authority. He is conscious that the advice he has given and the rules he has laid down have come to him from Jesus Christ and his Spirit, and if a man refuses to understand them he must be left in his wilful ignorance.

So Paul draws to an end. He makes it clear that he has no wish to quench anyone's gift; the one thing he strives for is the good order of the Church. The great rule which he in effect lays down is that a man has received from God whatever gift he may possess, not for his own sake, but for the sake of the Church. When a man can say, "To God be the glory," then and only then will he use his gifts aright within the Church and outside it.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

Bibliographical Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 14". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". 1956-1959.