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Saturday, June 22nd, 2024
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 14

Kretzmann's Popular Commentary of the BibleKretzmann's Commentary

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Verses 1-6

The Use of Spiritual Gifts in Public Worship.

The gift of prophesying greater than that of tongues:

v. 1. Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy.

v. 2. For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God; for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries.

v. 3. But he that prophesies speaketh unto men to edification and exhortation and comfort.

v. 4. He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifies himself; but he that prophesies edifies the church.

v. 5. I would that ye all spake with tongues, but rather that ye prophesied; for greater is he that prophesies than he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret, that the church may receive edifying.

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?

In continuing his admonitions, Paul here refers back once more to his great psalm in praise of love: Pursue love! That should be their chief concern, for, as one commentator has it: Love is the mistress; all the spiritual gifts are servants, handmaids. While, therefore, continuing to be intently engaged in following after love, the Corinthians should diligently strive after spiritual gifts, the use of them all in the edification of the congregation being regulated by the standard set by love. And in this respect the gift of prophecy stands above the others, for its chief purpose was to teach and instruct others in the things of their salvation. This gift they should covet more than all the other gifts, also more than that of tongues, which naturally made a deep impression upon the Corinthians and was considered especially desirable.

The apostle gives the reasons for his preference: For he that speaks with a tongue, in some strange language prompted by the Spirit, especially if this be done in public worship, not to men speaks he, but to God; men have no benefit of his speaking, because they cannot understand him. They hear the sounds of his voice, but they have no conception of the meaning of his utterances, since in spirit he is speaking mysteries, the secrets of God are continuing concealed, hidden from the hearers, and probably from the speaker as well. The prophesier, on the other hand, the man that has the gift of prophecy, does speak to men; his speech, being understood by them, serves as a means of communication; he conveys ideas to them, edification and exhortation and comfort. The speech of the prophesier serves to have the Christians grow in knowledge, thus aiding the progress of the Church; it admonishes them, it stimulates them to apply themselves more earnestly to their Christian duty; it gives them spiritual strength and comfort when they are in danger of being overwhelmed by fear. That, then, is the chief purpose of public worship, that the Word of God be preached and applied, that men may understand the speaking and be edified, admonished, and comforted This purpose is not realized in the case of him that speaks with a tongue. He edifies himself at best, while he that prophesies edifies the church assembly. It was true enough that the one that spoke with tongues was confirmed in his faith, since he must have felt the power of the Spirit, that used his mouth as an instrument for His utterance. But he was the only one thus affected, whereas in the case of him that prophesied the assembled congregation received the benefit.

In making this statement, Paul does not want to be misunderstood as though he underrated the worth of the gift of tongues: Yet I would have you all speak with tongues, but rather that you might prophesy. So he makes no weak concessions to the Corinthians, he is well aware of the fact that the gift of tongues might make a deep impression upon an unbeliever coming into their meetings and pave the way for his conversion; but for actual, practical use he knows that the gift of prophecy is to be preferred. Greater, moreover, is he that prophesies than he that speaks with tongues; he occupies a position of greater usefulness and therefore also of greater dignity, unless, indeed, he that speaks with tongues has, at the same time, the gift and the ability to interpret his ecstatic utterances, so that all the people may understand him and the congregation thus receive edification.

In a question directed to them all, Paul appeals to their judgment in this matter: But now, brethren, the situation at Corinth at the present time being such, if I should come to you speaking with tongues, of what use, of what help would I be to you, if I do not speak to you in revelation, or in knowledge, or in prophesying, or in teaching? If Paul had been only a speaker of tongues, and unable to interpret the mysteries which the Holy Ghost was uttering through his mouth, his work would evidently have had no value, unless, indeed, he could make himself understood in intelligible speech, in revelation and prophecy, by teaching the great mysteries which he understood, by bringing knowledge and doctrine together. Prophecy relates to particular facts, for whose understanding further light was needed, to mysteries that could be known by revelation only; doctrine and knowledge were drawn from the creed of the Christians and were used to confirm the believers in the matter of their salvation. This appeal to the common sense of the Corinthians could not fail to convince them of the truth of Paul's argument, since they knew that he had always sought their spiritual welfare, and not his own spiritual enjoyment and edification.

Verses 7-13

Public utterance is valueless without clear understanding:

v. 7. 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?

v. 8. For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?

v. 9. 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.

v. 10. There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification.

v. 11. 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.

v. 12. Even so ye, forasmuch as ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church.

v. 13. Wherefore, let him that speaketh in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret.

The apostle here draws an inference from the lesser to the greater: Likewise lifeless things, though they give forth sound, such as the flute or the harp, yet unless there is a distinction in their tones or sounds, how will that which is being piped or harped be distinguished? The apostle is here referring either to the quality of the sounds or to the intervals or to the distinction of pitch, whatever distinguishes the music of various instruments. If players permit the notes to run together in absolute confusion, with an utter disregard of the laws of harmony and of the limitations of the several instruments, how can the listener make out the air? Instead of a melody, he will hear nothing but confused noises. And likewise, if the trumpet that gives the signals in war or in battle gives forth an uncertain voice, the soldiers will not be able to distinguish whether they are to advance or to retreat or to execute some other movement: a disastrous situation.

The application of the two figures of comparison is easy: Likewise also unless you with the tongue, in making use of the gift of tongues, give forth a distinct speech, words whose meaning is clear to the hearers, how will that which is spoken be distinguished, understood, by the hearers? For you will be such as speak into the air. All the fine speaking in the church assemblies, whether it is done in strange languages or in that which the people themselves have asked for, is without value and worse than useless, if its content is not clear to the congregation, if the hearers do not get the speaker's finely articulated words and well-modulated sentences. Note: There is far too much preaching in our days which embodies all the excellencies of the text-books as to outline, diction, paragraphing, etc. , but lacks that one most important point: edifying clearness. The motto of our days seems to be: Wash me, but do not make me wet; that is, either: Smooth down the rugged text to ears polite, and snugly keep damnation out of sight, or: Keep out the love of God with all your might, and snugly shut salvation out of sight.

For the sake of making the situation plain, Paul adds the example of the multitude of human languages and dialects: Ever so many kinds of voices are, as it happens, in the world, and none of them voiceless. In all the great number of languages throughout the world, wherever people use their voice as a medium of communication, there is not one that has not the fundamental requirement of a language: It has a meaning for somebody; it may be understood by such as are familiar with it. It follows, then, that if I do not know the meaning of the voice, if I do not comprehend its significance, I shall be to him that speaks a barbarian, and he that speaks a barbarian in relation to me. The word barbarian was applied by the Greeks and Romans to all people that did not speak their tongue. A strange language will be to me a confused jargon of sounds, and I cannot comprehend its meaning; there can be no understanding. Thus all uninterpreted tongues in the public service of the congregation are useless, and the very fact that the foreign tongue may convey a precious meaning may be all the more provoking.

The apostle now makes the application to the situation in Corinth: Likewise yourselves, so also in your case; since you are eager for spiritual gifts, for the edification of the congregation make all efforts that you may excel in them. That is the proper zeal in seeking spiritual gifts, not to covet them for one's own gratification and self-glorification, but to have in mind always the real object of all spiritual gifts, the edification of the congregation, the service of the Church. Therefore let him that speaks with a tongue pray that he may interpret. Outward impression and prestige count for nothing in the Church, and may even work great harm. If the speaker with tongues could therefore afterwards recall some of the things which he uttered while his mouth was the instrument of the Holy Spirit and could translate the sayings into ordinary rational speech, that would be worthwhile, that would make his gift of value to the congregation. And therefore he should earnestly covet, by means of prayer, this interpretation of his own utterances.

Verses 14-20

Only through the understanding of the hearer does the utterance of the Spirit result in edification:

v. 14. For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful.

v. 15. 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.

v. 16. Else when thou shalt bless with the spirit, how shall he that occupies the room of the unlearned say Amen at thy giving of thanks, seeing he understandeth not what thou sayest?

v. 17. For thou verily givest thanks well, but the other is not edified.

v. 18. I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all;

v. 19. 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.

v. 20. Brethren, be not children in understanding; howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men.

Since the purpose of every function in public worship is to be of spiritual benefit to the attendants, therefore the gift of tongues must be considered of secondary value: For if I pray with a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is without fruit. As one commentator has it: The fruit of the speaker is found in the profit of the hearer. If a man got up in public service in Corinth and prayed with the ecstatic utterance of this peculiar gift, his own spirit indeed had the benefit of feeling itself the instrument of the Holy Ghost, but all the other people present had no benefit whatsoever from his praying, because there was no point of contact between them, they could not understand the speaker, unless, indeed, he also interpreted his utterances. This being the case, what follows? The apostle writes: I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray also with the understanding, with the mind; I will sing psalms with the spirit, but I will sing psalms also with the understanding, with the mind. The wonderful utterances which were given to the apostle to articulate he wanted to make accessible also to his hearers, whether they were in the form of prayer or in that of chants, and to do this, it was necessary that he bring out the content of the speaking with tongues in the form of common speech. The hearer's mind and heart could not be reached without interpretation, and without that there could be no edification.

This fact the apostle presents from another side: For then, under those circumstances, if thou bless in spirit, if thy praise has risen up in honor of God while in that condition of ecstasy which accompanied speaking with tongues, he that occupies the place of the layman, of the uninitiated, how will he say his Amen to thy blessing, thy doxology? The prayer and the chanting of the person speaking in an unknown tongue may be ever so rich in content, still the person in the audience unversed in its meaning would not know what it was all about, and could therefore not give his assent with the familiar "Amen" taken over from the synagogue worship, by which he expressed himself as accepting the prayer or doxology as his confession. And so the speaker's praise may be beyond reproach, as a product of the Spirit it is bound to be excellent, but it is wasted so far as edification of the congregation is concerned. And lest any man think that the reproof of Paul was dictated by even the faintest feeling of rivalry, he remarks: I thank God, to whom, incidentally, he thus gives all credit for the gift, more than you all I speak with a tongue. Paul had had ecstatic experiences far beyond the amount vouchsafed to the average Christian; he had experienced the power of this gift of grace in a much higher degree than the Corinthians. But in spite of that fact he frankly states that in the church assembly he would rather speak five words with his understanding, in everyday, intelligible language, in order that he might teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue. The utterances of tongues might indicate an unusual power, an extraordinary intimacy with the Spirit, but they were not serviceable, they did not result in the betterment of the congregation. Paul's aim was always to "catechize," to impart by oral instruction, what the Christians needed for faith and life, and for this purpose five words in ordinary language were of more use than any amount of articulations in ecstatic speech.

In a most winning manner, Paul now appeals to the good common sense of the readers: Brethren, be not children in understanding, in mind, in judgment, in the faculty of thinking; use your good sense properly, like adults, not like immature children. Of children it is characteristic that they prefer the amusing to the useful, the shining to the solid, as one commentator puts it. In malice, rather, act as babes, but in judgment show yourselves perfect. With respect to all wickedness, Christians should keep themselves free from all the moral corruption of the world and not seek an experimental acquaintance with it. If any of the Corinthians had received the gift of tongues, they should make use of it as children would, with no attempt at conceit and bragging, Matthew 18:2. In sound Christian judgment, however, every believer should try to advance, to grow from day to day, until the perfection of knowledge is reached, so far as it is possible in this life. To plant childlike innocence and maturity of understanding in the heart together: that is the great problem of Sanctification. See Psalms 19:8.

Verses 21-25

Strange tongues may become dangerous:

v. 21. 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. 22. Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not; but prophesying serveth not for them that believe not, but for them which believe.

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?

v. 24. 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;

v. 25. 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.

To give the Corinthians the right understanding of the gift of tongues, Paul now introduces a Scripture-passage: In the Law, in the book of the Old Testament Scriptures, it is written, In men that speak a strange language and in lips of aliens I will speak to this people, and even so they will not listen to Me, give Me an attentive ear, says the Lord, Isaiah 28:11-12. In the original passage "the drunken Israelites are mocking in their cups the teaching of God through His prophet, as though it were fit only for an infant school; in anger, therefore, He threatens to give His lessons through the lips of foreign conquerors. " Paul quotes the passage to show that the speaking of tongues may work harm in the Church: Therefore the strange tongues are a sign, they serve for a sign, not to the believing, but to the unbelievers; by this gift God manifested His presence, not so much for the sake of the members of the congregation as for those that were still unbelievers. When God speaks in such an unintelligible way, He exhibits Himself "not as one that is opening His thoughts to the faithful, but as one who is shutting Himself up from those who will not believe. " So the hardened unbelievers, having rejected the clear and unmistakable preaching of the Cross, find themselves confirmed, and even justified, according to their opinion, by this phenomenon. On the other hand, the gift of prophecy is not for the unbelievers, but for the believing. It is not only that the proper exposition of the Gospel of salvation works faith and strengthens faith, but also that it serves as a sign of the mercy of God and changes unbelievers into believers. So Paul discountenances the gift of tongues and disapproves of its use in public services, because the purpose of edification is not accomplished through its exercise.

The apostle now shows the disastrous impression which the exercise of the gift of tongues is bound to make upon men that are in no way connected with the congregation: This being the case, if the entire congregation is assembled together at one place and all be speaking with tongues, and men, unversed, unfamiliar, with conditions, or unbelievers, come in, will they not say that you are mad, that you have all taken leave of your senses? The picture is not a bit overdrawn, but can well be imagined under the circumstances as they existed in Corinth, or as those that were anxious to possess the gift of tongues would have made them: A regular service, with teaching, praise, and prayer; all the Christians busily engaged in prayer and praise in strange languages; Gentiles that were unversed with the situation coming in, or unbelievers, what was more natural than the supposition that these men were all talking in madness? For it was but proper for such visitors to expect a clear exposition of some Christian doctrine, and not an endless, incoherent, heterogeneous babbling. Note: This thought might be applied to many a congregation today, where the preaching service has become a fruitless babbling on half-digested topics, only remotely, if at all, connected with the doctrine of Scriptures.

But altogether different is the effect of the gift of prophecy: But if all prophesy, and there enter any unbeliever or uninitiated person, he is convicted by all, he is judged by all. The gift of prophecy included clear and unmistakable explanation and exposition, in ordinary language, of the Word of God, with proper application to the existing circumstances. And therefore any chance visitor to the service, or someone that was lying in unbelief, would be convicted by the testimony of Holy Writ as applied to his case, he would be made conscious of his sin and unbelief. And, incidentally, he would be searched by the words of omniscient wisdom, the secret things of his heart, the hidden sins would be revealed. And the result might very well be that such a one would fall upon his face and worship God, openly admitting that God was in the midst of the Christian congregation. Nothing is more powerful than the living Word of God, by which He searches hearts and minds, Hebrews 4:12, discerns the thoughts and intents of the heart. Thus the gift of prophecy would result not only in gaining souls for Christ, but also in giving glory to the Lord.

Verses 26-33

The practical application of these truths in public worship:

v. 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 be done unto edifying:

v. 27. 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.

v. 28. But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God.

v. 29. Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge.

v. 30. If anything be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace.

v. 31. For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be comforted.

v. 32. And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.

v. 33. For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.

The apostle here gives instructions about the arrangements of services, in order that his purpose of edification of the congregation may best be accomplished. What was to be done in Corinth, and what, all things being equal, is to be done in all Christian congregations about the order of public worship? As matters stood in Corinth at that time, each one contributed something at their meetings, according to the special spiritual gift which was given him: One has a psalm to chant; another has a doctrine, another a revelation to communicate; another has a tongue, another an interpretation to give. So there was no lack of gifts nor of a willingness to impart the gift; rather all were anxious to speak at once, women as well as men. The gifts were there, and they were not to be despised; the Spirit rather had use for them all. But all was to be done unto edification, with a view to building up the congregation. If they would continue to conduct services without order, the end would be hopeless confusion, if not unpleasant quarrels.

The apostle, therefore, proposes the following order in their meetings: If there were such present as had the gift of tongues, two or, at the most, three should be given an opportunity to speak, and in turn, one by one, not all speaking at once, to their own confusion and that of the congregation. After that, one having that gift should interpret the messages just received. By employing only one interpreter for several discourses of tongues, time would be gained for other edifying parts of worship. But if no interpreter were present, the person that wished to speak with tongues should abstain from speaking in the assembly and rather have his discourse with God alone; in secret converse with God he could still feel the full enjoyment of being a vessel of the Holy Spirit.

Then the persons having the gift of prophecy might also speak in turn, two or three in one meeting, and the others should discern, that is, those that assisted with preaching and had judgment with reference to the matter discussed, as Luther says. In doing so, these men were exercising a gift which is also very necessary in the Church, chap. 12:10; Romans 12:7. If, in the meantime, the Holy Spirit should give a special revelation to one of the prophets or teachers and he arose from his seat in token of that fact, the speaker should yield the floor to the new man, closing his own address as quickly as possible. In this way they could all, in rotation, prophesy, bring in their word of teaching and of admonition, that all the members of the congregation might learn and all might be encouraged, urged forward on the path of Sanctification, all hearers thus receiving benefit. And lest anyone think that the insistence upon order would interfere with the Spirit's work, the apostle tells the Corinthians that the nature of prophetic inspiration did not hinder the maintenance of such order, but rather favored its promotion: The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. The divine gift is not an irresponsible, erratic control, but may be exercised by the possessor's will, with discretion and brotherly love. People claiming the possession of a spirit, but not being able to control its utterances, lack the necessary mark of the Holy Spirit's indwelling. For God is not a God of disorder, but of peace. The supposition that God inspires His prophets two or three at a time, and thus creates confusion in public worship, is contrary to His nature. And lest the Corinthians think that Paul is laying upon them a burden from which he is excusing the other congregations, he adds: As it is in all the churches of the saints. In all the assemblies of the early Christians a decent order was observed, according to the same principles as here enunciated by Paul. Without such order, agreed upon or accepted by all, confusion and dissension would surely result, and this the apostle wanted to avoid by all means as contrary to the will of God.

Verses 34-40

Final regulations:

v. 34. 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.

v. 35. 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.

v. 36. What? Came the Word of God out from you? Or came it unto you only?

v. 37. 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. 38. But if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant.

v. 39. Wherefore, brethren, covet to prophesy, and forbid not to speak with tongues.

v. 40. Let all things be done decently and in order.

Both Greek and Roman as well as Jewish custom forbade the public appearance of women, especially their participation in public speaking. It seems that the Christian women of Corinth had a wrong idea of the meaning of Christian liberty, assuming that the ancient distinction made by God had been abrogated. But this rule made by God, that man is the head of woman, holds good for all time and under all circumstances. It is not a question of superiority or inferiority, but of headship and of government in the affairs of the church. Let women keep silence in the congregations; they shall take no part in public teaching in the church, they shall not be given authoritative direction. The public speaking and teaching in the congregation on the basis of the Word of God is a ruling and governing which is at variance with the position which God has given to woman, not only since the Fall, but before as well. And a Christian woman, knowing the high esteem in which she is otherwise held according to the Word of God (See Ephesians 5:22 -, will not attempt to break this rule, Genesis 3:16, but will gladly acquiesce in His will, knowing that it is not permitted her to be a teacher in the public worship of the congregation, 1 Timothy 2:12, but to be under obedience, leaving the leadership, the teaching, and the government to the men. Christian women are thereby not excluded from learning, they are rather encouraged to take an intelligent interest in the work of the congregation; they should freely ask questions and discuss matters of the kingdom of God at home, with their husbands. And far from occupying a position of dishonor by this ruling of God, Christian women know that it is disgraceful, it shocks moral feeling, if women aspire to, and assume, equal footing with men in public speaking and teaching, and in church leadership. Note: Here, as in the parallel passages, the apostle refers to public teaching before the whole congregation; the work of women teachers in schools and high schools is here not condemned, and in other passages, Titus 2:3; Acts 18:26, is rather, by implication, commended.

In case some of the Corinthians might now think that the apostle is exceeding his authority in giving them these regulations, he emphasizes their value, if rightly used: Or is it from you that the Word of God went out? Or did it come to you alone? The tendency among the Corinthian Christians was to be so self-complacent that they gave the impression of being the original Christians and that the wide world must learn from them. But they must remember that they were neither the first nor the only Christian congregation; the Gospel had neither gone forth from Corinth as the source, nor had it reached them alone. It behooved them, therefore, to adjust their church order to that of the other churches, to conform to the greater experience of such as had had an opportunity to try out the rules of divine worship. And if one of them persisted in being unruly, if he deemed himself as having' prophetical or spiritual insight into matters, he should know and, if a true prophet, will admit for a certainty that the things which the apostle writes are a commandment of the Lord. The Lord of the Church, Jesus Christ, has not only given the apostles the ability to judge all things, 1 Corinthians 2:15, but He has entrusted to them such rules as will redound to the upbuilding of the congregation. If, however, any man persists in his ignorance, let him be ignorant. His willful ignorance causes the Lord to disown him, just as he will be disregarded, abandoned, to his own self-will by the members of the congregation.

And so the apostle, in conclusion, sums up once more: And so, my brethren, seek eagerly after the gift of prophesying, and to speak with tongues do not hinder. The latter is to be allowed in the congregation, but not encouraged like prophecy; no obstacle is to be put in its way, but the decided preference is to be given to the gift whose power to edify was so obvious. And so far as the public services in general are concerned: Let all things be carried on with proper Christian taste and deportment and in order. Both indecorousness and tumultuousness in a Christian assembly are at variance with the will of the Lord of the Church. Rules and orders may be mechanical, but they tend to serve the preaching of the Gospel and the edifying of the congregation, and should therefore by no means be despised.

Summary. Among all spiritual gifts Paul commends prophecy as serving for the edification of the congregation, being preferable to the gift of tongues; he proposes an order of service, forbids the public teaching of women, and emphasizes the fact that God is a God of peace and order.

Bibliographical Information
Kretzmann, Paul E. Ph. D., D. D. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 14". "Kretzmann's Popular Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/kpc/1-corinthians-14.html. 1921-23.
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