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Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 14

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

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Verses 1-40

The Gift of "Tongues"; a Primitive Worship
Service (14:1-40)

Paul, coming down as he always did from the sublime to the practical, now spends some time on what he calls "tongues" or "speaking in tongues." The first question is: What exactly did he mean by this? Since "tongue" is a word often used to mean "language," the obvious meaning of "tongues" here would be that it was a miraculous gift of the Spirit, by which persons were enabled to speak foreign languages that they had never learned. The principal argument to support this view is that in Acts 2, when the Christians speak in tongues these would seem to have been definite languages or at least dialects (see Acts 2); and that this "gift" at Corinth—having the same name—must be the same thing. On the other hand, if one examines what Paul says of "tongues" speaking at Corinth, one can put down the following clues:

It is contrasted with prophecy, that is, preaching (14:1-5).

No one understands it (vs. 2); contrast this with Acts 2:8.

Even the person who spoke in a tongue did not usually understand it (vs. 5), and could not interpret it himself unless the power to do so came in answer to prayer (vs. 13).

4. Speaking in a tongue is contrasted with speaking (praying or singing) with the mind (vss. 14, 19). This contrasts with speaking in any human language, for all of them come from the mind.

Considering these points, most commentators today believe that this speaking in "tongues" at Corinth—whatever may be the conclusion about Acts 2—was not the use of actual foreign tongues, but the utterance of sounds not understood by anyone. It was involuntary, no doubt. Indeed, as the reader may discover for himself, there are Christian groups today in which speaking with tongues is not uncommon. There is even one Presbyterian church in New York State where the phenomenon has occurred. This writer has talked with persons who have themselves spoken "in tongues," and has obtained some samples of what the "tongues" sound like. They are certainly no known language. Very likely these modern "tongues" are quite similar to those strange sounds in Corinth.

Paul’s attitude to this sign or "gift" of the Spirit is twofold. On the one hand he agrees that tongues are a spiritual gift, and he thanks God he speaks in tongues more than any of them did. On the other hand, he rates this gift low when it is contrasted with "prophecy" or, as we would say, preaching. His reason for this is simple: prophecy is an expression of love, for it helps ("edi­fies," builds up) others; while a "tongue" only confuses the situa­tion and does no one any good except the speaker himself.

Commentators have struggled mightily in the attempt to straighten out verses 22-25. Paul first makes a statement, then he gives an illustration; but the illustration, on the face of it, proves exactly the opposite of the statement it is supposed to illustrate! Thus:

Tongues are a sign for unbelievers (vs. 22).

Prophecy is a sign for believers (vs. 22).

Statement illustrating (?) a: If the church is filled with people speaking in tongues, an unbeliever will think they are crazy (vs. 23).

Statement illustrating (?) b: It is prophecy, not tongues, that convicts and convinces an unbeliever into believing that God is present in the church (vss. 24-25).

The most ingenious efforts have been not entirely successful in making sense out of this. Just one translator has boldly done what probably ought to be done, namely, reverse (a) and (b). Maybe Paul, in a rushed moment, actually dictated verse 22 as it is; or maybe a rushed secretary took down backward what Paul said correctly. At any rate, this one translator believes that what Paul meant to say in verse 22 was: Tongues are a sign not for unbelievers but for believers; while prophecy is not for be­lievers but for unbelievers. Then the illustrations fit perfectly.

In verses 26-33 we have in a few words a picture of a Co­rinthian worship service, which was very likely typical of such occasions throughout the Primitive Church; and also the prin­ciples which, according to Paul, should underlie true worship in the Church. It is not said in so many words here, but we know that in Corinth, as elsewhere, for many years there was no specially constructed and dedicated house of worship. Christians would meet in any home large enough, as very small sects do today. The meeting had no program, no "order of service." All was spontaneous, unpredictable. The main feature was that every­one wanted to take part. Everyone had something to contribute. (The Greek pronoun for "each" in these verses is masculine; Paul did not mean that women did, or should, take audible part in the service.) This contribution might be a hymn (literally a psalm), a "lesson" (something he wished to teach; perhaps a Bible lesson?), a "revelation" (some special and individual truth or experience), an outburst in a "tongue," or an interpretation of the tongue. What the meeting must have been like, we can well imagine. There would have been enormous enthusiasm, but very little sense to be made out of it. Paul, with inspired common sense, points out a better way to do it. In any one meeting, not more than three persons shall be allowed to speak, and only one of these at a time. Further, unless someone is prepared to in­terpret the tongues, let such people be silent. Two or three "prophets" or preachers may speak, but again only one at a time. Further, the congregation (or the other prophets, it is not clear which) are not to accept just anything a prophet says; each utter­ance must be "weighed" and considered. Paul assumes that all (men, of course) can prophesy and should be given an opportu­nity to do so at some time.

We can summarize, partly in Paul’s words, first the purpose of group (public) worship, and then the manner of it. Three words express the purpose: edification (building-up, vs. 26), learning (vs. 31), encouragement (vs. 31). We can apply that to our own worship services of all kinds. The main question is not, Is this beautiful, restful, "sweet"? The questions are: Does this help to build Christian character? Do we learn something about God, about the Christian life? Do we leave the service with our faith uplifted and stronger than when we came? These are the im­portant matters. As for the manner of worship, Paul laid down no rules, only one general principle: God is not a God of con­fusion but of peace; therefore let all be done "decently and in order." To put all this into even shorter form: Christian public worship of God must be based on the spiritual nature of God and the spiritual need of men. Any worship that expresses the one and fulfills the other is worship God will bless.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on 1 Corinthians 14". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/1-corinthians-14.html.
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