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Chapter 12 has shown the placing of every gift in its own place in the body by the Spirit of God. Chapter 13 insists on love as the pervading influence for unity and peace in the functioning of the body. It has been likened to the oil that lubricates machinery to enable it to run smoothly and without friction. Now chapter 14 deals with the actual functioning of the body, each member in service toward each other.
Along with love, it is good to desire spiritual gifts, but prophesying is emphasized in the case of the assembly being gathered together, as is the subject here (v. 23). "Tongues" is treated here as in contrast to prophecy, not because it was forbidden, but because inferior to prophecy. It was a sign gift, and the Corinthians were so attracted by its miraculous character as to ignore its significance, which was more important than the gift itself.
Verse 2 is by no means a doctrinal statement of what is properly true in God's giving the gift of tongues; but speaks of the case of one speaking in the assembly, where the Corinthians were all of one language (Greek). If one should use the gift of tongues there, no one would understand him. He would be speaking to God, no doubt, and to himself, for only God and himself would understand. Compare verse 28. In the Spirit he would be speaking mysteries - not mysteries to himself or to God, but to the assembly. And I must seriously remember that gift is not given merely for my own blessing, but for the help of others. We shall understand much better the force of this chapter if we keep in mind that we are here considering the gathering of the assembly, and that which is becoming as regards ministry for the sake of all.
How much more valuable then was prophecy, which brings edification (building up), exhortation (stirring up), and comfort (binding up), all of which are so necessary for the assembly. For one who spoke in a tongue edified himself because he understood, but did not edify the assembly, because the assembly did not understand. The tongue here is a genuine language, just as is seen inActs 2:6; Acts 2:6, but one which the speaker did not normally understand. The wonder of the gift was that God gave him ability to speak his own thoughts, by the power of the Spirit, in this foreign language, he himself being in thorough control of his words. The value of this in speaking to a foreigner whose language this was, is evident, as Acts 2:1-47 shows; and in this respect Paul spoke with tongues more than others; but in the assembly, where aIl understood Greek, other tongues were unnecessary (vv. 18,19).
Yet Paul does not belittle the true gift of tongues. He would be glad if all were blessed with the gift (to be used of course in godly propriety), rather than to use no gift whatever. This of course clearly indicates that the Corinthians did not all speak with tongues. But he would still rather see them prophesying than speaking with tongues, for this was a greater gift, no doubt because it was more useful for the assembly, unless the one who spoke in a tongue also interpreted, in order to edify the assembly. The understanding of the assembly is the consideration most emphasized here.
Paul could very well have spoken in tongues to the Corinthians, but asks, if so, "What shall I profit you?" And he lists four aspects of ministry that would be profitable. Revelation is what is distinctly revealed by the Spirit of God to the vessel for the time. It is not a mystery, but the opposite, for it is made known. Knowledge is that previously learned, ; and intelligently communicated. Prophesying is the ministry;' of the truth that appeals to heart and conscience, rather than primarily to intellect. Doctrine or teaching is laying a solid foundation of truth, and requires understanding.
Even men, in making musical instruments, do not intend them to be merely noisemakers, though the Corinthians were using tongues as though God had designed them to be used with no discrimination. If, when serious danger threatens, the military trumpeter blows a confused jargon on his trumpet, who can possibly take to heart the message? Similarly, if one did not use distinct speech, understandable to others, he would be merely speaking into the air. This is a reproof too to those who like to use university language, with unusual words and involved sentences, in speaking to the common people: he might as well be silent unless he explains simply what he means.
Verses 10 and I1 show that whatever tongue it was with which God gifted a man, it was a genuine language, of which there were many kinds in the world, and all of them significant to someone, but not to everyone. For if one did not know the meaning of my voice, 1 should be to him as a barbarian, and he to me: there is no fellowship because no understanding.
Verse 12 gives an excellent regulating principle in reference to all gifts. If we zealously desire spiritual gifts, let it be honestly with the object of the trite edification of the assembly. My own blessing, or joy, or prominence are most unworthy motives: others are in need: I should be concerned as to their need being properly met.
Verse 13 shows clearly that one might have the gift of tongues while not having the gift of interpretation. But he could pray for this. Some have insisted that if he could not interpret, then he could not have understood what he was saying. But this is totally wrong. There are many who understand two languages, and yet have no ability to exactly translate from one language into the other. So these two gifts were distinct, though one might possibly have both. If one had spoken his own thoughts in a foreign tongue, by the power of the Spirit, he would very likely find himself completely unable to express the thoroughly identical things in his own language, unless he was gifted by the Spirit of God to interpret. No doubt God used this means to humble the vessel, for the Corinthians illustrate man's tendency to use such gifts to exalt self.
Verse 14 has often been wrongly interpreted through inattention to what the verse actually says. If Paul prayed in an actual tongue, his spirit prayed. If his spirit prayed, then he knew what he was praying, for "what man knoweth the things of a man save the spirit of man which is in him?" (1 Corinthians 2:11). But his understanding was unfruitful. Some have said this means he did not understand; but this is transparently wrong. Unfruitful means not bearing fruit. So if in the assembly I pray in a tongue unknown to the assembly, though I understand myself, yet my understanding is not bearing fruit in the understanding of others.
The force of this is emphasized in the following verses. Praying and singing with the understanding has reference to using words that others can understand, so that the unlearned can say Amen when another gives thanks. If he does not understand, he cannot do this. It will be noted that praying, blessing, and giving of thanks are practically synonymous here. One may give thanks well, with both he and God understanding what he says, but "the other is not edified."
Paul spoke with tongues more than did all the Corinthians. No doubt in his journeys to foreign lands, God gave him ability to speak to foreigners so as to be understood. The value of the gift of tongues in this case is evident. Yet in the assembly ten thousand words in a tongue would be of less value in his eyes than five words spoken with his understanding. This he explains immediately as that which is teaching understandable to others. It is using his understanding in the bearing of fruit.
Their misuse of tongues was childish, and Paul admonishes them not to be children in understanding; yet in malice he tells them to be children. Let us observe the warning here that misuse of gifts, rather than evincing love for others, will tend rather toward malice, that which undermines true unity and love. A little child has no such attitude. In my attitude then let me have the simplicity of a child, but in understanding be "perfect," or mature. And the understanding here is not merely personal, but that which promotes understanding among saints of God.
Isaiah 28:11-12 is quoted in verse 21, referring to Israel's being humbled by the domination of foreign nations over them, on account of their proud rebellion against God. God would use foreign tongues to humble them, not to exalt them: He sought by this means to awaken them from their unbelief; yet they would not hear. Now God had given Israel a fresh sign as to speaking in tongues, Gentile languages being used in the proclamation of the gospel of grace, indicating that the gospel was not merely for Israel, but for all the world. It was a sign therefore specially for Jews (Cf. ch. 1:22), given for the time being, for the establishing of Christianity as being of God. And unbelieving Israel still would not hear.
How clear an illustration is this of the fact that tongues are a sign, not for believers, as verse 22 declares. But prophesying is as manifestly not for unbelievers, but for believers.
Verse 23 therefore insists that in a gathering of the assembly, if one should come in who was untaught or an unbeliever, and heard the saints speaking in tongues unknown to the assembly, he would consider them mentally unbalanced. Of course, if he knew the language spoken, there would be value in this; but when it is evident that all know one language, then it is vain to use a language some do not know. If a tongue were used outside the assembly, where a foreigner may hear in his own language, this was certainly a sign that would have some effect upon unbelievers.
But if in the assembly the saints prophesy, giving intelligent ministry to stir up the hearts and consciences of believers, then an unbeliever coming in, if at all honest, would recognize that there was true reality: God was manifestly among them. The truth itself (not necessarily the simple gospel) would have the effect of conviction to the man's conscience, and specially so when saints are pressing home the truth to one another's hearts and consciences - not at all with the unbeliever in mind. Truth honestly given to apply with sober reality to believers may make manifest the secrets of an unbeliever's heart to himself: his conscience is reached, though the Word is not directed at him.
Verse 26 questions their practice in coming together. Was it consistent with the principles laid down? All were evident, quite forward in contributing, whether a Psalm, a doctrine, tongue, or an interpretation. He does not reprove this fact but presses that the use of these should be for edification. I one spoke in a tongue, he must leave time for at least on more, but three was the limit, and one must interpret. Two or three comprises sufficient witness, for this is intended to be a proper backing up of a message, not of course contrary, or it is no witness. It would seem almost unnecessary to add, "and that by course," but our own day has proven, through the disorderliness of many, how imperative is the need of being told that only one is to speak at one time. If there were no interpreter, then whatever message one had in a tongue, he was to keep silence, being permitted only to speak inaudibly to himself and to God, for only he and God could understand.
As to prophecy, while this was more valuable than tongues, yet only two or three were to speak at one meeting. Two were necessary for a witness and three were sufficient: more than this would be redundance. Others in the assembly were to judge. This is not of course merely in criticism, but in discernment of the truth and spiritual value of the message, just as Paul asked them in 1 Corinthians 10:15: "I speak as to wise men: judge ye what I say."
If one was speaking, and the Spirit of God revealed a message to another, the first was not to prolong his message, but give time for the other. It might be asked how the first would know of the second message. Would the Spirit of God not give exercise of heart to him along this very line, so that he would have grace to know when to stop? Let each therefore have grace not only to speak when so led, but also to keep silence when God so leads.
Verse 31 then indicates that all could be concerned in this matter, each public gift free to function one by one, not of course aIl during one meeting, but in various meetings; that all may learn, and all be encouraged. This was not to be left to two or three brethren, for they also needed ministry for their own souls, and in this aIl ought to contribute.
But verses 32 and 33 are a necessary addition here. Let no one be so carried away in his speaking as to claim he could not help himself from speaking as he does. This is not the general method of the Spirit of God. We may see such an exceptional case as that of the false prophet Balaam (Numbers 23:1-30; Numbers 24:1-25), where he was compelled of God to bless rather than curse Israel, as he had desired; but in the assembly the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets themselves. One is at all times to have rule over his own spirit, being fully responsible for what he says. For the Spirit of God works in full conjunction with the spirit of the prophet, using him with the fullest coordination of his own capabilities, intelligence, personality, conscience, emotions. An evil spirit cannot do this, but seeks to so control his victim that the victim has no rule over what he says, and often does not even know what he says.
But God at all times holds us responsible for what comes from our mouths. He is not the author of confusion, but of peace. Prophets who wrote Scripture were completely preserved from error in doing so, though at the time they did not realize this, as Paul indicates in2 Corinthians 7:8; 2 Corinthians 7:8; and the prophets must ever maintain a lowly distrust of themselves, and faith in the Living God that will work for unity and consideration of one another, the peace of proper communion. This was normal for all the assemblies of the saints, and therefore imperative today. One must always be prepared to answer for what he says, and willing to have his words tested by the truth of Scripture; for he is preserved from error only insofar as he and his ministry are subject to the written Word.
Let us observe that in all the instruction of this chapter, no mention is made explicitly of the leading of the Spirit of God. Yet certainly only the leading of the Spirit of God should move each individual in the assembly. But this is not mentioned because the subject is rather the responsibility of every gift to be kept in proper order and control through suited exercise of heart and obedience to the Word of God. No one is allowed to claim the leading of the Spirit for the dubious activity of his own mind.
But in verse 34 the assembly (not simply the women) is told that the women are to keep silence in the assembly, being not permitted to speak. It is not left to the woman to decide whether or not she will obey this Scripture: the assembly must not permit her speaking. Her place is not public, but under subjection, as the law also taught. These words are no less plain than the simplest gospel verse, and if one should refuse this, how can he trust those verses that give clear assurance of his salvation? Even asking questions in the assembly is not permitted: they may learn at home by this means, from their husbands. Of course, if they do not have a husband, it is elementary that they are not forbidden to ask someone else in private circumstances. But it is a shame for women to speak in the assembly.
How scathing is the word in verses 36 and 37 to silence any controversy on this subject. Who is the source of the Word of God? Was it their right to decide what was the word of God, and what was not? Or did it come only to them, as though they were now the sole possessors of it? And the apostle anticipates the subtle arguments of men and women today, who claim that very spiritual people approve of women speaking in the assembly. Who decides what is spirituality? If one thinks himself a prophet or spiritual, let him show it by a spirit of thorough subjection and obedience to the commandments of the Lord. This is the test. But if anyone was ignorant, let him be ignorant: this is not mere lack of intelligence, but ignoring of God. The assembly was not to give in to him, or listen to his contentions, but leave him to his ignorance.
The conclusion of verses 39 and 40 is clear and decisive. Brethren should earnestly desire to prophesy, and not forbid speaking with tongues. This of course refers to a genuine tongue, not a counterfeit, of which there are many today. Yet even in this, the matter is put in a negative way. If one should urge another to speak in tongues, or if one should desire earnestly to speak in tongues, he is going beyond Scripture, which is not decent, or in order. Moral, spiritual discernment is to be used, that all things should be done decently and in order.
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Grant, L. M. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 14". L.M. Grant's Commentary on the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25