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Thursday, July 18th, 2024
the Week of Proper 10 / Ordinary 15
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Bible Commentaries
1 Corinthians 14

Pett's Commentary on the BiblePett's Commentary

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Verse 1

Comparison Of Tongues And Prophecy (14:1-25)

'Go on following after love, and go on being earnestly desirous of what is spiritual (spiritual things). But rather that you may prophesy.'

So they are first of all to go on pursuing love. And yet all he has said about love is not to put them off seeking what is spiritual, from seeking spiritual things. Love will seek spiritual gifts in the church for the blessing of all. Let them go on walking firmly in the path of love, and let them also go on earnestly desiring what is spiritual, including the gracious gifts of God he has described, in order that they may be used in love. And especially let them desire that they might prophesy. For now, if they heed his words, it will be for the right reason, because they love their brothers and sisters and long to benefit them. And of these gifts which will benefit the church as it gathers, prophecy is pre-eminent. For by that they will benefit most their fellow believers. And so he desires them to seek to prophesy above all else.

But why should we seek that which is in the sovereign hands of God? The answer lies in the nature of God's salvation. It is wholly God's free gift and wrought by God and yet men are to seek it and respond to it because that is the human side of the way in which God does things. So it is with His gifts. They are under His sovereign control and yet we are to seek them, not demandingly, but gratefully, because we seek the good of all. It reminds us constantly of our dependence on God.

Verses 1-33

Spiritual Gifts For The Well-being of Christ and His Body (12:1-14:33).

Paul now begins his reply to their question about spiritual gifts ('concerning spiritual things') and immediately gives an initial warning that such gifts can easily be perverted by the subtlety of evil spiritual forces. It is in the nature of spiritual gifts that they will be imitated and distorted by such evil forces with ill intent, for they are ever out to deceive, and will seek to mimic spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:1-3). Today it may be in a more refined way, but it is still ever a possibility. That is why 'prophets' must subject themselves to the judgment of others so gifted (1 Corinthians 14:29).

This is then followed by a brief description of the gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4-11) and the stress that each is necessary for the well-being of the body of Christ. The seemingly least important members of the church with the least of the gifts is as essential as the most important (1 Corinthians 12:12-26). And the stress is on their benefit to the whole body. We should note here that there is no contrast between body and head. Here he is speaking of Christ's own body into which His people have been incorporated through inundation by the Holy Spirit into His body. The people are both head and body, made one with Christ in His body as in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17. The body is Christ and His people (1 Corinthians 12:12-13).

When Paul mentions Christ's Headship in Corinthians it is describing His authoritative position and has no direct connection with the idea of His body (1 Corinthians 11:3). He finishes the chapter here by outlining different ministries and gifts, and stresses that each should be desirous of playing a full part, consonant with their gifts, in the church, as members with Christ of the whole body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27-31).

So all have their part to play through the Spirit in nourishing Christ's body. He then stresses the way in which these gifts should be used. They are to be used in love and concern for every member of Christ's body, lovingly, gently, humbly, unselfishly, and thoughtfully (1 Corinthians 13:1-10), for no gift or act of service has any value unless used in love. Indeed our knowledge is restricted and dimly perceived, something we should recognise in all humility, but love is possible in fullest measure (1 Corinthians 13:11-13 compare 1 Corinthians 8:1-3). There is no limit to Christian love.

This is then further followed by advice and warnings with respect to the utilisation of spiritual gifts during church gatherings (1 Corinthians 14:1-33), stressing the importance of gifts that can benefit all, and warning against enthusiastic overuse. They must not be allowed to crowd out the essentials of Christian worship, the word, exposition, prayer and worship in song.

Verses 1-40

Approach to Worship (11:2-14:40).

We now move on to a section which deals with the Christian approach to worship in the light of the particular problems of the Corinthian church. Chapter 11 covers the question of the covering or uncovering of the head in praying and prophesying, and its significance, followed by problems arising at the Christian love feasts and the Lord's Table, including the divisions caused by those problems. Note that it is all about problems arising from un-Christian behaviour and attitudes. Chapters 12-14 then go on to deal with the question of the church as one body with Christ, and with that of spiritual gifts for the edifying of that one body, and warns again against un-Christian behaviour and attitudes by misuse of the gifts. And embedded within the whole is the great chapter on Christian love (chapter 13) which should underlie all worship. All worship is to be founded on love, and what we do in worship should have in mind how it will affect others. Worship is never to be selfish. It is to be participating together for the good of all.

Verses 2-3

'For he who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men, but to God. For no man understands, but in the spirit he speaks mysteries. But he who prophesies speaks to men edification, and exhortation, and consolation.'

This is because the man who speaks with tongues, which has been their favourite test of spirituality, does not speak to men at all. He speaks to God. For no one understands him (note that Paul assumes that the tongues will not be understandable. (Unlike at Pentecost, that is not the point of these tongues). He may be speaking in the Spirit but he is speaking mysteries. It is of benefit to none but himself.

The gift of tongues is a gift by which men can speak in unknown languages to God. Paul describes speaking in tongues as 'speaking words' so that they would seem to be some form of language. But neither speaker nor hearer understand them. They are a means by which men speak to God, and as described here clearly contain an element of thanksgiving, although, unless the tongues are interpreted, only God knows about it. Yet their use brings private blessing to the heart. They provide some kind of spiritual relief and assistance in private worship whereby the heart is drawn to God. This is thus mainly a gift for private use and that is the question that Paul will deal with, for some of the Corinthians were making a great show of tongues in public.

Tongues which could actually be described as known languages have (rarely) been known in the present day, and have been evidenced, but it is not usual for them to be recognised, and it is not their purpose. And even so they did not have the purpose of edifying. The recognition of the language was usually purely 'accidental' because say a missionary was present who recognised the language. Pentecost was an exception. Sadly many who have enthusiastically sought to set them forth as real commonly known languages have in their ignorance often made fools of themselves. We need to beware of over enthusiasm not backed up by solid evidence.

But today so many are artificially worked up that it is doubtful whether they are genuine tongues at all, simply babbling. Whether that was so in Paul’s time we do not know.

On the other hand the one who prophesies in love speaks to men, edifying, exhorting, consoling. Rather than him speaking to God for his own private blessing, God is speaking through him for the blessing of all. And the whole church is blessed. By 'edifying' is meant benefiting spiritually or improving morally, building up the inner man. Exhortation (parakaleo) encourages, and spurs on, and strengthens and comforts. Consolation comforts and nurtures and encourages. Prophecy of this type was not intended to produce new revelation.

Prophecy was an especially important gift in the early church because as the church spread it had to depend on only partly trained men. The special inspiration of men by the Holy Spirit was, next to the Scriptures and the Tradition of Jesus, the life-blood of the church. Today we are better trained. But we would do well to seek to prophesy by the Spirit as we preach.

Verse 4

'He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church.'

For this is the nature of these gifts. Tongues are for self-edification, prophecy is in order to edify all. Thus, in church, prophecy should have preference.

Verse 5

'Now I would have you all speak with tongues, but rather that you should prophesy. And greater is he who prophesies than he who speaks with tongues, except he interpret, that the church may receive edifying.'

This preference for prophecy, Paul stresses, is not to demean tongues, for he would be happy for all to speak in tongues when praying privately, but rather because prophecy benefits all. He is not against tongues. He could wish that all might have the gift. But he would rather that they all prophesied. For this wish for something for all without it actually necessarily coming to fulfilment compare Numbers 11:29, which may well have been in Paul's mind (see also 1 Corinthians 7:7).

He then agrees that an exception can be made when an interpreter is present, for interpretation makes tongues edifying to all. An interpreter is someone with the supernatural gift to interpret the tongues and put them into the language known to the church members. Then the church members can also be benefited by tongues.

'Greater' in this case means 'of more value'. They are greater because what they do is more useful to all.

Verse 6

'But now, brothers, if I come to you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, unless I speak to you either by way of revelation, or of knowledge, or of prophesying, or of teaching?'

He asks them to consider. What profit can he be to them when he comes to them speaking in tongues and nothing more? It may be that he knows that they would be delighted for him to come to them speaking in tongues in the church. He would then be supporting their stance, for the way he is speaking shows that they have been putting undue emphasis on tongues. What clearly matters to them is that tongues should be seen as giving status and seen as evidence of a special spirituality.

And yet he knows that their answer, if honest, must be 'none at all'. For they will have to admit that it may please them but it would not profit them. He can in fact be of no benefit, he suggests, unless he also manifests another gift, one such as revelation, or knowledge, or prophesying, or teaching.

'Revelation' means a revealing of divine truth. The Book of 'Revelation' is the supreme example of this. In 1 Corinthians 14:30-31 it is closely linked with prophecy (as it is here). It is a prophetic function. And yet it is also distinguished from it. A revelation has precedence over prophecy (1 Corinthians 14:30). It is a special message from God of a more direct kind. Possibly the kind, for example, that Agabus received (Acts 11:28). Paul also went up to Jerusalem by revelation in order to consult with the Apostles (Galatians 2:2). When God was indicating a particular course for His people it came by revelation, and it would seem that in those days it was a fairly regular, but not common, occurrence.

'Knowledge' here parallels 'revelation' and indicates the building up of spiritual knowledge so that men might be founded in the truth. This is imparted through both prophecy and teaching.

But the main overall point is that if the hearers are to benefit, they must receive an understandable message in their own language. He will not use tongues just for the sake of it. They are no proof of special spirituality. He wants to be understood.

Verse 7

'Even things without life, giving a voice (noise), whether pipe or harp, if they give not a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped?'

Let them consider the example of worldly things which make noises. Even though they are without life we still expect them to make intelligible noises. If they play sounds which are not distinctive who will know what is being conveyed? The player must ensure that the music he produces is meaningful to the hearer. The inference is that we who have life and are intelligent should ensure that we make noises in public that are intelligible, whereas there is nothing in tongues that can be distinguished by men, and from which they can themselves benefit.

Verse 8

'For if the trumpet give an uncertain voice, who shall prepare himself for battle?'

The same is true of the war trumpet as is true of musical instruments. Different ways in which it is sounded indicate different things. If it blares out just anything who will know what it is saying? The army and the people will not know what to do.

Verse 9

'So also you, unless you utter by the tongue speech easy to understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for you will be speaking into the air.'

The same is true of speaking to the church. Unless members speak in easily understandable speech, how will others know what they are saying? How will they know what to do? Their words will vanish into thin air, which will absorb them unheard (because not understood). Only the fresh air will hear them, just as the uncertain notes of the trumpet disappear into the air 'unheard'.

However, it must be seen as possible that by 'you will be speaking into the air' Paul wishes them to have in mind 'the air' in which spirits were seen to exist. Ephesians 2:2 speaks of 'the prince of the power ('power' there was the equivalent of 'kingdom' - compare 'power of darkness' (Colossians 1:13)) of the air'. In this case he would be reminding them of his words in 1 Corinthians 12:1-3. (This may have been more obvious to them than to us if 'the air' was generally recognised as a sphere of spirits). He may be saying that publicly spoken tongues are only of interest to the spirit world, and without love may well be an indication of the interest of false spirits. However, few commentators see it that way. If it does have that in mind the thought is not expanded on.

Verses 10-11

'There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and no kind is without signification. If then I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be to him who speaks a barbarian, and he who speaks will be a barbarian to me.'

Indeed the world has many voices that speak (he avoids the word 'tongues' specifically so as not to confuse the issue), and each one means something. And yet if I do not know the meaning of the voice I will be to that one simply as a barbarian, someone who does not know his language, and he will be a barbarian to me, because I do not hear his language. Non-Greek speakers were thought of as 'barbarians' simply because their language sounded to the Greeks like 'bar-bar-bar'. The whole point is that that is what tongues sound like to the church as a whole. They were a meaningless jabber.

Verse 12

'So also you, since you are zealous of spirits, seek that you may abound to the edifying of the church.'

Now he turns to apply his words directly to his hearers. He recognises that they are 'zealous of spirits'. 'Spirits' must have in mind their own spirits, through whom the Spirit operates. Compare the 'spirits of the prophets' (1 Corinthians 14:32), Paul's own 'spirit' (1 Corinthians 14:14), 'the spirits of the prophets' in 1 John 4:1. Thus he must mean 'zealous of inner spirits that are active spiritually', presumably, in context, in the use of spiritual gifts. In that case, he says, seek to abound with a view to edifying the church. In that way they will be manifesting love and giving exhortation and instruction which benefits all.

Verse 13

'Wherefore let him who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret.'

So if someone does pray in a tongue in the church publicly he should pray that he might interpret, that all may benefit. Otherwise he should keep silent.

Verse 14

'For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful.'

For praying in a tongue does not benefit the church at all. Indeed, says Paul, it is not only the church which does not understand me when I pray in tongues, I also do not understand myself. My mind is not involved. Praying in tongues may be of spiritual benefit because my spirit comes in close contact with God, Who does understand, but it does not benefit or assist my mind or my understanding. Nor does it benefit others.

Verse 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.'

So what shall his choice be? This could be interpreted one of two ways. Firstly, that he will choose to pray in both ways. Sometimes to pray in private in tongues so that his spirit is in special rapport with God through the Spirit inspired words, and sometimes to pray in his own language so that as his heart reaches up towards God his mind also understands what he is praying and he can be directly involved rationally. The same then also applies to singing in tongues, and singing with understanding. But if this is in mind, and the context would support it, he has in mind here, at least for the tongues, private prayer, and private singing, for he is aware that the church will not benefit from either. Thus for use in the church he will keep to rational praying and singing.

The alternative meaning is that when he prays in church he will combine spirit and understanding. He wants both to be at work. Then it is referring to the fact that this is what he will do in the church. For he confirms elsewhere that he does use tongues in private prayer.

Verses 16-17

'Else if you bless with the spirit, how shall he who fills the place of the unlearned say the Amen at your giving of thanks, seeing that he does not know what you are saying? For you truly give thanks well, but the other is not edified.'

He confirms the point made in 1 Corinthians 14:15 by pointing out yet again that if an individual 'blesses' with his spirit in tongues, that is offers praise, worship and thanksgiving, those who are there as 'unlearned', will be unable to respond to his giving of thanks to God, because they will not know what he is saying. While he will be giving thanks well, (something he could do equally well in private), because he is, if the gift is a true one, Spirit inspired, no one else will be edified.

We could in fact argue that actually in such a case (of insisting on using uninterpreted tongues in public) it will be questionable whether the tongues are Spirit inspired, for it is hardly likely that the Spirit would inspire selfish praying which is now seen as forbidden. That is why we must translate with a small 's'.

'How shall he who fills the place of the unlearned say the Amen at your giving of thanks.' We note here that the one described as 'unlearned' would be expected to say 'Amen' and will fail to be edified or built up. This would point to such a person being a Christian. This might suggest that the person is so described simply because they cannot understand the tongues. 'Unlearned' may even have been a slightly derogatory term used by those who spoke in tongues of those who did not.

Others point to 1 Corinthians 14:24 and consider that it probably means those who have not yet full understood and responded to the Christian faith. This might then suggest that special places were reserved for such. Then it would demonstrate that Paul was especially concerned for them. He would see it as tragic if they were put off by too much in the way of tongues. It would in his eyes be important that they could participate in the worship and understand sufficient to be able to say 'Amen', that is, indicate their agreement and participation.

Or in view of the reference to edifying it may mean the Christian novices. But whichever it means the point is the same. The word actually connects with a root which can indicate someone not particularly trained, the ordinary person in contrast to the trained expert, although there is some evidence for a technical meaning as signifying one who still attended pagan worship but was interested in Christianity.

His assumption that the church will say 'Amen', a Hebraism, is interesting. 'Amen' was said in synagogue services in response to prayers (compare Psalms 106:48; 1 Chronicles 16:36; Nehemiah 5:13; Nehemiah 8:6). This would tend to indicate that to quite some extent church worship was patterned on synagogue worship.

Verses 18-19

'I thank God, I speak with tongues more than you all. Howbeit in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that I might instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.'

He sums up the point from his own example. It is not that he is against tongues, in fact he uses them frequently. Indeed he can thank God that he is sure that he speaks with tongues more than all of them. (So let them not think that they are so very special).

But in the church he would prefer to speak only five intelligible words in order to instruct others than to speak ten thousand words in a tongue which is not understood Thus he follows his own guidance.

(These words in fact throw a great light on Paul's prayer life. This confidence must arise because of the hours he spent in private prayer. He was clearly certain that it was more than those Corinthians who thought themselves 'ultra-spiritual'. And as he also prayed equally as much with the understanding it demonstrated how much he prayed, although he does not point the fact out specifically. He leaves them to infer it).

We note from this that he considers that genuine tongues are composed of words, and thus are languages of a kind. And the previous verse has suggested that a main use of tongues is thanksgiving, so that we are beginning to get some idea of what tongues are.

Verse 20

'Brothers, do not be children in mind. Yet in malice be you babes, but in mind be men.'

He then appeals to them to think in an adult way. Children mainly think totally selfishly and without fully considering what they are saying (compare Jeremiah 4:22), not because they are totally selfish but because to them life revolves around them and their affairs They thus might be satisfied to continue babbling meaninglessly in company, and even enjoy it. But no sensible adult would do so. Sensible adults recognise the wider horizon. Thus they should behave like adults, and take many things into consideration.

Then he remembers some of the maliciousness he has heard with regard to this question, or possibly seeks to prevent it rising, so he adds, 'if you want to be children then be babes as far as malice is concerned'. In other words, be adults when thinking of what will benefit God's people, but do not let your malice develop and grow like adults would, rather let it remain small and temporary and quickly forgotten like that of little children.

Verse 21

'In the law it is written, By men of strange tongues and by the lips of strangers will I speak to this people, and not even thus will they hear me, says the Lord.'

He now turns to the Scriptures quoting from Isaiah 28:11-12, either from some version that we do not have (it has similarities with Aquila's Greek translation), or as being paraphrased from the memory. This refers to the fact that in response to his opponents’ suggestion that he, Isaiah, is speaking on the same level with little children and in childish language, God would deal with Israel in judgment by bringing against them armies of men who spoke strange tongues and who would speak with the lips of strangers with nothing to say to them. This referred to the Assyrian armies who would be God's instrument of judgment. They would hear these strange tongues at their gates, and rather than having anything to say to them the strange tongues would be a sign that they were doomed to judgment. This is how God would speak to them. They would hear strange tongues and recognise that they were about to suffer judgment because of their unbelief.

Verse 22

'Wherefore (‘so that’) tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe, but to the unbelieving. But prophesying is for a sign, not to the unbelieving, but to those who believe.'

The ‘wherefore’ (so that) connects back to the previous verse. In the same way, he says, if you speak to the unbelieving in indecipherable tongues you will simply be confirming to them that God has no message for them, that judgment is at the gates. They will infer that they must be under judgment and that this God to Whom they have come to listen has nothing to say to them. Having come in to hear words from God it will be apparent to them that God is deliberately keeping His mysteries from them. And so their unbelief will be confirmed. Such will go away unbelieving. They will go away empty.

On the other hand, he says, if you prophesy then it will indicate that there is a real message from God for them and that it is for those willing to believe, and they will respond accordingly. Hope is offered. Belief will be the response. So tongues will only turn men away, while prophecy will draw them to belief.

'To those who believe.' That is, those who subsequently believe as a result of hearing the prophecy, those who are ready to believe, those who are potential believers, in direct contrast with those who go away confirmed in unbelief because of tongues. We can compare here those in Acts 17:32. Some mocked (strange tongues would have been good enough for them), others said, ‘we will hear you again on this matter’. As potential believers they must be spoken to in an understandable way.

Verse 23

'If therefore the whole church be assembled together and all speak with tongues, and there come in men unlearned or unbelieving, will they not say that you are mad?'

Then he brings a second argument, taking the worst case scenario, which confirms what has been said. Suppose there is a gathering of the whole church, and suppose an unbeliever or someone untaught comes in and finds that everyone, one by one, speaks in tongues (or even all together) and nothing else. What will his impression be? He will simply say that they are all mad. So the two arguments emphasise that those who are seeking will think that God has nothing to say to them, and those who are simply curious will write them off as mad.

The case is an improbable one. There was no way that the whole church would gather and do nothing but speak in tongues. It is exaggeration to bring out the point.

This in no way indicates that all could speak in tongues, any more than the next verse means that all could prophesy. It is a theoretical case which brings out the inadequacy of tongues as an evangelistic medium (they might well have thought that what they themselves saw as something wonderful would convince everyone else as well).

Verses 24-25

'But if all prophesy, and there come in one unbelieving or unlearned, he is reproved by all, he is judged by all, the secrets of his heart are made manifest; and so he will fall down on his face and worship God, declaring that God is among you indeed.'

But what a different situation it will be if all are prophesying one by one when the unbelieving or untaught person comes in who is potentially a believer. What then? He will be reproved by each one as they prophesy, he will recognise himself as judged by each one as they prophesy, the secrets of his heart will be laid bare as the truth shines within him, and he will fall down on his face and worship God. He will no longer think that there is no message for him. Rather he will recognise that there is, and that he is judged by God, and he will respond accordingly. He will be converted and declare that God is truly among them indeed. He will become a believer. (As opposed to going out with no message, feeling that God has refused to speak to him, or even thinking that they are mad, because of tongues). The idea behind this last phrase comes from Isaiah 45:14. So will the miracle of conversion take place among the erstwhile unbelievers.

Verse 26

Consequent Instructions For The Church Meeting (14:26-33).

'What is it then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done to edifying.'

So being satisfied that he has satisfactorily dealt with that question Paul now moves on to positive instructions. He asks them to consider a typical gathering of Christians on the assumption that they are all coming inspired by the Spirit and filled with love and concern for one another. What is the situation? They will all come inspired in a different way. One will have a psalm that has been laid on his heart so that they can sing together rationally, another will have some teaching that he feels the Spirit wishes the church to know, another may have a revelation that God has given him about some matter, another has a tongue, and another its interpretation. All will have as their main aim and desire the edifying of the whole church. What a difference from if they all come in to speak in tongues, each for his own individual benefit.

Nevertheless even then they must act thoughtfully and considerately. They must exercise their gifts with a view to edifying others.

It is noteworthy that he does not mention prophecy which up to now has been prominent, and especially so in view of 1 Corinthians 14:31. This would suggest that he considers that what he has mentioned adequately covers the same ground as prophecy, possibly the psalm and/or teaching. The psalm may signify a prophetic psalm. Note how the prophecies in Luke 1:2 read like psalms. ‘Revelation’ would appear to be an exceptional and not too common gift (see below), although it would also arise out of prophesying.

Verses 27-28

'If any man speaks in a tongue, let it be by two, or at the most three, and that in turn; and let one interpret. But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church, and let him speak to himself, and to God.'

So if a man does come with a tongue, it should be by two, or at the most three, and should be 'in turn'. And even then it must be interpreted. And if no interpreter is present then the person should 'keep silence'. He should rather speak quietly and privately to himself and to God.

The restriction is quite specific. Three should be the upward limit of tongues, and this in a gathering which will last several hours. And the fact that it is to be 'in turn' might indicate that in practise in the past people have been speaking in tongues at the same time, conflicting with each other and causing disruption. Thus they are not to use tongues in unison.

We carefully note the grammar here. Paul begins by speaking to the individual who commences speaking in tongues. He then diverts to consider how many individuals shall be permitted to do this. He then returns to the individual and declares that his tongues must be interpreted. (Thus the interpretation directly follows the tongue). Indeed if no interpreter is present he must refrain from speaking in tongues, as must the possible other two. This demonstrates that the idea that the two or at the most three is simply referring to the number before an interpretation takes place is fallacious. It has nothing to do with when the interpretation takes place. It refers to God's limitation on the number of times this means of revelation can be used.

'Let one interpret.' In a verse where numbers are in use the emphasis on 'one' may signify that the interpretation should be left to only one interpreter. Perhaps when people spoke in tongues interpreters had been so eager that a number had done so at the same time. Or perhaps the emphasis is on the fact that the same interpreter should interpret in each case to maintain continuity of thought and idea. Interpretation was not necessarily to be seen as word for word translation.

There was clearly a great deal of content to their gathering that is not mentioned here. We may probably see it as being occupied by prayer, the reading of the Old Testament Scriptures and exposition on the same, as in the synagogue, hearing some of the traditions of the life of Jesus from someone knowledgeable, almost certainly given word for word from memory as delivered to him (see 1 Corinthians 11:2), or even from a written source (Luke 1:1), followed possibly by an expounding of the tradition, a reading of any letters received from important sources (1 Thessalonians 5:27), psalms and hymns, and then a common meal followed by, or including, the Lord's Supper (compare 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, but the Corinthians were misusing the idea). Not necessarily of course all in this order.

This passage might suggest that a specific amount of time was to be laid aside for exercising the charismata. It was to be a blessed time, but restrained. Thus three interpreted tongues would be quite sufficient and leave room for the exercise of other gifts. And as time was precious (this would for many be the only worship gathering of the week because of their duties), they should only be exercised if they were to be interpreted and thus bring blessing to all. Otherwise they should leave room for more edifying ministry.

Verse 29

'And let the prophets speak by two or three, and let the others discern.'

The same was to apply to the prophets. Two or three would speak while others judged what they said. This may mean that the whole congregation would 'discern', but the connection of the word with 'discernment' of spirits suggests otherwise. Clearly great care was taken by the eldership to ensure that what was said was soundly based on the truth (Romans 12:6), and some at least would have the gift of discernment. Note that the numbers allowed are not quite as strict as for tongues, but they are still limiting. God does not overload His people, nor does he want the prophets to be too limited by the fact that many want to speak.

Again the suggestion that this simply means 'only two or three prophets should speak in any one sequence' cannot be accepted, even though the gathering went on for a long time. The 'if all prophesy' of 1 Corinthians 14:24 does not mean that all might prophesy. It was an exaggeration to get over the point. 1 Corinthians 14:31 is often cited to dispute this, but 1 Corinthians 14:31 in fact says too much if that is the case. For it gives no indication of the necessity for a gap in the series of prophecies.

Verses 30-32

'But if a revelation be made to another sitting by, let the first keep silence. For you all can prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be exhorted, and the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.'

Whatever these verses mean they cannot mean blatantly that 'all can prophesy one by one' without restriction. That would be to contradict the 'two or three' on any interpretation. And it would cause the meeting to be taken over by prophecy, which would go on and on, resulting in listener fatigue, and the hearing of large numbers of prophecies that were in fact never completed because others kept stepping in. Paul can surely not mean that?

What then does he mean? The answer would seem to be that firstly he is pointing out that if a special revelation from God comes they must remember that there will be many future opportunities to prophesy, and thus prophets must be prepared to give way. For the fact is that all such prophets (over a number of gatherings) will have ample opportunity to prophesy one by one. Furthermore prophecy is under the control of the prophet. But revelation only comes more rarely and is specific. And this is said so as to justify the fact that someone who receives a revelation can interrupt a prophet.

'But if a revelation be made to another sitting by, let the first keep silence.' For there may be a time when a particular prophet receives a special revelation from God which cannot wait, and the urgency of this is such that it is seen as justifying the interruption of a prophecy. This confirms quite clearly that such a revelation had precedence (compare Acts 11:28). This was not just speaking of another 'prophecy', and it would not be something that would be happening all the time. It was speaking of a specific revelation from God, possibly an instruction on something that required doing (see Galatians 2:2). But when it did come it must be given preference.

'The first' is the first prophet as compared with 'another'. He will usually be allowed to give out his full prophecy, with an exception arising in the circumstances when another receives 'a revelation'. His prophecy might normally be followed by another prophecy, but a revelation overrides such prophecies. So if a revelation from God comes, then any prophet can be interrupted. We see from this that from time to time the early church did expect to receive such special revelations from God.

Verse 33

'For God is not a God of confusion, but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints.'

This confirms our view of 1 Corinthians 14:30-32. It is difficult to think of anything more confusing (or unhelpful) than prophets constantly standing to prophesy, and constantly being interrupted by other prophets. This could only lead to perplexity and disharmony. And peace was to reign, not confusion, so that this was not in view. But an exception could be made for a special revelation from God. When that came, and the recipient felt that he had to interrupt the meeting to tell everyone, confusion might well have arisen had it not been for these instructions. Thus these instructions were given for the maintenance of peace in such circumstances. It prevented God being the author of confusion.

But this statement is also a finalising statement. It is not limited to this particular case. Having dealt with different aspects of ministry Paul now refers all his arguments to God. He declares that God is not the God of confusion, which is why he has said what he has. And this can in fact be seen as looking back to all he has been saying about controlling the ministry to His people, not just to the last verses. God does not want confusion at all. If tongues and their misuse, or their overuse, cause confusion then God is not their author. If anything else causes confusion in their meetings, such as too much prophecy, then God is also not its author. God is never the author of confusion, so that anything that causes confusion is not of God. Unlike in the mystery religions, which were not to be taken as a model of Christian behaviour, God's prime concern for His people is peace. And He will not support anything that disturbs that peace. That is why Paul has instructed them in line with the behaviour of all the churches. He has not simply been attacking them. He has rather been giving them the example of the worldwide church and the instruction of the God of peace.

Note here the denial that God is the author of any manifestations that disturb peace. This was an extremely important confirmation that all should look to their gifts of grace to ensure that they were gifts of grace, and not just psychological phenomena or worse.

But this then reminds him of another thing that had been said in the letter to him, and that he feels he must briefly respond to, and that is the confusion that has been arising because women were constantly chattering and asking their husbands about anything that they did not understand, disturbing the atmosphere of the gathering and the ability of others to concentrate and hear, or to meditate. And this may even have been exacerbated by the fact that the women sat separately from the men as they did in the synagogue. (This is by no means certain, but it is possible). So he briefly turns his attention to this problem. Such chattering in church is shameful because it breaks down the atmosphere and indicates insufficient reverence. It also demonstrates lack of submission as they disrupt the words of the male public speakers, and is unnecessary because they can ask at home.

Verses 34-35

'Let the women keep silence in the churches, for it is not permitted to them to speak. But let them be in subjection, as also says the law. And if they would learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in the church.'

That women were allowed to prophesy we know from chapter 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Whether they could do so in the church we are not told, but it would seem likely that that was one of the main reasons why she had to wear a covering when she did so, so that she was not seen to be challenging the headship of man. Thus this does not seemingly refer to that.

We have, however, had one or two earlier cases of people who were to keep silence. The man who had 'a tongue' when there was no interpreter present was told to keep silence (1 Corinthians 14:28). The prophet is to keep silence if a special revelation from God comes (1 Corinthians 14:30). Thus the command to keep silence is not for women alone. All should keep silence who have nothing at that time to contribute to the edification of those present. Why then should women particularly keep silence as a whole? Paul supplies the answer. It is because it is they who had the tendency to chatter. It is because it was they who constantly asked their husbands questions, and thus tended to be noisy, and even embarrassed the prophets who spoke. It was the women who tended most to chatter and to gossip (1 Timothy 5:13). It is because, unlike the prophetess who keeps her head covered, they are often oblivious to what they are doing and get so noisy that they seem to forget the headship of man. They forget the need for submission and tend to disturb the meetings. It is even possible that they had much to do with the misuse of tongues. Nothing would have caused more confusion than excited women endlessly expressing themselves in tongues, interrupting what was going on.

Thus, like the man with a tongue when no interpreter is present, they are to maintain a dignified silence. It is not permitted to them to speak. They are under authority. They must not chatter. They should speak to themselves and to God (1 Corinthians 14:28). They must not cause any confusion in the church service, especially by continually asking questions.

Of course, there is an unstated assumption that if one had a genuine gift of grace (charismata), they may utilise it in accordance with what Paul has been saying, for that has been stated in chapter 11. There was no forbidding of that. Although even then it was only when wearing something that indicated their submission to the headship of man and of Christ. Then it was permissible. They could also no doubt sing and take part in worship. What they must not do is chatter and ask questions of their husbands.

Again reference is made to the Law concerning the need for a woman's submission to man as indicated by Genesis 1-2, as he has previously indicated in his arguments in 1 Corinthians 11:3-16. They must recognise continually God's order of things.

So if women wish to understand anything that has taken place in the church gathering, or that has been said in a prophecy, they should not start up a conversation about it, they should remain silent and ask their husbands at home, indicating by this their recognition that they are helpmeets not heads.

(The difficulty that these verses caused in the Western church comes out in that Western manuscripts, and they alone, placed 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 after 1 Corinthians 14:40. Someone was unhappy with them where they were. Yet all the earlier manuscripts (which are non-Western) without exception have them in the correct place, and there is no early evidence at all for them not being a part of the text. Apart from these Western witnesses, the evidence for their inclusion is overwhelming in the terms of textual criticism.

That the change took place very early comes out in the unanimity of Western witnesses. It is possible that the change took place so as to connect 1 Corinthians 14:36 directly with what has gone before rather than it being seen as a comment on 1 Corinthians 14:35-36, some in the Western church seeing 1 Corinthians 14:35-36 as interrupting the flow and relatively unimportant. Or it may have been due to the influence of highborn women in Rome who used their influence when the first copy of the letter was received and read out, to minimise the influence of the verses by this change, the church refusing to excise them altogether.

Most of those who would remove them today probably do so for the same reason as the Western church moved them to follow 1 Corinthians 14:40, because they do not fit in with our view of how Paul should have written his letter and somehow they do not fit in with our ideas. They are inconvenient. So let us put them out of the way. Then they find arguments which will justify the decision, as we always can. (This is not of course done consciously. We are all at times guilty of this process, and should be aware of it). But their arguments are certainly not conclusive, and are not sufficient to overthrow the combined witness of the early manuscripts.

For we can quite understand why some highborn aristocratic Roman women, offended at the implication of these verses and the limit they might place on them, might have been able to use their great influence (not paralleled elsewhere) to prevail on the Roman church to make them a postscript to the section rather than part of the instructions about church worship, thus minimising their influence. Yet it would indicate that even these women could not carry enough weight to have them moved completely. They were Scripture. In other parts of the world there were not such pressures. (This may be so or it may not. But in the end we will never know).

Verse 36

'What? Was it from you that the word of God went forth? or did it come to you alone?'

This refers back to the reference to 'all the churches'. Are the Corinthians going to set themselves up as different from all the others? Do they really consider that the word of God originally went forth from them? That they were the only ones who received it? So much so that they have set up their own ideas in a way which is contradictory to how all the others see things. None others have such extreme manifestations, so much emphasis on them, so conceited a view of their own spirituality. So let them learn from them.

Verses 37-38

'If any man thinks himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him take knowledge of the things which I write to you, that they are the commandment of the Lord. But if any man is ignorant, let him be ignorant (or 'he is not recognised').'

Manuscripts of equal weight contain either the present passive indicative or the present active imperative, thus 'he is not recognised' or 'let him be ignorant'.

So Paul now challenges those who claim authority, if they really are prophets or spiritual, to consider what he says and recognise that it is the commandment of the Lord. He is claiming that his letter is a 'revelation' directly from Jesus Christ. If they do not so recognise it they are merely showing their ignorance in spiritual things. So they may choose. Agree with what God has shown him, or manifest that they have no true spirituality but are spiritually ignorant. In which case they may go on in their ignorance for they have no place in the true church of Christ (or they simply are not recognised).

Verses 39-40

'Wherefore, my brothers, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak with tongues. But let all things be done decently and in order.'

So he now summarises the position to them as his 'brothers' in Christ. This is the fourth time he has used this word in the chapter. He is seeking to be brotherly to them so that they might recognise his good intentions. They should earnestly desire to prophesy (for the edification of the church), they should not forbid men to speak in tongues, as long as it is done in line with what God has shown him, and they should ensure that all is done 'decently and in order', again as God has shown him.

Note. How Should We React Today?

Convinced Pentecostalists and Charismatics will require no further assistance over these matters, and those who are confident that the gifts of the Spirit are not for today, likewise. In all cases their position seems to them secure. They know what they believe. We would, however, say a few words to those who are uncertain, and who ask, how does this apply today? What should the modern Christian do about tongues, and prophecy and so on?

The first thing, of course, must be to develop love. If we begin to live chapter 13, we can trust that chapter 14 will come spontaneously in any way that God chooses. We should neither become desperate for gifts, nor should we lag behind. What matters most is to trust Him to do in us His good pleasure.

It is clear from what we have seen that there is no suggestion in the Scriptures that tongues are a proof of any special spirituality. They are a gift given mainly for use in private and as such can be a blessing. But they are not to be over magnified, and there is certainly no case for trying to force them to come. Babbling in the flesh 'in faith' will not result in tongues in the Spirit. It will result in spurious nonsense.

Those to whom God gives the gift will find that it comes spontaneously. Those who would have the gift should pray to God concerning the matter and then wait on His will. Should He please to give the gift they should allow its manifestation through them, should He not then they should accept His decision by which He has shown His will, while open for anything further that He shows them. But they should remember that the greater gifts are those which benefit the whole church and pray accordingly.

With regard to prophecy only those who attend a church where there is opportunity for individual ministry will be able to manifest the gift even if it is given, but all who preach should certainly pray that the gift might be manifested in their preaching, and look to God to speak through them. Again, if we are genuine, God will bring about His will.

One thing we cannot doubt. God has given the gifts in one way or another through the centuries, even if not as some would have expected. And He still has these gifts for us today. What we must do is be open to His will and commit ourselves in faith into His hands. He does not necessarily fit into our patterns as history has shown. As we commit ourselves to Him, and trust Him to work His will within us, we may be sure that He will do so. And must be content with where He leads, and ready for what He pleases to give. But it should never become a burden to us. Then faith has failed. If we look to Him in faith we can be sure that when we are ready He will give us all we need in order to be a blessing to His people. Let that be our aim.

With regard to healings we may certainly pray for God to heal, and seek to exercise the prayer of faith, possibly even anointing the sick in Christ's name (James 5:14-15). But we do well to avoid extravagant claims which are not in fact realised. Again we can know that God will do His will.

End of note.

Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 14". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/1-corinthians-14.html. 2013.
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