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Observe here, 1. The apostle propounds to the Corinthians a threefold object: charity, spiritual gifts, and prophecy. Charity has the precedency and pre-eminency; the apostle not only prefers it before all other gifts, but before the most useful and excellent graces, even faith and hope; for service and benefit to the church of God, it exceeds them all. Next he mentions spiritual gifts: such were the gift of tongues, the gift of miracles, the gift of healing, and lastly, prophecy, by which we are to understand an ordinary set course of preaching, interpreting and opening the holy scriptures, which contain a revelation of God's mind and will.
Observe, 2. A threefold act recommended, answerable to a threefold object propounded. An act of prosecution; diokhete, prosecute and follow after charity as close as your prosecutors pursue and follow after you. It imports a most earnest, vigorous, and vehement pursuit. An act of emulation; dzeyldte, Desire earnestly spiritual gifts. An act of election and choice: Choose rather that ye may prophesy, or clearly understand the mind of God yourselves, and have an ability to expound and explain it to others; this will bring most glory to God, most profit to his church, and most comfort to yourselves.
Here observe, 1. That the gift of tongues, or speaking divers languages, was greatly valued and much desired by some in the church at that time; probably for this reason, because the apostles were very eminently endowed with this gift, the Holy Ghost descending upon them in the shape of cloven tongues; but yet the gift of prophecy, that is, of understanding in intrepreting God's will, was clearly the more valuable and desirable accomplishment; for though speaking with tongues created more admiration, and conciliated greater veneration to the speaker, yet prophesying was by far the most excellent gift, and tended most to the edification of the church: it is far better to do good, than to appear great; that is most valuable and excelling which is most advantageous and edifying.
Observe, 2. How the apostle enters upon a comparison between the gift of speaking in an unknown tongue, and prophesying or speaking plainly to the church's benefit and comfort. He that speaketh in an unknown tongue, that is, in a language not understood, not explained or interpreted, he speaketh not unto men; that is, not to the understanding of men, for none understand him; but to God only, he alone understands him; and though in the Spirit he speaks mysteries, or the deep things of God, yet all this is not to edification, because not understood by the church.
Whereas, he that prophesieth, that is, he that intelligibly openeth and applieth the word of God to his auditors in the congregation, what he speaks conduces exceedingly to their edification and consolation,
Here note, That the apostle not only dislikes, but plainly forbids, preaching, praying, and all other offices being performed in the church in a language not understood.
So that the practice of the church of Rome in their Latin prayers is a flat contradiction to this whole chapter, and to the practice of the primitive church, Acts 4:24; who lifted up their voice with one accord, and offered up a reasonable service to God.
The prayers of the Jewish church were made in the Hebrew tongue; and God gave the gift of tongues to the Christian church, that the apostles might establish the worship of God in every nation in their own language.
Observe here, 1. Another argument used by the apostle to prove the gift of prophesying, that is, of interpreting the holy scripture, to be far more excellent than the gift of tongues, separated from the gift of interpretation: he that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifies none but himself, because none but himself understands it; but he that teacheth, instructeth, and exhorteth others, edifieth the church, or the whole assembly that he spake in.
Observe, 2. The apostle wishes they all had the gift of tongues, because they were so very covetous and desirous of them: though alas! rather for their own ostentation than the church's edification: yet he rather desires, with Moses, that all the Lord's people were prophets; that is, directed and assisted by the Spirit of God, to deliver plainly and persuasively the will of God to men; for he is the greatest in the church who is most edifying; and he that prophesieth, edifieth more than he that speaketh all languages uninterpreted.
Observe, 3. He amplifies this by instancing in his own person: If I come to you speaking with tongues; as if he had said, I wonder whether what you so admire in others would please you in me! suppose that I, whom God has eminently endowed with the gift of tongues, should come and speak to you in the Arabian language, what good would it do you? What would you be the wiser or better for me, should I make known to you some revelation which I immediately received from God, or open to you some truth which you knew not before, or urge you to some needful duty, or doctrinally expound to you the matters of faith and obedience recorded in the gospel, if either myself or some interpreter did not make what I say intelligible to you, what will it profit you?
To deliver the mind and will of God plainly and persuasively to the church's benefit and edification, is much more acceptable to God, profitable to man, and comfortable to ourselves, than to speak with the tongues of men and angels, in language not understood, or not heard.
Our apostle here proceeds to illustrate his former arguments by a similitude taken from musical instruments, the one used in peace, to wit, the harp; the other in war, to wit, the trumpet; as they are useless, if by distinction their signification is not perceived; for if a man hears not, or understands not, the sound of the harp or trumpet, he cannot prepare himself either for the dance, or the battle: so if persons in the church do not speak intelligibly, they will nothing edify: it is like beating the air, all is vain and to no purpose.
Here the apostle tells them, That there may probably be as many voices or languages in the world as there are nations; and every nation understands its own language, and commonly no other.
Now, says the apostle, if he that has the gift of tongues speak to you in a language which ye understand not, will he not be a barbarian unto you? And if you talk to him in a language he understands not, will you not be barbarians unto him? Verily, it will be just as if two men of two different countries should talk to one another, and neither understands a word of each other.
He farther adds, That seeing they were so very desirous of the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, they should seek those gifts especially by which the church may receive edification and advantage: Seek that ye may excel, to the edifying of the church.
Here note, 1. The noble end which St. Paul directs them to propound in what they desire and design, namely, the edifying of the church.
The church's edification should be the scope of all her members', especially of all her ministers', wishes and prayers, enterprizes and endeavours: our first care should be to lay a right foundation, namely, the doctrine of redemption and salvation, by the meritorious undertaking of Christ Jesus our Lord, the eternal Son of the Father.
Our next care, that our superstructure be answerable to our foundation; this being solid and substantial, that must be so too; acquainting persons with the whole will of God, and the whole duty of man.
Note, 2. The operation to be performed, and the means to be used in order to this noble end: Seek that ye may excel, to the edifying of the church.
Learn hence, 1. That the edifying of the church, and the improvement of its members in knowledge, faith, and holiness, is, and ought to be, the great end which the ministers of God propound to themselves in the use of their gifts, and discharge of their office.
Learn, 2. That the edifying of the church being the proper office of the ministers of Christ, they should study to excel in all gifts and graces conducing thereunto, by such means and methods as are proper for that end; namely, by fervent prayer to God for divine illumination and knowledge, by reading the scriptures with great attention and application of mind, by studying other authors in order to that end, by deep meditation, by judicious, zealous, and laborious preaching, but especially by holy living.
There ought to be a consecration of our lives, as well as of our persons, to the service of God and his church; in this manner, especially, the meanest of her ministers may seek that they may excel, to the edifying of the church.
Observe here, How strongly the apostle pleads the necessity for all public worship, particularly preaching or prophesying, praying and singing, to be performed in a language known and understood by all the congregation: Let him that speaketh, preacheth, or teacheth, in an unknown tongue, in which he cannot edify others, pray for the edifying gift of interpretation, that others may be edified as well as himself; otherwise when we pray in an unknown tongue, our spirit prayeth, that is, our own gifts are exercised; but our understanding is unfruitful, that is, unto others. If we satisfy ourselves, we cannot deify them.
Learn from hence, Both the impiety and absurdity of the church of Rome, in appointing their public offices to be performed in Latin; a language which the common people in France, Spain, Germany, yea, in Italy itself, do not undertand; for the Latin tongue in not now the mother tongue of any nation under heaven: and the council of Trent thunders out an anathema against those that say the mass ought to be celebrated only in the vulgar tongue.
Lord! what is it, if this be not, to offer the sacrifice of fools? How can this be a reasonable service, which is no better than a sinful taking God's name in vain. How can their hearts and tongues go along together, who understand nothing which their tongues utter. They neither know the God they pray to, nor yet the mercies which they pray for. Lord, pity the miserable souls in their communion, who erect an altar, and offer up unknown prayers to an unknown God.
Our apostle still goes on, arguing, that public prayers ought to be made in a language understood by them that pray.
His argument is this: The heart ought to consent to, and agree with, the supplications and prayers presented unto God, and to testify its consent by saying Amen; but, says the apostle, no man can say Amen to that which he doth not understand, nor be edified by that which cannot be understood.
For a close, he tells them, that Almighty God had given him the gift of speaking more languages than all of them, put together, that so as an apostle he might plant and propagate the Christian faith in and throughout all nations; yet he declares he had rather speak a few words to the instruction and edification of his hearers, than a multitude in a language not understood.
The faithful ministers of Christ have such a regard to the end of their ministry, which is the communicating of the divine knowledge to the understandings of their people, that they had much rather they should be edified and profited, than their own parts and gifts applauded and admired.
As if the apostle had said, My brethren, be not like children in understanding, who prefer gay and gaudy things, which make a fine show, as the gift of tongues does, before things more useful.
Thus, do not you choose what best pleaseth you, but what most profits others. I would have you indeed in some respects to be as children, namely in innocency and harmlessness, in freedom from malice, and all kind of wickedness; but in understanding, be and act as men, as persons of mature judgment, who know what is fittest to be spoken, and best to be done.
To be like children in the innocency of our actions, is a virtue; but to be like them in the impotency and weakness of our understanding, is a reproach: In understanding be men.
Observe here, How the apostle, to take the Corinthians off from their fond admiration of the gift of tongues, tells them, That in the law, that is, in the writings of the Old Testament, particularly in Isaiah 28:11 it is declared, that because the people of Judah would cause them to be spoken to in an unknown language; namely, by outlandishing enemies and armies, whose language they should not understand: from whence he infers, that strange tongues were not given for a sign of any good to believers, but they were given as a token rather of God's displeasure to unbelievers; insomuch that, by the just judgment of God, their ignorance by this means would be the more increased: but the gift of prophecy serveth not only for the conversion of unbelievers, but for the edification of believers also; therefore prophecy, or preaching intelligibly, is to be preferred in the church before speaking with tongues.
To convince the Corinthians that prophecy was for more excellent than the gift of tongues, the apostle here argues from the absurdity of speaking in the congregation with a strange tongue uninterpreted; Will they not say ye are man?
And from the utility and advantage of speaking in a language understood, it convinceth and converteth sinners: He is convinced of all, he is judged of all.
As if the apostle had said, When the church meets together, if all that speak should speak in a strange tongue, what will an ignorant or unbelieving person, coming into the congregation, think or say? Will he not apprehend you to be madmen?
Whereas if all that speak do prophecy and interpret scripture to the edification of the church, in such a case, if an unbeliever comes in, he is convinced, discovered, judged by all them that prophesy, and the secrets of his heart are made manifest to himself: and so, falling down, he will adore God, the searcher of the heart, and report, from his own experience, that God is in or among you of a truth.
Where note, Whence prophesying or preaching of the word has its convincing power, and converting efficacy, namely, from that God who is present in and with his own word: God is in, or with, you of a truth.
When Almighty God quickens the word with his own Spirit, and clothes it with his own power, when he bids it go in his might, and prevail in his strength, the strongest holds of ignorance and unbelief, of obstinacy and rebellion, fall to the ground like the first-ripe figs shaken with the wind: when the unlearned or idiot comes into the assembly of the saints, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all, he falls down and worships.
What is it that works this sudden change?
Not the preaching of men, but the power of God: He will report that God is in you of a truth.
The arm of grace in the ministry of the word is victorious and invincible; the efficacy and success of the word depends not on the parts of a man, but the power of God.
From this verse to the end of the chapter, the apostle lays down particular precepts for the preservation of decency and good order in the church of God; and first he advises, when they came together into the public assemblies, that if any of them had a psalm or hymn suggested to them by the Spirit of God, to his glory, and the church's edification; or had a doctrine, either for instruction or consolation; or had a strange tongue, or the gift of interpreting tongues; let it be how it will, he exhorts that all be done so as may most and best tend to the benefit and edification of the church, which is the true end of church assemblies.
The great end, design and aim, which those who administer in holy things ought to propound to themselves in all their public administrations, is the church's edification, the people's growth and improvement in knowledge, faith, and holiness.
Let all things be done to edifying; that is, let all your public offices be so performed, and in such a manner, as may best conduce to the end for which they were designed.
Our apostle's next advice for the church's edification, is this, That such as had the gift of tongues should not speak all together, but two or three successively, one after another; and that one interpret what was so spoken, to the benefit and edifying of the church.
But if there were no interpreter present, let him, says the apostle, that only speaks with tongues, keep silence in the church; and let him only speak mentally to himself and to God, in prayer and thanksgiving.
The same advice he gives to them that prophesied; to wit, that only two or three of them should prophesy successively, in order to the church's edification, and that the rest of the prophets should sit still and judge, examining their doctrines by the rule of the word: for says he, the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets; that is, the doctrines which the prophets deliver are apt to be judged and examined by other prophets, whether they be agreeable to the word of God or not: or the instinct by which the prophets pretend to be moved at that time to prophesy, is subject to the judgment and censure of other prophets who are endowed with the same gift.
And thus he declares, that all that are prophets, and prophetically inspired, may prophesy, provided it be done orderly and successively, without occasioning disorder and confusion in the church; and so managed as to answer the great end of the institution; namely, the instruction, edification, and consolation, of the church; For God not the author of confusion, but of peace.
Confusion is so far from being of divine inspiration, that it is hateful to God, who requires that peace and order should be kept and maintained, not only in the church of Corinth, but in all the churches of the saints.
That which breaks order, doth also break peace: for there can be no true peace without order; and God is not the author of disorder and confusion in the churches, but of peace.
Here by the way let us observe and note, That speaking and preaching in the public assemblies is limited all along, by the apostle, to the prophets. Let the prophets speak; not the common people; they were to sit by, it was no part of their business to speak, but to examine what was spoken by the rule of the word.
The authoritative preaching of the gifted brethren, at the call of a private congregation, was no more permitted by St. Paul, than his suffering of women to speak in the church; none but prophets, or persons in office, appointed for the work of preaching, were ever suffered to undertake it in the primitive times, and downwards, till very lately.
Let such as first gave, and still give, encouragement to the contrary, consider how they will answer it at the bar of God, who is not the author of such confusion and disorder, but of peace.
A farther rule is here given by the apostle for maintaining decency and order in the public assemblies; namely, that the women should never presume to speak or utter any thing as public teachers in the congregation; no, nor so much as ask any question publicly. Almighty God having by his law made subjection (not public instruction) their duty, of which silence is a token.
Here observe, That it is not the women's speaking in the public assemblies, when they join with the congregation in singing of psalms and prayer, but their speaking by way of teaching and prophesying that is there forbidden.
Note farther, That the means of instruction were not denied the women; at home they might put forth questions to their husbands, for their own information and satisfaction; but to do any thing like this publicly was a shame, or indecent thing, both to the church, the husband, and herself.
Still observe, How the God of order calls for order, and delights in decency, especially in places where his religious worship is celebrated. He has unworthy thoughts of God that thinks him either a patron of, or pleased with, any disorder, either in civil affairs, or religious services.
These words are looked upon by interpreters as a smart reflection upon some of the ministers and members of the church at Corinth; who from a high opinion which they had of themselves and their own management, would not submit to the foregoing precepts, canons, and rules, for order and decency in the church of God. What, says the apostle, do you think that you have all the word and will of God? Doth all knowledge of scripture, and resolution of doubts, rest in your breasts, and flow out of your lips? Consider, you are not the first church that was planted, (Jerusalem was before you,) the gospel was sent to you, it did not come out first from you.
Whence learn, That all kind of scorn is not always uncomely: men are apt to overrate themselves, and to overvalue their own abilities, as if they had engrossed all knowledge, that all must borrow from their store, and light their candle at their torch. Now in that case we may, without breach of charity, or blemish of holiness, check pride with derision; and speak them below men, who set themselves up above men.
Observe next, The apostle affirms, that these rules for order and decency which he had given them, were from the Lord; and he expected and required, that those who esteemed themselves prophets, should observe and obey them as such. But if men will be ignorant, and obstinate in their ignorance, be it at their peril, and let them look to it; do not you regard them: If any be ignorant, let him be ignorant.
For a close of the whole, he exhorts them earnestly to endeavour after the gift of prophesying, and not to forbid the use of the gift of tongues, provided the forementioned rules and directions before given be observed: that so in their public assemblies all things relating to religious worship be performed with that becoming gravity and decency which may most and best conduce to the glory of God and the church's edification.
Learn hence, 1. That the whole church in general, and every individual member of it in particular, ought to perform all the duties of God's worship in a decent and orderly manner.
Learn, 2. That it is the duty of church governors to take care that order and decency be enjoined and observed in the church of God, to the edification of all the members of it.
Learn, 3. That they only have authority to make church orders whom the Lord has made church governors.
Learn, 4. That such orders as relate to real decency in the worship of God, made and confirmed by the governors of the church, ought to be obeyed and conformed to by the members of the church for conscience' sake, that all things may be done decently and in order.
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Burkitt, William. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 14". Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26