Back to the Gifts
For some people, there could be a sort of twisted satisfaction in being able to stand up and speak in a language they have never studied and which no one present understands. This runs counter to what God really wants to accomplish in Christianity and inside the church. The Almighty has never wanted man to engage in "religious activity" which blurs his focus or distracts his attention. Altars, in the days of the patriarchs, were to be of uncut stones. The priests of the Law of Moses were directed to have no steps leading up to the altar of sacrifice. Everything was to be functional and serve a direct purpose. Even the magnificent trappings of Solomon’s temple were designed to point to the wonders of the spiritual temple of God, the church built out of living stones. The instruction given in the New Testament writings is in consonance with this general principle, and the goal is simplicity and straight-forward edification.
- No mysteries - The use of the gifts in Corinth had gotten out of hand. The apostle, then, has written these instructions on the gifts, focusing in particular on the importance of having true love as the guiding motive. "Pursue love," he says, "yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy" (I Corinthians 14:1). The church in general and the congregation in particular would not be able to function or to move forward without those having spiritual gifts within their midst. The possession of one or more gifts was a good thing, to be used in love. But if the gift was misused, that which should have been good now turned into something destructive, and puffed up the individual who was now putting on a show. "For one who speaks in a tongue," intimates Paul, of those speaking in a foreign language without an interpreter, "does not speak to men, but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries" (I Corinthians 14:2). Not helpful!
- For edification - God’s goal is to have His message delivered as He wants it delivered. He intends for His words to be understood (not necessarily without some work on the part of the listener), and He wants His words to have been verified where necessary. A message in a foreign language could be part of the verification process, as well as healing or other miracles. But in prophesying, the message would get to the hearers. "But one who prophesies," affirms the apostle, "speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation" (I Corinthians 14:3). This is what God wants His word to accomplish for the sake of the spiritual seed of Abraham. "One who speaks in a tongue [without an interpreter] edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church" (I Corinthians 14:4). A message delivered in a foreign language and then interpreted was on equal standing with prophesying in that the message could be understood by the audience. But the one who just spoke in the uninterpreted language only "edified" himself; he simply put on a display for show. "Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues," he interposes, aware of the necessity of the gifts for the church to move forward in the absence of the completed word, "but even more that you would prophesy; and greater is one who prophesies that the one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may receive edifying" (I Corinthians 14:5). The goal is the edification of the church, rather than glorifying the individual.
The goal of the truly humble is simply to get God's job done, honorably and honestly. Jesus led the way, humbly going to the cross because there was no other way. Those who would follow in His footsteps realize that there is likewise a job to be done in the church, and that job is to continue to edify the saints. While the gifts do not exist today, the principle of edification has not gone away! Keep on upbuilding!
Importance of Being Understood
How can anyone learn and change unless they can understand what is being said? If the message in the assembly on the Lord’s Day is in Latin, and no one except the speaker understands Latin, of what use is the message? It is neither encouraging nor enlightening! Hence, in the assemblies of the saints, everything is to be done for edification, motivation, and education. "Greater," says the apostle Paul, "is one who prophesies than one who speaks in tongues (unless he interprets), so that the church may receive edifying" (I Corinthians 14:5). He will continue to expound on that principle.
- Profit in prophesying - Time is short, and life is a vapor! With people dying and going to a Christless hell forever, there is no time to waste in getting out the gospel and in strengthening the saints. Paul, then, illustrates. "But now, brethren," he comments, "if I come to you speaking in tongues, what shall I profit you, unless I speak to you by way of revelation or of knowledge or of prophecy or of teaching?" (I Corinthians 14:6). It would be a total waste of this precious time for him to come, speaking in a dialect that was foreign to their ears. But if, on the other hand, he was to bring more revelation from God by the means of his apostolic gifts, or if he was to bring more inspired knowledge, that would be helpful. If he was to bring a prophetic message, or some informative new covenant teaching, that would edify and encourage the saints. He is clearly illustrating how the gifts were to be used in the congregation in Corinth.
- Illustration from instruments - The goal of eternal communication is clarity, not confusion. "Yet even lifeless things," notes the apostle, "either flute or harp, in producing a sound, if they do not produce a distinction in tones, how will it be known what is played on the flute or the harp?" (I Corinthians 14:7). Atonal "music" is discordant and disconcerting; random notes are just "noise." There has to be order and sense in the notes emitted from the harp or emanating from the flute. "For if the bugle produces an indistinct sound," he further avers, "who will prepare for battle?" (I Corinthians 14:8). Great point!
- Clear speech - But this conversation is about spiritual issues — the grand themes of the scriptures and the application to the individual. So, as soothing and encouraging as may be the music of flutes and harps, and as key the communication of the bugle’s battle call, how much more the words of life! "So also you," adverts the apostle Paul, "unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air" (I Corinthians 14:9). Muddled thinking results in muddled speech; faulty perspective results in faulty application. The brethren who had the perspective of showing off their gift of tongues lost sight of the necessity of edifying the body, elevating themselves at everyone else’s expense. Paul brings the proper perspective, and in his own clear thinking brings the proper point: don’t speak unless what you are saying is in language that can be understood by all! And that is a principle which carries over to today.
It is interesting how much the apostle Paul and the Holy Spirit have to belabor the point that all things need to be done for edification of the saints. Apparently it is difficult to get someone — even a brother in Christ — who has a selfish agenda to reorient himself. "Arrogant" is a word or character trait which keeps popping up throughout this epistle, and the challenge is to help the arrogant see who they are, and then to repent and do something about that being puffed up. A large dose of humility is what each saint continually needs, and that humility will result in the perspective that all things are to be done for edification.
Edification of the Church
Sometimes a traveler to a foreign country is sitting in the middle of a conversation in which the foreigner cannot understand a single word! After awhile, the words just seem like background noise, because the visitor has no comprehension of what is happening or what topics are under discussion. The apostle Paul brings forth the general principle in these words: "There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of languages in the world, and no kind is without meaning. If then I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be to the one who speaks a barbarian, and the one who speaks a barbarian to me" (I Corinthians 14:10,11). The Greek language spread throughout the middle East and throughout much of southern and eastern Europe. But west of Egypt along the north African coast (which was and still is known as the Barbary Coast), Greek wasn’t spoken. Hence the Greeks couldn’t understand the Barbarians, and the Barbarians couldn’t understand the Greeks. The apostle’s point is that is if a speaker wants to be understood, he needs to speak in a language comprehensible to those who are hearing.
- Abound for edification - The church in Corinth put a high value on gifts of the Spirit, having received those by the laying on of the apostle Paul’s hands. In his introductory statement, the apostle had commented that "the testimony concerning Christ was confirmed in you, so that you are not lacking in any gift." The brethren possessed the gifts; they just needed to use them properly. "So you also," states the apostle, not wanting the brethren to be barbarians, "since you are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek to abound for the edification of the church" (I Corinthians 14:12). The gifts were not for show, nor to glamorize the gift’s possessor. The saints were to take that zeal they had for the spiritual gifts, and use that zeal for the strengthening and education of the church!
- Necessity of interpretation - A message in a foreign language, uninterpreted, is wasted effort; no one receives any benefit from it. "Therefore," reasons the apostle, "let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful" (I Corinthians 14:13,14). Apparently deep within the individual, he had a sense of what he was praying if he offered his prayers in a foreign language, but —unless he could interpret also — even his mind did not know what he had prayed. That, implies the apostle, is not a good thing. "What is the outcome?" he then asks. "I shall pray with the spirit and I shall pray with the mind also; I shall sing with the spirit and I shall sing with the mind also" (I Corinthians 14:15). The goal, whether in messages delivered or songs sung, is for there to be clear understanding of the words and concepts communicated.
- Blessing the "ungifted" - Some of the concerns of a true teacher and a true promulgator of the gospel are reaching the lost and educating the new Christian. Hence there was to be an awareness in Corinth of the man or woman who was "ungifted," who did not possess any of the spiritual gifts, and who could get left out of the loop if the "gifted" did not conduct themselves properly. "Otherwise," asseverates Paul, "if you bless in the spirit only, how will the one who fills the place of the ungifted say the ‘Amen’ at your giving of thanks, since he does not know what you are saying. For you are giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified" (I Corinthians 14:16,17). Amen means that one agrees with what has just been said; if the prayer was in a foreign language, how could the one who doesn’t understand say that he agrees?
"I thank God," says the apostle, "I speak in tongues more than you all; however, in the church, I desire to speak five words with my mind [which another person could understand], that I may instruct others, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue" (I Corinthians 14:18,19). Good advice!
Primary Purpose of Tongues
God trained the children of Israel through signs and wonders. As the nation was in the process of formation in Egypt, God used the signs Moses performed in the presence of Pharaoh and in all the land. Ten mighty and massive plagues were used to bring Israel out of slavery with God’s outstretched arm. The voice of the Almighty thundered from Sinai in the midst of tempest, gloom, trumpet, and whirlwind. Millions were fed with manna daily, and quail occasionally covered the area outside the camp. All through the nation’s history the judges and prophets performed signs, guiding the people into God’s truth and calling them to repentance, preparing them for the greatest sign of all — the resurrection of their Messiah from the dead. Following that resurrection, signs continued to be performed among the Jewish people after the implementation of the new covenant, confirming the truthfulness of the witnesses’ testimony and establishing that the doctrines of the apostles were the directives of God.
- Tongues [foreign languages] as a sign - What the scripture calls "the baptism [immersion] with the Holy Spirit" consisted of three aspects: 1) A sound like a mighty wind; 2) Tongues like flames of fire breaking off and distributed to those so "baptized"; and 3) Speaking in other tongues [languages which could be understood]. This powerful sign was what God used to verify Jesus’ resurrection to the Jews and to begin the church as recorded in Acts chapter two, and then used again to extend salvation to the Gentiles. Part of this was the speaking in a foreign language, and this part was so powerful that it is specifically mentioned both times that the baptism with the Holy Spirit occurs. The multitude "were bewildered," Luke the historian recorded, concerning the events on the Day of Pentecost, "because they were each one hearing them speak in his own language" (Acts 2:6). Again, in the case of the first Gentiles to become Christians, those of Jewish background could not refuse these people’s immersion into Christ because of the sign. "And all the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were amazed," Luke again notes, "because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon the Gentiles also. For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and glorifying God" (Acts 10:45,46). A Roman centurion and his guests were able to glorify God in languages they had not studied, and which were understandable to the Jewish brethren present. The point in bringing up these two significant events in the spiritual history of this planet is to show that the Jewish people had been prepared to be impressed by someone’s glorifying God in a language he had not studied or learned.
- The gift of "tongues" - The spiritual gift or manifestation of "tongues" as separate and distinct from the baptism with the Holy Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands. Its use in the local assembly was important and powerful when used in love and in accordance with the dictates of Paul. "Brethren," pleads the apostle, "do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be babes, but in your thinking be mature" (I Corinthians 14:20). The apostle wants them to move past their silly, childish games — to move past the jealousy and strife — and focus on the purpose of the gifts, specifically of "tongues." "In the Law it is written," he points out, " ‘By men of strange tongues and by the lips of strangers I will speak to this people, and even so they will not listen to Me,’ says the Lord" (I Corinthians 14:21). God prophesied through Isaiah that God would use Gentiles’ speaking in foreign tongues to try to reach the unbelieving Jew.
"So then," avers the apostle Paul, "tongues are for a sign, not to those [Jews] who believe, but to unbelievers [Jewish]" (I Corinthians 14:22). When a Gentile would speak to a Jew in the Jew’s own language — a language the Gentile had not studied — and tell the Jew of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, this was demonstrably a powerful sign used in the church to reach the lost among the Jewish people.
Prophesying in Reaching the Gentile
The Jew was trained to look for signs; the Greeks sought wisdom. "To the Jews," thusly noted the apostle Paul, "I became as a Jew." To the Gentile, he became as a Gentile, without compromising his moral behavior. Hence, what was necessary to reach a first century Jew was different than what was necessary to reach the first century Greek. So what was necessary to reach the Jew? Signs, specifically the sign of a Gentile’s speaking to the Jew in the Jew’s language, telling him of God and of God’s great salvation through Jesus Christ. "By men of strange tongues and by the lips of strangers I will speak to this people," was the way Paul quotes Isaiah’s message from God. But most of the Jewish people would not believe in Jesus as the Son of God, as it was written, "Even so they will not listen to Me."
- Tongues introduces the Jew to Christ - The Jew had been prepared for signs; fifteen hundred years of God’s specific efforts had gone into preparation of the children of Israel so that when the Messiah came to earth, a percentage of the Jewish people would believe. "So then tongues are for a sign," states Paul, in the context of reaching this people, "not to those who believe, but to unbelievers." But as he moves into the context of winning the Gentiles, he wants to introduce the purposes of prophecy. "But prophecy,’ he remarks, "is for a sign not to unbelievers [Jews], but to those [Jews] who believe" (I Corinthians 14:22). Once the individual of Jewish background was convinced that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, what he needed from that point was edification and education.
- Tongues not effective for Gentiles - The Jews had been trained to look for signs; the Greeks sought for wisdom. An individual’s telling the Gentile about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Gentile’s own language would not have a significant impact. So if a Gentile were to walk into the assembly … "If therefore the whole church should assemble together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers [Gentiles] enter, will they not say you are mad?" (I Corinthians 14:23). Not effective!
- Prophesying most effective for Gentiles - Paul paints a different picture when the church prophesies rather than speaks in foreign languages. "But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or ungifted man [Gentile] enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you" (I Corinthians 14:24,25). When Jesus used His prophetic abilities to inform the Samaritan woman that the man she was living with was not her husband, she was convicted, drew the conclusion that He was the Messiah, and went and stirred up the whole town. A similar picture is painted by Paul of what happened in the first century churches when the Gentile walked in, and the church was functioning as it was designed to do; the Gentile would be convicted of his sin and convinced that the congregation had the ability to tell him the truth about God. He would physically fall down, like the Old Testament patriarchs, and physically prostrate himself before the Creator in the presence of the holy ones of the first century.
The word of God, whether in written form as it is today or prophetically delivered by spiritually gifted saints in the first century has the power to penetrate the heart of man. "For the word of God," says Hebrews’ writer, "is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword … and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12). It is incumbent upon preachers and teachers of the word today to deliver it with the same intensity as it was delivered in the first century, calling men "to account." The truth — and it must be emphasized that it is the truth — is to be spoken in love, but it is to be spoken!
Instructions for Tongues and Prophesying
The gifts in the church in Corinth of Achaia were being misused and abused. Hence the apostle Paul devotes what became three chapters of this letter to correcting and guiding the purpose and use of the gifts in the congregation. These gifts were for the church until the completed written word of God came into existence, then the gifts — given only through the laying on of the apostles’ hands — phased out. The church in its infancy needed the gifts; but when it reached maturity because of the completed written word, then it "did away with childish things." But the church at Corinth was still part of the church in infancy, and needed Paul’s instruction concerning the gifts. "What is the outcome, then, brethren?" he asks. "When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification" (I Corinthians 14:26). These were individual presentations by male members of the congregation. And as the apostle emphasized, there was to be no self glorification; rather, all was to be done for edification.
- Instructions for tongues - The gift of tongues — speaking in a foreign language — was essentially for reaching the unconverted Jew or convincing those of Jewish background of some key point in the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the church. One of the key purposes of the gift of prophecy was to reach the unconverted Gentile. The apostle, as he begins to wind down this section of the epistle, will focus on these two gifts. "If anyone speaks in a tongue," he adjures, "it should be by two or at most three, and each in turn, and let one interpret; but if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and God" (I Corinthians 14:27,28). It is apparent here that the one who possessed the gift of delivering a message or a prayer in a foreign language controlled that gift; there was no spontaneous outbreak of "tongues." Furthermore, any such delivery of a message in this foreign language was to be done very orderly; each one was to take his turn, and each message was to be interpreted. Finally, if there was no interpreter present, the gifted one was to keep silent in the assembly; and if he absolutely needed to get his message out, he was to go talk to himself and to God by himself.
- Instructions for prophesying - Similar instructions were issued by the apostle for those who had the gift of being able to prophesy. "And let two or three prophets speak," he directs, "and let the others pass judgment" (I Corinthians 14:29). God has always had a built-in feedback system, wherein the faithful followers of Christ could determine what the truth was. In this case, there were other prophets in the congregation to make sure that what the prophet was saying was really true. "But if a revelation is made to another who is seated," further instructs the apostle, "let the first keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets" (I Corinthians 14:30-32). Once again, it is clear that the New Testament prophet controlled his gift; he was voluntarily supposed to sit down and shut up if another received a revelation, and that they were only to speak one at a time.
"God," notes Paul, "is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints" (I Corinthians 14:33). There is a god of chaos and confusion who works assiduously to destroy the work of God if he can. But the true God is a God of order, so that, as the apostle put it, "all may learn and all may be exhorted."
These were not instructions for the church in Corinth only; they were the same instructions given in "all the churches of the saints." What the modern church can gather from these verbalizations is that the assembly is to be very orderly; presentations are to be made one at a time, and they are for teaching and exhortation.
Instructions for Women in the Assembly
The Women’s Liberation Movement, like other so-called "liberation" movements, is a typical leftist gambit producing exactly the opposite of what it promises. It promises freedom, but results in slavery. In any area of human interaction, there are always abuses. There are abusive bosses. There are abusive husbands. There are abusive parents and there are abusive pet owners. And, oh yes, there are wicked-tongued wives who can rip the hearts right out of their husbands. As bad as these abuses are, the proposed solution of government interference is much worse. As governments all over the world pick up the tool called "bullying," they will use their definitions of it to control all person-to-person interactions on the planet. And they will abuse their citizens as they grind their faces in the dirt of slavery, and thresh them with the sledges of "re-education camps." Be that as it may, the women’s lib movement has impacted modern churches, and scriptures instructing women in the assembly are often tossed aside as outdated customs of an ancient world.
- User controlled his gift - God’s goal was for the assembly of the saints to be orderly, where all was done for the edification of the saints and thus for the glory of God. Hence the humble possessor of one of the gifts would be willing to follow the Holy Spirit’s instruction as he conducted himself in the sight of God and His holy angels. The man with the gift of tongues would keep silent if there was no interpreter present. The prophet who was speaking would step aside and keep silent if a revelation was given to another prophet. Because the user controlled his gift, he could override God’s instructions, but he would do so at the possible peril of his immortal soul.
- The woman controls her gift - God’s goal is for the assembly of the saints to be orderly, where all is done for the edification of the saints and thus for the glory of God. Hence the humble female, with her gift of being vocal, is willing to follow the Holy Spirit’s instruction as she conducts herself in the sight of God and His holy angels. "Let the women keep silent in the churches," is the instruction, parallel with the instruction for men with their gifts, "for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says" (I Corinthians 14:34). Because the woman controls her gift, she can override God’s instructions, but she does so at the peril of her immortal soul. "And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church" (I Corinthians 14:35). In a somewhat parallel passage, the apostle notes: "Let a woman quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman, being quite deceived, fell into transgression" (I Timothy 2:12-14). The culture in which these statements are made is the culture which started with Adam and Eve.
That these statements universally applied to all the churches then and now is emphasized in Paul’s rhetorical questions: "Was it from you that the word of God first went forth? Or has it come to you only?" (I Corinthians 14:36). "Let the women subject themselves," reaffirmed the apostle, "just as the Law also says." If Israel had to consult with a female prophet, be led by a female judge, or be ruled by female monarch, it was because she had sunk to the depths. If it appears that the glass ceiling is broken, it is really that the living room has collapsed into the basement.
Final Instructions on Gifts
God does not want anyone, particularly Christians, to be flippant about His word. Peter had enjoined those who preach to speak "as it were, the utterances of God" (I Peter 4:11). When God uttered the Ten Commandments from Sinai, those words were not to be treated as the Ten Suggestions. His word, delivered through His servants, is authoritative and final. Jesus, in engaging in a lively debate with the Jewish hierarchy, appealed on the basis that "the scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35). Hence, when a tested and trusted servant such as Paul would deliver Spirit-inspired teachings, those words were to be treated as if God Himself had spoken. That which is written for spiritual Zion is more powerful than that which thundered from physical Sinai!
- Authoritative instruction - One of the problems the apostle Paul was dealing with in this section of the epistle to the Corinthian brethren was the tendency of the brethren to become arrogant about their gifts. Some of those who "spoke in foreign tongues" had gotten out of hand, and some of the prophets needed to have someone checking to make sure that they were in fact saying what God wanted said. Hence Paul’s remonstrance was necessary. "If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual," is the apostle’s gently tendered challenge, "let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment" (I Corinthians 14:37). Any attempt to discount the previous instructions was crushed by this statement; these words were the command of the Lord Jesus Himself! They were not cultural, and they were not isolated to Corinth. These are words whose principles ring down through the end of this present age. Even if a person made a claim to and was recognized as having one of the gifts such as prophecy, he could not legitimately set aside these directives from the apostle. "But if anyone does not recognize this," says Paul, and he means anyone, "he is not recognized" (I Corinthians 14:38). This recalls the seriousness of Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount, that even if anyone claimed to prophesy in His name or cast out demons or perform miracles, if he was not obedient to the word of Christ, the Lord would say in the last day, "I never knew you." What a loss!
- Positive direction - The gifts were very important in the establishment of the truthfulness of God’s testimony, the direction that God gave the church through the Holy Spirit, and the functioning of the church in the absence of the written New Testament. They just needed to be used inside the divinely appointed boundaries. "Therefore, my brethren," encourages Paul, "desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues" (I Corinthians 14:39). If the apostle Paul had lain hands on one of the Christians, the gift of prophecy — which was very valuable — could be latent, waiting for the spiritual maturity of the one possessing the gift to develop. And the gift of tongues, though lesser, was important, and those possessing superior gifts were not to forbid the use of tongues as a manifestation of the Spirit.
- Properly and orderly - God’s word is the only form of communication which moves an individual from being of the flesh to being born again in the image of God. God’s word is the only communication which life man’s focus from the mundane to the spiritually sublime. As such, it’s truths and means of transmission are to be treated with great care and respect. Hence, in the church of the living God, this final word on the "gifts" is critically applicable: "But let all things be done properly and in an orderly manner" (I Corinthians 14:40).
Satan is the god of chaos and confusion, whereas God is the God of peace and order. Much confusion and chaos had broken out in the church at Corinth, and these instructions were necessary to bring the conduct of the congregation back in line with God’s precepts. While the manifestations of the Spirit are not extant today, these principles apply. Proceedings are to be conducted in the assembly orderly, properly, and in accordance with the written word of God!