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.

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.

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.

"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.

"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."

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.

"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.

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!

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!