Paul has been writing to the Corinthians church about unity through maturity. In this section of his letter, he addresses spiritual gifts, primarily those of prophecy and tongues. We have seen that, within the local church, spiritual gifts are given in order that we may edify one another, not seek attention or exalt ourselves. Out of tongues and prophecy, prophecy is more desirable because it edifies the saints without exceeding what is written (cf. 4:6). Paul continues:
1 Corinthians 14:20-33
20 Ἀδελφοί, μὴ παιδία γίνεσθε ταῖς φρεσίν, ἀλλὰ τῇ κακίᾳ νηπιάζετε, ταῖς δὲ φρεσὶν τέλειοι γίνεσθε. 21 ἐν τῷ νόμῳ γέγραπται ὅτι Ἐν ἑτερογλώσσοις καὶ ἐν χείλεσιν ἑτέρων λαλήσω τῷ λαῷ τούτῳ, καὶ οὐδʼ οὕτως εἰσακούσονταί μου, λέγει κύριος. 22 ὥστε αἱ γλῶσσαι εἰς σημεῖόν εἰσιν οὐ τοῖς πιστεύουσιν ἀλλὰ τοῖς ἀπίστοις, ἡ δὲ προφητεία οὐ τοῖς ἀπίστοις ἀλλὰ τοῖς πιστεύουσιν. 23 ἐὰν οὖν συνέλθῃ ἡ ἐκκλησία ὅλη ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτὸ καὶ πάντες λαλῶσιν γλώσσαις, εἰσέλθωσιν δὲ ἰδιῶται ἢ ἄπιστοι, οὐκ ἐροῦσιν ὅτι μαίνεσθε; 24 ἐὰν δὲ πάντες προφητεύωσιν, εἰσέλθῃ δέ τις ἄπιστος ἢ ἰδιώτης, ἐλέγχεται ὑπὸ πάντων, ἀνακρίνεται ὑπὸ πάντων, 25 τὰ κρυπτὰ τῆς καρδίας αὐτοῦ φανερὰ γίνεται, καὶ οὕτως πεσὼν ἐπὶ πρόσωπον προσκυνήσει τῷ θεῷ, ἀπαγγέλλων ὅτι Ὄντως ὁ θεὸς ἐν ὑμῖν ἐστιν.
26 Τί οὖν ἐστιν, ἀδελφοί; ὅταν συνέρχησθε, ἕκαστος ψαλμὸν ἔχει, διδαχὴν ἔχει, ἀποκάλυψιν ἔχει, γλῶσσαν ἔχει, ἑρμηνείαν ἔχει· πάντα πρὸς οἰκοδομὴν γινέσθω. 27 εἴτε γλώσσῃ τις λαλεῖ, κατὰ δύο ἢ τὸ πλεῖστον τρεῖς, καὶ ἀνὰ μέρος, καὶ εἷς διερμηνευέτω· 28 ἐὰν δὲ μὴ ᾖ διερμηνευτής, σιγάτω ἐν ἐκκλησίᾳ, ἑαυτῷ δὲ λαλείτω καὶ τῷ θεῷ. 29 προφῆται δὲ δύο ἢ τρεῖς λαλείτωσαν, καὶ οἱ ἄλλοι διακρινέτωσαν· 30 ἐὰν δὲ ἄλλῳ ἀποκαλυφθῇ καθημένῳ, ὁ πρῶτος σιγάτω. 31 δύνασθε γὰρ καθʼ ἕνα πάντες προφητεύειν, ἵνα πάντες μανθάνωσιν καὶ πάντες παρακαλῶνται 32 (καὶ πνεύματα προφητῶν προφήταις ὑποτάσσεται, 33 οὐ γάρ ἐστιν ἀκαταστασίας ὁ θεὸς ἀλλὰ εἰρήνης), ὡς ἐν πάσαις ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις τῶν ἁγίων.
Tongues and prophecy as signs (v. 20-25)
Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature. In the Law it is written, “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. So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophecy is for a sign, not to unbelievers but to those who believe. Therefore if the whole church assembles together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man 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.
This pericope begins with a challenge in light of Paul’s instruction thus far. Do not be children in your thinking, such is evil. In Chapter 13, verses 11 and 12, Paul used childish thinking as an illustration to show that we see in a mirror dimly on this side of the resurrection. Here, playing on his previous illustration, he claims that childish thinking is evil. The more we grow in Christ, the more mature we become because we are growing out of our childish ways. Even though we are children, we are growing up. We don’t think about religious practice like we did as infants. The selfishness of our spiritual and mental infancy is evil because it is self-exalting rather than edifying. So, Christians are challenged to become more mature in the way they think. Instead of thinking such that we exalt ourselves or are trying to achieve salvation, be more spiritual, look better, get what we want from someone, gain power or money, we think about how we can edify others. Edification is the fruit of maturity as we are transformed by the renewing of our minds.
Paul quotes from Isaiah 28:11. Isaiah was prophesying against Israel because Israel did not listen to God suppressed His Law by mostly ignoring it. In their self-perpetuating circumstance, God would bring in foreign nations to oppress them and to remind them about His word. God’s people, then, would hear His word through strange tongues and the lips of strangers. Paul applies God’s action against Israel inductively to claim that tongues are for a sign to unbelievers—here in agreement with Isaiah to mean those who refer to themselves as Christians but have their hearts far from God. If tongues are the measure of spirituality, you are like the rebellious Israelites who suppress the truth in their unrighteousness. God will still speak to you, but it will be from an outsider and not from within the confusion of the spectacle you call a local church. Tongues are not a sign that an unbeliever has become a believer. Rather, they are a sign that those practicing tongues in confusion are themselves unbelievers.
Conversely, prophecy is for a sign to believers because the body is edified from within, and those who currently are unbelievers fall under the conviction of the word through those who speak it clearly. Through unadulterated prophecy, even the heathens will fall on their faces and worship God—recognizing that God is among the local church.
So, tongues does not prove that anyone has the Spirit. Instead, if tongues are prioritized as a sign, they are a sign of unbelief rather than belief. Prophecy, the preaching and teaching of the Law and Gospel, is not only meant for evangelism but to be heard clearly and powerfully in the gathering. Faithfulness to exposition, exposition that challenges the thinking of spiritual infants, signifies that those within the gathering are actually believers. Our thinking is to be mature and our prophecy the unadulterated word of God.
Instructions for the use of tongues (v. 26-28)
What is the outcome then, brethren? 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. If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret; but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God.
Paul challenges his readers and listeners to think ahead to the finished product. What if we actually cared to edify one another? What if we actually worked for one another’s good? What if, in the gathering of believers on Sunday, we did not promote a single person or practice gifts to exalt ourselves or pretend to be supernaturally gifted or spiritual. Instead, we lifted one another up. What is the outcome? I think the outcome is something more beautiful than the pastor-celebrity or the sensationalism we see in our time. I think the outcome is the sincere sanctification of the saints with helpful conviction, encouragement, growing in knowledge, and an acceptance that surpasses anything the world can possibly offer. I think there would be optimism in the gathering rather than the pessimism and condemnation of the world and of worldly religion apart form the promise of Christ. I think there would be happiness and joy that overflowed from the gathering into our households, community, and nation. Why do so many not experience this even in church? Their religion is self-exalting rather than edifying.
In order for the gift of tongues to edify, Paul gives instructions for its use in the gathering. At most, only three people should be speaking in tongues. They should take turns, not all speaking at the same time. One of them must interpret so that the body may be edified. If there is no interpreter, don’t speak in tongues in the context of the gathering. Feel free to practice the gift in private, but don’t bring confusion to the church of Jesus Christ.
Instruction for the use of prophecy (v. 29-33)
Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, the first one must 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; for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.
Similarly, those with the spiritual gift of prophecy are to speak in turn. Not everyone is to be speaking at the same time or out of turn. There is order in the gathering. All of those who have something sincerely prophetic to say (again, not exceeding what is written; cf. 4:6) are to be given a turn.
The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. If someone else preaches or teaches or counsels me, as the primary teaching elder, my spirit is subject to another because the word of God is being spoken. The words of the prophets have no authority because of who is speaking but because of what is being spoken—the very words of God. So, we are subject to one another no matter who is prophesying. Why? So we may all be exhorted—taught, encouraged, convicted, edified, consoled, comforted, etc… by the spoken word of God.
Those who are listening to the prophets in the gathering are to pass judgment,,not condemnation. They are to listen actively and discern what is being said so that they may profit from the proclamation of God’s word. The church is not a community of inactive participants. We judge what is spoken, discern truth from fiction, recognize when something is said that exceeds what is written, and those speaking are accountable to only present God’s word and to do so accurately—this is why I hate merely topical sermons or sermons that are otherwise filled more with the personal dialogues of a “preacher” instead of expository preaching and teaching. Every genuine local gathering and every sincere prophet is expository. If we are not exposed to expository preaching and teaching, we are receiving something less than God desires that does not profit us genuinely.
Things are to be this way in the gathering of believers according to Scripture because God is the God of peace, not confusion. This is the case in every local church that is made up of sincere saints. Confusion devastates and breeds drama and conflict. Order breeds peace, maturity, and profits the saints spiritually and mindfully. Paul, here, is referring to a liturgical order of sorts. Liturgy is good. We might apply the principle to order in polity, family, government, the workplace, and our daily routines. We order our lives because order profits us and brings peace rather than confusion. You notice, when you don’t have a plan for too long or life seems chaotic and everything is a mess, you begin to get stressed out and experience anxiety. When you finally order your life, organize your living or workspace, follow a daily routine, stick to a schedule, and stay active doing productive things that you’ve planned beforehand, you have a sense of accomplishment, meaning, and peace. God has designed things this way. We serve a God of order and peace. Paul applies this principle to the practice of spiritual gifts. We can apply it to any practice in the gathering and out.
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