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1 Corinthians 14:1-40

Roger and Dorothy Hahn

First Corinthians 12-14 deals with misunderstanding and abuse of spiritual gifts in the church at Corinth. Almost all of chapter 14 addresses the abuse of speaking in tongues. Prophecy is also discussed at length but it always appears as a foil against which the problems with tongues are examined. It is not easy to be certain about the flow of Paul's argument. A common understanding of the structure of chapter 14 divides it into two parts, verses 1-25 and verses 26-40. Verses 1-25 are seen as Paul's argument for the need of intelligibility (Fee and Witherington), a comparison of gifts (Reed), or the superiority of prophecy to tongues (Morris). Verses 26-40 provide directions for worship (Reed) that focus on the need for order (Fee and Witherington).

The Importance of Intelligibility - 1 Corinthians 14:1-25

First Corinthians 14:1-5 begins this section by affirming the superiority of prophecy to tongues. The reason prophecy is superior to tongues is that it is understandable.

The first phrase of verse 1 is, "Pursue love." This obviously concludes chapter 13. The word "pursue" in the Greek text is a strong word that is often translated "persecute." It was used for the pursuit of game that takes place in hunting. It was used for tracking down criminals. It speaks of intensity, perseverance, and an attitude that always achieves its goal. The imperative form used in verse 1 is present tense indicating a continuous and on-going pursuit of love. Paul understood that there is much to distract a person in the Christian life. Unless one determines to constantly and intensely pursue love as the motivating and guiding principle of life some other lesser motivation will emerge and begin to direct one's life.

The second command of verse 1 is "zealously seek spiritual gifts." The verb "zealously seek" is the same word used in 1 Corinthians 12:31. Paul's point in verse 1 is that prophecy is the spiritual gift the Corinthians should seek. The Greek is awkward but the apostle's point seems to be, "Zealously seek spiritual gifts, but rather especially seek that you might prophesy." The Greek text uses the verb "prophesy" rather than the noun "prophecy." Thus Paul is emphasizing the activity or practice of the gift rather than the gift itself. The reason he commands the Corinthians to pursue love and seek to prophesy is given in verses 2-4.

The contrast between prophecy and tongues is clearly stated in verses 2-4. People who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God. Those who prophesy speak to other people. It is important to understand Paul clearly at this point. Modern Pentecostals often claim that their speaking in tongues is a "message" for the congregation. Paul's words here would not support such a claim. Whether the Corinthians thought they were talking to God or to each other is not stated. What is clear is that Paul regards speaking in tongues as not communicating [anything intelligible] to people.

This is clear by his first comment in verse 2 that "no one hears" the one speaking in tongues. At a very literal level Paul is wrong, people do "hear" the tongues speaker. Paul's word for "hear" is the root word for "obey." (In Hebrew the same word was used for hearing and obeying.) Paul's point, then, is that no one obeys a message from God spoken tongues because they can't understand it. Tongues speakers can speak mysteries in the Spirit but their speech has no beneficial result in the congregation if it cannot be understood.

Verse 3 identifies content for prophecy also. In prophecy the speaker speaks to other people and what he or she speaks to people is edification, encouragement, and comfort. The first word, "edification," is the noun form of the verb Paul first used in 1 Corinthians 8:1 when he wrote, "Love builds up." The same verb appears in 1 Corinthians 8:10; 10:23; twice in 14:4, and in 14:17. Thus "upbuilding" is one of the pivotal concepts for Paul in his problems with the church at Corinth. One could even describe "upbuilding" as a criterion that Paul would use to evaluate the appropriateness of behavior. If an action builds up the church it is beneficial.

Paul directly states the issue in verse 4. Those who speak in a tongue edify or build up themselves. Those who prophesy edify or build up the church. This contrast between speaking in tongues and prophecy is simply stated without comment here in 1 Corinthians. In the larger framework of all Paul's letters the comment that the one who speaks in tongues edifies himself or herself is striking. Philippians 2:4 states the matter quite directly. "No one must look out for his or her own interests but each of you must seek the interests of the others." The self-directed concern that Paul attributes to the person speaking in tongues in 1 Corinthians 14:4 is roundly condemned elsewhere in Paul's letters. It is the building up of the church that matters not the building up of oneself.

Verse 5 attempts to soften the impact of this contrast. Paul states that he wishes that all the Corinthians spoke in tongues. However, he would rather they all prophesied. Prophesying is greater than speaking in tongues unless someone interprets the tongue. Interpretation allows the possibility for a "message from God" to be conveyed to the congregation by the utterance spoken in tongues. That offers the opportunity for the "obedience" (hearing) mentioned in verse 2. Verse 5 concludes with Paul's main point, edification. Interpretation allows the congregation to be built up or edified.

Verses 6-12 turn the discussion to comparisons that support Paul's point for the need for intelligibility. He begins this section by addressing the Corinthians as "brothers." Paul often inserts this type of address into the text when he is seeking to soften the blow of what he is saying. If he were to come to Corinth speaking in tongues what profit would it be to them unless a message of revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching was communicated? The clearly implied point is that there would be no benefit. The word "profit" or benefit takes the place of edifying in the preceding paragraph.

Verses 7-8 introduce a comparison. Flutes, harps, and trumpets do not accomplish their purpose unless one can distinguish between the notes they play. The distinct notes allow a melody to be played and harmony to be composed. The trumpet's role is especially critical. If one cannot recognize its sound how will one know whether or not to prepare for battle? In the last several centuries bugles communicated the commander's orders to either charge or retreat to the soldiers. If one could not distinguish the sounds how would one know whether to charge or retreat?

Verse 9 sums up the point. If one speaks in a tongue and the words are unintelligible it is the same as talking into the wind.

Verses 10-11 shift the analogy to a new front, that of foreign languages. Paul is not arguing here that the tongues-speaking done by the Corinthians is a foreign language. Rather, his point is that it is no more understandable than listening to a foreign language. The expression he uses is that he would be a "foreigner" to the one speaking in tongues and that person would be a "foreigner" to him. The Greek word he uses for "foreigner" is barbaros from which our English word "barbarian" is derived. This is not a comment on the lack of civilization of the tongues speaker, after all Paul calls himself a barbarian in this context. Barbaros was the term used in Greek to express the babbling nonsense that any foreign language sounds like to a person who doesn't understand it.

Verse 12 concludes this section on the importance of intelligibility. Paul states that since they are eager for spiritual gifts they should seek the upbuilding of the church. The verb "seek" is another present tense imperative indicating the need for a continual life of seeking the good of the church. Fee (p. 667) offers a profound observation:

The point of everything in corporate worship is not personal experience in the Spirit, but building up the church itself. … The building up of the community is the basic reason for corporate settings of worship; they should probably not be turned into a corporate gathering for a thousand individual experiences of worship.

Almost all American expressions of worship struggle to understand the importance Paul placed on the church as a whole. We are too used to measuring everything in terms of its impact on us personally.

Verses 13-19 address those who speak in tongues and attempt to apply Paul's argument thus far to the worship life of the church. The person who speaks in tongues is commanded (the Greek text uses the unusual third person imperative) to pray to be able to interpret. One might have guessed that Paul would have commanded the person speaking in tongues to pray for the gift of prophecy. However, the apostle's concern is not prophecy per se but intelligibility. Interpretation offers the possibility that the speaking in tongues can become the vehicle for a message from God.

Paul then shifts into first person in verse 14. If he prays in a tongue his spirit prays but his mind is fruitless. Paul's concern is not his own mind as much as it is the minds of others as the following verses will make clear.

Verse 15 will conclude that both praying in one's spirit and praying with one's mind are important. Some commentators argue that the references to "spirit" in verses 14-16 refer to the Holy Spirit (and should be capitalized). Paul's description in verse 14 of the spirit as "my" speaks against such a view. He is hypothetically describing his own prayer life in the terminology favored by the Corinthians. Praying in the (or his) spirit means praying in his own spirit in ways inspired by the Spirit. Praying with the mind does not refer specifically to the brain or to a certain level of cognitive content or rationality. Rather, praying with the mind means praying with understanding, which is the point Paul has been developing throughout the preceding verses.

Verse 15 balances prayer in his spirit with prayer with understanding. Paul speaks of the same balance in psalm-singing. His use of the first person is not simply for the sake of testimony. He presents his own pattern as a model for the Corinthians to follow. Paul's demand for the balance of understanding and spiritual prayer is important for our understanding of appropriate corporate worship. The need for understanding and intelligibility excludes tongues speaking without interpretation. It excludes any other activity that is not capable of being understood and explained. The role of the Spirit at work in our spirits excludes worship that is built purely on human reason. The balance between spirit and mind is difficult to maintain. Almost every church in Christian history has leaned to one or the other of these two essential facets rather than holding the balance.

Unless the balance of spirit and mind is maintained Paul says in verse 16 that the Corinthians will bless [God] in the spirit but an "outsider" will not be able to say the "Amen." The reference to "the Amen" reminds us that the context is the corporate worship of the church. Whatever unusual things may have happened in the worship at Corinth the church was still influenced by the structures of the Jewish synagogue. In the synagogue the "Amen" was an expression of affirmation to the Word of God read in scripture or the truth from God affirmed by the prayers and exposition of another. The word "Amen" literally meant "he (God) is faithful or reliable" or "it (that which was spoken) is faithful or reliable." Paul is still developing the same point he has been working on since verse 6. Another person cannot appropriately respond to an utterance that might be a message from God if that person cannot understand the words when they are spoken in a tongue.

Verses 18 and 19 bring this section to a close. Paul expresses thanksgiving to God that he speaks in tongues more than the Corinthians but he affirms that in church he would rather speak five words that were understandable than ten thousand words in a tongue. The apostle is clearly attempting to outflank the Corinthians. The point he has been working on in this section is that tongues speaking must not be practiced in the church unless there is interpretation. (Even that qualifier is only occasionally mentioned - almost as an afterthought.)

But lest the Corinthians reject the limitations he is placing on them by arguing that he doesn't have the "gift," Paul asserts that he is more gifted in this area than they are. Presumably this is an exaggeration (how do you measure this?) that he engages for the sake of his argument. Recent research in the literature of ancient Greece suggests that an experience of ecstatic utterance conferred social status. If Paul spoke in tongues more than the Corinthians and he was willing not to practice it in public worship, then the Corinthians are undermined when they attempt to make public speaking in tongues a sign of superior spirituality.

Verses 20-25 draw the first section of chapter 14 to a close. Verse 20 provides a transition summary. Paul asks the Corinthians not to become children in their thinking, but to become mature. There are several lines of thought at work in this verse. The clear implication is that the Corinthians have been childish and immature in their insistence on speaking in tongues in public worship. Maturity would lead them to restrict the practice of their gift for the upbuilding of the whole church just as Paul does. Verse 20 also reflects the language of 1 Corinthians 13:11 in which Paul speaks of putting away childish things. There are also echoes of 1 Corinthians 3:1 where Paul described the Corinthians as babies in Christ, carnal rather than spiritual.

Verse 21 contains a paraphrased citation of Isaiah 28:11-12. The Isaiah passage has several elements that Paul found useful. It spoke of different tongues and that speaking in tongues did not lead Israel to obedience. This supports Paul's contention that speaking in tongues does not edify anyone except possibly the speaker.

Verse 22 then describes speaking in tongues as a sign for unbelievers rather than for believers. On the surface we would have expected the opposite conclusion from the passage Paul has just quoted. However, the Old Testament concept of "sign" functions to reveal God's attitude - either positive or negative - depending on the context. Here the sign is a sign of God's judgment.

Verse 23 states that unbelievers observing a service of speaking in tongues will conclude that the whole church is crazy. Because of such a response, as Barrett (p. 323) notes, "tongues serve to harden and thus to condemn the unbeliever." On the other hand Paul is confident that believers observing a service of prophecy will fall under conviction and acknowledge the reality of God's power and presence. With such predicted reactions to speaking in tongues and to prophecy, there can be no doubt that prophecy is the superior gift. It is the gift the Corinthians should seek.

Order in Public Worship - 1 Corinthians 14:26-40

The second major portion of 1 Corinthians 14 deals with order in the corporate worship at Corinth. The words themselves give instruction but the context implies that they were given to correct problems.

Verse 26 is transitional. It intends to pull together the argument of the preceding part of the chapter and begin the application of Paul's concerns.

The central part of verse 26 is in the indicative mood. Paul is describing the way the Corinthians come together to worship. As they gather each person comes with something to contribute. He lists a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, a tongue, and an interpretation as examples of the kinds of contributions the Corinthians come planning to share. This list is not an order of worship. It is not exhaustive; other contributions could have also been mentioned. It is not a command that it should be this way. Paul is simply stating the fact of how the Corinthians come to worship. The command is the final sentence of verse 26. All things must be done for upbuilding. The upbuilding of the gathered church is the criterion that Paul uses to evaluate the appropriateness of worship.

Verses 27-28 gives specific instructions designed to preserve order and upbuilding with regard to speaking in tongues. Two or at the most three people may speak in tongues. They must speak in order not at the same time. There must be an interpretation. If there is no one to interpret the tongues speakers must be silent in the church.

Three observations are in order. The limitation to two or three speaking in tongues appears to be designed to de-emphasize tongues speaking. If every Corinthian arrived planning to participate as verse 26 implies, a limit of two or three people speaking in tongues would reduce the exercise of that gift to a small portion of the service. Secondly, the requirement that these tongues speakers must speak in order rather than at the same time seems to have the purpose of sharply distinguishing Christian worship from ecstatic pagan worship practices. More than one person speaking at a time destroys intelligibility which was Paul's goal in verses 1-25. Intelligible interpretation could only proceed if there were one person speaking at a time.

A third important observation is that Paul expects the Corinthians to be in control of the expression of their "gifts." This point will be emphasized again in verses 30-32. The Hellenistic concept of the Spirit was that of an overpowering force that took control of a person. Paul's understanding is biblical. The Spirit works with the will of a person and always respects the freedom of human will. Paul's point was that if the Corinthians were claiming to be overpowered by the Spirit and unable to control their speaking in tongues then they should know that it was not the Holy Spirit who was working in them. The Holy Spirit will leave them capable of being silent when there is no interpretation.

Verses 29-32 give similar instructions for the practice of prophecy. Only two or three prophets are to speak. The natural interpretation of this is that only two or three are to prophesy during the worship service. Fee (p. 693), however, argues that Paul means only two or three are to prophesy before others evaluate their prophecies. Given verse 26 (which doesn't mention prophecy specifically) it is more likely that Paul intends only two or three prophets are to prophesy in the service. He places no restrictions on teachings, sharing songs of praise, or any of the other gifts. What is unique about this treatment of prophecy is that Paul commands the other Corinthians to "discern" or evaluate the prophecies. He gives no hints about what is involved in such discernment. It appears that Paul was concerned that prophets not consider themselves a "breed apart." They too stand under the authority of the body of Christ as a whole and must submit their prophecies to the evaluation of other spiritual people.

Another surprising feature of Paul's instructions here is the command in verse 30 for a prophet to stop speaking if another person sitting nearby receives a revelation. Verse 32 further explains the matter. The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. This parallels the assumption made regarding speaking in tongues. The Holy Spirit does not overpower the human will. A person out of control is not under the power of the Holy Spirit. This leads Paul to state his conclusion in verse 33 that God is not a God of disorder but of peace.

Verses 34-35 deal with the participation of women in worship. These verses forcefully forbid women to speak in church. If they have questions they are to ask their husbands at home. These verses have received intense scrutiny in recent years. They appear to contradict the assumption of 1 Corinthians 11:5 that women may pray and prophesy in church. A variety of explanations have appeared. The traditional explanation has been that verses 34-35 are Paul's standard teaching and that the material of chapter 11 must be refer to prayer meetings or some small group meeting rather than the worship service of the whole church.

The most popular explanation has been that the women at Corinth were involved in disruptive behavior. The common scenario supposes that the women sat together on one side of the room and the men were on the other. If women shouted questions to their husbands or defiant remarks such behavior would cause a major disruption of the order Paul calls for in this section. Such an explanation is certainly possible but we do not know if women and men were seated separately in early Christian worship or not. They were in the Jewish synagogues, but first century Christians worshipped in homes rather than church buildings.

Another recent explanation has been that verses 34-35 represent a quotation from the Corinthians. That would solve the problem of contradiction with chapter 11. It also explains the very un-Pauline way of arguing in these verses. Rarely does Paul appeal to the Old Testament Law as a rule for people to obey. Talbert (pp. 92-93) argues that verses 34-35 represent the position of at least some at Corinth and that verse 36 is Paul's "indignant reply." However, the normal indicators of a quotation from the Corinthians are lacking in this passage.

A significant number of commentators argue that these verses were added to 1 Corinthians sometime after Paul wrote the letter. Such an approach used to be labeled "liberal" but the recent massive commentary by the very evangelical scholar, Gordon Fee, takes this position. Fee (pp. 699-701), however, argues his case on the basis of ancient manuscripts rather than the problem of contradictory ideas.

The number of explanations put forth for verses 34-35 shows two things. First, it is extremely difficult to understand these verses as they appear in chapter 14. They contradict too much of what we know Paul thought about women. Second, no explanation has been sufficiently satisfactory. We may never know with certainty the best way to explain why these verses appear in this place and what we are to make of them. In such cases a spirit of grace and tolerance is better than one of dogmatic assertion.

Paul concludes chapter 14 with a series of instructions. Verse 37 affirms that one of the tests of the Corinthians' spirituality will be whether or not they recognize that his words in chapters 12-14 represent a command from Christ. Anyone who refuses to acknowledge this should not be acknowledged in the worship of the church. In verse 39 Paul urges them to zealously seek to prophesy. This is the third time the verb "zealously seek" has been used in the treatment of spiritual gifts. Verse 39 also forbids the Corinthians to forbid speaking in tongues. Verse 39 thus sums up verses 1-25. Paul's final command in verse 40 sums up verses 26-38. All things are to be done decently and in order. Such a command is applicable to all Christians in any cultural context. The command also acknowledges the role that culture will play in determining what a group of people consider decent and orderly.

Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion

These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.

As you study each day ask the Lord to make his word come alive in your heart. Ask him to help you understand how his word should apply to your life.

First Day: Read the notes on 1 Corinthians 14:1-40. Look up the Scripture references that are given.

1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. Describe why they were significant.

2. Select a spiritual truth that has a personal application in your own life. Describe how it applies.

3. Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to grant you wisdom in knowing how to participate joyfully and spontaneously in worship in a way that is decent and orderly.

Second Day: Read 1 Corinthians 15:1-19. Now turn your focus to 1 Corinthians 15:1-11.

1. How does Paul describe the "gospel" or "good news" that he proclaimed to the Corinthians? Are there any elements that are not part of your concept of the gospel? If so what are they?

2. In light of chapters 12-14 what value is there for Paul to review the basic content of the gospel? How does review of the gospel help in solving problems in the life of the church?

3. What are the similarities and the differences between verse 3 and 1 Corinthians 11:23? What do these verses tell us about the way early Christian teaching was passed along orally?

Third Day: Read 1 Corinthians 15:1-19. Focus in on 1 Corinthians 15:3-11.

1. What information about Jesus' resurrection appearances can be found here that is not found in the gospels (Matthew 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; and John 20-21)?

2. Why do you think Paul described himself the way he did in verse 8? How would you explain verse 9 in comparison and contrast with 1 Corinthians 9:1-2?

3. According to verses 9-10 what did the grace of God make possible in Paul's life? What has the grace of God made possible in your life? What is the grace of God now making possible in your life?

Fourth Day: Read 1 Corinthians 15:12-28. Now focus on 1 Corinthians 15:12-19.

1. How important is the resurrection of Christ for the Christian faith according to these focus verses? Can you think of any other doctrines that are more important? Equally important? Why?

2. Paul claims that Christian faith is worthless if Christ was not raised. Do you agree with him? Why or why not? Wouldn't Christianity be valuable if all we had were Christ's teachings and knew nothing of his death and resurrection?

3. Verse 19 implies that our hope of being raised with Christ is an important part of our faith. How does hope in the resurrection really influence your daily Christian life? Is Paul exaggerating here?

Fifth Day: Read 1 Corinthians 15:20-34. Focus your attention on 1 Corinthians 15:20-28.

1. What does Paul mean when he calls Christ "the first fruits of those who have died?" Does Leviticus 23:10-21 help you understand it? How about Romans 8:23 and 11:16?

2. How does Romans 5:12-21 function as a commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:21-22?

3. What elements of verses 20-28 are already accomplished? What elements are still to be accomplished in the future?

Sixth Day: Read 1 Corinthians 15:20-34. Now focus your attention on 1 Corinthians 15:29-34.

1. Summarize the conclusions you can draw from verse 29. What further insight into Paul's flow of thought do you get from verses 30-32?

2. How does verse 33 relate to verses 29-32? How does verse 33 relate to verse 34? What does Paul really want from the Corinthians at this point?

3. Write a brief prayer asking God to help you understand what you need to know about resurrection and grace to not worry about what you don't need to know.

-Roger Hahn, Copyright © 2011, Roger Hahn and CRI/Voice, Institute
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