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TEXT: I Corinthians 14:1-40

SUBJECT: What Spiritual Gifts Do

The subject of I Corinthians 12, 13, and 14 is Spiritual Gifts. In Chapter 12, Paul tells us where they come from, who they're given to, and what they're for. The Gifts come from God, He gives them to every member of the church, and He wants us to use them for the good of the whole church.

The Corinthians were not doing this. They had the Gifts, but they were putting them to a bad use. Instead of building up the church, they were building up their egos, and further dividing the church.

The only way they could stop doing what they were doing and start doing what they ought to do is by using the Gifts in brotherly love. This is what Paul counsels in Chapter 13. By all means, use your gifts! But use them with patience and kindness and humility. Only then the clanging pots and pans become music. Only when we exercise our gifts in love will they meet their God-given purpose.

In Chapter 14, Paul tells us what the Spiritual Gifts will do for the church and the world if they're properly used, and what they'll do if they're not used so well.

Spiritual Gifts are like fire: when used properly, it cooks your food, warms your home, and moves your car. But this powerful force for good can also be abused, and when it is, it destroys things, from forests to homes to people, James 3:5--

Behold how great a matter a little fire kindles!

The Corinthians need to use their Spiritual Gifts well, and so do we. I do not subscribe to the Charismatic Movement, but I know we all have gifts, every believer does, and I know the Lord wants us to put our gifts into the service of others, and that means to use them in wisdom and love.

THE COMMAND

V.1 issues a command; in fact, three of them--

Pursue love, and desire Spiritual Gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.

The first part teaches that both Spiritual Gifts and brotherly love are needed in the church, and that both should be prayed for, practiced, and developed. Spiritual Gifts without brotherly love are worthless, and how can you have brotherly love unless you do something with it?

The Corinthians' favorite Spiritual Gift was tongues--and Paul is not against the Gift. In v.39 he commands--

Do not forbid it.

But, as good as the Gift of Tongues is, Paul says he knows a better gift. It's the gift of prophecy. What is this? Over the years, most Christian scholars have more or less equated it with what I do--preaching or teaching the Bible. More recently, some have said otherwise. Prophecy is not an exposition of the Bible, but a spontaneous Word from the Holy Spirit, a Word the church needs for matters of a local and temporary nature. For example, the Bible did not tell the church in Antioch who to send out as missionaries, but as the prophets and teachers fasted and prayed for God's will to be known, the prophets made it known by a Special Word from the Lord.

This is an extremely interesting matter, but if I say any more about, we'll never get back to I Corinthians 14. And so, for the purpose of this sermon, I can only say, it doesn't matter.

What does matter is what tongues and prophecy did or didn't do for the church. Paul tells us what tongues did in vv.2 and 4

For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands him; however in the Spirit he speaks mysteries...He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself...

TONGUES

What is the Gift of Tongues? Well, other than the thing in your mouth, in the New Testament,Tongues means 'languages'. And, I might add, human languages, nineteen of which are named in Acts 2, including Arabic, Latin, Cretan, and Parthian. Wherever Jews came from that year for Pentecost, they heard the wonderful works of God in their--

Own language.

The Gift of Tongues, therefore, is neither gibberish nor what the angels speak in Heaven. It's a human language, possessed, but not learned in the usual way. If a Corinthian spoke Arabic, for example, it's not because he grew up in Arabia or learned it in school. It was a supernatural gift.

If Arabs were in church, the gift would be of great use. The problem is, most Sundays, Arabs were not there, and the brother praising God in Arabic was speaking to God only, because He was the only One who knew what the man was saying.

But, the Gift of Tongues was not given to edify God! It was given to edify the church, and it could only be used in church when it did, when it met the needs of other people, and not the wishes of the one who used it. The Gift of Tongues is not to make you feel good; it's to bless the church--that's what Paul has to say about it.

WHY PROPHECY IS BETTER THAN TONGUES

Prophecy, on the other hand, is always in season. Because, v.3, it--

Speaks edification, exhortation, and comfort to men.

The best preacher in the world preaching the best sermon in history will do us no good if he preaches it in Afrikaans. Because, as far as I know, nobody here speaks Afrikaans. If the man has got to say something, let him say it in English, or let him keep his mouth shut!

Not because praising God in Afrikaans is bad--but because, in this church, it does no one any good...except for the man preaching it. It edifies him--v.4 says--but nobody else, and church meetings are designed to edify all who are present and not the preacher only.

PAUL'S EXAMPLE

Paul makes his point in the first five verses of the chapter, and had the Corinthians been a receptive people, he would have left it there. But they weren't receptive; after all he's said, they still prefer the Gift of Tongues, both because it made them feel good and, more to the point, because it made them the center of attention. Everyone oohed and aahed when a man spoke in tongues.

But if Tongues is as wonderful as they thought it was, why wasn't it at the center of Paul's ministry? He had the gift--he says so in v.18--but it was only used when needed, and it wasn't needed very often. What was needed was the Word of God, what Paul styles revelation, knowledge, prophesying, and teaching.

Why did he emphasize the Word of God in the language of the people? Because it did the most good for the church, and that's who Paul is serving--not his vanity, but the needs of the church.

What Paul says in another connection applies here as well--

Imitate me, just as I imitate Christ.

Paul put the needs of the church above his own wishes, just as Jesus had when He came--

Not to be served, but to serve, and give His life a ransom for many.

COMMON SENSE

Paul's example, you'd think, would be enough for the Corinthians. Of course it wasn't. They needed more proof that, being more useful to others, prophecy has got to be better than tongues. He appeals to common sense.

Start with the church pianist. Do you want her to play the notes in the hymnal or to hit the keys at random? You want her to play the notes in the hymnal, because they make a song, while keys hit at random make nothing but noise. When Tongues is used in church without interpretation, it's unedifying and obnoxious noise!

If the church pianist needs to play the right notes, how much more an army bugler? Up until recent times, most orders were given on the battle field with horns. When the bugler blew one tune, it meant 'charge'; when he blew another, it meant 'retreat'. Now, what if Miles Davis had been the bugler? What if he chose to improvise on the tunes? You'd have confusion and carnage. Without interpretation, speaking in tongues has the same effects in church.

Think about the times people have tried to talk to you in a foreign language--not foreign to them, but to foreign to you. They might have been the sweetest people in the world, but the conversation was painful and awkward and ineffective. They knew the shortest way to 680, but giving directions in Swahili didn't help you get there. The Tongue Speakers were saying good things! They were praising God, preaching the Gospel, offering wise counsel, and giving thanks, but because they were doing it all in Parthian, it didn't help anyone in the church!

This is Paul's bottom line, v.12--

Even so you, since you are zealous for spiritual gifts, let it be for the edification of the church that you seek to excel.

The Corinthians valued spiritual gifts and wanted to make maximum use of them. Their problem was they wanted the gifts for the wrong reason. They wanted them for personal enrichment, rather than the enrichment of the church. Insofar as Tongues blesses the church, Paul is all for them, but only that far, and making noise--even if it's a joyful noise--does not bless the church.

This applies, not only to teaching in tongues, but even to praying in tongues. When we pray in church, who are we praying to? We're praying to God. Does He understand every language, do tongues need to be interpreted for Him? Of course He knows what you're saying. Romans 8 says He even knows what you're getting at when your prayers are wordless groanings.

The thing is, when you pray in church, you're not only praying in God's hearing, but in the hearing of other people, people who want to join you in giving thanks or confessing sin or praising the Lord. How are they going to do this if you pray in a foreign language?

God knows what you're saying, and--in spite of what some Christians say--you know what you're saying. Tongues was not gibberish unknown to the speaker. But, though he was praying in the spirit, his understanding was unfruitful. Unfruitful to whom? Look at the context, follow the argument, and you'll see it was unfruitful for the church! Because, nobody knew he was praising God, nobody said, Amen!

The same is true with singing in church. A hymn may be beautiful, even if we don't understand the words. But it won't edify us unless we know what's being sung.

In v.19, Paul sums up his teaching--

Yet in the church I would rather speak five words with understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue.

THE PURPOSE OF TONGUES

If all we knew about Paul and tongues was what we have in the first half of this chapter, we would likely think he was against them, that they did more harm than good in the church, and that they served no useful purpose at all.

Is this how he feels about the Gift of Tongues? No. Not even an Apostle has the right to question the gifts of God or to run down their value. He's against the abuse of tongues, but he's for the Gift itself.

Why? He tells us in vv.20-25.

He starts by reminding us that not all Bible doctrines are easy to understand, v.20--

Brethren, do not be children in understanding, but in understanding be mature.

This doctrine is more subtle than most others, and to understand it, you're going to have to think and study your Bibles, in particular Isaiah 28:11-12--

With men of other tongues and other lips I will speak to this people; and yet, for all that, they will not hear me.

The speaker is God. The subject is Judah's stubborn refusal to listen to His prophets, men who are pleading with them to repent of their sins, and doing it in their own language.

If the Israelites will not listen to God's tender words in Hebrew, they'll have to hear His angry words in Chaldean. In other words, the Babylonians are going to invade the land, kill thousands and carry many more into exile and slavery. When the Israelite hears the Chaldean general ordering his death or the auctioneer selling his wife into slavery or impressing his sons into the service of the king, he'll hear the Voice of God in it all. If they won't listen to the warning of Deuteronomy 28 in Hebrew, they'll hear it in other tongues and lips.

From this big, historic doctrine, Paul draws an application, v22a--

Therefore, tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe, but to unbelievers...

The Gift of Tongues was given at Pentecost, and to Corinth to alert the unbelieving Jews at the time that the Kingdom of God has been taken away from national Israel and given to the Israel of God, the church, made up of Jews and Gentles alike who believe in Christ.

This may not exactly prove that the Gift of Tongues has ceased, but it sure points that way. Its purpose was limited and when it was met, tongues were no longer needed and they went away. I believe the Gift was withdrawn when all the curses of the Law fell on Jerusalem in 70 AD.

Whatever else tongues did, what they mostly did was warn Israel.

TONGUES AND UNBELIEVING GENTILES

If the Gift of Tongues said something to unbelieving Jews, it also said something to unbelieving Gentiles. Their church services--like ours--were open to everyone, and so visitors came in from time to time. Some Sundays, they heard nothing but tongues and left with this assessment of the church, v.23--

You are out of your mind!

Other weeks they heard prophecy, the Word of God spoken with clarity and power. When that happened, they said--

Of a truth, God is among you!

Paul says, in effect, how do you want unbelieving visitors to think of the church? Do you want them to think it's a House of God or a Nut House?

RULES FOR MINISTRY IN THE CHURCH

If you want them to think it's the House of God, your services have got to be sensible and orderly. Many people spoke or sang in church, and Paul was okay with that. What he wasn't okay with was confusion or competition.

If someone is going to speak in tongues, do it only if there's one present to interpret, and even when there is, it's got to be done in a polite and orderly way. And you mustn't try people's patience by droning on and on!

This rule applies to prophecy as much as tongues. If a prophet speaks, he can't say Thus says the Lord, and then say whatever he wants. His words are subject to the wisdom of other prophets.

Whether the specific gifts Paul names are permanent or not, makes no difference here. God's character is permanent, and He's always for peace and order, and never for confusion in the church. The rules, therefore, apply to all churches.

Of course preachers and teachers will differ on minor details of interpretation and practice, but they've got to color inside the lines. If twenty people can sing well, let them sing their solos in church--but not all on the same Sunday!

Decency and order. Some think these are the marks of an old fashioned, uncool, unhip, dull and dying church. Paul thinks otherwise. He sees them as marks of a Church not only filled with the Spirit, but also Led by the Spirit.

WOMEN

In vv.34-38, Paul brings up the problem of women in the church. Now, 'women in the church' is no problem, of course, but what some of them were doing in Corinth was a problem. What were they doing? They were talking in church, and some interpreters take Paul's words to mean, 'Women can never speak in church'; or if they can speak at all, it is in only the most limited way.

The problem with this view is, back in Chapter 11, he assumes they are speaking in church, and in important ways. The ladies were--

Praying and prophesying.

If they did it with their heads covered as a sign of respect for their husbands Paul said, 'Have at it'. It seems hard for me to believe that they're allowed to pray and prophesy in church and have also to keep silent in an absolute way, or in something close to that.

But if you read the passage carefully, you'll see the issue is not 'women speaking in church' but women speaking in church in a way that is not consistent with--

Being submissive to their own husbands.

Who were the husbands? They were men speaking in church, either pastors or teachers or prophets, or maybe singers or song leaders. Well, they stand up to say something and their wives would show no respect. One wife was chatting with a friend while her husband was calling out a hymn; another was interrupting the sermon to correct a mistake he'd made; a third was turning a legitimate question into a public interrogation.

My parents told me they saw a woman do this many years ago. She knew a lot more about the Bible than her young husband did, and being the first time he preached, he was very nervous and made a lot of mistakes, all of which she publicly corrected!

Even if she was right on the facts and he was wrong, her proud and inappropriate conduct brought shame on her husband and confusion into the church.

Self-seeking is what Paul is against in the church, and the rules apply to men and women alike.

SUMMARY

In the last two verses Paul sums up what he's been saying for three chapters. The Gifts of God are good and ought to be used in the church--and the best gifts are the ones that are most useful. Therefore, we ought to encourage them, but also insist they be used in a way consistent with decency and order, and most of all, with brotherly love.

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