1 Corinthians 14

by Hamilton Smith

In chapter 14 we have the unfolding of God's order for the exercise of gifts in the assembly. Gifts, as we have learnt, have been distributed by the Spirit to every man to profit withal (1 Cor. 12: 7). It is not enough, however, to have received a gift; if it is to profit others, its use must be divinely regulated. In this chapter the assembly is contemplated as come together in one place (verses 23, 26, 28, 33, 34, 35); and we are instructed how the gifts are to be exercised on such occasions according to the order of God.

There are two ways in which God's order can be set aside: first, by the allowance of man's disorder, and, secondly, by the adoption of man's order. The Corinthian believers had evidently set aside God's order by the allowance of gross disorder. There had even been drunkenness at the Lord's Supper. Moreover, it would seem that the sign gifts, given by the Holy Spirit, were being used without reference to the Lord's will, and were made a means of exalting the believers and ministering to their own vanity.

In Christendom today we may seldom see such violent outrages upon ordinary decency as were exhibited at Corinth. Nevertheless, on every hand we see assemblies of professing Christians conducted on principles entirely contrary to the plain directions of God's word. With Christendom today it is not so much human disorder, as at Corinth, but rather human order that has set aside divine order. Human order is equally serious, if not more so than human disorder, for gross conduct will offend even the natural conscience and call for correction, whereas human order may quiet the conscience and be allowed without its evil being detected.

To appreciate the seriousness of this evil, we must remember that, very early in the church's history, the great distinguishing truths of the dispensation were given up by the professing mass. The presence of Christ in glory as the Head of His church, the presence of the Holy Spirit on earth, and the formation and calling of the church, are great truths that were almost entirely lost soon after the decease of the apostles. Christianity became leavened with Judaism, with the result that sincere but ignorant men attempted to maintain order by setting up a priestly class as distinguished from the laity after the pattern of the Jewish priesthood. Human order, by means of clerisy, was adopted and still prevails in all the great religious sects of Christendom.

The seriousness of adopting this human order lies in the fact that it ignores the presence and leading of the Holy Spirit. We are so slow to accept the fact that the great cardinal truth of the present moment is that we are living in the time when a divine Person - the Holy Spirit - is present upon earth on behalf of the interests of Christ, to comfort, to teach, to guide, to shew us all things, and to lead us in the exercise of gift and prayer (John 14: 16-26; John 16: 13-15; 1 Cor. 12: 3; Jude 20). If, however, in the apprehension of the body of Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit, we have separated from every man-made system which, in practice, denies these great truths, we may ask, does Scripture afford any light as to the way believers should act when come together for the ministry of the word?

The fourteenth chapter of this Epistle clearly shows that God has given us very explicit directions for the exercise of ministry in the assemblies of His people when gathered together. That the principles laid down in this chapter cannot be carried out in the religious systems of Christendom only condemns these systems and makes manifest how far they have departed from God's order. If, however, our eyes have been opened to the evil of these systems, and we stand aloof from them, we shall find ourselves in a position in which it is possible, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to act according to God's order.

In the exercise of gifts by the Holy Spirit three great principles are asserted in this chapter:

First, we are to follow after love (verse 1).

Secondly, the gifts are to be used for edification (verses 2-25).

Thirdly, the gifts are to be exercised according to divine order (verses 26-40).

1. Love the motive in the use of gifts.

(V. 1). The maintenance of love, edification and divine order in the assembly entirely depends upon the free action of the Holy Spirit. Already the apostle has insisted upon the rights of the Holy Spirit in the assembly (1 Cor. 12: 4-13) and has unfolded to us the blessed qualities of love (1 Cor. 13). He now commences this fresh portion, which speaks of the exercise of gifts, with the exhortation, "Follow after love".

Had love been in exercise in the assembly at Corinth, it would have escaped many grave disorders, even if uninstructed in God's order. Love, as the apostle has shewn, leads to the renunciation of self. Hence the exhortation to follow love precedes the exhortation to desire spiritual gifts and the instruction as to their use. Love will keep the motive pure, both in the desire for a spiritual gift as well as in the use of the gift. Love thinks not of self but of the good of others. Lacking in love the believers at Corinth had been using the sign gifts of healing and tongues to exalt themselves. To meet this tendency the apostle exhorts them to seek rather to prophesy.

2. Edification the great end in the use of gifts.

(Vv. 2-4). The exhortation to covet the gift of prophecy leads the apostle to show that the great end of the exercise of gift is edification. Throughout his instruction he keeps this before us. In verse 3 he speaks of "edification, and encouragement, and consolation"; in verse 5 he writes, "that the assembly may receive edification"; in verse 12, "that ye may abound for the edification of the assembly"; and in verse 26, "Let all things be done unto edifying" (N.Tn.).

He that speaks in an unknown tongue may speak to God of mysteries, but if "no man understands" there is no edification. Unless there be an interpreter, both "love" and "edification" would exclude the use of tongues. In contrast to tongues, the one that prophesieth speaks unto men to edification, encouragement and comfort. This is hardly a definition of prophecy, but rather the result of prophesying. Thinking of Old Testament prophets, we may be inclined to limit prophecy to foretelling future events. This, however, was a limited part of the prophet's work, even in Old Testament days. His great mission was to apply the word of God to the conscience and heart for edification. This still applies as the service of the prophet in Christian times; and in this sense the gift abides. From the place that the apostle gives the gift in this passage, we may gather that it is the greatest of all gifts that remains to the church, and the one to be most desired.

(Vv. 5, 6). Tongues had, indeed, their place; but the apostle asks, what profit would it be to speak with tongues without an interpreter? If the assembly is to be edified, it can only be through one speaking in revelation, or in knowledge, or in prophecy, or in teaching. In the days of the apostle there were still those who spoke by revelation. Now that the word of God is complete we have the gift of revelation preserved in Scripture. Knowledge would imply imparting to believers that which has already been revealed. Prophesying is rather the application of the truth to the conscience, while doctrine, or teaching, is instruction in a particular truth.

(Vv. 7-11). Furthermore, for edification it is not only necessary to impart the knowledge, to apply the word by prophecy to the conscience, and to teach particular truths, but to do so in "words easy to be understood". Obscurity is not spirituality. If there were no "distinction in the sounds", music would convey no melodious meaning. If the sound is "uncertain", the trumpet will produce no effect upon the hearers. So ministry may be put forth in such a confused way that it conveys no meaning, or it may be expressed with such uncertainty that it has no effect upon the hearers. If ministry is to edify, it must be set forth in words "easy to be understood" and with the certainty of the oracles of God. Every voice in nature has a special significance, and so words have a special meaning. If we use words which convey no meaning to the hearers, we practically become barbarians speaking in some strange jargon.

(V. 12). If, then, we are zealous of spiritual gifts, let it not be that we may exalt ourselves, and excel above our brethren, but that we may excel to the edifying of the assembly. Nothing that sets aside this great principle of edification can be of the Spirit. Where the Holy Spirit is unhindered there love prevails, and where love prevails every utterance will be for edification.

(Vv. 13-17). These utterances may take other forms than the exercise of distinct gifts. It may be for this reason that in the first verse we are exhorted to desire "spiritual manifestations", rather than "spiritual gifts", as in our translation. Room is thus left for every form of utterance under the leading of the Spirit. In these verses we read of praying, singing and giving of thanks, forms of ministry which are never called gifts. But, whatever the form of utterance, edification is to be kept in view. If the Holy Spirit presides, and love prevails in the assembly, every utterance will be in a form that those who are unlearned will be able to follow intelligently and add their Amen. Fellowship, of which the Amen is the outward expression, will thus be maintained.

(Vv. 18-20). In condemning the abuse of tongues, the apostle was not moved by jealousy, for he himself spoke with tongues more than they all; but he used the gift in the right place, before the right audience, and for a right purpose. In the assembly five words with the understanding, that others might be taught, were better than "ten thousand words in an unknown tongue". In their fondness for the use of tongues, the Corinthians were acting as children, who delight in anything that makes a show. The apostle exhorts them, and ourselves, not to be children in understanding, but to be innocent as a babe of all malice. We have the flesh in us and it can, but for the grace of God, use prayer or ministry to work off a bit of malice against a brother. But, as one has said, this is a form of spiritual wickedness in high places. Let us, then, seek to follow love and edification.

(Vv. 21-25). The apostle gives a free quotation from Isaiah 28: 11, 12 to show that, in the day of Israel's failure, when the prophets had erred, God spake to them in the tongues of foreigners, as a sign of the unbelief of those who would not hear the plain word of God. So the exercise of the gift of tongues at the introduction of Christianity was a sign, not to believers, but to unbelievers, and left the hearer without excuse.

In contrast to tongues, the gift of prophecy serves not only for the unbeliever but for the believer. When the saints are come together in one place, the exercise of tongues without an interpreter would lead an unbeliever, or an unlearned person, to conclude that the assembly was mad. Prophesying, on the other hand, would convict the conscience of an unbeliever, make manifest the secrets of his heart, and convince him of being in the presence of God.

3. Divine order to be maintained in the exercise of gifts.

(V. 26). In view of his instructions for the maintenance of divine order when come together in assembly, the apostle enquires how these believers at Corinth were acting. He had been giving full liberty to pray, to sing, to bless, to give thanks, and to prophesy, provided all was carried out in a spirit of love and edification. They were taking full advantage of their liberty, for "every one" was ready to take part. Nevertheless, they had abused their liberty by not acting "decently and in order". The liberty of the Spirit had been turned into licence for the flesh. To correct this abuse does not suggest that one-man ministry should take the place of the liberty that belongs to every man. Christendom has done this and lost the liberty in seeking to correct the abuse. The apostle says, "Let all things be done unto edifying", and in order that this may be so, he presents God's order, thus maintaining full liberty for ministry while guarding it from abuse.

(Vv. 27, 28). First, he deals with tongues. If any man speak in a tongue, let it be "by two, or at the most by three", and that in regular course, and let one interpret. If there be no interpreter the exercise of this gift is not permitted.

(Vv. 29-31). If the prophets speak, it must also be only two or three, while others judge. Speakers and hearers have their responsibility. The hearers are to judge if what is said is of the Spirit. Each speaker is to leave room for another to whom a word may be given, for all may prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and be comforted. Clearly, then, anything in the nature of one-man ministry in an assembly meeting is out of order.

(Vv. 32, 33). Moreover, the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets, a statement that excludes all idea of being moved by an uncontrollable impulse. With men speaking under the power of demons it would be otherwise, resulting in unholy excitement and confusion. God is not the Author of confusion, but of peace. Any scene of confusion in the assemblies of God's people is clearly not of God.

(Vv. 34, 35). The liberty of all to prophesy one by one in the assembly does not apply to women. They are to keep silence in the assemblies. Their capability, or otherwise, is not in question. Silence in public on the part of women is according to creation order as well as the law. The woman's sphere of liberty is in the home. To speak in public is to cover herself with shame.

(Vv. 36-38). The apostle's directions are closed with a definite claim that they are the commandments of the Lord, and, as such, have all the authority of the word of God that comes, not only to the assembly at Corinth, but to all the assemblies of God's people. To neglect the directions of the apostle is to refuse the universal application of the word of God to the church. The place of the church is to be subject to the word of God, remembering that the word of God comes to, and not from, the church. The assembly, as such, is taught; it cannot teach. The spirituality of any man will be seen by the acknowledgment that the things Paul has written are the commandments of the Lord. To disregard these directions is to ignore the direct commands of the Lord. As this is so, the apostle is very short and decisive with any who refuses subjection. With such he will not argue. He merely says, "If any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant".

(Vv. 39, 40). The apostle sums up his instructions by again urging them to desire to prophesy, but not to forbid to speak with tongues, but, "Let all things be done decently and in order". Whatever form spiritual manifestations may take in the assembly, let all who take part ask themselves, "Will it be in love, will it be for edification, will it be according to divine order?". Let us then remember the three great exhortations of the chapter:

  1. "Follow after love" (verse 1).
  2. "Let all things be done unto edifying" (verse 26).
  3. "Let all things be done decently and in order" (verse 40).

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