1 Corinthians Pt. 23
Reid A Ferguson
1 Corinthians 14:20–25
Coming to a letter like this one to the Church at Corinth should always cause us both as individuals and as an assembly to ask ourselves where we might fit in the on the spectrum of the issues the Holy Spirit raises here through Paul.
We cannot just set the letter aside and think: We don’t have the exact problems cited here, so we can pass over it quickly.
Certainly, as we’ve seen throughout, at least some of what they wrestled with we share at least in part.
While I think I can say with confidence that we are not at present a church in division – especially over personalities, we’ve certainly had seasons of that in the past. I am grateful to say I don’t at present see the jealousy and strife among us as plagued them at that particular time.
It doesn’t appear that we have those seeking power and reputation among us – though we do not know each one’s heart.
We may be more inclined in the current cultural climate of American Christianity to seek for legitimization and standing in the eyes of the World – too concerned with their opinion of us. There’s a danger we certainly need to be on guard about.
We do not appear to have a case of the open and scandalous sexual immorality that was so prominent in Corinth. But this is certainly the age for it and again we really need to be on our guard that we do not fall into the Cultural normalizing of sexual sin in any of its forms.
We don’t appear to have factions vying for prominence or a trend of Christians suing other Christians among us – though sadly that appears to be growing in the larger Church.
But there is no question we face an ever-growing number of really complex issues regarding marriage, co-habitation, divorce and remarriage. And problems within marriage relationships remain a perennial challenge.
While we don’t have literal pagan temples to worry about, the deeper concern of what compromises we may be willing to make to remain in the workplace or be accepted by the society around us is still there.
There still may be vestiges of the places you used to go or things you used to do which you know now are just not commensurate with who you are in Christ. Things you looked to for recreation, or a sense of well-being that are at odds with Christ having that place in your heart now.
I remember getting the position of National Sales Manager for Johnson-Rose in 1992, and going up for my first visit with the corporate bigwigs in Toronto. And when it came time for lunch, the President and Vice President of the Canadian operation wanted to welcome me in by taking me to their favorite strip club for lunch.
The ensuing conversation nixed that decision – but not without the risk of offending them and losing a position which had just been created for me.
And Paul’s penetrating admonition about facing temptation of all kinds in Ch. 10 has every bit the same application for ourselves as it did for them.
The issue of physical head-coverings isn’t ours here – though it still is in some congregations – but the underlying principle of order among equals, especially in the Church remains just as fresh and relevant.
As does the need to rightly regard the Body and Blood of Christ at communion – and our common love for our brothers and sisters in Christ irrespective of socio-economic standing.
Loving one another is never an issue affecting only one congregation.
And now in this prolonged discussion regarding spiritual gifts – while we do not have the types of public meetings they did where it appears quite a bit of pandemonium broke out – once again the underlying principles which emerge are needed for every Church in every generation.
And in the section before us this morning, Paul drills down to a bedrock principle that informs the rest of his comments, and how that principle is crucial to the entire Christian life and understanding of God’s economy for us as individuals and the greater assembly.
I’ll establish that in the text in a moment but drawing a bit from Jim’s last sermon in this Chapter let me remind us all that understanding God’s goal of bringing believers to maturity in Christ simply cannot be overstated.
It is hard to know which route to take when travelling, unless I have a clear idea of the destination. And this is absolutely true when it comes to the Christian life.
As we’ve pointed out many, many times – Ephesians 4:11–15 ESV / And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,
The destination of God in salvation and in all the gifts He bestows upon the Church – both in terms of gift-offices like Apostle, Prophets, Pastor-teachers, etc., and individual gifts like we have in this chapter – they are all aimed at bringing us to “the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” That we may “grow up in every way in Him – into Christ!”
And the problem which persisted in Corinth, and which can so easily infect us is this: That we mistake any spiritual gift, either in ourselves or in others – for spiritual maturity. That because I may have some ability with which to serve the Body of Christ – therefore, I am automatically mature, and “spiritual.”
In fact, here are these intertwined realities: The problem of disunity the letter majors on, has its root in the problem of spiritual immaturity.
Possessing a spiritual gift says nothing more about your spirituality than a natural talent says something about your emotional or psychological maturity.
And if you want to see where this mistake impacts the Church the most – it is in choosing leadership in the Church. Deciding on pastors, preachers or elders because they have a gift to speak or teach: more than based upon their character and growth in Christ-likeness.
If we could only have a dollar for every Church that mistake has ruined. For the birth of countless “ministries” that have ended up in scandal, disaster and even apostacy.
But let’s go back to the text and begin to see how Paul develops this point in his example of exercising the gifts of prophecy and tongues in the Church at Corinth.
His foundation statement or controlling thought comes in 1 Corinthians 14:20 ESV / Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.
It is the call to mature Christian thinking – painted on the backdrop of spiritual gifts in the local assembly.
And what Paul does so carefully is tease out the features of this mature way of thinking while discussing the specific issues at Corinth. This makes the whole discussion useful for us, even though our particular assembly doesn’t suffer from the chaos that evidently prevailed there.
1. The immature do not reason from an historical frame of reference.
Babies only have one frame of reference – the immediate.
How I feel – right now. Am I tired? Am I hungry? Am I uncomfortable?
And I don’t care if you met those needs last hour, yesterday, last week or last month. NOW is all I know.
So this is very first thing Paul addresses: 1 Corinthians 14:21 ESV / In the Law it is written, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.”
He takes them back to Isa. 28 and in effect says: You are all wrapped up in tongues and prophecy the way you are experiencing them right now – without any regard for how this might fit into God’s overall historical redemptive plan. Like babies.
In fact, tongues in particular, has a purpose you may never have considered, because you’re just all wrapped up in what is going on around you.
And in this context – he shows that tongues, this gift of speaking in a language the speaker does not know – be it an earthly language or a heavenly one – has a function which is decidedly NOT for the edification of Believers – but as a sign of God’s judgment against Jewish people who have disregarded God’s plain word to them in the past. For that is the context of the Isa. passage.
We don’t have the time to unpack that fully here except to say that this shows their immaturity and their being rather unspiritual because they never even took the time so search out God’s Word to see if this phenomenon was addressed before. They just ran with it.
They are like spiritual babies. He goes on 1 Corinthians 14:22 ESV / Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers.
Tongues are not to be thought of as signifying something about the spirituality of the speaker – but as a sign to unbelieving Jews that they are under the judgment of God.
They will think you are all mad if all of you just blurt it out (vs. 23). And it won’t expose them to the Gospel, only reveal their lostness. Something which they still need explained to them.
The Spiritually immature often scorn or at least neglect the Old Testament, Church history and examining the ways God has dealt with His people historically, and how OT prophecies might impact present phenomenon.
So, also, in contrast to speaking in tongues happening in an unregulated way – we need to consider how being moved upon by the Spirit to speak in a way others can easily understand takes precedence. Unless as he says back in vs. 5 “someone interprets.”
The immature do not reason from an historical frame of reference.
2. The Immature do not think about their gifts in a context of how they may contribute to others putting off sin and growing in Christ’s character.
1 Corinthians 14:26 ESV / What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.
If the “building up” Paul mentions here is taken as the same that we saw in the Ephesians passage, then this becomes a key to understanding every spiritual gift.
How does it contribute to my brother or sister knowing and growing in Christ?
We get some further insight into that idea in 1 Corinthians 14:24–25 ESV / But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.
It reminds us of the Day of Pentecost doesn’t it?
They heard people proclaiming the mighty works of God (Acts 2:11), and then Peter preached and they were – what? Convicted of their sin! They were called into account. The secrets of their hearts were disclosed.
Teasing that out ever so slightly – does it mean someone supernaturally blurted out their secret sins?
It was the result of the Word of God being pressed – as in Hebrews 4:12 ESV / For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
This again helps us understand that this prophesying – whatever else it may include – and this is a complex topic too – it first and foremost brings Biblical truth to bear in a highlighted fashion at a particular place and time. And that can happen through any Believer.
It amplifies what Paul said back in vs. 3 that prophecy is to “upbuild” others. To encourage them in the faith. To console them in staying the course – to exhort and help them in their Christian walk.
3. The immature tend to oversimplify complex teachings of Scripture.
Paul develops this especially regarding the gift of tongues.
We can’t go into it here, but this is often the case with major doctrines in Scripture as well isn’t it?
Those who try to over-simplify topics like election; God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility; the problem of an all holy and all-powerful God allowing evil to exist; varying experiences of regeneration; views on church government; Bible translations and others display a very harmful immaturity.
Here he notes that tongues specifically can operate at least 4 different ways: privately, publicly, – contrary to some today – in prayer and in singing or praise. And so he calls us to think more robustly and always in terms of the greater good.
Some of the implications of thinking more maturely would be:
1 Corinthians 14:13 ESV / Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret.
Ones who have this gift (or think they do) should also pray that they might interpret what is said.
Ostensibly so that it can help others.
But keep in mind, help others what?
Put off sin and grow in the knowledge and character of Christ.
I might add, if no interpretation is forthcoming, one would do well to question whether or not this is in fact a genuine gift from God.
1 Corinthians 14:14–15 ESV / For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.
Apparently this gift can function in prayer and even singing or worship. But once again, interpretation is needed for it to be beneficial. Even to the speaker! I will use this gift says Paul – but also WITH MY MIND! With comprehension. Otherwise it is useless.
1 Corinthians 14:27–28 ESV / If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God.
There needs to be regulation for order and the benefit of the larger group.
And even with prophecy there needs to be regulation.
Even though I believe I am stirred by the Spirit to speak what I hope is useful to the congregation – others are to weigh those utterances to be sure they do in fact comport with Scripture and accomplish the goal of helping others grow in Christ. (29)
I might add it is in this context Paul says the women (in this specific case) are to keep silent – in other words when it comes to judging the prophecies publicly.
As we saw back in Ch. 11 – women may pray or prophesy in the congregation – so he can’t be contradicting that here. But judging these prophecies falls back on the leadership of the congregation. The elders, pastor-teachers and overseers.
1 Corinthians 14:39 ESV / So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.
Speaking in tongues is NOT to be forbidden.
A simplistic sweeping away of the gift because it may be too complex to deal with is not a mature approach either.
4. The immature assume their gift(s) give them some spiritual authority and chafe against that of others.
1 Corinthians 14:37–38 ESV / If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized.
Those with a gift, especially a verbal one can begin to imagine that their gift trumps everything else, and therefore they ought to have everyone’s ear.
I’ve certainly witnessed this over the years. And Paul is careful to set this one right.
Spiritual people, truly spiritual people will acknowledge both the apostolic authority of Paul and that what he is writing here is actually a command of the Lord and not just good advice to taken or left at will.
Go on the internet or on TV and just see how many will lightly put forth their revelations or opinions – no matter how they contradict Scripture – as something with new authority. When the Holy Spirit through Paul says: THIS is the command of the Lord. NOT something else.
It is current in some circles today to claim that some of what Paul wrote in this letter earlier regarding the roles of men and women or sexuality for instance are outdated, merely cultural and that society has evolved.
But here, we are given no such license.
Even those who might claim the gift of prophecy – however we define it are bound by the authority of the apostles as passed on to us in the Scriptures.
This is so important and abiding that Paul says in vs. 38 – if anyone does not recognize our authority and that what I’ve written here is God’s command – you are not to give them the time of day. They are not to be recognized!
God’s people, spiritual people are always a people yielding full authority to God’s Word in their lives.
What then are we to do with all of this when we consider ECF and where we are today?
Let me give you 4 concluding thoughts:
1. That we all may know how to conduct ourselves in Christ’s Church for His glory.
When Paul was writing to Timothy he said this: 1 Timothy 3:14–15 ESV / I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.
Whether you remain here at ECF, or in time end up in another where things are far different in how the Spirit and His gifts may be manifested – We want you to have this kind of foundation in evaluating what’s going on and how you might contribute.
That Christ might be best represented by us wherever we find ourselves – we need to know what that looks like in our gathered worship.
It is Him we come to glorify. His people we come to bless.
2. Every gift the Spirit gives falls under the umbrella of being given so as to help one another grow in the knowledge of and character of Christ.
For some of you that may be giving – you give financially and have the resources to sustain and even expand the ministry of the Word in this place.
Your gift may be hospitality. You provide venues in and outside of the immediate assembly for this work of ministry to continue more individually and personally.
Perhaps you are gifted at administration – helping the local assembly organize and function so that the Gospel ministry goes on smoothly and efficiently.
Prayer is a vastly needed and critical gift. Where you do not just pray for people’s circumstances but how they might redeem those trials in growing more like Jesus.
Helps are a perpetually needed gift – whether individuals or the congregational efforts as a whole. Coming along side to help the ministry of the Church function well, and stepping into people’s lives where you can and encouraging them in the faith.
Those who exhort the lazy or distracted to get back on track.
Comforters for those wounded in their battle against sin and the trials of life.
Email, phone, letter and face-to-face encouragers to fight off worldliness and pursue Christlikeness.
Teachers to help us understand God’s Word so that we can battle the World, the flesh and the Devil more effectively.
Whether or not gifts of healings are through certain individuals or the one getting the healing is the one receiving the gift I cannot tell, but that health restored is for continued service to the Body seems without question.
Faith – those who can encourage others to steadfastly trust God’s Word and character in times of distress and confusion because they know it so well themselves are absolutely essential.
A word given in an unknown tongue which when translated spotlights a critical Biblical truth to be recalled and acted upon when seeking to grow in holiness.
A mind opened by the Spirit to understand a particular situation in the life of an individual or the whole assembly and with wisdom as to how to respond – all with the growth and ministry of the Church and God’s people at the fore.
These and all the other gifts are desperately needed. And each can contribute to our common goal of being conformed to the image of Christ – when rightly utilized with that goal in mind. And not a focus on “But I need to exercise MY gift!”
When we are intent on helping one another seek, know and live Christ – the various gifts will be manifest among us as the Spirit deems best to meet that goal.
It takes us back to Ch. 13 – This is the more excellent way Paul spoke of. More excellent than seeking any gift, is seeking the spiritual enrichment and maturity of my brothers and sisters in Christ. Such love, will find us rich in the gifts that accomplish that end.
3. All of this then begs the question: Am I seeking the Lord so as to contribute to the spiritual growth and maturity of others in Christ?
If your answer is yes – then how?
And if no – why not?
Which begs a related question: Am I seeking to grow in Christ – so that I might have somewhat to offer others in their progress?
Am I relevant to what God is doing in and through His Church?
4. This perhaps opens the question as to how we might better facilitate these opportunities – especially as this text lays so much stress on prophecy?
Maybe our Wednesday night gatherings can provide such a venue.
Should you be stirred by the Spirit from a Sunday morning sermon or Sunday School class, or something you’ve read or that has stirred your heart that may be of help to others in this Body – write it down, mark it, and maybe we can open some additional time to speak to one another there – with, the comments being weighed by the leadership even as this text invites.
But whatever gift you may believe or actually possess, begin to think about your own growth in the likeness of Christ’s character, and how you may contribute to your fellow Believers to that same end.
Knowing Him more.
Knowing His truth more.
Trusting Him more.
Loving Him more.
Christ did all that He might reveal the Father to us as our highest good.
We then do all that we might reveal Christ to all for their highest good.
And I know well how many, if not all of you Moms and Dads are doing this already at home all the time.
But seek the Lord to be used in each other’s lives for their best good before the Lord. And see if He does not open opportunities you never dreamt of to that end.
Ephesians 4:10–16 ESV / He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
Beloved, let’s be Christ’s people on Christ’s mission.
1 Corinthians 14:20 ESV / Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.
When it comes to sinning, let’s be naive, but when it comes to living and serving in God’s house together – let’s be mature.