September 1, 2013
Pastor Joe Wittwer
A Glorious Mess
1 Corinthians 14
One Sunday in the mid-1980’s, I was standing in the back of our little church on Mallon Street during worship, and I thought, “If I had just walked in here for the first time, I would turn around and walk out and never come back.” And I was the pastor! It was crazy church! Today, I’m going to tell you that story, and how we got from there to here.
We’re going to read 1 Corinthians 14. In it, the apostle Paul corrects the crazy church that was going on back then, and gives some instructions for a healthy church. We’re going to talk about spiritual gifts like speaking in tongues, and prophecy. Fasten your seat belts! It’s going to be interesting!
Introduction and offering:
This summer, we’ve been working our way through the New Testament book of 1 Corinthians. The apostle Paul wrote this letter to correct some very messy problems in the church in Corinth. One of the problems was their misuse of spiritual gifts, particularly speaking in tongues. It seems that this gift was prized above all others, and that during their meetings, lots of people would speak in tongues at once.
ILL: Imagine if everyone in the UN General Assembly all started speaking their native languages at once. It would be chaos.
Something like that was happening in the church in Corinth, and Paul said, “If an unbeliever is there while you’re doing that, he will think you’re crazy.” Hence, my term: crazy church.
Today we come to chapter 14 where Paul corrects crazy church and talks about healthy church. Before we read it, I want to tell you our story.
We are a Foursquare church. Foursquare is a Pentecostal denomination. We believe that it is essential to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and we believe that the Spirit empowers us to do God’s work by giving us spiritual gifts. Speaking in tongues is one of those gifts. I speak in tongues—and I have for years. As we’ll see, it’s a good gift when used properly.
We are a Pentecostal church. But Pentecostal churches range all the way from wildly-costal to mildly-costal. We are on the mildly-costal end. Here’s how we got there.
In the early years of Life Center, I was much more wildly-costal. Early on, I attended a conference on spiritual gifts and signs and wonders, and I came back and changed the way we did church. We sang for an hour, and I told people, “Stand, sit, kneel, run—do what you want to worship God.” So we made worship more about the individual than a group experience. And we made time for people to give prophecies or speak in tongues with interpretation. We had a snowstorm. Every flake in town showed up. Seriously, we attracted people who wanted a platform to do their thing—and they did. People gave prophecies that were either crazy or just nice thoughts—but not from God. People did their own things in worship too.
One day, I was called out of worship. When I came back to the auditorium, what I saw as I stood in the back—well, it was repulsive. Most of the 100 people were sitting and singing with their eyes closed. But about a dozen folks were doing their own thing—standing and shaking, dancing in the aisle. It was crazy. That’s when I thought, “If I had just walked in here for the first time, I would turn around and walk out and never come back.” It’s really bad when you’re the pastor and you don’t want to go to your own church! I knew something had to change and it did.
Over the next couple years, we found our footing. We determined that God had called us to reach the unconvinced, and use our church services to do it. So we made changes, including becoming mildly-costal. We made our services understandable and friendly to unconvinced, unbelieving people. Back in the crazy church days, people would tell me, “I have family in town next weekend. Is it safe to bring them to church, or are you going to do something crazy?” Our members didn’t feel safe bringing people to their own church! So we changed that, and we made Life Center a safe place to bring people to hear the dangerous message of Jesus.
A few years after these changes, a friend of mine named Jeff moved back to town. He had been with us during the crazy church period, and when he moved away, he found another church like that. Now he was back and he asked me, “What happened? Why aren’t we all speaking in tongues? Why isn’t anyone dancing, or running around waving flags, or falling over during worship?” To answer him, I did some artwork. I drew a circle and asked, “What percentage of Spokane is Christian?” We decided to be generous and made it a quarter of the pie.
“Of these people, how many would go to a church like the one you’re describing?” We agreed that it would be a very small slice of the pie.
“You want me to build a church for these people. They need a church, and there are several in town that are designed for them. But God asked me to build a church for these people (the 75% who don’t know Jesus).”
So that’s why we’re mildly-costal. I have to add one more thing. Some churches are much more Pentecostal than we are and manage to reach people far from God—they do it without the craziness. Hats off to them. Please don’t misunderstand me: the gifts of the Spirit are real and powerful and they are not crazy. If they are misused, it gets crazy. But done correctly, they are powerful. And I think that generally they work best in a smaller setting than this. More about that later.
So let’s dive into 1 Corinthians 14. I won’t have time to deal with every verse, every idea. I’m going to stick to the big ideas.
The Big Idea: Everything done in church should be for the good of others—to build up believers and win others to Jesus.
So Paul starts by saying:
1. Stop doing crazy church! 1-25
1 Corinthians 14 (NIV)
1 Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. 2 For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. 3 But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. 4 Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. 5 I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified.
Paul begins by laying out the differences between two spiritual gifts: speaking in tongues and prophecy.
Speaking in tongues is the gift of being able to speak a language you never learned. The Holy Spirit enables you to speak a language that may be a language of men or a language of angels. In Acts 2, which records the first example of speaking in tongues on the Day of Pentecost, the languages were human languages that were recognized by the crowd. Here in 1 Corinthians, the languages are not recognized and required interpretation—another spiritual gift.
The person who speaks in tongues is speaking to God. What do we call that? Prayer. Or worship or praise. Later, Paul will talk about praying and praising God in tongues. The person who speaks in tongues speaks to God.
By contrast, the person who prophesies is speaking to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. Tongues are to God; prophecy is to people.
Prophecy is the gift of speaking for God to people. The purpose is to strengthen, encourage and comfort—or “to build up, cheer up and warm up.” When we hear the word “prophecy”, we think of foretelling the future, and some prophecy in the Bible did that. But most prophecy, including what Paul is talking about here, is not foretelling but forth-telling: speaking forth God’s message. You hear what God is saying, and you say it.
Many people assume that prophecy must be spontaneous. Several of the scholars I read said that it is not a planned sermon, but a spontaneous reception of a message from God. I disagree. I believe prophecy can be either spontaneous or planned. You can see that with the Old Testament prophets—God often gave them a message well in advance of when they spoke it or wrote it. And I know that when I prepare a talk, I ask God, “What do you want to say?” I believe that God can speak either way, that prophecy—God’s message—can be planned or spontaneous.
Tongues are to God, prophecy is to people. The person who speaks in tongues is praying and builds up himself. The person who prophesies is speaking to people and builds them up. So in church, it is better to prophesy so that everyone can benefit, rather than just you. The exception is that if the tongues are interpreted so everyone can understand them, then they are as beneficial as prophecy. The goal is that everyone benefit; and you can’t benefit from what you don’t understand! Paul is going to illustrate that idea.
6 Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? 7 Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the pipe or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? 8 Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? 9 So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. 10 Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. 11 If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker is a foreigner to me. 12 So it is with you. Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church.
Paul’s point is simple and clear. If you don’t understand what I’m saying, it can’t help you! You can’t benefit from what you don’t understand. Paul uses a couple musical examples.
ILL: Name that tune! (Play the guitar without clear notes.) A tune is identifiable by distinct and different notes. This is just noise.
ILL: In ancient times, trumpets were used to give directions in battle: to rally the troops, to sound an advance or retreat. (Sound the trumpet.) What was that? Who knows! No one would know what to do if there is not a clear sound!
In the same way, if you don’t speak intelligible words, how can anyone know what you’re saying or benefit from it. Then Paul used the example of human languages. If you speak a foreign language that I don’t know, you may know what you’re saying, but it’s gibberish to me.
ILL: Last weekend I said a sentence in Spanish. Here it is again. Espero que este sermon te inspire a amor mas. How many of you have no clue what I said? For most of you, that was nonsense. Who knows what I said? “I hope this sermon will inspire you to love more.” That’s what I said, but if you don’t know Spanish, it was just noise.
You can’t benefit from what you don’t understand. So Paul gives this guideline: Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church. Do what builds up the church. That means it has to be understandable.
By the way, we apply this principle here. Do you know that Christians speak a special language—I call it Christianese. We have our own vocabulary that to an outsider sounds like a foreign language.
“Isn’t it great to be with the body today?” There’s a body here? Translation: it’s great to be in church.
“That just witnesses with my spirit.” Translation: I like what you said.
“I got a check in my spirit.” Translation: I’m not sure about what you said.
“The Lord works in mysterious ways.” Translation: I’m totally clueless.
“Let’s have some sweet fellowship. We’ll get prayed up and do a sword drill and share some sloppy agape.” Translation: Let’s hang out and read our Bibles and pray.
Paul’s point is: don’t speak in tongues without interpretation because no one will know what you’re saying—and they have to understand to benefit.
13 For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. 15 So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. 16 Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an inquirer, say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying? 17 You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified.
Paul continues to make the same point: speaking in tongues without interpretation may edify the speaker (who is praying or praising God), but won’t help anyone else. “No one else is edified.” So if you speak in tongues, pray for the accompanying gift of interpretation, then if you speak in tongues in church, others can understand and benefit and say “Amen”.
“Amen” means “truly” or “let it be” (which is a really great Beatles song). It is used to affirm what someone said. It’s like saying, “Yes.” Or, “I agree.” Or, “right on, brother man!” If someone doesn’t understand what you said, they can’t say, “Amen.” They can’t agree if they don’t understand. So tongues in church must be interpreted. In private, you can pray in the spirit (in tongues) or praise in the spirit all you want. Your mind will be “unfruitful”—you won’t understand what you’re saying. So Paul says that privately, he does both: he prays in tongues and prays with his understanding—in his own language. And evidently, Paul did this regularly.
18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.
Privately, Paul spoke in tongues more than all of them. He’s not dissing this gift—he’s helping them understand how to use it. In church, Paul would rather speak five intelligible words that helped others than 10,000 words in tongues! Again, Paul is very clear: it’s got to be understandable to be helpful.
20 Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. 21 In the Law it is written: “With other tongues and through the lips of foreigners will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” 22 Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers. 23 So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? 24 But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, 25 as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”
Stop thinking like children. They were being very immature and selfish in the way they used spiritual gifts. It’s time to grow up and stop thinking only of yourself!
Did you notice the apparent contradiction? Paul says tongues are a sign for unbelievers, not believers, and prophecy is for believers not unbelievers. But then the example he gives proves just the opposite. I read a lot of different opinions about this. Perhaps the one that makes the most sense is that Paul is quoting them and says this as a rhetorical question. “Aren’t tongues a sign for unbelievers, and prophecy a sign for believers?” No.
Paul’s example is clear. If everyone in church speaks in tongues and unbelievers come in, they will think you’re crazy, out of your minds. But if everyone is prophesying and an unbeliever comes in, they will be converted and will worship God.
Why the difference? If everyone speaks in tongues, it’s chaos. No one understands, and so no one can be benefitted, least of all, an unbeliever. But if everyone prophesies, God’s message is understood, and everyone benefits, including the unbeliever, who will come to faith.
So Paul puts a stop to crazy church. Let’s do what’s understandable to believers and unbelievers alike. That’s why we do church the way we do. We hope that wherever you are in your spiritual journey, you’ll be able to understand what’s going on, and understand God’s message and respond to it
2. How to do healthy church. 26-40
Paul lays out instructions for their meetings so that they will be healthy and helpful. As we read these, you may think, “This doesn’t sound like the way we do church.” It doesn’t. It’s different. It was a different culture and different context. For example, the Corinthian church probably met in homes, so most meetings were small groups. Even if they all came together, it was still probably a relatively small group of people. Keep that in mind as we read Paul’s instructions.
26 What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.
There are two important principles here.
The first is everyone can participate. Paul said that when they come together for church, each one brings something to offer: a hymn, a teaching, a revelation, a tongue with interpretation. Church was not to be a spectator sport. Everyone was involved.
Obviously, this works best in a small group. In a group this size, it’s impossible for everyone to be up front. If everyone here was given one minute to share something with everyone else, it would take us 20 hours for this service—and there are three services! It doesn’t work so well in this setting, but it works great in a Life Group, where we expect everyone to participate.
But even here, everyone can participate, if not up front. We can all sing and give God our worship. We can all worship God by giving. We can all pray. When you do those things, you encourage others around you to join in as well. We can all learn something and then pass it on. We can all love our neighbor, and listen to them and pray for each other. We can all share something good with someone around us. I hope you’ll come to church not just to get something, but to give something to someone else. It may be for the person that’s sitting next to you, or behind or in front of you. It may be for someone you meet in the Commons, or the parking lot, or the coffee bar or in AdventureLand. Don’t just be a spectator; be a participant! Everyone can participate
Second principle: everything must be done so that the church may be built up. That’s the big idea through the whole chapter. With that in mind, he’s going to give specific instructions on how to use speaking in tongues and prophecy.
27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. 28 If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.
Paul is clear—not everyone speaks in tongues at once—but one at a time. And only two or three in a meeting, and it must be interpreted. If there is no one to interpret, then speaker should just keep it between him and God. Pray quietly.
Please notice that the speaker is in control. Speaking in tongues is not uncontrolled ecstatic speech. The speaker is in control of himself. He can wait his turn, and if there is no interpreter, he can quietly pray.
29 Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. 30 And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. 31 For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. 32 The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. 33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.
Same with prophecy: 2 or 3 at most in a meeting. Tongues should be interpreted; prophecy should be weighed or judged. In other words, just because someone says that God is speaking through them, we don’t just blindly accept it, but their words have to be weighed, evaluated, judged. Is this from the Lord or not? Does it line up with Scripture? He also says clearly that the speaker is in control of himself. The speaker can stop when needed. Speakers can take turns. It’s not chaos. And notice that the goal is that “everyone may be instructed and encouraged.”
Now Paul shifts gears and inserts something that seems out of context.
34 Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. 35 If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
What in the world? I can’t take long with this, although thousands of pages have been written about it. This is a problem. It’s a problem because it seems to contradict what Paul said in chapter 11—there he specifically allows women to pray and prophesy in church. And it contradicts what he just said in verse 26 that each one should come prepared to share. So what’s going on here? We don’t know. There are lots of suggestions, but the bottom line is that we don’t know why Paul said this. Evidently, something was happening in the Corinthians church between husbands and wives that was disgraceful, and Paul wrote to correct it. But I think it would be inappropriate to take these verses and say that today women can’t speak in church. In fact, in our culture, the disgrace would be to take half the church and relegate them to silence. There are many other places in the New Testament, including in this letter, where women are clearly full partners in the gospel. That’s all I have time to say about that.
Except that some Greek manuscripts put these verses (34-35) at the end of the chapter, after verse 40. Then Paul’s conclusion reads like this…
33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.
36 Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? 37 If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. 38 But if anyone ignores this, they will themselves be ignored.
39 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.
Paul gets a little sarcastic. “Did the word of God originate with you? Are you the only people it has reached, the only church in the world?” Paul says, “Look, this is how we do it in all the other churches. Stop acting like you’re the only one with the truth, and learn from others. Don’t be proud.”
Paul’s conclusion: be eager to prophesy and don’t forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way. The goal when we meet is for everyone to be built up, encouraged, strengthened and instructed. This is our goal here in big church; and this is our goal in Life Groups. We do different things in each, but it’s the same goal: we want you to grow.