Manuscript of this sermon is available for reading services.
25th February 2018 AM
Rev Hans Vaatstra
Readings: Isaiah 28:9-16
Text: 1 Corinthians 14
Let all be done for edification
Reading Isaiah 58:9-16, 1 Corinthians 14:1-
How can we best encourage one another in the church? Certainly using our spiritual gifts whatever they might be to help in some way in the church is important. What’s more important is an abiding faith and hope in God. But what is most important of all is love. Love is indispensable in the church. Love more than anything else serves to build up the church. It is in this context that Paul continues with his teaching on spiritual gifts and especially the gifts of tongues and prophecy. His purpose is that the church might be built up in love and that the gospel be clearly proclaimed that God who is a God or order might be glorified in the church. We’ll look at this passage with those three points in mind.
In the church at Corinth three things which concerned Paul and which he wrote about in this chapter were tongues speaking without any interpretation, prophecy which was contrary to the church’s confession and disorderly behaviour on the part of some in the church.
With respect to tongues speaking Paul’s concern was that those who were practicing it were doing it to edify themselves without much though about the effect it had on others. We get that sense from several verses in the chapter such as verse 4, “one who speaks in a tongue edifies himself”; verse 6, “If I come to you speaking in tongues what shall I profit you?”; verse 11, “If I do not know the meaning of the language I shall be to one who speaks a barbarian and the one who speak will be a barbarian to me”; verse 17, “If you are giving thanks (in tongues) well enough, but the other man is not edified”; Verse 19, “it is better to speak five words in my mind that I may instruct others with than 10,000 words in tongues”; verse 27 “If anyone speaks in a tongue it should be two or three at the most and then each in turn and let one interpret”; verse 23 “If the church should assemble together and all speak in tongues and … unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad?” So clearly the apostle Paul wasn’t all that happy with the practice of tongues speaking in Corinth. In order to discover why we need to know a bit more about this phenomenon.
Some say that with tongues speech Paul was referring to a heavenly spiritual language rather than a known human language. Others say (and that is my belief) that it was a continuation of the gift of tongues described in Acts 2 where the Spirit was poured out on the disciples of Christ and they spoke in other language so that the people gathered there from a number of different nations could understand the gospel. If so that would make the gift of tongues one of the several signs and wonders which were given to the early church and which ceased with the end of the apostolic age. That fits in with 1 Corinthians 13:8 which says “where there are gifts of prophecy they will be done away with, if there are tongues they will cease if there is knowledge it will be done away.”
I Corinthians 14:21 & 22 confirms that position. There Paul quotes the prophet Isaiah chapter 28:11 “By men of strange tongues and by the lips of strangers will I speak to this people and even so they will not listen to me says the Lord.” Paul then adds the following commentary. Tongues are a sign, not for those who believe but to unbelievers and prophecy is a sign for those who believe.”
Where Paul says that tongues were meant for this people that is the covenant Jews in Paul’s day and they function in the category of signs and wonders which were given to authenticate the gospel about the coming of the Messiah and his kingdom with power. These signs, including the gift of tongues assisted the rapid spread of the Gospel in the first century after Christ.
However these were not accepted by the unbelieving Jews.
Therefore just as the strange tongue was a sign of judgment to unbelieving Israel in Isaiah’s day so the gift of tongues was a sign of judgment for those who rejected the Gospel in Paul’s day according to verse 22. Paul wrote “So then tongues are for a sign not to those who believe but to unbelievers.” And so when it came to the Jews who rejected, Jesus judgment came in 70 AD when Rome sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the second temple and 1.1 million Jews perished during that war according to the historian Josephus.
This is also about the time of the end of the apostolic era and therefore signs and wonders came to an end at that time also fulfilling Paul’s prophecy in 1 Corinthian 13:8
So then what about those who claim the gift continues to day? Well given what Paul says about tongues as a sign of judgment and the fact that Paul insists here in 1 Corinthians 14 that the gift must be accompanied with an interpreter, that does make one wonder about its practice in modern Pentecostal churches. Don Carson wrote about an experience a friend of his had when he attended a charismatic service and recited some of the first chapter of John in Greek as his contribution to speaking in tongues . Immediately there was an interpretation which bore no resemblance to the text. On another occasion two people with the gift of interpretation were asked to interpret the same recorded tongues message and came up with completely different interpretations. According to J.I. Packers observations recorded in his book “Keep in step with the Spirit” Interpretations of tongues speaking have proved to be stereotyped, vague and uninformative. Carson goes on and says that “these distortions in interpretation are sufficiently frequent and commonly pedestrian that they call the modern phenomenon of tongues into question.
Furthermore since the end of the apostolic area there is really no further need for the sign gifts. We have all we need for faith and life in Christ and the Bible. What is needed is for the church to be built up comes through hearing, understanding and believing the gospel and this is exactly where Paul goes in the next chapter, 1 Corinthians 15:1 which says, “now I make known to you brethren the gospel which I preached to you which you also received in which you stand, by which also you are saved if you hold fast to the word I preached to you.”
This is the important matter for us in the church today. Thankfully we are not confused in our congregation or denomination by the whole tongues phenomenon. Helped by generations of sound teaching since the reformation we understand that redemptive history has moved on and that the mission now is to help build up the church with our gifts and talents by living a life of love, which, is the most excellent way and by the use of another gift which receives considerable attention in in 1 Corinthians 14 and that is the gift of prophecy.
Why? That takes me to my second point
Nevertheless Paul here addresses the church in Corinth as “sanctified in Christ and saints by calling in chapter 1:2 and so the assumption is that they are in the church because they are sanctified by the word and Spirit of God and therefore understand the gospel and have accepted Christ as their saviour. However as it happens in the church and in worship services people do come along who may not be converted and who are inquisitive about Christianity. The hope is that when they do come in they will not be put off by weird things going on that might cause them to think we’re all mad but that they will hear the gospel loud and clear.
In the text Paul uses 3 illustrations to make this important point a) musical instruments, b) a bugle call in battle and c) everyday conversation.
So too in the worship service of the church if what is heard is just a cacophony of sounds, as is the case with so-called tongues speaking sessions, no-one really benefits.
We can draw a comparison with that to the period just before the Reformation when the services were conducted in Latin which many Europeans couldn’t understand. These days some church leaders today try to make worship services attractive to those who are not religious by using entertainment in the form of live music and drama in order to hold an audience. Well you may get a big audience that way but little understanding of the word of God. As Pritchard put it in his evaluation of charismatic seekers services you can end up with a congregation which is a mile wide but only half an inch deep.
Hence Paul seems to discourage the gift of tongues which of all the gifts he says is one of the least but he does urge the Corinthians to prophesy, in verse 1, “desire earnestly spiritual gifts especially that you may prophesy” and verse 5” greater is one who prophesies than one who speaks in tongues.” And verse 24, “but if all prophesy and an unbeliever or an ungifted man comes in he is convicted by all and called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed. He will fall on his face and worship God declaring that God is certainly among you all. “
Well, what is prophecy? There are two kinds in the Bible, predictive and non-predictive. In the Old Testament an example of predictive prophecy was to foretell the coming of Jesus Christ, his birth death and resurrection. In Paul’s day predictive prophecy included prophecies by Agabus, Paul and John. Agabus predicted a famine and Paul’s arrest in Acts 11:28 and 21:11. During a storm on the Mediterranean Sea Paul predicted that all those on board the ship would survive. John’s prophecy is recorded in the book of Revelation. It predicts in symbolic form events between the first and second comings of Christ.
Now in Paul’s day the coming of the Messiah his death resurrection and ascension were past events so in his letter to the Corinthians he emphasised non predictive prophecy which is primarily the work of proclaiming the gospel along with encouraging, exhorting and comforting believers.
The non-predictive prophet would be God’s mouthpiece and use God’s revealed word in the Bible. For example; a) Stephen was not an apostle but a deacon. In Acts 7 we read how he was filled with the Holy Spirit and how he preached God’s word to the Sanhedrin. b) Every Christian can pray and ask that God to give us the right words to say when we share the gospel with a friend or family member. c) Preachers and teachers are able to testify that in response to their prayers the Holy Spirit enables them to speak fitting words that faithfully reflect the word of God. That (preaching and teaching of the Bible) is what can be called prophecy today, rather than claims of new direct revelation predicting dates or events or outpourings of the spirit bringing about revivals in the streets of New Zealand and so on.
That was what was needed in the church at Corinth in Paul’s day and is still needed today. Paul’s charge to Timothy, preach the word in season and out of season reprove, rebuke, exhort with great patience and instruction is a charge that is extended to all ministers of the gospel.”
But getting back to the Corinthian church what Paul was saying then is that it is better to be a blessing to others in the church than to experience some kind of personal spiritual excitement. The gift of tongues was given during the church during the apostolic area as one of the sign gifts. Along with the Westminster confession we believe therefore that there is no need for any such signs and wonders today.
What we do get today from 1 Corinthians 14 is the value of non-predictive prophecy for edification and understanding so that the church will strengthen and grow. The church in worship is a place where when we speak and think God’s thoughts after him, in an intelligible way which everyone can understand then God is glorified and his people are blessed.