Action of the Holy Spirit in the Assembly: Part 6

1 Corinthians 12-14
This should teach us to lean on the Lord, and, as God's assembly, seek to be faithful to His word. But it is most important to remember that God's assembly as a whole is now in a state of ruin. That man is not to be trusted who holds the precious truth of the presence of God in the church, without the sense of the condition of things at this present moment. We need this deeply; for where it is lost sight of, there is apt to be such rashness, and dangerous high-mindedness in the use of truth, as would leave us outside the action of the Spirit of God.
So with a person who is brought to God through our Lord Jesus Christ. It is not merely that He is brought to God through faith. This is quite true; but there is that also which puts the soul in the dust in the confession of its total ruin, as truly as there is the sense of the blessedness into which it is brought. And so is it now, when God has not merely placed us in such intimate relations with Himself as an assembly, but has also shown us the state of the church generally. Of all persons on the face of the earth, those favored thus ought to remember it most, and practically too.
But again we observe another point of interest. We see in the course of this chapter the fact coming put that in the assembly, as Paul knew it, the same kind of action appears as we are familiar with. We have praying, thanks, and blessing enumerated. The grand center of these last is the table of the Lord, as we learn from the preceding chapters (10 and 11) Here, on the other hand, it is the action and presence of the Holy Spirit. But I would recall to you that we here read of just the same elements as are met with now, not of course all that then were, but as far as they go. God indeed is faithful.
Further, we see very plainly in this chapter that powerfully as “a tongue” might serve as a sign to unbelievers, what the apostle prefers a great deal is that which acts in and by the understanding to edify all. He takes particular pains to mark that his feeling on the subject was not through jealousy, or because he had not so many gifts as some boasted. The apostle had no ground personally to decry in any way the gifts about which he was speaking; for (ver. 18) he say, “I thank my God, I speak in a tongue more than ye all.” But what the Lord wants is edification, that is, the building up of the saints. And the growth of the saints is inseparable from the activity of divine love on their behalf in and by the truth. This is therefore pressed. Whatever was not somehow to edification was unsuited to the assembly.
Here I may say as a principle, that this should guard us against any love of singularity amongst the saints of God—such as, among the young, the vanity of preaching on hard scriptures. Now, no doubt, by dwelling on some such portions of the word of God there may be a kind of factitious interest created in passing, or by giving some application of a plain text that no one else has heard of. This always seems to me uncommonly small; and, further, I cannot but think it really evinces a want both of self-judgment and of earnest desire for the edification of the saints. The thing to be sought is what will manifest God. Could one conceive of Paul doing such a thing? find in our blessed Lord exactly the contrary. He was the absolute perfection of all grace and truth. How He takes up the simplest facts, the most common objects of daily life! how He turns to account the woman sweeping her kitchen floor, if I may say so, for a lost piece of silver; or the shepherd seeking for his lost sheep! The most trivial incidents in His hands are vehicles of the highest truths for the soul. For there it is where power proves itself—bringing God into such matters, and making them the witness of His gracious interest in our souls. How blessed it becomes when one sees in the trite objects of every day the dignity and grace of the Lord! It brings home to us God acting by Him. As for the novelty that claims to be original, it may be ingenious like fireworks; but what if we never can trust it, whether it be true or not? How unlike God's ways in Christ!
But I merely speak of this now, as giving a practical turn to the very principle that was then at work among the Corinthians. They were occupied with what would electrify and surprise, and not with that which would help the growth of the soul in the knowledge of God Himself.
The apostle comes to another consideration (ver. 21). He draws attention to the scriptures in the Old Testament that speak of foreign tongues. Whenever God's people came in contact with other tongues, they had got all wrong. If Israel had remained in their integrity, such strange sounds would have been kept far away. They were let loose on them when they departed from their true place. The Corinthians would do well to ponder, that foreign tongues in Israel's case had not a good connection: this might remind them of their own vain folly, being in no way an honor to the Jews.
Besides, for whom were the tongues meant? “Wherefore” (ver. 22) “tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not.” The Corinthians were using them for a display among believers—was it not strangely unintelligent? “But prophesying” —that which they really slighted—is “not for them that believe not, but for them which believe.” This is its direct use. But now he points out another thing, that, although prophesying is not in its direct use addressed to unbelievers, it may have a mighty effect on them, and in a way too that tongues could not have. This he puts in a pungent hypothesis (ver. 23). “If, therefore, the whole church be come together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad?” Such would be the effect, supposing they were all speaking with tongues (and if good for one, they thought it was for all). But (ver. 24) “if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all; and thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest” The result is that he is constrained to do homage to God, reporting that “God is in you of a truth.”
This is a point that I would impress on you all, of the greatest importance for ourselves. We are called to look to the Lord that we may not hinder the manifestation of God in the conscience even of an unbeliever. When we do come together as His assembly, let it never be that we may take part, but that He may work both as, and by whom, He will. Neither, again, let us be impatient. Our part is to count on Him; neither hindering others, nor refusing to go forward if He leads. Suppose that there is a silence that may be painful to some—never surely a sign of the power of God there, but, on the contrary, that there is something which hinders—still let us not doubt but believe. He knows how to try and humble, as well as to comfort. The main thing is to seek always His unfailing presence and action. In the long run He never disappoints, as man always does. Yet we do not go to sit silently, but to worship audibly and be edified. Silence is quite exceptional. For our God is not a mute stock, but One Who has spoken to us, and Who gives us now to speak for Him and to Him. The church of God therefore is in no way the witness of a dumb idol, but of the living and true God Who is in the midst of it. We ought to desire when we come together that there be liberty, not restraint; but even this is not so painful as the forwardness of those who must speak because there is an open door, not because God gives them the word to build up His own.
We ought to pray then that, when we come together, God would manifest His presence there in our midst, and that nothing should be done that is not suitable to Him. It may be a very simple soul that He uses: I am sure that God can do it by one who has nothing of this world's learning, and that He loves to do so. But still we must cry up neither unlearned nor learned, or suppose that there is any particular virtue in the mere circumstances of the saints of God, though it is no small witness that there is liberty in the assembly, when the simplest are welcomed in their desires to edify. But this, remember, is for God, and not for ourselves. Edification is not by giving out a hymn, or reading a chapter, because there is silence, and we can bear to wait no longer; nor is it because a particular chapter has blessed ourselves that it should be read. Why should not I be content to enjoy the chapter myself? Why bring it out then? Have I the assurance that God would have it to be read there? This is a very searching test; but surely, where it is God Who gives the word, those who are spiritual would have the sense of it. Who is sufficient for these things? Our sufficiency is of God, Who has given us His Spirit for this and all other ends in the church now.
The great aim, then, is the manifestation of God's presence in the assembly. It was, no doubt, only a conceived case where the apostle supposes them all prophesying, but the principle is true universally. And we find, in fact, an important regulation as to this soon follows.
Another point we have in the 26th verse— “How is it, then, brethren? whenever ye come together, each of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation.” The apostle does not formally condemn this. He leaves it as an open question, to be judged on spiritual principles. I do not say that he approves of it: he states the simple fact; but he now brings in what was to judge that fact on every occasion. What is the great criterion here? “Let all things be done unto edifying.” Could they say so? Could the person who had a psalm say that his motive was to edify? could the man who had a doctrine or the like? Let them search and see. There is One who knows the truth; and this is the One pleased to act in the church of God. It is thus a challenge, as it were, to God where the soul dares in His presence to act out of its own will and inclination. Can anything be more solemn than for a person unexercised to take part in the assembly? What continual self-judgment is due to see whether one's motive arises from simple obedience to the will of God?
To press this would not hinder God's action, it would only question our own; and this is why God lays down the principle. It would give seriousness. A man should think of Him before he speaks or reads. He should not give out a hymn simply because it was a sweet one in itself, or a favorite of his own. All these things might be true; and they might be well enough in one's own home. But here God is acting with a view to the edification of the assembly; and the point is, Am I confident in my soul that it is God who is guiding me Now, the apostle Peter lays this down most positively where he says, “If any man speak, let him speak as oracles of God “: according to the oracles of God is not enough. One might speak according to the scriptures, and yet be out of season; for in this he might be wrong, because it was not what God would give then, for He alone knows what is best and for His own glory. The meaning in fact is, If any man speak, as His oracle, or mouth-piece, it was to be then and there. This is a serious thing for one's soul. Am I sure that God would have a given word spoken now? Is it suited for God's assembly at this time? I ought to wait, if I am not sure about it. It is what the Spirit of God implies in the exhortation, “Let all things be done to edifying.” But Peter's scripture puts it expressly.
If there is solemnity on the one hand, there is also love and liberty on the other. If I am too much afraid, I must take care that I be not wrapping up in a napkin what is lent for the good of others. So we cannot escape from danger on either hand. The man who is always silent, because he is afraid, what witness is he of the grace that feeds the flock in due season? and, on the other hand, the man who is always so ready to come forward, whose witness is he? Alas! only of his own spirit, of his own self-confidence, nothing better. Hence what we have to look for is that God act here, and nothing should satisfy us short of this. The spiritual will appreciate it, and every child of God reaps the blessing, though the carnal would, no doubt, prefer what pampers man. How blessed the assembly walking in faith, love, and obedience!
But, further, the apostle lays down (ver. 27) that If any man speak in [an unknown] tongue, let it be by two, and at the most by three, and that by course, and let one interpret.” If there were no interpreter, it had no business there. Edification is the rule absolute in God's assembly.
In due course we come to the other gift—prophesying (ver. 29). Surely you could not have too much prophesying! This is what he rules, “Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the others judge.” Why so? Because God is thinking of the edification of His assembly. Supposing half a dozen persons were to speak one after another, what would be the effect? Why, it would really be too much of a good thing. It must be bewildering to many, particularly to the simple saints; and God always thinks of the little ones: the stronger ones do not need so much His care, or, at least, not precisely in the same way. They might possibly get good by it. But God, I repeat, thinks of the little ones; and what would perplex the simple, or be over-much, God here forbids. “Let all things be done unto edifying.” So that, whilst the Spirit of God stops the strange tongues unless they could be turned to edification, He does not allow even prophesying beyond the measure that would be for the profit of all.
Another thing laid down next (ver. 32) is that the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. Because what some of these Corinthians maintained (judging from the blow that is struck at it here) was that they could not interfere with prophesying; that, if any had the Spirit to speak, they must speak. Paul says to them, You are talking as men might who are possessed by evil spirits: this might be the case with a man under a demon; but is it so with the Spirit of God? The Holy Spirit never puts a man, as it were, into a vice. He in His operation makes it no kind of necessity. In a moral way, He may lay it on the heart; but in the assembly we never find man thus absolutely obliged to speak. Balaam might have been in an extraordinary manner forced to give an utterance, just as his ass then spoke under an imperative power; but surely one ought not to think of either as being analogous to the action of the Holy Ghost in God's assembly.
No, the Corinthians who said or pretended (as an excuse for their love of hearing themselves speak so often) that it was necessary, were all wrong. This is a most important principle, and that too on the side of good, as well as a warning on the side of evil. For as the 30th verse tells us, “If anything be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace.” “Revelation” had this stamp of superiority over anything else. The scripture was not yet all revealed. “For (ver. 31) ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted. And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all assemblies of the saints.” No power delivers from responsibility to the Lord in the use of the power; and He who is Lord has regulated the due use of each gift by His word, as here by the apostle's. Spiritual power must subserve His lordship and bow to His authority. Irresponsible or irresistible power in the church is not of the Holy Spirit.
In ver. 34 we hear of one class, and only one in the church of God, who are not allowed to take any part in public, viz., the women. Not that God does not give as precious gifts to women as to men: but whatever gifts be given them to exercise, it is not in the assembly that the Lord allows this to be done. I am aware that some have used this as a reason for women preaching. The idea of females preaching to the world was an irregularity not even yet contemplated. It is not supposed that woman had so completely forgotten the propriety of nature. No Corinthian even wished her to go with unblushing face before the world, nor yet pleaded the case of “perishing sinners” as an excuse for forfeiting that retirement which always becomes her sex.
As for the women spoken of here, they might have argued thus—and I suppose they did— “If we cannot preach, surely we might speak in such a holy place as the assembly. There the men will not misunderstand, or impute it to any want of decorum.” If there was any place at all where women might speak, it surely must be in the assembly. But it is forbidden there—not meaning by this that they were free to preach before the world, but that they might not speak anywhere publicly, not even in the assembly. I grant you that in their own homes or with women, there is a place; or a married woman might speak with her husband; but in the assemblies of the saints, it was plainly and peremptorily forbidden. What therefore was to be done? “If they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in [the] assembly” (ver. 35). He does not suppose that the young unmarried ones even wished to speak in the assembly, but only the older ones. Of course, the younger ones would ask their parents or the like.
“What,” continues he, “came the word of God out from you, or came it unto you only?” The word of God comes out from no church, and it comes to no saints exclusive of others. What a principle, and how deep reaching and important for all! The reverse of this is what the church has always desired in one form or another. I do not know a single society that is called of man a church that has not sought to originate what ought to have been left to the word of God.1 When a church lays down its rules, when it formulates its beliefs, when it puts forth anything to be acted upon for discipline, or government, or doctrine, when it quits simple subjection to the word of God, it falls into the same error that the Corinthian assembly is here guarded against. It is evident that their error was really (not in bare form, of course, but in principle) the progenitor of the present disorderly condition that exists in Christendom from the Pope down to the smallest sect of Protestantism. For what we find in the Epistle is, not that the Corinthian church was the only place where these gifts of the Holy Ghost were, but an assembly where He was interfered with, where much was perverted, where human principles were allowed to hinder the blessed action of the Spirit of God. To their charge accordingly was laid interference with the Lord's order and authority.
For there are two grand principles in the chapter, both working in connection with the central truth of God's presence in the assembly. Around that uniting fact are these two guards— “Let all things be done to edifying” (verse 26), and “Let all things be done decently and in order” (verse 40): one, the activity of the power of divine grace, and the other, the correction and guard of its displays; that, whatever might be done in the desire for edification, there should be submission to the authority of the Lord Jesus. The church is for His glory, edification is the aim, and this in comely order according to the word of the Lord.
It is instructive to remark here, as has been often done before, that no elders appear to have been as yet in Corinth. Such there were in many of the assemblies; and they were of course desirable in all when the due time was come. But in Corinth they are not spoken of, where, if any existed, it would be reasonable to hear of them. This is of great moment, because it proves that they are in no way essential to what God addresses as His assembly. In the most ecclesiastical of the where church discipline, both in putting out and in restoring, are most developed, where we have the fullest light as to the Lord's Supper and the assembly of God &c, elders are ignored, and, as I believe, evidently not there. But it is mere ignorance to conclude that, where elders were, as at Ephesus, &c., the gifts were not exercised, or that the assembly of God was not competent to act as in 1 Cor. 11; 12; 14. The happy reflection is that, when there are no apostles to choose, the Lord continues the presence of His Spirit. Have we faith to act on the ground of His assembly? But the one-man ministry, when used (as it is in Christendom) to deny His action by whom He will, and this in His assembly, is as unscriptural as the Papacy. They are verily guilty who imply a change in the assembly by trying to pervert 1 Timothy and Titus, or Rev. 2; 3, so as to neutralize 1 Corinthians, as well as to justify the device of the one-man minister. But it is all vain. Scripture, being divine and of course consistent, cannot be broken; and the Lord is speedily coming to judge the many “idols” (1 John 5) of those who bear but in effect deny His name.
Thus then we have the presence of the Spirit of God making good the precious truth that God is in the assembly. There is the activity of His love in seeking the edification of His saints as the motive, but there must also be no infringement of the commandment of Him who is Lord (ver. 37). All these canons were no doubt written by the apostle, but they are none the less His commandment. The word of God comes to the Corinthian church—it does not originate thence. Further, it comes not to these saints abode, but to all. The place of the church is never to teach but to bow to the word of God. The church has no authority in such matters—it can originate neither doctrine nor government. The church's place is to be subject, and this of course to the Lord. It is not exactly right to say that the church is under the presidency of the Spirit of God: a well-meant but unscriptural expression. The Lord is in the midst; and hence the apostle brings in “the Lord” where it is a question of authority. The Spirit has taken the place rather of service; and hence (as pointed out the last time I spoke), where operations are referred to, it is He Who works all in power; but where it is a question of authority, the Lord Jesus rules. He it is accordingly whom the Spirit gives us to know as in authority over us when we come together, as at all other times. For we have to guard against the snare of those who avail themselves of Jesus being Lord, to deny that the Spirit both divides sovereignly and works all in all.
Let us be careful, while we seek only what is for edification, that all things be done decently and in true order, our aim being the promotion of the glory of the Lord Jesus. Let us judge ourselves continually by the standard of the word, and, in particular, let the assembly be governed by these special scriptures which apply to it where most apt to stray, as in fact it has so erred generally. W. K.