Notes on 1 Corinthians 14:13-25

1 Corinthians 14:13‑25  •  10 min. read  •  grade level: 8
Edification, then, is rule absolute for what is said in the assembly. No matter how astonishing may be the exhibition of divine power answering to the name of Jesus, if it edify not, it has no rightful place there. For love edifies, as knowledge puffs up, and power startles or stuns; and as God is love, so the assembly is the suited sphere for the exercise of this, the energy of His own nature. The children partake of His nature, for he who loves is born of God, and knows God. To keep up the exercise and testimony of this is of all moment; as it is to hinder what would give loose reins to the flesh, under cover of displaying the mighty effects of Christ's victory. Hence the regulation that follows “Wherefore let him that speaketh with a tongue pray that he may interpret.” (Ver. 13.) But the apostle proceeds to give reasons, and this, as his manner was, by application to his own case: “For if I pray with a tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful. What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray also with the understanding; I will sing with the spirit, but I will sing also with the understanding. Since if thou bless in spirit, how shall he that filleth the place of the private person say Amen at thy thanksgiving, since he knoweth not what thou sayest? For thou givest thanks well, but the other is not edified. I thank God, I speak in a tongue more than you all; but in an assembly I desire to speak five words with my understanding, that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (Vers. 14-19.)
Thus the rule of love is still further enforced and maintained. Praying in a tongue is excluded on this principle as decidedly as any other kind of speaking in a tongue. And it is evidently the strongest case as being an address to God, who of course understood all, and conclusive against prayer in any unknown tongue. Communion is the joy of the assembly; at the least edification is indispensable. What cannot be understood by the assembly as such has no claim to be heard there, unless there were interpretation directly or indirectly.
But we see also that prayer, singing, blessing, thanksgiving, as well as prophesying, had their full place in the assembly. They are all to edification; and who could forbid any of them? Power is insufficient, however manifestly divine. What is with the understanding, and consequently addresses it, has the greatest weight with the apostle, as thus speaking authoritatively for the Lord; and this is as true of prayers and hymns as of teaching. The least in the assembly is presumed to go intelligently with the praise or thanksgiving that rises up to God.
Indeed fellowship is the aim of the Holy Spirit in all church action; and hence the all-importance of His guidance into the will of the Lord, which alone is entitled to govern all the saints, and into such worship as renewed hearts can feel and join in spontaneously. Influence and effort are alien and unseasonable, as they are human. The assembly is of God, with One there perfectly adequate to work in all hearts to the glory of the Lord Jesus; and the new man the apostle would have to do, say, and hear all intelligently. The day of vague emblems is past; ecstatic utterances, mighty effects, may have their scope elsewhere; but in the assembly there ought to be the exercise of the understanding. It is called to be “fruitful;” so that he who holds no public place (ὁ ἀναπληρῶν τὸν τόπον τοῦ ἰδιωτοῦ) may be able to go along with what is said. To be intelligible, so as to edify, is requisite in the assembly. It is evident, from Eph. 5 and Colossians that the Christians of that early day had psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, quite distinct from those God inspired by David and others for His ancient people. Not a word implies that what was sung in the assembly of God was either a Jewish psalm or of New Testament inspiration. They were therefore, I presume, substantially such as Christians in our day, and in all days, are wont to use. Only they sought the Lord's guidance, and the fellowship of all, on these solemn public occasions. Our chapter is of importance in proving that they sung in the assembly; as the other epistles referred to, as well as James, prove the use of hymns in private or alone. Of course the power of the Spirit was sought in both; as He indeed dwells in the individual Christian no less than in the assembly. The apostle is careful to intimate that there was not the least reason on his part for jealousy of others speaking in a tongue; for he himself was gifted in this way more than them all. But in the assembly to speak five words with the understanding was to him more desirable than ever so many in a tongue; and this, because his heart was set on instructing others also. It is love which should animate, not self-pleasing; and love works with a view to edification. Hence the grave and wise exhortation that follows, not without reproof.
“Brethren, be not children in mind, but in malice be infants; but in mind be of full age. In the law it is written, By men of other tongues, and by lips of others,1 will I speak to this people; and not even thus will they listen to me, saith Jehovah. Wherefore the tongues are for a sign, not to those that believe, but to the unfaithful, while prophecy [is] not to the unfaithful, but to those that believe. If therefore the whole church come together unto the same place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in simple or unfaithful [persons], will they not say that ye are mad? But if all prophesy, and some unfaithful or simple one, come in, he is convicted by all, he is judged by all;2 the secrets of his heart become manifest; and thus3 falling on [his] face he will do homage to God, reporting that indeed God is among you.” (Vers. 20-25.)
Thus the apostle as a father again admonishes his beloved children that they should eschew the trifling natural to the young, the disposition to be occupied with some new thing of slight moment in itself, but apt to tend to mischief, as their fondness for and misuse of tongues in the assembly hindered a due estimate of prophesying, the weightiest of all gifts for such an occasion. But he would have them to cherish with the artlessness of a babe the understanding of riper years. And he cites freely from Isa. 28:11, 1211For with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people. 12To whom he said, This is the rest wherewith ye may cause the weary to rest; and this is the refreshing: yet they would not hear. (Isaiah 28:11‑12), so as to convey a wholesome inference for the Corinthian saints. For God is there warning the Jews, dull to hearken to His prophets, that He would speak to them with the stammering lips of foreigners. Such a tongue speaking to Israel was a sign of their humiliation, and of God's judgment. What perversity, then, for the saints in Corinth to turn from God, speaking in prophecy for their edification, to tongues which they could not understand! to find their pleasure as Christians in what was God's solemn threat to His ancient people because of their unheeding refractoriness! The apostle, neither here nor anywhere, despises a tongue in its own place and season, used as a sign for unbelievers as God intended it. The unintelligent and unloving mistake was introducing it among believers, who could not profit by it. Divine gift as it was, its possession constituted no license to exercise it apart from the end of the Lord, who gave it in His grace and for His glory, and with His will now expressed to control its use.
The common English version needlessly introduces “serveth” in the latter half of verse 22. I think, however, that it is justified in not understanding “sign” with prophesying, which essentially differs from those powers correctly falling under that designation, like a tongue or a miracle. It was this, no doubt, which influenced them in changing the “to” of the former clause into the “for” of the latter, which reads more smoothly in English. But the change seems scarcely called for, and is not here adopted. We could equally well say tongues are as a sign for the unbelieving, prophesying for those that believe.
But the apostle is not content with this withering application of the Jewish prophet; he both exposes the folly of their conduct, and lays down the right aim in the assembly. On the one hand he puts the case of their all speaking with tongues in full assembly, and this in presence of simple persons or unbelievers. What must be the impression produced? That the saints were mad. On the other hand, if all were to prophesy, how would such an one feel if he came in and heard? In the discovery to himself of his heart's secrets, divinely dealt with by them all, the profoundest conviction that God is truly among the saints. So, when the woman of Samaria had her life set out in a few words by One who had never met her before, she confessed, “Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet.” By His words she could not but feel and own that all was out, and God was speaking to her conscience.
This is the characteristic of prophesying, not the announcement of the good news as in evangelizing, nor the unfolding of doctrine as in teaching, but God by His word dealing with the soul consciously. Such, in this hypothetical case, would be the conviction irresistibly brought home by all prophesying, and such the report made, as well as the homage rendered at the moment. It is supposed to be the effect, not of one preaching in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, but of God's presence in His saints thus prophesying in the assembly. The apostle does not describe it as a fact that ever did take place, but—as the natural effect under the circumstances,
How solemn that there is no such “assembly” now found, or even essayed, in the so-called “churches"! How blessed that ever so few have faith in His word and Spirit, who alone can make it good in the measure of their dependence upon Him! It is in the Spirit that we wait on the Lord, the central object of faith to the assembly gathered to His name. That the two or three who thus meet have “little strength” is most true; that they have deep reason to humble themselves is no less true; but they have the deepest and unfailing reason to praise Him for His faithfulness as they keep His word and deny not His name. Those who forsake or despise such assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of most is now-a-days, are scarcely entitled to speak. Unbelief or unfaithfulness should at least be silent. What can be worse than to invent plausible appearances to cover sin and shame?