Study Notes for I Corinthians 14:20-39 (click here for Study Sheet)

Paul continues his teaching about the proper use of tongues and prophecy by suddenly shifting the emphasis.

"Brothers, stop thinking like children," he says. "In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults."

Apparently the Corinthians had been competing with each other for the "sensational" gifts. Paul stops them short and says in effect, "Act your age. Children compete with each other for the biggest and the best and the most glory. Start thinking like adults!

"Be childlike, not childish."

Childishness is self-centered and greedy. Child-likeness, on the other hand, is innocent and guileless. In essence Paul is telling the Corinthians to stop trying to outdo each other with their spiritual gifts. Instead he admonishes them to have nothing to do with the selfish perversion of trying to use spiritual gifts for their own glory. They should be grateful for the gifts God gives them and use them for the glory of God, not themselves.


Signs for the Unbelieving

Paul next appeals to the Law. He quotes Isaiah 28, 11-12: " 'Through men of strange tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, But even then they will not listen to me,' " says the Lord.

Law, in the context of this chapter, is Paul's reference to the Old Testament, or what he knew as the Law and the Prophets. He uses the word "law" in a similar way in Romans 3:10-19 where he quotes several passages from the Psalms, Isaiah, and Ecclesiastes and collectively calls his sources "the law".

Paul's use of Isaiah 28:11-12 is fascinating. He makes the point that when Israel would not listen to God but insisted on disrespecting and disobeying Him, their judgment from God was to become captives of foreigners whose language they could not understand. The foreign language of the Assyrians was a sign to Israel of God's judgment of them. In a literal sense, the "strange tongues" were a sign to unbelievers-unbelieving Israel, and the intent was that the unbelievers would be kept confused and unable to thrive or to integrate with their captors.

Paul uses this passage from Isaiah to make an externally similar but an internally radically different application. Just as 'strange tongues' were a sign to unbelievers in Israel, now tongues are a sign to unbelievers who come into the presence of believing Christ-followers.

If a person "who does not understand" or some unbeliever comes into the Christian's meeting and hears everyone speaking in tongues, s/he will think they are crazy, Paul suggests. The phrase interpreted "some who do no understand" can also mean "some inquirers". In other words, this passage could mean: if people who are curious about the gospel come into your meeting, or if people who have made no move toward knowing truth come into your meeting, won't they think you're crazy if you're all speaking in tongues? The confusion will make them feel like outsiders, and it will be a barrier to their even wanting to know more much less wanting to worship with you.

In other words, the uninterpreted "strange tongues" of believers will be a sign of not belonging and a barrier to knowing truth for unbelievers who enter a Christian worship service. Just as strange tongues isolated apostate Israel from their captors, so strange tongues in a Christian worship service will isolate unbelievers who might otherwise be drawn to the Lord.


Signs for the Believing

Prophecy, on the other hand, "is for believers, not for unbelievers." Paul continues with his point; if an unbeliever or a person curious about the gospel comes into a Christian worship service and hears the believers prophesying, he will be convicted of his own sins. If believers were prophesying, God's Spirit could give them words to convict the unbeliever. If an unbeliever heard these people whom he didn't know addressing details in his or her life, he would fall down in conviction and say, " 'God is really among you!' " (v. 25)

Prophecy, God's words and ideas being revealed and spoken through the believer, is a sign for "believers". It is a manifestation of God's power and presence that is clear, understandable and results in unbelievers becoming believers. It is a "sign" that leads to belief. Prophecy is a sign that "edifies the church". (v. 4)

Tongues, on the other hand, is man's spirit praising God. When a believer speaks in tongues he "edifies himself" (v. 4). Uninterpreted tongues do not convict a sinner of sin or convince an unbeliever of God's presence. Rather, they are a mark of division, and they keep the unbelievers separated from the believers. Tongues are a sign that intensifies unbelief in an already skeptical person.


Prophecy Fulfilled

The Old Testament is full of prophecies that pagan nations would come to Israel and desire to become part of them, proclaiming that their God was the one true God, and that God was with them.

For example, Zechariah 8:23 says, "This is what the Lord Almighty says: 'In those days ten men from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, "Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you." ' "

Years before the birth of Israel, God had promised Abraham He would bless all nations, even the pagans, through him.

God's prophecy and desire was that pagans separated from God's people by national and language barriers would see the success and integrity of His people. They would flock to Israel, acknowledging that the one true God was with them, begging Israel to accept them into their fellowship.

Old Covenant Israel never experienced the continuing prosperity and international dominance this and other prophecies foretold. Their failure was, in many ways, inevitable. While individual Israelites such as David, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and others discovered God and developed saving faith in Him, as a whole the nation failed spiritually. Because they were called to obedience to the law, the focus of most Israelites was on earning God's favor by keeping His laws. Those laws, most discovered, were impossible to keep.

Israel fulfilled God's purpose for them; their law exposed and identified the deep sinfulness of the human heart. Their history illustrates the contrast between the transcending holiness of God and the hopeless brokenness of humanity. They demonstrated the impossibility of pleasing or obeying God.

Yet from this hopeless and broken nation, God brought the Messiah. Jesus, descended from the fallen people of God, brought healing and forgiveness to his own people and also extended that healing and forgiveness to the pagan nations whom God had prophesied would acknowledge Him in the presence of His people.

The gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit in the hearts of all Christ-followers has brought about the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies that Gentile nations would come to God's people and acknowledge Him. This gift has revealed the "mystery" hidden for generations; Gentiles and Jews would be made one.

Paul's apparently casual comment that an unbeliever who heard God's people prophesying would fall down, worship God and exclaim, "God is really among you!" is really an explanation to the Corinthian Christians that they are part of God's ultimate fulfillment of the Old Testament.

Jesus, the Seed promised to Abraham, the ultimate fulfillment of all of Israel's history and symbolism, brought the actual person of God to the world. After his resurrection and return to the side of the Father, he sent his Spirit to indwell his followers. For the first time since pre-sinful Adam and Eve, God and humanity were one. For the first time, unbelievers could witness God's people speaking and living His love. For the first time unbelievers could say, "God is really among you!"

Pentecost was the event that brought about the breaking of the wall of division between the Jews and the Gentiles. All nations and languages of people now come to Christ's followers saying, "Let us join you; God is among you!"

Many Christians say there will be yet another level of fulfillment for the Old Testament prophecies to Israel during Christ's physical rule on Earth during the millennium. That may yet be true. But we can know that even now we are part of the fulfillment of prophecy. We are Gentiles who have become God's people, and God's living presence in us continues to draw unbelievers to Him.


Orderly Worship

Paul's great concern in this portion of his letter to the Corinthians was that the awesome reality of the gifts of the Spirit not be cheapened and exploited. He carefully outlines how believers are to practice those gifts in worship services. He acknowledges that everyone present may have something from God to contribute: hymns, words of instruction, revelations, a tongue or an interpretation. He continues by saying if anyone speaks in tongues, not more than three should do so-one at a time-in a public service. He also specifies that someone must interpret each tongue. Paul specifically states that if there is no interpreter of tongues present, the person with the manifestation of tongues must keep silent.

Just as with tongues, prophecies must be limited to two or three per meeting. If a person delivers a prophecy, the others in the group "should weigh carefully what is said." If someone receives a revelation, the one speaking should sit down. In other words, people are not to speak on top of each other. Each person takes his turn and allows others to speak. Services are never to degenerate into bedlam or confusion. Each person's contribution is to be respected and carefully considered.

Further, Paul states that "the spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace." In other words, tongues, prophecy, and other gifts are not uncontrollable ecstasies. When God inspires a person, that person can control how and when he shares his revelation with his fellow believers.


Women in Worship

Paul again addresses the issue of women in public worship. He states, "Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says." The law, as we saw in verse 21, is the Old Testament. In Genesis 3:16 when Adam and Eve sinned, God told Eve her desire would be for her husband, and he would rule over her. In Ephesians 5 and also in I Corinthians 11 Paul addresses the issue of women's submission.

We saw in I Corinthians 11 that Paul did not forbid women prophesying and praying in worship. (see 11:2-10) He also acknowledged in the same chapter that women and men are not independent of each other. Both Jewish and Gentile women had to be fully covered when they appeared in public. They had to be silent and not participate equally with men in social situations. In I Corinthians 11 we saw that Paul was explaining how Christian women, who were now one with Christ in whom is no male nor female, should behave in public so their prayers and prophecies would not be discounted or ignored.

In chapter 14 Paul seems to be reiterating his previous instructions. Some biblical interpreters say this passage means that women are to be in submission to their husbands at church and at home. Others say Paul is stressing that for the church to be strengthened, everyone must respect each other. This respect would require that everyone participating be conscious of the social norms and observe cultural customs, including women not behaving in ways that the culture would interpret as disrespectful or immoral.

A third camp of interpreters says Paul is specifically addressing a clamor among the Corinthians about tongues and prophecy. These scholars say that Paul was instructing the women to calm down and stop adding to the confusion by noisily demanding explanations about what was going on and being said. If they wanted to know something, they should wait until they got home and then privately ask their husbands to explain to them.

Given the context of the letter to the Corinthians including what Paul said in chapter 11, and given also that Paul says in Gal. 3:28 that in Christ there is no "male nor female", it seems likely that this passage in I Corinthians 14 includes elements of all three of the interpretations listed above.


Respect and Order

Paul's main point in this chapter is that worship is not to be disruptive, confusing, or disorderly. All believers are to participate, and all are to respect each other. No one is to talk on top of each other, and whatever is said or done must be done to strengthen the congregation. Also, whatever is said or done must be inspired by God, not by self-centeredness or power-lust. Believers must submit to the presence of the living God among them, and that submission must be so clear and integral that an unbeliever visiting the worship service would be convicted of the grace and power of God and proclaim, "God is really among you!"

God calls us to be receptive and open to his Spirit. We are to know him and recognize him in each other. We are to take seriously his revelations to each other, and we are to allow him to minister to others through his gifts to us.

The gifts of the Spirit are not requirements to prove we are the chosen of God. They are, rather, the natural outgrowth of our being sealed with the Holy Spirit. The gifts of the Spirit are not things we flaunt or force before others. They are the will and love of God flowing from our hearts and hands.

We are not to forbid the practice of any spiritual gifts, including speaking in tongues. But we are to exercise our gifts appropriately and in the right places.

Our sole concern is to be to allow God to glorify himself through us. In order for him to bring glory to himself through us, we must be completely open and receptive to his love and his instruction to us.

When we allow God to have his way in our hearts, we may find that we say and do things we did not anticipate doing. But we will also find unspeakable delight in knowing that God has chosen us, that God uses us for His purposes.

When we allow God to have us, we become his body in this world. We mediate the risen Christ to each other and to unbelievers.

We become one with God and with each other.

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