1 Corinthians 14:1-25

Clear Communication

For those of you who were here last week, you will know that we are now on the second slice of the sandwich. For those of you who weren’t here, I’d better explain. Two weeks ago, we looked at 1 Corinthians chapter 12, and Paul’s teaching about spiritual gifts and the richness of unity and diversity that they build up in the body of Christ, the church. Last week we looked at Paul’s exposition of love and it’s central place in church life, and in the relationships we have. Tonight we return to Paul’s thoughts on the right use of spiritual gifts. So the sandwich looks like this: Chapter 12:right use of spiritual gifts. Chapter 13:love, chapter 14: right use of spiritual gifts.

So, as I said, we are on the second slice of the sandwich. As we noted last week, Paul links this teaching with what goes before right there in the first verse, “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts.” He then goes on to focus on two of the spiritual gifts that he had identified in chapter 12 and, in this chapter, it’s almost as if he’s been set an essay title, “Compare and contrast the spiritual gifts of tongues and prophecy”

The first thing Paul does, as in any good essay, is to define his terms.

Firstly, the gift of tongues. According to Paul, those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God, because no-one understands them. He’s clear that it does come from the Spirit, but what is said is a mystery.

In this he does seem to be describing a different gift to that which was experienced on the day of Pentecost. On that occasion, described in Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit came on the disciples, they were enabled to proclaim the great deeds of God in such a way that people from all over the world were able to understand them. On that occasion, the disciples were speaking to people, and they were understood by those people, without other interpretation. So what Paul is describing here in his letter to the church at Corinth is different.

Tom Wright summarises it like this, “Tongues refers to the gift of speech which, though making sounds, and using apparent or even actual languages, somehow bypasses the speaker’s conscious mind. Such speech is experienced as a stream of praise in which a sense of love for God,of adoration and gratitude, wells up and overflows.”

This seems to me to match up pretty closely with Paul’s understanding of this gift. What I might want to add to it is the insight from Romans 8:26, which says, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes for us through wordless groans.” This seems to me to suggest that there can be an intercessory aspect to the gift of tongues. However, whether it is praise or intercession, Paul’s basic point that it is a gift for communication between a person and God, that other people do not understand remains.

In the next verse Paul goes on to define what he means by prophecy. “Those who prophesy speak to people for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort.” Now we do have to be a little bit careful here.

The fact that all postboxes are red does not mean that all things that are red are postboxes.

In just the same way, just because Paul says that all prophecy is for encouragement, does not mean that all encouraging words are prophecy.

Having said that, it does seem likely that Paul is deliberately using quite a wide definition of prophecy. He is not talking just about foretelling the future, or about words of knowledge or insight. As Tom Wright has it, “His central emphasis is on the God-given wisdom, understanding, insight and teaching that the church badly needs if it is to be built up as a community instead of as an accidental collection of private individuals.”

For Paul, the key distinctive for the gift of prophecy is that it is a clear route of communication from God to people, that can be understood and acted on by the people who receive it.

Having defined his terms, Paul goes on to give three illustrations of why he believes that the prophetic gifts are more important than the gift of tongues. The first two carry echoes of a verse from the previous chapter, “If I speak in human or angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal”. Perhaps reminding us of Paul’s concern to promote love in the community of the church.

We don’t have a pipe or a harp here tonight, but we have been accompanied on the piano. As Joan has been accompanying the singing this evening, she’s played the notes of the tunes, in order as written. If she’d just improvised, or played notes randomly, it really would not have been very helpful. She might have had a lovely tune of praise going on in her head, but it wouldn’t have helped us sing God’s praise together. It wouldn’t have built us up.

Sometimes I go into jumble sales or little antique shops and buy slightly random things. A few years ago I found a slightly battered trumpet, very cheap, and thought it might be quite fun to have a go at learning how to play it. I never really did. I can just about get a note out of it, but I never had the patience to get much further. I am in awe of people like Mike, the bugler who normally does Remembrance for us. Those clear calls, which in historical battle situations would have been critical in communicating retreats and advances across the battle field, are a world away from my splutterings.

I wonder if you’ve ever had the experience of being translated as you are speaking, or have been in a situation where someone is translating for you. I’ve had the privilege at different times of doing both. There are two things that I have found slightly odd about it. The first is when I’ve been speaking and it has become obvious from their reactions that there are some in the congregation who understand English, and some who have to wait for the translation. The second is when there is a big difference in the length of the translation to what I’ve said. Sometimes I’m left wondering if the translator is adding extra material or maybe taking some out. I don’t know because I don’t speak the same language as the people I’m talking to, we’re foreigners to each other.

In all these illustrations Paul is reinforcing the importance of clear communication in the building up of community, of the body of Christ. This is why he views prophecy as more important than tongues, because it is a gift of clear communication that builds up the body.

Let’s be clear, though, in recognising that Paul does value the gift of tongues. He thanks God that he speaks in tongues, and he gives some guidance on how the gift can be used most effectively. He recommends that those who speak in tongues should ask God for an interpretation. This gift of interpretation transforms the private gift of tongues into the public gift of prophecy and is to be sought after.

He also shares his own practice, that when he is praying or singing in tongues, he also prays and sings with his mind, with his understanding. What might this look like? Well, it might be that he means that he alternates praying in tongues with praying in the language of those he’s with, so that they can join in agreeing with the prayers, and say “Amen”. Or he might mean that he holds people or situations consciously in mind whilst praying or praising in tongues. My own experience is that both these approaches are helpful in different situations.

In what seems to me to be another echo of his teaching in chapter 13 Paul goes on to encourage his readers to grow up in their attitude to these gifts. He wants them to retain the innocence of children in their morality, but seek the wisdom of maturity in their thinking and behaviour. It seems that in Corinth, much as in our own culture perhaps, these had got flipped. People were getting more and more “adult” in their morality, and more and more childish in their thinking. It strikes me that this is a particularly toxic combination, and one against which we urgently need the clear communication of the gospel to bring conviction and a deep sense of the reality of the judgement of God. And this is why Paul values prophesy over tongues.

Paul’s message, as we discovered earlier in this letter, is, “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” This is what it all points to. This is what all people are to be called to. Paul doesn’t want anything distracting from the clarion call to the world to face the life changing implications of the cross. He wants people to come into church meetings and be convinced by what they see that, “God is really among you”.

Now, as far as I am aware there isn’t a big dispute about the relative merits of the gifts of tongues and prophecy here at All Saints. There are those who use the gift of tongues in worship and intercession, and it doesn’t seem to cause much confusion or upset. We do have those who have gifts of speaking prophetically in the way that Paul describes, clearly communicating God’s word in a way that builds up, encourages, strengthens. I’m not sure we’re always great at operating in either of these gifts in a way in which often cuts people to the heart and causes them to fall down and worship God. My prayer is that we would eagerly desire these gifts, especially the gift of prophecy, so that we would see more lives changed and the Kingdom coming more and more clearly.

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