William Kelly Major Works Commentary - 1 Corinthians 14:1 - 14:40

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William Kelly Major Works Commentary - 1 Corinthians 14:1 - 14:40


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1 Corinthians Chapter 14

Here we come to the application of love. Blessed as is always and everywhere this energy of the new nature, it is in the assembly of God that it finds its largest and deepest exercise, so far as we are concerned. Nowhere else is it demanded so continually, and in such varied forms. Without love souls therein make speedy and utter shipwreck; with it the sorest trials turn into the happiest testimony to the grace of Christ.

But hitherto the saints in Corinth had failed to learn it. They were far from the simple freshness of the Thessalonians, to whom the apostle could say some years before that they needed not that he should write, for they themselves were taught of God to love one another. Nevertheless he besought even them that they should increase more and more, as indeed (we learn from his second epistle) they did. At Corinth the failure was great, and not in private only but in public, as even shown on the solemn occasions when the assembly came together to celebrate the Lord's supper and to exercise their spiritual gifts. Hence the exhortation that follows.

"Pursue love, but earnestly desire the spiritual things, yet rather that ye may prophesy. For he that speaketh in a tongue speaketh not to men but to God; for no one heareth, yet in spirit he speaketh mysteries. But he that prophesieth speaketh to men edification and encouragement and comfort." (Vers. 1-8.)

Love, then, should be the main and constant object; but there were spiritual manifestations which had a place only subordinate to love, for the Holy Spirit, in giving and working thus, was glorifying the Lord Jesus. Among these prophesying has the chief place, the superiority of which over such a sign-gift as speaking in a tongue, the apostle rules, is proved by this, that such a speaker speaks not to men but to God, for none hears or understands while in spirit he speaks mysteries; whereas he that prophesies speaks to men edification and encouragement and comfort.

Assuredly the apostolic test is not always appreciated, and there are those in our day as indifferent to edification as the Corinthians. But a greater than they did not regard as a defect in spiritual tone the desire that men should be refreshed or helped in whatever way they needed. No doubt those who spoke in a tongue argued that they stood for the rights of Christ, who was glorified in the gift, and that theirs was the divine side - they spoke to God. But the apostle boldly maintains that the lack of speaking to men demonstrates the inferiority of speaking in a tongue to prophesying. He that so speaks is not taxed with speaking unintelligibly, or unintelligible things; on the contrary he is presumed to speak the truth, and high truth - "in spirit he speaketh mysteries." But, the language being unknown, "no one heareth;" he is not understood. He that prophesies speaks to men edification, encouragement, and comfort. The testimony flows in blessing to souls. The apostle was not dazzled, as the Corinthians were then and many since, in their yearnings after it, with the display of power. But he unqualifiedly sets prophesying beyond such a display, for it brings in not power merely but God, and God in His building up souls, encouraging them and consoling them. This does not cast such a halo around man; but it really brings in God in grace, and gives the consciousness of His presence.

We must remember, however, that verse 8 is not a definition of prophesying, but its contrast with speaking in a tongue. Prophesying, again, has no necessary connection with the future, as some suppose, nor is it preaching or teaching in general. It is forth-telling rather than fore-telling. It is so speaking to man as to put him in the light of God - of God's dealing with his heart and conscience. It gives His mind.

Hence the apostle proceeds to say (ver. 4) that he that speaketh in a tongue edifieth himself, but he that prophesieth edifieth the assembly. Here again the mistake of the Corinthians was exposed, and the grace and wisdom of the apostle evident.

Still more does the largeness of his heart come out in verse 6. "But I wish that ye all should speak with tongues, but rather that ye should prophesy. And greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret, in order that the assembly may receive edification." Such is his continual test. It was near the faithful servant's heart, as it was in his Master's. What astonishes is for the spiritual mind far less than what edifies. This he enters into a little more minutely in verse 6. "But now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, unless I shall speak to you either in revelation, or in knowledge, or in prophecy, or [in] doctrine?" It was not therefore that the apostle slighted the gift of tongues. How could he, seeing it was a manifestation of the Spirit promised of the Lord Jesus - a mighty testimony to the grace of God from the day of Pentecost and onwards? Still the less showy gift of prophesying has a far higher character in and for the assembly. The error he corrects lay in the misapprehension and misuse of the Corinthians. Had their eye been single, they had been full of light; but it was not so, and hence their unspiritual judgment, as well as conduct, draws out the instruction of the Lord. It is important also to observe how it is insisted on that all done in the assembly should be done in the Spirit. For the idea is not that he who spoke in the tongue did not understand what he said, yet it is never supposed that he would communicate, unless he had the interpretation of tongues. But his own knowledge of what was spoken is not the same as this interpretation; and unless he could interpret, there is no thought of his communicating to the assembly what was said in a tongue. For the assembly is the sphere,' not for man's ability, but for the Spirit of God. Interpretation must therefore be a gift, not a human power, to be available there.

It may be remarked also that revelation and knowledge seem to correspond in general with prophesying and teaching respectively. It is not meant that they are identical, but that they more or less correspond. They are the great means of edifying the assembly, not speaking in a tongue, unless the gift of interpretation accompanied it. To profit souls one must come thus. Indeed the apostle appeals to themselves whether it was not so.

Next he adduces the case of musical instruments to confirm the point. The sounds must be distinguished and understood in order to the wished-for result. "Nevertheless lifeless things giving sound, whether pipe or harp, if they give not distinction to the notes, how shall be known what is piped or what is harped?" (Ver. 7.) Now we do not distinguish the sounds of a language we do not know. The truths conveyed may be ever so weighty, but an unknown language is but a confused jargon. Nor is this the only illustration given. "For also if a trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare for war?" (Ver. 8.) The trumpet-call must be understood in short. "So also ye through the tongue, unless ye give a distinct speech, how shall what is spoken be known, for ye will be speaking into air?" (Ver. 9.) Distinctness, so as to be understood, is the point pressed; not exactly easy to be understood, but distinct speech, so as to be intelligible: otherwise all is lost for the hearers.

"There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none insignificant. If therefore I do not know the power of the voice, I shall be to him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh a barbarian in my case. So also ye, since ye are zealous after spirits, seek that ye may abound for the edification of the assembly." (Vers. 10-12.) To be understood then is essential to edification. No matter how excellent the matter conveyed by the unknown language, it has no claim to be said to the assembly, unless it be duly interpreted. It is foreign there, even more out of place than a colloquy with a barbarian or foreigner If they really were in earnest for the power of the Spirit in their midst, why did not they seek to abound for the building up one another? This were divine love, not vain display, but worthy of Christ and His saints: It is flesh that likes distinction for itself, not the service of the Lord for the good of others, where God deigns to deal with souls.

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. 18.) 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 maybe able to go along with what is said. To be intelligible, so as to edify, is requisite in the assembly.

It is evident, from Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3, 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,* 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 assembly 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;† the secrets of his heart become manifest; and thus† falling on [his] face he will do homage to God, reporting that indeed God is among you." (Vers. 20-25.)

* So read A B and twice as many cursives, etc.; but the vast majority give the easier reading of the Text. Rec. "by other lips"

† The Text. Rec., with two or three uncials and most cursives, etc., here inserts καὶ οὕτως instead of before the last clause, contrary to the best authorities; it also puts ὄντως after ὁ θεός whereas it should be before as I have translated.

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 nave them to cherish with the artlessness of a babe the understanding of riper years. And he cites freely from Isa_28:11-12, so as to convoy 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?

The apostle now comes to the practical deductions from the divine principles laid down for regulating the assembly. The Corinthians had assumed absolute openness or really license for human will from the fact of the powers distributed to one and another by the Spirit. To control a meeting where He wrought thus seemed unreasonable. But here they were wholly mistaken; for the blessed One who is now sent down from heaven is a Spirit of order, and works in love for the purpose of maintaining the Lordship of Christ. Hence no power at work in or by man exempts from the rule of the Lord, but on the contrary exalts it, if exercised according to the will of God.

"What is it then, brethren? Whenever ye come together, each of [you]* hath a psalm, hath a teaching, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edification. If any one speak with a tongue, [let it be] two or at the most three, and in turn, and let one interpret; but if there be no interpreter, let him be silent in an assembly, and let him speak to himself and to God. And let two or three prophets speak, and let the others discern; but if there be a revelation to another while sitting, let the first be silent; for ye can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all be exhorted. And spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not [a God] of confusion but of peace, as in all the assemblies of the saints." (Ver. 26-33.)

* ὑμὼν "of you" is not in A B, etc.

Such was the restless desire of contributing each his part, not of general edification by whomsoever the Lord might deign to employ. Indeed they were thinking of themselves, not of Him nor of each other in love. Still none can deny to the assembly the fullest liberty: else it could not have been thus abused. Modern arrangements exclude not the abuse only but that liberty which ought to be; and in fact, where the Spirit of the Lord is, liberty is characteristic of His presence individually or collectively, and in the assembly it is marked according to scripture. Not that this was in the least understood by such as Neander, who founded it on the priesthood of all Christians, which is a wholly different relation concerning the saints in their freedom of access to God. Here it is a question of His assembly wherein the Holy Spirit acts by the members as He will to glorify the Lord and edify the saints. Hence power is subordinated to the Lord's authority, the vessel of divine energy is made to feel responsibility in its use, and the vital principle of obedience is preserved intact. Thus is God in all things glorified through Jesus Christ, as says the great apostle of the circumcision, when exhorting that each should use the gift which he had received as a good steward of God's manifold grace.

The apostle then limits speaking in a tongue to two or at most three on the same occasion, in turn, and then only in case of one there to interpret. So it was to be even with prophesying, where the others* were to judge or discern, instead of one interpreting. Prophesying was of all gifts the most precious and suited to build up or otherwise act on the saints and even those outside for good; but there must not be an excess even of the best thing, for God is jealous for the blessing of His saints, and thinks of the weakest in the assembly who might be distracted, not edified, by more than three. Should a revelation be made to one sitting by, he could speak, the other being silent, for a revelation when thus given took precedence of all communication. There was room indeed for all to prophesy for the instruction and stirring up of all, but one by one. Power must not set order aside: spirits of prophets are subject to prophets, instead of there being an uncontrollable impulse. It was not with the working of the Holy Spirit as with demon power; and this because God is not the source of confusion but of peace, as in all the assemblies of the saints, where order was peculiarly due to His character as present. Excitement and tumult, even in the exercise of divinely given energy dishonour Him, the spring and giver of peace.

* No adequate reason appears to limit οἱ ἄλλοι the others, or the rest, to prophets. The spiritual, not prophets only, can certainly judge all things. I am aware that some assert that "the spiritual" means inspired persons. Such teaching corrupts God's word and demands not correction or disproof only, but the moral reprobation of every true-hearted Christian. The truth is, on the one hand, that, when the Corinthian saints abounded in every gift, they were as a whole carnal and not spiritual; as on the other hand we may and ought to be spiritual, if we have ever so little strength.

It is not quite certain whether we should connect the last clause with verse 33 as its close, or with verse 34 as its beginning. Many critics and commentators prefer the latter. There is no doubt that Lachmann was wrong in punctuating the Greek, so as to make "of the saints" the complement, not of the assemblies to which it unquestionably belongs, but of "the women," ὑμῶν being of course omitted on the authority of the three greatest uncials, six cursives, with most of the ancient versions and early citations. But safer editors, like Tischendorf, who also omit ὑμῶν separate αἱ γυναῖκες "the women," from τῶν ἁγίων "of the saints." To begin with such a phrase is unexampled. "Let the, women be silent in the assemblies; for it is not permitted to them to speak, but let them be in subjection* as also the law saith. But if they wish to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home, for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in an assembly." (Vers 34, 35.)

* Text. Rec., with D F G 11( L, &e., has ὑποτάσσεσθαι which may be regarded as the more difficult, but ὑποτασσέσθωσαν is in A B and other ancient authorities, besides, good cursives.

This rule is of great moment. Women are forbidden to speak in the assemblies. It might have been supposed by those who love to reason that there if anywhere they might be allowed. The holy atmosphere, where man is as nothing, where God makes His presence and power known spiritually, might have seemed a fitting place for holy women to speak, who undoubtedly might have gifts, even that of prophesying like the four daughters of Philip the evangelist. (Act_21:9.) But no; the apostle was inspired to forbid it in the assemblies, of course not absolutely, for every gift is meant to be exercised, but the manner must be in submission to the Lord's direction. Divine revelation in the Old Testament gave clear intimation of woman's place generally in subjection: the New Testament is no less peremptory as to the assemblies. The notion of their standing forth in proclamation of the gospel crossed no mind in those days. This was a violation of female propriety, which would have shocked even the heathen. It was reserved for the corruption of the best thing, for the innovating spirit and ways of modern Christendom. The apostle forbade their even asking a question on these public occasions. If they wish to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home, for it is disgraceful for a women to speak in an assembly.

The entire subject is wound up by the demand whether the word of God set out to them or reached to them only, The Corinthians were the first to depart from the apostolic order established everywhere. It was the beginning of ecclesiastical revolt. The church is to be subject. The word of God commands, and commands all assemblies alike.

"What, did the word of God go out from you, or reached it unto you alone? If any one seemeth to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge the things which I write to you, that they are [the] * Lord's commandment.† But if any one be ignorant, let him be ignorant.‡ Wherefore, my§ brethren, seek earnestly for prophesying, and forbid not the speaking in|| the tongues;¶ but let all things be done becomingly and in order." (Vers. 36-40.)

* τοῦ "the" in Text. Rec., with many cursives, but not in the uncials, the best and most cursives, etc.

† Tischendorf omits ἐντολή with D E F G, etc.; Lach., etc., ἐστὶν ἐντολή with A B, etc; Text. Rec. εἰσὶν ἐντολαί with most.

‡ ἀγνοεῖται "he is ignored," with A D F G, etc., the common reading has excellent authority.

§ μου omitted by Text. Rec. with most, is in A B D, etc.

|| ἐν BDFG, etc.

¶ δέ omitted by K L and most, is read by A B E F G P, many cursives, versions, etc.

The assembly is bound to maintain the truth, and, whilst bearing with want of intelligence (for we all know but in part), to sanction no error. The assembly is bound to walk in holiness to the Lord, as becomes those called from darkness into His marvellous light. But the assembly is taught; it cannot and ought not to teach, but to accept those whom the Lord sends to teach. The assembly is called to act in receiving and putting away, in both subject to the Lord and His word; but rule properly is in the hands of those so gifted of God, just as preaching, teaching, or any other service. It is the Lord who gives; it is the Lord who commands, as we see here, in the authoritative injunction of His apostle. The word of God comes to the saints, and it comes to them all. Differing views may be found, alas! like every other failure; but the assemblies are surely to seek to walk in the fellowship of His mind and will. Different circumstances may modify in matters of detail, yet more in appearance than reality; while, in matters which concern not only vital truth but godly order as here, scripture leaves no justifiable ground for dissent.

Again, to be gifted with special insight into God's mind, or to reap the fruit of this in spirituality, if real, would only deepen the sense of the Lord's authority and the imperativeness of obedience. We see the perfection of this in Christ Himself here below. Let power of the Spirit then be shown in the recognition of His commandment! Does any one refuse subjection on the score of ignorance? Then let him keep the place of ignorance and not pretend to teach. Those who wish to guide others should know what is, and what is not, of the Lord. It is really a question of will in those who do not see; for His injunction fails not in power to reach the conscience. To reason further would be to indulge will and strengthen self-confidence, beside possible harm to one's own soul. The refractory are best left in His hands whose words they cavil at: if His own, He knows how to break them down and make them thankful for the light, the refusal of which keeps them in ignorance.

The conclusion the apostle then shuts up the brethren to is, zeal for prophesying, and no prohibition of speaking with tongues, regulated as we have seen in the assemblies. For all things, not these merely, are to be done becomingly and in order. But the Spirit alone can give us to discern always what is comely, and the order is not left to human discretion, but revealed by the Lord. Thus man's will, as it is condemned in every detail of individual life (for we are sanctified to obedience, yea, to the same kind of obedience as our Lord Jesus Christ), is no less excluded from the assembly of God which He has formed for the glory of Christ, and in which He acts by the Holy Ghost according to the written word.