Studies in First Corinthiansby Bob Burridge ©2018
Lesson 40: 1 Corinthians 14:1-19
A Sign of New Times
The Bible mentions some special supernatural gifts for the transitional church in the 1st Century. In 2 Corinthians 14 it gives some detail about the gifts of speaking in tongues and prophesy. After that time God didn’t continue to reveal special messages to us outside of what’s in the Bible.
When we read 1 Corinthians 14 we need to know what the believers knew when Paul wrote this. And we need to know what the Bible had already said about these things before Paul’s letter.
The immature church was misusing God’s special gifts.
1. Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.
2. For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.
3. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.
4. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church.
5. Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.
6. Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching?
7. If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played?
8. And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?
9. So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air.
10. There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning,
11. but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.
In our next study we’ll get more into more details of how these special gifts were to be used. In this study we’ll look at the larger biblical picture so we can appreciate God’s purpose in these gifts.
There are churches today where people practice
what they call “speaking in tongues”.
They believe the Holy Spirit makes them able to speak languages they never learned. Some say they’re actual human languages, others say they’re a language of angels. In either case they sincerely believe that God gives them this supernatural gift.
In some of these churches people pop up during worship and speak out in what sounds like another language. Often the pastor breaks out in what seems like a foreign tongue during his sermon. People in the congregation might stand up and speak in tongues. Then someone pops up and gives what they believe is a supernaturally provided translation. Usually, the translation is believed to be a special message from God to the congregation. These are churches where the people are taught to expect this and often encouraged into doing it as evidence that God has moved them to a higher spiritual plane. In some of these Charismatic churches it’s done in a more orderly way than in others.
When a passage in God’s word is confused, we miss the important lesson it was meant to teach.
At the center of understanding this passage
is a right understanding of history.
For those who don’t honor the Sovereign God of the Bible, history can seem pointless. It seems like a record of the rise and fall of civilizations and cultures. It becomes disconnected from any larger purpose.
With a Sovereign God at the center of all things, history takes on a whole new meaning. Every end of an era is a beginning that moves to a greater display of God’s kingdom and glory.
The Bible shows us that even in times of tragedy and judgment — God’s plan moves forward. God assures those redeemed and restrained by grace that there are good blessings to come.
When God cast Adam and Eve out of Eden, they had to leave behind the greatest place man ever lived. What we know as world history started then, and God’s plan of Redemption was announced. When God judged the world with the flood in the time of Noah a new world of promises was born. Moses led an enslaved race through a desert toward a promised land, while the pursuers were judged in the Red Sea.
When the nations of Israel and Judah became corrupted, they were taken captive by foreign speaking nations. People who spoke other languages swarmed the streets of Jerusalem and brought her down. Back in Deuteronomy 28:49 Moses had warned them, “The LORD will bring a nation against you from far away, from the end of the earth, swooping down like the eagle, a nation whose language you do not understand,”
This warning to Israel was repeated by God’s prophets throughout her inconsistent history. In Isaiah 28:11 the warning was again put into very direct terms: “For by people of strange lips and with a foreign tongue the LORD will speak to this people,”
Each time a tragic judgment came, and a corrupted past had to be left behind. In it’s place was an advancement in the visibility of God’s Kingship and Mercy.
After Israel’s restoration after captivity, her leaders became corrupted again. Her priests and rabbis distorted God’s word with vain human myths and distortions of God’s law. God’s commandments were confused with hypocritical rules of ungodly men. The nation was so corrupt, that in spite of God’s warnings and promises, they maligned their Messiah when he came, and called for his crucifixion. God was going to use a pagan nation, Rome, to finally end the era of Israel.
Jesus warned them too, that the time for that judgment would come very soon. In Matthew 23 Jesus went to the Temple and listed the sins of God’s nation and warned them. God was about to end Israel’s time of glory and the Temple was going to be destroyed.
In the next chapter he explained all this to his disciples on the Mount of Olives. Not one stone of the corrupted Temple would be left upon another. Her national glory, her sun, moon, and stars, will be darkened (Matthew 24:29). This same language was used of God’s Judgment in Isaiah 60:19-20. It was used to describe the removing Babylon’s glory in Isaiah 13:10, and of other enemies of Israel, particularly Edom (Isaiah 34:1-5). Jesus made it clear that all of these judgments would come before the present generation passed away (24:34).
In 70 AD God let loose that foreign nation to judge corrupted Israel. He sent the armies of Rome. They destroyed the Temple completely, and massively killed Jews in a gruesome slaughter. The earthly Temple would not be built again. An era had ended.
But this end was also a beginning. In place of the nation that had been custodians of God’s law and promises, there would be a new greater Covenant Nation, one including all races of people, people who spoke not only Hebrew, but the other languages of the world too.
The Christian Church was born out of the remains of Israel. The faithful remnant of Jews became the foundation of the Christian Church.
God provided a sign when this Judgment and Transformation was about to take place. Though Greek was understood throughout the Empire, each region had it’s own ethnic language. The Hebrews spoke Aramaic, and there was Latin, Coptic, Punic, Celtic, Germanic, and other languages. Not only would they see foreign speaking nations threatening Israel, God would also send languages supernaturally for the church to hear. These other tongues spoken miraculously were a sign that God’s judgment was coming.
This is what happened at Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2.
Acts 2:4, “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
Acts 2:12, “And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ ”
The Apostle Peter explained about the warnings of judgment on Israel, and about the promised new era that was beginning expanding beyond just the Jews. Acts 2:16-17, “But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams;’ ”
Then in verse 39 he said, “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” This indicated the expanding of God’s covenant to the other nations when this sign appears.
Here in 1 Corinthians 14:21, Paul quoted from Isaiah 28:11, “In the Law it is written, ‘By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.’ ”
The same covenant God made with Abraham would continue in the church spiritually. But it was the dawning of this new era where God’s prophetic word would be expanded. The result would be our completed New Testament, and a church that included all nations, not only the Jews.
The miraculous gift would continue in the early church until the transformation was complete. Once the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD marking God’s judgment on his corrupted nation, and once the gospel had embraced many different races and nations in the first century, this sign of being supernaturally made able to speak other languages ended because its purpose ended.
What appears to be supernatural languages
aren’t always from God.
Long before Pentecost what passes for a miracle today in some churches was very common among the pagan mystery religions, and it’s still common in some totally non-Christian groups today.
Ecstatic utterances are well known. It’s a much studied and well documented psychological phenomenon. The mind often expresses itself this way as a common response to mystical expectations. It usually comes only when people are told to expect it.
Speaking in supernaturally enabled tongues has been recorded throughout history, mostly among pagan groups. Around 1100 BC (about the time of Eli who raised Samuel as a child) there’s the story of Wen-Amon. He encountered a charismatic prophet in ancient Byblos who spoke ecstatic languages. Almost 400 years before Christ, Plato wrote about pagans who spoke in ecstatic languages. Among them were the Dionysians, the Prophetess of Dephi, the maidens of Bacchus, and the Corybantines. The ancient poet Virgil (who died about 19 BC) mentions how the priestess on Delos became unified with the god Apollo and spoke with mystical languages. Many of the mystery cults and religions, such as the cults of Osiris, Mithra, Eleusian, Orphic, and others, practiced ecstatic vocalizations they believed were supernaturally induced languages.
Speaking in tongues is practiced by many cults and sects such as the Shakers, Mormons, certain Muslim groups, Persian dervishes, and some Eskimos in Greenland. Some pagan cults in Tibet and China also claim to be able to speak in tongues.
Obviously God doesn’t give his special sign gifts to bless pagans. When compared with Scripture it’s clear that what these others do can’t be legitimate. We don’t decide what’s true by our emotional feelings and experiences. They can be wrong. We should only judge things by seeing how they fit with God’s written word.
The Greek expression used in the New Testament for “tongues speaking” is “glossa laleia” (γλώσσα λαλεῖα). The word “glossa” (γλώσσα)literally means that thing in our mouth we call the “tongue”. But it was commonly used then for a “language”. It was used that way in Old English. We still hear people talk about speaking a native tongue or a foreign tongue. The context shows us when it means languages.
God had planned to cause miraculous languages to be spoken as a sign of coming judgment upon Israel. Foreign nations would be used to judge his rebellious people, and people from all the nations, Gentiles not only Jews, will be added to God’s Covenant family. To distinguish between the psychological cause for tongues and what’s from God, we compare the details with the Bible.
The reason for the gift was to be explained
whenever the sign appeared.
12. So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.
13. Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret.
14. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful.
15. What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.
16. Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying?
17. For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up.
18. I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.
19. Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.
An interpretation of what’s said in that language is mandated in verses: 5, 13, and also in 26, 27 and 28. The word used there for “interpret” is “diermaeneuo” (διερμηνεύω). Literally it means to “lead out the meaning of something”.
It means “to interpret the meaning of something”, or “to explain it’s meaning” The study of how to interpret Bible passages is called “hermaneutics” which comes from this Greek word. Interpretation might include translation, but that’s not the basic meaning of the word itself.
Sadly some think this to mean that when tongues are spoken there must be a translator. But the most accurate English Bibles don’t say “translate” here, they say “interpret.” Translating would have nothing to do with the prophetic purpose of the gift.
The sign gift of tongues is never translated in any passage of the New Testament. But it was explained. It was interpreted so the people hearing it would know what it stood for. That’s what Peter did at Pentecost. He didn’t translate what was said in those other languages. He explained its meaning. He even quoted Joel to connect it with the Old Testament warnings to Israel.
Paul isn’t telling the Corinthians to have a translator available. He’s saying that the sign should be explained so people would understand its prophetic meaning. They should know that Israel was being judged by God, that a foreign nation would soon destroy her and end her corrupted sacrifices, and that Gentiles from foreign speaking nations would become a part of the church. When Paul quoted Isaiah 28:11 in verse 21 he wasn’t concerned with translating the message. He wanted to be sure they understood the message of judgment upon apostate Israel.
Once the new era church was established, and Israel was judged by Rome for her unbelief, and the Gentiles were brought into the church in large numbers, there was no further prophetic meaning for this sign gift for the church.
Israel is no longer about to be judged by a foreign speaking people. That ended in 70 AD. The Gentiles are no longer a new addition to the church. Therefore the meaning of the gift in the New Testament doesn’t fit what we see today.
As we read 1 Corinthians 14 we should
appreciate our privilege in this new era.
We live in a greater age than was known to all the heroes of the Bible. We have completed Bibles translated into our own languages and easily available to everybody. For most of human history God’s word was incomplete and not available to the average believer. Today we all can have bound copies to carry around and digital copies we can search and study on our computers, tablets, and phones.
God’s people aren’t limited to just one race, culture, or nationality. The church is made up of redeemed Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, old and young, male and female, young and old, highly educated and illiterate, graceful and clumsy. We’re all blended by God’s grace into a richly diverse spiritual family.
We shouldn’t try to be as the transitional church was in the first century. It would be tragic to roll back the progress and work of the Holy Spirit; to live as they did in Apostolic times before our Bibles were completed. We shouldn’t seek the transitional sign gifts any more. That would distort what they stood for, and deny the fulfillment of God’s promises.
We need to take our place responsibly in the 21st century of the Christian Era. Some day this era will end in a great judgment too. But when this present age passes into history a still greater age will come. God’s plan moves forward. It’s always becoming better.
This realistic biblical optimism should effect how we live and appreciate God’s blessings. It should make us eager to learn more about what God tells us in his written word. It should make us sincere and confident when we talk to God in prayer. It puts us in the right attitude when we come to worship. And it stirs us to tell others about this good message.
(The Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.)