Shabbat Shalom. This morning, Lord willing, we will be covering 1 Corinthians 14:1-25. I have entitled this message, The Art of Public Speaking, after one of my textbooks in college, because this section serves as an important lesson on how we should speak and teach in our services. However, before we begin this section of Rabbi Paul’s letter it is important to understand where we have come from to get to this point. Two weeks ago, Rabbi Glenn helped us to understand chapter 12. In that chapter, we were introduced to several gifts given by the Holy Spirit. This included the gift of tongues, speaking in a foreign or angelic language to the Lord, as well as the gift of prophecy, which is speaking forth God’s Truth to others, proclaiming who He is in a special way.
We also learned of a serious issue happening in God’s community in Corinth, a lack of unity caused by spiritual gifts. Rabbi Paul explained in detail how God’s Community of Jews and Gentiles is marked by diversity in individual members, but we are all united as part of a greater whole. Different giftings are an intentional part of God’s plan for His community, they do not make us superior or inferior to one another.
In chapter 13 we see that the key to solving the issues of division that plagued the community in Corinth, as well as ours today, was to have the love of God. This is a love that is other-focused and is rooted in the unbreakable hope we have in the Lord. It is not a love that is focused on ourselves or our own selfish desires. If we do not have God’s Love in our use of spiritual gifts or actions all that we do is eventually worthless for His Eternal Kingdom.
So now we come to chapter 14 where the Lord, through Rabbi Paul, will show us how to apply the principle of love to the issues in the Corinthian community. Before we begin I need to emphasize an important point we need to keep in mind while reading this chapter. This chapter is not a critique on the different ways God blesses us as individuals or how we individually have a relationship with the Lord. Everything we read about is focused on Jewish and Gentile Believers gathering in a public place with unbelievers present, or basically a Church service today. Let us begin then in verse 1.
Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy.
This chapter begins with a command: Before we begin to desire spiritual gifts, we should first be walking in the “way of love”. The “way of love” is a very Jewish way of saying that we should first be striving to reach the goal of having and expressing God’s love. So we must first have a right understanding of love, and then move to asking for spiritual gifts from the Lord. Rabbi Paul makes a special mention in this verse of the gift of prophecy which will be expanded on in detail in the following verses and contrasted with the gift of tongues.
2 For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. 3 But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. 4 Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. 5 I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy.
The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified.
We see the word speaking repeatedly used in these verses and throughout this chapter. This is because the major focus of our reading today is on properly speaking in a way that others can understand and benefit from. Contrasted in these verses are two types of spiritual speech, the gift of tongues and the gift of prophecy.
There is a serious contrast made for us between tongues and prophecy. It is important that we do not come away from this chapter thinking tongues are bad and prophecy is good. Instead, we will see that while tongues are a blessing and good gift to have, prophecy is superior in our public services.
So what is the benefit of speaking in tongues? The gift of tongues is for the benefit of the person speaking who is speaking only to God.
Tongues is understood as a form of prayer between a person and the Lord. The gift of tongues it to speak in our spirit in a tongue that if not interpreted only God may understand.
It makes sense that the Corinthians would desire tongues in their worship services since prayer is a proper part of worship. Verse 4 makes clear that Tongues builds up the person who has been given the gift and this is not a bad thing, but it does not build up others.
The reason prophecy is considered superior, is that the gift of prophecy is for the benefit of others, it speaks to people. The gift of prophecy is to build up, give comfort to, and excite other believers around us in a language we can all understand. It is to boldly proclaim God’s truth in a way like the prophets of old. But unlike prophecy in the Old Testament which in many cases focused on condemnation and the negative, this form of prophecy is given to strengthen or build up the community. It causes us to be bold, to push past our sorrow or grief and to do what God has called us to do as a community. This form of prophecy isn’t about giving new revelation or predicting the future, but is to be moved by the Holy Spirit to proclaim a message needed for those you are speaking to. They are words infused with the power of the Holy Spirit, words that can cause a powerful change in those who hear them. Our words are dead but the words of the Lord bring life.
Verse 5 clearly states that the gift of tongues is a blessing to have. Rabbi Paul wants everyone in Corinth speaks in tongues, but having the gift of prophecy is greater because it builds up or edifies everyone present. There is an exception made for the interpretation of tongues. If the speaking of someone under the gift of tongues is translated by either them or someone else, so that everyone can understand what they are saying the gift now builds up everyone. Building up others is emphasized because worship in a public setting, in a Church setting, is a community based activity.
Unfortunately, in many churches’ today worship is simply a bunch of people who happen to be together worshipping the Lord without having real connections to one another, or even worse just watching someone on a stage doing so. It can be a disconnected and chaotic service that is focused on only what you personally can feel.
1 Corinthians makes it clear that public worship isn’t about doing things the way we find best or in a way that might build us up but harm or distract others. The kind of worship described here is a community of believers coming together, we are individuals but part of a greater whole, we are a congregation that together gives proper worship to Adonai. Since our congregational services are communal we should be focused on others more than looking for individual experiences. Focusing on others brings order and unity to our worship and allows others to have an opportunity to participate so that it is not just the people on stage worshipping the Lord.
Besides the theme of unity and building up we also have this emphasis on intelligible speech, on speech that can be understood by everyone. Communicating in a clear, not hidden way, to one other. We continue with verse 6:
6 Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction?
There is a shift in this verse with Rabbi Paul using himself once again as an example. He asks us to consider what benefit is his gift of tongues to others unless there is something understandable? If he just spoke in tongues all the time there would be no opportunity for revelation or knowledge.
“What good is this to others?” is a question we should also ask ourselves, especially in our use of spiritual gifts and in our gatherings together. If what we are saying or doing is of no benefit to others, then consider if it is proper for our services and maybe should better be done in private.
I can give you an example of a time I needed to ask myself this question. I remember years ago when I had a few parashas under my belt sitting down to write another parasha commentary for Shema.
At that time I would work on a draft and send it off to Rabbi Loren to correct my horrible grammar, give me feedback on my content, and just generally make sure I am not about to preach something incorrect.
Now my personal writing process can be described as…a bit chaotic but since I am a fancy person we can just call it “organic”. It involves reading and researching what I am about to preach on, praying through it, walking away sometimes frustrated to pick up again later and many times just feeling God’s presence moving in me as I write. I feel closest to the Lord when I am in His Word in this way and when preaching.
So I was sitting down to write this parasha commentary and there was some particular ax I wanted to grind in my writing. Some issue in the text that had me worked up and I felt like everyone needed to hear and understand. This was not a moving of God’s spirit but my own. It was not what God wanted me to write or apply to myself but what I wanted to do. The words which usually came much easier when I write struggled to get onto the page. I basically forced out a commentary of my own spirit. There was no gift of prophecy being used, the focus was on what I wanted not on the needs of others.
The Holy Spirit had begun to make it known to me just who was writing here but because I had something I wanted to write I disregarded it.
I remember sending it off to Rabbi Loren and waiting his response. When I got it back I was in for a bit of a shock. Unlike other parashas that had the occasional red text from him with small things to change or consider this one seemed to me to be filled with large comments.
The gist of his comments was that this commentary was unclear, disjointed and in some places just plain incorrect. As I read it over I had a clear sense from the Lord of “See! This is what I was trying to tell you!”. I ended up scraping pretty much everything I had written and starting over again by asking the Lord to forgive me and help me to speak what he wanted me to speak and not what I wanted. The next draft I sent Rabbi Loren was much better received.
Now I mention this story because if I did not have that change of understanding, if I had given my original parasha commentary, then it probably would have benefited only myself.
My words would not have been moved by the Holy Spirit and there may have been no proclaiming of God’s truth, just the truth according to me.
So it is incredibly important that our speech is clear and correct when we gather together, so that it can build up others. To help the Corinthians understand this fact an argument is built using three specific examples that illustrate the importance of understandable speaking.
7 Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the pipe or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? 8 Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?9 So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. 10 Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. 11 If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker is a foreigner to me.
A musical instrument that does not have a range of sounds that can be understood cannot play music. You need scales, tempos, and rhymes to create music. To create beautiful music there must be clarity, it must be hearable and understandable to our ears. If you were to give me Rabbi Glenn’s guitar and ask me to play a tune at best you would hear a few strums and at worst I would need to ask Rabbi Glenn how much a new set of strings cost.
If you sound a trumpet or a shofar to give an alarm but do not have a clarity in your purpose then no one will listen. If you blow your trumpet and make no real noise or just a few squeaks what does that tell people? But if there is a loud blast, a note or pattern that is understood as a warning, then people can prepare. There has to be understanding. When you hear a tornado siren you know what it means because you understand the sound it makes. An ambulance going down the road can be identified by the sound it makes. If these sounds had no pattern, had nothing to identify them, then we would not know how to respond.
Finally, we are presented with a third example, the idea of two people who speak different languages trying to communicate. If someone were to speak to me in Spanish right now and I responded in English we could not communicate unless we both understood the others language. Speaking in tongues without it being translated in a congregational setting is like this. It just frustrates one another and creates a block in our communication. It just goes into the air and is not useful.
With the emphasis on building up others and the importance of understandable speech made clear we reach the conclusion in verse 12.
12 So it is with you. Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church.
The conclusion of Rabbi Paul’s argument is made for us in this verse. Those eager for spiritual gifts, like the Corinthians, should pray for gifts that build up the community. This can be gifts like prophecy but it can also be others like serving, encouraging, or giving. The truth is that for many of us in Messiah’s Community we value tongues over serving or giving. There are entire movements devoted to the practice and teaching that all believers should speak in tongues or perform miracles. In these movements are those who teach that if you do not speak in tongues you are not really saved or that every single person can have certain gifts. Incorrect charismatic teachings like this are wrong for several reasons but at a very basic level they fail to emphasize the communal nature of public worship.
If we just talk about and focus on our own personal experiences in our congregations, then why should we even be meeting together? What is the benefit? From my experiences, it seems that far too often the use or teaching of spiritual gifts goes hand-in-hand with an over emphasis on individuals rather than the body. Or to put it more bluntly the same people who become fixated on spiritual gifts like tongues also seem to be fixated on themselves. They stumble into the same problems as the Corinthians did and it leads to a lack of unity and infighting.
But before you think this chapter just has a teaching for those in charismatic churches it has teaching for others as well. If building up believers is the purpose of our use of gifts then what does that mean for seeker-friendly or seeker oriented churches?
Clearly we need to preach the Good News of Messiah Yesh