Expositor's Bible Commentary
Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy.
SPIRITUAL GIFTS AND PUBLIC WORSHIP
Is the first twenty-five verses of this chapter Paul gives his estimate of the comparative value of the two chief spiritual gifts: speaking with tongues and prophesying; in the latter half of the chapter he lays down certain rules which were to guide the exercise of these gifts and certain principles on which all the worship and public services of the Church should proceed.
A difficulty, however, meets us at the outset. We have no opportunity of observing these gifts in exercise, and cannot readily understand them. With prophecy indeed there need be no great difficulty. Prophesying is speaking for God, whether the utterance regards present or future matters. When Moses complained that he had no gift of utterance, God said, "Aaron shall be thy prophet"; that is, shall speak for thee, or be thy spokesman. Prediction is not necessarily any part of the prophet’s function. It may be so, and often it was so, but a man might be a prophet who had no revelation of the future. In the sense in which Paul uses the word, a prophet was "an inspired teacher and exhorter who revealed to men the secrets of God’s will and word and the secrets of their own hearts for the purpose of conversion and edification." The function of the prophet is indicated in the third verse: "He that prophesieth speaketh for edification, and exhortation, and comfort"; and still further in the twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth verses, where the results of prophesying are described in terms precisely such as we should use to describe the results of efficacious preaching. The hearer is "convinced," is conscious in himself that the words spoken are shedding light and carrying conviction into the recesses of his heart. The gift of prophecy, then, was the endowment which enabled a Christian to speak so as to bring the mind and spirit of the hearer into touch with God.
But the gift of tongues is involved in greater obscurity. On its first occurrence, as recorded in the book of Acts, it would seem to have been the gift of speaking in foreign languages. We are told that the strangers from Asia Minor, Parthia, the shores of the Black Sea, Africa, and Italy, when they heard the disciples speaking, recognised that they were speaking intelligible languages. One man was attracted by the sound of his native Arabic; another heard the familiar Latin; a third for the first time in Jerusalem heard a Jew speaking the language he was accustomed to hear on the banks of the Nile. Naturally they were confounded by the circumstance, "every man hearing," as it is said, "his own language, the tongue wherein he was born." It would certainly seem probable, therefore, that, whether the gift afterwards changed its character or not, it was originally the power of speaking in a foreign language so as to be intelligible to anyone who understood that language.
This gift was of course communicated, not as a permanent acquisition, to fit men to preach the Gospel in foreign countries, but merely as a temporary impulse to utter words which to themselves had no meaning. All spiritual gifts seem to have been inconstant in their influence. Paul had the gift of healing, and yet he "left Trophimus at Miletum sick"; his dear friend Epaphroditus was sick nigh unto death without Paul being able to help him; and when Timothy was unwell, he did not cure him by miracle, but by a very commonplace prescription. So, too, when a man by study and practice acquires the use of a foreign tongue, he has command of that language so long as memory lives and for all purposes; but this "gift of tongues" was only available "as the Spirit gave utterance" to each, and failed to communicate a constant and complete command of the language. It is not to be supposed therefore that this gift was bestowed in order to enable men more easily to proclaim the Gospel to all races. And at no period of the world’s history was such a gift less needed, Greek and Latin being very generally understood throughout the Roman world. Perhaps more persons grew up bilingual in that day than at any other time.
If then this gift was intermittent and did not qualify its possessor to use a foreign language for the ordinary purposes of life or for preaching the Gospel, what was its use? It served the same purpose as other miracles; it made visible and called attention to the entrance of new powers into human nature. As Paul says, it was "for them that believe not, not for them that believe." It was meant to excite inquiry, not to instruct the mind of the Christian. It produced conviction that among the followers of Christ new powers were at work. The evidence of this took a shape which seemed to intimate that the religion of Christ was suitable for every race of mankind. This gift of tongues seemed to claim all nations as the object of Christ’s work. The most remote and insignificant tribe was accessible to Him. He knew their language, suited Himself to their peculiarities, and claimed kindred with them.
It must, however, be said that the common opinion of scholars is that the gift of tongues did not consist in ability to speak a foreign language even temporarily, but in an exalted frame of mind which found expression in sounds or words belonging to no human language. What was thus uttered has been compared to the "merry, unmeaning shouts of boyhood, getting rid of exuberant life, uttering in sounds a joy for which manhood has no words." These ecstatic cries or exclamations were not always understood either by the person uttering them, or by anyone else, so that there was always a risk of such utterances being considered either as the ravings of lunatics, or, as in the first instance, the thick and inarticulate mutterings of drunkards. But sometimes there was present a person in the same key of feeling whose spirit vibrated to the note struck by the speaker, and who was able to render his inarticulate sounds into intelligible speech. For as music can only be interpreted by one who has a feeling for music, and as the inarticulate language of tears, or sighs, or groans can be comprehended by a sympathetic soul, so the tongues could be interpreted by those whose spiritual state corresponded to that of the gifted person.
At various periods of the Church’s history these manifestations have been reproduced. The Montanists of the early Church, the Camisards of France at the close of the seventeenth century, and the Irvingites of our own country claimed that they possessed similar gifts. Probably all such manifestations are due to violent nervous agitation. The early Quakers showed their wisdom in treating all physical manifestations as physical.
Comparing these two gifts, prophecy and speaking with tongues, Paul very decidedly gives the preference to the former, and this mainly on the score of its greater utility. It often happened that when one of the Christians spoke in tongues there was no one present who could interpret. However exalted the man’s own spirit might be, the congregation could derive no benefit from his utterances. And if a number of persons spoke at once, as they seemed to do in Corinth, on the pretext that they could not control themselves, any unbeliever who came in and heard this Babel of sound would naturally conclude, as Paul says, that he had stumbled into a ward of lunatics. Such disorder must not be. If there were no one present who could interpret what the speakers with tongues were saying, they must he silent. Apart from interpretation speaking with tongues was mere noise, the blare of a trumpet sounded by one who did not know one call from another, and which was mere unintelligible sound. Prophesying was not liable to these abuses. All understood it, and could learn something from it.
From this preference shown by Paul for the less showy but more useful gift, we may gather that to make public worship the occasion of self-display or sensational exhibitions is to degrade it. This is a hint for the pulpit rather than for the pew. Preachers must resist the temptation to preach for effect, to make a sensation, to produce fine sermons. The desire to be recognised as able to move men, to say things smartly, to put the truth freshly, to be eloquent, or to be sensible is always striving against the simple-minded purpose of edifying Christ’s people. Worshippers as well as preachers may, however, be so tempted. They may sing with a gratified sense of exhibiting a good voice. They may find greater pleasure in what is sensational in worship than in what is simple and intelligible.
Again, we here see that worship in which the understanding bears no part, receives no countenance from Paul. "I will pray with the spirit; I will pray with the understanding also." Where the prayers of the Church are in an unknown tongue, such as Latin, the worshipper may indeed pray with the spirit, and may be edified thereby, but his worship would be better did he pray with the understanding also. Music unaccompanied by words induces in some temperaments an impressible condition which has an appearance of devoutness and probably something of the reality; but such devoutness is apt to be either hazy or sentimental or both, unless by the help of accompanying words the understanding goes hand in hand with feeling.
No countenance can be found in this chapter to the idea that worship should exclude preaching and become the sole purpose of the assembling together of Christian people. Some temperaments incline towards worship, but resent being preached to or instructed. The reverential and serious feelings which are quickened into life by devotional forms of prayer may be scattered by the buffoonery or ineptitudes of the preacher. Exasperation, unbelief, contempt, in the mind of the hearer may be the only results achieved by some sermons. It may occasionally occur to us that the Christian world would be very much the better of some years of silence, and that results which have not been reached by floods of preaching might be attained if these floods were allowed to ebb and a period of quiet and repose succeed. Unquestionably there is a danger at present of leading men to suppose that religion is a thing which must be ceaselessly talked about, and which perhaps chiefly consists of talk, so that if one only hears enough, and has the right opinions, he may accept himself as a religious person. But it is one thing to say that there is at present too much preaching or too careless and unequal a distribution of preaching, and quite another thing to say there should be none.
Having given expression to his preference for prophesying, Paul goes on to indicate the manner in which the public services should be conducted. The picture he draws is one which finds no counterpart in the greater modern Churches. The chief distinction between the services of the Corinthian Church and those we are now familiar with is the much greater freedom with which in those days the membership of the Church took part in the service. "When ye come together, everyone of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation." Each member of the congregation had something to contribute for the edification of the Church. The experience, the thought, the gifts, of the individual were made available for the benefit of all. One with a natural aptitude for poetry threw his devotional feeling into a metrical form, and furnished the Church with her earliest hymns. Another with innate exactness of thought set some important aspect of Christian truth so clearly before the mind of the congregation that it at once took its place as an article of faith. Another, fresh from contact with the world and intercourse with unbelieving and dissolute men, who had felt his own feet sliding and renewed his grasp on Christ, entered the meeting with the glow of conflict on his face, and had eager words of exhortation to utter. And so passed the hours of meeting, without any fixed order, without any appointed ministry, without any uniformity of service. And certainly the freshness, fulness, and variety of such services were greatly to be desired if possibly they could be attained. We lose much of what would interest and much that would edify by enjoining silence upon the membership of the Church.
And yet, as Paul observes, there was much to be desired in those Corinthian services. Had there been some authorised official presiding over them, the abuses of which this letter speaks could not have arisen. To appeal to this chapter or to any part of this letter in proof that there should be no distinction between clergy and laity would be very bad policy. It is indeed obvious that at this time there were neither elders nor deacons, bishops nor rulers of any kind, in the Church of Corinth; but then it is quite as obvious that there was great need of them, and that the want of them had given rise to some scandalous abuses and to much dis, order. The ideal condition would be one in which authority should be lodged in certain elected office bearers, while the faculty and gift of each member in some way contributed to the good of the whole Church. In most Churches of our own day, efforts are made to utilise the Christian energies of their membership in those various charitable works which are so necessary and so abundant. But probably we should all be the better of a much freer ventilation of opinion within the Church and of listening to men who have not been educated in any particular school of theology and hold their minds closely to the realities of experience.
We cannot but ask in passing, What has become of all those inspired utterances with which the Corinthian Church from week to week resounded? Doubtless they entered into the life of that generation and fostered the Christian character which so often shone out on the heathen world with surprising purity. Doubtless, too, the unknown teachers of those primitive Churches did much both in the way of suggesting aspects of truth to Paul and of confirming, and expounding, and illustrating his somewhat condensed and difficult teaching. Had their utterances been recorded, many obscurities of Scripture might have been removed, much light must have been reflected on the whole circle of Christian truth, and we should have been able to define more clearly the actual condition of the Christian Church. Shorthand was in common use at that time in the Roman courts, and by its means we are in possession of relics of that age of much less value than the report of one or two of these Christian meetings might have been. No such report, however, is forthcoming.
While Paul abstains from appointing office bearers to preside at their meetings, he is careful to lay down two principles which should regulate their procedure. First, "let everything be done decently and in order." This advice was greatly needed in a Church in which the public services were sometimes turned into tumultuous exhibitions of rival gifts, each man trying to make himself heard above the din of voices, one speaking with tongues, another singing a hymn, a third loudly addressing the congregation, so that any stranger who might be attracted by the noise and step into the house could think this Christian meeting nothing else than Bedlam broke loose. Above all things, then, says Paul, conduct your meetings in a seemly fashion. Observe the rules of common decency and order. I do not prescribe any particular forms you must observe nor any special order you must follow in your services. I do not pronounce what portion of time should be devoted to prayer nor what to praise or exhortation: nor do I require that you should in all cases begin your service in the same stereotyped manner and carry it through in the same routine. Your services must vary both in form and in substance from week to week, according to the equipment of the individual members of your Church; sometimes there may be many who wish to exhort, sometimes there may be none. But in all this freedom and variety, spontaneity must not run into obtrusiveness, and variety must be saved from disorder.
The other general principle Paul lays down in the words, "Let all things be done unto edifying." Let each use his gift for the good of the congregation. Keep the great end of your meetings in view, and you need no formal rubrics. If extempore prayer is found inspiring, use it; if the old liturgy of the synagogue is preferred, retain its service; if both have advantages, employ both. Judge your methods by their bearing on the spiritual life of your members. Make no boast of your aesthetic worship, your irreproachable liturgy, your melting music, if these things do not result in a more loyal service of Christ. Do not pique yourselves on your puritanic simplicity of worship and the absence of all that is not spiritual if this bareness and simplicity do not bring you more directly into the presence of your Lord. It matters little what we eat or in what shape it is served if we are the better for our food and are maintained in health and vigour. It matters little whether the vehicle in which we travel be highly decorated or plain so long as it brings us safely to our destination. Are we the better for our services? Is it our chief aim in them to receive and promote an earnest religious spirit and a sincere service of Christ?
It might be difficult to say whether the somewhat selfish ambition of those Corinthians to secure the surprising gifts of the Spirit or our own torpid indifference and lack of expectation is less to be commended. Certainly everyone who attaches himself to Christ ought to indulge in great expectations. Through Christ lies the way out from the poverty and futility that oppress our spiritual history. From Him we may, however falsely modest we are, expect at least His own Spirit. And in this "least" there is promise of all. They who sincerely attach themselves to Christ cannot fail to end by being like Him. But lack of expectation is fatal to the Christian. If we expect nothing or very little from Christ, we might as well not be Christians. If He does not become to us a second conscience, ever present in us to warn against sin and offer opposing inducements, we might as well call ourselves by any other name. His power is exerted now not to excite to unwonted exhibitions of abnormal faculties, but to promote in us all that is most stable and substantial in character. And the fact is that they who hunger after righteousness are filled. They who expect that Christ will help them to become like Himself do become like Him. All grace is attainable. Nothing but unbelief shuts us out from it. Do not be content until you find in Christ more abundant life, until you have as clear evidence as these Corinthians had that a new spirit of power dwells within you. He Himself encourages you to expect this. It is to receive this He calls us to Him; and if we are not expecting this spirit of life, it is because we do not understand or do not believe Him. He has come to give us the best God has to give, and the best is likeness to Himself. He has come to save our life from being a folly and a failure, and He saves it by filling it with His own Spirit. All fulness resides in Him; in Him Divine resource is made available for human needs: but the distribution is moral, not mechanical; that is to say, it depends on your willingness to receive, on your expectation of good, on your true personal attachment to Christ in spirit and in will.