For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.
Romans 15:4



 A Bible Study - Commentary by Jim Melough

Copyright 2000 James Melough

14:1.  “Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy.”

Having emphasized the worthlessness of all spiritual activity apart from love, Paul now proceeds to give instruction relative to the use of spiritual gifts, but it is to be noted that he precedes that instruction by repeating the need to make the exercise of love of paramount importance.

Regarding the need to desire spiritual gifts, we have already considered that since each believer seems to receive his spiritual gift at the moment of conversion, the thought here has to do with the desire that God will bring into the assembly those to whom He has given a gift either not already present, or not being used.  It is sad to realize that many times the problem isn’t lack of gift, but rather the failure of believers to use the spiritual gifts already given.

Prophecy is the forthtelling of the mind of God, and includes, but isn’t limited to, the foretelling of future events, and clearly it was the best of all the gifts, for all other things are secondary to the need for man to know the mind of the Lord.  With the canon of Scripture complete, the gift ceased, the prophet having been succeeded by the teacher (2 Pe 2:1), whose work is to explain what was revealed to the prophets, and which now constitutes our Bible.  He does not receive additional revelations of the mind of God, but simply enlightenment relative to the written revelation.

The superiority of the gift of prophecy lay in the fact that blessing and obedience are inseparable, but apart from the knowledge of God, obedience is impossible.  Man, now having in the Bible the full revelation of God, is responsible to read so as not to be guilty of sins either of omission or commission, refusal to read being no excuse, but rather making him the more culpable.  Prophecy therefore, in giving the knowledge of God’s will, enables man to enjoy blessing, unless of course, he chooses to be disobedient.

14:2.  “For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries.”

Whether, as some contend, these were ecstatic unearthly languages, or simply foreign, is unimportant, since the gift has ceased.  The point is that whether heavenly or earthly, God understands all languages: men don’t.  God, in fact, doesn’t need language, for He discerns our thoughts.  The man using a language unintelligible to others might be speaking profoundly relative to Divine mysteries, but it would do the hearers no good, and the clear implication is that what was uttered in the hearing of others must either be in a language they knew, or that could be interpreted for them, otherwise it was a waste of time.

14:3.  “But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort.”

The prophet, on the other hand, in declaring the mind of the Lord, in a known language or through an interpreter, was setting before them what would build up, comfort and encourage.  If the hearer doesn’t understand the language, the speaker is wasting time.  Vine points out that “edification develops the character; encouragement stimulates the will; consolation strengthens the spirit,” and that, “as prophesying gave place to teaching, teaching should produce the same three effects.”

14:4.  “He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church.”

It is difficult to understand just how the speaker himself would be built up by using tongues, and since all spiritual gifts are for the purpose of building up the Church, the Apostle may have been simply emphasizing the worthlessness of using unknown tongues without their being interpreted.

Prophesying, that is the ministry of God’s Word, had a very different effect: it built up the hearers.  Teaching ought to accomplish the same result.

14:5.  “I would that ye all spake with tongues, but rather that ye prophesied: for greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret, that the church may receive edifying.”

Vine translates this, “Now I would not have you all speak with tongues....” and another renders it, “I would that ye all spake with tongues in order that ye might prophesy.”  Since Paul is going to considerable lengths to show the inferiority of tongues, it is hard to imagine that he would wish all the saints to have the gift, so these alternative translations appear to have merit.  If the KJ translation is retained, it obviously means simply that it was a figure of speech expressing his wish for the assembly to be richly endowed with all spiritual gifts.  Prophecy, however, continues to be presented as the superior gift; and the need of interpretation in connection with tongues continues to be emphasized.

14:6.  “Now, brethren, if I come unto you speaking with tongues, what shall I profit you, except I shall speak to you either by revelation, or by knowledge, or by prophesying, or by doctrine?”

Interpretation is clearly implied in connection with this hypothesis, and what Paul says refutes the idea that tongues produced the unintelligible gibberish presented as evidence of the existence of the gift today.  The use of tongues when it was a legitimate gift was to impart “some knowledge in spiritual things, some message from God, or some teaching about the Christian life” - Phillips.

14:7.  “And even things without life giving sound, whether pipe or harp, except they give a distinction in the sounds, how shall it be known what is piped or harped?”

Paul continues his appeal to have all things done “decently and in order”, verse 40.  The use of music is governed by laws, as is everything else in creation, and simply because the matter under discussion is in the sphere of the spirit, it was not to be concluded that it was therefore exempt from that law.  In the area of music, the musical instrument is the vehicle by which the melody in the mind of the composer is conveyed to the listener.  To achieve that end, the musician must play the notes in the exact order in which the composer has written them.  And it is the same in regard to spiritual things.  God has chosen to use human languages as the means of conveying the knowledge of Himself to men.  To abandon those languages, or to ignore the need of interpretation when the language is foreign to the hearer, is to fail to accomplish God’s purpose. and to have wasted everybody’s time.

14:8.  “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?”

The trumpeter calling soldiers together for battle must use only that sequence of notes which they recognize as being the rallying call.  Any other combination would be meaningless and confusing.

14:9.  “So likewise ye, except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air.”

In regard to spiritual things, the speaker must use language familiar to the hearers, otherwise he will be wasting their time and his own. 

Apart from its application to tongues, this instruction has a practical import that no speaker should neglect.  He who addresses an audience should not only know his subject, and present it in an orderly fashion, but he should also articulate clearly, and speak loudly enough to be heard without difficulty by those farthest away from him.

14:10.  “There are, it may be, so many kinds of voices in the world, and none of them is without signification.”

Voices here is literally “languages,” and what Paul is emphasizing is that in spite of their being so many, not one is without meaning to those who know that particular language.

14:11.  “Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me.”

Barbarian was the term used by the Greeks to describe those who didn’t speak their language, and Paul is here emphasizing the fact that unless the language is known to both speaker and hearer there can be no communication, unless of course there is an interpreter.  For the most part the “tongues” being used by the Corinthian believers were simply a waste of time, for no one understood what was being said.

14:12.  “Even so ye, forasmuch as ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church.”

As already noted, since each believer appears to receive his spiritual gift at conversion, the desire can only be that God would either bring into the assembly believers whose gifts would build up the saints, or exercise those already in fellowship to use for the same purpose the gifts they had been given.  The exhortation was never more needed than today.

14:13.  “Wherefore let him that speaketh in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret.”

Since it is difficult to believe that God would have a man speak first in a language unknown to the audience, and then have that same man interpret his own words, the thought appears to be that the speaker will pray that there might be an interpreter in the audience.

14:14.  “For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding is unfruitful.”

The clear implication is that such prayer would be worthless, and a further implication is that it would be involuntary, both of which render it suspect, for there is nothing to indicate that the Holy Spirit ever bypasses the will of the individual during this age of grace, and if it is not He Who impels the utterance, then it can only be an unholy spirit, indicating that the speaker wasn’t a believer.

14:15.  “What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.”

There is to be no activity apart from the understanding, for, as already noted, the fact that the Holy Spirit can be grieved and quenched, makes it clear that His control is not apart from the believer’s will. 

With regard to the day of Pentecost, the question presents itself, Were not those utterances involuntary?  There is noting to indicate that they were, but even if it be conceded that they were, it is to be remembered that until AD 70 the order governing the lives of Jewish believers was different from that governing their Gentile brethren.  The kingdom was still being offered to Israel.  The Jewish age hadn’t yet come to an end, and it is to be remembered that miraculous manifestation marked God’s dealings with Israel, part of that manifestation being that the Holy Spirit did sometimes bypass the will of the individual, consider for example, His compelling Saul and Balaam to speak involuntarily.  Such activity, however, did not mark His dealings with Gentiles.

14:16.  “Else when thou shalt bless with the spirit, how shall he that occupieth the room of the unlearned say Amen at thy giving of thanks, seeing he understandeth not what thou sayest?”

Bless here means to offer praise or worship, the unlearned being one who doesn’t understand the language of the speaker.  Amen means literally so be it.  To “bless with the spirit” is simply to offer praise or worship at the impulse of the Holy Spirit.  But under what circumstances would the Holy Spirit impel one to offer praise in a language unknown to the assembled company?  Obviously only if there were at least some who did understand the language of the speaker, an interpreter being needed to translate for the others, and where an interpreter wasn’t present, the man was to be silent, see verse 28.

14:17.  “For thou verily givest thanks well, but the other is not edified.”

Another translation renders this you may be giving thanks well enough.  What Paul is saying is that it was certainly good that the man should desire to give thanks, but not unless everyone in the assembled company could understand what he was saying.

14:18.  “I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all:”

Having regard to the fact that Paul’s ministry involved the preaching of the Gospel to men of many different languages, he had apparently been given the gift of tongues in a fuller measure than had any in the Corinthian assembly.

14:19.  “Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.”

“... in the church” has been taken by some to imply that Paul used ecstatic languages in his private devotions, but there isn’t a word in Scripture to suggest such a thing.  The “in the church” is set in contrast to his preaching the Gospel outside the church, that is, to the unconverted, with whom, apart from his use of the gift of tongues, he would have been unable to communicate, since they spoke languages unknown to him.  Tongues in the church were obviously of little value.  Teaching was the great need, and obviously tongues had a relatively small part to play in that work.

14:20.  “Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men.”

The need of spiritual maturity is emphasized in his exhortation that in understanding of spiritual things they were to be men, and not children, but when it came to evil they were to retain the innocence of children.  The churches today have much need to heed that exhortation.  In their wrong estimate of the value of tongues the Corinthians had demonstrated that in understanding they were as foolish children.

14:21.  “In the law it is written, With men of other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people; and yet for all that they will not hear me, saith the Lord.”

“This people” was Israel, and the law is simply the OT Scriptures, the quotation itself being from Isa 28:11.  This confirms what has been noted already: the charismatic gifts of tongues, healing, etc., were meant to convince unbelieving Jews, and with the dissolution of Jewish autonomy in AD 70 the sign gifts passed away, Israel’s national dissolution being the proof of what Paul declared - with very few exceptions, the Jews would not believe, in spite of the signs.

14:22.  “Wherefore tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not: but prophesying serveth not for them that believe not, but for them which believe.”

This, together with the fact that tongues, when first given on the day of Pentecost, had been used to preach the Gospel to the multitudes of Jews assembled in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost, and speaking the languages of the countries from which they had come, confirms that the proper use of tongues was to preach the Gospel, first to Jews, and then to the Gentiles, its proclamation in languages other than Hebrew being the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy quoted above, and being therefore a sign to unbelieving Israel.

Prophesying (the forth telling of the mind of God), on the other hand, is for believers, for it builds them up.

14:23.  “If therefore the whole church be come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad?”

This verse declares a truth that has been largely lost to professing Christians: the church is not a place but a body of believers.  It is they, not the building, who constitute the church.  The assembled believers are the church, the building is only the meeting place.

The “unlearned” are not the same as “unbelievers.”  They are untaught believers, but the latter are unbelievers incapable of understanding any teaching except the Gospel, because, unlike the believers, they are not indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and cannot therefore understand the things of the Spirit of God (2:14).

The inferiority of tongues continues to be stressed.  If all the assembled believers speak in tongues, the response of the untaught believer, like that of the unbeliever, will be that Christians are mad.  (Incidentally, the all here clearly doesn’t mean every person, but rather, many).

In regard to the untaught believer, the question may be asked, Where would such a believer come from? and the answer is that he would most likely simply be a new convert.  Relative to the unbeliever, spiritual discernment teaches that such a person may attend any meeting of the local church, but as an inquirer or observer, not as a participant, and the same discernment will recognize that the unbeliever may not sit in the circle of believers around the Lord’s table, but in a separate place as a silent observer, the same silence being required when he comes to the prayer meeting, while at the Bible study meeting his activity is to be confined to asking questions.  He may not undertake to teach there.  Where the believers convene a meeting to which they want to bring unbelievers to hear the Gospel, it is self-evident that the activity of such unbelievers will be largely confined to asking questions, though it may include also debate with the speaker, hence the need of those who preach the Gospel to be able to respond intelligently.

14:24.  “But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all:”

Again, the all refers not to everyone present, but to those who spoke or preached; and convinced is more accurately translated convicted, i.e., what is said will instruct the untaught believer, and convict the unbeliever of sin and the need of salvation.

14:25.  “And thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth.”

The believing hearer, thus taught sound doctrine, and the unbeliever led to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, would unite in testifying that the power of God was present with them.  It is a sad commentary on our own spiritual state that our meetings very rarely produce such results.

The “falling down on his face” reminds us of the reverence that marked the Apostolic church, and rebukes the lack of reverence displayed in the assemblies of God’s people today.

14:26.  “How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation.  Let all thing be done unto edifying.”

It doesn’t appear that Paul was rebuking them or being sarcastic, but rather simply declaring that all the activity which normally characterized their meetings, was to be under the Holy Spirit’s control, so that the end result of each man’s participation would be the upbuilding of the whole assembly.  There may however, be detected a very necessary warning against the all too common tendency to come to the meetings prepared to participate (and that is good), but then to spoil the good by insisting on participating when there is obviously no prompting of the Holy Spirit.  Just because the Holy Spirit may have been pleased to give a revelation of truth doesn’t mean that it is His will for that truth to be ministered at the next meeting of the church.  This varied activity, incidentally, reveals the error which governs most of Christendom today, i.e., the rejection of the Divine order of ministry through the use of the spiritual gifts given to the Church, and the substitution of a human order which has decreed the need of a theological education for those who would minister.  We must remember, however, that for the Holy Spirit to have such control of our meetings as will avoid confusion, it is imperative that He be ungrieved and unquenched.

The unscriptural order found throughout Christendom today is the human expedient designed to eliminate just such confusion, but it is nothing less than Satan’s subtle method of making obedience unnecessary, while outwardly preserving the appearance of godly order, but it is complete departure from the Divine order, and is an abomination to God.

14:27.  “If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret.”

Paul isn’t making a suggestion: he is giving a command from God.  In any meeting of the church, not more than three were to speak in tongues, nor were they to speak simultaneously but consecutively, and even then only if an interpreter was present.

14:28.  “But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God.”

It isn’t revealed how the man would have known whether an interpreter was present.  It may have been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit, or ascertained by his own inquiry.  In reply to the question, Under what circumstances would there have been such speaking? at least one answer presents itself.  The speaker could have been a foreigner, or there could have been in the company some who spoke a foreign language.  The man with the gift of interpretation would have made it possible for all to enjoy the ministry or understand the prayer.  This is a very far cry from the disorder which marks the charismatic activity which is mistaken for the manifestation of the now extinct gift of tongues.

14:29.  “Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge.”

In any one meeting of the church, prophetic ministry was also limited to that of no more than three men, their messages to be judged for authenticity by the audience (the KJ other should be others).  It is self-evident that such judgment could be made only by the spiritually mature, and since those who used foreign languages were not to speak concurrently, it is clear that the same rule applied also to the prophets.  The same rule relative to the number of speakers at any one meeting obviously applies also to conferences, and were it adhered to, would go far in preserving harmony in such gatherings. 

With the completion of the canon of Scripture, the prophet gave place to the teacher, but the validity of the teaching is now to be measured by what is written in the Scriptures, maturity still being needed in making that judgment. 

14:30.  “If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace.”

It isn’t revealed how the speaker would know that another had been given a message from God, but when he did become aware of it, he himself, by concluding his own message, was to provide opportunity for the second to deliver God’s communication.

14:31.  “For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted.”

This doesn’t mean that literally every brother could prophesy, but that there was to be opportunity for all who had been given that gift to exercise it for the instruction and comfort of the whole assembly, and it was to be done in an orderly manner, only one speaking at a time, and presumably not more than three at any one meeting.  Since it was “that all may learn” it is clear that the prophet’s ministry was very similar to that of the teacher who succeeded the prophet, the difference being that the prophets received the revelations which now constitute the Scriptures, but the teacher’s work is to explain what the prophets have written.

14:32.  “And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.”

This means simply that the Holy Spirit’s use of a man is never apart from that man’s will.  The speech or actions He impels are never involuntary.  The man’s will is never bypassed, and in this respect the Holy Spirit’s control stands in stark contrast to that of the demons who impel the involuntary speech and actions which the charismatics claim, very wrongly, to be the work of the Holy Spirit.

14:33. “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.”

Where the Divine order is followed there is harmony, but the natural mind can’t grasp that truth any more than it can understand the written Word, and the unscriptural order governing most of Christendom today is the result of man’s rejection of the Holy Spirit’s control.  There is undeniably much temptation to impose human control in order to prevent the disorders which result from refusal of the Spirit’s control, but that is not God’s way, and because it isn’t, it produces something worse than the disorder it was meant to cure - a ritualistic orthodoxy, which on the surface often seems flawless, but which is in reality devoid of spiritual life.  Such is the order that has governed most of Christendom for almost two thousand years.

14:34.  “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law.”

In spite of all the attempts that have been made to distort the meaning of this command, e.g., the teaching that it means simply to refrain from noisy chatter, or from interrupting by asking questions, the plain statement is that the woman is commanded not to speak at all in the meetings of the church.  The “obedience” incidentally, is obedience to God, He having appointed the man as His representative in the assemblies of His people, see 11:3.  The “law” here is the general term for the whole Word of God.

14:35.  “If they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”

This leaves no doubt that the command is all inclusive.  The woman is not even permitted to ask a question in the meetings of the church.  Relative to the question, What about the woman who doesn’t have a husband? the answer is that she may ask any man in the assembly, after the meeting is over.  It should be noted that there is no Scriptural warrant for what has become a subtle means of bypassing this command, i.e., the “question and answer” period that now follows many meetings, and in which women not only ask questions and express opinions, but in which some also undertake to offer explanations, that is, teach - something they are also forbidden to do, see 1 Tim 2:11-12.

14:36.  “What? came the word of God out from you?, or came it unto you only?”

Their conduct was such as to imply that they considered themselves to be the only ones to whom the Gospel had come (Gospel is what the word here signifies), and that they had special authority relative to the proper understanding of it.  This was very far from the truth.

14:37.  “If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord.”

Those who had (or who thought they had) the gift of prophecy, and those who considered themselves spiritual, were invited to acknowledge that what Paul was saying, he was saying as the Lord’s spokesman under the impulse of the Holy Spirit.  This would appear to have reference to verse 29.  Paul, in other words, would have his utterances judged by the very same standards as were to be applied to the utterances of the prophets.  The Holy Spirit would make it clear to those of spiritual understanding, that the Lord Himself was the Author, Paul being simply His amanuensis.

It is generally agreed, incidentally that commandments should be singular commandment.

14:38.  “But if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant.”

This has reference to the self-chosen ignorance of the man who refused to submit Paul’s words to the same test as was to govern the utterances of others who addressed the assembly.  For such ignorance there is no hope.  The man must remain ignorant, for such a man is unteachable, because rebellious against God’s order.

14:39.  “Wherefore, brethren, covet to prophesy, and forbid not to speak with tongues..”

Covet is literally earnestly desire, and stands in marked contrast with what is said relative to tongues: their use was not to be forbidden, but this falls very far short of the superiority of prophesying.  Even when tongues was an operative gift it was inferior to prophecy and was little to be desired.  There was, however, the danger that the impulsive Corinthians would respond to Paul’s teaching by swinging to the opposite extreme and forbidding any use of tongues.  It was to guard against this that Paul commanded them not to forbid the legitimate use of the gift of tongues.

14:40.  “Let all things be done decently and in order.”

God is the God of order, and will not tolerate disorder in the meetings of His people.  All that is done in those meetings must be according to the leading of the Holy Spirit through submission to the written Word.

[1 Corinthians 15]



     Scripture portions taken from the Holy Bible, King James Version
© 2000-2005 James Melough