Agonizomai: 1Cor 14:21-25 - Echoes of Babel?

Monday, August 25, 2008

1Cor 14:21-25 - Echoes of Babel?

21-25 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.” 22 Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. 23 If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? 24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.

In verse 12, Paul referred to the Corinthians’ eagerness for manifestations of the Spirit. What he means is overt, supernatural sign gifts - particularly tongues, which is what seemed to mesmerize them and capture their attention. Now Paul deals with the nature of this sign of "tongues" by citing the scripture.

He quotes a prophecy from Isaiah 28:11-12 and applies it directly to the case in point at Corinth, and to the new testament church in general. Isaiah was speaking to the Jews and not to Gentiles - so how are we to understand this in a Gentile context like Corinth? Isn’t the whole point of the gift of tongues to communicate the wonders of the gospel to people of foreign lands - many of whom might be Jewish proselytes, but many of whom also would be pagans?

And here we must distinguish between tongues as a genuine means of communication and tongues as a supernatural sign purporting to induce, or to bolster faith. This is the very essence of Paul’s point - that faith comes by hearing the word of God (or by hearing Christ preached) and not by outward manifestations or signs, or miracles. This is why he puts such a premium upon preaching and teaching and insists that tongues must communicate actual gospel information to people who can actually understand the message.

The Greeks look for knowledge and philosophy and the Jews seek signs but Paul preaches Christ crucified - foolishness to the Greeks and the stone of stumbling to the Jews. God knew this long before it happened. He knew that the Jews would demand miraculous signs because they would not listen to the plain truth in the Person of Christ and in the gospel preached by Him and His followers. But God was saying that they ought to have believed based on the message alone, without the signs. They were His people to whom had been given the prophets and the sacred writings containing His very laws and thoughts and purposes.

And it is precisely in the context of not hanging hopes or putting emphasis on signs like tongues for the sheer manifestation of itself that Paul speaks. He points to Isaiah and God’s promise that the Jews would hear their very God - the one Whom they purported to love and obey - they would hear Him speak (by the Spirit) through men in non-Hebrew language and, even though they demanded signs from Jesus during His incarnation, they would not believe even when given signs. It happened in the Lord’s ministry and it happened in the early church at Pentecost. Yes some - as many as 3,000 - did believe - but this was a drop in the bucket and many of them were the foreigners in Jerusalem for the feast, and not the native populace.

The Jews unwittingly fulfilled the Isaiah prophecy, proving that signs themselves are not the means of changing an unbelieving heart. Preaching and teaching Christ in His gospel are. So, based on Isaiah 28 tongues as a sign are given not to create belief, but to convict or condemn the unbelieving Jews. They were hoisted by their own petard, having demanded signs they missed the very signs they were given, despite the forewarning that they would do precisely that.

In the same way that tongues as a sign (emphasis - as a sign) were condemnation to unbelieving Jews - so prophecy (and by this we mean the new testament phenomenon of the inspired preaching of the Word) as a sign is confirmation of the truth to believers. Why? Because the truth is spiritually discerned. The Spirit speaks the truth in the mouth of the preacher, and the Spirit witnesses to that truth in the heart and mind of the believing hearer. So when a believer hears the Spirit of Truth through the preacher’s words, he is built up in faith and receives assurance.

So signs themselves have a place, but that place is governed by what the Word says, and never vice versa.

So, once more we speak of tongues as a sign - that is for their outward manifestation of supernatural activity - and we speak in the context of the public meeting. It may be a worship or an evangelistic meeting (if any distinction needs to be made) - but here Paul seems to refer to the evangelistic aspects. The Corinthians are so enamoured of manifestations that, not only are they open to the false - but also vulnerable to misuse of the real. You can see this today in meetings such as those at the TACF and in similar charismatic groups where people show up looking to see manifestations or to be slain in the spirit, overcome by laughter or even to bark and bray like animals. They seek manifestations and experiences rather than truth delivered by the Spirit through the inspired preaching of Christ. A simple comparison of the time and detail devoted to the sermon and the time devoted to visible, audible and emotion-driven experiences in such meetings ought to immediately give a clue as to the scriptural validity of the approach.

And, as proof that everything old is new again or that there is nothing new under the sun we can at once see the parallel between such modern misapplications and those in Corinth nearly 2,000 years ago. Paul isn’t speaking about a hypothetical situation when he pictures a whole church supposedly "manifesting" when non-Christians who may have been invited wander in. The immediate picture is one of confusion where it ought to be one of orderly and rational conduct. Not unemotional conduct - but conduct where the emotions are governed by the rational mind exercising self-control for the benefit of all. The laughing revival of Toronto, along with its antecedents, spin-offs and copycats gives us some idea of how Paul saw the Corinthian church. A cacophony that would persuade rational visitors that madmen had been set loose. In place of a witness to the risen Christ they would see a roomful of uncontrolled people glorying in immediate experiences without any semblance of order or control; an inordinate and unhealthy emphasis upon outward supernatural signs rather than upon the truth of the word preached under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Now, in the context of the early church where meetings were often small and secretive - held in the homes of believers - Paul says that it would be preferable that all prophesy (meaning preach). Paul means that it is far better that believers preach the gospel, in agreement with the scriptures, because people wandering in (or people coming by invitation) would be edified in plain language and an opportunity would be provided thereby for the Spirit to move in the hearts of hearers - through the understanding of the mind. Instead of chaos - instruction and revelation; in place of self-absorbed infatuation with the external manifestations of the miraculous, the far greater miracle of the Holy Spirit dwelling in the Words of truth uttered by every believer in order and renewing inner men, unseen - but not without ultimate evidence. Instead of the childish desire to walk by sight and feeling, the mature and quiet walk of obedient faith that trusts God to do what He promised to do.

Order, truth, faith - self control and the focus upon Jesus and what has been provided in Him - these are God’s own means (through His church) of convicting sinful hearts. Witness by Word and in behaviour. The Spirit working in His people to call His people out from the world. He honours His way. He works in His way and the church must follow that way in order to bear fruit.

So how is a visitor to see the living God among us? Is it by supernatural manifestations? Is that what does the trick? Do these things convict? No! They put the focus on the wrong thing. They fascinate, they distract. What convicts - and it could hardly be any plainer that what Paul says here - what convicts and brings glory and people to God is the preaching of Christ under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit by those so gifted by him in the church. As a consequence, our churches ought to be filled to overflowing with preaching and teaching instead of such things being relegated to 15 or 20 minutes once a week - and God help the preacher who goes past that!

The word discerns the hearts of people. It convicts. It is the God appointed means by which men are saved. Nothing else. Not manifestations. Not miracles. The Word preached.


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