The Discipline of Building Up (I Corinthians 14:1-20)
Passage: 1 Corinthians 4:1–4:20
Sunday Morning Disciplines
I. Drive-Up Worship
If you ever find yourself in Daytona Beach, Florida on a Sunday Morning, and you're looking for a church to attend, you just might stumble across the Daytona Beach Drive-In Christian Church. Since 1953, this church has conducted services from a rooftop in front of a sea of cars, all of whom have their radios tuned into a broadcast of the service and the sermon. Communion elements are passed out to each car as you enter the former drive-in movie lot, and the offering is collected after the service by a man driving from car to car in a golf cart.
But let me ask you this, aside from tourists who are interested in the novelty of this concept or maybe the people who find themselves limited by unique health circumstances, what might be appealing about this kind of church?
And it's not the only church like this. There are a good handful of them across the country. There even used to be a drive-up church right here in the Valley of the Sun, over in Scottsdale. But again what might be appealing to people about a drive-up church service. Comfort? Convenience? Anonymity?
This morning we are concluding our study of what we've been calling "Sunday Morning Disciplines". Sunday morning disciplines are the biblical habits that we should be practicing every time we gather together on Sundays. We began our study by talking about the "discipline of the word" and the "discipline of receiving" God's Word. Not only should the Bible be central each Sunday, but each of us should also prepare our heart to receive God's word every time we gather.
And as we talked about last week, one of the ways we respond to God when we do receive His word is through the "discipline of praise". Praise is not simply something that happens when we are overcome with certain feelings (that can happen). No, praise is also something we are called to offer up to God continually. And so when we come together with God's people on Sundays, we need to pray for and cultivate a truly God-centered focus according to a biblical pattern of praise. I pray what we talked about last week has been a blessing to you, especially as we've been singing God's praises together this morning.
So let's finish up our series by looking at one more Sunday morning discipline. Turn with me to I Corinthians 14.
II. The Passage: "Strive to Excel in Building Up the Church" (14:1-20)
Now, what I'd like to do to begin is simply read through the first twenty verses of this chapter.
Now, as I read I'm going to be making an interpretive or translational change. In almost every instance of the word "tongue" or "tongues" in this passage, I am going to render that Greek word with the phrase "another language" or "other languages". Afterwards, I will explain why I'm making that change.
So follow along with me as I read through I Corinthians 14:1-20...
Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. 2 For one who speaks in [another language] 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 [another language] builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. 5 Now I want you all to speak in [other languages], but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in [other languages], unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up. 6 Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in [other languages], 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. 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 [another language] should pray for the power to interpret. 14 For if I pray in [another language], 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 [other languages] 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 [another language]. 20 Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.
Now, so that we can better understand what we've just read, let's look together at three questions we need to ask in light of what Paul has written here?
1. What has Paul been talking about?
The first question is a question about the context. The first question we need to ask is "What HAS Paul been talking about up to this point in the letter and specifically in this part of the letter?"
Well, the first clue about Paul's reason for writing comes right from the beginning of the book, in 1:10, 11, where Paul expresses his desire "that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment....[since]...it has been reported to me that there is quarreling among you, my brothers."
These divisions, these factions within the church were even evident in the way the Corinthians thought about and practiced what Paul calls in 12:1, "spiritual gifts". These were gifts or abilities given to each believer and empowered by the Holy Spirit. And because different people had different gifts, some in the church wanted to argue that those people who had the 'superior' gifts were more important than everyone else. These people wanted to label those without such gifts as "unnecessary" or "inferior".
But as Paul writes in chapter 12: On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable...God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. (12:22, 24a-25)
This is why Paul takes up the subject of love in chapter 13. While some people associate I Corinthians 13 with weddings, in the context here, Paul's teaching on love there is in the context of a discussion about the need for genuine love in a local church. This is why 14:1 starts the way it does: Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts...
If genuine, Christlike, self-giving love is in the driver's seat, then our passion for and perspective on spiritual gifts will stay on the right track.
2. What is Paul talking about here?
But that brings us to the second question we need to ask about this passage. Having learned a little bit about what Paul has been talking about this far, we need to ask, "What is Paul really talking about here in chapter 14?"
I think even the most cursory, simple reading of these verses reveals that the whole section is a contrast between two spiritual gifts: the gift of prophecy and the gift of tongues. Both of these gifts were introduced by Paul in chapter 12, where the apostle listed them along with seven other spiritual gifts that were given to the early church.
Let's take a second and talk about these two gifts. Let's start with prophecy.
Prophecy is a gift that has its roots in the Old Testament, where a good number of prophets were active among the people of Israel throughout their history. And while we like to think about prophets revealing what is to come, most of the prophet's words were dealing with what is now, that is, with the spiritual condition of God's people (more forthtelling than foretelling).
Of course, the book of Acts reveals that there continued to be prophets at work in the early church, but these prophets are very different from the OT prophets in the sense that they do not seem to be critical for the leadership and direction of God's people. They have a place, but they only appear two or three times, and the content of their messages are not extensive.
The Greek word for prophecy that Paul uses here simply means "to speak forth". But the way this word is used in the NT indicates that prophecy includes a revealing of something; some kind of revelation given from God. So prophecy in the early church was one of the ways God communicated to His people for, chapter 14:3, for upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.
But...but, the existence of prophecy in the early church did not mean that every instance of prophecy was truly the "word of the Lord". This is why John tells his read:
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. (I John 4:1)
Similarly, Paul warns the Thessalonians believers with these words: Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good. (I Thessalonians 5:20, 21)
And here in this same chapter, in verse 29, Paul instructs the Corinthians to see that their worship gatherings were done in an orderly manner. He says: Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. (14:29) There's that testing going on.
Eight verses later Paul reminds them of a standard for testing these prophecies: If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. (14:37) So any prophecies that were given must compliment, not contradict, the message and teaching of the apostles.
This is why I believe the gift of prophecy is no longer active in the church: it is no longer needed. We have what these Corinthians did not have. We have the whole Bible. The New Testament is the complete and sufficient teaching of the Apostles.
But what about the other gift Paul talks about here, the gift of tongues?
Well, the word translated here "tongue" can mean either the part of the body we find our mouths, or the language that comes out of our mouths (like today when we say, "English is his mother tongue").
Here in I Corinthians 14, the word clearly means language. But as you can tell from the context here, it is a language that is not understood. That's why I wanted to translate it and read it as "another language" or "other languages". And even though some want to argue that this is some kind of unknown, spiritual or heavenly language, when we look in God's word at this phenomenon of the Spirit-given ability to speak another language, there is nothing to indicate that this is not a known human language.
In fact, the book of Acts, in chapter 2, describes how the Apostles and their companions were able "to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance". (Acts 2:4), and when they did so, people from all over the known world declared, "we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God." (Acts 2)
So using the Bible to interpret the Bible, this gift of tongues was a method of praising God through a demonstration of the Spirit's power in giving someone without the knowledge the ability to speak in another language. This is why Paul, in 14:2, says that when one practices this gift, he speaks not to men but to God.
3. What is Paul concerned about here?
But that brings us to the third question we should ask about this passage. If Paul is talking here about prophecy and tongues, what he most concerned about in regard to these two gifts?
Well, as we can clearly see in verse 1-20, the main problem is that what was happening in Acts 2 is not happening in Corinth. Jews from all over the known world were not present and hearing this gift of tongues, hearing their own language declaring God's praises. Therefore, when the gift of tongues was utilized in Corinth, no one understood what the speaker was saying.
There was a "gift of interpretation of tongues" (that is, the Spirit enabled some to explain what a tongues speaker was saying, even though that person had also not learned that foreign language). But in Corinth, it seems that this gift of tongues was so exalted, it was so prized, it was consider so valuable, that those who had it, and those who tried to have it, were speaking out, even when no one was there to interpret.
These tongue speakers might have been building themselves up by just being able to utilize their gifts, but, verse 7, they were really like broken instruments that can only play one note or that only produce garbled sounds.
In fact, in verses 13-15, Paul even challenges the real profitableness of this gift when it is used by itself, without any interpretation. Paul says, when you speak in tongues, it's like your spirit is active, but your mind is not. And clearly here, Paul recommends that our minds be active, along with our spirits. That's why he even encourages them to pray for the power to interpret the tongue themselves. That's what would be ideal.
So clearly, in this chapter, Paul wants to challenge their over-valuing of the gift of tongues, and remind them of the genuine value of prophecy. Verse 5: The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues.
III. Worshipping Together...at a Construction Site
And it's precisely at this point that our final "Sunday morning discipline" begins to come into focus.
What we need to make explicitly clear this morning is what Paul goes to great lengths to make clear in this passage. Paul does not minimize tongues here simply because it is being abused or it is incomplete. No, his main concern is that, in many cases, tongues was not being used to build up the church. Did you notice how many times Paul talks about "building up" the church here:
Verse 3 ...the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. Verse 4 ...the one who prophesies builds up the church. Verse 5 ...so that the church may be built up. Verse 12...strive to excel in building up the church. Verse 17...but the other person is not being built up. If we were to pull in verse 26, Paul sums up what he's been saying in this chapter by reminding them, Let all things be done for building up...Similarly, Paul asks in verse 6...how will I benefit you, and in verse 19 his goal when gathered with God's people is to instruct others.
Again, think about the contrast here. Paul is trying to redirect the Corinthians; he is trying to turn them from emphasizing those "Sunday morning practices" that are so coveted, that are so exalted and valued because they make the individual feel good; because they build me up.
Instead, over and over again, Paul reminds us here that when we gather with God's people, we need to, verse 12, "strive to excel in building up the church".
Did you hear that? Did you? For our modern ears, this is a hard word. In a day and age where we are encouraged to think of ourselves, in every area of life, as consumers, this is a hard word. In a church culture that emphasizes programs and benefits to meet my needs, and my family's needs, that emphasizes personal preference and spiritual, worship experiences, that often trains us only to ask, "What did I get out of that? How did that bless me?", this is a hard word. In a world where a drive-up church sounds kind of appealing, where I can sit in metal box with four wheels, separate from others, without being asked to do anything, where I can just come and leave with zero interaction, this is hard word.
Paul is beating us over the head here in order to remind us that when we gather together with God's people, our focus should be exactly where it should be every other day of the week. Our focus needs to be the focus of Jesus Christ: God first, others second, me third.
When you come on Sunday mornings, don't come imagining yourself walking into a spiritual buffet where your main concern is on how you might be fed; don't imagine yourself walking into a grand cathedral where you might find some kind of solemn spiritual experience; don't imagine yourself coming to a rock concert or a hymn-sing, where you'll be able sing and listen to the music that YOU prefer.
No, when you come each Sunday, imagine yourself walking onto a construction site. Imagine there is activity going on all around you. Imagine yourself wearing a hard hat and a tool belt. If you can come with that image in your mind, then how likely are you to come simply for your own benefit? It's like a construction worker who shows up and just stands around gawking while others work, or who sits in the corner listening as the foreman, with blueprints in hand, gives guidance to the other workers.
Listen, when you come to a construction site, with tools in hand, you should come ready to build. The word Paul uses here when he calls them repeatedly to "build up" others is a construction term. Jesus used this word in Matthew 7 when he talked about the wise man who built his house on the rock, and John uses it John 2 when the Jews talked about it taking forty-six years to build or renovate the Temple in Jerusalem.
Here the word is clearly used in a figurative sense, that's why some translations might use the word edify or edification here in I Corinthians 14. But the word is literally "build up".
And what exactly are we building, figuratively? I Peter 2:5, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house [a temple], to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. In fact, as Paul writes earlier in this letter to the Corinthians, in 6:19, that every follower of Christ is, in fact, a temple of the Holy Spirit.
Brothers and sisters, does it amaze you that God has given you, through the power of His Spirit, the incomparable privilege of having a hand in the construction of His temple?
But you might say to me, "But pastor, I don't feel like I have a tool belt...I don't feel like I know how to build others up. And isn't this passage teaching us that we need to be able to prophesy in order to build others up in their faith?"
No, notice verse 6 again. Paul asks, 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?
Look there at how Paul gives them four tools for building up: revelation, knowledge, prophecy and teaching. Now, I don't know, I don't think anyone fully knows how all of these worked and how all of these 'tools' differed from one another. But I do know that all of these were united by one common feature: they were all conduits for the word of God.
Yes, we need to grow in our knowledge of God's word in order to please Him in every area of our life and experience the blessing of His wisdom. But we also need to grow in the word in order to speak that word into another's life for their, verse 3, upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. We need to be able to pray for others in light of the word. We need to sing songs shaped by God's word. We need to serve on Sunday mornings with a heart that is driven by God's word and heart eager to help others be fed.
If you rush in and rush out of here on Sunday mornings, how will you fulfill what God has called you to do here in I Corinthians 14? We strive to excel in our vocations and in our finances and in our social standing and in our parenting and in our personal faith, but are you striving to excel in building others up? To excel!
When you step out of your car each Sunday, as you walk up to this building; better yet, when you roll out of bed on Sunday morning, pray and ask God to help you discipline yourself for building others up. Ask God, "Father, who can I encourage this morning? Who can I bless this morning? How can I build others up today? Who can I pray with? Who can talk about the sermon with? How can lend a helping hand and illustrate what the word teaches. Who can I connect with this morning in order to bless at some other point this week, maybe in a Growth Group, maybe one-on-one, over a cup of coffee?"
And do you know what happens when you have a church full of people who are striving to excel in building others up? You are built up in your faith. You are fed. You are blessed. We don't need to worry about that as our main focus. God will take care of that. In fact, as we give, as we serve others, we will find ourselves blessed as we give. So, yes, come to a church service, but always switch those words around, and come with a heart of service to the church.
Only Jesus Christ, through His self-giving, God-glorifying, others-focused act of love, through His death on the cross and His resurrection from the dead, only Jesus can give us this kind of heart. Only faith in Christ can take people like us, bent on building ourselves up, and free us so that we can build others up. He died to build us up. And now we can live to do the same for others.
Only Jesus can help us grow in these Sunday morning disciplines: coming each Sunday, disciplined to receive His word, to praise His name, and to build up His people. Let's ask God to empower us to do these very things today, and on every other Sunday God sees fit to give us.