Chapter Fourteen The Exercise Of Gifts

In chapter 12 we considered the diverse gifts of the Spirit, who gives them “to every man severally as he will.” In this matter the Holy Spirit is sovereign. No one has the right to demand that he be given any particular gift or gifts as an evidence of the Spirit’s baptism. What He gives will be for the edification of the church as a whole, not for the enjoyment or aggrandizement of some individual.

While we are not told of any specific time limit, we know both from Scripture and church history that most of the so-called miraculous gifts passed away shortly after the Bible was completed. They are not needed now as they were at the beginning. If the Spirit so wills, He might give them today under special circumstances, but we need not be surprised if we do not see them being exercised. These signs served their purpose, a very useful one: when they followed the initial proclamation of the truth, they authenticated the message as divine. Now with God’s complete revelation in our hands, we do not require signs to prove it is the Word of the Lord; when preached in power, the Word authenticates itself.

In chapter 13 we learned that apart from love, the gifts are useless. Love is the evidence of the indwelling of the divine nature. Romans 5:5 tells us that “the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.”

In chapter 14 we will read about the gifts being exercised in love for the edifying of the body of Christ.

A Gift to Covet (1 Corinthians 14:1-25)

“Follow after charity,” Paul wrote, “and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy.” As a member of the body of Christ I should desire to be a means of blessing to my brothers and sisters in the Lord, and to be used of God in proclaiming the gospel to a lost world. I can only do this right as I am filled with the Spirit and gifted by Him in some special way.

It is therefore quite in keeping with my Christian profession to seek to be at my best for God. Worldly ambition is obnoxious and unholy, but there is a laudable ambition, and that is to desire spiritual gifts. But I must be sure that I exercise my gifts in love. Every gift is given for the blessing of the whole assembly, and not in any sense for the glory of the individual possessing that gift.

In the church of God as a whole and in the local assembly of believers gathered together as a worshiping company, there is no place for mere carnal display. If I am gifted of God in preaching the gospel, I am not to take advantage of that to exhibit my abilities ostentatiously or to gather people about myself. If I have been gifted of God to sing the fine old gospel songs that people enjoy hearing so much, I am not to use that talent to attract attention to myself or my voice; I am to use my gift to give out a message that, winged by melody, will move human hearts that the spoken word might not reach. If I am gifted of God to teach the Holy Scriptures, I am not to take advantage of that gift by exercising people’s minds about strange and perplexing problems in order to make them think that I am more educated than most men; I am to make things as plain and simple as possible so that the saints may receive edification. This is the standard for using the gifts that God has given. All are to be exercised in love.

The apostle singled out prophecy as a gift that we should earnestly covet. If you read the seventeen prophetic books of the Old Testament, you will be surprised to find how small a portion of those writings is devoted to foretelling future events. There are indeed many most remarkable predictions that have been fulfilled to the utmost detail down through the centuries; and there are many more that are yet to be fulfilled. But a larger portion of the prophetic books is concerned with bringing home the truth of God to the hearts and consciences of His people.

There is a difference between the teacher and the prophet. The teacher expounds the Scriptures and illuminates the mind and understanding. The prophet brings the truth home to the heart and conscience in a way that causes people to examine themselves before God. As a teacher I might take this letter of Paul and through divine help be able to expound it so that my hearers would thoroughly understand just what it is that the Spirit of God is saying, yet their consciences might not be affected in the least degree. I might be able to edify my students intellectually, but their hearts might not really be lifted to God. However, if I had the gift of prophecy, I could take exactly the same passage of Scripture and, as the Spirit of God enabled me, so impress the hearts and consciences of my hearers that they would go away to a secret place, kneel down, search themselves, and ask God to help them live the truth that they have been learning. That is the highest form of ministry.

Paul went on to contrast the gift of prophecy with one of the “show gifts,” the gift of tongues. Suppose that I as a native of an English-speaking land had the ability to learn and speak one of the many dialects of the Chinese language; and suppose that, endeavoring to exercise the wonderful gift the Spirit of God had given me, I poured out my heart in public in Chinese. At once my English-speaking congregation would say, “We cannot understand a word that he is saying.” I might be quite happy and perfectly self-satisfied to think that I was able to use such a remarkable gift, but others would not understand me unless they were Chinese. So you see the gift of speaking in tongues is not for one’s home assembly of Christians; it is for the missionfield. Let the gift of speaking Chinese, for example, be exercised where that tongue is spoken. Do not get up in a church service and take the time of God’s people by speaking in a language that they cannot understand.

“He that speaketh in an unknown tongue…speaketh mysteries. But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort.” Notice the three aspects of the spiritual ministry of the prophet:

First, the man who is divinely gifted to give a message from God speaks to men for their edification. They get something from the message for their spiritual good. If I am able to open up the Word of God to you in a way that instructs and feeds your soul, then you are edified. It is a great thing to build up God’s people.

The second aspect of the prophet’s ministry is exhortation. How you and I need the message of exhortation! We are so apt to slumber in our spiritual lives. An exhortation is something to awaken, something to arouse the one who has gone to sleep or become apathetic. How the Word of God arouses the conscience! I know some folks do not like that kind of Bible teaching, but the faithful servant of God will cause men to seek after God and will show them their true state as God Himself sees it.

The third aspect of prophetic ministry is comfort and encouragement, and how much you and I need comfort! When addressing a group of theology students, the great London preacher Dr. Joseph Parker said, “Young gentlemen, always preach to broken hearts, and you will never lack for an audience.” How many broken and bereaved hearts there are! So many things come home cruelly to the heart—distressing financial circumstances, ill health, trouble in one’s own family. God’s people need the word of encouragement.

The apostle did not want to slight the gift of tongues, but he told the Corinthians that he wished “rather that [they] prophesied: for greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret, that the church may receive edifying.” If anyone had the gift of tongues, Paul wanted him to use it to the glory of God.

The person who speaks in an unknown tongue enjoys it, but no one else does. The same would be true if I were to try to sing a solo. I love to sing. Out in the woods or on the mountainside I just let myself go and delight myself in singing. However, if I were to do that in a choir, I might put someone else out of tune. And if I were to sing a solo, I might enjoy it thoroughly, but you would not, and there would be good reason. Likewise if one speaks in tongues he edifies himself, but others are not edified. Do not covet a gift that makes you as selfish as that.

Let me point out that the word “unknown,” which occurs before “tongues” many times in this chapter, is in italics because it does not represent anything in the original text. Strictly speaking, the apostle was not thinking of unknown tongues, but of definite languages. The miracle of Pentecost was that the eleven apostles were empowered to preach the gospel in languages they had never learned, so that all who listened heard the message “in [their] own tongue, wherein [they] were born” (Acts 2:8). I know of nothing like this happening today.

The Corinthians were anxious to have the showy gifts of the Spirit, the gifts that would attract widespread attention. They were particularly interested in speaking in tongues. Through this remarkable gift the gospel was spread in a wonderful way in the earliest period of the church of God. Speaking in tongues was nothing like the rhapsody that people give way to when they utter weird sounds; those strange sounds may in truth be called “unknown” tongues, for they are unknown to Heaven or earth. The tongues Paul referred to were definite languages. Thus we can see at once why the apostle rebuked the display of such a gift when there were no people present who could understand the language. The gifted man would get a great thrill from speaking in a language that was incomprehensible to others, but there would be no blessing to the church.

We have no record that Paul ever had to learn the languages in which he spoke to the people. He spoke to the Greeks in their own language, to the Romans in theirs, to the Hebrews in theirs, and to the various barbarians in the tongues to which they were accustomed. If he spoke to the Corinthians in the language of another land, he would not be edifying them unless he gave them an interpretation or the Spirit of God enabled someone else to interpret. Similarly no one can understand what song is being played if a piano does not give “a distinction in the sounds.” If a trumpeter goes ahead of the army, but plays notes that nobody can understand, the soldiers are unable to respond.

Paul said, “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.” I think the apostle was not only referring to the misuse of the gift of tongues; he was also rebuking the vanity of ministers who delight to use the pulpit as a place to display their education and culture, and the tendency of preachers to use language that is far above the heads of the people to whom they are ministering. Charles Spurgeon said, “I am afraid that many of my ministerial brethren must imagine that when Scripture tells them to ‘Feed My sheep,’ it means ‘Feed My giraffes,’ for they put the food so high that people would have to be giraffes to reach it.” Shepherds should always put the food down where the sheep can get it. It should be the ambition of the preacher of the Word to use language so simple and so plain that everyone can understand.

In one of the churches where I preached, a lady accompanied by a boy about ten years of age came up to me and said, “I want my little grandson to meet you. I hope you won’t be offended if I tell you what he said. I had been talking about you and he wanted to hear you speak, so I brought him tonight. After the service he said to me, ‘Why, Grandma, he is not a great preacher; I could understand every word he said.’”

I replied, “Well, my dear madam, I consider that a great compliment. I hope you will always pray that when I stand up to minister the Word, I will speak in such a way that the youngest child as well as the oldest saint may understand every word. If they do not understand, I am just speaking ‘into the air.’”

The apostle noted that there are many different voices in the world and all of them have some significance, but if the person listening does not understand the significance, the voices accomplish nothing. If Paul spoke in a tongue that others did not understand, he would be like a barbarian to them and they would seem like barbarians to him. He said to the Corinthians, “Forasmuch as ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church.” In other words, “Try to get from God that which will be the greatest blessing to the people to whom you minister.”

Even when we pray, we are to speak with our understanding as well as our spirits. I may have within me a great urge and a great sense of need, and I might express it in foreign sounds, but I would not be praying with my understanding; the apostle repudiated anything like that. People recited long prayers in Latin in the early days, but they did not understand Latin. Their spirits may have been prayerful, but their understanding was unfruitful. The Reformation brought back the use of people’s native tongues in addressing God and in the worship of God so that their understanding might keep up with their spirits. Certainly I should pray with the spirit; my inmost being must be aroused. But “I will pray with the understanding also.”

We should understand what we sing as well and therefore it is important to sing hymns that express Scriptural truth. Some people think that a song is suitable because they like the tune, but they forget that the words may not be in agreement with Scripture at all. On the other hand, some people think that any song is suitable if the words are from the Bible, but they forget that the Psalms for example were written before redemption was accomplished. There are many lovely things in the Psalms that can be used to express the worship and praise of our hearts, but we are to sing from the standpoint of people who have already been redeemed. I won’t sing, “Turn away Thy wrath,” because divine wrath has been turned from me. It fell on my Substitute and therefore I am saved from judgment. There should not be any question about our relationship with God. If we do not understand this, we will always be confused.

We are also to give thanks in an understandable way. In the early church when a man gave thanks, the rest were to say, “Amen,” but how could they do that if they did not understand what he was saying? He might give thanks well with his spirit, but the others would not be edified.

Paul said to the Corinthians, “I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all.” He was not boasting, just stating a fact. Then the apostle qualified his statement by saying in effect, “I would rather speak five words in a language you can understand, than ten thousand words in a foreign language.” When he went out to the barbarians, he was glad to talk to them in their native tongue, but when he came into the assembly in Corinth, he would not speak to them in the language of the barbarians.

I know some dear people who, I am sorry to say, would rather speak five words in an absolutely unknown tongue than ten thousand words in good, plain English. They wish they could feel the thrill of some power taking hold of them so that they could speak in some weird language that no one could understand! Their wish is really a selfish desire to have something that other people do not have. The folk that are running after these things are like children. Paul wanted the Corinthians to have the understanding of men, yet the sweet, kindly spirit of children. “Be not children in understanding,” he said. “In understanding be men.”

Going back to the book of Isaiah, the apostle showed how the prophet had to reprove Israel. Referring to 28:11 Paul said, “It is written, With men of other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people; and yet for all that will they not hear me, saith the Lord.” God was saying through Isaiah, “I will send Gentiles to speak to Israel,” and for more than nineteen hundred years, He has proclaimed the gospel to the Jews through converted Gentiles. Thus tongues became a sign to those unbelievers that it was the Spirit of God that was working in power in His messengers.

Then Paul stressed again the value of prophecy. He said in effect, “Suppose the whole congregation comes together in one place and everybody is able to speak with tongues; one after another, they stand up and speak in strange languages. Suppose also that unsaved people come in. They would go away saying, ‘What a lot of lunatics they are! I could not understand a word.’ But if, exercising the gift of prophecy, the servants of God clearly proclaim His truth in the power of the Spirit, the unsaved would be convicted, the careless would be awakened, and the anxious—realizing that God is speaking through human lips to their souls—would be led into assurance.”

Order in the Assembly (1 Corinthians 14:26-40)

We will now consider the practical aspects of the exercise of gifts in the public assemblies of the people of God. As you read these verses, which speak of order in the early churches, I think you will instinctively feel that we know very little today of their way of worship. This surely ought to lead us to examine our own ways, to see how far we have departed from the simplicity of primitive Christianity.

I do not mean to imply that there is not a certain amount of liberty given in Scripture to adapt ourselves and the order of our meetings to the times in which we live and to the recognized customs prevailing among different races and nations. It is clear that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of liberty, and He does not seek to press everyone into one mold. He is the Spirit of a sound mind and He expects us to use God-given common sense in carrying out the work of the Lord and in ordering our assemblies.

But Paul laid down certain principles that should govern us when we are gathered together for worship and the ministry of the Word. It is God who gathers His people around His blessed Son, our risen Lord, who said, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). While these words had reference originally, as the context shows, to a prayer meeting, they really apply to all assemblies of the saints of God, whether they come together for worship, for ministry, or for intercession. On such occasions all should be subject to the Holy Spirit’s direction.

With the practical application of his principles in mind, Paul asked the Corinthians: “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 things be done unto edifying.” Because of the liberty they had in Christ, those early Christians were in the habit of participating in the meetings as their own feelings prompted them and the result was confusion. The apostle showed that all things should be done in an orderly and godly manner and with the edification of the whole company in view, not the personal enjoyment of some gifted individuals.

Several people must not speak in tongues at the same time and if there is no interpreter, they should not speak at all. Someone might say, “It is the Lord who has given me the gift of tongues, so I must speak out in meeting.” But this does not necessarily follow, for “the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.” Paul made it plain that even if one has such a gift, if he cannot interpret, he must remain silent in the church. The fact that a tongue might be interpreted shows that a tongue is a definite language.

People may prophesy, but not more than three in one service. “Ye may all prophesy one by one,” Paul said. If one person is speaking and another has something to say, the first should wait until the other is through, “for God is not the author of confusion, but of peace.”

“Let the prophets speak,” the apostle said, “and let the other judge.” Paul was speaking here of judging in the sense of discerning. Those who listen to the prophesying are to weigh all that they hear carefully before God. None of us has a right to say, “This is the truth of God and I demand a hearing.” Our Lord Himself urged the people to search the Scriptures. The preacher is to speak; the people are to listen and then compare what they hear with the Word.

So there are several situations in which a person should keep silent. If someone wants to speak in tongues, but there is no interpreter, he is to “keep silence [sigao„].” If a prophet is speaking and another has something to share, Paul said, “Let the first hold his peace [sigao„].” And then the apostle said something over which there has been a great deal of controversy in the church of God, though there should not be: “Let your women keep silence [sigao„] in the churches.” Surely Paul meant exactly the same thing here as in the other two instances.

By “churches” Paul did not mean buildings. He was not telling us that no woman could give a testimony or offer prayer in a religious building. The word translated “churches” means “assemblies.” He was saying, “When you are gathered together in your regular church service, let the women keep silent in the assembly.” Some have objected that Paul was an old bachelor and did not like women, but we need to remember that he was the inspired servant of God and wrote as directed by the Holy Spirit.

In 11:5 Paul referred to women praying in some other sphere, but in 14:34-35 Paul was referring to the official meeting of the church when all are gathered together as a worshiping company. The women are not to seek to teach at such a time, or if the women hear something they do not understand, they are not to interrupt the meeting by inquiring aloud. Paul said, “Let them ask their husbands at home.” One lady said to me, “Well, that is not meant for me; I have no husband.” But the word translated “husbands” here is elsewhere rendered “men.”

Neither men nor women were to interrupt in a public assembly. Instead they should discuss things at home if there is something they do not understand. In these days it is often the men who do not understand and they ask the women at home! It should be noted that in those early days only a comparatively few women could read or write. We have to take into consideration the time when the Epistle was written; slavery and debasement of women were common. But I think the principle is clear enough.

The Word of God has come to us, and we are not to decide what we are going to accept or reject. God Himself speaks with authority and we are to do as He commands. Paul’s instructions that we have just been reading in this passage are the commandments of the Lord. Lest there be any misunderstanding, the apostle wrote, “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.” Anyone who objected, Paul put down among those who are ill-taught. Such an ignorant man should confess that he does not understand rather than pretend to be wiser than those who obey the injunction of the Lord.

I realize that there has been a great deal of controversy over this passage, but it is one that the Spirit of God has given for the edification of the whole church, and we always find our greatest blessing when we are subject to His direction. Sometimes we think that we can improve on what God has commanded, but we may be sure that His ways are always best. This is not only true in the assembly of God, but in all details of every individual life.

Women have a wide sphere for service and testimony outside of the worship meeting of the assembly. The home is pre-eminently the woman’s sphere, but in social gatherings too she has abundant opportunity to witness for Christ. And no one is better equipped to work among children and to help her own sex than a godly well-instructed woman. In visitation work, in the sickroom, and elsewhere, her services are invaluable. If God has restricted her by forbidding her to usurp the place of pastor or teacher in the public assembly, He is not slighting her gifts or ignoring the value of her service. He knows best what each one of us should do in order to glorify Him.

A Priscilla may teach an Apollos, a Mary Magdalene may be the risen Lord’s messenger to His fainthearted disciples, a regenerated woman of Samaria may evangelize the men of her city, a Dorcas may serve by ministering to the comfort of the poor, and a Phoebe may be a deaconess of the assembly. But no matter how gifted and godly a woman is, she is not to take the place of the man in the assembly of God. She is to set an example of lowly subjection to the revealed will of God, for she has the assurance that He values devoted obedience above any possible form of activity, however much it may be approved by those who have never learned to let God’s Word be the supreme authority.

The true test of love for Christ is obedience to His Word. Our happiness should be found in acting in accordance with His revealed Word. This honors God and glorifies the Head of the Church, our blessed Lord.

After giving us the divine order for the assembly of God (chapters 10-14), the Spirit concluded, “Covet to prophesy, and forbid not to speak with tongues. Let all things be done decently [respectably] and in order [by arrangement].” In other words, things should be done in the way the Word of God authorizes; we are not to substitute an order which Scripture condemns.