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Bible treehuggercomThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

1 Corinthians 14:1-5

Prophecy and Tongues

14 Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.

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Last week’s entry concluded Paul’s treatise to the Corinthians on Holy Communion. It included a warning about sickness and death afflicting those who took the sacrament unworthily.

The next two chapters are in the Lectionary. 1 Corinthians 12 concerns spiritual gifts and the members of the church comprising one, holistic body. 1 Corinthians 13, concerning love, is often read at weddings.

In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul discusses the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Taking up where he left off, he begins by encouraging the Corinthians to pursue love and desire the gifts of the Holy Spirit especially that they might prophesy (verse 1).

Prophesying means preaching, as John MacArthur explains (emphases in bold mine):

It comes from the Greek word prophēteuō. Two words: pro, meaning before; phēmi meaning speak. It means to speak before. Prophecy is for somebody to speak before somebody else.

That’s what I do every Sunday, I prophesy. You say, “I thought it meant to predict the future.” No. No. You know the idea of predicting the future never came along until the Middle Ages when the English word took on that meaning. That’s never its intention in the Greek. It simply means to speak before somebody.

Matthew Henry’s commentary agrees:

While they were in close pursuit of charity, and made this Christian disposition their chief scope, they might be zealous of spiritual gifts, be ambitious of them in some measure, but especially of prophesying, that is, of interpreting scripture.

Paul uses two interesting verbs in that sentence: ‘pursue’ and ‘desire’. Today, ‘pursue’ suggests a police chase. As for the second, we think of the word in the context of ‘heart’s desire’, not entirely a religious thing to say.

Henry defines ‘pursue’ in Greek as follows:

Follow after charity, pursue it. The original, diokete , when spoken of a thing, signifies a singular concern to obtain it; and is commonly taken in a good and laudable sense. It is an exhortation to obtain charity, to get this excellent disposition of mind upon any terms, whatever pains or prayers it may cost: as if he had said, ‘In whatever you fail, see you do not miss of this; the principal of all graces is worth your getting at any rate’.

MacArthur addresses the context of ‘desire’ and refers back to 1 Corinthians 12 to make his point:

Now this word “desire” could be translated many ways, because it’s a kind of a form that could go a lot of ways. But when you study the context, it comes out as an imperative; and it comes out, I believe, as kind of a continuous imperative, so that it would translate this way – now watch: “Pursue love,” and then there is a de in the Greek, and de is like “but.” It is not equating equals; that would be kai. It’s adversative; there is a change here.

So he is saying, “Follow after love, but continue desiring spirituals.” In other words, “I’m not telling you to quit desiring gifts.” And then go back to 12:31, “You are pursuing the showy things. You should pursue love, but don’t stop pursuing gifts,” or the spiritual realm literally. In other words, “I don’t want you to quit, because you should want the ministry of the Holy Spirit through the gifts of the Spirit. I’m not saying don’t have anything to do with gifts. But rather pursue love and continue to seek the spiritual realm, the realm of the operation of the Holy Spirit, the true things that the Spirit of God is doing. But” – now look at the end of the verse – “most of all, most of all, mallon, most of all that you should prophesy.” You see, tongues are secondary. “When you come together, instead of the chaos, and the confusion, and the gibberish of tongues, should be the clarity of prophecy.”

Paul says that speaking in tongues does not say anything to men; the person is speaking to God only, uttering mysteries in the Spirit (verse 2).

Henry says that the Corinthians were pleased with their notional ability to speak in tongues:

It seems, this was the gift on which the Corinthians principally valued themselves. This was more ostentatious than the plain interpretation of scripture, more fit to gratify pride, but less fit to pursue the purposes of Christian charity; it would not equally edify nor do good to the souls of menwhatever mysteries might be communicated in his language, none of his own countrymen could understand them, because they did not understand the language

MacArthur has more on this peculiarity, which was part of their pagan heritage. Sadly, they were returning to it. This was not even close to the 70 disciples speaking in tongues on the first Pentecost:

… as we come to the Corinthian situation – incidentally, the only time that the gift is ever mentioned after the book of Acts is in Corinth, and there because it was so confused and chaotic. But as we come to the Corinthian situation, we find that they had counterfeited the real gift and substituted a pagan, ecstatic kind of speech. The true gift had been confused with ecstatic tongues, which was the counterfeit

Remember that, for the most part, the Corinthians had allowed the entire world system in which they existed to infiltrate their assembly. For example, they were all hung up with human philosophies, the first four chapters say. They had a hero worship cult just like their society did; chapter 3 talks about that. They were involved in terrible, gross, sexual immorality; chapters 5 and 6 talks about that. They were suing each other in the court; chapter 6 talks about that. They had fouled up the home and marriage, and misevaluated that whole thing; chapter 7 talks about that.

They were all confused about pagan feasts and idolatry and things offered to idols; chapters 8, 9 and 10 talks about that. They had goofed up the proper place of women in the church; chapter 11 talks about that. They had misconstrued the whole dimension of spiritual gifts; chapter 12 talks about that. And they had lost hold of the one great thing, love; chapter 13 talks about that.

They had let the entire mass of the satanic system that existed in their society infiltrate the church. And once it all came in, in with it came pagan-style of religion, with all of the ecstasies, and all of its eroticisms, and all of its sensualities; they bought the whole bag.

In short, they were developing a syncretic version of Christianity:

It was Christianity in part and paganism in part, all wedded together.

This can be seen in some pseudo-religious movements which are popular today: New Age and vaudou, to name but two. However, one can also add the charismatic movement and Pentecostalism to the list.

MacArthur mentioned ecstasy, which is a key feature for the person speaking in tongues that no one else can understand. These people seek the mind rush, for lack of a better term, that they experience:

Now if you study the Greco-Roman world the time of the Corinthian church, you would know that they had various priests and priestesses; and people who were devotees of the gods would go to these great temples, and they would worship these priests and priestesses. And it was very common for a devotee would go into an ecstasy. An ecstasy means to go out of yourself. That’s the literal meaning of the word, to go out of yourself. They would literally flip out, and they would go into an unconscious state, in which they would have all kinds of phenomena occur, a psychic kind of phenomena. They would believe that when they went out of themselves, they literally left the body, and they ascended into space, and they connected to deity, whatever deity they were worshiping, and they began to commune with the deity; and once they began to commune with that deity, they would begin to speak the language of the gods.

This was a very common thing in their culture. So that term used in Corinthians, glōssais lalein, to speak in tongues, was not invented by Bible writers, but was a term used commonly in the Greco-Roman culture to speak of pagan ecstasy, and going out of the body, connecting with the deity, and in a mystical way beginning to speak the language of the gods, which came out as some kind of gobbledygook and gibberish.

Now the Greeks even had a word for this ecstatic religious experience. You’ll be interested to know what the word was. It was the word eros. Remember that word? We sometimes translate it as sensual love. But the word is a bigger word than that; it has a broader meaning. The word eros simply means the desire for the sensual, or the desire for the erotic, or the desire for the ecstasy, or the desire for the ultimate experience or the feeling.

And the kind of religion they had was erotic religion. It was religion designed to be felt. It was sensual, ecstatic kind of religion. And you’ll remember, if you studied those religions, that when they went to those temples and to those priestesses they actually entered into orgies, didn’t they. And that whole idea of erotic and sexual and sensual and ecstatic and the gibberish that went on with divine utterances, all was rolled into one big ball under the mystery religions that had spawned in Babylon and had come into the Corinthian society. And I’m not going to take the time to read you all of the information on that, but there is tremendous historical information that tells us that this did occur.

Now I’m afraid that what has happened today in the Charismatic movement is just a reproduction of exactly what happened in Corinth. The church, because of a deadness, and because of years of ignorance of the true work of the Holy Spirit, and because of a lack of really fine Bible teaching in many places, and because of just the dearth of anything really significant going on, people in the church began to reach out, and to want to feel God, and to sense reality, and Satan’s counterfeit came flooding in the door. And what happened now in the Charismatic Movement is simply Corinth revisited. The church has married the system of pagan religion again, and we have developed a sensual, feeling, experiential, erotic kind of approach to religion, only we call it the work of the Holy Spirit, when in fact it is the counterfeit of Satan. If you were to find time to talk with various people who’ve been involved in it, you would find that some of their experiences are very much in that way – very sensual, very feeling-oriented.

This is what speaking in tongues involved — and it was only ever a means for the early Church to expand into every possible nation in the ancient world. That time was known as the Apostolic Age or the Apostolic Era.

MacArthur explains:

when God gave the gifts to the early church, He gave them some miraculous gifts which were designed to be signs that authenticated the validity of the message of the new age. You see, God had spoken in the past by the fathers through the prophets; but in these last days, He has spoken in His Son, and there was a new message; and to let, particularly, the Jewish world know that this was a new era, and there was new revelation, and God was speaking again. There were attendant signs and wonders, and one of those was the ability that the apostles and some who worked with them had, to speak a language they did not know, under divine inspiration. That was the gift of languages.

We learned also that it was always a language, that it was the ability to speak a foreign language. In Acts 2, “Everybody understood in their own language,” it says.

As the Corinthians were not truly speaking in tongues, rather in a pagan gibberish, Paul encourages them to seek the desire to prophesy, or to preach, because good preaching edifies those hearing the message, that of the Good News (verse 3).

Paul goes on to say that those who speak meaningless words in tongues help no man, but those who can prophesy — preach — duly build up the Church (verse 4).

Paul says that he wants the Corinthians to speak in tongues — properly, one might add, as had the disciples in Acts — but more importantly, they should preach, so that everyone can understand what is being said and thereby benefit from it (verse 5).

MacArthur explains the Corinthians’ situation and that of some of the present day church movements:

In Christianity, it was the true gift of languages, used only when someone who spoke the language was present in order that it might be a sign that God was there, and that God’s people were speaking God’s truth. Never was it intended to be confused with paganism. But as always, whenever God does something, Satan counterfeits it, doesn’t he? And that confuses the issue.

And so Satan’s smokescreen to cloud the true revelatory work of the Holy Spirit in the early church were phony revelations and phony visions and phony tongues. And that’s why in 1 John, John says, “When somebody comes along and starts telling you they speak for God, you’d better test the spirits.” It’s easy to fall prey to the phony. And the Corinthians, because they had decided to marry the spirit of the age, were victims.

Now remember, Satan is called the god of this age, Satan is called the spirit who energizes the children of disobedience. Satan is the one who wants to be like God, and Satan appears transformed as an angel of light. He wants to counterfeit reality, he wants the church to buy a phony; that’s his business. And so we see in heathenism all that fake; and here in Corinth, it had engulfed the church.

And I’m afraid it’s doing the same today. There are no ecstasies, no sensualities, no eroticisms, no going out of yourself ever associated in the New Testament with the true work of the Holy Spirit – never, never. In fact, in 14:32 it says, “The spirits of the prophets must be subject to the prophets.” Nobody ever gives up his spirit. Nobody ever loses control. Nobody ever goes out of himself in terms of that which God has designed. And that’s why, at the end of the fourteenth chapter, the final word of the apostle Paul is, “Let everything be done decently and” – what? – “in order.” This is not the Holy Spirit’s way. It is not the Holy Spirit’s way to have everybody jumping up, “and everybody has a psalm” – verse 26 – “and everybody a doctrine, and everybody a revelation, and everybody an interpretation, and everybody wanting to speak in ecstasy, and everybody wanting to have a vision,” and so forth. That’s the confusion of paganism that has engulfed the church.

This is the reason why members of established churches are often called the ‘frozen chosen’. Long may they remain so.

Next time — 1 Corinthians 14:6-12

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