1 Corinthians 14:20-33a

Sun, 12/03/2006 - 10:45 -- James Oakley

What should we do when we meet together as Christians? What should our meetings look like?

If you were here last time, you will remember that Paul was saying that we should aim for prophecy in our meetings, not tongues. Why? According to verses 1-5, in church, we should do what builds up others. According to verses 6-12, in church we should be intelligible. And according to verses 13-19, in church, we should engage brain.

In church, do what will help the unbeliever

Which brings us to verse 20, where we find one more reason why prophecy is greater than tongues when we are in church. And that is this: In church, do what will help the unbeliever. In church, do what will help the unbeliever.

Now that may seem like an odd heading. It may seem an odd thing to say for two reasons. First off, we tend to think that church is when Christians come together. Why are we now saying that what we do when we gather together is what is helpful for unbelievers?

And second, as you read through these verses and think about them, it is far from obvious that a concern for unbelievers requires prophecy not tongues. You might think the reverse to be true, that a concern for unbelievers requires tongues. Or you might just be plain confused by these verses, as I was when I first read them.

Well let’s look at these verses to see what is going on, and then we can revisit those two questions to see if the heading makes a little more sense.

The first thing we must understand as we approach this paragraph concerns the meaning of the word “sign”. It comes in verse 22: “Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is [a sign] for believers, not for unbelievers.” And the thing to understand about signs is this: A sign can be positive or negative. A sign can be positive or negative.

Signs point to things, don’t they? Road signs point to which road you should take to reach a certain destination. That’s positive: If you want to go to Nottingham, go this way and you are on the right road. Equally, road signs can warn us of hazards: Be careful, there is ice on the road. That’s negative. The sign signifies the possibility of ice on the road; it warns of a danger. Signs point to things. They can point to good things. They can point to bad things. They can be positive or negative.

Or take another example: As the saying goes, “Red sky at night, shepherds delight; red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning.” That little saying tells us that the colour of the sky can be used for a little amateur weather forecasting. The sky at one moment is a sign, it signifies, what the weather might be in a little while. But the sign can be good – it can signify good weather to come. Or the sign can be bad – it can signify bad weather to come. Signs can be positive or negative.

OK, with that in place, let’s see what Paul says about the purpose of prophecy and tongues in these verses.

Let’s start with tongues. Tongues, says Paul in verse 22, are a sign for unbelievers. Does he mean a positive or a negative sign? Do tongues announce good news or bad news to the unbeliever? Well, let’s look at what he means.

He is drawing his conclusion from a quotation from Isaiah chapter 28. Isaiah 28 describes the people of Israel, in their hardness of heart, rejecting God’s word. They don’t care for what God has to say. The prophets of the time may as well have been speaking babble for all the attention Israel is paying to it. So what will God do? He will send them to exile in Babylon. There they will be surrounded by foreigners who do not speak their language. All they will hear every day is babble, literally. They’ll have got what they want. God is still speaking to them through these foreigners. What he’s saying is that he has nothing left to say. He’s abandoning them to judgement.

Or let me read a verse from Deuteronomy, chapter 28 and verse 49. This part of Deuteronomy warns of what God will do to Israel if they don’t obey him. “The LORD will bring a nation against you from far away, from the ends of the earth, like an eagle swooping down, a nation whose language you will not understand.”

So, says, Paul, tongues are a sign for unbelievers. A negative sign. A sign that God has nothing to say to them. A sign that they are under judgement and nobody will speak clearly to them to tell them what to do to be rescued.

Which is why Paul tells us to picture a church meeting where all speak in tongues and an unbeliever comes in. Clearly he doesn’t mean that every individual will be speaking in tongues; he’s already told us that not every Christian speaks in tongues. No, if the overwhelming impression is that everyone is speaking gobbledygook, the unbeliever will conclude everyone is mad, and will gain nothing from the experience. Precisely. And I could point you to a number of friends who are still not Christians – in part because they’ve had this experience.

I don’t know if you’ve ever fallen out with a close friend. It hurts, doesn’t it? It hurts all the more if they stop speaking to us. If they have nothing to say. Because when that happens there is nothing we can do to apologise, nothing to do to make things up. We’ve reached an impasse.

Well that is what it feels like to be an unbeliever encountering tongues. An impasse with God. No way forwards.

That’s tongues. A sign for unbelievers. How about prophecy? Well according to verse 22 that is for believers. This time, it is a sign of God’s blessing.

In the Old Testament, when God withdrew his word from his people, he was judging them. You get that, for example, in 1 Samuel 3 and Amos 8. By contrast, when God has things to say to us, it is a sign of his blessing. So prophecy signifies that God has things to say to us; it is a positive sign.

Which is why the unbeliever going into a church where prophecy is going on will have a very different experience. They will enter a group of people where the gospel is heard week by week. Why do I say the gospel? Because the gospel is the subject of the whole Bible. As the Bible is being incisively applied, the gospel is heard. And when they hear the gospel clearly and intelligibly explained, God will convict them of their sin. They will bow the knee to the Lord Jesus Christ for the first time ever and confess that he is Lord. And, as we learnt in chapter 12, that is what it’s all about.

So let’s revisit those two questions we started with.

We’ll take them in reverse order. Why do these verses say that concern for the unbeliever should lead us to prophesy rather than to speak in tongues? Because tongues is a sign for them. It is true. But it’s a negative sign. Prophecy is a positive sign – yes, for believers, but one from which the unbeliever will benefit at the deepest level.

And isn’t church a meeting of Christians? Well, yes and no. Yes, Paul says that prophecy is for believers. But no: Paul says that there will always be amongst us those who do not yet believe. And the force of his logic here is that we should do what is most expedient for them.

So, says, Paul, here is one more reason to prophesy rather than speak in tongues when you come together. In church, do what will help the unbeliever.

What does this mean in practice?

I think we’ve got quite a lot to work on here, folks. This means that we need to plan our service around not what will suit the Christians but what will most help those who are still unbelievers. Let me give some examples of what this means we need to be careful of.

Jargon. Not theological jargon. But Christian circles jargon. “Let’s say the grace together.” What will the complete outsider make of that? If anything, For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful. So we should never say “let’s say the grace together”. Instead we should make sure that the words of the grace are printed somewhere and that we point people to those words.

Another example: “Let’s share the peace with one another.” What? At the very least we should explain exactly what we are about to do and why. But, better, frankly, let’s drop it. Unless it’s very clearly explained they will think we’ve gone mad.

Other things that come to mind. We need to be very careful about picking on people. Whether it’s for practical tasks like helping with coffee, or shifting something after the service. Or if it’s to say a prayer during the service. I’m as guilty of this as the next man, but what will the unbeliever think? Horrors, next week, it could be me! Let’s ask for volunteers. Let’s use lots of people in the service. But let’s never spring things on people.

And I don’t think we should suggest that people pray with, or discuss something specific with, their neighbour. Fine in a church prayer meeting or a home group. But here? It could make an unbeliever feel most uncomfortable.

And then there’s dress code. What should we wear to lead services? Robes? Suit and dog collar? Suit and tie? Shirt and jumper? Jeans and t-shirt? I don’t know, and the correct answer will depend upon the occasion. But I do know the question we should ask to reach an answer: What will help the unbeliever feel most at home?

Do you see what a change of thinking this involves? It means not asking what we like. Instead it means asking what will help the unbeliever. So picture them. Your friend at work, school or toddler group. The people you pass outside Kwik Save? And ask: What will help them? And if the answer is: But they don’t come to church, the reply comes back: Of course they don’t, if what we do is alienating for them. As I say, I think we’ve got a lot to work on.

In church, do what will help the unbeliever.

In church, involve everyone but in good order

That’s verses 20 to 25. Then in verses 26 to 33, In church, involve everyone but in good order. In church, involve everyone but in good order.

Verse 26: “What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.” Paul is clearly imagining a church service in which lots of people get involved in lots of ways.

What does he mean by everyone? I don’t think he can mean every individual, without exception, says something to the whole gathered assembly. For a start things would go on a very long time. But also, as we’ll see, Paul goes on to limit how many people participate in any one meeting. So it is better to say that everyone means every type of person. Not all without exception, but all without distinction. So it won’t just be men, or just women, it will be both. It won’t be just rich, or just poor, it will be both. In fact there should be no way you can divide the church into two groups such that all the participants fall into just one of those groups. And given enough Sundays, probably it does mean absolutely everyone.

Now we need to be careful not to misunderstand Paul here. The contributions he describes in verse 26 clearly don’t describe all that goes on in a service. Elsewhere other activities are commanded too. Prayer. The Lord’s Supper. The public reading of Scripture. Preaching and teaching. These are all to be a part of our times together, but are not mentioned here. Yet it seems clear enough that Paul envisages church meetings where, for some of the time, people contribute to the meeting in a spontaneous way. Why do I say spontaneous? Because of verse 30, which says that you can’t anticipate in advance who the contributors will be.

Perhaps it helps to compare the different role the audience can play in television shows. Some shows have an audience for a relatively passive role. Quiz shows like Have I Got News For You? have an audience who are there to clap, cheer and laugh as directed by the producers. But that’s the extent of their role. Other shows are more of a “get everyone involved” type show – I’m thinking things like Question Time or, in the old days, Kilroy. Note it’s what we’re saying here. It’s not that every single person in the audience gets to speak on camera. Not at all. But it is the kind of show where everyone has a part to play in how things go.

Now, can I take it we agree with each other that this is not the way our meetings are at the moment? OK, so we’re going to have make some changes. In which case, we’d better pay attention to what this kind of spontaneous contribution is supposed to look like. Let’s look at the rest of the paragraph.

Paul starts with tongues in verse 27. As we’ve seen before, he’s quite adamant. Only if there is an interpreter. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in church. Wait till they get home. And talk to God on their own. That presumably means that if someone wants to contribute to the meeting by speaking in tongues, they can start off for a sentence or two. At which point the service leader should enquire if anyone has an interpretation of what is being said. If there is such, we get the interpreter up as well, and proceed line by line with a translation.

I was in a meeting not so long ago where a clergyman from Brazil spoke about some of the difficulties they were having back home. As most of us there did not speak Latin-American Spanish, someone who did stood up with him. The Brazilian spoke for a sentence, then his translator gave it to us in English. Then the next sentence, followed by its translation, and so on.

That seems to be what Paul is saying should happen here. On the other hand, if there is no interpreter, the contribution goes no further.

And then Paul goes on, in verse 29, to talk about prophecy. And what he says about prophecy seems to tie in with what he says about interpreted tongues. In other words, tongues with an interpretation is just like prophecy. They should feature in the same way in a church meeting. So what does he say?

He gives three details.

First, in verses 27 and 29, two, or a maximum of three, should speak in any one meeting. Which means that if you are number 4, I’m terribly sorry, but we’ve had enough for this week. Why does he insist on this strict limit? I don’t know. He doesn’t say. Except that the criterion must be “what builds up?” In some way, four or more contributions is just not edifying. My guess at the reason is that it makes things too complicated. This is not a justification for every sermon having either two or three points! But it’s the same thought. If God’s word to us for the day is lots and lots of different things, we all go home muddled. It’s less intelligible. And it’s not edifying.

Second, in verse 27, one speaker at a time. Again, it stops things being confused. Which means, verse 30, that sometimes you’ll be cut short in what you want to say to give someone else a chance to speak. Two people speaking at once is clearly not helpful. Equally, Paul is saying that having one long, rambling contribution is less helpful than giving two or three the chance to say something.

And third, in verse 29, the others must weigh carefully what is said. That is most important given what we said two weeks ago about the fallibility of prophecy. Please note: We don’t weigh the speaker; we weigh what is said. The assumption is that the same speaker can say things that are true and things that are false – even in the same contribution to the meeting. The need is to discern, distinguish and clarify until we have decided together what is true, and what is false.

Who weighs? We’ll need to revisit this next time, but for now it seems to be everyone. Perhaps we break into small groups and discuss it together. Perhaps we have further contributions from the floor by way of assessment. Perhaps people like the preaching team play a key role in it. Maybe all of the above. The important thing is that a careful process of weighing goes on.

And the result is that in church, everyone is involved, but in good order.

Why does good order matter? Paul says it matters because of the character of God. God is not a God of disorder. He is a God of order, peace, and stability. He is the unchanging one, the rock. And so it glorifies and reflects him when his church does things in good order.

What this means is that Paul does not describe a church meeting where two people conduct the whole meeting from the front and nobody else says anything. I’m describing what we do at present. We need to find some way to change, so that others can contribute spontaneously in the way Paul describes. Let me make a suggestion. Perhaps we could have five or ten minutes after the sermon, maybe after the hymn after the sermon, when people can ask questions, share their own experiences, offer insights they may have into how the text we have looked at applies to us as a church.

But it would be easy for us to overreact. From time to time I meet the assumption that somehow it is more spiritual to be chaotic or spontaneous. That’s an overreaction. There’s nothing wrong with planning our time together carefully. All we do must be done with care, in good order, in the way Paul describes.

No, the meeting that best reflects God’s character and intentions is the one where things are done decently and an order. But that order must be one where there is space for people to offer their spontaneous contributions to the meeting.

And so Paul is saying: In church, involve everyone, but in good order.


We began by asking what our times together should look like. We began to answer that question last time, and this morning Paul has given us two more big principles to apply. When we come together, we must have the unbeliever in mind. We should do what will help them. And when we come together, we want meetings where everyone is involved. But that must not degenerate into chaos, but be done in the ordered way which Paul describes. That way, we have church meetings that bring glory to God, and benefit believer and unbeliever alike.

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