Overhearing the Gospel
Scriptures: I Corinthians 14:1-12, 13-25
In our scripture readings this morning Paul makes several references to speaking in tongues. I don’t know if you have ever been to a church or prayer service where people spoke in tongues, but I found an ABC News segment on YouTube to show you a little of what it is like. It features a mega-church in Tampa, Florida, led by Pastor Randy White. Near the beginning it shows him praying in tongues as he walks past a strip joint. He prays in tongues because he believes this gives him protection from Satan as he prays for the people inside. Then we see part of a church service at his church where people are praying in tongues and fainting. They are not having a heart attack; they faint, presumably, because they have been overcome by the Holy Spirit. Here is a three-minute segment of the show.
Apparently speaking in tongues was a big thing among the Christians in Corinth. It was popular for the same reason it was popular in Tampa, Florida. It’s dramatic. It feels miraculous. It’s exciting. What’s a plain old pastor standing in a pulpit compared to that?
Paul is careful not to put down those who speak in tongues. In fact Paul says he does it himself. But when it comes to worshiping together in a church, Paul puts the emphasis on something different.
The key words in today’s scripture reading are the words “building up.” Worship is for building up the body of Christ, building people up in their faith, love, and service for Christ. Notice how often those words are uses in I Corinthians 14: [Slide 1]
- Verse 3: “On the other hand, those who prophesy speak to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.”
By the way, when Paul talks about “prophesying” he does not mean predicting the future. In both the Old and New Testament a prophet is someone who proclaims God’s message. It might include a word of hope about what God will do in the future to save us, or it might include a word of warning about what will happen if we don’t change our ways. But in the Bible prophecy is roughly the same thing as preaching. So in this scripture, when you hear the word “prophesy,” think of preaching or teaching God’s message.
- Verse 4: “Those who speak in tongues build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the church.”
- Verse 5: “One who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.”
- Verse 12: “So with yourselves; since you are eager for spiritual gifts, strive to excel in them for building up the church.”
- Verse 17: “For you may give thanks well enough [when speaking in tongues], but the other person is not built up.”
- Verse 27: “Let all things be done for building up.”
You see how prominent in this scripture are the words “building up.” They especially apply when Paul is talking about outsiders—the uninitiated: [Slide 3]
- Verse 16: “Otherwise, if you say a blessing with the spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say the “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since the outsider does not know what you are saying?”
- Verses 23-24: “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 mind?” (It reminds me of the woman in the video: “These people are crazy.”] But if all prophesy, an unbeliever or outsider who enters is reproved by all and called to account by all.” [Slide 5: Blank]
No one can deny that Pastor White’s church is being built up in numbers. In fact even the woman we saw at the end of the video ends up joining his church. And Paul does not object to speaking in tongues. He says in verse 5, “I would like all of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy.”
Let me clarify. In that statement Paul does not mean that everyone should speak in tongues. In chapter 12 he is clear that different gifts of the Spirit are given to different people, and not all have the same gift. In the video Diane Sawyer makes one mistake. She says that according to the Bible all the apostles spoke in tongues. I assume she is referring here to the story of Pentecost where the apostles and other followers of Jesus are together in a room and the Holy Spirit comes upon them and they speak in other languages. But in that case they were speaking in languages that other people understood. In other words, they were communicating the gospel in languages spoken by people from other countries. They were not speaking in a string of syllables and consonants that no one could understand. Pentecost is not a story about speaking in tongues; it’s a story about the apostles prophesying—proclaiming God’s message in languages people could understand. If you really want to experiencePentecost, don’t go to a church where they speak in tongues, come back this afternoon for the City of Glory church service, where people sing and preach in Swahili, and where those of us who don’t know Swahili are given head phones to hear a translation of the sermon into English. That’s Pentecost.
When Paul says, “I would like all of you to speak in tongues,” he does not mean that everyone should speak in tongues. He means that he is fine with people speaking in tongues, especially when they are praying to God in private. But when it comes to church Paul would rather have fewer people speaking in tongues and more people teaching Sunday School, or inviting their friends to a Bible study, or supporting missionaries who actually learn the languages of the people among whom they serve.
And that brings me back to what God really wants in a church service. I do not think God wants people passing out in church. I know of no place in the Bible where one of the gifts of the Spirit is unconsciousness. Paul does not want people passing out in church; he wants them to hear the gospel. When we sing, God does not care whether we sing traditional hymns or new Christian worship choruses; God wants people to be overhearing the gospel in the music and words, letting the words and music combine to touch both their hearts and their minds, both their emotions and their understanding.
The same is true for other parts of the service. When people share the story of God working in their own lives, we overhear the gospel, and it encourages us to believe that God can work in our own lives. Likewise, when in our prayers we share deep personal needs for God’s help, we overhear the gospel, and it encourages us to believe that God can help with our own personal needs.
One little digression before we finish. Later in I Corinthians 14 Paul makes that infamous statement where he says, “Women should be silent in the churches.” Unfortunately, many churches have taken that to mean that women should not be preachers. But that is not what Paul means. Back in I Corinthians 11 Paul says that women in the church should prophesy with their heads covered. Why he wants their heads covered is a whole other Bible study that probably has to do with cultural associations in Corinth. The point is that Paul supports women prophesying in church, which as I said means preaching, as long as they wear a head covering. So in chapter 14 he is not talking about women preachers. He is apparently talking about women adding to the chaos of a Corinthian worship service by shouting questions. We surmise this because later he says they should ask their questions at home. Paul’s concern is that women not add to the chaos of a Corinthian worship service where people are speaking in tongues and shouting out prophecies and asking questions all at the same time. Paul is not concerned about women preaching in church; he is concerned that worship be intelligible, that people be able to hear and understand the message that is proclaimed.
The point of worship is to build up the body. Worship is not just about ourselves; it is not just about meeting our own needs. It is about building up the body, so that everyone—young and old, men and women, long time members and newcomers—can hear the gospel in terms each can understand.