1 Corinthians 14:39-40 – Summary Statements on Worship

Translation and Sermon by Nate Wilson for Christ the Redeemer Church, Manhattan, KS 15 Nov. 2009


39. Therefore, my brothers,

            keep being zealous to prophesy

            and stop forbidding the utterance of languages,

            40. and keep making all things happen according to good form and order.


o       In previous sermons, I outlined 3 principles governing corporate worship: Edification, Inclusiveness, & Self-Discipline, and I observed that some of that self-discipline is a loving limitation of our selves for the good of others.

o       Some of that self-discipline is a submission to authority outside of ourselves, and we looked at submission of church members to church leaders, submission of wives to their husband, and submission of all to the authority of Holy Scripture last Lord’s Day.

o       Now it is time to wrap up the chapter with some summary statements on worship and order in the church.

o       Paul and Sosthenes give us three concluding exhortations in the last two verses of chapter 14:

1. Be zealous/eager/desirous to prophesy (vs. 39)

a.       What is Prophesy? One class of prophesy is the prophecies written down in the Bible.

                                                  i.      Biblical prophecy is not something we should try to add to. That role has ceased.

                                                ii.      However, we can be zealous concerning the study of and teaching about this class of prophecy.

b.      Another class of prophecy is a clearly spiritual gift which includes telling the future or revealing things which could not naturally be known.

                                                  i.      An example of this kind of prophecy would be Agabus, who is mentioned twice in the book of Acts, first in chapter 11 prophesying a famine which took place later in the reign of Claudius, and then we encounter another prophecy from Agabus in chapter 21, where he dramatically ties himself up with a belt and prophecies that Paul would be bound by the Jews and delivered to the Gentiles. Judging from the account later on in the chapter, Agabus had a few details wrong (the Jews didn’t actually bind him), but was on-target with the general sense of the prophecy (Paul was bound and kept in a prison run by Gentiles).

                                                ii.      This may be one reason why any prophecy of this nature needs to be judged/assessed by others in the church. This class of prophecy is not infallible, like scripture is, although it can fulfill the purposes for prophecy listed in 1 Cor 14:3 “the one who prophesies to men makes utterance of upbuilding and exhortation and comfort”

                                              iii.      Back in my sermon on the charismatic gifts in chapter 12, I mentioned quotes from  John Calvin and Samuel Rutherford who both maintained that God still brings this gift about on occasion, and I promised more stories about this phenomenon, so here are a few:

                                              iv.      John Knox’s prophecy at his death (Deere pp.72-73) – faith-strengthening

                                                v.      Alexander Peden’s prophecy to Isabel Brown (Deere pp.76-78) – comforting

                                              vi.      Brother Yun “The Heavenly Man” (Hattaway pp. 34-40) – evangelism

c.       The third and final class of prophecy, as I understand it, is often described as “forth-telling” – which is what the word “prophet” means when you break it down into its component words in Greek “pro=forth” and “phainw=bring to light.”

                                                  i.      In this sense, anyone with a special ability to explain what the Bible says could be considered to have the gift of prophecy.

                                                ii.      The desired outcome of prophecy, according to verses 24 and 25 is to bring people to a conviction of sin so that they will worship God.

                                              iii.      For example, in the 1930’s, a preacher in Ft. Worth Texas named Jay Frank Norris saw a great revival in his church as a result of his wife’s prayers. So many hardened sinners were getting converted and were quitting their lives of drunkenness and lawlessness that the mafia decided that Jay Frank Norris was a threat to their business of bootleg liquor during that prohibition era. They loaded 6 thugs into a car with machine guns and told them to go kill pastor Norris. On the way, their car was hit by a train which killed every one of those criminals. You know what Jay Frank Norris did? He went over to the site of the wreck, scooped some of the brains of those men spattered on the pavement, put them in a jar, and next Sunday, plopped that jar down on the corner of the pulpit and preached on, “The wages of sin is death!”

                                              iv.      An eager desire and zeal to teach God’s word to other people so that they will be convicted of their sin and worship God is encouraged by Paul here in 1Cor 14:1 & 39.

                                                v.      Remember from the end of chapter 12 that not all will all have the gift of prophecy, however, so our zeal/eagerness/desire for it may be expressed in terms of a zeal to hear God’s word and to support those who proclaim God’s word.

2. Stop forbidding utterances in languages/tongues (vs. 39)

a.       As is the case with prophecy, I also see several classes of the gift of tongues:
One appears to be an utterance in a foreign language which comes spontaneously during private prayer to God.

a.       As v.2 admits, this is mysterious, and I don’t know much about it.

b.      I imagine it could be a startling experience. But it is not a forbidden experience if you are a spirit-filled believer in Jesus Christ who is genuinely praying to God.

c.       As 14:28 states, this gift does not override one’s will. If you have this gift, you are able to keep silent in church and choose to keep your mind engaged (v.15).

b.      Another class of tongues appears to be an utterance in a foreign language which is of supernatural origin and is intended to be heard publicly.

a.       As vs. 21-22 state, quoting from Isaiah, it’s not necessarily a happy providence to hear unintelligible speech. This could be a sign of God’s judgment for not obeying Him when He started speaking clearly.

b.      In other cases, the utterance in a foreign language with supernatural aid seems to be one of the ways God spreads the Gospel. One example of this is the preaching of the Apostles at Pentecost in the mother tongues of the people from all over the world who had gathered for the feast in Jerusalem. This kind of thing seems to continue to happen in some missionary contexts.

c.       And there appears to also be a place for spirit-inspired utterance and interpretation of statements in a foreign language in Christian gatherings. The fact that these are listed among the spiritual gifts in chapter 12 indicates to me that in some respect these phenomena are not merely the result of people being born in different places and naturally speaking different languages, but are the result of the supernatural activity of the Holy Spirit.

d.      Special care needs to be observed with this class of tongues because it is the most likely to create confusion and disorder in the church. It is vitally important that speech uttered publicly in worship be understood by all present and that the gift of tongues not be overemphasized. Paul rather downplays this gift for these reasons.

c.       Finally, I would suggest that a third class of tongues also exists, and that is the spirit-directed natural use of foreign languages:

a.       In this class, I would place people who have a good ear and who learn languages easily.

b.      This may also extend to those who have grown up hearing more than one language and can speak and interpret more than one language fluently.

c.       Therefore I believe the principles of this passage apply to churches in cosmopolitan areas where multiple languages are spoken and multiple languages must be used in the worship service. I have worshipped with Spanish-speakers in Miami, with French-speakers in Paris, and with Arabs in the Middle East, and I would not have been able to worship very well or enter into fellowship very well with those brothers and sisters if it hadn’t been for an interpreter!

d.      This third class of natural uses of language is the most common way that the Gospel is spread from one group of people to another,

                                                                          i.      so we should capitalize on learning foreign languages, like Tim and Ranae are doing as they teach Arabic,

                                                                        ii.      and we should also capitalize on evangelizing bridge people, such as International students, who know our language as well as another one so that they can spread the gospel they hear from us into their home country.

3. Keep doing all things according to good form and order (v. 40)

a.       This word “decently/properly/fitting/according to good form” is also found in:

1.      Rom. 13:13 Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy.
Here we have improper behaviours listed explicitly.

2.      1Thess. 4:11-12 and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.
Working quietly and having something to share is equated with propriety here.

b.      I believe this is the main point of the passage. The main point is not prophecy or tongues, but good form and order in the church.

1.      That’s why we should pursue love (v.1)

2.      That’s why we should organize the practice of our gifts around the edification/upbuilding of the church (vs. 3-5)

3.      That’s why prophesy is greater than tongues (v.5)

4.      That’s why it is so important to speak clearly and intelligibly (vs.7-9)

5.      That’s why Paul calls for maturity in thinking (v.20)

6.      That’s why speakers should take turns rather than talking over the top of each other (vs. 27&31)

7.      That’s why some must keep silent (vs. 28,30,34)

8.      That’s why submission to proper authority is important (vs. 32,34,37)

c.       John Newton once said, “Church government is the best security for Christian liberty.”


The million dollar question for me is this: Do we need to change our form of worship based on what we learn in 1 Cor 14?

a.       Tongues and prophecy jump out at us in chapter 14, receiving special emphasis, while other elements of worship, such as prayer, singing, and teaching, although they are mentioned briefly, seem to take a back seat.

b.      In other passages of scripture, however, tongues and prophecy are not mentioned at all, such as the description of the early church in Acts 2:42 “they were devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, communion, and prayer.” That sounds more like what we do – no mention of tongues or prophecy.

c.       One suggestion I have heard that makes sense is that the church in Corinth was composed of multiple house churches which occasionally met as a larger body. When they all got together, it was maybe 500 people, and it was more like a conference with multiple speakers and multiple messages. This is the kind of event that is described in Acts 20 when Paul lectured until midnight and Eutychus fell out the window. In this sort of context, public speaking would be at the forefront of the meeting and there would be more opportunity for two or three prophets and tongues-speakers to share.

d.      Another explanation that makes sense to me is that tongues and prophecy in this passage are prominent because these gifts were particularly out-of-order in Corinth, and since they were public speaking gifts, Paul needed to take more time to regulate them. In other words, the prominence of tongues and prophecy in this passage are not to emphasize their use in a worship service but rather to emphasize keeping these gifts from getting out of control.

e.       I suspect that if Christianity were to be persecuted in our country and our church could not salary a pastor, there would be no one with the time to invest in a carefully-organized worship service or the preparation of a meaty 45 minute sermon. It might be expedient to make the service more spontaneous and to welcome multiple men to share brief sermons as they were led by the Spirit to speak, and that would fit squarely within the Biblical pattern here.

f.       But as it is now, we have the luxury of a full-time pastor. I will, however, keep trying to welcome multiple men into worship leadership, and I will keep an open stance to the possibility that God could interrupt our plans for the worship service and invite you, if you are convinced that God would have you say something to the congregation, to talk with me about it so you can do so in an orderly manner.


So, brothers and sisters, for God’s sake and the sake of the church:

o       Be zealous to prophesy.

o       Don’t forbid utterances in languages.

o       Keep doing all things according to good form and order.