God’s Word for You
1 Corinthians 14:26-28 One at a time
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, June 26, 2023
26 So, brothers, what should be done? When you come together, each one of you has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, something in a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done to build people up. 27 If someone speaks in a tongue, there should be only two or at most three speaking, but one at a time, and someone must interpret. 28 But if there is no one to interpret, each one should be silent in the church and speak to himself and to God.
We’re returning now to 1 Corinthians. Paul transitions smoothly from speaking in tongues to what is, in a sense, the very opposite: Those times when there should be silence in churches. He presents three or four different examples of this. In Paul’s final cautions about speaking in tongues, he is concerned about too many speaking at once:
12, Too many should not speak when you speak in tongues. Speak one at a time, and only two or three of you should speak each time.
Worship in the early church had many differences from our worship today. Christian hymns were brand-new in their time. There were fewer forms of music, and a smaller variety of musical instruments, if any were used at all in some cases. There were more men presenting the service or contributing to it. Paul says that somebody (he overstates, to make his point, that “each one of you” does this) comes with a hymn, and some other man preaches a lesson. Then another man shares a passage of revelation, by which Paul probably means a part of the word of God. By the time this letter was written, that might have included an early epistle like Galatians, Thessalonians, or the Epistle of James, or the Gospels of Matthew or Mark, but it’s more likely that they would have shared passages from the Old Testament. Then a man might stand up, or a few men, and speak in tongues. And Paul isn’t necessarily presenting these things in the order they would happen in a service, but just that this is a list of the kinds of things the people would be used to along with the traditional elements of worship that carried over from the synagogue: A blessing to begin, several prayers, a confession of sins and the absolution (James 5:16); a confession of faith (Philippians 2:11; Deuteronomy 6:4); and a blessing to conclude (Luke 2:29; Numbers 6:24-26).
Paul is aware that things were getting out of hand, and the Corinthians’ fascination with tongues-speaking was at the heart of the trouble. He tells them to limit this to just a couple of people, and there is the repeated caution: Don’t speak in tongues unless there is someone to truly interpret what is said. Otherwise, the tongues-speaker should be quiet, and his speech can be silent, just between him and God. Perhaps there is a veiled judgment here as well: If you really are blessed with a message in tongues, that’s well and good. If you’re just doing it for show, then consider what God will think of you if you present that made-up nonsense when it is just you speaking silently in prayer to God. Will the Lord be pleased with you? And Paul also deems it necessary to add, “one at a time.” Speaking in tongues was getting so out of hand that sometimes several men jumped to their feet all at once and there was a confused, mixed-up mess of noise. This doesn’t do any good to anyone.
In verse 26 there is another reference to an earlier caution about tongues: Everything needs to be done to strengthen the church, which is to say, the people who put their faith in God. When we come together for worship, it should never be about us exercising our freedom or showing off our gifts, but rather it should always be about building up one another’s faith, rather than one another’s tolerance for innovation and change.
The sin exposed here is lovelessness and perhaps outright lying, although Paul has not come out and accused anyone of lying. What he has said about tongues he will bring to a close in the next few verses, but he has been consistent and cautious throughout: Let what you do be for the good of God’s people. We do not worship to bring glory to ourselves, but to bring glory to God. Praise God that when we have sinned, and surely we all have sinned, that he holds out forgiveness to us through his gospel. “Wherever the word of God is,” Luther says, consoling us all, “there is the forgiveness of sins. After all, the word is nothing else than the declaration of the forgiveness of sins” (LW 28:269).
We sit at the feet of Jesus, we confess our sins and ask his forgiveness, we learn more and more how to live a godly life as we are guided by his word. This is the life of the Christian in worship.
Pastor Timothy Smith