A few days ago I asked for suggestions on Facebook for texts that people would like me to work through for a short Bible study, and the topical request for a study on “instruments in the Church” was made. Since no text was given, I was given the freedom to go in any direction I wanted with this topic, so we’re going to look at the instrument of the heart.
THE INSTRUMENT OF THE HEART
1 Corinthians 14:7 (CSB) — 7 Even lifeless instruments that produce sounds—whether flute or harp—if they don’t make a distinction in the notes, how will what is played on the flute or harp be recognized?
Paul is writing to the Corinthians about spiritual matters (12:1). He draws their attention to the deeper unseen realities and explains that no one can speak by the Holy Spirit curses at Jesus (or, by some grammatical constructions, “in Jesus’ name”), nor can anyone effectually call on Jesus as Lord apart from the Holy Spirit (12:3). Indeed, one’s mouth may form the words, but they are meaningless unless there is real spiritual reality behind them.
Paul then teaches Christians to discern the spiritual body of Christ by understanding the unity and diversity in our midst (12:4-30). We are individually members of one another, bound together by the Spirit of God, and those spiritual realities that we have now been born into must renew and regenerate the disposition of our hearts and the things that our tongues express from our hearts. Therefore, “love” (13:1-13) is the great anchor of Paul’s discourse to the Corinthians about spiritual matters (12:1-14:40) and functions to help transition us into “eternal things”. The spiritual realities that Paul taught in chapters 12 and 14 are meaningless without “love” (13:1-3). For the Christian, “love” is not something that can be reduced to mere sentiment or passion. Love transcends our fallen nature and reaches out to take hold of those divine attributes that come only from Christ (13:4-8). These are the eternal realities that will never fade (13:9-13).
Paul then turns his attention to the practice and use of these new spiritual realities that we have from God in chapter fourteen. He explains how these new spiritual realities are meant to be expressed by Christians in the assembly. Paul speaks about the “tongue” 22 times in 20 verses, and he personifies our “speech” an additional 11 times in 8 verses. We may safely say that the role that the tongue plays in the spiritual life of the Church is quite often overlooked.
The reason that I have chosen to focus on the above text to analyze the question of “instruments in the Church” is because of how Paul uses “instruments” to explain a truly profound spiritual lesson about our tongues. So, let’s look closer and draw out some meaning.
Even lifeless instruments that produce sounds—whether flute or harp: Paul uses some vivid illustrations from the flute and the harp, both of which were well-known musical instruments in Greece and in the music of Jewish temple worship, to characterize our “tongue” and the manner in which we should use our tongue in the assembly.
if they don’t make a distinction in the notes: Paul’s principle is that what we say in the assembly should be clear and comprehensible to the body in the same way that music must be clear and comprehensible to its listeners. Even the finest instruments produce nothing more than senseless noise unless they accurately play the systematic differences in pitch, tone, and meter.
how will what is played on the flute or harp be recognized?: we learn two lessons from Paul when applying this illustration: first, we learn that it is not the mere sound of speaking that is important, but whether the sounds can be beneficially understood by the hearers; second, assumed in the first lesson is the demand that there be authentic spiritual content by which the hearers may receive some spiritual benefit.
Concerning the first lesson, which is Paul’s foremost point for this text, we should observe that there should be purpose, design, and harmony when we speak in the assembly so that the whole body may be built up and edified. Many mistakenly believe that unintelligible ramblings come from spiritual sources and, therefore, should have a place in the assembly. But Paul is teaching that Christians exercise spiritual matters in the physical realm. This is no small observation because we worship the Son of God who is Yahweh-incarnate! God, who is Spirit, took on flesh and lived among mortal, physical beings. Therefore, Paul is restraining the tendencies of some to so spiritualize the Christian faith as to remove it from its physical realities! Some well-intending brothers and sisters are so hungry for spiritual matters that they pretend like it is not necessary to pay attention to the physical mechanisms through which we live and operate in this world – one of those physical mechanisms being the understanding of our minds (i.e. consciousness). For this reason, Paul asserts that uttering nonsensical things is not a spiritual practice in the presence of the assembled body of Christ because the assembled body of Christ is a physical assembly of embodied believers. Consequently, unintelligible speech is out of order among God’s people.
Concerning the second lesson, I took the time to trace Paul’s discourse above (12:1-14:40) because the premise of Paul’s lesson is that the tongue is speaking by the Spirit things that are holy and spiritual (12:3-4). The tongue is the instrument of the human heart, which is why the God who looks for worshipers to worship him in “spirit and truth” (Jn. 4:23) calls for his praise to be rendered by singing (Ps. 96:1-2; 104:33; Isa. 44:23; Acts 16:25; Rom. 15:11; 1st Cor. 14:15; Eph. 5:19-20; Col. 3:16; Jam. 5:13). Therefore, the instrument of worship in the assembly is the human tongue.
Luke 6:45 (CSB) — 45 A good person produces good out of the good stored up in his heart. An evil person produces evil out of the evil stored up in his heart, for his mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart.
When God took human-nature upon himself and came into this world, he did not come only to forgive our sins, but also to redeem a holy-people as his royal priesthood (1 Pt. 2:9). He came not only to wipe away our sins, but also to give us a new heart (Ezk. 36:26), “so that you may proclaim the praises of the one who called you out of the darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pt. 2:9).
Jesus teaches us that our tongues bear the fruit of our heart. We are meant to put away all impure, malicious, and evil kinds of speaking, not by slapping our wrists every-time we cuss in order to train ourselves like a dog not to say the wrong thing (and thereby covering up what is secretly in our hearts), but by the washing and regeneration of the Holy Spirit! We are meant to put to death by the Spirit the carnality that defiles us from within, just as what Jesus said, “it’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth—this defiles a person.” (Mt. 15:11).
Hopefully by now it is becoming evident why I came to this text to address the question of “instruments in the assembly”. The tongue is the instrument of the heart that produces either “holy” or “profane” things according to what fills the heart.
James 3:9–12 (CSB) — 9 With the tongue we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in God’s likeness. 10 Blessing and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers and sisters, these things should not be this way. 11 Does a spring pour out sweet and bitter water from the same opening? 12 Can a fig tree produce olives, my brothers and sisters, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a saltwater spring yield fresh water.
What comes out of your mouth?
Can you imagine for a moment taking the holy temple instruments that were used to worship God to play worship to Baal? Would it be fitting for the instruments by which God’s praises are made to simultaneously produce those things that are detestable to him?
Sometimes we come under the impression that our words don’t mean anything and that God is too big and mighty to be so easily offended by what we say. But God does care about what you say, not because he is so thin-skinned, but because what you say is a reflection of your heart, by which you enter into the holy-place of God and render praises to him in the presence of his Holy Spirit.
We may open our mouths and utter noises that we call worship, but unless our hearts make the distinction of holiness, as God’s priests are called to do (Lev. 10:10), then our worship is impure, unfit, and nothing more than a loud noise before God. We cannot rightly use our tongues to worship God and curse our fellow image-bearers, or to sing his praises and utter impure speech.
Therefore, let those who seek to worship God in spirit and truth likewise “cleanse ourselves from every impurity of the flesh and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Co. 7:1). And let us “put away all anger, wrath, malice, slander, and filthy language from your mouth” (Col. 3:8), so that, “if anyone purifies themselves from [dishonorable things], they will be a special instrument, set apart, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work” (2 Tim. 2:21).