The right kind of prophets

You may have noticed that e-mail is today’s mode of communication. Yet, e-mail is not always the best form of communication. It is easy to be misunderstood even by people we know quite well. While the sender understands the intent of his or her words, the recipient may not have the same degree of perception. Furthermore, the recipient can read into the e-mail ideas that were never intended. This should cause all of us to carefully read our e-mails and pause before we respond and hit the send button.

Likewise, reading a letter to a church that was written 2,000 years ago can be a challenging endeavor. It is easy to misunderstand the author’s intent and what was taking place in the life of the church. Often, God’s people jump to conclusions before carefully studying a biblical passage. This should give us cause to pause. Have we been guilty of this? Naturally, we all have. Therefore, our aim must be to understand the words of Scripture in the way God intended. We must try not to read our own traditions, preferences, or experiences into God’s Word. This is especially important when it comes to the controversial areas of worship and spiritual gifts.

Perhaps you have wondered what the Bible teaches about what a church worship service should look like. In the next two weeks, we will be examining 1 Corinthians 14 and we will learn that a church worship service is to be both intelligible and orderly. Today, we will be looking at 1 Cor 14:1-25 where Paul will confidently state put your ministry where your mouth is. In this passage, he provides two principles to guide us in our corporate worship.

  1. Clear communication in the church is critical(14:1-19). Paul will tell us that prophecy and tongues are important spiritual gifts; however, he will insist that the gift of prophecy is particularly significant. In 14:1, Paul discloses his thesis: “Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.” First and foremost, Paul commands the church to pursue, strive for, and seek after love. This command “pursue” (dioko) means “to pursue or persecute.” It is a strong word that serves to remind us that love can be an elusive thing. In other words, we do not find love by wishful thinking or by halfhearted effort. We have to pursue it eagerly every day if we are going to find it operating in our lives as it should. As a church, if we make love our top pursuit we will discover that our capacity to minister to those around us grows with every passing year.

After commanding the church to pursue love, Paul then commands the church to “desire earnestly” spiritual gifts, particularly prophecy. To prophesy is “to proclaim divine revelation” or “to speak on behalf of God.” Prophecy is not preaching or teaching, but it has elements of both. It can be both spontaneous and prepared. Throughout the entirety of chapter 14, Paul suggests that all God’s people can exercise prophecy. When we gather for worship, we ought to pray that the Lord will give us a word for someone in the church (cf. 14:26). Hence, we all come to church to minister. Put your ministry where your mouth is.

Apparently, the Corinthian church had exalted the gift of tongues above the prophetic gift of the proclamation of truth, and what Paul wants to do in this chapter is restore a healthy balance to the public worship life of that congregation. Hence, in 14:2-5 he compares and contrasts these two gifts of speaking in tongues and prophesying. In doing so, he explains why he prefers prophecy over tongues. “For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries. But one who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation. One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church. Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy; and greater is one who prophesies than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may receive edifying.” There are four observations that are worth noting in these four verses.

  • First, Paul has a high view of speaking in tongues and considers it a viable spiritual gift. Some are critical of tongues because of its divisive nature; however, the only problem with tongues is when Christians abuse this gift and behave in an immature and prideful way. Tongues is a good gift that God has given His church for its edification. The problem is never one of any spiritual gift, but rather of those who misunderstand and misuse what God has graciously provided.
  • Second, the gift of tongues that Paul is referring to in this context is a private prayer language. Paul writes that he would like to see all the Corinthians inspired by the Spirit to speak in tongues, but presumably only in the privacy of their own homes. Moreover, Paul knows that not everyone will be given this gift (see 12:28-30).
  • Third, the gift of prophecy is for today (see 1 Thess 5:19-22). Not in the sense of authoritative, inerrant revelation from God, but as a word of “edification, exhortation, and consolation” (14:3). The words prophet, prophecies, prophesy, and prophesying are used over 200 times in the New Testament. The whole notion of prophecy and prophesying is a big part of the New Testament. It’s not a minor doctrine. It’s a major teaching of the New Testament.
  • Fourth, Paul’s primary concern in this passage is the edification of the body. Four times in these verses a form of the word “edify” is used. This is the foremost reason why spiritual gifts were given to us (see 12:7). It is important to note that Paul is not being critical of tongue speakers edifying themselves. He is not opposed to edifying oneself. This is one reason we come to church on Sunday. When we exercise our spiritual gifts, we edify ourselves as well. Nevertheless, there is a double meaning to the word “edify” in this context. Since arrogance was such a problem in the church at Corinth, it seems that some were getting puffed up over their use of tongues. However, Paul’s wish that everyone would speak in tongues is still a genuine desire. Nevertheless, in public worship, we should only have what builds up the church. Edification is the benchmark by which we measure what goes on in public worship.

In 14:6-12, Paul explains the problem with interpreted tongues: no one benefits from something that he or she cannot understand. Paul shares the main idea of this section in 14:6 when he writes, “But now, brethren, if I come to you speaking in tongues, what will I profit you unless I speak to you either by way of revelation or of knowledge or of prophecy or of teaching?” Paul wants to be sure that what occurs in the worship service is profitable for all who are in attendance. Thus, he emphasizes gifts of clear communication. Paul wants everything to be done for edification. Put your ministry where your mouth is.

In 14:7-11, Paul gives three analogies that expound on the necessity of intelligibility in the church. First, Paul uses the metaphor of musical instruments. In order to be understood or appreciated musical instruments must play a discernible melody. In 14:7, Paul writes, “Yet even lifeless things, either flute or harp, in producing a sound, if they do not produce a distinction in the tones, how will it be known what is played on the flute or on the harp?” Paul cites the flute and harp, two of the common musical instruments of his day. The point he makes is: if the musician does not give a clear distinction between the notes on whatever instrument is being played, the people will not understand the tune.

The second metaphor comes from the field of battle. Bugle calls to battle must be clear enough for soldiers to distinguish “Advance!” from “Retreat!” In 14:8, Paul writes, “For if the bugle produces an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself for battle?” Trumpets or bugles were often used to summon people to battle or to give a signal for when to charge the enemy or when to stop fighting because the battle was over. Presumably there were different note patterns for each command. But if the trumpeter sounded either an unclear note pattern or a muffled sound so that the soldiers could not clearly distinguish what was being played, they would become confused and not know what they were supposed to do.

The third and final metaphor explains that foreign languages remain unintelligible to those who have not learned them. In 14:9-11, Paul writes, “So also you, unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air. There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of languages in the world, and no kind is without meaning. If then I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be to the one who speaks a barbarian [i.e., foreigner], and the one who speaks will be a barbarian to me.” The one who speaks in tongues without interpreting is speaking into the air. In basketball, a player that misses a shot hears the chant “air ball…air ball!” Similarly, the person who blurts out a tongue in worship without an interpreter could hear the chant “air talk…air talk!” It is important to understand that these verses merely serve as an illustration. Paul is not saying here that the gift of tongues in this context is a foreign language. He is simply trying to say that tongues must be interpreted or they are of no value to those who can’t interpret. Applying all three of these illustrations, Paul says that it is not the mere sound of speaking that is important, but whether the sounds can be understood by the hearers.

This paragraph concludes in 14:12 with a summary statement: “So also you, since you are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek to abound for the edification of the church.” Paul again commands the church to seek those gifts that will build up the body, particularly prophecy.

In 14:13-19, Paul provides the solution to the problem of interpreted tongues. The question is: what must a person do if God has given him or her the gift of tongues? Paul puts it like this: “Therefore let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. What is the outcome then? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also. Otherwise if you bless in the spirit only, how will the one who fills the place of the ungifted say the ‘Amen’ at your giving of thanks, since he does not know what you are saying? For you are giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not edified. I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all; however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind so that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue.” Paul exhorts those who speak in tongues to pray that they will be able to interpret their own tongues and those of others. He then explains that he prays and sings in his native language and his prayer language. He seeks to experience the best of both worlds—the spirit and the mind. Yet, he is still sensitive to ensure that during the worship event, people understand what is happening. So even though Paul is an avid tongue speaker, out of consideration for others he leaves his prayer language at home.

[Paul has spent a great deal of ink telling us that clear communication in the church is critical. Now he shares a second principle…]

  1. Mature thinking in the church is critical(14:20-25). In these final six verses, Paul informs the church that he seeks maturity in public worship. Paul begins in 14:20 by saying, “Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature.” Paul wants the Corinthians to stop thinking like selfish and prideful children with regards to the gifts. He does state though that they should be naïve infants with regards to evil. Paul urges the church to think like a mature believer in the worship context.

In 14:21-25, Paul explains why spiritual maturity and self-control is so important in a corporate worship service. First, Paul cites a prophecy from Isa 28:11-12 (cf. Deut 28:49) and writes, “In the Law it is written, ‘BY MEN OF STRANGE TONGUES AND BY THE LIPS OF STRANGERS I WILL SPEAK TO THIS PEOPLE, AND EVEN SO THEY WILL NOT LISTEN TO ME,’ says the Lord.” The point of this Old Testament quotation is that if Israel would not hear the Lord through the prophets, they would not hear even when He spoke in foreign languages to them through foreign people. So, Paul is saying, why put so much stress on tongues?

Paul then writes, “So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophecy is for a sign, not to unbelievers but to those who believe.” This is a very confusing verse because it says the very opposite of what we would expect Paul to say. I believe this verse is best put as a rhetorical question rather than as a statement (cf. 7:1): “So, then, are tongues a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, and prophecy a sign not for unbelievers but for believers?” To this question Paul would answer a resounding “No!” In his mind, tongues is a sign for believers and prophecy is a sign for unbelievers.

Paul then concludes in 14:23-25 with these words: “Therefore if the whole church assembles together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you.” The effect of Christian prophecy on the unbeliever is threefold: He will be convicted of sin (cf. John 16:8); he will be called to take account of his sins and examine his sinful condition; and he will have his sinful heart and past laid open to inspection (cf. John 4:16-19). The triple use of “all” in 14:24 emphasizes that all the church through its prophetic message has, in God’s providence, a part in bringing the unbeliever to this place of conviction. For the unbeliever in the church service will recognize that God really is present and dealing with him.

Do you prefer Coke or Pepsi? Regardless of what cola you prefer, I think you can acknowledge (possibly under duress) that these colas are more similar than dissimilar. It really comes down to issues of flavor. Unfortunately, people seem to care a great deal about flavor. I heard about two who liked Coke and Pepsi and came to blows. At a Wal-Mart in Pennsylvania, a Coke deliveryman and Pepsi deliveryman were apparently bickering back and forth while unloading their wares and Mr. Pepsi punched Mr. Coke in the face three times, breaking his nose, and giving him a black eye. All of this over cola flavor!

Similarly, the church of Jesus Christ has been divided over flavor. There are two competing groups: evangelicals and charismatics. Both groups are similar, but they do have a different flavor. Nevertheless, God wants us to move beyond flavor. He is calling us beyond tolerance, beyond even acceptance, into total reconciliation and oneness. He is calling the two halves of the churches back together again, not just to endure one another, but to delight in one another’s uniqueness and profit from it. God is calling us to a higher level of unity than ever before. He is asking us to embrace the full diversity of the body of Christ.

In the eternal state, there will not be any evangelicals or charismatics, there will only be Christians consumed with Jesus. May we bring a taste of heaven down here to earth and experience all that the Lord has for us.

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