Especially Prophecy

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Imagine you were in sole charge of planning our Sunday services. You could have them just how you wanted them. Well, how would you want them? What would you change? What would you add? What (or even who?!) would you get rid of? Have a moment to dream.

You've just dreamed the perfect church meeting for you and clones of you. But it would be far from perfect for many others. And therefore far from perfect in God's eyes. Because in this morning's Bible passage, God says that whenever we meet together, he wants us to do only what is helpful for everyone. Ie, he wants us thinking 'us', not just 'me'.

Please would you turn to 1 Corinthians 14 and to the sermon outline on your service sheets. We're in a series in Paul's letter to the Corinthian church. And I need to remind us what we've seen so far - so this is the bit headed 'Context' on your outline. Paul was trying to straighten out what was happening in the Corinthians' church meetings. Back in 11.17 he says to them, 'Your meetings do more harm than good' (a pretty devastating piece of feedback). Now, why was that? Well, some of the Corinthians were obsessed with the spiritual gift of 'speaking in tongues' - which I'll explain in a minute. And they virtually made 'speaking in tongues' the acid test of whether or not people actually had the Holy Spirit - ie, whether or not they were real Christians. And those who could 'speak in tongues' insisted on doing so in church meetings - regardless of the fact that it was unhelpful to others.

So in order to straighten out their meetings, Paul first has to straighten out their thinking. So in 12.1-3 we've seen that he says the acid test of having the Spirit is not whether a person can speak in tongues but whether they can say, 'Jesus is Lord' (and mean it). Then in 12.4-30, we've seen that he says: think of the church as a body in which each person has different gifts for the common good of the body. Ie, think 'us' not 'me'. And last time in chapter 13 we saw him say that the way we use our gifts is of most importance - the way of love. That brings us to chapter 14, vv1-25 where Paul is still straightening out their thinking about Christian meetings (before applying it in practice in vv26 onwards). And he gives them two principles. The first is this: when we come together in church meetings, we should:


Firstly, DO ONLY WHAT WILL BUILD UP OUR FELLOW-BELIEVERS (vv1-19)

Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy. (v1)

'Follow the way of love' is a bit of revision of chapter 13. If someone has a gift, says chapter 13, he'll be a menace if that gift is used without love for others. Eg, imagine someone with the gift of playing the bagpipes joins our church. He joins Music Group and starts to insist on his gift being used in every service. Chris, the leader, says that it might be appropriate with the odd hymn (with him playing from the car park) - but no more than that. Because what matters is not his gift but doing only what is helpful to everyone. Now that may sound a silly example. But it's just what the Corinthian speakers in tongues were doing: insisting on using their gift in church regardless of whether it was unhelpful to others. So, v1, 'Follow the way of love' reminds us that the right attitude does not say, 'I want to use my gift,' but, 'I want to do others good.' And sometimes that will mean not using my gift.

So, the first half of v1 gets attitude straight - 'Follow the way of love'. Now we can get back to the issue of gifts. So read on in v1:

…and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy. 2 For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit. 3 But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort. 4 He who speaks in a tongue edifies [ie, builds up] himself, but he who prophesies edifies [ie, builds us] the church. 5 I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified. (vv1-5)

Before we go any further we need to try to answer two questions. What is 'speaking in tongues' and what is prophecy?

Question 1: What is speaking in tongues? Well, I've tried a definition on your outline: it's an ability to pray in a language (ie, 'tongue') unknown to you, which expresses your 'spirit' to the Lord in a different way from normal prayer (which consciously engages the 'mind' and uses your normal language). See vv2, 9-11, 13-19 of this chapter. So, v2 again:

For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God [ie, it's prayer]. Indeed, no one understands him [it's in unknown language]; he utters mysteries with his spirit.

Question 2: What is prophecy? Well, I've put on the outline that here and elsewhere in the New Testament (NT) 'prophecy' is used to refer to a variety of Spirit-prompted speaking by believers through which God communicates. Eg, in Acts 2 (vv1-21), Luke describes the first believers 'declaring the wonders of God' to the non-Christian crowd on the day of Pentecost. And Peter then gets up and says to the crowd: These men are prophesying; this is the time predicted in the Old Testament (OT) when all God's people will speak for him with the help of his Spirit. So prophesying on that occasion was speaking about God in front of non-Christians in a way that got them interested. In Acts 11 (vv27-30), Luke tells us how a prophet called, 'Agabus… through the Spirit predicted… a… famine…' So prophesying on that occasion was speaking for God about a specific future event. In 1 Timothy (1.18, 4.19), Paul writes about prophecies that pointed Timothy towards full-time ministry. So prophesying on that occasion was speaking for God in a way that formed part of someone's guidance. In 1 Corinthians 14, prophecy does various things: it strengthens, encourages, comforts (v3), it edifies [ie, builds up peoples' faith in Jesus] (v4); it's bracketed with 'revelation', 'knowledge' and 'instruction' (v6); it convicts of sin (v25); it needs 'weighing' [ie, weighing up and testing against the Bible] (v29); it may be spontaneous (v30); may be done by 'all' (v31). And that all sounds slightly different again - a kind of mixture of teaching and Spirit-given insight into situations and people.

And that's why my definition of 'prophecy' is: 'a variety of Spirit-prompted speaking by believers through which God communicates.'

Now all that begs the question, 'How does God speak today?'. The answer is: God speaks today through the Bible.

In the picture, the crown stands for God and the arrow down to the Bible stands for what Paul wrote elsewhere (in 2 Timothy 3.16): 'All Scripture [ie, the Bible] is God-breathed.' Ie, as I've put in the top box, the Bible is inspired by God - God supervised the human authors, so that the Bible is the only place where the words of men are simultaneously 100% the Word of God. As a result, the Bible is also supreme - it carries God's authority. And as a result, the Bible should also be central to the life of any Christian, church or Christian group. So, eg, when Paul wrote to Timothy about the pattern of ministry he should put in place in his church, he said this:

Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. (1 Timothy 4.13)

So, God speaks to us today through the Bible. But that last quotation shows that God planned that it wouldn't just be through reading the Bible on our own, but also through teachers; through other believers. You see, question 1: how does God speak today? Answer: through the Bible. Then, a different question: how does the truth of the Bible come to us? Well, yes, through personal Bible reading. But also through teaching (like this); and Christians teaching one another in small groups; and informally in conversation. Now sermons and things said in Bible study groups and Christian conversation are not themselves the Word of God, as the Bible is. Nor do they have the same authority. But if they're faithful to the Bible God communicates through them.

What about prophecy? I've put above that picture on the outline: that like all speaking/teaching, the authority of prophecy is less than the supreme authority of the Bible. And in the bottom box by the picture I've drawn the contrasts with the Bible. Prophecy is not inspired like the Bible - so its content is mixed; no human speaking today can claim to be 100% the Word of God. So therefore prophecy is not supreme. It doesn't have the same authority as the Bible and in 1 Corinthians 14.29 we're told it must be weighed and in 1 Thessalonians 5.21 we're told it must be tested - I take it, against the Bible. And it's also not central - compared to the Bible and Bible teaching.

So that's my picture of how the Bible, teaching and prophecy relate to one another. I don't agree with those who say that 'prophecy' is simply preaching. I do believe that preaching should have a 'prophetic' side to it: I pray that God would lead my preparation so that what I say - especially in application and illustration - will be supernaturally matched to situations and needs I know nothing about. So when people say of a sermon, 'That could have been written just for me,' or, 'That was all about me right now', I take it that prayer is being answered. (So I may discover on the door this morning that we do have a new member who plays the bagpipes…) Similarly, I believe that when Christians speak insightfully to one another in Bible study or in conversation, or when we have evangelistic conversations where we really seem to 'get through' to someone, 'prophecy' is often going on.

Just to earth this, let me give two examples of things I take to be prophetic. One is individual. I was miserably unhappy during my first time as a leader on a Scripture Union camp because I felt I wasn't a 'ten talent' sportsman and extravert as most of my fellow-leaders seemed to be. On about day 3, an older leader (who didn't know me and hadn't spoken to me) took me on one side and without asking me anything said, 'Ian, if you don't get alongside the quieter people here, no-one else will. Under God, be yourself.' And without waiting for any sort of answer, he melted away into the crowd. My other example is corporate. By God's grace, we have just bought 3 Osborne Road. And during the communication about the building we had several church meetings where someone (eg, Jonathan) said, 'I believe God is leading us to buy 3 Osborne Road for the work of the gospel.' And so it proved. I take it that both those examples are of Spirit-prompted speaking where God had given insight into people and situations - ie, of something 'prophetic'.

Time forbids saying more on what 'speaking in tongues' and 'prophecy' are. I've begged as many questions as I've answered. I haven't mentioned that some Christians argue that these gifts have ceased - arguments I'm not convinced by. But at least now we can catch the message of these verses in 1 Corinthians 14. Verse 1 again:

Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy.

[Why 'especially'? Why should one gift be somehow greater than another? Well, v2:] 2 For [ie, because] anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit. [ie, he doesn't help anyone else in the church meeting.]3 But [by contrast] everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort. 4 He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. 5 I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, [ie, Paul is not knocking the gift itself - it's very helpful in some peoples' prayer-lives] but I would rather have you prophesy. [Why? Well, because] He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified. (vv1-5)

Paul's point is that when it comes to church meetings, some gifts are 'greater' because they edify everyone. Read on, v6:

Now, brothers, if I come to you [ie, come along to your church meeting] and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction?

Notice his governing principle: 'Will what I do in this meeting be good - ie, helpful - for everyone?' Eg, will my behaviour and my contributions in my small group be good for everyone? Or, will I insist on discussing a 'red herring' that's not helpful to others? 'What good will I be to you?' is a governing principle of attending or leading or planning any Christian meeting Read on, v7:

Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the flute or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible [ie, understandable] words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me. So it is with you. [Ie, if you who can speak in tongues insist on doing so in the church meeting, then what you're saying will be like a foreign language to the rest - ie, no help to them at all.] Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church. (vv7-12)

Again, he's not knocking the gift itself. He's simply training them - and us - to think 'us' not just 'me'. And in a church meeting, speaking in tongues is not helpful - unless the speaker can also 'interpret' what he's saying and put it into language everyone can understand. So, v13:

For this reason anyone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. So what shall I do? [I think in this next bit Paul is describing a speaker in tongues first praying out loud in tongues but then interpreting it so that it's intelligible to others.] I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind [ie, interpret for others' sake]; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind [ie, interpret for others' sake]. If you are praising God with your spirit, how can one who finds himself among those who do not understand say 'Amen' to your thanksgiving, since he does not know what you are saying? You may be giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified.

I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. [Ie, again, Paul is not knocking the gift itself.] But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue. (vv13-19)

The principle Paul is driving home is this: When we come together in church meetings, we should do only what will build up our fellow-believers. We should think 'us' not 'me'. If you can speak in tongues, Paul says it's a helpful gift for your private prayer-life. But he has a strong preference for it staying there in your private prayer life. He would only ever allow it in public meetings if you could confidently interpret what you were praying, for others. Otherwise, it would simply be unhelpful for others. And the principle is: only do what is helpful for everyone.

But the principle applies far beyond the gift of tongues. In all church meetings - Sundays, small groups, prayer meetings - whatever - the governing principle is: do only what is edifying for everyone. Eg, you may want to go off in a Bible study on a red-herring that interests you. But we are to do only what is edifying for everyone. Another eg: I would love to have 45 minutes for a sermon like this (and it would still be inadequate). But you might not love that. And the youth work might not love that. The climbers could literally be climbing - up the walls. We are to do only what is edifying for everyone. Another eg: the younger element here (eg, CYFA, students) may want to get rid of hymns and the older element (or chronologically challenged, as we now have to say) may want to get rid of the drums. But we are to do only what is edifying for everyone. Which in that case involves both hymns and drums. If you're displeasing all the people some of the time, you're getting somewhere in keeping the unity of the Spirit.

So that's the first, and main, point. When we come together in church meetings, we should do only what will build up our fellow-believers. But Paul is aware - as we should be - that in many church meetings, there will be people who aren't yet believers. So the second, brief point this morning is:


Second, THINK ALWAYS OF THE NOT-YET BELIEVER (vv20-25)

Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. (v20)

Childish thinking is selfish thinking - thinking 'me' not 'others'. Paul's been training us to think 'us' not 'me' - and now he reminds us that the 'us' will often include the not-yet-Christian.

Remember: the original issue in Corinth was people insisting on speaking in tongues in the church meeting. Paul has just said: that's unhelpful for your fellow-believers. He now says: it's even more unhelpful for anyone present who's not yet a believer - who's just at the 'finding out' stage.

In the Law it is written: 'Through men of strange tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me,' says the Lord. (v21)

Verse 21 quotes Isaiah 28.11-12, where the Lord promised to bring judgement on unbelieving Israel through the Assyrians (they're the 'men of strange tongues' who were about to 'speak' to Israel in the language of military invasion). So, Israel were the unbelievers, and the men speaking in tongues (the invading Assyrian army) came to bring judgement on Israel. So for Paul, the moral of story is: 'tongues' bring judgement on unbelievers. And now he applies that moral to the present, v22:

22Tongues, then, are a sign [a negative sign, a sign leading to judgement], not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers. 23So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? (vv22-23)

Ie, if you're all speaking in tongues, not-yet-believers will think you're off your corporate trolley and you'll never see them again. Ie, they'll bring judgement on themselves - in the sense of put themselves further away from the gospel by not coming back. And all because you insisted on speaking in tongues in the public meeting. And Paul would say: that's hopeless! What an inquirer needs is to be welcomed; to be able to understand everything that's said and done; not to be embarrassed by anything; and not to be offended by anything - other than the truth of the gospel.

So if you're not yet a believer, can I say that it's great to have you here, and that you're always welcome. And can I apologise for any way in which we have fallen short as a church on things like welcoming you and making things accessible and so on. But I won't apologise for any offence the gospel message has caused you. If it offends you to be told that you, like me, have turned away from God and need to turn back again, I won't apologise for that. If it offends you to be told that you like me, cannot make yourself good enough for God but can only be forgiven back into relationship with him through the death of his Son Jesus on the cross, I won't apologise for that. We cannot remove the offence of the gospel - which basically says we're in the wrong and need God to put us right. But we should remove any other source of offence, or obstacle to inquirers finding their way into church to find out about the Lord.

So, Paul says inquirers among us are another reason for keeping speaking in tongues a private thing. V24:

24But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, 25and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, "God is really among you!"

Ie, these various other forms of Spirit-prompted speaking will help inquirers come to faith themselves.

So, says Paul, think always of the not-yet-believer. Some of our meetings are designed primarily with inquirers in mind - eg, what we call 'Invitation Services' like the one this evening; or, the Christianity Explored course. But even when a meeting is designed primarily for building up Christians, we should always have half an eye on the newcomer and the inquirer. And that will put more constraints on what we can and can't do, what we should and shouldn't do. But those are constraints we should be glad to live with if our meetings help people come to faith in the Lord Jesus. And if as a church we are serious about reaching more people for Christ, we will have to flex more sacrificially in their direction in every meeting.

So come back to where we started. Imagine you were in sole charge of planning our Sunday services. Or your Home Group, or CYFA, or Focus, or your CU - or whatever you're part of. You could have things just how you wanted them. What God is saying to us through 1 Corinthians 14 is: that is an attitude to be repented of. Because we are to think 'us' not 'me'. And we are to do only what is helpful for everyone - Christian and non-Christian alike.


Q: How 'me'-centred is our attitude to church meetings (Sundays, prayer meeting, small groups, etc)?

Q: How does our attitude and participation need to change in response to this part of God's Word?

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