Text: 1 Corinthians 14:1-33
Location: Park Community Church South Loop
Date: Sunday April 23, 2023
We come today to a topic that in the last century of Christian history particularly, but also throughout the larger Christian history has been the source of great confusion. The topic is that two particular spiritual gifts given to the Church, namely Speaking in Tongues and Prophecy. Some in this room have come perhaps from more charismatic Church backgrounds where you have some concept of how different churches might practice these gifts. Others who have little experience with these things will be learning some new terms and new ideas today. I do pray that both will be encouraged and exhorted to a Biblical vision today.
I remember the very first time I was around a Christian speaking tongues. If you recall a bit of my story, I became a follower of Christ right around the time of heading to college, and so much of Christianity was brand new to me. There were many experiences I simply was unaware of. As I approached graduation I decided to take a summer to join a missions outlet in Thailand. On one of my first days there, a group from the team was gathered in a hot Thailand room for a prayer gathering, about 12 of us. Immediatlely as this prayer gathering began I sensed the emotional power of the people in the room praying. There were some weeping in the corner, others were yelling prayers. And I could hear loudly pockets of people praying in what sounded like gibberish to me (I later learned that was what they called ‘praying in tongues.’) I was completely overwhelmed at all of this, but I tried to embrace as much as I could, and keep my head down and pray. After about twenty mintues of intense crying out prayer from this group, one of the group leaders stood up in the middle of the room and said, “This is your Father speaking. I want you to be encouraged. Be encouraged. This is your Father speaking.
What do we do with experiences like these? Is what I just described the type of thing that to be normalized in the New Testament Church. And if not, then what parts of that story went too far? And how would we know what parts went too far? Further, as we think about our Church and how we encourage the use of Spiritual Gifts, what boundaries ought to guide our gatherings so as elevate the Spiritual Gifts but not abuse the Spiritual Gifts? These are all vital questions that I want to discuss today.
Let’s remember our context. For the last few chapters Paul is correcting a mistake this early Corinthian Church was making. They had elevated those who spoke in tongues and those who prophesied up as the most important people in the Church. They were creating a culture of elitism, but also of lopsided Christianity, where the focus was on something other than Christ. So Paul provides the following instructions. And I want to read this lengthy section over us as if we were receiving these instructions from Paul.
From this text I would like to draw out some principles.
Speaking in Tongues is a Spiritual Gift that Must Be Stewarded Appropriately
The first principle is that Speaking in Tongues is a spiritual gift that must be stewarded appropriately. Now all through this passage are bits of advice about speaking in tongues. So let’s do a little work to understand what this gift is.
The first time we see this gift being used in the Scriptures is in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost. At Pentecost the Holy Spirit comes downs and fills the Apostles for their work. Peter begins to preach and we read
Acts 2:5-6 “5 Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. 6 And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language.”
What was happening here? It’s possible that one of a few things could be happening. Either the Apostles were speaking their own language, and God was unlocking the ears of the listeners to hear it in their own language. Or, the Apostles were suddenly able to communicate in languages they had never heard. Whatever happened, multiple languages were being communicated by men who had never learned those languages. All through the book of Acts we see scenarios where individuals and groups of people begin speaking in tongues.
The general historical understanding of Speaking in Tongues is that at times God unlocks a person’s tongue to communicate in a language they have never learned or studied in order to communicate the gospel to different cultures. An example I heard just recently from someone I trust. His friend was traveling to a remote village in a third world country. The friend had a translator with them to help communicate. But once he started speaking to a local, the translator didn’t do anything. The man assumed that the local spoke English and so he just continued to communicate. But after the conversation, the translator turned and asked him when he learned the language, because he sounded fluent. There are thousands upon thousands of well documented cases throughout history where God has used the spiritual gift of tongues for that purpose.
There is another definition of tongues that is very common in the Church today. That is the idea that God often gives a private prayer language that is a language of the angels and not understood by humans. And this passage is actually the basis for much of the theology around that idea.
1 Corinthians 14:2 “2 For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.”
There are many in this room who regularly practice praying in tongues privately. If you were to ask them about this, they would likely communicate that even though they don’t know what they’re praying, God does, and as they pray in tongues it is some of the deepest and most profound prayer they experience with God. I want to say a word here, throughout history there have been fringe groups pretty much from the start who claimed the ability to pray in a heavenly language, but it was always fringe. Until about a century ago with the explosive growth of the Pentecostal Church. That is not to minimize this, but it is to accurately assess Christian history. I myself do not pray in a heavenly language. But, great scholars who I respect tremendously do say that this text permits that as a possibility. And so, with great humility I would suggest than anybody in this Church who prays in a heavenly language in private is more than welcome to do so. Just as anybody in this Church who does not pray in a heavenly language is more than welcome to do so.
There are however, a few boundaries, that Paul provides so that this gift from God does not get abused. We are to,
1 Corinthians 14:1 “1 Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts…
And at the same time hold up rigorously God’s boundaries for these gifts as provided in this text.
The first seatbelt, precaution is that when the gift of tongues is used in public, there must always be an interpreter, with no exception. In verses 6-12 Paul talks about how in a public setting a person who is praying in a heavenly language will just sound like a lifeless instrument, giving off sound but not communicating. And his point is that this does not build up the Chruch (12). So his instructions are
1 Corinthians 14:13 “13 Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret.”
This is important. If you go to many charismatic or Pentecostal churches what you will see and hear take place is directly the opposite of what is said here. You will see Pastors, worship leaders, people through the congregation all speaking in tongues simultaneously. I’ve been in these rooms. And I believe by this text, they are unbiblical. That’s why later on in verse 27 he says explicitly,
1 Corinthians 14:27 “27 If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret.”
So this is a rebuke of charismatic Churches that speak publicly in tongues without an interpreter. And if you return to my opening story, I believe that meeting where the prayers were being prayed in front of others out loud was also a mistake. With no translator present, tongues should not have been being stated out loud, because according to this text it does not build the church up. This is exactly why Paul says in verse 5,
1 Corinthians 14:5 “5 Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.”
Tongues are only beneficial to the Church if they are interpreted, otherwise they build nobody up.
Secondly, we reject what is often called ‘Second Blessing Theology.’ Second blessing theology states that someetime after a person believes in Jesus, they receive a “second blessing” of the Holy Spirit, and the evidence of this second blessing is that they speak in tongues. This is the basis of Pentecostalism. A person who speaks in a tongue has no more or less evidence of the Holy Spirit working through them. As the great theologian DA Carson has written,
“It would be a strange calculus which concluded that a modern charismatic lives on a higher spiritual plane than did, say, Augustine, Balthasar Hubmaier, Jonathan Edwards, Count Von Zinzendorf, or Charles Spurgeon, since none of these spoke in tongues.”DA Carson
Lastly, every story I have heard of the gift of tongues being used in a way that builds up the Church, is a story from the missions frontier. It seems from Christian history, that God will often empower his missionaries with a supernatural ability to communicate to locals in order to see the gospel go forth. This does not mean God cannot and has not done it no non-missions environments. Its just that it seems that God’s pattern is to permit this gift for particular purposes on the mission field.
Prophecy is a Spiritual Gift that Must Be Stewarded Appropriately
We now turn to examine Prophecy, the second gift that is part of Paul’s discussion. Prophecy, like Speaking in Tongues, is a spiritual gift that needs to be stewarded appropriately. As with tongues, we are going to need to be precise on our definitions in order to navigate the theological pitfalls that can accompany discussions of this gift. Paul writes,
1 Corinthians 14:3 “3 On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.”
It seems that “prophecy” was a pretty normal thing for the New Testament to experience among its members. So much so that Paul is concerned with proper organization of those with these gifts so that all their messages can be heard.
1 Corinthians 14:29-31 “29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. 30 If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged,”
There are essentially three different camps of how to think about prophecy. The first camp, held by many of the Puritans and the Reformers is that “prophecy” in the New Testament simply means teaching. After all, the prophets in the Old Testament did much more than just tell the future, the spoke God’s Word. I don’t think this view is correct, and that is saying something because if you know me, you know I have a love of the Puritans.
The second view is called the Cessationist View. Cessationists believe that there is absolutely no difference between Old Testament Prophets and New Testament prophets. Its the same Word. When a prophet speaks, “thus sayeth the Lord.” But, they believe that the line of prophets ended when the age of the age of the Apostles ended. Now, they make a good case, but not from the Bible. The Bible nowhere says the gift of prophecy as described in 1 Corinthians 14 would come to end. And so I don’t think this view is correct.
Lastly is what I would call the General Sense View. The Premonition View is that New Testament prophecy still exists but is categorically different than Old Testament prophecy. In the first century, the term “prophecy” was used in a thousand different ways, especially throughout the Roman empire. It didn’t mean what it once meant to the Jews in the Old Testament. Which is one of the reasons they used the word Apostles to designate the 12. The Apostles are functionally 12 new prophets, like the prophets of old who when they speak, it is the very words of God. We consider their writings—which we’re studying right now—to be God’s very words. But the term prophets now refers to somebody who receives a sense, or a premonition, or a word from God but it is assumed that as they communicate sense outwards they may get part of it wrong, which is why Paul instructs that the prophets words need to be weighed, or discerned if they are true or not.
1 Corinthians 14:29 “29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.”
1 Corinthians 14:32 “32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.”
I think I have often experienced this definition of prophecy while preaching (though others might use a different experience to describe the phenomenon). I prepare and do my work. But sometimes the Holy Spirit comes over me as I preach and I find myself speaking unplanned ideas that minister to the congregation in utterly remarkable ways.
Under this view, we can return to the opening story. When the woman said, “This is your father speaking, I want you to be encouraged.” Was she out of line in speaking that? Yes. No New Testament prophet ought to express that they are speaking the very words of God. Rather, those speaking prophetically, must hold a strong sense of humility in their prophetic word. Assuming God was communicating through her at that moment, the correct way for her to speak would have been. “I could be wrong. But I have the sense that God desires us to be encouraged right now.” And then, perhaps opening the Scriptures to particular passages that speak of being encouraged in the Lord. This communicates a humility that perhaps they are wrong. But also a boldness, that perhaps God is using them to communicate an important truth at an important juncture.
Once again, as with tongues, this gift can be abused, and so Paul provides us with appropriate boundaries to know when it is being used correctly and when it is being used incorrectly. As we look out at the landscape of Christianity, it seems very clear that this gift of prophecy is being wildly abused, and as a result God is being mocked. I have seen example after example of Churches who regularly practice and promote their gifts of prophecy saying outlanding things. We had those claiming to speak prophetically, that God would overturn the 2020 election results. WE had those claiming to speak prophetically, that China would invade America by years end last year. We had those claiming to speak prophetically saying that if you give money to their ministry they will receive a blessing. The world of prophetic ministry at times looks like a comedy reel. And that is preciesly why the Apostle Paul puts such guards up to protect it. Again as DA Carson has said,
“One begins to suspect, then, that prophecy may occur more often than is recognized in noncharismatic circles, and less often than is recognized in charismatic circles.”DA Carson
First, any prophetic word must be subjected to God’s Word.
1 Corinthians 14:32 “32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.”
This means that anybody who states a prophetic word must have their words subjected to the Old Testament prophets, and if the word is in any way contradictory to God’s Word, then the person has falsely prophesied and ought to be corrected for their mistake.
Secondly, prophetic words must be weighed
1 Corinthians 14:29 “29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.”
To weigh a prophetic word means that the Elders of the Church consider the message that has been given, whether it is from God or not. When the elders weigh a prophetic message, they are considering all the fact involved. They are prayerfully considering the words, and what God is doing in the Church, and then determining whether to affirm or to reject the prophetic word.
An example of weighing what is said. Last year we had a woman, who had been trained to be a prophet at Bethel, which is a Church out in California that has a heavy focus on the prophetic ministry. I believe this ministry is highly flawed. However, she came to Church leadership and expressed that the reason the Church was not growing was because a particular leader in the Church was abusing his wife. And that until that was corrected, the Lord’s blessing would not come. Well, we discussed with the person, with the spouse. We brought the best friends in to the discussion and carefully weighed whether there was any truth in this statement. And overwhelmingly it was clear that this was a ridiculous idea. We then approached this person, with great gentleness and communicated that we looked into this and prayed about it, and it was determined that this was a false prophetic word, and that we would like to offer better training for how to handle this in the future. This person never returned to the Church. A false prophet was exposed, and she ran.
We have thus far examined two remarkable and powerful gifts from the Lord. But I want us to remember now, before we get lost in the weeds of this conversation, what we’re discussing. Three times in this passage, the Apostle states that the Spiritual Gifts are for the building up of God’s church (5, 12, 26). One of the reasons the Spiritual Gifts are so often abused or misused, is because we are so easily attracted to sensationalism. This is why on Social Media those who say the most bombastic statements are the ones that have the quickest growth, and often the most difficult crash endings. Gifts like Tongues and Prophecy are sensational. We are attracted to them because the gift seems so remarkable. But we miss what the gift is always supposed to be about and who it is always supposed to point to. It’s never about the gift, it’s about the gift-giver. We are called to “pursue the gifts, especially prophecy” because in pursuing the gifts we experience the Holy Spirit and empower the Church. Every utilization of a Spiritual Gift in this Church ought to whole-heartedly and fully point others towards Jesus Christ, and the gospel.
If someone gives a prophetic word, the person who gave the word ought to fade into the background, as the living God—Jesus Christ—fades into the foreground. Every time a spiritual gift is used, whether it is teaching, or administrating, or serving, or acts of mercy, or opening your home through hospitality, it ought to always be a display of the cross where our King took our place underneath the wrath of God in order to forgive us our sins and renew a right relationship with God. If it ultimately points to anything else, we are falsely using the gift, and are in need of correction. The cross must remain at the center of the Church. The call to be a Christian, before it is about excelling in Spiritual Gifts, it is about excelling in knowing God by cherishing our Savior Jesus Christ. That’s why the gifts must be rooted in humility. A humility that honestly assesses our own sinfullness, recognizes our deep need of a Savior in Christ, and then celebrates that every good thing in our life is of God and God alone. There is no room for sensationalism, there is only room for cross-shaped humility, and Christ honoring with all that we have.
Perhaps I can close with a sort of application for our Church. At this Church we accept that this chapter of the Bible may indeed reference the gift of speaking in a heavenly prayer language. And so, any follower of Christ who holds in thie conscience this practice, we are grateful for them, and encourage them to do so. While at the same time expressing that this does not make any one person more or less spiritual than any other person. When it comes to the gathered Church, we do not speak in tongues publicly. And if anyone certain that God has a message to give through speaking in tongues publicly, we would assert that a translator would need to be present to communicate that idea.
When it comes to the gift of prophecy, we are not cessationists. We hold that God can and still does speak through his people, though not in the same way that he did in the Old Testament or through the Apostles. At our Member’s Meetings, I regularly invite people to share what God is doing in their lives and through their ministries and give opportunities to share with the members words that God may lay on their heart during the meeting. If anyone ever has what they consider a “prophetic word” during those meetings, we the elders would receive it, weight it, and give a determination.