Introduction: Defining the Gifts.
In the church today there has been a great deal of controversy surrounding passages like this one. From the outset I won’t to be honest with you that I grew up around more charismatic parents. These passages were certainly discussed among my family. I remember during a hard season of my life my dad teaching me how to pray a private prayer language. I have had people prophecy over me before. Therefore, I am going to do something I don’t normally do here in the beginning and attempt to briefly address some subcategories in theology. There are 3 “spiritual gifts” (I Cor 12.1) or “higher gifts” (I Cor 12.31) that are mentioned here and I will address two of them. Let’s not forget what Paul said in I Cor 12.1, “I do not want you to be uninformed.” These are not mere conversations for the “scholars” but Paul desires all Christians, everywhere, to have a basic understanding of these gifts.
The first is prophecy. What is biblical prophecy? There are 3 basic positions among Christians today. Some believe prophecy is speaking the very words of God with equal authority to the OT prophets and the NT apostles. Personally I believe Scripture itself condemns this view and must be rejected. The second is the belief that prophecy is the equivalent of what we would call expository preaching or teaching. The third and final view is the belief that prophecy refers to a spontaneous “revelation” brings to our minds which is spoken out loud. These are NOT the words of God, but timely words for God’s people. Personally I fall somewhere between the second and third view. I believe preaching/teaching can be prophetic, but the writers of the Bible could have easily explicitly stated preaching/teaching were prophecy. But they used different words for preaching and teaching. Paul wants everyone to have the gift of prophecy but he does not assert that he wants everyone to have the gift of preaching.
Tongues has also been a gift that the modern church cannot agree on. There are 2 main views on tongues. The first believes whenever the Bible mentions tongues it is talking a specific intelligible human language. The second view believes the Bible is talking about a divine or angelic language. Call me Mr. Moderate, but I personally believe there is some truth in both of these two views. We can certainly see in places like Acts 2 that there miraculous times when God can help people speak a language that are unfamiliar with no formal training. We have documented evidence of this happening (They Speak with Other Tongues, Sherrill). But Paul also does not have a problem with a mysterious tongue. Listen to what he says—READ I Cor 14.9, 14. Paul is not condemning these practices but the misuse or abuse of these practices. I think anyone who believes Paul is condemning an unintelligible prayer language is now misusing Paul’s words.
The thrust of Paul’s desire here is combating the misuse of prophecy and tongues in the public gatherings of the local church.
1. The priority of prophecy—I Cor 14.1-5.
We cannot divorce this section from the previous one, and Paul reminds us of that in the first two words, “Pursue love.” Paul has told us several times there is nothing wrong with desiring “spiritual gifts” (I Cor 12.31 & 14.1), in fact, he encourages it. We are not just to desire them, but “earnestly” desire them. With that said Paul puts a priority on a certain gift—“prophecy”—READ I Cor 14.2-5. If Paul wants us all to have this gift, and puts a priority on then, then that should put a great deal of weight on us to make sure we understand the nature, purpose, and manifestation of the prophetic gift.
The nature of prophecy is what I opened up at the beginning of this sermon. I would define Prophecy as, “a timely spontaneous word inspired by the Holy Spirit that does not contradict the Word of God.” Now Paul lays out a few desires God has for prophecy here—building up, encouragement, and consolation. I do not believe this is an exhaustive list of the purpose[s] of prophecy, but it certainly a wonderful starting place. This list is reflective of the context Paul is writing to, which were the circumstances of the Corinthian Christians. They were using the gifts of tongues and prophecy to tear down and condemn.
As we gather together as a church we should desire to speak timely words, based on the Word of God, which will encourage, console, and build up the other saints. In order to do this we must spend many hours listening. The gift of prophecy is not against the habits or means of grace, but manifest from them. As you read your Bible listening to God, praying hoping to hear a word from God, and doing the discipline of biblical community, then you will prophecy. You will see more often that you are speaking timely spontaneous words that are encouraging, consoling, and building up God’s people. If you desire to have the gift of prophecy, then you must become a VERY effective listener first. When we listen to God and to others well, then we can speak timely words that God will provide. Imagine preaching, teaching, bible study, and prayer are like classical music, but prophecy is jazz. You have to know the notes in jazz, but you use a lot of improvisation. We hear a right word from God at the right time.
2. The limitations of unintelligible tongues—I Cor 14.6-25.
As we consider the gift of tongues we view it in light of what Paul just mentioned in I Cor 14.1-5. Paul encouraged us to put a priority on a prophetic gift, because Paul understands the limitations of an unintelligible tongue in the public gatherings of a local church. There are at least 3 limitations in the public gatherings we can see here in I Cor 14.6-25.
The first limitation is misunderstanding—READ I Cor 14.6, 9-11, 16-17. When we consider these things it can also be helpful to stop and think through what our actions will say to others about our God. In I Cor 14.21 Paul quotes an OT text found in Isa 28. When you go back and consider the context of the passage we see that foreign tongues, tongues we do not understand is a sign of divine judgment. When Israel was in a state of rebellion God would send foreigners with a different language to punish them. They would have be ruled by someone they could not even understand. Paul expresses the same thing here—READ I Cor 14.22. Do we want emphasize in our gatherings that people are far from God? Or do we want to emphasize in our gatherings that people have the opportunity to experience the nearness of God today? When we consider these issues we need to slow down and consider what we are saying about our God to others.
This brings me to the second limitation, which is the impact on outsiders—READ I Cor 14.16-17, 23-25. Paul knows there will be a mix of various people in the public gatherings of the church. There will be believers, seekers (those who are not quit ready to make a commitment to Christ), and unbelievers (those who were probably dragged to church). Let me give you one practical example of this in our church, we have a couple of families here that have young children who attend the public gathering with them. Now if we spoke in some divine language that they could not understand then they would be very confused. Now they would certainly know they under divine judgment, but that would be the limit. At this point in their redemptive development I think it is more important they understand the message of God in Christ. This is why it is so important for our parents to make sure we are reviewing the sermon, songs, and whatever else we are doing in our gatherings with them when you go home. We do not want our children, or any other else (those inside or outside our church) to misunderstand who God is. I would encourage you, now matter the phase of life you are in that you make a habit of reviewing the sermon, songs, and other liturgies of our Sunday gatherings. I wrote about these things in your I Corinthians study guide, so if it has been a while since you have checked that out I would encourage you to do so again.
The final limitation is will not experience person wholeness—READ I Cor 14.14-15, 19-20. There is a subtle tension many times in the modern church when we consider how to be minister to the soul. Some Christians error on the side of overemphasizing the mind. Many of these Christians come across as cold, rigid, and unemotional. Others overemphasize the heart. These Christians come across as inconsistent, unreliable, and too emotional. Both groups can be self-righteous and legalistic about their “traditions”. The Corinthian Christians were overemphasizing the heart. They wanted to have regular miraculous emotional experiences, but to the neglect the mind. Paul does not want this for them. Why is that? For the Corinthian Christians this practice was keeping them in the realm of immaturity. It had become divisive and destructive. Paul wants them to experience of what is available to them by holding the affections and thoughts of the soul in balance.
So how can we avoid these limitations? We will resist the temptations of being misunderstand, needlessly making others feel like outsiders, and not experiencing wholeness when we view these gifts in light of what God revealed to us in Christ. In Christ we have someone who spent so much intimate time with God and every word He spoke was timely. Think about the woman at the well, or the woman caught in adultery, or any other time in Scripture when people were in years of brokenness and here comes Jesus with a perfectly timed word. When we examine the life of Christ no where did we see Him speaking in a divine-angelic tongue. No, He spoke in the tongues of men so they would understand Him. He could have said, “you people need to come up to where I am and learn my language,” but He did not. He spoke to us in a way that we could understand. He was not self-righteous, but attracted outsiders. He was not self-righteous about His passion for God or His intelligible theological understanding of God. He was able to minister to all.
Friends, what we need above all else is a heavy emphasis on Christ. If we go back to I Cor 1 & 2 we see Paul shaping the Corinthian church by emphasizing the Cross of Christ. He wanted them to think deeply about what the Cross of Christ bought for them and how it shapes our inner being. The Cross affects the way feel and the way we think. For Paul, and for us here at Refuge, this is how we move onto to spiritual maturity. The most loving act in human history is the Cross, therefore, the “higher gifts” must be viewed in light of the Cross. The Cross will affect what will take place in our gatherings. The Cross of Christ is the way God will build us up. This is the highest gift we should earnestly desire. We should increase in our affections for this and think deeply on the Cross.