SCRIPTURE: 1 Corinthians 14
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: May 17th, 2014
"Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy." (1 Cor 14:1)
Are there any more prophets of this age? Is one able to prophesy without requiring a title of "prophet?" Why is it that so few people are keen on the gift of prophecy? Is Paul's exhortation about the gift of prophecy only applicable to the Corinthian Church? These questions are considered in this week's reflection on Sabbath Walk. Before venturing farther, let me pose the question. What is prophecy according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 14?
A) Prophecy as Contrast to Tongues
2For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. 3But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. 4Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. (1 Corinthians 14:2-3)If the use of tongues is a way for humans to communicate with God, prophecy is a way for humans to communicate with one another. The words used by Paul are for "their strengthening, encouraging, and comfort." If tongues are intelligible only to God and those who can interpret them, prophecy will be intelligible to all, if not, the majority of people. For professors and authors Hays, Duvall, and Pate,
"Biblical prophecy is a relevant and important topic for the church today. Not only does biblical prophecy provide hope for the future and strength for today, but its broad-sweeping themes help us to understand the entire Bible. Indeed, prophecy ties the Bible together from Genesis to Revelation." (J, Daniel Hays, J. Scott Duvall, and C. Marvin Pate, An A-to-Z Guide to Biblical Prophecy and the End Times, Zondervan, 2012, p7)
We know that the Word of God is also a Word of Prophecy since it is written to reveal God to man. Knowing the Word of God strengthens the Church and the body of Christ as the prophecy of God is made known in greater measure each time believers are studying and learning the Word. By contrasting it with tongues, Paul is helping to anchor down the need for edifying one another with our spiritual gifts.
B) Prophecy as Instructional
6Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you 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? (1 Corinthians 14:6)Note how Paul lumps together the "revelation," "knowledge," and "word of instruction" together with the word "prophecy." Can it be Bible teachers, professors, and those who offer a clear word of instruction also endowed with the gift of prophecy?
During the Ancient Near East era, prophets are those who are intermediaries between God and people. In the Old Testament, the prophets like Nahum, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and others are all messengers from God, telling Israel and the people important words. During the Early Christianity era, there is an increasing shift away from foretelling the future to forthtelling the message of God. The gospels in the New Testament interprets Jesus as the Messiah as prophesied in the Old Testament. While they may not be called prophets per se, people like John the Baptist, Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah, are all prophetic witnesses who behaved like the prophets of old, announcing the beginning of the reign of the Kingdom of God. The similarity of the Old Testament and the New Testament lies in the speaking into the contexts of what people needed to hear at that time. Pastors, teachers, professors, and all who are in the ministry of teaching are exercising their prophetic gifts when they speak into the needs of the people at their time. They may not be called prophets but they are fully able to exercise the gifts of prophecy, according to 1 Corinthians 14. Like a synonym, one practical way to understand prophecy is to see the way Paul has used others descriptive words to accompany the gift of prophecy: revelation, instruction, knowledge, etc.
C) Prophecy as For Believers
8Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? 9So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. 10Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. 11If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker is a foreigner to me. 12So it is with you. Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church. (1 Corinthians 14:8-12)
The context of 1 Corinthians 14 is about uniting the Church. It is about magnifying those gifts that edify the body, that builds up the Church, over and above those that tend to puff up individuals. In this manner, it is quite different from knowledge which alone tends to puff up. Through wisdom, knowledge can be transmitted in a manner that honours God and builds people up in the truth. Prophecy is for believers. It is to be excelled in. One should not be afraid of the gift of prophecy as it is not something to be obtained for self-gratification or self-accomplishment. It is received with the aim to bless others. It is given by God for the benefit of the Church. Whoever has the gift of prophecy will want to bless other fellow believers. Foreigners and outsiders will not be able to understand or appreciate prophecy.
Contrast this to prophecy during the Graeco-Roman times. Instead of a focus on edifying others, Hays, et al tells of prophecies then as divination, at "oracular places" that "maintained a cult personnel for disclosing to inquiring folk divine guidance regarding the past, present, and future." While the prophets of God speak truth about the message of God, the ancient prophets tend to be viewed as cultic figures with a special ear to the domain of time. In other words, foretelling tends to be the mainstay of non-Jewish prophets during that era.
D) Prophecy as Forthtelling
18I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue. (1 Corinthians 14:18-19)The gift of prophecy is essentially about sharing the message of God intelligibly and clearly. What has been revealed needs to be explained in simpler terms. For practical purposes, paraphrasing is a way of forthtelling. The prophets of old did many re-tellings of the promises of God. Hays, Duvall, and Pate repeats the two-fold purpose of the biblical prophets. First, as forthtelling, they speak of the "word of the Lord to Israel and the nations" for their own times. Second, they foretell the future.
Speaking of what God had done, repeating the Word of God, exposition on the truth of God's claims, are all examples of forthtelling. This makes the role of Bible teachers, professors, and pastors particularly important ministries of forthtelling. According to Paul, speaking clear words of instruction that are intelligible is indeed prophetic.
In summary, while I would hesitate about declaring any modern person a "prophet" in the class of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the famous biblical prophets, I do not want to deny the existence of all kinds of prophets altogether. What I do affirm is to distinguish the noun "Prophet" from the term "prophetic gift." The "Prophet" seems to be more titular, and prone to abuses. "Prophetic gifts" on the other hand focus on the positive effects of prophecy. Paul's letter to the Corinthians essentially expands on what "prophetic gifts" mean, rather than who prophets are.
One does not need to be a "Prophet" before exercising any prophetic gift. Such a gift ought to be sought by everyone, so says Paul. The prophetic gift is for the edification of fellow believers. It is for the benefit of speaking intelligibly to one another. It is for the teaching and instruction for believers. It is forth-telling of the gospel of Jesus. The more one exercises these traits, the more one would be exercising one's prophetic voice.
THOUGHT: "That misguided prophet had forgotten Paul's guidelines for 'the simple gift of prophecy,' which is usually personal prophecy, offered in 1 Corinthians 13:3: edification, exhortation, and comfort. God can and does use prophets to speak individual words of correction or realignment, but it is not usually done in a prayer line with a microphone so all can hear. .... Correction is part of prophetic ministry, but personal words are for the 'upbuilding and constructive spiritual progress and encouragement and consolation.' Personal prophecy is not for blasting people." (Jennifer LeClaire, The Making of a Prophet, Minneapolis, MN: Chosen Books, 2014, p164)
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