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Prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14

In yesterday’s post I began considering the nature and function of prophecy in 1 Corinthians, focusing especially on chapters 12 and 13. Today I’ll pick up the conversation by examining chapter 14, which provides more data about prophesying in the early church than any other chapter of the New Testament.

On the basis of 1 Corinthians 13, which celebrated the excellence of love, chapter 14 begins: “Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy.” The imperative to “pursue love” follows logically on the heels of chapter 13. But the command to “strive for” or “seek” (Greek, zeloute) to prophesy surprises. The end of chapter 12 seemed to suggest that different people have different roles in the church, and that one should not seek a different role than one has been assigned by the Spirit. Yet 14:1 suggests that anyone should desire to prophesy. Why?

Paul explains the superlative value of prophecy in the next several verses. Whereas people who speak in tongues are not intelligible, those who prophesy “speak to other people” (14:2-3). Moreover, those who prophesy contribute to “their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.” Thus, those who prophesy “build up the church” (14:4). Therefore, the one who prophesies serves a greater purpose in the church. One should seek to prophesy because one should “strive to excel [in spiritual gifts] for building up the church” (14:12).

Prophesying, though intended primarily for believers in the context of a Christian assembly, has the additional benefit of being intelligible to an outsider who happens upon a church gathering. In fact, such a person might hear a prophecy that reveals the secrets of his or her heart, leading to repentance and worship (14:24-25).

In the closing verses of 1 Corinthians 14, Paul gives specific instructions on the use of prophecy in church gatherings:

Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby, let the first person be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged. And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets, for God is a God not of disorder but of peace. (14:29-33)

Prophesying by several persons is to be allowed. But notice that the prophetic utterances are to be weighed by the community. The verb translated here as “weighed” is diakrino in Greek, which is sometimes translated as “to judge” or “to discern.” In other words, when someone prophesies, the community should judge the prophesy. Is it really a word from God? Should the community receive it as such? Notice that just because someone claims to bring God’s word, that does not mean that the community should accept it as a divine message. (If only churches today would carefully weigh the messages of their preachers! Too often congregations simply bow before pastoral authority without exercising the discernment that Scripture requires.)

Paul goes on to say that “if a revelation is made to someone else sitting nearby,” the first speaker should be silent (14:30). This sentence seems to equate prophecy with revelation (apokalupto in Greek). Both involve the uncovering and communicating of God’s truth. Notice also that Paul does not envision prophesying as some ecstatic experience in which one is taken over by the Spirit. Rather, the speaker is in control, and can choose to be silent while another person prophesies.

Then Paul adds something that was implied in 14:1, but is now made explicit: “For you can all prophesy one by one.” This means that, although certain members in the church have an identified role as prophets (12:28-29), every person can prophesy at one point or another. Thus, Paul was able to encourage everyone to seek to prophesy. This does not imply that everybody will become a prophet who regularly prophesies in church meetings. But everybody could prophesy if the Spirit chose to give a prophetic gift through a certain person.

Notice the purpose of prophesying: “so that all may learn and be encouraged” (14:31). The Greek verbs translated here as “learn” and “be encouraged” are the standard verbs with those meanings. Paul does not explain exactly what people might learn, or why they might be encouraged. But he thinks of prophesying in these terms. Notice that he does not mention some of what we might associate with prophecy, things like knowledge of the future. Yes, what people learn could be about the future, and this could be what encourages them. But there is nothing in 1 Corinthians 14 that suggests this particular limitation of prophesying.

Paul concludes his discussion of spiritual gifts with this exhortation: “So, my friends, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; but all things should be done decently and in order” (14:39-40). Ah, that’s music to my Presbyterian ears, or at least the last part, at any rate, the part about decency and order. More unsettling for a Presbyterian, however, the things do be done decently and in order are spiritual gifts, especially prophesying, for which we are to be eager (zeloute, same verb as in 14:1).

This concludes my brief overview of Paul’s teaching on prophecy in 1 Corinthians. Tomorrow I’ll finish this series by offering summary comments and a few points of application.

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The Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a pastor, author, retreat leader, speaker, and blogger. Since October 2007 he has been the Senior Director and Scholar-in-Residence for Laity Lodge, a multifacted ministry in the Hill Country of Texas. Before then, he was for sixteen years the Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church in Irvine, California (a city in Orange County about forty miles south of Los Angeles). Prior to coming to Irvine, Mark served on the staff of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood as Associate Pastor of Education. Mark studied at Harvard University, receiving a B.A. in Philosophy, an M.A. in the Study of Religion, and a Ph.D. in New Testament and Christian Origins. He has taught classes in New Testament for Fuller Theological Seminary and San Francisco Theological Seminary. Used by permission from markdroberts.com.