Prophecy & Tongues (A Gospel Issue)

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Ok, so I need you to take a moment to remember the last few sermons, because they have all been, in some way, preparatory for this one. On the first Sunday of the year we talked about we are sometimes convicted to make changes in our life, and therefore make “Resolutions” to change – but how those resolutions rarely last very long. That’s when we talked about accountability not only to God but also to each other. The next week we talked about the Church Membership Covenant and how it is simply a type of accountability tool to help each other walk with Jesus more joyfully, biblically, and consistently. That was followed by last week’s message on “Unity and Harmony” which was an overview the theological underpinnings of how and why the work of Jesus on the cross brings us back into fellowship with Him and with each other, and how us doing the hard work to live that out brings glory to God and honor to Jesus.

Hopefully, those big thoughts of Accountability, Unity, and Harmony have been bouncing around your head for the past month because it will help you understand what is going on in our passage today. Please turn to 1 Corinthians 14:1-33.

Context

First, and as always, a little context first. 1 Corinthians is a letter written by the Apostle Paul, inspired by God and with the authority of Jesus, to a new and relatively small church in the ancient Greek city of city of Corinth. Corinth was not unlike Ottawa or other big cities in North America today. It was cosmopolitan, multicultural, multi-ethnic with a vast array of religions and places of worship. It had very rich and very poor people, famous thinkers, great actors, beautiful architecture, and was a port town with lots of tradesman and visitors.

Atheism was almost unheard of and the life of the city ebbed and flowed from the pagan temples. They were where you’d go not only for worship, but for entertainment, to find work, to buy groceries, or to eat out. The experience of being part of a “worship service” in one of these temples was pretty intense. There were temple prostitutes, drugs, music, and other pretty crazy stuff going on two as people opened their minds to demonic influence. Some people would scream, others laugh. Some would fall down and shake, writhe on the floor, speak gibberish, or tell fortunes with special “words from the gods”.

None of this was considered weird though. It would be normal for someone, rich or poor, man or woman, to come into the temple, join an orgy, take drugs, and party – or beg favour from the god and be told to either pay money, hurt themselves, or do something extreme or terrible to ensure the god’s goodwill. That was normal.

Then the Apostle Paul came to town and planted a Christian church and it was very different from what they were used to. He was tired and overwhelmed from a long, difficult mission trip, but stayed for a year and a half, preaching, teaching, counselling, and preparing the church. He taught them that God loved them and saved them by grace, and didn’t need or want them to do all the crazy stuff they were doing at the pagan temples. He taught them God’s expectations for biblical faith, salvation, prayer, and how God creates people for his glory and equips them to worship Him and take care of each other.

He left and went on to plant and help more churches, but it wasn’t too long until he started hearing that there were problems in Corinth. We’ve been covering a lot of those issues over the past year or so, but most of them centred on divisions in the church – which we learned last week means that they had forgotten the very foundation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

They had divided on which teacher they liked better – some choosing Peter, others Paul, others Apollos – forgetting that their first allegiance was to Jesus and the teachers all just worked for Him. Because of the fighting in the church, they had given room for Satan to have a field-day among them and some of the habits of the old temples had worked their way back into their church. They forgot the gospel and started to believe they had to do certain things to get saved and win God’s favour. They forgot what God had said about purity and righteousness as both rampant sexual immorality and some form of pleasure denying asceticism had grown up in the church. They forgot about the unity and harmony that comes from being united to Jesus and started suing one another. They had also forgotten about the exclusive claims of Jesus, that there is only one God and one way to be saved as they grew bored with their church or felt pressure from society to go back to their old temples to offer worship to the pagan gods – while other people were using their freedom in Christ as an excuse to offend everyone around them by refusing to conform to the basic, cultural standards of their society.

In the section before the one we’re looking at right now, we’re seeing how all this had crept into the most foundational of their Christian practices as even the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper, what we call Communion, had been corrupted. They’d meet for a worship service, which always included the special time of Communion where the sacrifice of Jesus was remembered, and it was a fiasco. Some would come early and eat all the food, others would get drunk on the communion wine, and the hungry among them would continue to starve.

Paul then, in chapter 12, turns the topic to Spiritual gifts, which are God’s special gifts given upon conversion to believers, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to help people worship God, serve their church family, and spread God’s love around the world. We talked about that in November and the sermon is online, so I’m not going to review it here, but I want you to remember that the big issue was that they had gotten God’s gifts confused with the type of things that were happening at the pagan temple.

In their previous religious experiences, it was all about self and selfishness. It was about manipulating the gods and the people around them to get what they wanted. It was about having intense ecstatic experiences that centred on their own desire for pleasure or excitement. It was about being the centre of attention, feelings special, and being more spiritual, more euphoric, more intense than those around them.

But the Christian church isn’t about selfishness, it’s about selflessness. It’s about being like Jesus, the servant of all who gave His life as a ransom for many. It’s about God saving us unto good works and living a life humbly serving His will and not our own. It is about using our gifts, talents, abilities, finances, to help others and point them to Jesus.

Giving up self-centred religion is hard though. Giving up on the belief that we can manipulate God is hard. Giving up being the centre of attention and living for others is hard too – which is one reason why this church, once the Apostle left – slipped back into old habits and needed to be corrected. In that correction, Paul gives some teaching on the Spiritual gifts, teaches them about loving service in Chapter 13 (which I hope you remember), and then here in chapter 14 addresses two of the gifts that were causing most of the trouble – Prophecy and Tongues.

Prophecy and Tongues

Just a quick note on what those are, so the passage is more easily understood when we read it:

Prophecy is, essentially, is the spiritual gift of speaking words from God. This is either something God has suddenly revealed or brought to mind, usually the words of scripture that apply to a certain situation or some piece of wisdom or direction or are very much like the gifts of preaching and teaching when God uses a person to speak and explain the Word of God to someone. They come through normal, human language, and according to the Bible, have to be tested or evaluated for truth, based on what God has already revealed in the Bible (1 Cor 14:29, 1 Thess 5:19-21).

So the picture of the New Testament spiritual gift of prophecy isn’t Moses standing on a hillside declaring words from God that no one has heard before, but more like a Christian friend, teacher, elder, or preacher speaking words that line up with scripture and seem to exactly fit a certain moment in time, bring glory to God and clarity, comfort, and direction to those who are listening. Sometimes God uses the words that the person is speaking to go straight into the heart of the listeners, believers or unbelievers, so much so that it seems like the secrets of their heart have been revealed to the speaker and God is speaking directly to them.

The gift of Tongues is similar but different in that the message from God is coming in a language that the person speaking doesn’t know – sometimes as another human language, like in Acts 2, or sometimes in a language that no one knows. This can happen when a Christian is alone, during their private prayer times, or publically when God takes over a person’s voice and shares a message that no one is able to understand until someone with the gift of interpretation stands up to explain what the message means. When spoken privately, it’s an intimate act of worship. When spoken publically, just like the gift of prophecy, this public message is meant to bring glory to God and clarity, comfort, and direction to those who are listening.

You can see how tempting it would be for a person who wants that weird, ecstatic, religious experience, or who wants to be the centre of attention, or who wants to feel special, to want this to happen to them. And especially for those in this Corinthian church where people were coming out of those pagan worship rituals. The other spiritual gifts, like hospitality, encouragement, service, giving, mercy, faith, or helps are not nearly as spectacular or flashy as tongues, right?

So, with that in mind let’s read 1 Corinthians 14:1-33 together:

“Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. 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. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. 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.

Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.

Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up. I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.

Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. In the Law it is written, ‘By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.’ Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.

What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first 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 prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.”

 A Gospel Issue

Do you see what the big issue is here? God is all about Christians using their gifts. He wants people to speak His word to people, to bring His wisdom and comfort and joy to them. He wants His power to be shown, for Christians to be built up, for faith to grow, worship to be exciting and inspirational, and for people to get saved. He wants believers to experience what it’s like to speak the words of life to one another and see God’s Spirit move in a powerful way.

But, as with all sources of power and all gifts, there is the risk of it being misused. Usually, our greatest strengths are those that cause us the most trouble, right? This church had a lot of amazing spiritual experience, and had seen God move in amazing ways, had experienced God’s grace in an amazing way, but with that explosive power had come the temptation toward selfishness, division and pursuing the gifts rather than the Giver.

Instead of listening to God, they were more interested in being heard by others. Instead obeying God, they kept trying to tell God what they wanted. They were treating Jesus the way they had treated their pagan gods. Instead of coming to the Son of God humbly for salvation, for direction, for hope, for help, they came for the gifts and experiences associated with Him.

This still happens today and happened when Jesus walked the earth. Turn to John 6 where it tells the story of when Jesus had preached all day and those who were listening hadn’t brought food and were hungry. He had compassion on them and miraculously fed thousands of them with one boy’s lunch. After everyone had eaten until they were full, the disciples gathered twelve baskets of extra food left over!

Now read what happened next:

“When the people saw the sign [the miracle] that he had done, they said, ‘This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!’ Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” (John 6:14-15)

What did the people want from Jesus? Eternal life? Salvation from death? Freedom from sin? Peace in their hearts through a right relationship with God? Did they even want to be with Jesus, the source of life and light, the very Son of God? No. They wanted full bellies. So Jesus takes off, runs away, and that night escapes to the entire other side of the sea. But the people follow him. Read from verse 22:

“On the next day the crowd that remained on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there, and that Jesus had not entered the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. Other boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. So when the crowd saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus.

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.’”

Do you see that there? Same issue as in Corinth. They were willing to completely bypass their relationship with God, forget about the Word of God, and dismiss everything that Jesus was offering them – for the sake of the gifts. In this case it was the food and freedom from hunger, in Corinth it was the spiritual gifts of tongues so they could feel special and powerful, but it was the same motive. They didn’t want Jesus, they wanted to use Jesus to get what they wanted – even if it meant trying to make Jesus give them what they wanted by force. They completely missed the point of the Gospel Jesus was preaching. He offered eternal life, these Jews wanted sandwiches. Jesus offered peace and purpose and a spiritual family, they wanted to babble and look cool to their friends.

This is a terrible temptation for any counsellor, preacher, or evangelist, but when we concentrate on the gifts, point people to the good things Jesus offers, we inevitably miss out on presenting the Gift-Giver! If they are converted to the gift, if we seek the gift, we will invariably feel let down because it will only feed our selfish desire for more – but if we are converted to and seek the Giver, only then will we be satisfied.

Jesus says, “I showed you signs that I’m the Saviour and the path to eternal life, but you don’t want that, do you? You want the gifts.” In another place He says,

“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26)

Or, what is the point of eating your fill if you don’t accept eternal life? What is the point of speaking in tongues if you aren’t making any sense, helping anyone, worshipping God, or even connected to Him? What is the point of being the centre of attention and getting all the adulations of being a prophet, if you are far from God?

Keep reading in John 6 because something important happens there. Look at verse 28: “Then they said to him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’”

The Corinthian church was so active with these gifts that they had forgotten what they had believed and the work of sharing the gospel of Jesus! Their worship services didn’t proclaim Jesus anymore. They were as bad as the pagan temple, a cacophony of drunken noise that didn’t make sense to anyone. There was no message telling people how to find peace with God, no sharing what it means to be righteous, no message of hope, mercy and grace – just meaningless madness done no longer in the name of Apollo or Aphrodite but in the name of Jesus.

Jesus implores His listeners to see the miracles as signs that they must do the one thing they must do to be saved – believe in Him. Paul, in the same way, implores the church to quit focusing on the signs and the gifts, and go back to the simple message they first believed, and to proclaim it in an orderly, understandable, humble, God glorifying way.

Conclusion

I could go farther into this, but I’m out of time. I want to you to take some time this week to read 1 Corinthians 14 in the light of John 6 and to explore in yourselves what ways you are focusing on the gifts rather than the Gift-Giver.

  • In what ways are you simply using the people around you, the church, and even God, as a way to get what you want – even at the expense of your relationships with them and God?
  • In what ways have you made your life, your home, your church, or your soul, a cacophony of self-centred noise that is out of tune with what God wants for your life? What I mean is to ask yourself about what ways you are being self-focused, self-centred, self-motivated – but pretending to do it in the name of Jesus. Teaching, helping, speaking, giving, singing, reading, eating, working, all for yourself, so you can be seen and steal glory from God by being seen by others, rather than using your gift to bring glory to Him and serve those around you. It’s impossible to hear God when everything in your life is focused on telling you how great you are.
  • In what ways have you replaced a simple, orderly relationship with God, simple worship, simple prayer, simple bible reading, simple service, simple singing, with complicated, bombastic, ritualistic, religion? It could be choosing not to read the Bible so you can read the latest Christian book or listen to some preacher – or only talking about God when you are in public, but never giving Him a second thought when you are alone or with your family – or being caught up in trying to impress God with good works or punishing yourself.
  • In what ways have you complicated your relationship with Jesus so that you are losing your focus on Him in favour of things that are merely about Him?