by Bill Cherry
"Therefore, brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy . . ." —I Corinthians 14:39
The ability to prophesy is a precious gift from God. Contrary to popular belief, the apostle Paul admonishes us all—not just the ministry—to develop the ability to prophesy. Notice these verses in I Corinthians 14:
» "Pursue love, and desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy" (verse 1). The word "especially" places a high priority on our need to develop the ability to prophesy. Paul begins this chapter with this call to action, implying that prophesying is an important spiritual tool that is much needed within the church of God.
» "Therefore, brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy. . ." (verse 39). The word "brethren" includes all members of the church. Evidently, prophesying goes beyond predicting the future or giving sermons, sermonettes, and Bible studies. Paul's use of "earnestly" suggests that a person needs to have deep commitment to develop this gift properly.
Other verses in this chapter show the benefits of the begotten sons and daughters of God learning to prophesy. It is already obvious that prophesying goes far beyond our normal perceptions of what it entails. What does Paul mean by "prophesying" in I Corinthians 14? How can we put his instruction to use in glorifying God?
How We Prophesy
Some people call I Corinthians 14 "The Tongues Chapter." While it is certainly about speaking in tongues, the basic theme of Paul's instruction is that God wants everyone in attendance to understand clearly the messages given in church services. It is the teaching that is of greatest importance. Anyone interrupting a speaker's message with an outburst of loud gibberish creates disorder and confusion.
In addition, "speaking in a tongue" correctly refers, not to uttering some sort of "angel's language," but to speaking in a real, understandable, yet foreign language. If a speaker uses a different language, an interpreter must be present to translate so that all can understand (see verses 9-11, 27). Verse 28 states: "But if there is no interpreter, let him [the speaker] keep silent in the church, and let him speak to himself and to God."
Paul gives other guidelines for speakers addressing the congregation in services. The number of speakers, the attitude of the speaker, the content of the message, and the purpose of the message—all should meet certain criteria. As mentioned before, the instruction is paramount.
The act of a speaker addressing the congregation with a prepared speech is referred to as "prophesying." The speaker "prophesies" to the congregation when he follows the proper guidelines laid down by Paul and the church. Beyond this, as we saw in verse 39, God wants all church members to prophesy. From the context of chapter 14, when we speak to each other according to the guidelines given, we are "prophesying" to each other. As we continue, we will see how this works in more detail.
Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel were given special commissions by God to proclaim public messages to an often hostile, stubborn, and rebellious audience of Israelites. In contrast, we are called to "prophesy" (through our personal conversations) to a loving and receptive audience: our fellow church members. Our message should be intended, not to convict them of sin, but to encourage and uplift them.
Our prophesying takes place in the context of church services, as these verses indicate:
» ". . . he who prophesies edifies the church" (verse 4).
» ". . . that the church may receive edification" (verse 5).
» ". . . let it be for the edification of the church that you seek to excel" (verse 12).
Our purpose should be to edify—that is, build up—each other. I Corinthians 14 begins: "Pursue love. . . ." Thus, our conversations with fellow church members should be the result of God's love flowing from us to them, and this is certainly uplifting. Verse 3 gives us three ways to show love: "But he who prophesies speaks edification, and exhortation, and comfort to men." We will define them in their verb forms:
» Edify: to increase another's faith or morality; to instruct or benefit; to improve spiritually.
» Exhort: to urge; to persuade earnestly; to caution.
» Comfort: to console; to cheer; to encourage.
To prophesy, then, means we have a heartfelt desire to radiate the love of God to all the brethren through our uplifting, helpful Sabbath conversations.
What We Prophesy
Concerning the content of our conversation, Paul writes, "If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord" (I Corinthians 14:37). Paul's bold statement that he was God's spokesman is verified by his life! The story of his conversion, education, and work can be read in Acts 9 through 28, Galatians 1, Philippians 3, and many other passages in Paul's writings. It is clear that he had thorough training in the Holy Scriptures from his youth. His knowledge and background were that of the strictest Pharisee. His zeal for God is evident, paradoxically, in the way he persecuted the church before his conversion and in the way he endured hardships and persecution after his conversion.
On the road to Damascus, he had a personal encounter with the resurrected Jesus Christ (I Corinthians 15:8), who shortly thereafter proclaimed to Ananias that Paul was specially chosen "to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My Name's sake" (Acts 9:15-16). Paul spent three years of isolated study under the direct revelation of Christ, after which it was found that His understanding coincided with the teaching of the apostles at Jerusalem. He boldly proclaims himself to be an apostle of Jesus Christ at the beginning of most of his letters to the churches.
In terms of prophesying, what I Corinthians 14:37 means for us is that Paul's writings have the same status as commandments of God. They are just as much Scripture as the Old Testament and the Gospels. Paul's writings teach us the spiritual application of the law through the sacrifice of Christ. Thus, the total Word of God should be the source of our conversation and conduct. It can be trusted as if we were looking God directly in the eye and hearing Him speak. We prophesy to others in the church when our conversation centers on our study and application of God's Word.
In I Corinthians 14:1, The Amplified Bible explains the word "prophesy" with the phrase "interpret the divine will and purpose in inspired preaching and teaching." Prophesying combines understanding what God desires and intends with the ability to teach it to others. In this vein, Paul writes, "Yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue" (I Corinthians 14:19). He contrasts five words with ten thousand to show how vital it is that instructors in God's way correctly understand His will and plan.
Like Paul, we should be very concerned about what our words and conduct teach others. They will form lasting opinions, not only about us personally, but more importantly, about God and the church, the Body of Christ. Regarding our conduct, Paul admonishes us in Romans 12:1-2:
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.
Notice what results when we refuse to conform to this world, present our lives as a sacrifice, and work to transform ourselves into His image: Our lives prove what is good and acceptable to God.
A Varied Audience
We should realize that our brothers and sisters in Christ have varied backgrounds, talents, and levels of maturity. Some will be shining examples for us. Others may have noticeable faults, but possess a lovable spirit and a willingness to change. Still others may say and do things that make us wonder, "Shouldn't a Christian know better?"
Yet, I Corinthians 12:2 reminds us that we were all once "carried away to these dumb idols, however we were led." In addition, we all have different gifts, though we have them by the same Spirit (verse 4). God Himself has "distribut[ed] to each one individually as He wills" (verse 11), and He "has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased" (verse 18). The physical body teaches us that "those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary" (verse 22). It is God's will that the church congregation is composed as it is.
We should work hard to develop the ability to extend the love of God to all mankind, but especially to those in the church. I Corinthians 12 ends with a verse expressing a message similar to how chapter 14 begins: "But earnestly desire the best gifts. And yet I show you a more excellent way" (verse 31). The "more excellent way" is, of course, the way of love as defined in chapter 13. Paul teaches that the gifts of tongues, prophecy, knowledge, faith, and good works are of little lasting value without godly love (verses 1-3). The apostle then provides a spiritual checklist by which we can measure our attitudes against God's perfect, overarching law of liberty:
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. (I Corinthians 13:4-8)
As we saw earlier, all of us are in the developing stages of the process of being transformed into the image of God. Many of the brethren will have interests and spiritual understanding similar to what we have. Others may be new in the faith, and we can find joy in empathizing with them and watching their spiritual growth.
Paul described some people as spiritual babies, even though they have been in the church for a long time (Hebrews 5:12-13). We love our physical babies in spite of the fact that they soil their diapers, scatter food all over, and cry out for attention. We know that some day they will mature, and we delight at even slight signs of progress. Perhaps we can appreciate the spiritually immature if we realize that spiritual growth takes place in the heart. For some that process may be agonizingly slow. Perhaps God has placed them in the body so we can learn a special type of patient love.
We must also remember that outwardly, spiritual growth may not be easily seen. Listening to the less spiritually mature with genuine interest and concern is an important way to help them take steps toward growth. God will reveal to them their faults and deficiencies in His own way—even as He does to us. We must learn to let the Bible be our guide to correct our own conduct first, then teach us how to use our growth to show love to all the brethren.
So, what is prophesying in the context of I Corinthians 14?
Prophesying is, in the setting of church services, speaking in love to others for the purpose of edifying, exhorting, and comforting each other based on our personal experience in studying and applying God's Word.
If All Prophesy
God takes special delight in the positive, uplifting conversations of His people. A beautiful picture is painted for us in the book of Malachi:
Then those who feared the Lord spoke to one another, and the Lord listened and heard them; so a book of remembrance was written before Him for those who fear the Lord and who meditate on His name. "They shall be Mine," says the Lord of hosts, "on the day that I make them My jewels. And I will spare them as a man spares his own son who serves him." (Malachi 3:16-17).
Notice the tremendous value God places on those who prophesy to each other. He calls them "jewels" and promises to "spare them," declaring, "They shall be Mine" and as "his own son."
Also note the characteristics of the people. They "feared the Lord," "spoke to one another," "meditated on His name," and by implication, "serve[d] Him." God responds to such attitudes and good works. He "listened and heard them" and had prepared a special book in which perhaps their good words and deeds were recorded as an eternal testament to them.
Now we can understand why Paul in I Corinthians 14 uses the phrases:
» ". . . especially that you may prophesy" (verse 1);
» ". . . he who prophesies is greater . . ." (verse 5);
» ". . . desire earnestly to prophesy . . . " (verse 39).
Those who do so become a special group, beloved and set apart by the Creator Himself.
Paul also paints a beautiful picture when the whole church is engaging in uplifting conversations regarding the blessings of living by God's Word:
But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an uninformed person comes in, he is convinced by all, he is judged by all. And thus the secrets of his heart are revealed; and so, falling down on his face, he will worship God and report that God is truly among you. (I Corinthians 14:24-25)
We should all work to develop the ability to prophesy. When we learn to speak in love with the intention of uplifting and encouraging each other, we will draw individually closer to God, we as a church will be more unified, and we will be greater witnesses to the world.