In our study of I Corinthians we need to keep an eye on the big picture in order to properly understand the individual pieces. This letter is one of instruction to a dynamic church with dynamic problems. Among these are:
- They are first generation Christians that have come out of the worst pagan society and practice (some not completely out).
- They possess incredible spiritual gifts: some can heal, others have the ability to speak in tongues, and still others can prophesy and have inspired wisdom and knowledge.
- They have great potential, however, they are constantly fighting for preeminence, position and power using their spiritual gifts in their pursuit of these things.
In answer to their problems Paul encourages them to cultivate the character of Christ-like love in order to neutralize their pride and promote harmony and peace among the group.
In chapter 14, however, he provides them with more practical direction on the proper use and purpose for the gifts they have received, including the gift of preaching.
Before we go through the passage we need to understand some of the terms Paul uses:
- Comes from two words which meant to speak and forth; to speak forth.
- In biblical context it was the speaking forth of the mind of God.
- Throughout the Old and New Testaments prophets not only predicted future events, they also "spoke forth" the mind of God about the past, present and future.
- During biblical times (both Old and New Testament) the prophets spoke directly from God as the Holy Spirit gave them utterance (II Peter 1:21).
- As the Bible was collected and written down into one document, this miraculous ability ceased and was carried out in a natural way by preachers and teachers who used the revelation of God recorded in the Bible.
- The difference between then and now is that the message of the prophet was a direct revelation of the mind of God for the occasion; the message of the modern day preacher or teacher is gathered from the completed revelation contained in the Bible.
This word comes from the Greek word meaning "a tongue." It has several uses in the Bible depending on context:
- A physical organ of speech (the tongue).
- A language. When you add other endings to this word you get the Greek word for tribe, people or nation.
- The meaning of this word in this chapter is the supernatural ability to speak in a language you have never learned.
- Something man cannot know through reason or study alone.
- Information only obtainable if God gives it to you.
- Something to happen in the future.
Interpretation (as it is used in I Corinthians 14)
- The ability to understand a language you have never learned. It seems that some could only speak unknown languages (tongues), and some could only understand unknown languages (interpretation).
The gifts only worked if there was cooperation between God and the Corinthians, and the Corinthians with one another.
This is a long chapter but Paul lays out his case in the first four verses with the rest of the chapter being an explanation of details and application.
Vs. 1 – Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.
He does not want to dampen their enthusiasm for spiritual gifts (even though they have been misusing them) but he does want them to get some perspective on their purpose and value (the ability to proclaim/explain God's word). In the hierarchy of gifts he places prophecy at the top as the most useful and valuable. In the next three verses he explains why this is so.
Vs. 2 – For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries.
One who has the gift of tongues does not understand what he is saying (mystery) nor does anyone else (unless there is an interpreter) so the only one who knows what is being said is God because He understands all language (i.e. If I broke out into Chinese all of a sudden and was reciting Psalms 23, I would be amazed and so would you but no one would understand what I'd be saying except God, and Chinese people here, if any).
Vs. 3 – But one who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation.
The one, however, who speaks to men in their own language and preaches or teaches God's word so all can understand accomplishes the very purpose that God intended His word and the utterance of it to have. The preaching/prophesying of God's word in a miraculous or natural way promotes:
Literally means to build a home. It is used in the New Testament to describe the building or promotion of spiritual growth in others. This is done by example, teaching or providing strength to those who are weak.
Means to "call to one side." Basically to call or urge others to a proper course of conduct, always with the intention of betterment and with an eye to the future (i.e. press on to maturity).
Comes from the same word as exhortation but with a different purpose. Consolation means to "come along side but with a greater degree of tenderness." The same word is used to refer to the Holy Spirit.
Along with declaring the good news of the gospel in as many ways as possible, the purpose of preaching/teaching, especially pulpit preaching, is well summarized in this one verse. Modern preaching's purpose is to:
- Build up the church by teaching it the whole counsel of God and setting in order the things that are not orderly or functioning in a biblical fashion. This happens through preaching, teaching, organizing, ministries and managing various projects to build a New Testament church.
- Encourage the church as a group and as individuals to do the right thing. This is the hardest part of the work because people don't like to be told what they need to do, and they don't like their sins pointed out to them. More preachers crash here because in doing this part of their work they invoke the anger and resentment of people in the church, and some opt for revenge instead of repentance.
- Comfort and encourage those who are weak because of spiritual immaturity or physical limitations. Weddings, funerals, hospital visits, especially those events that remind us of God's mercy, strength and goodness.
Paul reminds them that these are the kind of things that people need in the church, and the ability to prophesy was the gift that provided these things for the congregation.
Today we don't prophesy from direct revelation about the past, present and future. Today, because we have God's word, we prophesy about the past, present and future so far as it has been revealed to us in the Bible.
- I know the past from the Bible perspective and can use it to instruct the church (I Corinthians 10:11).
- I can comment on our present state using the word as my guide for Christian living (II Timothy 3:16).
- I can look into the future knowing what will happen at the end of the world and how to prepare for that now (I Thessalonians 4:15-18).
Prophecy or preaching remains one of the most important ministries because through it the church continues to be built up, motivated and comforted in times of trouble. Most churches take their preachers for granted until they don't have them anymore.
In the next chapter, which will continue to focus on this passage, we will take a look at how Paul teaches them to use their various gifts, and how each of them complemented the other in the working out of God's plan for the growth of the church. In the meantime, let us zero in on a couple of important lessons based on what we have covered so far:
1. Pursue love
Pursue means to eagerly follow after or chase after love. Don't just wait for love to happen to you, you must go after it, build it, care for it, find how to establish and reestablish it when it is broken.
In the church we strive to reach high ideals, we expect a lot from each other and so it is easy to be disappointed when people let us down, and even easier to get angry for real or imaginary hurts. For these reasons we need to be proactive in our effort to create a loving attitude with others, and willing to reestablish love with those we are separated from for whatever reasons.
2. Desire earnestly spiritual gifts
Of course, Paul has just said that some gifts would end (inspired prophecy, tongues, etc.) but not all gifts are gone. In Romans 12:6-8 he names gifts and talents that still function in the church today, which are spiritual and given by the Holy Spirit, but are not miraculous:
- Prophecy – ability to preach today
- Service – ministry in its various forms
- Teaching – opportunity and ability to teach others about Christ
- Exhortation – those who encourage and counsel
- Giving – people rarely ask God to give them the ability to give generously to the church whether rich or poor
- Leadership – whether as an elder, deacon or one who manages one of our ministries
- Shows mercy – benevolence work
All of these are gifts God enables us to exercise for the growth of the kingdom. Paul says we need to desire these kinds of things. These things should be the subject of our prayers, not just, "Dear God give me more health, wealth and peace of mind." Our prayers should be "Dear God, give me a gift to exercise in your name for the blessing of others."
3. Purpose of preaching is to make the church grow
Preaching wasn't invented by man; it is God's way to feed the church. Preachers are simply vessels of clay (as Paul says) who hold, for a few moments, the precious living word of God.
The overriding emotion that I have as I do this work is that of unworthiness, and this idea is shared by most preachers I speak to. I have succeeded if I have accurately and lovingly preached only God's word. You are receiving it properly if you respond to the word (not me) in obedience and joy, in comfort and encouragement. Only in this way is God glorified, the church edified and the preaching justified.