A ‘secondary’ issue

How we interpret, view or experience the gifts of the Spirit are not, in the end, what defines whether we are Christian or not. However, it is possible for teaching on this topic to be done and practiced in a way that obscures the Gospel, and gives more glory to leaders than to Jesus. This was something that Paul was seeking to address in his first letter to the Corinthians, when he demolishes the notion of spiritual elitism among leaders (Chapters 1-4). The focus of a Christian as they gather with other Christians is not to be, ‘How can I have a great worship experience and receive some spiritual blessing?’ but, ‘How can I glorify God by loving my brothers and sisters and speaking the word of Christ to them?’

Churches can abuse spiritual gifts by either ignoring and neglecting them altogether, or by going to extremes and attributing to the Holy Spirit things that are actually the working of the flesh – or worse. However, your church’s position on and practice of the gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12 should not be the ultimate decider for you on whether to join, stay or go; rather their position and practice of the Gospel should. Is the Gospel of the cross of Jesus proclaimed clearly, regularly and faithfully, or is it ignored, distorted or obscured by other things?

Paul spends most of his time in 1 Corinthians 12-14 discussing the two gifts of Tongues and Prophecy.

Speaking in Tongues

The issue of tongues (among other ‘spiritual gifts’) is dealt with in depth by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12-14. In his letter, Paul is confronting a culture based very much on experience, with a call to the church to have a culture based on the Word of God. And so in this discussion about tongues, he calls the Corinthians to look maturely at the Scripture the see what the biblical teaching is:

20 Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. 21 In the Law it is written: “With other tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” 22 Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers. (1 Corinthians 14:20-22)

Paul quotes Isaiah 28 here, which we will look at in a moment; however behind the Isaiah passage is an earlier reference in Deuteronomy.

Deuteronomy 28:47-50

Moses predicts the time when Israel/Judah, because of their hard hearts and idolatry, will be overrun by a foreign nation, surrounded by people speaking a language they do not understand.

Language was very important to the Hebrews, because God had entered into relationship with them by speaking His word and His Law, calling them to listen and obey. God spoke their language. His words were written down, and accessible to them so they could hear, obey and have life. (Deuteronomy 30:11-16)

So a sign of God’s judgement upon His people was when all around them were speaking unintelligible languages; to be in a place where you are not hearing God’s words, but words of foreigners that you don’t even understand.

Isaiah 28:7-13

By the time of Isaiah (around 700 BC) the revelation of God had been reduced by the priests – who were corrupt and drunkards – essentially to simplistic, infantile babbling. The Hebrew reads, ‘sav lasav sav lasav, kav lakav kav lakav, ze-er sam ze-er sam’ and while these are real Hebrew words, they are most likely the prophet mocking the teaching of the priests – an equivalent of the English, ‘Blah, blah, blah…’

God’s judgement upon this people who want to neither teach or hear the truth, is that God will speak to his people through other languages – ie. the word of God will become unintelligible to them not just because of their own hard hearts, but because God will obscure it through judgement. People outside Israel will be hearing, understanding and speaking God’s word, while His own people will not.

This prophecy was partly fulfilled in the exile, through which most of the scattered Jews lost their Hebrew language over several generations. (Eventually the Scriptures were translated into Greek – the Septuagint – so that non Hebrew-speaking Jews could read them.)

Israel was called to be a blessing and light to the nations. Instead, by their disobedience they were misrepresenting God to the nations. God’s intention is to keep his promises to Abraham, and so the blessing will still go out to the nations, but it will be through the action of judgement upon Israel that it will happen. The way Paul describes it is, ‘“God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that could not see and ears that could not hear, to this very day.’ (Romans 11:8), and ’Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in…’ (Romans 11:25). So, tongues is to be a sign of both judgement and blessing, depending on where you stand!

Mark 16:17

While this is doubtful that this is an original part of Mark’s Gospel, we can nevertheless take it as an indication of the understanding and experience of the early church. One thing characterising believers is that they will ‘speak in new tongues’ – ie. that they will not be only ethically/linguistically Hebrews. This conforms with the command in 15 to preach the Gospel in the whole world.

Acts 2:1-8, 12-13

Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled on the day of Pentecost. People from other nations who spoke other languages were hearing God’s words spoken in their language, while others (13) couldn’t understand them, and assumed they were drunk. It’s to this second group that Peter appears to address his speech (15), and his message is primarily one of judgement than Gospel! (23, 36, 40). It’s important to note that the languages the Apostles spoke were known human languages, understandable by those who were native speakers, not a mysterious, angelic language that no human being could comprehend. This sets the precedent for the rest of the cases of tongues in Acts – it’s what we are to understand in the two other places where tongues are recorded to have occurred.

Acts 10:44-48

This is essentially the ‘Gentile Pentecost’ – Peter affirms that his Gentile listeners have received the Holy Spirit because they were praising God in their own language – The Gospel was ‘indigenised’ in that the Gentiles did not use Hebrew or Aramaic in their language of worship.

Acts 19:1-7

This is another ‘mini Pentecost’, for people who were disciples of John the Baptist (‘disciple’ here doesn’t automatically equal ‘Christian’). Luke hints a this being a pentecostal event by mentioning that there were ‘about twelve men in all’ (7) – he would have no real reason to mention this number apart from its resonance with the twelve Apostles on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14). More significant though than these men being followers of John the Baptist, was the location – Ephesus – which became a key centre for spreading the Gospel across Asia (modern day Western Turkey).

1 Corinthians 12-14

The only other book in the New Testament that mentions the phenomenon of tongues is 1 Corinthians. Some important background is helpful for understanding why the issue needs to be addressed for the Corinthians: Firstly, Corinth was known as a very multicultural city. The church there was correspondingly dominated by Gentiles – most if not all of whom would not have spoken Hebrew or Aramaic. Secondly, Corinth prided itself on its spirituality, and pagan worship, particularly involving sensuality, sexuality, and ecstatic spiritual experiences. Some of the pagan worship involved ‘speaking in tongues,’ in which the worshipper claimed to be communicating with gods, angels or spirits. For the pagans, truth and enlightenment came through experience, rather than revelation; through their own engagement in rituals rather than by God speaking clearly to their minds and hearts through the words of Apostles, Prophets or Scripture. This led to a ‘spiritual elitism’ in which participation in these ecstatic rituals were a mark of deeper spirituality.

Some of this had translated into the church, to the extent that some Christians were considered more spiritual than others because they manifested the ‘spirituals’ (translated ‘gifts of the Spirit’ or ‘spiritual gifts’ in English bibles, even though the word ‘gift’ is not in the text). In 1 Corinthians 12-14 Paul makes the key points that a ‘spiritual’ person is not someone with greater spiritual capacity, but one through whom the Holy Spirit is at work, manifesting Himself in ways that glorify Jesus – ie. by enabling someone to say, ‘Jesus is Lord’ (12:3) and build up Jesus’ church, which is what Jesus promised in Matthew 16:18:

 ‘On this rock [Peter, who confesses Jesus to be the Christ] I will build my church, and the gates of hades will not overcome it.’

The fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work is ultimately love (Chapter 13), not spiritual power or prestige, nor the ability to perform miraculous acts. The way the Corinthians were to show love in the context of their public gatherings was to ensure that all who came would be able to hear God’s word spoken clearly, so that even non-believers there would know the reality of God’s presence and would worship Him (14:25).

Three correctives for Corinth… and us?

So Paul gives some correctives to the Corinthian practice of tongues, by referring back to the Old Testament teaching about tongues that we looked at earlier.

  1. ‘Tongues’ are not an ecstatic, trancelike experience of communicating with angels, but speaking in a human language that the speaker at least can understand. The popular idea of tongues being a  ‘personal prayer language’ is not taught anywhere in the Bible. Some may feel this is discounting the miraculous work of the Spirit; however such a view does not rule out someone speaking in a language they have not learned (as on the day of Pentecost), of someone being enabled by the Spirit to translate the words, or of the speaker being empowered by the Spirit in what they say – which is Paul’s main point – ie. that it is the Spirit at work, not the people, which makes all of it ‘miraculous’.
  2. Spiritual maturity is demonstrated not in being able to manifest the Spirit in spectacular ways, but in clearly communicating God’s word in a way that all can understand. So, in the case when a member of the congregation speaks in a language that is not commonly spoken by the rest of the church, they have a few options: have someone else interpret (12:10), interpret themselves (14:13), or not speak publicly in that language (14:28). By not following these principles, a person who speaks publicly in tongues is essentially being selfish (14:4) rather than loving (13:1). If something brings division and damage to the body of Christ, it is not a work of the Spirit, no matter how much the person insists it is.
  3. Speaking in tongues when there are non-believers or enquirers present will not communicate the Gospel, but rather judgement, since the original Biblical purpose of tongues was a pronouncement of judgement upon people who refuse to hear! The non-believer will come away from the meeting with the truth hidden from them since they didn’t understand what was being said, and their conclusion will be ‘these Christians are out of their minds!’ (14:22-23) Speaking in tongues without interpretation will hinder, not facilitate the spread of the Gospel. So out of love for these enquirers, all that is spoken in church should be done so it can be clearly understood by all who are present.

 

Spiritual gifts are for the body, not individuals

The picture Paul is painting for the Corinthians in chapters 12-14 is not one where each individual has their own ‘package’ of gifts, dispensed to them by the Holy Spirit, which then becomes their special ‘ministry’. Rather, it is of the church as a corporate body, to which God gives the Holy Spirit, who manifests Himself in the context of the community in various ways (12:7). The whole setting of chapters 11-14 is ‘when you come together’ (11:17,18,20,33, 14:26), and in this context the Triune God is present, with the Spirit giving (4), the Lord Jesus serving (5) and the Father working (6). Each of these words touches on the unique roles of each member of the Trinity in salvation, yet all are a united work of the one Triune God, and because the work of the Holy Spirit in this age is to make known to us the Son and the Father, we can use the overall title ‘gifts of the Spirit.’ This is important to see: the Holy Spirit does not work in a way that does not bring to us the full reality of the Triune God’s presence among us as His people.

Prophecy: ‘Speaking the truth in love’ (Eph. 4:15)

The other implication of this passage is that as God – who is Love – is giving, serving and working amongst us, this is primarily demonstrated in us giving, serving and working in love. Chapter 13 is a picture of God’s people truly reflecting His own character. ‘Love never fails…’ (13:8), whereas prophecies, tongues and knowledge will cease/be stilled/pass away. Some have taken this to be a reference to a point in history when these ‘sign gifts’ stopped; but Paul is rather referring to the transient nature of these gifts – they are words spoken in a set time, which apply for a certain context and moment in time; love, however, is universal and timeless in its application. Prophecy, tongues and knowledge serve their limited purpose and then become obsolete, but love, as an expression of faith and hope, continues and will have the real eternal impact.

So God wants the Corinthians (and us) to consider how these ‘transient’ gifts may best be used to express that which is lasting – faith, hope and love. And because the central activity of the church gathering together is to hear the Word of God, it become a no brainer that the most loving way a person can contribute to the meeting is to ensure that God’s Word is clearly spoken, heard and understood. We must put aside and personal ambition to be seen as ‘spiritual’ – as if somehow God’s powerful work amongst His people is somehow because of our piety or ability to be in touch with God more than others. Our first ambition should be to be practicing love in the form of chapter 13, and only then, if appropriate, to seek to exercise the ‘gifts’ that we believe the Spirit is giving us – and even then, He gives the gifts only to extend our action of loving one another.

This is why Paul gives primacy to prophecy over tongues. Tongues serve a specific purpose, yet to exercise them could easily be unloving for both our brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as any non-believers present. Prophecy, however, is a clear speaking forth of the Word of God in the ‘lingua franca’ so that everyone present can understand.

So, what is prophecy?

1. The foundation of the Apostles and Prophets (Eph. 2:20)

The Jews understood that all that was spoken by the godly people of their history – ie. the Old Testament scriptures – was prophecy. The most common reference to prophets and prophecy in the New Testament is in this sense – the Word of God given in the scriptures. This is a form of prophetic ministry that has finished. John the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament prophets, who came in fulfilment of the last words of Malachi, the last of the ‘inscripturated’ Prophets:

“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” (Malachi 4:5-6)

John the Baptist, as the ‘returned Elijah’ stood as a representative of all the prophets, and pointed people to Jesus as The Prophet of whom all the prophets spoke – Jesus is not merely the last prophet, but he is also the last prophecy through whom God has spoken completely and finally. The prophets told us about God; if we have seen Jesus we have seen God face to face. Jesus then sent his disciples out and called them not prophets but ’Apostles,’ commanding them to teach not a new revelation, but simply ‘all that I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28:20). This is the content of the New Testament – the Apostles’ teaching put into writing for future generations.

So this aspect of prophecy – the revelation of God, and all that He wants us to know about His plan of salvation, and how it is completed in Jesus Christ – has come to an end with the completion of the New Testament canon. And so many take the final words of Revelation to be applicable to the whole of the Bible:

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. 19 And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll. (Revelation 22:18-19)

Some argue that this type of prophecy was what was occurring in the Corinthian church (and possibly other New Testament churches). Most of the New Testament documents had not been written yet, and they may not have had access to those that had. During this period, God kept His church in the truth through the live teaching of the Apostles, and through ‘word gifts’ such as prophecy, tongues, knowledge, etc. These gifts became less vital as the scriptures – OT and NT – were distributed throughout the churches. We know that the early church placed great emphasis on the written scriptures because we currently have tens of thousands of ancient New Testament manuscripts – around 1000 time more than any other ancient document.

2. ’Speaking the very words of God’ (1 Peter 4:11)

Joel’s prophecy, fulfilled on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:16-21) promises that all of God’s people – young and old, male and female – will be commissioned to prophesy:

‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. 18 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.’ (Acts 2:17-18)

No longer will it be a seperate group or ‘class’ of people who have the Holy Spirit, but anyone who calls on the Name of the Lord through faith in Jesus is drawn into the ministry of the Kingdom, where they become,

…a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9)

An individual believer is caught up into the royal, priestly and prophetic ministry of the church; in the context of the church community we are involved in preaching, teaching, singing, encouraging and proclaiming – all things which involve speaking the Word of God. In this sense, the ministry of prophecy is alive and well whenever we do these things; we are ‘prophesying’.

William Perkins, an English Puritan, described what he understood a prophet to be in his 1606 book, ‘The Art of Prophesying:

“First of all he is someone who can expound and explain the covenant of grace, and rightly lay down how this reconciliation is accomplished. Secondly, he is someone who can properly and accurately apply the means for its outworking. Thirdly, he is someone who has authority to proclaim and declare it when it is effected. In these three ways he is God’s interpreter to the people.”

3. ’The Holy Spirit said…’ (Acts 13:2)

The New Testament also allows for and records another type of prophecy.

In Acts 11:27-30 some prophets predicted a famine, which spurred the church in Antioch to take up a collection to help their fellow Christians in Judea. In Acts 13:1-4 God uses prophets to communicate that Paul and Barnabas should be set apart and sent into mission. In Acts 15:30-33 two prophets, Judas and Silas, encouraged gentile Christians when they received a letter with special instructions from the Apostles in Jerusalem. And in Acts 21:10-11 the prophet Agabus predicts Paul’s arrest.

This appears to be a form of prophecy in which God spoke specifically and practically into the the church for a given time and situation in a way that enabled them to be on about the work of the Kingdom. They were occasions in which the church needed a word that was more precise than the general Biblical revelation, in order to help them discern God’s will for them in a specific context.

Some also believe that this form of prophecy has also become obsolete with the completion of the New Testament; I believe the biblical case for this claim is weak. As we saw, Paul’s description of prophecies as transient in 13:8 highlights the limitation of a prophetic word given in a church meeting to both time and application; it’s a stretch to say that all prophetic ministry must have ceased since the end of the first century.

Love and order (1 Cor. 14:26-40)

Paul’s emphasis in these chapters is not so much on the nature of prophecy, as on its appropriate use in the church. Prophecy (along with tongues and other gifts) should not dominate, but be part of the various ways the Holy Spirit enables people to serve (26-29). Prophecies should be given with humility and a sense of accountability and collegiality (29-33). Prophets and their prophecies should be submitted to the authority of Christ and the revelation of the Gospel given to the church through the Apostles (which for us is the New Testament) (36-37). And it should be done in a way that is ‘fitting and orderly’ (34-35, 40) – ie. not causing chaos, confusion or offense for believers or non-believers.

There are four wise responses we should have to anyone who claims to have a ‘prophetic word’ either for us personally or for the church:

  1. Test what they say with the Scripture.
    God will not give a revelation that adds to, takes away from or changes His revelation given in the Bible and in Jesus Christ; and ultimately it should point clearly to Jesus and lead people to honour Him. Hold onto it loosely until you have been able to affirm this; this is often best done by speaking with others who know the Bible well.
  2. Wait.
    If a prophecy is given as a prediction of something to happen, the proof of the truth of the prediction is in its fulfilment. This was the Old Testament test of a true prophet (Deuteronomy 28:20-22, Jeremiah 28:9). Be prepared to see God at work, but don’t pin all your hopes on the prophecy; and ask yourself, ‘How can this encourage and enable me to serve and glorify God more faithfully, and love His people more earnestly?’
  3. Move on.
    Remember that prophecy is limited, but faith hope and love continue forever. God may be speaking to you in a way that is for this time and place, but the definition and design of your life and calling is found in the truth already revealed in the Bible, which is as living and active as any ‘life’ prophecy. Don’t build your life’s foundation on one incident of prophecy, but on the sure and certain revelation of the Gospel of Jesus.
  4. Rejoice.
    If this is truly God’s word to you or your church, then it demonstrates that God cares for you such that He brings His word ‘up close and personal’ in order to build you up and make you more like Jesus, and also that someone in the church is willing to love you by bringing this word to you (even if it is difficult or scary for them). Whatever the outcome of their ‘prophecy’, be ready to acknowledge the positive of their desire to see you moving forward in God’s purposes for you.
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