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Prophecy and Tongues

The Voice of Sovereign Grace / Doug Agnew
The Truth Network Radio
January 23, 2023 1:00 am

Prophecy and Tongues

The Voice of Sovereign Grace / Doug Agnew

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January 23, 2023 1:00 am

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Lord, please open our eyes now to behold wonderful things from your Word. Enable us by the power of your Holy Spirit and by the power of your inerrant Word to be the church that you intend us to be. I pray in Jesus' name.

Amen. Our text tonight gives us a great opportunity to discuss and implement a particular rule of interpretation. It's the rule that says unclear things ought to be interpreted in light of the clear things. Not all things are equally clear in Scripture, nor are all things of equal importance. Now, that is not a denial of the inerrancy or the sufficiency of Scripture. It's simply an acknowledgement that there is a pecking order when it comes to the import and the consequence of the variety of doctrines addressed in the Bible. Sometimes we'll use terminology like that's not a saving doctrine or a saving issue, a salvation issue, right? It's a secondary issue.

It's not unimportant. It's just not on par with matters of life and death, eternal life, eternal damnation. Well, furthermore, those matters of greatest import and greatest consequence in terms of doctrinal teaching in Scripture, that is matters that pertain to salvation, are the doctrines that Scripture addresses with the greatest clarity and thoroughness. The more central a truth is to salvation, the more prominence and clarity it receives in Scripture. So the principle follows that what is most clearly expounded in Scripture ought to be the interpreter of what is less clearly expounded in Scripture, not the other way around. The clear interprets the unclear. Now, I say all that at the outset tonight because 1 Corinthians 14 contains a lot that is ambiguous. By the same token, there is a lot here that is very clear and certain, and we don't want to fall into the trap of pretending to be more certain than we really are.

That does nobody any good. We ought instead to acknowledge the difficulties and lean on the clearer statements to govern our handling of the unclear statements. I'm going to do my best tonight to unravel some of the, what I perceive to be ambiguities of the text, but I should let you know that there are Bible scholars far smarter than I am who have not been able to unravel everything in 1 Corinthians 14. So we need to approach this passage with a proper sense of cognitive humility, but we also need to approach it with a certain hope that what we need to know and understand with regard to these verses will be made adequately plain by the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit in us. Church, we are justified by our faith in Christ, not by our intellectual mastery of Scripture's difficult verses, and I think us Presbyterians do well to keep that in mind. Nevertheless, even Scripture's difficult verses are intended for our profit and benefit.

We don't need to neglect the hard truths, but we do well to not let them obscure the clear, plain truths. Well, what then is the clear, plain truth of 1 Corinthians 14? It's very convenient that Paul repeats his main point several times because this makes it undeniably clear. He says in verse one, pursue love. He says in verse three, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding. In verse four, the one who prophesies builds up the church. Verse five, the one who prophesies is greater so that the church may be built up. Verse 12, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church. Verse 26, let all things be done for building up. Are you seeing a theme?

Are you seeing a pattern? The main point comes to the surface. Whatever is meant by the gift of tongues or the gift of prophecy, one thing is clear. When it comes to serving and ministering in the church, Paul intends us to prioritize edification, the building up of one another above everything else.

Whether I serve in the kitchen or sing in the choir, preach in the pulpit, teach in the nursery, give to the needy, or record minutes for a committee meeting, every motive of my heart, every word I speak, every action that I perform ought to be driven by an overwhelming desire to strengthen the faith and obedience and worship of the people of God. Corinth had forgotten this core truth and had instead become enamored with sensational methods and sophisticated rhetoric and self-centered motivations. They loved the idea of spiritual gifts insofar as these gifts made them look impressive and credible and spiritual, but their unselfish love for each other and for Christ was lacking. This lack of love was nowhere more evident than in their practice of one gift in particular, the gift of tongues. The Corinthians had so misused and distorted the gift of tongues that Paul had to step in and correct their distortion. Not only had they misappropriated the gift of tongues, they had also failed to rightly value what they considered to be the less impressive gift of prophecy. And so what we discover in these 25 verses is Paul's correction of the Corinthians' estimation and application of the gifts of tongues and prophecy.

He's correcting how much they value it and how they use these gifts. Now as we walk through these areas of correction, I realize that we may not be struggling with the misappropriation of the gifts of tongues and prophecy like Corinth was, but that doesn't mean that we aren't guilty of violating the underlying principle, which is the principle of edification above all things. Just because our self-centeredness doesn't show up in the same area that it did in Corinth doesn't mean that we aren't self-centered in how we seek to serve the body of Christ. The overarching rule that we have to keep in mind here is selfless love for the church. And so the apostolic correction towards Corinth is our apostolic correction as well.

We need to wear the shoe wherever and however it fits. So with that background in mind, then let's consider first the definition of tongues and prophecy. What are we talking about here to start with? And this is, I think, the most difficult aspect of our text to grasp. As central as tongues and prophecy are to this text, 1 Corinthians 14, Paul doesn't give us any sort of working definition to go by. He simply describes various aspects of tongues and prophecy as they were supposed to be functioning at Corinth and as they were actually functioning at Corinth. And so it is notoriously difficult for us to nail down a definition of tongues and prophecy. But what we can do and what we're gonna try to do tonight is to go to the text and let it at least steer us in the direction of a definition of these two gifts. Let's begin with the gift of tongues. Now there's nothing in the word itself that would define the spiritual gift for us. It's just the Greek word for tongue. Typically that Greek word refers to language or speech, often with reference to a foreign language. The first occurrence of tongues as a gift given by the Holy Spirit is in Acts 2.

You're familiar with the story. It's the day of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit fell upon the disciples and Scripture says that they began to speak in other tongues. In other words, they were miraculously enabled to preach the gospel to foreigners in languages that they themselves had never learned.

It was a reversal of what had happened at the Tower of Babel for the purpose of gospel clarity and proclamation. Acts 2 11 says both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians heard them telling in their own tongues the mighty works of God. Now in our day, there are those who claim to be exercising the biblical gift of tongues but their practice is very different from the description given to us in Acts 2.

Modern day tongue speaking, at least the handful of times that I've observed it, is often not cognitively communicative at all. It's some sort of ecstatic, irrational gibberish that nobody, sometimes not even the person speaking it understands. In Scripture, whenever the gift of tongues is exercised and commended, it functions in such a way as to convey rational thought from one person's mind to another for the sake of gospel clarity. It is not characterized in Scripture when it shows up and is commended. It's not characterized by irrational emotive expression.

In other words, the miracle of it is in the fact that this communication transcends and overcomes normal language barriers, not that it displays some sort of ecstatic euphoria. As we read 1 Corinthians 14, we get the sense that Corinth's misuse of the gift was much like our modern day misuse of the gift. Whatever they were doing in the name of speaking in tongues did not resemble the day of Pentecost at all. Verse 23 describes presumably a typical worship service at Corinth in which unbelievers came to the service and because of just the mayhem and confusion which characterized the service, these unbelievers left thinking to themselves, those Christians are out of their minds. It wasn't gospel clarification that was occurring.

It was confusion and indecency and disorder. Well, the question is, if the gift of tongues was supposed to overcome language barriers for the purpose of clarifying the gospel, why wasn't it doing that at Corinth? Paul says in verse 2, 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. And yet on the day of Pentecost, Peter's preaching in tongues was clearly understood by the people who heard him.

So which is it? Is the gift of tongues a speaking to men as on the day of Pentecost or is it a speaking to God as Paul indicates in verse 2? And here's our first ambiguity. Some scholars resolve the ambiguity by suggesting that the gift of tongues here in 1 Corinthians is a different sort of spiritual gift altogether than what occurred on Pentecost. They both happen to be called tongues, but they're two different kinds of spiritual gift. Corinth's tongue speaking they say was an unknown heavenly prayer language that the Holy Spirit gave to certain Christians for their own personal benefit. Others resolve the ambiguity by saying that verse 2 doesn't refer to the authentic gift of tongues at all, but rather to Corinth's misuse and distortion of the gift. In other words, Paul's using the right name, tongues, but he's describing what Corinth is doing wrong with that gift.

Verse 2 could legitimately be translated like this. One who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to a God, little g, for no one understands him but he utters mysteries in the Spirit, little s. It's a legitimate translation of this verse and this would mean Paul is entirely condemning, not commending tongue speaking as it was being practiced in Corinth. Now I am personally much more comfortable letting the day of Pentecost, rather than letting the church at Corinth, define for us the proper use of the gift of tongues. But if this is how we resolve this ambiguity at verse 2, it actually introduces another ambiguity later in verse 5 where Paul seems to commend Corinth's tongue speaking.

He says, now I want you all to speak in tongues. How can Paul say that if tongues, as it was being practiced at Corinth, was entirely bad? The thing is, church, this ambiguity follows us all the way through chapter 14 of 1 Corinthians.

It never goes away. Sometimes tongues is commended, sometimes it's condemned, and I think this is where we have to lean in on our interpretive principle of letting the clear, unambiguous statements interpret the unclear statements. And what is abundantly clear in Paul's instruction for Corinth is that regardless of what the gift of tongues actually is, edification of the church is to be the goal. What I think is going on in our text is that Paul is acknowledging a legitimate spiritual gift called tongues while simultaneously condemning Corinth's distortion of that legitimate gift. At some points in chapter 14, he's referring to the correct use of the gift. At other times, he's referring to Corinth's distortion of the gift.

So we have to be careful not to confuse what Paul is commending with what Paul is condemning as we walk through his instruction here. The legitimate gift of tongues then, and here's my definition, refers to a supernatural ability that is given by the Holy Spirit to a believer to speak a language one has not learned through ordinary means for the purpose of conveying gospel truth. In other words, the genuine gift of tongues is what happened on the day of Pentecost, not what was going on on a regular basis at Corinth, and not what often goes on today under the banner of tongue speaking. Paul then contrasts the gift of tongues primarily as it was being misused at Corinth with the gift of prophecy. What then is the gift of prophecy?

Let's consider that for a moment. Well, every contrast that Paul makes between prophecy and tongues highlights the rationality and the intelligibility of prophecy and the irrationality and unintelligibility of tongues, again, as it was being misused at Corinth. So how does this contrast between prophecy and tongues shape our understanding of the definition of prophecy? Well, if edification is the goal and if the gift of prophecy is the prime quintessential example of a spiritual gift that edifies, and that's Paul's point, he says as much in verse 3, the one who prophesies speaks to the people for their upbuilding, then it follows that the essential qualities of the gift of prophecy are its intelligibility, its rationality, its clarity in communicating truth. These are the qualities that characterize the gift of prophecy. Paul says, and they're the qualities that are absent in the gift of tongues when there is no interpreter. Throughout the chapter, Paul insists that for a gift to be edifying, it must be intelligible. In other words, the benefit of the gift is not to be found in its sensational and miraculous and paranormal quality.

The benefit of the gift is found in its intelligibility and communicative quality. It's not amazing because it's supernatural. It's amazing because it makes the gospel clear. I think this calls into question the modern-day understanding of the gift of prophecy. If you ask a typical evangelical what the gift of prophecy is, I didn't do that, but I'm assuming they will most likely tell you it's the ability to predict the future or the ability to reveal divine secrets that nobody else knows. That's not how Paul refers to the gift of prophecy at all.

He defines it in terms of an intelligible declaration of God's truth that builds up the church through verbal instruction. A Greek scholar from 100 years ago pointed out that we are somewhat conditioned to think of prophecy as a foretelling of future events because the prefix pro can mean before. And certainly, prophecy in Scripture often involved foretelling of future events, right? But the scholar said that's really not the essence of the word.

The prefix pro doesn't refer to time. It refers to the audience. A prophet is not primarily someone who speaks something before it happens. He's someone who speaks something before others, in front of others. It has to do with the authority and the power of the speaking rather than the predictive nature of the speaking. And so a prophet is someone who speaks with authority and with confidence and with powerful effect because their speech is from God.

They're speaking the word of the Lord with great clarity. Yes, that sometimes means predicting the future because God knows the future, but that's not the essential quality of prophecy. The essential quality of prophecy is the authority and the clarity with which God's will is declared. John Calvin said, by this term, prophecy, Caleb, there you go. By this term, prophecy, Paul means a peculiar gift for interpreting Scripture and applying it wisely for present use. A prophet is, first of all, an eminent interpreter of Scripture. And secondly, one who is endowed with uncommon wisdom and ability to assess the present need of the church in order to speak suitably to that need by communicating the divine will. I know it's wordy, but that's a very helpful definition.

It covers all the bases. So here was the situation at Corinth. Some of them had been given a supernatural ability to speak in a language they had never learned. And that ability was astonishing and amazing to them, and rightly so. The problem, however, was that this astonishing ability was not given for the purpose of being gawked at in amazement, but for the purpose of enabling the church to become, to better proclaim the gospel by overcoming natural language barriers that exist in this post-Babble world. But Corinth didn't seem to care about the gospel proclamation aspect of the gift. They were too busy being enamored with the miraculous supernatural part of it, so much so that they not only began misusing the gift of tongues, but also began dismissing the importance and value of the gift of prophecy, a gift which I guess to them seemed all too ordinary. The prophecy is so explainable and reasonable. It boiled down to a person basically just studying the Bible and explaining it and applying it to whoever would listen. But tongues, that was impressive to them.

That was exciting. That was from God. Corinth was valuing the gift of tongues for all the wrong reasons and devaluing the gift of prophecy. And so Paul began correcting their estimation of the gifts by helping them to properly value the gifts at their disposal.

This brings us to our second point, properly valuing the gifts. He begins by making an assertion in verse 5. He says, the one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues unless someone interprets so that the church may be built up. So Paul establishes a pecking order of spiritual gifts in terms of their value to the church. And edification, not extraordinariness, is Paul's measure of value. Edification, not supernatural extraordinariness, is the measure of the value of a spiritual gift. Paul's logic goes something like this.

The benefit of communication lies entirely in the intelligibility of the communication. This is true in the artistic world of music, verse 7. It's true in the harsh, rigid world of military combat, verse 8. It's certainly true in the linguistic world of speech, verse 9.

Words mean things and their value is in direct proportion to that meaning being rightly understood. When it comes to spiritual gifts then, prophecy is greater, that is to say prophecy is more edifying than uninterpreted tongues precisely because it is more intelligible than speaking in tongues without an interpretation. And if it's more edifying then prophecy is in fact a greater manifestation of the Holy Spirit than uninterpreted tongues, verse 12. Therefore, Corinth, desire the greater, more edifying, more loving, more selfless gift of prophecy over the impressive sensational but self-centered practice of speaking in tongues for your own private benefit and self-esteem. Value that which edifies more than that which makes you feel good about yourself or makes you look good in front of others. Value edification first. That's what Paul's saying. Now before we move on to the last point, let me just dig a little bit deeper here into the meaning of edification.

I've used that word a lot tonight. If edification is the measure by which we know the true value of our service to the body, then it's important that we understand what edification is. If we walk through these verses and look for all the words Paul uses to describe what edification does and take note of all the words he indicates are the opposite of edification, here's what we come up with. To edify means to encourage, to console, to make plain, to reveal something that's true, to teach something that was not previously known, to impart knowledge, to impart clear imperatives, to explain the meaning of something, to increase familiarity between two previously unfamiliar entities, to make the mind fruitful, to increase agreement between Christians, to extend a welcoming hospitality, to verify the truthfulness of God's Word, to heighten conviction of sin, to enable a person to see the true condition of their own heart, to increase reverence for and worship of God, to evangelize the lost. This is what it means to edify, to build up the church.

Prophecy, because of its intelligibility, accomplishes these things, while tongues, without an interpretation, does not and indeed cannot. How then was Corinth to use the gifts of the Spirit in the manner that God intended? This is our third point, rightly using the gifts. And this is what Paul addresses in verses 13 through 25, and in fact, right through to the end of the chapter. We'll have to get to all those verses at a later point.

What is the right use of the gifts? In verses 13 through 19, the focus seems to be on the use of the gifts with reference to believers, while verses 20 through 25 focus on the use of the gifts with reference to unbelievers. Look first at verses 13 through 19, and we'll just quickly walk through these verses. Paul says, therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. Tongues alone is unintelligible, and therefore unedifying to anyone besides the person doing the speaking. Paul is saying, when God gives you the ability to speak in an unknown tongue, pray that he would also give you the ability to articulate what you are saying in a manner that is clear and helpful to those who are listening. In other words, the interpretation essentially makes the gift of tongues equivalent to the gift of prophecy in terms of its capacity to edify, because it renders the speech meaningful and instructive and beneficial. So pray that you'll be able to interpret. Jumping down to verse 16, Paul explains the ineffectiveness of speaking in tongues without interpretation. He says that if a person prays or speaks in tongues without an interpretation, how can anyone in the position of an outsider, that is someone who isn't inside your mind, to know what in the world's going on in there.

You know what's being said, but the world, the outsiders don't know. It's meaningful to you, but how can someone outside of your mind say amen to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying. Verse 17, you may be giving thanks well enough. Paul's not questioning your motive. You may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up. Your motives are not the measure of a good use of the spiritual gift. Is it edifying or not?

That's the measure. If you want to edify the church, then pray that your words are sensible, not just to yourself, but to everyone who is listening. Again, there's that focus on exercising spiritual gifts for the good of the whole group, not just for the individual. And so in the context of body life in the church, Paul's conclusion, verse 19, is this, I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others than 10,000 words in a tongue because implication that would not instruct anyone. But then lastly, Paul gives instruction regarding the proper use of the gifts with reference to unbelievers outside of the church in verses 20-25. These last verses, 20-25, are very rich with helpful and practical insight, and I really don't want to rush through them, so I'm going to hit the pause button for tonight, and we'll just pick up here next time we're together in the book of 1 Corinthians.

Sorry to leave you hanging, but we're out of time, and this is a good stopping point. But as we wrap this up for tonight, let me draw our attention back to Paul's opening words to chapter 14. He says, pursue love. He's just described what love is in 1 Corinthians 13, and he says, pursue that. Pursue love. You know, spiritual gifts are good. God intends us to use them for our benefit. Paul even tells us to earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, but we need to recognize, church, that spiritual gifts are merely means to an end.

The end, the goal, the objective, is not the exercise of spiritual gifts, but rather the exercise of edifying, enriching love for one another. That's the end. I don't work hard all week to bring home a paycheck so that my family can sit around and admire the paycheck. Look at that paycheck.

That is some quality paper right there. Now, the paycheck and the labor that earned it are means to an end. They're meant to be spent for the benefit and provision of the family. Some of you ladies are phenomenal cooks, and you enjoy preparing and serving a wonderful meal for your family, but you don't make a nice meal so that everyone around the table can stare at the meal and comment on how amazing it looks. A well-cooked meal is only beneficial when it's eaten.

It is made to be consumed and enjoyed. When we make our service to the church about the gift rather than about the body of believers who are served by the gift, we miss the point. We fail to edify. We've ceased pursuing love and have begun pursuing something else.

Perhaps it's self-importance and pride, maybe it's gratification, pleasure, but it's not love. Paul is telling us in these verses that we don't need some extraordinary wow factor to validate our service to the bride of Christ. What we need and what we should be pursuing and what we should be praying for are abilities and opportunities and motivations that will help the church to simply know and be known by God. That is the greatest expression of love we could demonstrate to the body of Christ. And that is the purpose for any and every spiritual gift that we may have been given. May we use our gifts, all of them humbly and unselfishly and wisely, always for the building up of the church. Let's pray. Father, thank you for the gifts that you have given us. Thank you for instructing us in the use of these gifts. Lord, we have many questions after reading a chapter like 1 Corinthians, but one thing you have made abundantly clear is that you intend us to use what you have given to encourage and instruct and console and spur each other onward. Help us to be the kind of church that uses its gifts well and guard us, Lord, from the self-centered pride to which we're all vulnerable in order that your name alone might be glorified in this body. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-01-22 20:15:00 / 2023-01-22 20:25:29 / 10

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