Sunday, December 18, 2016

Speaking Prophesy

Those gathered for worship with the Corinthians were a diverse bunch. Corinth was one of the largest and most corrupt cities in the Roman Empire. Five times as large as Athens at the time, Corinth was also a port city full of international travelers. If too many languages were spoken during a worship service, people would loose track of what was going on. So, Paul suggested a limit of two, possibly three different languages -- and the translations should be given sequentially, not all at the same time. In addition, each message (prophecy or explanation) should be translated so that all present would be able to understand what was said. And if someone came with a message in a tongue that was not common, and there was no one to interpret what he said, he should keep it to himself. There was no point in saying something that couldn't be understood. So, if there was no interpreter present for a particular language, that language should not be used.
Greek was the international language and most people spoke enough Greek to get along. Most of the international travelers were probably bilingual. And as is common, when a bilingual person is speaking in his inferior language and comes to a more complex thing to say, he will revert to his native tongue simply because he doesn't know how to say it in his inferior language -- hoping that someone in the crowd would be able to interpret. So, said Paul, if there was no one to interpret, such a person should hold his tongue. There was no sense trying to share something that couldn't be understood correctly. He should just think it through to himself and share it with the ! Lord -- save it for a time when he was with others who spoke his language. Paul not only limited the languages spoken to two, possibly three, but he limited the points that prophets should make in whatever language as well.
As we know, the job of prophets was the clarification, explanation and application of Scripture. Here Paul suggested that too many explanations in any one worship service would leave people confused. The Corinthians leaders were probably overwhelming people by saying too much. Paul sought an optimum communication level. It was an error to speak in a language that people didn't understand. But it was also a mistake to say too much in a language that they could understand. We should understand this problem today because in our contemporary world the Word of God is all but lost in a flood of Godless words that demand and distract our attention.
Again, the point of speaking, especially in worship, is communication. So, not more than two or three points should be made during any particular worship service. And those points could then be considered and weighed by any other prophets/preachers who were there. Two things can be noted. First, that various people participated in worship leadership. Paul's point was that the leaders should cooperate. Perhaps one person would make a particular point, and another person would further clarify it. And secondly, the worship leaders should be cautious about bringing up too much, about making too many different points in any one worship service. Communication fails when the language spoken is not understood, but it also fails when people are overwhelmed with too much information -- even if the information is good. 1 Corinthians 14:30 is about making biblical applications.
Suppose one of the leaders is clarifying and explaining a particular point, and in the midst of that explanation he makes an application of the point that involves someone present. Something is revealed about someone. The fact that something is revealed suggested that whatever it was had been previously hidden, maybe intentionally, maybe not. Usually, biblical application involves some spiritual growth and reveals some sin or failure and the application involves some way to avoid or overcome that sin or failure through better reliance on God. So, said Paul, when such an application is in the process of being made, it should not be interrupted or derailed by someone who wants to say something else. When a biblical point is being made, stay with it. Clarify it. Explain it fully. And if an application is made, particularly if it involves someone who is present, let it take its course.
Don't interrupt it by changing the topic. Let it play out because biblical application is one of the central elements of Christian worship. 1 Corinthians 14:31 makes the important point that all Christians, all those whom Paul addressed in this letter, could (and should) prophesy (clarify and explain Scripture), some translations use "may." "For you can (or may) all prophesy one by one" (v. 31). Both ability and permission are given. The Greek is interesting. The word translated as could or may (dunamai) literally means to be able, to have power whether by virtue of one's own ability and resources, or because of a state of mind, or through favorable circumstances, or by permission of law or custom.
It means being able to do something, being capable, being strong and powerful, having the ability. It is related at the root to the word dunamis, which is often translated as miracle or power. Paul was saying that all Christians have the power to prophesy, to clarify and explain Scripture, because that power resides in the Holy Spirit who has regenerated them. It is on this basis that I find prophecy to be an ordinary Christian gift, not an extraordinary gift. Indeed, the explanation of Scripture is common among Christians, at least it should be. And the purpose of this gift, said Paul, is learning and encouragement in faithfulness.
All should learn, all should be encouraged, and all should encourage others, all should clarify and explain what they know to be true about Scripture. The only thing unusual about this gift is that so few people who call themselves Christians can do it. And even fewer can do it well! This, however, does not mean that the gift of prophecy is rare among Christians. Rather, it suggests that faithful Christians may be more uncommon than people think. To say that "the prophets are subject to the prophets" (1 Corinthians 14:32) suggests that biblical explanation should not contribute to contention or division as if my explanation is better than yours so it is your obligation to agree with me. But rather, those who explain Scripture should be in submission to others who explain Scripture.
In other words, different explanations are not necessarily in conflict, and the prophets/preachers need to make every effort to reconcile the differences according to Scripture. Faithful adherence to this dictum will go a long way to encourage Christian unity. This does not mean that the majority rules regarding biblical interpretation, or that the commonly held view is always without error. Rather, it means that those who interpret Scripture, those who preach and teach, must have submissive, teachable spirits themselves. Biblical interpretation must be understood and practiced as a team effort. There would surely be fewer denominations if more people actually practiced this.

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