Especially Prophecy

Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy. (1 Corinthians 14:1)

The verse is often understood to mean that Paul favors prophecy above other spiritual abilities. Ministries that are inclined toward prophecy rejoice over it, and they use this apostolic endorsement to fuel their movement. Then there are those who take anything that they can find to undermine speaking in tongues, even though Paul repeatedly praises tongues in the same context. It is difficult to make sense of an apparent exclusive preference for prophecy. It puzzles even some of those who have faith to operate in spiritual gifts and who are not prejudiced against them. Those who assume that this is the apostle’s meaning and who simply accept it either lack aptitude to perceive the problem, or they themselves prefer prophecy anyway.

Jesus performed more healing miracles than other kinds of miracles. When he sent out disciples, he commanded them to preach the gospel, heal the sick, cast out demons, and even raise the dead. He did not place emphasis on prophecy. When he began his ministry, he announced that he would preach the gospel and heal the sick (Luke 4:18-19). Although he prophesied, he did not include it in his ministry constitution. When he described his ministry to John the Baptist, he said that he healed the sick, healed the sick, healed the sick, healed the sick, healed the sick — he said it five times in different ways — and that he preached the gospel (Matthew 11:5). Although he prophesied, he did not mention it in his ministry description. When Peter recalled the ministry of Jesus, he said that the Lord went about healing the sick (Acts 10:38), and he said that the Lord gained such a reputation for this that even the Gentiles knew it (Acts 10:36-37). Although he prophesied, it was not emphasized in his ministry reputation. Healing was in his ministry constitution, description, and reputation.

We must not lift up healing to put down prophecy. Jesus was a prophet, and he prophesied in his teaching, to individuals, and about Israel, the nations, the church, and the future of the world. He demonstrated so much prophetic powers that he became known as a prophet even during his short ministry, but he was known even more for his miracles of healing. His ministry was explicitly defined by healing even more than prophecy, and certainly no less than prophecy. When we consider the ministries of the apostles and other disciples, we notice the same thing. The Gospels and the Acts do not exhibit a preference for prophecy. If there is a preference, they favor the ministry of healing. This is true not only when Jesus and the apostles were preaching to unbelievers and outsiders. Many of the miracles of healing occurred when people came to them in faith. It was not that they developed faith because they received miracles of healing, but they received the miracles of healing because they exercised faith. Many of the miracles of healing were given to those who believed and followed Jesus. For example, Lazarus and his sisters were close friends of the Lord. In fact, Jesus said that healing was bread for the children of the covenant (Matthew 15:26). He said that the children of Abraham ought to receive healing (Luke 13:16), and of course, we are the children of Abraham through faith (Galatians 3:7). Thus we cannot claim that healing was given prominence because it was a tool for evangelism or to authenticate the gospel, because it was given even more prominence among believers.

Again, the apostles demonstrated a similar pattern. From the start, Peter announced that Christians would be prophetic people, receiving visions, dreams, and prophecies, and indeed their prophetic experiences were constant (Acts 2:17-18). Nevertheless, they were known even more for their miracles of healing the sick and casting out demons (Acts 8:6-8). People lined up the streets to receive healing miracles through them, not to receive personal prophecies (Acts 5:15). Of course many miracles of healing occurred as they preached to unbelievers and outsiders, but the miracles of healing among believers and insiders were just as powerful, if not more powerful. Paul raised someone from the dead while he spoke at a meeting of believers (Acts 20:9-12). James said that miracles of healing are to benefit believers, and not only to attract unbelievers. He asked the believers, “Is any one of you sick?” He said that church elders should pray for the sick by faith, and the Lord will heal them (James 5:14-15). On the other hand, when he addressed those who are suffering, he gave them a teaching about Job, as to what this man finally received from the Lord (James 5:11). God gave him health and wealth, healing and prosperity (Job 42:10-17). We know that prophecy indeed has the ability to strengthen and encourage (1 Corinthians 14:3), but James taught the suffering one from the Bible, instead of prescribing prophecy from one of the church elders. The point is that the Bible does not place prophecy above all other gifts, and if it grants any miraculous ministry the preeminence, it arguably offers healing the first place.

Returning to Paul, what he appears to say in 1 Corinthians 14:1 — what some people think he means — would not make sense even in the context of the letter. One reason he wrote it in the first place was to address the spirit of division and competition in the church. The people were saying, “I follow Paul,” and “I follow Apollo,” and “I follow Peter” (1:11-12, 3:3-4). If this sounds familiar, it is because Christians have never stopped doing this. Why? Paul explains that it is because they are spiritual infants (3:1-2). It seems that one of the items that divided them was how they understood and exercised spiritual gifts. The apostle declares that although there are different kinds of gifts, functions, and ministries, they come from the same Spirit, the same Lord, and the same God. Christians should not be divided by their different manifestations of God’s grace and power, but they should be united by their common faith in Jesus Christ. He likens the congregation to a body. It is one unit, but it is made up of many parts. Every part is needed, every part has a role, and every part is related to other parts, so that when one part suffers, every part suffers with it (1 Corinthians 12).

Then Paul teaches that, more than desire, love is a more excellent way to operate in spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 13). A cessationist who teaches love from 1 Corinthians 13 is even more hypocritical than an atheist who teaches faith from Hebrews 11. The chapter is not about love as such, but how love relates to spiritual gifts. You cannot interpret the Bible correctly if you remove the essence of a passage. The Bible will not sanction a theology that has no God in it. God is not a monument, but a living and working divine person (John 5:17). Just as an atheist who teaches faith from Hebrews 11 would condemn himself, since the chapter testifies against him (Hebrews 11:6), the cessationist who teaches love from 1 Corinthians 13 condemns himself, because the chapter refers to a love that operates in spiritual gifts “for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). It is a love that is sandwiched between the unity of love (1 Corinthian 12) and the order of love (1 Corinthians 14), which — love — is the reason or motive for operating in spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 13). Thus the chapter testifies against the cessationist, showing that he has no love, but only hate for the church and for the gospel.

Desire for spiritual gifts is good, and Paul hastens to affirm it immediately after he talks about love, but when believers are entangled by jealousy and division, love is what they need to learn. Love is more excellent not only from the perspective of morality, but it is also superior from the perspective of ministry. Our desires are narrow and limited. One man may desire a ministry of healing above all else, and has little interest in tongues. Another might be zealous for speaking in tongues, but thinks nothing of delivering a word of wisdom. Both of them overlook the spectacular gift of faith. Desire is often restricted by our self-perception. A person might have faith to operate a business for the glory of God and to support the church, but he is crippled with fear when it comes to healing the sick. But love is broad and strong. Love esteems the heart of God and the needs of others. The one who walks in love desires spiritual gifts, and he desires the gifts so that he can deliver and edify people. So when he sees someone with a need, he would not care if he seems to lack the gift to address that need. Love drives out fear (1 John 4:18). He would trust God and reach out to help that person anyway, and when he does, he would find that God comes on the scene and performs the work. Once given, God does not remove his grace, and thus a new ministry is born.

After all of this, is it possible that Paul would suddenly favor one gift above others (1 Corinthians 14:1)? He would then engage in that which he has just opposed. No, it is not possible. Would he withhold his endorsement from every faction — Paul, Apollo, Peter, healing, tongues, and so on — only to throw his whole support behind a prophecy faction? Would he do such a thing right after all that talk about unity and love? No, he would not do this. Therefore, it is impossible that Paul intends to specify prophecy as the supreme spiritual gift. He means something else by the statement, and to grasp what he means, we need to examine the rest of 1 Corinthian 14. It does not take much. Even a brief review would suffice, because the matter is obvious. Read 1 Corinthians 14. Throughout the chapter, Paul compares prophecy and tongues, in the process giving us the impression that the Corinthians had an issue with disorderly and uninterpreted tongues in public assembly. Since the Corinthians were fond of speaking gifts (1 Corinthians 1:5), the best course would be for them to devote more attention to prophecy, so that they could exercise a speaking gift that was always intelligible.

Consider the apostle’s solution. It indicates the place that spiritual gifts must occupy in the congregation. He obviously regards division and disorder as severe issues. Even then, he never suggested that the believers should suspend the exercise of spiritual gifts, not even as a temporary measure. And although it seems there was a problem with a disorderly use of tongues, he never suggested that they should suspend even this one ministry. Rather, he proposes prophecy. He does not mean that prophecy is the best gift compared to all other gifts, but that prophecy is better for them compared only to tongues, only in public assembly, and only when there is no interpretation. The three conditions are crucial, so that the principle does not hold if any of them does not apply. Prophecy is not superior when the other gifts are included. Prophecy is not even superior to tongues when we leave the public assembly. Prophecy is not superior to tongues even in public assembly when there is an interpretation.

This is Paul’s answer in the face of an apparent abuse of speaking in tongues. Spiritual gifts must not cease. The church must not suspend even one gift, not even as a temporary measure against abuse. Supernatural abilities must persist in an orderly operation in the congregation. How does the apostle address an abuse of gifts? He adds more gifts to bring balance. Theologians are fond of listing the signs of a true church. Of course, they list the signs that they think their group possesses. They include things that they can control and counterfeit — preaching, sacraments, church discipline — but they exclude things that only God can perform, so that they would not be exposed as frauds. Since Paul was insistent on the operation of spiritual gifts to the point that he would not suspend even the one gift that was abused, the operation of spiritual gifts must also be a sign of the true church, without which a congregation must be condemned. God works in the true church in an evident manner, in a manner that the Bible promises and prescribes (Acts 2:17-18, 39; Galatians 3:5; James 5:15; 1 Corinthians 12:7, 11, 27, 14:26). Paul refused to suspend even one of the supernatural gifts, so how can a congregation be a true church, if it allows or receives none of the supernatural gifts? Now that burning sensation in your heart, O traditionalist, that growing indignation, that gnashing of teeth, O cessationist, is the realization that I am correct — about ALL of this — and that you are in a false denomination and a false church! Ichabod in your face!

There is a lesson here for us who believe the gospel and who operate in spiritual gifts. The principle is that the supernatural ministries are so essential that we must not suspend even the gift that is misused in the congregation, even if it is only one gift. Rather, the solution is to regulate its use, and to increase attention on what balances it. We add more gifts, seek more miracles, receive more blessings, and pursue more abilities and ministries. We can apply the principle to every aspect of the church. Suppose a congregation maintains a strong teaching ministry, but it has not produced a new convert in fifteen years. We should wonder if the teaching ministry is that strong in the first place, but let us leave that alone for now. The solution would be for this church to continue their ministry of teaching, and to pursue all ministries, but especially the ministry of evangelism. This would not suggest that we favor evangelism more than teaching, or that we think evangelism is superior to every other operation in the church, but it is what this church needs to emphasize. This is what Paul intends when he says, “especially prophecy.”

Let us say more about speaking in tongues. Paul’s endorsement of prophecy cannot be used to undermine tongues in any way, because in the same context, the apostle repeatedly praises speaking in tongues. He makes a contrast between prophecy and tongues because he has a specific purpose in mind, but when we examine his statements about speaking in tongues itself, we find that he has only good things to say. In fact, the apostle appears enamored with tongues. He says that the one who speaks in tongues utters mysteries to God and builds up himself (14:2, 4). He says that when he prays in a tongue, he prays in the spirit, and so he will pray with his spirit and sing with his spirit (14:14-15). He says that when a person offers thanks to God with his spirit, he does it well (14:16-17). Most Christians cannot offer thanks well even in their native language, if they offer thanks at all, but they spurn a way to offer excellent thanks to God directly from their spirits.

Paul is not finished. He thanks God that he speaks in tongues even more than the Corinthians (14:18). He applies the words of the prophets to speaking in tongues (14:21), and says that tongues are a sign to unbelievers (14:22). It is ironic that those who undermine tongues would sometimes use this statement to do it. Can they not see that both Paul and the Corinthians enjoy tongues very much? Can they not see that both Paul and the Corinthians believe very much in the spiritual gifts? Isaiah was speaking to apostate Israel, or “believers” who were really “unbelievers” (Isaiah 28:11-12), thus the prophecy could apply to those inside the church. If these people refuse to believe and operate in the spiritual gifts, and if they undermine speaking in tongues, then they are the “unbelievers” in this context, and the proliferation of speaking in tongues in the world is a sign from God to them, to condemn their unbelief and awake them to truth. But as the prophet said, “Through men of strange tongues, I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me” (14:21). Busted! Even then these “Christians” and cessationists will not listen to God. What does it take? Those who hijack 1 Corinthians 14 to undermine speaking in tongues are especially incompetent and dishonest, and deserve our fierce condemnation.

He says that speaking in tongues matches prophecy even in public assembly when it is accompanied by interpretation (14:5). He favors prophecy only in public assembly, and only when there is no interpretation for the tongues. If there is interpretation, the two are equivalent. As much as people exalt intelligible speech at the expense of tongues, speaking in tongues immediately rises to the same level in public assembly when it comes with interpretation. So if they wish to deprecate tongues, they should first deprecate prophecy and preaching, and thus further condemn themselves. Otherwise, they make room for tongues to collect the praise that they shower upon intelligible speech. Paul expects a believer to come to church with “a tongue or an interpretation” (14:26) just as much as he expects one to come with “a hymn, or a word of instruction” (14:26). In fact, he anticipates up to three messages in tongues in a single meeting (14:27). He concludes, “Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues” (14:39). According to his description of speaking in tongues, it is an explosion of spiritual blessings in private use, but he says to allow it even in public assembly.

Paul declares, “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized” (14:37-38, ESV). Keep in mind what the apostle has said about the use of prophecy, the value of tongues, the participation of believers in the miraculous, the principles of church order, and so on. If a person does not accept what the apostle says about prophecy, tongues, and spiritual gifts as a doctrine and command from Jesus Christ, then the church must not offer this person recognition. The context pertains to the assembly of the church and the exercise of the ministry, so even though it relates to prophecy, tongues, and so on, it also relates to ministries of worship and instruction (14:26). In other words, a person who does not accept what we have stated above about prophecy, tongues, and spiritual gifts no longer has a biblical basis to expect any recognition in the church for any public ministry. He should not be permitted to preach as a pastor or teach as a professor. Christians should not offer him recognition. The church should not accept him, employ him, ordain him, graduate him, publish him, or listen to him. The church and the seminary belong in the public sphere. Thus if a pastor declares that prophecy and the other spiritual gifts have passed away, he should be defrocked and removed from any public recognition. If a professor teaches cessationism, or something against healing the sick or speaking in tongues, he should be terminated from his position, and any academic degree should be revoked. Christians must withdraw public recognition from him. This is a direct command from Paul the apostle and Christ the Lord.

What about the churches and seminaries? What about their creeds? What about their denominations? If they stand against Christ on this, they no longer have any basis to exist. Like the Pharisees, they resort to mutual approval. They confer honor on one another, and they call one another orthodox. They ordain one another, but they have no anointing from the Spirit. They attribute their existence to divine providence, but their entire system consists of them holding up one another in midair. Of course their creeds are orthodox — their theologians say so! Of course their theologians are orthodox — their seminaries say so! Of course their seminaries are orthodox — their denominations say so! And of course their denominations are orthodox — their creeds say so! This is the way they maintain everything in their traditions. As God said, “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water” (Jeremiah 2:13). No prophet is without honor except in his hometown. Paul himself faced contempt from the people of his generation. All reformers in their times are heretics to some people. If they disagree with anything I say, just wait a hundred years or so. Perhaps by then it would be explained by divine providence, and it would be the standard of orthodoxy. Perhaps by then their children would be my chief defenders, and would claim that they have supported me from the start! God is irrelevant to them. Scripture has nothing to do with it. Tradition is their God. History is their orthodoxy. Why? They are sinful, and they are stupid.

Considering Paul’s verdict on the matter, even I have been inexcusably tolerant toward cessationists and the “unbelievers” of what Scripture teaches about spiritual gifts and our participation in the miraculous. Although my approach has been criticized as abusive, the truth is that I have offered these people excessive courtesy, and I have not been ruthless enough toward them. What about you? Are you one of those worthless morons who complain that I have been too harsh, and who discuss these matters with self-righteous detachment, when you should have been doing your part to demolish the opposition by the Lord’s command? You will not change, will you? Why? You are a religious phony. You wish to believe your own ideas and live your own goals in the name of religion. You come to God with your mouth, but you stay far from him in your heart. You have never accepted the doctrines of Christ, but only the traditions of men. On the other hand, if we indeed believe the gospel of Jesus Christ, then let us pursue all the gifts out of love, especially those that increase our usefulness, especially those that edify more people in our context, and especially those that enhance our spiritual balance, so that we may be equipped for the work of the ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we attain to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.