“New news is old news happening to new people” is a quote that I have heard attributed to Malcolm Muggeridge. This is also true with regard to error in the church. A new error is usually an old error dressed up with new language and slick slogans.
These reflections were prompted by a statement that was recently brought to my attention. Someone recently used 1 Corinthians 14:1 as a springboard to declare that bringing prophetic words to people is the best gift to have. Prophetic words being in the form of “God told me that . . . ” The “that” is usually something that the listener needs to do in response to what the speaker thinks is beneficial.
If you define prophecy in the narrow sense of declaring what will happen in the future, I see how you could come away with this interpretation of 1 Corinthians 14:1 which says,
“Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.” (ESV)
But is this what Paul is saying? Is Paul telling us that we should all desire the gift of telling people what to do? Both my head and my heart tell me that this is a false and harmful understanding of this verse.
First, the verbal form of the word prophesy (almost a direct transliteration from the Greek), has the meaning of proclaiming a message. So the pertinent question is, “what message is to be proclaimed?” We should look at how the Apostle Paul applied this verse to his own life before jumping to conclusions about what it means for us.
A quick search using my Bible study software indicates that in the ESV, there are 39 times where both the words “preach” and “gospel” are used by Paul in the same verse. For example:
“So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.” (Romans 1:15, ESV)
“and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel . . .” (Romans 15:20, ESV)
“For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” (1 Corinthians 1:17, ESV)
Furthermore, Paul wrote this earlier in the First Letter to the Corinthians:
“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:1–5, ESV)
The message that Paul consistently “prophesied” was the good news about the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul proclaimed the good news that our standing before God is not based on our obedience but on Christ’s (see 2 Corinthians 5:21).
I do not recall any instance of Paul displaying the gift of predicting the future or of telling others “God told me to tell you . . .” We should not apply Paul’s words to ourselves differently than he applied them to himself.
Can God give people a special word of wisdom to be shared with others? I am certainly not in a position to say that he can’t. But I am in a position to say that you are on thin ice if you are going to use 1 Corinthians 14:1 as a pretext for:
- Declaring that a “prophetic” gift is superior to other gifts
- Declaring that this gift should be sought because it is a superior gift
I should also mention that the central message of Chapters 12-14 of I Corinthians is that we should not seek the “supernatural” gifts at all. If God blesses someone with a “supernatural” gift, so be it. But Paul’s whole point is that faith, hope and love are superior to any of the “supernatural” gifts, with love being at the top of the pile. So work hard at learning to love and be happy with any gift that you receive along the way.
In summary, there are two things that I recommend:
- Think long and hard before telling someone, “God told me . . .”
- Spend a lot of time reading Scripture and praying before acting on anything that is prefaced by, “God told me . . .”
The error of over valuing “supernatural” gifts was destroying the Corinthian church and it is just as harmful today. Our Enemy knows well the most enticing ways to lead us off track.