Paul has defined true love in Chapter 13 in a way unequalled by any man. Now he turns to applying love in the real world:
“Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (1 Cor 14:1).
Paul commands us to pursue love in all the forms he has just described. Why? So that those who are called to prophesy will be free to build up the church. It is important to understand the meaning of “prophesy.” The Greek word Paul uses means “to speak under the influence of divine inspiration, with or without reference to future events” (Louw & Nida 33.459).
Do we really understand what it means to seek the gift of prophecy? It is not as lofty and unreachable as we may think:
“For 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. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up” (1 Cor 14:2-5).
I have encountered someone speaking in tongues only once in my life, during a prayer service many years ago, and frankly, it was disruptive because there was no interpretation. Yet I know the person who was speaking this way was talking directly to God. This makes me think of all the others I have encountered in my life, who have preached, taught Christian education classes, led VBS, and led Bible studies, including myself. I have never thought of these roles as involving prophecy until this moment. But according to Paul’s definition, that is exactly what it is - studying the Word of God and presenting it in ways that build up the church!
“Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air” (1 Cor 14:6-9).
Paul is saying that anything that cannot be understood by everyone on the church leads to disunity.
“There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church” (1 Cor 14:10-12).
Therefore, Paul is showing us that the path to perfect unity in the church is paved with solid teaching and preaching from the Bible, brought to a level of agape love that everyone can understand. All else is noisy gong and clanging cymbal.
Paul’s distinction between prophecy and tongues continues next time as he leads us to understanding what orderly worship means.
Hurry back! Some of this is a bit heavy, but it leads to the priority of building up the church in perfect unity.