Summary: An explanation prophecy and tongues from a charismatic Evangelical perspective.
We’re spending some time looking at the gifts, and so far we’ve been emphasising the need to focus on the giver of the gifts and on being the gift by serving, rather than getting too anxious about discovering what your gift is. It’s been fairly safe so far, don’t you think? So this morning why don’t we spice things up a little bit and talk about some specific gifts and often controversial gifts - tongues and prophecy.
Remember the reason Paul is writing to the Corinthians about the gifts is because they were abusing the gifts, and especially tongues. They thought tongues was a sign of true spirituality and the church meetings were chaos because people were competing with each other in tongues speaking. Paul’s goal was to remedy this situation, but giving some guidelines for the right use of the gifts and bringing attention back to the purpose of the gifts.
So what are tongues and prophecy, and how should we use them today?
What comes to your mind when you hear the word ’prophecy’. You might think of the Old Testament prophets with their messages of hellfire and brimstone judgment. Or else maybe the book of Revelation and the end times. In fact, New Testament prophecy that Paul is speaking about is different to these. Prophecy is sometimes associated with telling the future, and it can involve this, but more often than not it doesn’t.
Prophecy is one of the promises of the Spirit’s presence. Acts 2.17-18 says, "In the last day, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy."
Prophecy is simply speaking a word from God under the inspiration of the Spirit, often spontaneously, for people’s ’strengthening, encouragement and comfort.’ It’s about building up the church.
In some circles prophecy carries almost as much authority as the Bible and people are very reticent to question a prophet when they give a prophecy. But the Bible places some very strict limits on prophecy.
First of all, we believe that the Bible is authoritative and so contemporary prophecy is subject to Scripture. That means we have the right and obligation to check what someone says against Scripture and if it’s out of line we have every right to reject it. In regards to teaching, many popular preachers and televangelists claim to get some of their teaching by revelation from God, but if it’s not in Scripture, we should reject it.
But prophecy is usually not doctrinal, it’s a word given for encouragement or sometimes guidance. In those cases we need to be checking more generally the persons character, their grasp on Scripture and the way they deliver it. Are they living and ministering in a biblically consistent way and, above all, in love?
Prophets are also subject to the church. 1Thess 5.20-21 says, "Don’t treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold onto what is good." That’s pretty clear! If someone prophesies something we need to take it seriously, but not as gospel. If it doesn’t pass the sniff test, we don’t have to accept it.
So prophecy is a really important ministry in the church, but we’re not talking about the sort of authority the apostles had. Prophets are subject to the Scriptures and to the Church, including the church leadership.
What about tongues? The gift of tongues is the ability to speak in an unknown language under the inspiration of the Spirit. Some people think it should be a real language, like on the day of Pentecost. Others think that it can just be an ecstatic utterance. But how can you tell? I must admit that I’ve heard some tongues that I think might be just a little bit more of the flesh than of the Spirit.
In the end, it’s a moot point because Paul says tongues should be used in private. While prophecy is given to build up the church, tongues are given to build up the individual. It bypasses the cognitive functions of the brain and comes from the spirit. That’s why it’s so valuable to the individual, but of no value in the corporate setting. So Paul says to leave it for the prayer closet.
Some Christians, particularly in the older Pentecostal traditions, believe tongues is a sign of being filled with the Spirit. We certainly see this as a pattern in the book of Acts where on numerous occasions people speak in tongues when they’re filled with the Spirit - the day of Pentecost, the Samaritan revival, Cornelius’ conversion and the Ephesian disciples all speak in tongues. The problem is these passages are describing something that happened and are found only in one book of the Bible. The Bible doesn’t actually say that tongues is the sign of being filled the Spirit. And in this passage Paul is actually trying to dampen down the church’s enthusiasm for tongues as a sign of spirituality.