Summary: The gift of prophecy overshadows the gift of tongues; the language of love reigns supreme over all the gifts.


In just a couple of weeks Sharon and I will be in Corinth, Greece, the place where all of this church business happened. It occurred to me that at some point I will need a bottle of water from time to time and will have to ask a merchant for said water.

How will I ask for a bottle of water, I wondered? I have studied Greek in the past but that was the dead language form of Greek and almost useless for today’s Greece. There will be no other recourse for me except to speak in English. So then I wondered if I speak English and the merchant does not know English whether he will look at his co-worker and ask in his own language, “What’s he talking about?” And will the co-worker turn to him and respond, “I don’t know it’s all Greek to me.”

Probably not.

Even when we speak the same language we have trouble understanding each other. The other day I was going to meet our Conference pastor at Schellenberg’s for lunch and have some soup. He called that morning to ask if we were still on for that day. Yes, I told him, but it had occurred to me that Happy Earl’s was open and we could also eat there. Perplexed, he wondered where we should meet then. I didn’t get it, I told him the same place of course. Later he told me that he didn’t know what Happy Earl’s was. Then I realized that I had not explained that Earl’s was an extension of the restaurant we were already going to. Same language…no comprehension…failure to communicate.

We may think we are speaking the same language in the Church but we will be surprised to find that some of what we say and do is all Greek to newcomers or the uninitiated. The situation in Corinth was a matter of using and abusing the gift of tongues which has no bearing on us. The application however is worth looking at: Are we speaking a language in the Church that everyone can follow?

1. Speak the Language of Love

Peter spoke to us last week of the supremacy of love and how without love a gift is nothing. Love is the ultimate goal of every Christian. I can say this confidently because as Peter pointed out so well, we can substitute the word “love” for the name of “Jesus.” Jesus is our great focus in life.

Paul concluded chapter 12 saying “eagerly desire the greater gifts…” and now builds on the love theme together with this idea: “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy” (v.1).

The supremacy of love continues. Christians are to be motivated by the love of God and the example of Jesus in all that they do. This includes the language of the church. In Corinth the sign that was lifted up as the evidence that the Holy Spirit was at work in their lives was the ability to speak in tongues. You were considered a very spiritual person if you could speak a language that you did not learn but came from the Holy Spirit. To which Paul replies, no, the language of love, the language of Jesus shows that you are a very spiritual person. Desire spiritual gifts, he says, but not tongues as much as prophecy. Let’s take a brief look at the difference:

a) What tongue do you speak? A tongue is a language. That is what the Greek word actually means. I speak English; that is my tongue. When the Bible refers to the gift of tongues it speaks to us of that amazing event when at Pentecost the disciples came out speaking languages they should not have known. Through the Spirit some are gifted with that same ability. Paul describes it here: “For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit” (v. 2). We also have here the problem: speaking in tongues is not for speaking to fellow Christians, unless as in v. 5 it says, tongues are interpreted.

b) Who Prophesies? While tongues are an amazing gift and an affirmation of the Spirit’s presence, Paul raises prophecy above tongues as a gift to be desired and used in the Church.

We may think of prophecy as being the predicting of the future, which it has been, but it is not the essence of the gift we know today. Ray Stedman said that the gift of prophecy “…is basically explaining and expounding of the mind of God…it is applying the world view of God to the circumstances of men, so that men begin to see what is happening in their lives in terms of what God understands them to be.” Stedman believed that expository preaching fits that definition. Some would disagree with Stedman because his definition leaves out anyone who is not a preacher. Michael Green defined prophecy as “a word from the Lord through a member of his body, inspired by his Spirit and given to build up the rest of the body.” By this definition anyone can here can be a prophet. I believe that Stedman and Green are both right. Prophecy can be heard in preaching and in personal encounters.

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