If you’ve been following my blog recently, you know that I’ve just begun a series on the divinity of Jesus. I’ll get back to that series soon. But I’d like to take a short break to put up a couple of posts on prophecy in 1 Corinthians. If that seems to you like a bit of a non sequitur, you are quite right. But if you receive my Daily Reflections, this brief detour will make sense to you.
As a part of my job at Laity Lodge, I write a daily devotional. These are posted at our sister website, The High Calling: Everyday Conversations About Work, Life, and God. They are also emailed for free to more than 12,000 subscribers. (If you’re interested in subscribing, visit The High Calling website and look for “Stay Connected.”
The Daily Reflections are based on a passage-by-passage walk through Scripture. During the week I focus on one particular book. On the weekends I base my thoughts on the Psalms. My goal is to work through the whole Scripture, a project that will take more than ten years. The point is not to race through the text, but to meander, pausing to wonder, consider, and pray.
Today, I’m beginning a series of reflections on 1 Corinthians 14, a chapter that completes an extensive treatment of spiritual gifts in the context of Christian community. In this chapter, the Apostle Paul frequently refers to prophesying. This can be confusing to contemporary readers. So, I thought I might blog on the topic of Prophecy in 1 Corinthians. This topic could well be the subject of a book (in fact, it has been). So what I’m putting up here will just scratch the surface. But I hope this will help those who receive the Daily Reflections – and any other interested readers – to understand what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians when he speaks of prophecy.
Prophecy in 1 Corinthians
Prophecy is introduced in 1 Corinthians in chapter 11, in a passage that has to do with head coverings in the context of church gatherings. Here Paul writes:
Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head–it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. (11:4-5)
There is no explanation here of what prophesying entails. There is an implication that this is a fairly common occurrence in the Corinthian gatherings, something that both men and women are apt to do. Apparently, Paul has no problem with men and women prophesying, though he is concerned about what they are wearing. (I’ll save the question of what Paul is actually talking about here when he refers to head coverings for another day.)
Chapters 12-14 of 1 Corinthians deal with the exercise of spiritual gifts in the corporate gatherings of the Corinthian church. Words related to prophecy show up 20 times in these three chapters (propheteia = prophecy, 5 times; propheteuo = to prophesy, 11 times; prophetes = prophet, 6 times). The first uses of prophecy language appear in chapter 12, where Paul refers to “prophecy” or “a prophecy” as something given by the Holy Spirit for the sake of the common good of the community (12:10). Furthermore, God has appointed some persons in the church to be “prophets,” that is, to have a consistent ministry of prophesying in the assembly (12:28-29).
1 Corinthians 13 refers to prophecy three times. In verse, 2, Paul says, “And if I have prophetic powers [propheteian, literally “prophecy” or “a prophecy”], and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (13:2). Implicitly, prophesying is a good thing. But the one who prophesies amounts to “nothing” apart from love.
1 Corinthians 13:8-10 speak to the limitations of prophecy: “Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.” When the complete comes, a reference to the time when we are face-to-face with the Lord (13:12), there will not longer be a need for prophesies, which, however true they may be, do not tell the full story.
So far, we don’t really know what Paul means when he refers to prophesying. It is something done in the church, perhaps regularly. It is a good thing, yet limited in its duration and scope. Plus, however valuable prophesying may be, without love, it amounts to very little.
In tomorrow’s post we’ll examine Paul’s teaching on prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14, where we’ll discover more about the nature and function of prophecy in the church.