Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts

Prophecy in 1 Corinthians


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.

  • Edward T. Babinski

    Paul himself was quite the prophet, no?
    Paul prophesied in 1 Cor. 11:29-30 that it was GOD who was striking down many Christians with disease and even killing a few because of how they mishandled the celebration of the Lord’s Supper: “. . . anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep [died].”
    Wow! But Paul’s prophecies don’t stop there! He predicted Jesus was arriving soon! Very soon indeed!
    Paul prophesied in 1 Cor 2:6; 4:5; 7:29-31; 10:11; 11:26; 15:51-52; 16:22: …the rulers of this age…are passing away [“will not last much longer” – Today’s English Version]… Do not go on passing judgment before the time [i.e., “before the time” of final judgment which he predicted was near at hand], but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts…” …the time has been shortened so that from now on both those who have wives should be as though they had none [i.e., practice celibacy due to the nearness of the coming of the Lord?]; and those who weep, as though they did not weep; and those who rejoice, as though they did not rejoice; and those who buy, as though they did not possess; and those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it [i.e., there was no time for marriage games or buying or selling – the main thing to do was prepare for the soon coming of the Lord]; for the form of this world is passing away [“This world, as it is now, will not last much longer” – Today’s English Version]… These things were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come… Proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes [i.e., Paul did not say, “Proclaim the Lord’s death until the day you die,” but rather, “until he comes,” which means that he considered Christ’s coming to be nearer than the time when the believers he was writing to would all be dead]. We [Paul and the first century believers being addressed] shall not all sleep… At the last trumpet…the dead will be raised…and we shall be changed. Maranatha [=”Come Lord”]
    Or consider what Paul wrote to the believers at Thessalonica:
    …how you turned to God from idols…to wait for His Son from heaven [Compare 1 Cor 1:7, “…awaiting eagerly the revelation (revealing) of our Lord Jesus Christ,” and, Heb 9:28, “Christ…shall appear a second time…to those who eagerly await Him.” These instructions to “eagerly wait” for Christ’s return reveal how imminent the second coming of Jesus was believed to be.]… For who is our…crown…Is it not even you [the first century Christians being addressed], in the presence of our Lord Jesus at his coming? …May establish your hearts…before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we [Paul and the first century Christians being addressed] who are alive and remain [notice how Paul included himself as one who will still be alive] until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep…the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air… …May your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. [1 Thes 1:9,10; 2:19; 3:13; 4:15-17; 5:23]
    Keep in mind to whom Paul wrote the above letters, and also that Paul claimed that he was repeating a “word” that he had received directly from “the Lord.”
    What marvelous truth was revealed to Paul in this astonishing revelation? Namely, that “we” [the first century Christians who “remained alive” at the time this letter was written, including Paul, its author] “shall be caught up…in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air!” For Paul there was no doubt that Jesus would arrive before he and the believers he addressed would all be dead. “We,” including himself, “shall not all sleep” [1 Cor 15:51]. In a second letter to the Thessalonians (probably pseudepigraphical but based on expectations at that time), the author (Paul?) prophesied again that Jesus would return shortly:
    …It is just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution…these will pay the penalty…when He comes… [2 Thes 1:6-10]
    That is to say, Jesus would be revealed from heaven “with his mighty angles in flaming fire” soon enough to “relieve” the afflictions of the Thessalonians, and other first century Christians.
    Wow, what a master of prophecy Paul was! NOT.
    Also see Thom Stark’s new book, THE HUMAN FACES OF GOD, and his chapter on the apocalyptic Jesus. (I am still waiting for enough Christians who oppose biblical inerrancy to get together and make a formal statement opposing it. Such a statement needs to be made.)

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