Big Idea: Pursue the miraculous spiritual gifts — especially prophecy — for the purpose of building up the church.
When it comes to the Holy Spirit, I have a very mixed background.
When I was young, my parents took me to a Pentecostal church. One of my earliest memories was being dragged out of that Pentecostal church by my father to be disciplined for misbehaving. He gave me what was called “what for” back then. But that’s not my only memory. I also remember people speaking in tongues. I remember healing services and prophecy.
But then, for most of my life, I’ve lived in pretty buttoned-down churches. The one that I attended during the formative years of my life was cessationist. In other words, they believed that the Holy Spirit just doesn’t work that way anymore. Other churches have been practically cessationist. They haven’t necessarily held a particular view, but they’ve pretty much agreed to act like the Holy Spirit doesn’t work that way anymore. To be honest, I’ve been okay with that. I don’t like the abuses that I see in some corners of the church. I like things under control. It just feels more convenient not to have to deal with some of the more controversial gifts of the Holy Spirit. Plus there’s a lot less to explain to others who already think that Christians are weird enough.
But then there’s a verse that never fails to give me a hard time. It’s actually not just one verse; it’s two.
But earnestly desire the higher gifts. (1 Corinthians 12:31)
Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. (1 Corinthians 14:1)
I realize that some of you here today may be convinced that the spiritual gifts like prophecy and tongues are no longer for today. If that’s you, I respect that. Thom Schreiner, a New Testament scholar I respect, holds this view, believing that these gifts ended with the apostolic era around 100 AD. If that’s you, then I respect your view. I don’t agree with it, but there are many smart people who agree with you. But my sermon isn’t directed at you today.
Today’s sermon is directed at those of you who, like me, think that the more controversial spiritual gifts are or may still be for today. I want to speak to those of you who believe in the Holy Spirit, but aren’t experiencing or seeking these gifts today. I want to speak to those of you who, like Jack Deere, a seminary professor who didn’t believe in these gifts at one time, but came to the Scriptures with fresh eyes and concluded that he was wrong.
This shift in my thinking was not the result of an experience with any sort of supernatural phenomena. It was the result of a patient and intense study of the Scriptures.
…I found myself believing one thing with my mind, but with my heart I wasn’t quite sure whether I wanted these things in my life or in the life of my church.
If that’s you, then let’s look at what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14. And here’s the first thing we see, which we’ve already covered:
What to Do: Pursue Them
Paul says, “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (1 Corinthians 14:1).
As I’ve mentioned, Paul mentions two gifts in particular in this passage: tongues, and prophecy. He even prioritizes them. In verse 5 he says he especially wants us to pursue prophecy.
So let’s consider this. What does it mean to pursue them? It means more than desire. Don’t just desire spiritual gifts, Paul says. Earnestly desire them. The word that Paul uses tells us that we must take an active interest, passion, and enthusiasm for them.
Don’t just believe in gifts like tongues and prophecy, Paul says. Don’t just be open to them. Take an active interest in them. Be zealous for them and earnestly desire their presence. Talk about a Bible verse that I’ve been ignoring!
Sam Storms, a pastor in Oklahoma, says this:
If one believes either that it is possible or that it is definite that all gifts are still valid and important today, one must explore ways to obey Paul’s command. If the gifts are valid, God does not leave us the option of either seeking them or not seeking them.
One cannot respond to this text by saying, “Well…that’s just not what we, as a church, are into. It’s not our style. It’s not our vision or contained in our mission statement, and to be perfectly honest, we are frightened by the possibility of such manifestations of the Spirit’s power and would prefer to fulfill the ministry given us by God without incorporating the pursuit of spiritual gifts and the mess that it would inevitably bring.”
This latter position, quite simply, is sin. To acknowledge the validity of spiritual gifts, and to acknowledge that God commands us to earnestly desire their manifestation, only then to refuse to do so, is sin…
How, then, will you respond to the apostolic imperative?
Here’s the problem: I believe in the more spectacular gifts of the Holy Spirit, but nobody who looks at my life would say that I’m actively pursuing them. And yet Paul says I should be. And so Paul’s words send out a clear command. This is something that should be a front-burner issue in our lives. We shouldn’t stop begging God for these gifts. This should be something that we’re praying for every single day.
I want you to think about this for a moment. I know you’re pursuing something in your life. Some of you are pursuing relationships. You have your eye on someone, and you’re in hot pursuit. I know it. Some of us are pursuing pretty big goals at work or in your personal life. You know what it is to relentlessly pursue a goal.
My guess is that very few of us are doing what Paul tells us to do here. Very few of us are relentlessly pursuing the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit. That’s not just an oversight. That’s a violation of a Scriptural command. This is important stuff.
So let’s commit to doing this. Let’s take this seriously. Beginning today, let’s make this something that we’re actively pursuing. The place to start? Prayer. Ask God for these gifts regularly. Make them part of your regular prayer life.
That’s the first thing that Paul tells us: purse the miraculous gifts. Here’s the second thing:
What They Are: Tongues and Prophecy
What does Paul say that we should desire? In 12:31 he says the “higher gifts.” That leads us to ask the question: what are the higher gifts? But Paul doesn’t give us an answer. Instead, he takes a digression about love, without which all gifts have to be judged as useless. But then in chapter 14:1 he picks up the subject again using the same language. This time, though, he tells us what gifts he’s talking about: prophecy and tongues. “Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy,” he says in verse 5.
This begs a question: what are tongues and prophecy? You’d think this would be an easy question to answer, but it’s not. There are at least two common theories about what tongues are, and probably even more theories about prophecy. Let’s look a bit closer at what Paul says to try to figure out the answer.
I’m kind of scared to go here. This is one of the most divisive issues in 21st century Christianity. People fight over all kinds of things, but this has to be one of the top issues over which people disagree.
There are a few theories on tongues:
- Some people think that they’re the supernatural ability to speak a foreign language. For instance, in Acts 2 we read that Christians spoke in foreign languages that they hadn’t learned. It would be like you suddenly speaking in Mandarin, even though you’ve never learned that language.
- Some people think that it’s more like speaking a non-human language, such as the language of angels. In the previous chapter, Paul spoke about speaking in the language of angels (1 Corinthians 13:1). Verse 2 gives us a hint about this: “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.”
- Some people think it’s language that doesn’t correspond to any human language — something that sounds more like gibberish.
- Or some variation of the above ideas.
We could spend all day talking about the various theories and arguments for each of these. Let’s skip that and settle on a few things all of us can agree upon. According to Wayne Grudem, “Speaking in tongues is prayer or praise spoken in syllables not understood by the speaker.” It’s more than just gibberish. I think it corresponds to some language, either human or heavenly. It has meaning — it can be interpreted. In fact, Paul goes on to say that it must be interpreted to be of benefit to the church.
That’s tongues. It’s one of the two gifts that Paul mentions we should pursue.
Only slightly less controversial is the ministry of prophecy. This is even more important to Paul. In verse 1 he says, “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.” In verse 5 he says, “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.”
Whatever prophecy is, Paul sees it as more important than tongues in the life of the church. Paul wants all of us to pursue this gift.
We get some hints in this passage of what prophecy is. In verse 3 we’re told that it’s given to strengthen, encourage, and comfort believers. In verses 24 and 25 we’re told that it may even challenge unbelievers when the secrets of their heart are disclosed. Then they’ll really know that God is among them. Verse 30 gives us a hint of what it involves: “If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent.”
Putting all of this together, prophecy is a revelation. It’s helpful revelation. It shows reveals something that is of benefit to those who are present. Again, I like this definition from Wayne Grudem. It’s not predicting the future; it’s not proclaiming a word from the Lord; it’s not powerful preaching. It’s “telling something that God has spontaneously brought to mind.” Or, as Sam Storms puts it:
Prophecy is not based on a hunch, a supposition, an inference, an educated guess or even on sanctified wisdom. Prophecy is not based on personal insight, intuition or illumination. Prophecy is the human report of a divine revelation.
Maybe the best way to explain this is to give you an example. Charles Spurgeon was a pastor in London, England in the 1800s. He was one of the greatest preachers the world has ever known. They called him the Prince of Preachers. He loved the Word of God. His life and ministry were exemplary. He wasn’t a flake in any sense of the word.
Occasionally when preaching, he would look at someone in the crowd and begin to speak directly to them about some situation that he couldn’t possibly know about. One time in the middle of preaching he saw a man, pointed at him, and said, “There is a man sitting there, who is a shoemaker; he keeps his shop open on Sundays, it was open last Sabbath morning…” and then described something that had happened at the shop last week. How did he ever know that? Spurgeon was right. The man said:
Then it struck me that it was God who had spoken to my soul through him, so I shut up my shop the next Sunday. At first, I was afraid to go again to hear him, lest he should tell the people more about me; but afterwards I went, and the Lord met with me, and saved my soul.
I could tell as many as a dozen similar cases in which I pointed at somebody in the hall without having the slightest knowledge of the person, or any idea that what I said was right, except that I believed I was moved by the Spirit to say it; and so striking has been my description, that the persons have gone away, and said to their friends, “Come, see a man that told me all things that ever I did; beyond a doubt, he must have been sent of God to my soul, or else he could not have described me so exactly.” And not only so, but I have known many instances in which the thoughts of men have been revealed from the pulpit. I have sometimes seen persons nudge their neighbours with their elbow, because they had got a smart hit, and they have been heard to say, when they were going out, “The preacher told us just what we said to one another when we went in at the door.”
This is what Paul is talking about: not new revelation at the level of Scripture, but a spontaneous revelation that’s relevant to the people present, and that comforts, strengthens, and edifies. I’ve experienced this myself a few times. I’ve received words in which someone just knew stuff about me they had no business knowing. On a few occasions, I’ve also experience this and had insight into someone else’s situation that I had no business knowing. The words of prophecy, according to Paul, are to be weighed by the church (1 Corinthians 14:29-35).
Why They’re Important: To Build up the Church
We’re almost out of time, and I’m sure I’ve raised more questions than I’ve answered, but let’s wrap up with how this can help the ministry of the church. Let’s apply this, because that’s the most important thing we can do with what we’ve discussed.
First: pursue these gifts. Especially pursue prophecy. It’s okay to spend time trying to understand these gifts and to wrestle with what they mean. The most important thing we can do, though, is to pursue them. As far as I can tell, they have not ceased today, and there is every reason to earnestly desire them — especially the gift of prophecy.
Second: keep the goal in mind — to serve the church. I’ve seen a couple of mistakes with these gifts. One is to ignore them. The other is to pursue them for their own sake and get focused on them rather than on how they serve the church. Over and over again in this chapter, Paul says to use them so that the church may be built up.
So let me give you one practical example of how this can work in the life of a church like this. I want to focus on prophecy, because that’s what Paul does. Paul actually seems to downplay tongues a bit, and certainly when there’s no interpreter present, or when unbelievers are present. But prophecy is different. Prophecy is both helpful for believers and unbelievers.
So I regularly ask God for insight, revelation, into situations and people. And when God gives me something, I might say something like, “I have a strong inner impression that I believe is from the Lord.” “I have a picture in my mind that I think may be for someone here.” “I had a sense from the Holy Spirit about what he wants to accomplish tonight.” It’s always important to do this humbly and a way that submits to the leadership of the church and that admits that we could be wrong.
When you think about it, it’s a great resource that God has given us. As we’re talking with people, God may give us intel — just the right word to say, just the right insight we need to minister to people. As we help people understand and apply what Jesus has done for us, what an amazing gift it is to know that the Holy Spirit is giving us just the insight we need as we talk to believers and unbelievers.
We’re just scratching the surface here. There is so much more that we could say. But let me finish by saying this. Pursue the miraculous spiritual gifts — especially prophecy — for the purpose of building up the church.