St. Paul is a bulldog! Even in discussing the use of God’s gifts, which could easily be hoarded for self, Paul’s focus is so clearly on what is edifying to others. This is why St. Chrysostom says: “The building up of the church is Paul’s touchstone in everything he says.” This desire of Paul to focus on what will edify or build up others, and his dogged determination to do whatever it takes to bring Christ to others, is nothing but love in action: looking for the good of others before the good of self.
For St. Paul, it’s not about him – it’s about others. This is why he insists on the importance of prophesying and minimizing tongues.
It’s difficult to determine the limits of what Paul means by prophesying. The special office, as with that of apostle, seems to have passed away, but it continues as a gift. Sometimes it is equated with preaching, and it seems as if that’s one application, and many of the Church Fathers believed that prophesying was interpreting Scripture. This is particularly true as it is done authoritatively in the covenant community, and so preaching would seem to fit this definition.
But Paul also suggests a wider use, or he desires that more than just the elders or preachers will prophesy. There is a sense in which whenever we are seeking the will of God through Scripture and applying it to our lives for the edification, exhortation, and encouragement of others that we are prophesying, in some sense, through the Spirit.
What if we had churches filled with prophets? I don’t mean that we’d have a mob of people wrestling over the microphone. What if we had churches with people who had read and studied and meditated on and prayed over and lived by the Scriptures so much that they were all equipped by the Spirit to apply the Word of God to others?
That seems to be the kind of church that St. Paul desires.
But there’s a problem. For God’s people to prophesy, they have to be willing to serve and to be last. When I was a kid, one of my favorite football players was Gale Sayers, who I personally think was the best running back of all time (with Jim Brown being the best fullback.) I remember that when I was 9 or 10 my parents gave me a copy of his autobiography called I Am Third. The title comes from how Sayers says he desired to live: “The Lord is first, my friends are second, and I am third.” I guess that book (and the influence of my parents and others, of course) made an impression on me because without consciously thinking it, that’s the way I choose to live my life.
But when we put self first, then pride replaces love, and if we seek our own things first we’ll never get around to serving others and God. First, comes God and seeking Him. If prophesying is related to our engagement with God’s Word, then we must seek Him through His Word, in His Body. When we don’t do that, then we will not receive His grace to prophesy through us to others.
Second, comes others. If we have been faithfully hearing God’s Word and faithfully applying it, then we should want to apply it to others for their edification, in whatever situation they are in.
This reminds me of Psalm 37:4- “Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart.” It would be easy for some to read this in such a way that it means if only we ask God, He’ll straighten out our finances, vacuum up the messes we’ve made of our lives, and give us that better job (without me actually having to change my life, mind you.) But I read Psalm 37:4 to be a kind of tautology. If I delight myself in God, yes – He will give me the desires of my heart. But He isn’t promising that if I just delight in Him a little, He’ll give me what I really want – all the material things and fixes to all my problems that I so desire. What He’s promising is that if I truly delight in Him above all other things, then He’ll give me all the desires of my heart, because the desires of my heart are for Him. In other words, God promises to give Himself to those who delight in Him!
So we should gladly, joyfully follow St. Paul in denying ourselves and using all of God’s good gifts for His glory and the good of others. Paul says that faith, hope, and love abide, but the greatest of these is love, the more excellent way. But he also adds (14:1) that we are to pursue love and desire spiritual gifts, but especially that we might prophesy. I believe that if we seek to prophesy in the way I’ve described above, then we are, in fact, loving. To prophesy, to seek and to use God’s good gifts for the edification of others is a profound act of love.
Prophesying is not only edifying for believers, though. So fruitful is prophesying that even the unbelievers, when they see it in the church, will be convinced and convicted by all (verse 24.) Prophesying, when we speak sincerely, passionately, wisely, lovingly about God’s truth and how we are applying it to our lives, will reveal the secrets of the hearts of unbelievers. So great is the power of the Spirit working through us, when we so prophesy, that some will worship God and report that God is truly among us.
What if we had a church filled with prophets?
Prayer: O Lord, I pray that I would so desire You and delight in You that I can’t wait to come to the point in the day when I get to eat Your Word and spend time with You in prayer. Help me to seek You, especially through Your Word, and with humility, that I might be an instrument of Your grace and edification to those around me. Amen.
Resolution and Point for Meditation: I resolve today to find one way to seek the gift of prophecy: seeking God through His Word that I might edify others. Three possibilities are: through meditating on His Word, through prayer, and through practically applying God’s Word to the life of one person I know.
© 2013 Fr. Charles Erlandson