Does God still speak today? That’s the question asked by our Bible reading.
If he doesn’t, we’re in the dark.
We’ve just baptised Andrew. He’s got to chart a path through life, and his parents have just signed up God to be his guide.
Well, our boys love mazes, and maybe Andrew’s brother and sister do too. If you’re a bit lost at Crystal Palace or Leeds Castle, you’d love to have a birds eye view. Someone who can look down and see the whole maze and tell you which way to turn. They could then shout down directions: “Left. Left. Right. Not that one – it’s a dead-end”.
God can look down and see every twist and turn our lives need to take. The question is whether he can shout down any instructions. Does he speak? Or are we in the dark?
It is some comfort to know that God spoke, in the past. He did. The word became flesh and lived among us. In the person of Jesus, God spoke. Then God made sure that the Bible was completed, so that every generation would have a record of what he said.
But that could sound like we’ve just living out a philosophy. We have an excellent book on our shelves called the Bible. It’s a far more reliable guide to life than Paul Hollywood’s latest bread making book, because the author is none other than God himself. But at the end of the day, it’s just a book. You read it and go: “Hmm! Some good ideas there. Let’s try a few of these things”.
We don’t only want to know did God speak, but does God speak?
Prophecy: What it’s not
1 Corinthians 14 is all about something called the “gift of prophecy”.
That tells us that God does speak in the present day.
At least it might tell us that. It all depends what Paul means when he talks about “prophecy”.
There are two reasons why someone might read this chapter, find the word “prophecy” in it, and not leap for joy because we have a God who speaks. And they are both because we misunderstand what “prophecy” is.
The first way we misunderstand prophecy is if we think it’s all about announcing the future in some way.
There are various forms of this. One is the spurious forecast. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have predicted that the final judgement day would come in 1878, 1881, 1914, 1918, 1925 and 1975. If someone predicts some great world event, we rightly treat it with suspicion. But it doesn’t leave us much confidence when we read about prophecies.
Or if it’s not spurious forecasts, it’s spooky predictions. We’re worried people will start forecasting strange things that will happen in someone’s life, twists and turns in health, family or career, that are somewhat eerie. You end up with something no better than fortune telling, which 1 Corinthians 11 has already told us to stay well clear of.
So whether it’s spurious forecasts or spooky predictions, you end up with prophecy being about God speaking in the present day, but in ways that are not entirely welcome.
We’ll see that prophecy isn’t about either of those things.
The second reason someone might dismiss this is that this was written nearly 2000 years ago. Even if God spoke in their day, that’s not the same as saying God speaks in our own day.
That’s a very good question, but again it misunderstands prophecy.
A few weeks ago, we looked at chapter 13, that great chapter on love. That chapter spoke of a day when the gift of prophecy will be no more. But we said that is the day when we see God fully, not just in part. That is the day when we know God as fully as he knows us. The day when we see him, face to face. It’s the day when Jesus returns.
That will be amazing. But we’re not there yet. And until that day, gifts like the gift of prophecy are for today.
God speaks today. Not with spurious forecasts. Not with spooky predictions. Not just in the time of the Corinthian church. Today.
But the question is “how?”. What is this gift of prophecy? How might God speak, not just in the past, but in the present?
We’re going to do a bit of detective work, and piece together the clues. I’m going to show us three of the main things Paul says about prophecy in this chapter. Whatever it is, all of those 3 things must make sense. If you have a theory as to what prophecy is, and one of the main things he’s saying about prophecy would make no sense, then that cannot be it.
Prophecy is a “revelation”
So, clue number 1: Prophecy is a ‘revelation’. Prophecy is a ‘revelation’.
Verse 30, he says: “If a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down”. It’s a ‘revelation’. It’s something God reveals, not just someone’s bright idea.
In the Bible, there are three main ways God reveals something.
Number 1 is a prediction. The prophet Jonah went into the city of Nineveh and proclaimed “40 more days, and Nineveh will be overturned.” Jesus’ disciples admired the fine stonework of the temple, and Jesus said that one stone would not be left on another, before their generation had died out. Or Acts chapter 11, verse 28: A prophet, “named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.)”
Prediction. Number 2, inspiration.
That’s not the same thing as saying something’s inspiring. Someone might write a beautiful piece of poetry, paint a landscape, compose some music, and you might describe it as “inspired”.
The Bible describes itself as “inspired”, but it means that literally. “Spiro” comes from the Latin word for breath. It’s where we get our English word “spirit”. The Bible was literally “inspired”, in the sense that God “breathed” it. Just as my breath carries my words to you, so the words of the Bible are carried on God’s breath, they are his speech.
So, 2 Timothy, chapter 3, verse 16: “All Scripture is God-breathed”. The Bible doesn’t just contain the word of God. It is the word of God. Every word in there is exactly what God wants. It’s inspired.
That’s the second way God reveals something, according to the Bible. Prediction. Inspiration.
Then thirdly, illumination. Illumination.
Let me read from Ephesians 1, Paul praying for the Christians in Ephesus. Verse 17 and 18: “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you…”
He asks God to give these Christians the Spirit of revelation. To turn the lights on. God is so wonderful! But God needs to turn the lights on for these Christians. Somewhere deep inside them, God needs to flick the switch. They need revelation. It is as much a miracle when we “get it”, as it was when God spoke it in the first place.
Discuss astrophysics with someone who knows their stuff. They’re full of passion. Everything they say is excellent. And yet for most of us, we come away none the wiser. Nothing wrong with what was said. It’s just we can’t grasp it. It’s a foreign language.
It’s like that with the Bible. What God is saying is dazzlingly brilliant. Yet many people hear it, or read it, and come away none the wiser. It’s a foreign language, until God turns the lights on – in us. We need God to reveal himself to us, in his word. We need revelation, illumination.
So there’s our first clue. Prophecy is a ‘revelation’. That was verse 30. The question is: What kind. Prediction? Inspiration? Or illumination?
We’ll need our other clues to work it out.
Prophecy needs to be weighed
Clue number 2: Prophecy needs to be weighed. Prophecy needs to be weighed.
Verse 29: “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.”
There is an assessment process. A filtering. Is this the word of God to us, or is it not? You don’t just take it on face value: Someone says they’ve got a word from God, so we believe them. The potential to manipulate and control others would be terrible. So prophecy needs to be weighed.
The question is: How do you weigh a prophecy?
Here’s where we can rule out one of the three types of revelation. These prophecies cannot be predictions. There’s only one way to test a prediction, and that’s after the fact. Did it come true?
You might say you can test the prophet, the person. If this person has a track record of making good predictions, you’re more inclined to believe them next time.
But that’s simply not what Paul says. He doesn’t say we are to weigh the person who speaks. We’re to weigh what they say. He doesn’t say that someone with enough good predictions no longer need to be weighed. Weigh carefully what is said. Every time.
Clue number 1: Prophecy is a ‘revelation’. But clue number 2: Prophecy needs to be weighed. Which means these aren’t predictions. So it’s either inspiration or illumination.
Prophecy is under the authority of the Bible
Clue number 3: Prophecy is under the authority of the Bible. Prophecy is under the authority of the Bible.
Verse 37: “If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command.”
A few times in 1 Corinthians, Paul has defended the fact that he’s an apostle. He’s the person representative of Jesus Christ, and speaks with his authority. The Corinthians think they’re something special. They’re a bit of a special case and the normal rules don’t apply to them.
So here’s one key test. Anyone who does not pass this test should not be listened to: “If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command.”
God may speak through this person. But the moment they start to think they’re above the Bible, you can guarantee that this is not the voice of God. A prophet is not in a position to correct the Bible, not in a position to add to the Bible.
Take driving instruction as an analogy. The days will come when we’ll need to choose a good one for our family, but not quite yet. You have to decide who you’ll be a good instructor. There are various things to look for. Patient. A good communicator. A safe driver. But imagine you go out on a lesson and they tell you that they’ve found a great way to get through London faster. From now on, the red light on a traffic light also means “go”. That’s a pretty big warning sign. No matter how patient, or how good his pass rate, this instructor is not a good one.
The moment someone starts to say that the Bible may say X, but in fact not X, that’s a pretty big warning sign.
There was a letter in the Church Times newspaper about a booklet that’s been published to give out at Christmas. Here’s an extract: “While imaginative resources that help people to reflect on the Christmas story are to be welcomed, why do the national Church and its leaders continue to encourage people to regard the stories in the Gospels of St Luke and St Matthew as factual truth? There is no serious scholar in this country who takes the birth narratives as literal fact.”
Well, I could introduce him to a few. He says we need a booklet that tells people that it’s all made up and never really happened.
That letter was written by an ordained clergyman! Paul is clear: The person who wrote that letter is not a prophet, or otherwise gifted by the Spirit. Don’t go to his church.
Prophecy is under the authority of the Bible. Which means that prophecy isn’t inspiration either. It’s not there to add to the Bible, or to correct it.
Prophecy as illumination
So it must be illumination.
It’s the only way to make sense of these three clues: Prophecy is a ‘revelation’. Prophecy needs to be weighed. Prophecy is under the authority of the Bible.
Let’s put the whole picture together. Here’s what Paul seems to be describing.
God has given us the Bible, the word of God. But that’s only half the job. God still speaks, as he opens our minds and hearts to understand it, and to see how it applies in daily life. What God said, he still says. It cuts into the way we think, speak, spend our money, plan our future, raise our children, and so on.
If God’s going to speak today, we need to open the Bible. Read it. Hear it. Preach it. Pray it in.
But we also need God’s Spirit to open our hearts. We open the Bible, and we ask God to open us to it.
It need not follow at all that the person who has prepared the sermon has the best insights into how the Bible speaks into our lives today. Some people seem to be especially gifted at seeing these connections. But insight can come to any one of us.
And as we share what God seems to be saying to us through his word, that is prophecy. It needs to be weighed, but it’s hearing the voice of God in our own day, as the Bible comes to life.
Prophecy in our church
It seems to me that there is some stuff here for us to work through in our own church.
The picture here is of lots of people taking part in the service, some of them spontaneously as things strike them.
So verse 26 does not describe many churches today: “What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.”
Each of you. This is dynamic. To be a Christian is to have God live in us by his Spirit. We all have the Spirit, so we can all take part, and serve one another.
This needs to be balanced by the need for order. Verse 33: “God is not a God of disorder but of peace.” Just because lots of people can take part, it doesn’t have to descend into chaos, resembling Gatwick South Terminal on a foggy day when half the flights have been cancelled, everyone is shouting over everyone else, and nobody has a clue what’s going on.
No. One at a time. And two or three in total. And then we can have more people next week. But not always the same people. Whoever particularly has something to say.
And it also needs to be weighed. We consider together whether something sounds right. Is it consistent with the other things that God says in his word.
Now ever since the Bible reading, you’ve been wondering what I’d say about verses 34 and 35. I’ve deliberately not wanted these two verses to hijack what we’re looking at, because we’d be in danger of never hearing the main thrust of this passage, which is that we need the gift of prophecy in our church life.
But here is where those verses fit. Let me read them again, and then briefly explain:
“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to enquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”
I still don’t want these verses take over, but we can’t ignore them completely either. So I’ll risk saying enough to upset some of you, but not enough to answer all the questions. Ask me later if you want to follow up.
Paul cannot be saying that women should not speak at all in church. He can’t, because of chapter 11. Chapter 11 assumed that both men and women will pray in public, and prophesy, in church.
So we know that when Paul talks here about prophecy, it’s something both men and women will do. Paul isn’t contradicting himself here. The best suggestion I’ve come across is that Paul is here talking about who should do the weighing of prophecy. Men and women will prophesy. The weighing is for men, presumably for men in positions of leadership. Which actually fits with some of the other things we said back in chapter 11.
I’ll leave that there. As I say, ask me later if you want to come back on that.
So what might this look like in this church? Maybe something like this: How about we have a short time after the talk each week when people can ask questions, add comments, add their own thoughts, about how the things we’ve been looking at land in daily life for us? Let’s try that, and see how it works.
Conclusion: God Speaks
I want to end where we began. This passage offers good news. We’re not in the dark. We’re not lost in the maze. God is with us.
We don’t just live in a world in which God spoke. We live in a world in which God still speaks.
Jesus came. Jesus died and rose. Jesus went.
But Jesus sent his Spirit, and his Spirit is still here. Living in the hearts of each and every Christian.
God still speaks. He is not silent. But he does not here promise to speak to us privately. Rather he’s put us in a family, his church. We are children of the same heavenly father.
And as we come together, we open up the Bible, and we read about Jesus, the living Word of God. And as we do that, God’s Spirit warms our hearts, opens our eyes, and gives us insight into what he’s saying to us in our own day. Those insights may come to any of us. So we share our thoughts, we listen to one another, and as we share together, God speaks into our lives.