Despise Not Prophesying
(1 Cor. xiv.) THE fourteenth chapter of 1st
Corinthians is remarkable as being the only scripture in which the order of the
church when "come together into one place," is declared. This should give it
surely some importance in the eyes of those who believe that He who "loved the
Church, and gave Himself for it" has not ceased to love and care; and moreover
that the Head of it has not given up His headship.
For those who think the mere matter of the conduct of the meetings of the saints a thing of no or of small importance, it is well to note how solemnly the chapter closes with the assurance that the things the apostle wrote, were "commandments of the Lord."
Have they ceased then to apply, or been recalled - these commandments? Or was all this care taken for the Church at the beginning, and is it now no more?
"Surely not the care," people reply; "but the gifts regulated in the chapter have ceased, and therefore the regulation of them also."
But then it is not true that the chapter as a whole occupies itself with merely the regulation of gift. It rather gives, as I said, the regulation of the assembly as "come together." "Let your women keep silence in the assemblies" did not stir the question of whether they had gift or not. Some in fact did prophesy, the chief thing regulated in this chapter; but the thing here is, they might not do it in the "assemblies;" outside that, what they or others might do is not in question at all.
Then again, "Every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine (a teaching)." The latter surely has not ceased; no, nor the former, for there is no ground for supposing it was any inspired or even freshly prompted utterance. What was to guide in the bringing forth of all this in the assembly, was the principle, "let all things be done unto edifying."
Thus the whole chapter treats of the assembly, and the case is supposed of an unbeliever coming in, while such and such things were going on in the assembly, and what the effect would be upon him who came in. Now suppose certain gifts had ceased - as plainly "tongues" and "interpretations" have - this would not destroy the general principles which were to govern in this "coming together." Points of detail might cease to apply, while yet the principles remained untouched. Even in those days the gift of tongues might be wanting in some assemblies; but that would not affect the general application of the chapter to them. If they had but a "psalm" or a "teaching" it would apply. Indeed these were, and are, a sort of type or sample of what occupied the assembly when come together - the psalm addressing itself to God in praise or prayer with the melody of hearts conscious of His "favour better than life," while the teaching addressed itself as from God to men. The one was worship; the other ministry. Certainly, if these two abide, we are not altogether destitute of what may furnish forth our assembly; and had we nought else, the principles of the chapter would apply to us.
It is indeed plain, that the apostle has especially upon his mind two things as connected with the assembly, but which affected his mind very differently. These were prophecy and the gift of tongues. He saw them priding themselves upon the latter, and falling into utter folly in their pride, so that they were actually exposing themselves to shame even before unbelievers through it; speaking with tongues that no one understood, and where no one could enter into or be edified by it. Comparatively speaking, prophesying was made of little account in the presence of this more showy gift. That which was "a sign to those that believed not" was usurping the place of that which spake unto believers "to edification and exhortation and comfort." If in the assembly, then, the rule was that all things should be done to edifying, the prophesying which was expressly intended for - that, was really the greater and the better thing. Thus he bids them "covet to prophesy," but on the other hand "forbid not to speak with tongues." They hold in the apostle's estimation a widely different place. I am in a measure prepared to hear of the disappearance of that which men were so much abusing. On the other hand, the more I think of the place which prophesying holds with him, as that which was for "edification and exhortation and comfort," so that he exhorts them to covet it as what edified the assembly, the less I can suppose it possible to pass away until the Church is perfected and removed to heaven.
On the other hand I can understand it still being a thing slighted and overlooked by men to any conceivable extent. I find, both here in 2 Cor. xiv. and again in 1 Thess. V. 20, (which latter passage couples together the two warnings, "Quench not the Spirit,- Despise not prophesyings "), the assurance that they were already doing so. There was that in the nature of this precious gift which exposed it peculiarly to the slighting and dis-esteem of man. What had then begun may well have advanced in our day to the denying of the gift altogether.
If we enquire, then, as to the nature of this "prophesying "-a "prophet" was, according to the strict meaning of the word, "one who spoke for another;" and the name was given among the heathen to those who spoke for a god and made known his will to men. It was by no means necessarily in the utterance of prediction properly so called; for this another word was used which the Scriptures do not employ. Even a "poet" was a prophet, as one who spoke for the Muses, thus speaking, as was ) supposed, under a sort of inspiration, not merely from his own mind. So even Paul speaks of a "prophet" of the Cretans.
The New Testament knows nothing of a mere seer of the future. The prophet was one who spoke for God. Thus "a man of God" is so often the beautiful and significant designation of a prophet. In days of darkness and apostasy they stood forth on His part whom men had forgotten, and brought His word and will to them. Their predictions were but a part of these utterances, which dealt with the moral condition of those addressed, calling them to repentance; encouraging, warning, comforting, exhorting, instructing in righteousness. Of such the most distinctive feature was that they were "God's men." Very significantly the apostle Paul speaks as if "all Scripture" were written for such. "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works." (2 Tim. iii. i6, 17.) Here was the necessary condition of prophesying, that truth and devotedness to the living God which enabled them as living near Him to know His mind. This underlay that saying of Amos, "Surely the Lord God will do nothing but He revealeth it to His servants the prophets." Like that again in Revelation, "to shew unto His servants things which must shortly come to pass."
It might be thus made known in different ways - by positive fresh revelation, which for us, since the completion of the word of God, has ceased to be; or by the Spirit in living freshness, using that Word according to what Paul says to Timothy. The man of God it is who in either case has the mind of God as to the scene through which he passes. To such an one "the knowledge of the Holy is understanding."
Now, if this be the basis of prophesying, it is no wonder that the apostle so highly values it. If prophesying be just speaking for God, God's own utterance in the midst of His people, it is easily to be seen how people should be exhorted to "covet" it, and that earnestly. "Love," seeking not her own, would yet seek that which was so profitable "to edification and exhortation and comfort." Distinct enough from "teaching," it did not necessarily infer any gift for the latter, nor indeed any for public speaking at all. "Five words," and those not the speaker's own, might suffice: the word of God simply read might carry its own simple and intelligible meaning to the hearts of all present. Not eloquence in anywise, nor the power of presenting the truth in orderly arrangement, was needed. The Divine utterance might come in broken words and sentences, and be still the fulfillment of the injunction, "If any man speak, let him speak as oracles of God," so that even the simplest there, or the unbeliever coming in there, should come under the power of that word, be convinced of all, be judged of all, and the secrets of his heart being made manifest, should fall on his face, and worship God, and report that God was of a truth there. The apostle coveted this for them, and would have them covet it also for themselves; this direct dealing of God with heart and conscience from which man might indeed shrink, but which was fraught with blessing for him none the less.
I need scarcely say, that the meeting of the church in this fourteenth chapter of i Corinthians was even on this account an "open" meeting, in this sense and for this purpose, that God might speak in His own sovereign way by whom He would. It was thus, in the fullest way open; so much so that man might and did abuse it there at Corinth. "Every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation." He states the fact, does not pronounce as to whether right or wrong, but only adds, "let all things be done unto edifying." That it might be so, those that had gift of tongues might speak, two or three, not more, and only when there was an interpreter. The prophets similarly two or three. Only the women were absolutely to keep silence in the assembly. There was no other line of prohibition whatever, as to who should be the speakers. This open door, so widely open, was a special need. It might be abused. It was. That did not alter at all the actual necessity. It would not better it to shut God out, even by pre-arrangement that those who were most gifted should be the speakers. Who had title to arrange this? None among men; not one. Scripture recognizes no power of this sort in the Church, short of the Church's Head. As to the use, it may shut out, no doubt, some species of disorder, but only at the expense of the yery worst disorder.
Gift is not spirituality. The church at Corinth came behind in no gift; yet the apostle could not speak unto them as unto spiritual but as unto carnal, even as to babes in Christ. It is no disparagement of gift to say that thus, without the accompaniment of spirituality, the possessor of the most precious gift might be quite incompetent to edify. And, alas, men change and men decline. The highly gifted sometimes even by this means lead those who follow them the most astray. Hence when the church is gathered together, God will have no voice raised to exclude His. In perfect wisdom He may put aside the most gifted at His will, to bring His word in by some poor, plain man, who has been upon his face before Him, and has learnt His mind where man learns best, in the lowest school. He, whom perhaps they would all have excluded from teaching them, who is indeed, as to measure of gift, below any there, may be the very one brought forward to teach them all.
And so the apostle puts this power of prophesying before them, and exhorts to covet it. Such a gift as love alone, that had Christ as motive, and men's blessing as the desire of the heart, could covet. It would lead in no easy path. The, very word, "despise not prophesyings," may shew to what it leads. And what has been the history of prophets ever? "God's men" must, of all men, be men of faith, content to wait on God, and walk with God, and perhaps walk solitary else. "Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted?" Do you think that in assemblies of Christians that could not be? Well for us, if it were. But sure am I of this, that no man in his senses would take up the vocation that I speak of, to win praise from even saints.
But where are the "men of God?" Amiable, kindly men, I can find many. Just, honest and upright, not a few. Saved men who know it, and thank God for it, are much fewer, but still many. But where are the men, to whom "to live is Christ?" Where are His bondsmen, absolutely His? Is it not what we all are, as bought with His precious blood? Is it what we are in practical reality?
There are few things more to be coveted for the assemblies of the saints, than this "prophesying." Men may teach truth, and teach it well; but that is quite another thing. The prominent place given to prophesying in this chapter which regulates the assembly's coming together, ought to assure us of its special importance in this place.* That importance is that the voice of the living God should be heard by His people, distinctly addressing itself to their need, their whole condition at the moment. How different a thing from people speaking to fill up the time; or the cleverest speaker, to supply the absence of a teacher; or once again, the teacher himself because he is a teacher, or has something in his mind which has interested or impressed himself! "The word of the Lord by the prophets" was none of these: it was a direct address from the heart of God to the hearts and consciences of His people. And still, "if any man speak," he is to speak "as oracles of God," as God's mere mouth-piece.
But it is one thing to affirm that that ought to be, another thing to say, it is. It is one thing to say, "I should do this," and another thing to say, "I have done it." Lowliness here will surely be the truest wisdom. We need claim nothing: "He that judgeth is the Lord."
* A teacher's meeting is quite distinct from the Assembly coming together. He is responsible to teach, surely, and the saints no less to hear, but it is another matter
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