Extra-biblical “revelations” (part 3)

1 Corinthians 14:5, 21–25

In these verses, Paul sets out rather strict parameters for exercising the sign-gifts. In particular, he wants to explain what prophecy and the gift of “tongues” are for (i.e., what is their controlling purpose).

With respect to prophecy, Paul says its purpose is to “build up” the Body of Christ (vv. 3–5). Build up the Body in what? In its confession of what the apostles and other eyewitnesses were then witnessing. Those “speaking in the Spirit of God” (prophesying) will not say Jesus is accursed, but will rather say He is Lord (12:3), thus strengthening the church in its reception of the message of Jesus’ eyewitnesses, and in its glad confession (along with those witnesses) that “Jesus is Lord” (cf. Rom 10:9).

Prophecy is to serve another purpose as well – the conversion of unbelievers. If an unbeliever enters into the assembly, and all are prophesying, he will be “called to account by all” (14:24), the secrets of his heart will be disclosed, and so he will fall prostrate and worship God (14:25). This too is a purpose of prophecy, as it confirms and reinforces the apostolic (eyewitness) message.

If, by confirming the apostolic salvation-message, prophecy builds up the saints and convicts unbelievers, what then is the purpose of “tongues”? Here Paul says something quite astonishing (14:20–23). He refers to Isaiah 28 where the prophet writes that because Israel refuses to listen to plain speech against their sin and for their salvation (v. 12), God will speak to them instead “by people of strange lips and with a foreign tongue” (v. 11), in a stammering, childish way that will not save them (v. 13); and Paul says the fulfillment of this curse is the gift of tongues apportioned by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost! In other words, tongues do not build up the saints in their reception, and confession, of the apostolic witness – they are not a sign for the help and confirmation of those who receive the apostolic witness (1 Cor 14:22). Rather, they are a sign of God’s curse on those who won’t listen to that message – they are a sign “for unbelievers” (particularly Jewish unbelievers) of God’s judgment on those who will not confess Jesus as Lord and Christ. As such, tongues will not save; and in not saving, they actually fulfill their purpose! (This isn’t to say that interpreted tongues couldn’t fulfill a function much like that of prophecy, as Paul says in 14:27; but a strange tongue by itself, uninterpreted, doesn’t confirm or authenticate – for saints or unbelievers – the salvation-message of Jesus’ eyewitnesses; and so it can neither save nor sanctify.)

What are we to make of all this? The point of Paul’s setting forth apostolic regulations for the exercise of prophecy and tongues was to ensure that the purpose spoken of in Hebrews 2:4 was fulfilled: that saints were strengthened to believe and confess what they had heard from the apostles and other eyewitnesses. Prophecy was to be judged so that it wasn’t abused to serve any other purpose than accompanying and authenticating the message of Jesus’ firsthand witnesses (14:29); tongues were to be exercised with full understanding of their redemptive-historical judgment-function in the history of Israel (14:20–21).

This is made even clearer in what Paul then goes on to say.

1 Corinthians 15:1–11

Here, and following naturally from what he has just said, Paul reminds the Corinthians of the gospel (the apostolic salvation-message) which he had preached to them; “which,” he says, “I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if [note his concern] you hold fast to the word I preached to you – unless you believed in vain” (vv. 1–2). While this text sets the stage for what he is about to say about the resurrection, it also explains why he is so anxious that the Corinthians observe his regulations concerning tongues and prophecy: their steadfastness in receiving and confessing “the gospel” of Jesus’ eyewitnesses is at stake. If the sign-gifts of prophecy and tongues are not exercised in such a way that they build up the church in its reception of the salvation-message first spoken by God through His Son, and proclaimed by the Son’s eyewitnesses, then the controlling purpose of these gifts is not being realized. God knew the faith of His church in this early stage of their history was a fragile thing, and that is precisely why He confirmed their faith by many signs, wonders, and gifts – but woe betide the church if the gifts were not exercised in accord with the divine purpose! They had been given to serve the authentication of the gospel as it proceeded from the mouths of Jesus’ eyewitnesses – that gospel was the foundation of the church on which it stood, and by the standard of that gospel the exercise of gifts had to be judged. If the threat of unbelief was part of the reason for God’s giving the gifts, now there was a similar threat in the gifts themselves: that they be exercised so as to deflect attention away from the gospel!

It begins to appear that there was a kind of “periodicity” to these gifts. The apostolic concern about their use raises a question (already implicit in Hebrews 2:4): would they continue to be distributed by the Holy Spirit after Jesus’ eyewitnesses had completed their message and passed from the earth? To be continued . . .

Category: Biblical Authority Comment »

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