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Paul assumes that prophecy, as well as tongues with interpretation, is of great value in the church. That assumes, of course, a high quality of revelation that is both useful and actionable. That such prophecy is a supernatural gift is evident when Paul says, “the secrets of his heart are disclosed” (1 Cor. 14:25). This refers to a gift of knowledge that is not gained by attending seminary or even by diligent Bible study.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:26,
26 What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.
Each believer was expected to contribute to the flow of the meeting. Paul assumed that every believer would have some revelation to share or some gift to manifest, which would benefit the entire group. This type of meeting is less practical in a large assembly. But in Paul’s day the churches met in homes, not in cathedrals. Much of the time was spent interacting with other believers, not just listening to a preacher. Their leaders were not expected to do all of the work or provide all of the instruction and spiritual gifts.
This early format can be traced back to the church in the wilderness under Moses (Acts 7:38) and to the daily manna that was given to Israel. The manna pictured the body of Christ (John 6:51), which in turn was “food” that was provided to edify the people daily. They gathered manna for six days, gathered twice as much on the sixth day, and then found no manna on the seventh (Exodus 16:22, 27, 29).
In this manner God established a spiritual pattern for the church. He expected the people to obtain a daily portion of their own spiritual food, and then have enough left over on the Sabbath to carry them over to the following day. However, the church today largely reverses this order, for the people receive little or no spiritual food during the week, but they meet on their seventh day to load up on food that is dispensed by the priest or preacher.
Because of the size of the assembly, churches today seldom follow the pattern that Paul set forth in 1 Cor. 14:26. People assemble, but most have little or no revelation (manna) to share with the group. They come to hear the professional preacher or priest. Likewise, in most assemblies few have a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation that would edify the rest of the group.
The early Christians also ate together as an act of fellowship (communion). Such a common meal often gave them an opportunity to edify others on a more personal or private level. In short, church protocol in Paul’s time was conducive to the edification of the body itself. No one could be anonymous in the assembly. If someone failed to learn something during the previous week and if he had no new revelation or example of spiritual manifestation in his life, the others might wonder if he was backsliding! In other words, everyone was expected to have a dynamic Christian life. Everyone was expected to show evidence of edification and spiritual growth week by week.
The church today has long departed from that which was normal in the time of Paul. Some groups have made good attempts to rectify this over the years, but the vast majority continue in the modern pattern. The goal is to increase the size of the assembly, not to break it up into smaller groups. Success is one megachurch, not a thousand home churches. Their purpose is not to edify the body, but to build a large organization, so that the preacher can live a life of luxury that he “deserves.”
The Israelites under Moses had their problems, too. Some of them went out on the seventh day to gather manna—contrary to their instructions (Exodus 16:27). Evidently, they saw nothing wrong with their actions, but God did. Exodus 16:28, 29 says,
28 Then the Lord said to Moses, “How long do you [Israelites] refuse to keep My commandments and My instructions? 29 See, the Lord has given you the sabbath; therefore He gives you bread for two days on the sixth day. Remain every man in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.”
Another big problem was when the people refused to hear God’s voice for themselves, insisting that Moses should hear God on their behalf and then tell them what God had said (Exodus 20:19). Thus, they established the pattern of hiring a professional priest or minister, so that the people themselves would not need to hear God’s voice. They preferred to hear a spokesman tell them what God said rather than to hear God’s word directly.
This relates directly to the instruction to gather manna daily, rather than assemble once a week to receive a portion from the professional minister. It is clear from Paul’s writings that he expected each person to develop ears to hear God for himself and herself. In fact, weekly assemblies were designed to provide guidance from both the leaders and the others in the group, so that if one of them received false revelation or a carnal interpretation of valid revelation, others who were more mature and experienced could discern the problem and bring correction and guidance.
Paul continues in 1 Corinthians 14:27, 28,
27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and let one interpret; 28 but if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in the church; and let him speak [in tongues] to himself to God.
For many centuries, this instruction seemed irrelevant, because tongues were not spoken in cathedrals. In fact, from the fourth century until recent times, very little of Paul’s early church protocol was followed. Although the people often remained devoutly religious, they had been forbidden to hear God for themselves, lest they give a divine rebuke that might upset either the hierarchy or its established creeds. Church unity was maintained by entrusting divine revelation to a single head of the organization.
Paul, however, allowed a few to speak in tongues in the assembly, as long as there was an interpreter present. He discouraged tongues without interpretation, though he allowed each to speak in tongues quietly “to himself and to God.”
Paul continues in 1 Corinthians 14:29-31,
29 And let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment [discern the validity and meaning of the prophecy]. 30 But if a revelation is made to another who is seated, let the first keep silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted.
It appears that the prophets did not prophesy spontaneously without first being recognized by the leader. Paul’s reference to “another who is seated” suggests that when a prophet was recognized, or given permission, he stood to his feet so that everyone knew that he “had the floor” for the moment. No one was allowed to interrupt him until he was finished. Then the others could discern and discuss the prophecy before the next prophet spoke.
It appears that no more than two or three prophets spoke without giving the people some time to discern, judge, and discuss it. If all discussion was held until the end, some of the earlier issues might be forgotten. Hence, “let two or three prophets speak” at a time before the others discern.
Paul was not limiting the assembly to two or three prophets per meeting, because “you can all prophesy one by one.” If “all” were to prophesy, surely this would include more than two or three people in the course of the meeting.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:32, 33,
32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets; 33 for God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.
In the flow of Paul’s writing, he was telling the church that if prophets receive revelation, they should be allowed to speak one by one. A prophet was not allowed to interrupt, claiming divine urgency. Each was capable of waiting his turn, because “the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets,” and “God is not a God of confusion but of peace.”
Even so, we might contemplate a time when an assembly has a serious problem that requires a more radical solution. Perhaps in such cases a prophet may be called to interrupt the proceedings in an assembly. “God is not a God of confusion,” but when confusion already exists and remains uncorrected, God Himself may step in to bring it to an end. Normally, however, if a church is spiritually healthy, such violations of protocol should not be necessary.