A Prophet’s Biggest Job

We haven’t paid enough attention to Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians about how to conduct a church service. The challenge is to come together, each one with a psalm, a teaching, a tongue, a revelation, an interpretation, and do so in such a way that we grow together.

In Corinth, everybody brought what they had: a psalm, a teaching, a tongue, a revelation, an interpretation. They got that part right. (We have trouble with this part.)

The Corinthians missed two things, as Paul explains. The first is order, and you can read about that in any commentary. The second, much less commented upon, is that prophecies must be judged. Just because you think God has spoken to you doesn’t mean you’re right; Paul entrusts the group with the job of discerning gold from dross.

We understand this perfectly well when it comes to teaching, and we understand all the possibilities inherent in it. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition; one part of a teaching can be true and another false, something could contain a grain of truth but be distorted in some way, and so on — all manner of nuances. We routinely discern the correctness of teaching in just this way.

We are called to do the same with prophecy. Moreover, discerning others’ prophecies was actually the New Testament prophet’s biggest job. (Not prophesying. Does that surprise you?) Suppose you’re part of a house church of, say, 30 people. Now, you don’t all prophesy, although Paul wishes you did, but a bunch of you are prophets. You’ve all been trying to speak at once, which is part of the problem. Let’s suppose that only half the group prophesy. That’s 15 prophets — a real mess when they all start talking over each other. Paul says to stop that: only 2 or 3 will be allowed to speak (one at a time!) in any single gathering. Think through the math: the average prophet in the group will be occupied in hearing and judging others’ prophecies about 5 times more often than he is giving a prophecy himself. The prophet’s biggest job is to discern.

We have trouble envisioning what this looks like in practice, because we have become so thoroughly disobedient that we can’t even imagine it. Paul told us a church service should be orderly, and we’ve taken that to such an extreme that we want to pre-screen everything so that nothing in the church service will require correction. That’s not what Paul said to do. He actually prescribes the opposite solution: let the thing happen, and then correct it. The church service is not supposed to be a polished performance; it’s a workshop.

We can kinda get our heads around workshopping a teaching. We have no trouble talking about how a speaker’s first point was good, his second point was way off base, not at all what the Scripture passage is talking about, and the third point wasn’t bad, but it was more of a personal preoccupation than an application of the text. We understand how to make a nuanced evaluation of teaching. We cringe a little at the idea of someone saying these things in a panel discussion right after the sermon, but why? Do any of us really outgrow the need for feedback? Why not do it together? Why not share it with the Body, so everyone can learn and be encouraged?

If we could review teaching, then why not a prophetic word? We get stuck in the trap of thinking there are only two options: either it was genuine, a prophecy from God, and therefore we have to swallow it whole, or it was not, and we throw it out entirely. Those two options are certainly on the table, but there’s just more to it than that.

Remember that we’re talking about interpersonal communication here: a prophet giving account of what he believes God said to him for the group. When it’s a boss giving his secretary instructions for his employees, what are some of the ways it can go?

  • The secretary faithfully relays the instructions
  • Not listening well enough, the secretary relays most of the instructions, but leaves out something that the group definitely needs to hear
  • The secretary elaborates on the instructions beyond what the boss actually said. The additions are common sense, but maybe not quite what the boss actually had in mind
  • The secretary adds an item that’s really just a personal pet peeve

If the secretary gave you instructions, ostensibly from the boss, that sounded a little funny to you, what would you do? Call the boss and clarify, right? We can do that — we have the Holy Spirit! As we discern a prophetic word together, that might sound like…

  • “That first 30 seconds was gold, definitely from the Holy Spirit, but after that I think you were on a roll and you just started improvising.”
  • “That was incredibly condemning; I believe that was your internal monolog, not God.”
  • “Thank you for that word of exhortation. That was for you personally, not for the whole group.”
  • “As you were speaking, the Lord was confirming to me everything you were saying.”
  • “Most of that was great, except for that one bit about lust. By the way, have you noticed that every single time you prophesy, there’s always something about lust? Let’s talk about why that is…”

Paul intends for the Corinthians to do this. Let someone speak, then evaluate — table-talk it afterwards, in public, with everyone listening. In this way everyone learns to hear God’s voice better, by walking with those who do and leaning on one another — “he who walks with the wise will be wise,” like the man said.

Cessationists regularly complain that the very claim to have a prophetic word renders the content of the prophecy beyond discussion. The whole project is impossible, they will say. They only think this because they have failed to pay attention to what Paul actually told the Corinthians to do. Discernment isn’t impossible; it’s just hard.

We lack the skill to hear God’s voice because we have refused to participate in the exercises where He teaches us how to do it.

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