Paul loves to reflect on order when talking about church services in 1 Corinthians 14. That subject continues to be in play all the way to the end of the chapter.
What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. (1 Cor 14:26-33)
Paul reiterates here that if people are going to speak in tongues, there needs to be translation—if there is no translation then tongues are not to take up the congregation’s time. Furthermore, Paul now adds in a new rule: There should only be two or three people doing this, each taking a turn and not all going at the same time. Even if there was someone accurately translating a tongue, Paul sees no need to spend the entire service doing this. There needs to be enough time open to get to other important things, like hymns, lessons, revelations, and so on. Prophecy should have a similar flow: Two or three prophets should speak, one by one so that there is order and peace and not confusion.
There are a few more things we can learn about prophecy from this short section. Because prophets are supposed to take turns, we need to avoid the idea that their bodies are suddenly seized into some kind of trance and they begin to prophesy and can’t stop. Yes, something kind of like this does happen in the Bible (Num 11:24-30; 1 Sa 10:9-13, 19:18-24), but it is more the exception than the rule. Paul is not painting a picture here of prophets who need to go stand on a stage and be seized by the Holy Spirit to prophesy—that is an idea that we paint into the picture because of our unfamiliarity with the subject. If prophets are to prophesy one at a time, then Paul is saying to some extent, “Wait your turn,” and therefore, “You can wait.”
This is a point of contention between some pastors. Those who want to embrace the supernatural are sometimes intentionally unprepared to preach their message. They want God to give them the word on the spot so that they can take the stage and soar on the wings of the Spirit rather than let the Spirit work with them beforehand to write their message. They have convinced themselves that God is only able to bring a fresh word to their congregation if they take the stage in faith that He’ll show up. But if I may be frank, the Spirit does not constantly show up in that way and those who make a habit of this become incredibly redundant.
I learned this lesson in a supernaturally-minded church. Week by week many of the pastors ended up saying the same exact thing as the week before. Why? Because they didn’t seem to be doing any studying. They just wanted the Holy Spirit to show up and move in them and write their messages on the fly. And yes, sometimes God did show up in this way, but they could only speak on His behalf based on what they already generally knew. They wouldn’t just suddenly have a Bible verse memorized that they had never heard before and state it on the fly. God typically works off what we already know and takes us into deeper revelation from there. He often works with us in the ways we’re already pursuing and studying him. He is capable of inspiring us far beyond what we know and sometimes does, but that is a rare experience.
Meanwhile, the pastors who are meeting with the Holy Spirit ahead of time to write their message are hopefully giving something tangible for their congregations to chew on. They are being proactive and studying the word so that God can help them truly teach their congregations something. This method isn’t faithless or less spiritual simply because it’s planned—it’s just a method that doesn’t put God on the spot. It strives for intimacy because it gives more time to connect with the Spirit rather than create the space for a fast-food message that may have spiritual depth, but is more born more out of a high of supernatural movement than an intimate relationship with the Holy Spirit.
Furthermore, making up your message on the spot every single week is laziness. What pastor hasn’t found himself occasionally crunching his sermon preparation into a Saturday night or even a Sunday morning? When we get hooked on making up a message on the fly, the truth is that we’ve traded in the intimacy of a time to work with the Spirit to craft our writing, for twenty to forty minutes of hoping He’ll save our butts with something profound. And if He does, we start to think that maybe we can get away with this laziness and turn it into a habit.
Paul leaves the space for the prophetic message to be prepared in advance. What did these prophets hear when they were praying earlier in the week? What did they hear while service was going on? What was burning on their hearts for some time that they now realize was an inclination from God? And also, what did God just suddenly put in their mind right then to say into the mic?
All of these are avenues of the prophetic. If Paul expected prophets to wait their turn, then I doubt he expected them to auto-prophesy.
Now I get it—prophets and pastors are different—but as with most giftings and callings, there’s some overlap. One of the overlapping qualities between these two is that people should learn from both kinds of leaders. Therefore, prophets shouldn’t be so seized in the Spirit that we aren’t able to follow them. God’s word through them should make sense to us. It should educate us and encourage us.
Now despite everything I just said, Paul did understand that an urgent prophetic revelation could come to a prophet in a moment. It’s not that they would suddenly be possessed by the Holy Spirit, but rather, energized with an important word to share. Should such a thing happen, the prophet who was currently speaking, should take a seat to let the other prophet take his turn. One commentary imagines this scenario in a reasonable light.
The speaker, it seems, would stand. If, however, another, while he was seated and thus not speaking by the Spirit’s help…. thinks of some pertinent word of revelation and rises to utter it to the congregation, either to corroborate or to correct what has just been spoken, the speaker having the floor at the moment is to yield it. It seems that the custom which obtained in the old Jewish synagogues was thus introduced into the churches, namely an edifying discussion by two or three speakers in turn. (Lenski, R. C. H. The Interpretation of St. Paul’s First and Second Epistle to the Corinthians. Minneapolis, Augsburg Publishing House, 1963, p. 612.)
Another important element of this passage that we need to look at is the fact that we’re supposed to test the words we’re given. What a prophet has to say is expected to line up with the Bible, for God’s prophetic word should not override God’s Word. Hence, it’s important that we don’t just take every prophetic word we’re given as truth. The prophets are to “weigh what is said.” Paul reiterates this to the Thessalonians, saying “Do not despise prophecies, but test everything” (1 Thess 5:20-21).
There was plenty of space in the early church for false prophets to try to take over. I’d suggest that there were even confused Christians trying to figure out if they were prophets or not. After all, Paul uses the phrase, “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet” (1 Cor 14:37), almost as though some might claim to be and not be—maybe by devious intention or possibly because they thought they had the gift and didn’t. Therefore, even the words of good-intentioned Christians must be tested.
Regardless of what the case may be, prophetic words are to be judged. And if any prophet comes up to you and expects you to accept the word they shoved down your throat, they are operating out of pride. The Bible specifically gives you permission to test prophetic words. It demands that you do. You are not to despise prophetic words or simply to consider all prophetic words false, but you are to test them and see how they stand up with the Holy Spirit, the Bible, and your own spirit. An uncomfortable prophetic word does not make it untrue, but if it’s uncomfortable because it doesn’t sound like God then you shouldn’t accept it.