It’s funny how the big puzzle in a Bible passage can often distract you from seeing the smaller enigma.
For example, in 1 Cor 14, the question I immediately want answered is about prophecy. It’s the gift I should pursue, says Paul, because it is the best way to edify others in love. But what prophecy it exactly?
This is a big question. (And for those who are interested, I came up with a big, long answer to it during my PhD research a few years ago. Just drop me a line if you’d like a copy to send you off to sleep at night.)
But the big question of prophecy might lead us to miss the smaller but no less intriguing question in verse 26:
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.
People turn up at church with various things to contribute to others for their edification. ‘Hymns’ and ‘lessons’ I can understand. ‘Tongues’ is another can of worms. But pretty casually and in passing Paul says that you also might bring a revelation with you.
This makes me kind of nervous.
I can see that strange guy with the intense eyes turning up to church with a new book of the Bible under his arm that God has told him to write. Or I see that overly confident woman with the matronly manner rolling up to me and telling me with divine authority that God knows exactly what I’m up to and that I should knock it off.
What are these ‘revelations’ that the Corinthians are having and bringing to church with them? It sounds a bit alarming.
Like all words, it’s possible to confuse what ‘revelation’ means as a word with how it is used or what it refers to. The word literally means to make something fully known or clear; to uncover or disclose some person or truth or knowledge.
In the NT, it can be the ‘making known’ of Jesus Christ when he comes again in glory (e.g. 1 Cor 1:7). He’ll be ‘revealed’ for all to see. Or it can be some special knowledge that is made to someone directly by God, such as when Paul says that he was not taught the gospel by any man but received it ‘through a revelation of Jesus Christ’ (referring probably to the Damascus road experience where Jesus confronted him personally as his Lord in Gal 1:12).
So what is it that is becoming known or clear to someone here in 1 Cor 14, such that they can bring that ‘revelation’ with them to church to edify others? It doesn’t necessarily mean that they have had their own Damascus road vision, and it certainly doesn’t mean that they have received a whole new gospel because an angel has appeared and given it to them. (In fact, if that happens, we can be pretty sure it was certainly no angel of God! See Gal 1:8.)
Earlier in 1 Cor 14, the possibility of having a ‘revelation’ to share is also mentioned, and again it’s one of a list of similarly edifying words:
Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? (1 Cor 14:6)
How is a ‘revelation’ different from ‘teaching’ or ‘knowledge’ or ‘prophecy’?
There’s some overlap no doubt, but it’s not hard to see differences between them. A ‘teaching’ might be a specific nugget of truth that has been passed on to us, and that we bring with us in order to teach others. ‘Knowledge’ is a broader category of understanding that we’ve acquired over time, and that we can also share with others. ‘Prophecy’ is a particular application of the gospel to a particular context (to give you the shorthand answer to that big question).
But that again leaves ‘revelation’.
I think the way it’s being used in both instances in 1 Cor 14 is rather like the way the same word is used in Phil 3:15:
Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.
When things are unclear or partially known or misunderstood completely, the problem often lies not in receiving a new teaching or new piece of knowledge, but in what is already partially or poorly known becoming fully known, by the work of God in our minds.
This is a common Christian experience. For me, it often occurs over a number of days and conversations.
I find myself reading something interesting one evening, which then connects with a conversation I have the next day, which then reminds me of a sermon I heard two weeks ago, which then prompts me to chat to Ali about it over dinner, which then casts a whole new light on the conversation I had earlier, and which then incredibly lines up with the Bible reading I happen to look at the next morning. It all percolates in my slow-witted brain for a few days, and then seemingly from nowhere comes the Aha! moment. The clouds part, the pieces lock into place, and all of a sudden some fresh aspect of the truth of Christ becomes clear to me.
It might be something I once was taught but had forgotten, or never quite understood. It might be something I now understand in a new or clearer or fuller way.
Whatever it is, even though it may not have been through a Damascus road apocalypse, God has made something known to me that I didn’t know before. He has uncovered a new light in my understanding. And very often it is not by him inserting a brand new piece of information, but by clearing away all the intellectual junk that has been preventing me from seeing the truth and implications of what he has already told me many times through the Scriptures.
This kind of ‘revelation’ can creep up on you over time, or it can occur to you quite suddenly, or possibly both. Later in the chapter, we see it happening suddenly as people are sharing their words of prophecy and encouragement with each other:
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. (1 Cor 14:29-30)
The edifying words we bring with us to church don’t have the status of Scripture! They need to be tested and considered. In fact, as one speaks, another might suddenly have an insight (a ‘revelation’) that builds or improves what is being said.
1 Cor 14 paints a delightful and challenging picture of what should happen when we get together as Christ’s congregation. We all bring God-given words with us to the gathering—the gospel we’ve been taught, the Scriptural knowledge we have, the lessons we’ve learned, the prophetic applications we’ve discerned, the ‘revelations’ we’ve received—and we share them with each other, for mutual benefit.
What do you bring with you to church on Sunday?
A Bible perhaps, or these days a phone? A tired and disengaged mind? A set of grievances? A desire to be fed and cared for? Some grumbling kids?
The key things to bring with us, says 1 Cor 14, are God-given words with which to edify and encourage each other in love.
Is that a revelation for you?
I was rather hoping to send out the sixth and final chapter of the Two ways to live evangelistic book in this week’s edition. But it’s been a crazy week, and it just wasn’t ready. God willing, next week!