Last week we focused on one truth and came at it from a number of different angles, and that is, encapsulated in verse 12:27:
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
We spoke of how the Spirit has been poured into each of us who have come to know Jesus as our Lord, incorporating us into one body, the church, so that all of us in all of our diverse giftings, talents opportunities, passions, and perspectives come together under the sovereign hand of God and the empowering of the Spirit to build up the body in love. Comprehending these truths, you are able to confront the lies of the enemy, which try to convince you that no one needs you, or get you to believe that you don’t need others. The point is that we all need each other, for we are one.
Paul closes that section of his thought by again listing off some of the different ways that God brings different types of people together in the church (1 Cor 12:28)
And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues.
As we’ve seen before, God gives the church people: apostles (whether these be “big A” Apostles – the guys who Jesus sent out - or “small a” apostles – whom we refer to as missionaries and church-planters), prophets (people who proclaim God’s words for encouragement, admonishment, or exhortation), teachers (people able to upon the Word of God and clearly explain its meaning well to others). God also gives the church different types of giftings, whether they be supernatural manifestations like miracles or healings, or be they more commonplace types of abilities, skills or opportunities, such as helps or leadership, or any of the other charismata type of gifts that we’ve been talking about over the past month. The last one Paul includes in this list is tongues, which is significant because this happens to be the gifting that the Corinthian church had become infatuated with. Their infatuation with this one practice was dividing the church and the reason why Paul spends three chapters of his letter addressing spiritual gifts. We are going to spend all next week talking about speaking in tongues, but I want you to notice hear that Paul intentionally lists it last in this list, where the Corinthians would be likely to place it first.
Paul’s explains the point of all this in verses 29-30:
Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts.
We spoke of this last week, but here Paul clearly states it – not everybody has been appointed to function in the same way in the body of Christ. Here’s the message that would have been clearly received by the Corinthians who were so infatuated with one gift:
1) Hey Corinthians, not everybody is going to speak in tongues, so quit making people feel like they are less a part of the body of Christ if they don’t do it.
2) If you want to seek the gifts of the spirit, seek to develop the greater gifts, which are, if I am reading the list correctly, those roles by which you can most contribute to the building up of the church. You want a spiritual gift? Read your Bible, devote yourself to prayer, become a mature Christian and then go and teach Sunday School. Seek to develop the giftings so that someday you can be the apostolic missionary sent out to plant churches. Seek to develop the giftings necessary for you to prophetically speak into the lives of others for their encouragement, consolation, and edification. Those are things to seek after, if your going to seek after gifts, because those things build up the church.
That is a powerful message, Paul. That we should all be seeking not the giftings that build ourselves up and our reputations, but be seeking the gifts that build others up. Wow, think of what our church would be if we carried that out. But wait, Paul says, we’re just getting started. And he says in verse 12:32
And I will show you a still more excellent way.
Much has been said and written on this 13th Chapter of 1 Corinthians. It’s the love chapter, often recited at weddings. It is generally regarded as being one of the most beautiful passages in all of literature. But I think it truly comes alive when we read it in the context of God’s entire message to the Corinthian church. Remember our series title for the entire book of Corinthians? Living by Love in a Lustful World. It can be argued that this is the climactic passage in the entire book, the sum total of all that the Holy Spirit through Paul wants the Corinthians to embrace, the proper summary of all that it means to live the Christian life is this messed-up, selfish, lust-driven world. Let’s look at this most excellent way of love.
The Importance of Love (1 Corinthians 13:1-3):
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
There is a simple reason for why the way of love that Paul will describe is better even than the seeking of spiritual giftings or manifestations. Simply put, the practicing of gifts without love as the motive actually undermines the purpose of the gifts and stunts the growth of the church rather than building it up. Paul writes that if you were to all these amazing things you would be an annoying distraction to others. I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. Even if God were to anything through your ministry it would not be through you, but in spite of you - I am nothing. And even if you think you could fool others with your displays of spirituality, you can’t fool God – I gain nothing. Without love, everything you do - no matter how successful it may look or how spiritual it makes you look – everything you do actually makes you and the church worse off. Remember what Paul told the Corinthians when they were coming together for Communion without love? When you come together, it is not for the better, but for the worse.
The Essence of Love (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
If love is so important, we should have a better understanding of what it is. We are going to quickly look over this famous list of characteristics, but before we do we must make one very important observation that doesn’t show up in your English Bibles very well. In the Greek language that Paul penned this poem in, each of the important words are not adjectives like you see in your English Bible, but verbs. That is, instead of describing what love is, the Holy Spirit is here revealing to us what love does, or more precisely, what a person who has God’s love filling their life does. These verbs are all found in the present conditional sense, that is, these are actions and attitudes which have become habitually ingrained in the person who loves. Again, as Paul is writing to the church, let us imagine if these habits were developing and maturing in our body and see if we wouldn’t be a more glorious expression of Christ’s body. Let me reread the passage in my own translation, bringing out the verbs and the application in the church:
· Love waits patiently for others when the worship team isn’t ready to start the service or the Chinese service goes long, or when they are stuck in traffic before a meeting.
· Love acts kindly toward others in the church when they offend you or when they are in need of help that you can offer.
· Love doesn’t seek to tear down people who are viewed with more esteem in the church and it surely doesn’t promote itself above others in the church whom are less esteemed.
· Love does not claim that people need to listen to you because you have been in the church longer and love also does not allow those younger in the church to treat their elders with disrespect.
· Love does not insist on its own way because this is how I like it or how we’ve done it before.
· Love does not get irritable because you had a bad week at work and are now taking out your stress on the poor people who have to serve on a committee with you.
· Love does not hold onto bitterness or resentment reminding people again and again of their faults until they avoid it completely or leave the church.
· Love does not secretly desire to see others in the church come to bad ends, or seek to skirt the rules or procedure for its own good.
· Love does always seek the truth and rejoice when the church is acting out its mission in integrity.
· Love puts up with a lot, even people whom you find it hard to get along with.
· Love wants to believe the best about people, even after it has been hurt before.
· Love hopes to see others move forward in their faith and maturity.
· Love endures through discouragement, slander, and division.
That’s what the church is to be! That’s how we live by love in this crazy, corrupt world. That’s what God is calling us to. To be so filled with the love of Christ, to so know the God who is Love, to be so controlled by the Spirit who ties us in love to one another, that we exude love in concrete ways as we live together in this body.
The Future of Love
Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
Before we look more closely at these verses, I need to address one common interpretation of these verses that I was taught early on in my Christian life. There are some people who interpret this verse to say that those supernatural manifestation type of gifts that we looked at a couple of weeks ago have already passed away and the Holy spirit no longer works in those kinds of ways anymore. They argue that the book of 1 Corinthians was written to a church that didn’t have the full scripture and therefore God gave them those types of manifestations, but when the perfect comes – which they read as being the Bible – when the Bible came around the end of the first century, those types of manifestations ceased. People who hold to this view are called cessationists. Now, even when I was a sixteen-year-old kid who’d never read the bible before, I had difficulty buying that explanation. Any guesses why? The perfect is Jesus! When we see Him face-to-face and fully know him and are fully known by Him, then these things will come to an end because then we will all be perfected in love. These giftings the Corinthians are so enamored with now? Once Jesus comes back there will be no more need for them, so instead of focusing on them, why not focus on the thing that is going to remain – love. Prophecy, tongues, words of knowledge, these things are given to build up and edify the church, but when Jesus comes, when we see him face-to-face, we will have no more need to be built up for we will be perfected by our full understanding of the revelation of all that He is. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. I will no longer need to prophesy, for who will there be to admonish? I will no longer need a word of knowledge to meet a ministry need, for all of our ministry needs will have been met in Jesus. I will no longer need to speak in a tongue to share the gospel in an unknown language or to commune with God, for all will already fully know him and all will be fully known by him. So what will remain? Paul names three things: faith, hope and love.
I don’t want to be too hard on my cessationist friends, because I think they actually hit at the heart of Paul’s point better than the other camp, the continualists do, and that is this, as we mature in love, their will be less of a need for these supernatural manifestations, until they ultimately cease with the return of Christ. That is, if we are a maturing church, these things will be ceasing, because we will be doing them in love. For example, wouldn’t it be neat if every Sunday the Holy Spirit enabled me to preach in Chinese! The problem is that if he were to do that, it would rob the body of an opportunity to serve one another in love, for we have people gifted in translation who can lovingly contribute to the body through the use of their abilities. Or take prophecy. Once a people have the scripture translated into their own language, there is less of a need for the Holy Spirit to reveal to us things to admonish or encourage each other about, because if we are serving each other in love, guided by the Sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God, then we should be naturally, lovingly encouraging and admonishing one another. As we mature in love, we no longer have as much of a need for those things that we needed at the beginning, which is what Paul says: When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. Does that mean we never see the Holy Spirit doing those things anymore? No, because until Jesus comes back we will still encounter ministry needs that we cannot meet apart from a manifestation of the Holy Spirit – you see this especially on the mission field. But we don’t make these things the center of our Christian life, we make love the center.