The Corinthian Phenomenon Pt. 2: A Better Way for Gift-Crazy Corinthians
At this point, we need to remind ourselves that 1 Corinthians 12-14 is one cohesive unit dealing with the broad subject of spiritual gifts. In Chapter 12 Paul dealt with the gifts in general and only hinted at the tongues issue (12:10). Tongues was his target, of course, and this will become clearer in chapter 14.
Like the good teacher, however, he began with a broad brush to create the context. He did not forget to apply this teaching along the way by reminding his readers that all of the members, with their various gifts, are important for the proper functioning of the body. He concluded by stating that we do not expect all to speak in tongues (12:28), but there are a variety of gifts shared between every believer, according to God’s sovereign pleasure (12:18).
There was one more point that the apostle needed to press home before he got into the details. Such was the extent of the abuse and the damage to the church and the testimony of the gospel, that the apostle took considerable time to expound a “more excellent way” (12:31) in the grace of Christian love (Ch. 13). Everything—even spiritual gifts—is governed by love. Love is the centerpiece of the Christian life and the ruling principle in the body of Christ. Without love, everything is empty obnoxious noise (13:3). This parenthesis on the virtue of Christian love has specific application to the subject at hand. The apostle hopes, perhaps that it will serve to correct the misuse of tongues, but it will also divide the sheep from the goats and purge the congregation.
Chapter 13 divides naturally into three general headings; the necessity (1-3), the character (4-7) and the permanence (8-13) of love.
First, let’s consider the necessity of love as a Christian virtue (1-3). The phrase—“and have not love”—appears three times in the first three verses. It focuses our attention on the single most important element of Christianity. Paul was not the only apostle to deal decisively with the virtue of Christian love. Jesus told his disciples that brotherly love is a mark of Christian identity; “by this shall all men know that ye are my disciples” (John 13:35). John said that it is a test of saving faith; “He that says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in darkness…” (1 John 2:9). Peter spoke of believers having a sincere (non-hypocritical) love for the brethren and he encouraged his readers to be earnest (zealous, not lightly) in their love for one another (1 Peter 1:22-23). The apostle John emphasised that the operation of love in the individual is a trinitarian work (1 John 4:7-13); “every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God…” (7). “In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son” (8). “God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us…” (12-13).
It becomes clear through these Scriptures and others, that God has so worked in the heart of the believer, by the Holy Spirit, that love becomes a characteristic of the Christian’s nature and a mark of Christian identity. This love, as Dr. D. A. Carson says, is the “indispensable proof of authentic Christianity.” Furthermore, Carson continues, we “understand not only how love can serve as the ‘more excellent way’ [12:31], but also how the presence of such love is an infallible test of the Spirit’s presence.”
This is the point that the apostle is making in the context of spiritual gifts. He made it clear that no number of spiritual gifts and no level of intensity in the exercise of spiritual gifts can replace the proper exercise of Christian love. To show the absolute indispensability of love the apostle presented a series of hypothetical superlatives none of which can replace love. Though he had the tongues of men or even angels…though he had the gift of prophecy that could understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though he had all faith—even enough to remove mountains—and though he were selfless enough to give all his goods to feed the poor, and even self-sacrificing enough to give himself as a martyr. Without love, all these meant nothing.
If the “spiritual person” (12:1-3) had all this and exercised all these gifts, and should his spirituality extend to self-sacrificing martyrdom, and he is yet without love, it is of no profit. His spirituality is a farce, a fraud, and a fake.
Some of them had obviously placed an emphasis on tongues that were unscriptural, dismissive of others and damaging to the body. It puffed up their pride, overshadowed their love for the brethren, and blinded them to the value of others in the congregation (Ch. 12). Others, more innocently perhaps, were led astray in the confusion. We may assume also that there were also those in the congregation who were unbelievers, flaunting their supposed gifts and motivated by another spirit (1 John 4:1). But there was also, no doubt, those in the congregation who had been hurt by all of this confusion and had reacted wrongly and unlovingly.
Paul made no distinction. His corrective will apply to them all, as it was a general outline of the characteristics of love (4-7). He made no comment and no development of thought, but simply described love by personification. He presented love as a person, either acting out love or displaying love by refraining from opposite vices. Love is patient, he said, willing to wait and endure, and it is kind even in that endurance. Love does not envy and does not boast. Love is not proud (puffed up). It is interesting in this context to note that he used a word here that he has previously used of the Corinthians (4:6,18,19; 5:2; 8:1).
The apostle continued, love is not rude or indecent (see 7:36). Love is not self-seeking but thinks of others first and not self (see also 14:18-19). Love is not touchy, sensitive and insecure and it is not quick-tempered—not easily provoked. Perhaps a little note to those who had been hurt by the elitist tongue-speakers. In the case where love has been injured, it is not resentful, evil-scheming, or keeping records of wrongs, because love does not rejoice in evil, it does not dwell on wrongs and ills but would rather spend its time and sink its energy into the truth.
Verse seven could be considered a summary statement; it always endures, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. This is not to say that love is gullible, naïve, or mindless. No, love must make judgements, it must correct and chastise, as Paul is presently doing, and it must try the spirits (1 John 4:1). But love is open, generous and can even allow itself to be vulnerable because it always rests in the God who is love and views life through the lens of divine and sovereign omnipotence.
There was one characteristic of love that the apostle left to the last. Evidently, his intention was to develop the immortality of love—it never fails (8-13). These words, “love never fails” (8) are found at the end of one paragraph and the beginning of another. If we look at them from the perspective of what Paul has already said (4-7), we could understand them to mean that love never is defeated, never gives up and can never be brought down. If we look at it from the perspective of what follows (8-13), these words would mean that love will never cease to be, it is immortal, enduring and will never come to an end. Perhaps, as the New Testament scholar, Gordon Fee suggests, Paul intended this double perspective, because it best reflects the character of God, who is love (1 John 4:16).
These verses (8-13) are not a good place from which to argue for the cessation of apostolic gifts, because it is not what Paul was dealing with here. The apostle was developing the permanence of love in contrast to other gifts, (prophecy, knowledge, and tongues) because these gift-crazy Corinthians were promoting gifts over the virtue of love.
We must maintain the focus still on the permanency of love; it is not on the operation of tongues or other gifts. Paul’s message is clear. All apostolic gifts will cease (8). Furthermore, these Corinthians need to know that the present enjoyment of the gifts of the Spirit is nothing to be compared to how we will know him when we see him face to face (12). The Christians at Rome learned the same truth from the perspective of suffering—the present sorrows of the earth are nothing to be compared to the glory that will follow (Romans 8:18).
Tongues and other apostolic gifts will cease, not only because they will no longer be needed, which is hinted at here (8, 13), but more clearly argued from other scriptures, but because the present age will come to an end (9-12). “But now,” Paul said, bringing us to a point of summary and conclusion, and focusing attention, not on the community now, but on personal faith and hope, and love. Even in these essential elements of salvation, love is the greatest. This is Paul’s more excellent way.