TRUE SPIRITUALITY 1 Corinthians 12–13
“Love is patient, love is kind. . . . It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Cor. 13:4, 7).Love is the true test of spirituality.
Tongues in Corinth.
In first-century pagan culture, ecstatic expression and trances had long been associated with religion. Oracles, such as the famous one at Delphi, featured young women who breathed fumes, and whose mutterings were then interpreted by priests. Epilepsy, which threw its victims into seizures, was called the “divine disease,” and a god was thought to struggle for control of the individual at such times. It’s not surprising that the spiritual gift of tongues, here speaking by the Holy Spirit in an unknown, spiritual language, was highly valued by believers saved out of paganism. In Corinth tongues was viewed as the true test of one’s spirituality, and those with the gift were considered special. So in 1 Corinthians 12–14 Paul addressed this issue. He never denied that tongues were a valid spiritual gift. In fact, Paul claimed the gift for himself (14:18). Instead Paul affirmed all the gifts of the Holy Spirit as vital to the body of Christ, held up love as the test of true spirituality, and then went on to correct abuses of the gift of tongues by the Corinthians.
The Holy Spirit’s gifts enable each believer to minister to others (12:1–11). As a human body’s parts differ, so do members of the body of Christ, which we are (vv. 12–31). Yet the truest expression of the Spirit’s work in our life is love (13:1–13).
Understanding the Text
“Now about spiritual gifts” 1 Cor. 12:1. The Greek text simply says, “Now about the spiritual.” Translators have supplied “gifts” because Paul went on to speak about them in verse 4. But it’s best to understand Paul’s subject as the broader issue of spirituality, not just spiritual gifts. Most Christians are concerned about spirituality. How do I know when I’m living close to the Lord? What makes a person really spiritual? Is it that he or she prays a lot? Is it mastery of Scripture, or power in preaching? Who should be the spiritual leaders in our congregation? How can we recognize them? Can even I live a truly spiritual life? If so, how? All these questions, and more like them, are answered by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12–14. If you’re hungry for true spirituality, this passage will feed your soul. “Jesus is Lord” 1 Cor. 12:2–3. Apparently some in Corinth so confused the ecstatic utterance with divine revelation that when such a speaker denied Jesus, some believers began to doubt. Paul said there’s no doubt at all. Only one who affirms Jesus as Lord can be speaking by the Holy Spirit. The utterance of anyone who denies Jesus as Lord comes from another source. True spirituality is impossible for anyone who is unwilling to go beyond his or her salvation experience. You can receive God’s gift of life in Jesus, and be saved. But for spiritual growth you must surrender your life to Jesus. Affirming “Jesus is Lord” involves more than uttering words. It involves committing yourself entirely to Him. “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same spirit” 1 Cor. 12:4–6. What is important to true spirituality isn’t possession of a particular spiritual gift. It’s possessing the Spirit! Paul made a vital point here. God’s Spirit works in different ways through different persons. Rather than exalt certain gifts, we should exalt the God who expresses Himself in different ways through all His gifts. One thing is sure. It is not “spiritual” to focus on the gifts. We are to focus on the Giver! “To each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” 1 Cor. 12:7. You have a spiritual gift. So does every other Christian. And those gifts were given by the Holy Spirit for a specific purpose: “the common good.” This tells us three things. (1) You and I need to use whatever gifts we may have to contribute to the welfare of others. (2) You and I need to be intimately involved with others so that we can minister to them, and receive their ministry. (3) Whatever spiritual gift I may have, it has not been given to set me apart, but to build others up! As I write it’s near Christmas, and the decorations have gone up on houses along our street. How bright and beautiful they look. Spiritual gifts are not like a string of Christmas lights, something to decorate and beautify. Spiritual gifts are much more like a hoe, something that serves as a tool to be used while working in a garden. We’re not to compare spiritual gifts, as if they were given to beautify us. We’re to exercise them, as we work in God’s field. “There is given through the Spirit” 1 Cor. 12:8–11. Some of these gifts of the Spirit are visible and spectacular—“miraculous powers,” “healing,” even “tongues.” Others seem almost pedestrian. Who gets excited when someone gives a “message of wisdom” or exercises exceptional “faith”? This list of gifts isn’t meant to be exhaustive. Paul purposely left off many of the more “ordinary” gifts he named in Romans 12:5–8. Why? Because his point was that both the ordinary and the spectacular gifts are given “through the same Spirit.” Any spiritual gift is miraculous in its operation, for the work performed is a work that can only be done by God. If your gift seems ordinary, don’t be disturbed. And don’t envy those with more visible expressions of the Spirit of God. The contribution you make to the good of others is as completely miraculous, and as much a work of God, as the contribution of anyone else. “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts” 1 Cor. 12:12–31. Paul’s powerful analogy was vivid and clear. The church, the body of Christ, is like a human body. Each part is different, yet each part is necessary to create a harmonious whole. Paul even went on to say that “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (v. 22). Whoever you are, and whatever your spiritual gift, you are “indispensable” to the others in your church, and in the church. So be an active participant in your local congregation. After all, your left arm wouldn’t do you much good if you were in Toledo, and it was in Detroit. The only way you can function as a part of Christ’s body is to live in close relationship with them. When you’re close to others, you can be their left arm. And they can be your eyes, ears, and feet! “Eagerly desire the greater gifts” 1 Cor. 12:31. This verse has been misunderstood by many, who have “tarried” after church to beg God for one of the more spectacular spiritual gifts. But Paul had just spent all of 1 Corinthians 12 arguing that all spiritual gifts are “great,” for each is an expression of the Holy Spirit’s divine power, and each is indispensable in the body. It seems best to take this verse as an introduction to a theme developed in chapter 12, and interrupted by chapter 13. Paul would say to the Corinthian congregation, “If you want to emphasize any gifts, emphasize those that involve intelligible speech” (cf. 14:1–7). But should you as an individual desire “the greater gifts”? Yes, if your motivations and understanding are in harmony with the Lord. Yes, if you passionately want a greater spiritual gift so you can better serve others. No, if you passionately want a spiritual gift so you can appear “special” or “spiritual.” At the back of the stage in the theater in Corinth were empty brass vases. The hollow vases were the first “sound system” used to amplify the voices of actors! Paul’s “resounding gong” (13:1) is literally “sounding brass”—one of the hollow amplifying vases of first-century theater! And what an image! A person may serve as a channel for the Spirit. But without love, that person is himself a spiritual void, a hollow man. Don’t confuse a person’s gifts with his spirituality. First Corinthians 13 teaches that the truly spiritual person is filled with love. “Love is” 1 Cor. 13:4–13. At last we come to Paul’s description of the marks of true spirituality. And we make the amazing discovery that spirituality has nothing to do with one’s gifts. It has nothing to do with training. It has nothing to do with platform skills. The truly spiritual person is the individual whose attitude and actions express love. Verses 4–7 are well worth posting on the bathroom mirror, above the kitchen sink, and by your bed. And well worth memorizing. They remind us what we are to value in others. And what others will value most in us. And, above all, what God values in us.
Without Love(1 Cor. 13)
One of the most frustrating experiences a Christian can have is to serve faithfully, and feel totally empty inside. It’s happened to most of us at times. Some Christians live their whole lives feeling that crushing void. And wondering why. Paul had an answer, in a little phrase found in verse 3. A person can serve selflessly, and if he or she “has not love,” Paul said, “I gain nothing.” The text doesn’t say that a person who serves “but has not love” is ineffective. Not at all. He or she may have spectacular gifts, and build a giant church where thousands are saved. In Paul’s analogy, “If I give all I possess to the poor,” the poor will certainly benefit. What Paul said was that while others may benefit from service rendered without love, whatever I do “I gain nothing.” If you’ve been one of those many Christians who work hard at serving, but still are empty, his reminder may be for you. If you or I serve in order to gain recognition, or because we fear we won’t otherwise be accepted, or even because we feel it’s our duty, our service will help others. But not us. We’ll still struggle with dissatisfaction and loneliness. We’ll still feel empty and unfulfilled. But if we serve others out of love—ah, then we truly are filled! We gain satisfaction. We gain joy. We gain future rewards. And we gain the inner serenity that comes with knowing we have pleased the Lord.
If you lack love, ask Jesus to love others through you.
“Tell me how much you know of the sufferings of your fellowmen and I will tell you how much you have loved them.”—Helmut Thielicke