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TEXT: I Corinthians 13:1-13
SUBJECT: How to Use Your Gifts
I Corinthians 13 is the best known chapter in the New Testament, especially vv.4-7. What's not as well known is where the chapter and the verses fit into Paul's argument. In other words, why they're in the Bible.
Judging by how and where they're used, you'd think Paul wrote them to festoon our weddings with a ribbon of poetry or to confront married couples who say they love each other, but don't act like it! These are valid applications of the chapter, and I can think of worse ways to spend your time than by laying down your own version of 'love' alongside Paul's, and see how much alike they are...or different. It's much easier to say, 'I love my wife' than to show her the kindness, patience, and humility that define love. This is a wholesome and challenging use of the verses.
But for all this, the subject of I Corinthians is not 'life at home', but church life, and in particular, how to use our specific Gifts for the general welfare of the church.
Back in Chapter 12, Paul tells us a good deal about these gifts. Who has them? We all do. Where do they come from? From God. What are they for? They're for the good of the whole church. Not for my good or your good, his good, her good, but for our good! Members of the church are like parts of the human body; we're all indispensable, and every one of us is needed if the church is going to be well and fully functional. What Francis Schaeffer said in another connection, I can say of the church: there are--
No little people,
No little places.
Everyone matters in the church: including the ones who don't think they do, and the ones we're tempted to think we could do without.
Had the Corinthians believed this, there would have been no division in the church, and Paul wouldn't have written this letter, because that's what it's all about: Division, the attitudes that cause it and the only thing that can cure it.
The church will be divided as long as some Spiritual Gifts are more prized than others. In Corinth, the Gift everybody wanted was tongues, and as long as that was true, the ones who had the gift would despise the ones who didn't, the ones who didn't have it would envy the ones who did--and who says tongues is the best gift anyway?
In the last verse of Chapter 12, Paul contrasts what the Corinthians are doing with what they ought to be doing. What they're doing is--
Earnestly desiring the best gifts.
Scholars are split on what this means, but I follow the ones who say the word 'best' ought to be put in quotation marks. Whatever else they're doing, they're definitely not wanting or seeking or prizing the best gifts, the ones that will make them most useful in the church. They all want the same gift--and that's the Gift of Tongues--and they all want that one because...it feels good, and it draws attention to themselves. In other words, they want a good gift for bad reasons. Tongues was given to build up the church, but they're using it to build up their egos!
The only cure for self-centeredness is love. This is why I Corinthians 13 is in the Bible, to teach us to use our Spiritual Gifts in love.
GIFTS WITHOUT LOVE
The first three verses tell us what Spiritual Gifts do (or don't do) when they're exercised without brotherly love, that is, when they're used to serve our own needs instead of the needs of the church. V.1 makes me laugh; vv.2-3 makes me cry--
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have not love, I have become as sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.
Since Tongues was the preferred gift in that church, he brings it up first to show how useless--and worse than useless--it is when used to gratify your own vanity. The man proudly praising God or preaching a sermon in a language nobody present spoke, thought he was putting on a concert, while, in fact, he was beating pots and pans! Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, someone has said, but Clang! Clang! Clang! is not music! Paul is at his satirical best here, showing the so-called artist for the bumpkin he really is.
Personally, I have no interest in tongues; I just can't see what the 'kick' is in that. But I would sure like to have all knowledge, understand all mysteries, and preach them with great power and clarity. But--Paul says--if I did that without love, it wouldn't do me a bit of good.
Notice the difference between these gifts and tongues. Speaking in tongues without love does other people no good. Here, Paul says knowledge and so on, does the man himself no good. A proud man's sermon or Bible commentary can help the church to some degree, but they do the man who preaches or writes it no good
The same goes for miracle-working faith (another gift I'd sure love to have!).
If my soaring knowledge and faith impresses people, makes them ooh and aah, causes them to sing my praises, and so on, what have I got? I've got the praise of men and silly men at that! I other words, I've got nothing.
Even heroic acts, up to and including self-sacrifice without love are an exercise in vanity, and 'vanity' means 'emptiness'!
Paul is not saying, 'Gifts don't matter' or even that 'Love matters more than gifts'. What he's saying is: Without love gifts fail to bless people; they don't bless the church or even one who has them.
Paul has used the word, love, three times in the chapter thus far, and he wants us to know what he means by it. Preachers are always quick to tell us, 'Love is not a feeling'. If by that they mean it is not only a feeling, then, of course, they're right. There's a lot more to love than that. Still, it seems to me that love possesses the whole person, and so, to love others includes warm feelings for them. Not everyone is equally emotional, and that's all right: but cold and robotic love, it seems to me, is something less than love. But I'm rambling.
In vv.4-7, we're told what love is, or to be a bit finer, we're told what it does and doesn't do.
Love suffers long.
This means it causes you to hold your temper; to be slow to take offense; and when you have to confront someone for the wrong he's done you, love enables you to temper your anger with humility and mercy.
Love is kind.
This, you might say, is the active side of longsuffering. You don't blow up or seethe when people wrong you, and you continue doing them good, even when they don't deserve it. Especially when they don't. This means love doesn't shun other people unless it is absolutely necessary, and even if it is, only to win them back to Christ.
Love does not envy.
This means it is happy for the success of other people, even if you feel you're more deserving of it than they are.
Love does not parade itself, is not puffed up.
This reminds us that love is not self-centered, but centered on other people. You're prouder when they do well than when you do. You praise them more than you praise yourself, and you're not looking for praise by praising them more than you do yourself!
Love does not behave rudely.
Rudeness is self-centered; it shows a lack of concern for other people. Rude people justify their discourtesy by saying they're tired or worried, without ever thinking the other person may be every tired or worried than they are. Since love centers on other people, loving people are also courteous, and this does not depend on knowing all the rules of etiquette, where the salad fork goes, the proper way of blowing your nose in public (if there is one!).
Love does not seek it's own, is not provoked.
To seek your own means--'and nobody else's' or 'at the expense of others'. People who seek their own are always easily provoked, too, because they seldom get what they want because others are seeking their own too! Love puts others first, and by doing this, goes a long way toward saving you from a life of frustration. Because if you want to serve yourself, you'll face a lot of opposition; if you want to serve others, most people will let you!
Love thinks no evil.
I don't know how I would improve the translation of this line, but if I were a Greek scholar, I'd sure try to do it. It seems to say, 'love is totally optimistic, that it cannot see evil, and that even the worst acts have to be put in a good light'.
Nonsense! Paul didn't do this, and neither did Jesus. Our Lord did not call the Pharisees, 'Well-meaning, but misguided souls', He called them 'Hypocrites and white-washed tombs full of dead men's bones'.
What the line means is something like this: 'Love does not keep a list of wrongs'. Why do you keep a list? Why do I make up a list before I go to the supermarket? Because if I don't, I'll forget what I came for. You make up a list to remember things. This is what love does not do: Try to remember all the wrongs people have done you! As much as possible, it remembers the good and filters out the bad. And, even when the bad is so bad it cannot be filtered out, it is not dwelt on, brooded over, entertained. Love lets go of the past. And good riddance. It was the immortal Satchell Paige who said--
Never look back; something might be gaining on you!
Love does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth.
This means 'love does not gloat over the failures of other people', and positively, it rejoices in the Gospel that promises to pardon their sins, renew their character, and finally, perfect them in body and soul.
These are the characteristics of brotherly love. On paper, I find them satisfying, even thrilling. This is the kind of person I ought to be, the kind of person I want to be. But, in reality, they sober me up and make me depend on God's grace more than ever because, the fact is, I'm not this kind of person, I'm shot through with selfishness and I've got a lot more malice and envy and pride in me than I care to admit.
The good news is: The Lord who wants us to be this kind of person is able to make us into what He wants us to be. Through His Word and prayer, sermon, sacrament, fellowship, and yes, the hard knocks of Providence. How thankful we ought to be for having such a Lord! And how eager we ought to be for His sanctifying work in us!
LOVE IS PERMANENT
As wonderful as love is in itself, and as useless as our gifts are without it, the chapter climaxes with a meditation on the permanence and priority of love.
The Corinthians gloried in Spiritual Gifts, especially the ones that drew attention to themselves: tongues, prophecy, and knowledge. Paul does not say these things are evil or useless--quite the opposite, they're good and useful...for now. But the Day is coming when we won't need them anymore and all we will have are the things we do need.
He tells that tongues will cease, knowledge will vanish and even prophecy will expire. When will the Spiritual Gifts disappear?
He spells it out for us in v.10--
When that which is perfect is come.
On this point, everyone who believes the Bible is in agreement. The Gifts are temporary and are sure to expire when that which is perfect is come.
The question is, therefore, what is the Perfect thing that will replace the good, but imperfect gifts?
If you like the Charismatic Movement, you'll say the perfect thing is 'Heaven' or 'The Second Coming of Christ'. When He comes again, we'll see face to face and we won't need tongues, prophecies, and knowledge.
If you dislike the Charismatic Movement, you'll say the perfect thing is...well, whatever it is, it is something in the past. Some think it's the completion of the New Testament canon; others say it's the destruction of Jerusalem; others that it is the establishment or maturity of the Church some time, maybe, in the Second Century. The point is, the Perfect Thing has already come and so the tongues, prophecies and special knowledge of today are bogus.
WHERE I COME DOWN
Where do I come down on this? To simplify the matter, let's skip over knowledge and prophecy, because the hot-button issue is tongues. Well, you know I am not Charismatic. I believe I Corinthians 14 teaches that the purpose of tongues has been met, and, consequently, the Gift is no longer operative. I am sure the tongues spoken of the Bible are human languages such as Spanish, French, or German, but not gibberish. I am equally sure that tongues cannot be a private prayer language--perhaps the tongues of angels--because Paul explicitly says they're for the benefit of the church, not yourself or God or angels!
But for all this, I think the Perfect Thing that puts an end to the Gifts is Heaven or the Blessed State brought in by the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
Even John MacArthur, who wrote a violent book against the Charismatic Movement, agrees with my interpretation.
The Charismatic Questions have to be answered from other places in Scripture, both particular texts and what's called the Rule of Faith or the general teaching on the Bible.
While such a fence-straddling answer may disappoint us, it is exactly what Paul needs to say to the Corinthians. Because he's not setting up a contest between the Bible versus tongues, prophecy, and knowledge. No, the rivals are Gifts versus Love. The Corinthians were saying the Gifts were so wonderful, they could be used without love. Paul says, 'You've got it backwards! It is love that makes the Gifts so wonderful!'
The three Gifts they prized most will pass away with the Second Coming of Christ. But the Three Virtues God prizes most won't: Faith, hope, and love. And of the three, the one that stands at the top of the list is Love.
This brings us full circle. The Corinthians--and we--want the gifts that make us feel important, that make people look at us with respect. The Gifts themselves are not at fault, but our motives are. Gifts are not for serving our egos; they're for serving the needs of the church. The only way they can do that is when we exercise them with sensitivity, compassion, and patience; in other words, when we use them in love.
There's a practical reason for doing this: this is how the church grows in grace and, truthfully, in numbers too. For all the talk of 'love' in the world, there's very little of it; there's a lot of lust and posturing, but very little love. If God's People don't love one another, who will? By loving one another the church becomes attractive to the world, we become the kind of humanity they ought to be, but can't be because they're not indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
In this chapter, Paul is mostly practical; but underneath his practice, there is strong Biblical Theology. Why should we use our gifts for the good of each other--and not to gratify ourselves?
Go back to the Abrahamic Covenant, and you'll see why. Abraham was promised a people who would not serve themselves--as the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians, and others did. They would serve the world, in them, all the families of the earth would be blessed.
The promise had failed, it seemed, because his natural offspring caused the world--not to worship the One True God, but to blaspheme Him. But what if Abraham had a True Seed? Could the mission be accomplished through Him or them? It could be--and it has been. Jesus Christ is Abraham's Seed, and He has put us into Abraham's family so that we might come into the world--not to be served, but to serve.
This is what we're saved for. Not only to escape the flames of Hell, but to be God's people in the world and to serve others in His love. This is what Spiritual Gifts are for, and how we've got to use them.
God help us to do so. For Christ's sake. Amen.
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