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Doctrine of the Holy Spirit - The Work of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12-14 (Part 3) Print E-mail
Doctrine of the Holy Spirit

I.  Introduction:

 1 Corinthians 13 is a chapter that is referenced in many different ways. We hear it quoted at weddings and on anniversaries. We hear it poems and songs. It is one of the passages that even makes it into movies and secular settings. Unfortunately, you do not hear it discussed all that much when spiritual gifts are the topic. We have a tendency to treat chapter 13 as if there is no chapter 12 or chapter 14. Now, it should be said, that chapter 13 and Paul’s teaching on love is applicable to more than just discussions on spiritual gifts. There is nothing wrong with reading it at a wedding or quoting it in a song about love. All I am saying is that we do not need to ignore it when we are talking about the gifts and how we relate to one another in the Church. In order to see this connection in the text, I want to begin tonight with 12:31 and then cover all of chapter 13.

II. Passage:

A. 12:31 Just as we have already pointed out in 14:1, Paul does not tell the Corinthians to stay away from the gifts. Actually, he tells them just the opposite. He tells them to earnestly desire the higher gifts. Yet, what does he mean by higher gifts? It seems that he is already beginning the transition to chapter 14 where he will point out that prophecy is greater than tongues (that are not interpreted). In this sense, prophecy is a higher gift because it is intelligible and able to edify the Church. Yet, before he gets there, Paul wants to show them a still more excellent way. Thus, his description of love is to characterize their treatment of one another in regards to the gifts. As he will go on to say: without love the gifts are pointless.

B. 13:1-3 The point of these three verses is that no matter what great things you may do, if you do not have love then you are wasting time. In order to drive this point home, Paul speaks of doing some pretty great things: speak in the tongues of men and of angelshave prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains…give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned. If you add all of these together and then take away love, you have nothing.1 What about the reference to the tongues…of angels? It is hard to know if Paul is simply using extravagant language to make his point, or if the gift of tongues includes the language of angels. You would be hard pressed to be too dogmatic about either interpretation. Either way, the main point remains: you can do great things (including exercising certain gifts), but it means nothing without love.

C. 13:4-7 I do not want to go into any specific detail about Paul’s description of love here. Rather, let me summarize what he says by saying that our love should be self-sacrificial. It should look to the good of others and value them over even ourselves. This is the love that Christ modeled for us in His life and ministry (see Philippians 2:1-11) and it is the love that we are called to exhibit to one another. It is this love that is the more excellent way. Instead of judging one another based on gifts, as seemingly the Corinthians were doing, Paul tells them (and us) to sacrificially love one another and to use our gifts as an expression of that love (see 14:1ff). Thus, however we come down on spiritual gifts, we need to make love our aim and use our gifts to build one another up, which will be Paul’s point in chapter 14.

D. 13:8-13 Much controversy centers on the interpretation of these verses. Paul’s point is that love is superior to the gifts because it is permanent and the gifts will cease. Of course, the question becomes: when will the gifts cease? In one sense, this question is easily answered, for Paul tells us that they will cease when the perfect comes. Thus, in order to know when the gifts will cease we simply have to identify what Paul means by ‘the perfect.’ Let me mention the two interpretations that are offered most. First, some see ‘the perfect’ as a reference to the completion of the canon. In other words, when all of the Bible was written and recognized as the Word of God, then ‘the perfect’ had come (according to this interpretation). Thus, the gifts would have ceased during the first century (or shortly after depending on how you date the authorship and recognition of certain books). Not all would agree on the particulars, but the basic premise is similar. Second, others see ‘the perfect’ as a reference to the return of Christ. When He returns for His Bride and takes her to dwell with Him forever, then no longer will the gifts be needed and they will cease. Thus, since Christ has not yet come back for the Church, the gifts have not ceased and will continue until that Day.

I hold to the second interpretation because it seems to fit the context better than the first. I guess I could see how verses 9-10 could be a reference to the time before the canon was complete. Yet, I am convinced by verse 12 that Paul is referring to the return of Christ. Paul contrasts two distinct times: now and then. He describes now as a time when we see in a mirror dimly and know in part (like verse 9). Yet, then is described as a time when we shall be face to face and know fully. It is hard to see Paul using this language to describe what life will be like after the completion of the canon. Rather, it sounds more like a description of life with Christ in heaven (compare 1 John 3:2). Thus, I am not convinced by the interpretation that sees ‘the perfect’ as a reference to the completion of the canon. Likewise, I do not believe that the Scriptures teach that the gifts have ceased. This does not mean that all modern examples of ‘gifts’ are indeed true spiritual gifts. It simply denies the teaching that the gifts are no longer around.

III. Conclusion:

When we read chapter 13 with the whole context of 12-14 in mind, we definitely see the importance of using our gifts in a way that builds others up and encourages them in the faith. No matter what your position on spiritual gifts, if you neglect to love your brothers and sisters in Christ, then you have disobeyed the Bible. Carson closes his chapter on these verses well: “One day all the charismatics who know the Lord and all the noncharismatics who know the Lord will have nothing to fight over; for the so-called charismatic gifts will have forever passed. At that point, both of these groups of believers will look back and thoughtfully contemplate the fact that what connects them with the world they have left behind is not the gift of tongues, nor animosity toward the gift of tongues, but the love they sometimes managed to display toward each other despite the gift of tongues. The greatest evidence that heaven has invaded our sphere, that the Spirit has been poured out upon us, that we are citizens of a kingdom not yet consummated, is Christian love.”2 Amen. May that Day be soon and may the Lord grant us grace to love each other faithfully until it does!

1 D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1987), p. 60.
2 Ibid., p. 76.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 09 June 2009 )

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