A More Excellent Way
Paul concluded I Corinthians chapter 12 with this exhortation: “But earnestly desire the greater gifts. And I show you a still more excellent way” (12:31).
The phrase, “earnestly desire” is a command to be intentional, deliberate in seeking God for the charismata — supernatural endowments for ministry. Just because we have the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit does not mean we have all the gifts God wants us to have. Confronted with the needs of a broken, lost word, we are invited to call on the Lord for the giftings necessary to fulfill His purpose in our generation. Yes, it is the Spirit “distributing to each one individually just as He wills,” but we are invited to join our will to His and desire to receive what He desires to give.
“Earnestly desire” also implies an intentionality in developing our gifts, in seeking the training, discipling and mentoring which will enable the full expression of our gifts.
The word “greater” is “megas” and may be translated better or best. This may be an ironic or sarcastic reference to the pride which seemed to motivate the Corinthians to seek self-exaltation through the exercise of gifts, their over-valuation of certain gifts and their inflated sense of self as “gifted disciples.” But more likely it is a sincere exhortation to seek the gifts which may bring about the greatest good in the greatest number of lives at a particular time; that we would seek the best gift that we are capable of receiving, the gift that best fits the need for the people around us in that season. It is the Spirit who gives but He does so in response to our perception of ourself and the needs around us.
Again we are reminded of God’s respect for the free will He planted in each of us. It is this way in salvation. Only God can save a sinner — He awakens us to the gifts of repentance and faith but with an awakened will we must act on the gift of salvation. It is this way with the gifts of the Spirit. He sovereignly gives in response to our enlightened will to receive.
But we are not only to seek the gifts — we are to use them in the most loving way. So Paul interrupts the discussion of gifs in chapters 12 and 14, with this brief parenthetical discussion of love. He says, “I show you a still more excellent way.” He does not mean, “I will show you a more excellent way to do ministry than using the charismata, the gifts of the Spirit.” He just spent an entire chapter demonstrating how necessary the gifts of the Spirit are for the ministry of the church — as necessary as the limbs and organs of the human body. He is not presenting us with a choice between charismata and love.
Rather, he is presenting us with a choice between charismata exercised with self-giving love or charismata exercised lovelessly, selfishly. “I will show you a more excellent way than the way you have been exercising the gifts — with so much disharmony, immaturity and chaos.” This more excellent way is the way of selfless, relentless, self-sacrificing love.
Tragically, it is a common practice in teaching and preaching out of I Corinthians to exalt chapter 13 while ignoring the relevance of chapter 12 for the modern church, as if to say, “Love is all we need.” But love without the power to express itself is useless. The sad truth is that many churches today talk about love but are in fact powerless to bring about change either within the people who attend their church or in the community outside the church. This is a ringing indictment of our refusal to seriously examine the authority, the power and the gifts with which the early church was invested.
Further, these attempts to pit chapter 13 against chapter 12 are the result of a basic misinterpretation of the apostle’s purpose in writing this letter. Paul does not ever raise the question with the Corinthians as to whether the charismata are good and desirable. Without a doubt, he believes that the gifts of the Spirit are good and necessary for the vital and healthy functioning of the church body. His concern is over a proper understanding of their place and function and the establishment of a spiritually mature, harmonious, loving environment for their best use.
Chapter 13 is the exalted discussion of that proper environment. Far from being a departure from the preceding discussion, it is the summation and summit of those arguments. Love is the only atmosphere rich enough to contain the riches of the Spirit, the only soil fertile enough to nourish the seeds of the Spirit, the only chalice able to carry our Lord’s precious outpouring of gift and grace. In this lesson we will examine this more excellent way to use our gifts.
13:1-3 “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.”
The Corinthians loved the gifts of the Spirit, especially speaking in tongues and prophecy and at no time does Paul devalue the gift of tongues or prophecy or any gift of the Spirit. In fact, after this brief discussion of the excellent way of love, Paul will continue to value the charismata, saying, “Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy” (14:1) and, “Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy” (14:5) and “I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all” (14:18).
However, he interrupts the exalted discussion of gifs in chapters 12 and 14, with this brief parenthetical discussion of love. He begins by reminding the church that the exercise of our gifts must have only one motive — love.
In verses one through three we are shown a colorful spectrum of gifts and ministry — tongues, prophecy, understanding and knowledge, faith to work miracles, sacrificial giving even to the point of giving our life — any and all of which gain nothing for the individual unless love has been the controlling motive. If the motive is misguided or selfish, our ministry amounts to nothing more than a noisy gong or clanging cymbal — just more noise in a noisy world.
We may be the most eloquent of prophets, may speak the language of angels if that were possible but if our motive is not love then we are just another inarticulate, useless noise. If our knowledge of holy mysteries and revelation is all encompassing, if we possess mountain-moving faith, if we are so generous as to give all our possessions for works of mercy to the poor and so fervent in our faith that we give ourselves to the fire of martyrdom, but are not motivated by love, then ultimately, we have gained nothing. When we finally stand before the examining fire of God's glorious love, loveless ministry will be consumed as wood, hay and stubble are consumed by fire (I Cor. 3:12-15). 1
We are reminded of the heart of Jesus. He not only forgave sinners — He loved them. He not only healed the sick, fed the hungry and set free those who were oppressed — He also loved them. He not only confronted Jerusalem with the truth of His Messiahship and their apostasy, He also wept over Jerusalem. He not only went to the cross and presented Himself as the holy Sacrifice for sin — He did so out of love.
13:4-7 “Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
In verses four through seven, Paul defines this love. It is agape, Christ-love, the kind of love which we see throughout the life of Jesus and especially on the cross. It is a patient love, humble, peaceful, joyful, self-sacrificing, forgiving and faithful. One cannot help but notice the similarity between this love and the fruit of the Spirit found in Galatians 5:22,23. Only the Holy Spirit can cultivate this love within us and He does as we submit our lives to the Lordship of Jesus. And truly, as this Calvary-love works in our hearts, as it becomes the controlling motive for our living and our working, then we do begin to resemble the One who indwells us.
The word “patient” is the word Peter used when he wrote, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). He uses a related word in I Peter 3:20 in reference to the patience of God in the days of Noah.
This love is not mere emotion but expresses itself in kindness toward others. Such a person, motivated by kindness, is therefore not jealous of what others may possess. He is not boastful or arrogant, not seeking to inflate himself. She “does not act unbecomingly”, that is, without grace. She does not seek to exert her own will or establish her rights over against others. He is not easy to provoke and does not keep a list of grievances.
“Does not rejoice in unrighteousness” is more than simply refusing to enjoy sin. He does not rejoice when he hears of some evil that has been done to someone. Rather, he rejoices in truth, rejoices when truth is revealed, proclaimed and established.
This kind of love enables us to bear all things — endure anything. The word “bears’ or “endures” also carries a sense of covering or protecting. It is not simply that we are protected by a heart of love but more, true love provides a covering, a protection for those whom we love.
“Believes all things” means “completely trusting.” If love, love for God and people, is the energizing motive for our life, then we trust God’s word and promises and believe the best for others. This kind of love never ceases to hope and enables us to endure all that comes against us in life. It is not a passive endurance but a conquering, victorious endurance.
13:8-13 “Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
In verses eight through thirteen, Paul contrasts the transitory and imperfect nature of gifts and ministry with the eternal and perfect nature of Calvary-love. The word “fails” can be used of a leaf that reaches the end of its season and falls to the ground. But agape love, Christ-love, never reaches the end of its season, never fails. It will be as the air we breathe in heaven, enduring forever.
“Done away” means to abolish and certainly there will come a day when prophecy will no longer be necessary because we will have reached the fulfillment of that which was prophesied. “Cease” means to come to an end and surely tongues will no longer be exercised as a form of intercessory prayer because that for which we prayed will have come into being. Speaking in a language which we have not learned will no longer be needed for we will not have a multiplicity of languages in the kingdom of God. Prophetic pronouncement with interpretation will not be needed because as we said, that which was prophesied will have come into being.
Knowledge “will be done away” in the sense that our present knowledge of God and of all reality is imperfect — “we know in part and we prophesy in part but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.” Imperfect knowledge will be done away and our desire for full knowledge and revelation of truth will be fulfilled.
When will that be? Some commentators say that tongues and prophecy were “sign gifts” that ceased with the completion of the New Testament canon. But that’s not what Paul said.
He said, “When the perfect comes” they will be done away. When is that? When Jesus returns and the kingdom of God is established across the earth and when we ourselves are perfected, we will no longer need that which is imperfect or transitory including these spiritual gifts which, though necessary for our ministry in this age (and though these gifts are perfect as given by the Holy Spirit, are exercised imperfectly and will no longer be needed in the next age). But we must not mistakenly assume, as some have, that the time for gift-empowered ministry has already passed. The point of chapter 12 is that the human body needs all the limbs and organs which God has given it and by analogy, so does the church, the Body of Christ, need the diversity of gifts and gifted people which the Holy Spirit so graciously pours out.
Certainly there will come a day when the Church Age will be ended and we will have no more need for imperfect things, we will no longer “see in a mirror dimly.” Rather, we will look into the face of God. We will no longer need faith or hope because that for which we prayed and labored in hope and in faith will have come. But until the perfect comes, until Jesus returns and the kingdom of God is established on earth and the glory of God covers the earth, we must minister with the supernatural authority and gifts which the Holy Spirit provides and we must do so with Calvary-love. Of course, in a sense, we could say that even now faith and hope are swallowed up in love because love “believes all things, hopes all things.”
It might be helpful at this point to remember that Paul did not use chapter and verse divisions as he wrote this letter. The section which has been designated chapter 12 is Paul’s discussion of gifts and ministries and the need for proper relationship between gifted people and ministries in the church, just as the organs and limbs of a body must of necessity be in proper relationship so that the body can function properly.
This discussion will continue in what we call chapter 14 verse one. Chapter 13 is a parenthesis in the discussion of gifts and ministries. It is a poetic song in which Paul, with inspired and melodious language, re-emphasizes this vital truth that the way we relate to one another will determine the success or failure, the life or death of our gifted fellowship. Having made his point, Paul will return to the more specific discussion of certain gifts which had been particularly troublesome to the church at Corinth. What we call chapter fourteen verse one is simply a bridge back to this discussion.
Paul’s point is that love is the only context or environment in which we can successfully exercise our gifts and ministries, and if we are committed to walking the way of Calvary-love, then we have the right to earnestly seek the charismata. Indeed, 14:1 can be read as a command: “Walk this way, the way of love, and seek these gifts.”
14:1-4 “Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries. But one who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation. One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church. Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy; and greater is one who prophesies than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may receive edifying.”
Paul advises us to “pursue love” (chase with intensity) but at the same time, “desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.” Paul is consistent with his theme, that we are to desire to exercise spiritual gifts for the good of others, especially that we would be used in prophecy — telling forth God’s truth. And we are to exercise these gifts in love.
It is important that we read chapter 14 objectively. Some scholars use this chapter as a Scriptural source for degrading tongues (glossolalia), but Paul is not here nor has he at any time in this discussion degraded any of the gifts. What he is trying to do is to help the Corinthians regain needed balance in the way they exercise the gifts. Granted, there were problems of disorder in the community’s worship but this was not due to people speaking in tongues. The problem was spiritual gifts exercised by immature personalities. The whole letter addresses this problem of maturity and balance while affirming the variety of gifts assigned by the Spirit in the context of unity. We have seen that the problem at Corinth was not a problem of gifts but of fruit.
In chapter 14 Paul gives us some very positive advice on speaking in tongues. He reminds us in verse 4 that although tongues do not edify the church, this gift does edify the believer and that is a very positive statement, since all Christians need to be involved in edifying activities. It is interesting that some people contend that we should give this gift back to God since it does not build up the church and, we are told, it is selfish to be concerned with our own personal edification. But is it really selfish to build oneself up? Is it selfish to eat, to pray, to exercise, to read the Bible, to rest? Should we give those activities back to God? What athlete has ever successfully run the race without going through training and preparation which builds him or her up? Building oneself up in the faith is not wrong, unless we forget the reason, which is to live and minster more effectively for Christ.
There are varieties of tongues (see 12:10,28), one of which is a personal or private language of prayer. If we have been given this personal prayer language, we should not be embarrassed but rejoice at the opportunity to be strengthened spiritually.
How is this gift of tongues edifying? Paul says in 14:2, “For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit (or “by the Spirit”) he speaks mysteries.” The Holy Spirit indwells us and guides our prayers. We pray from our spirit and by the Spirit and this builds us up.
So Paul is certainly not saying that the person praying in tongues is praying a wasted or worthless prayer but rather, it is a mystery in or by the Spirit — spoken in his spirit, by the Spirit and spoken unto God. It surely is edifying to speak to God from our spirit under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Paul points out elsewhere: “In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom. 8:26,27).
We must also say that we cannot limit the Holy Spirit’s ministry of intercession to the exercise of tongues. Whether we do or do not speak in tongues, the Spirit is praying in us, through us, for us and guiding our prayers into union with Christ’s prayers. But neither can we exclude tongues from the work of the Holy Spirit on our behalf. There are times when we in our weakness and limitations do not know what is best or how to rightly pray over a crisis or a need so the Spirit prays in us and through us directly to the Father, according to the mind and will of God. He who knows perfectly the hearts of men and the mind of God is able to guide our prayer. But again, this is true if we do or do not speak in tongues.
However, in I Corinthians 14, Paul is not writing about prayer in general but people praying in tongues and he says that this is edifying to the believer. No wonder he says in 14:5a, “Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues.” Why? Because it is edifying to the person praying. Again in 14:18 Paul says, “I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all.”
Of course, he was not praying exclusively in tongues. He said, “What is the outcome then? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also” (I Cor. 14:15). Paul prayed with his native language and in tongues.
He hastens to add that in church, when the community gathers for worship and instruction, prophecy is better than tongues because it is more suited to the needs of the large group. Prophecy refers primarily to preaching in the known language of the people though it may also refer to a message in tongues which is then interpreted in the language of the people. Paul says, “But one who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation. One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church. Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues, but even more that you would prophesy; and greater is one who prophesies than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may receive edifying” (14:3-5).
To restate, in a public setting, when the church is gathered as a community, it is better to speak in the common language of the people because this edifies everyone. But in private, the believer may continue to edify himself or herself with their prayer language.
Paul neither exalts nor excludes speaking in tongues. It is one gift among many and all the gifts are necessary. Inasmuch as the human body still needs all its limbs and organs, so does the church body still need all of its members exercising all of the gifts. Insomuch as all believers still need to be edified, then this edifying gift of tongues is still needed. Certainly, as we have said, all of these gifts are only temporary. Whereas faith, hope and love will always be part of the character of God’s people on earth, when the perfect and eternal has come then the imperfect and transitory will be laid aside, even as our imperfect, corruptible bodies will be laid aside. But for now, if we would see the Body of Christ prosper and be in good health, then we will do well to use all of the life-giving resources which God has so graciously provided through the Holy Spirit.
And we must exercise these gifts with the loving care and maturity which our brother Paul so eloquently recommends, remembering that the Corinthian church was “not lacking in any spiritual gift” (1:7) and yet they were addressed as “infants in Christ” (3:1). We must be ever mindful that personal growth, sanctification, the maturing of the fruit of the Spirit is necessary to the proper use of the charismata. The empowering gifts, by the very nature of their power, can be instruments of confusion or tools of construction. That is why Paul, with one of the most exalted and melodious songs of all the ages, in chapter 13 lifts our eyes to Calvary, to the self-giving love of God, to show us the only true motive and means whereby the gifts of the Spirit may be exercised.
And so the apostle, under the anointing of the Holy Spirit, concludes this very crucial and timeless discussion with these words: “Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues. But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner” (14:39,40). Properly (gracefully, harmoniously) and in good order (in an orderly way), means we allow the Holy Spirit to lead us in union with our fellow believers, accurately interpreting and obeying the Word of God concerning the gifts. It means we allow every member of the body of Christ to function, encouraging the operation of every gift. And it means we relate to one another and exercise our gifts with love and harmony, in the unity of the body of Christ.
1. Stanley M. Horton, What The Bible Says About The Holy Spirit (Springfield, Missouri: Gospel Publishing House, 1976), p. 220.
1. How are we to exercise the gifts of the Spirit?
2. What does Paul mean when he says, “When the perfect comes, the partial will be done away?”