If you were here last week you will remember that we looked at one of the best known, best loved and most beautiful parts of the scriptures – the love chapter in 1 Cor 13. We heard how everything is vain if we don't have love, how love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast…Love never fails… of Faith, Hope and Love, Love is the greatest.
Love is glorious – enough to make Paul practically sing! But today we come back down to earth with a bump. Love like that doesn't live in romance novels and happily ever afters, love like that lives in our messy day to day. Love like that is especially supposed to live here, at church.
So what will that look like? Verse 1 tells us, it says 'follow the way of love – how, by pursuing spiritual gifts, especially the gifts that build others up'
This is the banner heading for the chapter as a whole, what does it mean, well it's worked out over the next 40 verses, this morning we'll look at the first 25.
The big idea is the command to Pursue Love – pursue things that build others up; the application being that they should pursue intelligible speech that builds others up in preference to tongues.
As we come to unpack that we need to remember the context – this is written to a deeply divided church where one group valued tongue speaking over all else and church unity went out the window. Paul has carefully prepared us with two chapters of ground work. He's told us that all Christians are Spirit filled, that is revealed by conversion, not any particular gift; He's told us that all Christians get different gifts from God – and that very difference is a gift from God to make us all useful and dependent on each other. And he's told us that there is a hierarchy of gifts. The reason some gifts are better than others is that they are more loving and Love matters more than anything else.
This all leads to the conclusion that is worked out in this passage – tongues are to fade into the background in favour of the more useful gifts of intelligible speech that builds others up.
We'll follow Paul's structure with four points:
1) Pursue Love by zeal for gifts that build others up (vs 1-5)
2) Be more Zealous for the good of others than for yourself (vs 6-12)
3) Grow up by exercising your mind, not just your tongue (vs13-20)
4) Consider the outsider, not just people like you (vs 21-25)
Start with point one
Pursue Love by zeal for gifts that build others up (vs 1-5)
The whole argument of these chapters is in verse one:
Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy.
This is literally a command to 'persecute love', that is go after love like a religious zealot going after God's honour! And 'eagerly desire' is literally 'be zealous'. This is hard core stuff; Paul deliberately uses the same language he uses to describe his old life as a religious zealot when he persecuted the church, going the extra mile to wipe Christians out. Now instead of self righteous fanaticism our zeal should fuel love for other people!
And in their context the main application is to zealously pursue gifts of the spirit, especially the gifts that build others up. 'Especially' is literally 'but much more' – it's as if Paul has said you can still be zealous for tongues, but be much more zealous for prophecy. Why?
2 For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no-one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit. 3 But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort. 4 He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. 5 I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified.
Prophecy is greater than tongues because it builds others up. We can see in these verses that tongues are Holy Spirit given words or language addressed to God in prayer and praise. They're good, a precious gift from God, and Paul uses them 'more than anyone' (verse 18). But the key thing about them is that they're not understood, they need to be interpreted. Someone who speaks in tongues 'utters mysteries with his spirit' – they don't understand a word of it. This is the Key point for Paul – tongues don't help anyone else because they can't understand it. Paul would like them all to speak in tongues. But he would far rather they prophecy.
So what is Prophecy then? Again Holy Spirit given utterances, here described as speaking that results in strengthening, encouragement and comfort to others. Later we see that prophecy exposes our sin and leads us to repentance. So prophecy addresses God's word to the church for our instruction, correction and growth. Key characteristic for Paul here is that it can be understood, and therefore it can be helpful to us who listen.
Paul has been working on a broad canvas to paint spiritual gifts as a part of a much larger picture. Now he draws in to the narrow focus of their problem – what spiritual gifts should we long for and go after? And the answer is absolutely clear, there's no argument – verse 5: the one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues because the church is built up, it's more loving.
Strange thing to our ears is that he's talking about church and minimising prayer – in a particular form – it doesn't sound right does it? Surely when we come to church it's right to focus on God and to pray and praise him. Perhaps we can even see why the Corinthian Christians thought this was thehigh pointof Christian worship – speaking to God in language that only he understands sounds like it should be doesn't it?
We will not understand this if we don't grasp the underlying point – we don't come to church primarily to worship. Doesn't sound right does it? Worship of God is a big part of our gathering together, we need to worship, we'll worship in heaven; But we come to church primarily to serve and encourage each other – by worshipping, by serving, by listening to God's word together, by praying together. Worship is central, essential even, but church can not be a private experience between me and God, it needs to be a group thing, we come together to help and encourage each other. No good if we all have a nice time with God and ignore one another. That's not worship at all, because God has made us one, dependant on each other, united us together. We worship as a body, not as a gathering of individuals.
Think of this is like the difference between a body builder and a black smith. The body builder sculpts his or her muscles to show off - to impress. But once upon a time a muscular physic was a by product of working in physically demanding jobs – like a black smith. He worked hard all day with heavy hammers and metals and it built him, thickened him up, gave him the muscles needed to do the work. But the muscles weren't for show; they were put to work in order to serve others. Like wise the farmer, the builder, the miner and so on. The Corinthians seemed to have a body builders mindset – spiritual gifts are all about impressing others – I build myself up and you should be impressed. Paul says don't be body builders, puffing yourself up and looking for praise; simply be workers, building something substantial beyond yourself, something wonderful, something important and magnificent – the church.
Application – if you're someone who loves to speak in tongues hear the encouragement here to pursue other gifts over and above tongues so they can be useful in church.
But if you're not into tongues don't switch off. Hear the command to be zealous for loving others. Whatever we do, don't work for your own praise whatever you do, work for God's glory and building up of the church.
Take love seriously, after all love comes from God and lasts for eternity. The greater our love, the more we are like God. The more we love others, the more valuable and productive our lives will be. Paul takes this with absolute seriousness, remember chapter 9 – Paul doesn't run aimlessly, like me going for a jog, he runs in such a way to get the prize. He beats his body and makes it his slave. He ruthlessly cuts out anything that might hurt others so that he will never make someone stumble. That meant he went without meat, he went without alcohol, he went without a home, without being paid and without a family. He accepted beatings and imprisonment and ship wrecks and floggings and the constant threat of death. He poured out his life so we could hear the gospel. He persecuted love, pursued love, ran hard after love. He wasn't a self absorbed body builder, he cared very little for himself at all; he was a church builder and he was absolutely passionate about building the church. Could I say the same about you? Could you say the same about me? We need to lift our eyes off ourselves and our own comfort and satisfaction and safety and security and we need pray earnestly for love like Pauls, love like Jesus'.
For the rest of the chapter Paul's going to work over this same theme. The first question is what will love like that look like? And the answer is clear – and it's our next point:
Love is zealous to help others. (vs 6-12)
6 Now, brothers, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction?
Love is zealous to help others, so usefulness to others is the key criteria for considering what we ought to be doing.
So should we speak in words that only God can understand or in words that the whole church can understand? Which of the two is going to be useful? Surely it's speaking that can be understood. Speech that no one understands does no one any good. So Paul asks us to consider a big crusade – imagine a visit from one of the greats – a Billy Graham, or a Tim Keller, even the Apostle Paul himself. Imagine all the Christians inNewcastleand Gateshead and theTeesand all around, all gathered together over at the stadium and they stepped up to the mic and spoke to us in New Testament Greek instead of English. What good would that do?
In case that's not vivid enough he gives us three more illustrations that highlight different problems with speaking a language that the listeners can't understand:
First problem, it's no fun to listen to:
7 Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the flute or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes?
You've all heard beginners murdering a tune – if they didn't tell you what they were playing you'd have no idea it was a song at all…
Second problem – it doesn't do the listener any good because they don't know how to respond:
8 Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? 9
Imagine a novice bugler being asked to sound the battle cry, if they can't play it the troops won't know to rally – are they sounding the retreat or an advance? Imagine the air raid siren playing a merry tune instead of a warning note – who would know to go to the shelter? Imagine Uncle Sam's famous 'we need you' got the modern day business speak re-write 'there is a pressing need going forward for the empowerment of the nation via the large scale deployment of human resources in the field of conflict' who would sign up? If the message isn't clear we've no hope of responding as we should
So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air.
Third problem – instead of promoting unity and love it alienates the people who should be joined together:
10 Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. 11 If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me.
Some of you know this from personal experience, we don't speak in your native tongue and it makes it harder to listen, harder to understand. Our different languages alienate us from one another, keep us at arms length. Sandy and Pat got married here a couple of weeks ago and their friends and family gathered from all over the French speaking world. I don't speak a word of French, most of them spoke barely a word of English. We had to translate the vows and the sermon into French, what would be the point of having relatives and friends witness your wedding if they didn't understand a word of it?
So the application:
12 So it is with you. Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church.
This is a command, be zealous for things that help others.
Grow up by exercising your mind, not just your tongue (vs13-20)
13 For this reason anyone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says.
This takes the application even further – tongues without interpretation leave the mind unfruitful. So if you speak in tongues, pray that you will be gifted the interpretation as well.
Without interpretation there is a missing dimension –
14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. 15 So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind.
If it leaves our minds inactive then it alienates us from our selves, and ultimately that's not good. We are not segregated individuals, can't be just all spirit with no involvement from our minds, that's immaturity; we can't be all mind either – rationality, logic, theology, that doesn't touch our heart or lead to loving and praising God is empty, no matter how true it is. We need both mind and spirit worshipping God.
Not only so but speaking uninterpreted tongues in church alienates others –
16 If you are praising God with your spirit, how can one who finds himself among those who do not understand say "Amen" to your thanksgiving, since he does not know what you are saying? 17 You may be giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified.
The people who should be joining in your prayer can't even agree, they've no idea what you said! Fellow believers, brothers and sisters are alienated by your gift.
So verse 18 and 19 – gets to the bottom line – Paul would never trade clear speech for spiritual speech that isn't clear.
18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.
Five for 10,000 is a big trade, and even more so if we realise that 10000 is the biggest number there is in Greek – this is sheer hyperbole, today we'd say I wouldn't swap five for a million, or a billion, ie. I won't take any price!
So verse 20 is a the stinging rebuke to the self important super spiritual Corinthians– by insisting on serving themselves and speaking in tongues at church they were acting like selfish children.
20 Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.
Think of little children playing happily until they see someone else enjoying a toy – I'll take that, I want it! Little children are self absorbed – they often treat other people as a means to an end, it's all about them. Paul says that's what we do in church when we fail to put others first.
Finally Paul moves on to an example from the OT and reminds us to consider outsiders.
Consider the outsider, not just yourself (vs 21-25)
Paul brings out the Bible for the final argument. It's not just me saying this, this is just what God said in the OT, and he quotes Isaiah 28.
21 In the Law it is written: "Through men of strange tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me," says the Lord.
That was written to God's people when they repeatedly refused to listen to God. Because they will not listen when God speaks warning, they will hear from God through foreigners. That is God will bring invaders into their streets. Imagine you woke up tomorrow and history had been inverted - imagineBritaindidn't defeat Hitler but lost. Imagine we're a puppet state, part of the third Reich. We'd be speaking German. Every time someone opened their mouth and spoke it would be testimony of our defeat, of our shame.
So, verse 22, tongues are a sign of judgement, they're a sign for unbelievers pressing home their alienation from God. But prophecy on the other hand is a sign that God is with his people. This was the promise to God's people, after discipline from God by exile God would speak to his people again – in the new age of the spirit everyone would speak God's word to his neighbour, all would know the Lord (remember Joel 2 and Pentecost). Prophecy says to everyone that God is with us, God is blessing us with the presence of his life giving word.
23 So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? 24 But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, 25 and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, "God is really among you!"
So think it through – if unbelievers come into church and we're all speaking tongues it's like going into one of their pagan temples where they are literally out of their minds… but if they come in and hear God's word applied to them (prophecy, God's word taught clearly), God's word will convict them and lead them to repentance. Isn't that what we want – for people to come in here and meet God in his word and be saved?! That happens only when we make God's word clear.
See our goal at htg is to make church accessible to everyone, and helpful to everyone. That's why we have a crèche and children's work, to make it possible for whole families to come and understand and take part, why we do invitation services, and family services, why we have hymns with an organ and songs with a band, why preachers applying sermons to the world we actually live in and avoid technical language and complexity.
And that should be your goal when you come to church too – to do your bit to make church useful and encouraging to everyone else here.
So the challenge of this passage is to examine everything about our lives through this one filter – is that loving? Does it help the people I live with and work with and hang out with to know and love God, or could it get in someone's way? Will it help church to grow? Or will it make church a chore?
This is as wide ranging as who we talk to after the service and what about, when we arrive and when we leave, where we park in the carpark, how we drive on the way here… and we need to be constantly re-examining ourselves to keep growing in love and service of others.
So what is the conclusion to all this? We need to be zealous in pursuing love to see others growing. And that means deliberately putting ourselves out to do things that are useful for others. And it means deliberately praying and asking God to grant gifts to us that we can use to help others. And it means considering not using good gift that we have if they don't help others. All of this is part of being mature, and maturity means being like Jesus, loving others before ourselves. The mature church is full of zeal to love and serve each other. The mature church is full of zeal to see the gospel go out to outsiders. The mature church serves the head and the heart, worships, prays and praises, and grows through clear proclamation of God's word. The mature church impacts the world around them by modelling Jesus love and preaching Jesus word. Let's pray and work, each one of us, to see this church grow to maturity in Jesus.