The Twenty-Fourth in a Series of Sermons on 1 Corinthians
It is very difficult to have a sane and thoughtful discussion about a hot-button theological topic when a doctrine has loyal and emotional adherents, a controversial history and has caused division, and lends itself to sensationalism. When this is the case, there is a natural tendency to seek to distance ourselves from those who abuse or distort that doctrine, instead of dealing with what Scripture actually says about that doctrine. If you’ve ever witnessed what takes place nightly on the set of TBN or have witnessed a revival meeting, you might just conclude that you want nothing to do with the gifts of the Spirit. Yet, Paul exhorts the Corinthians (and us) to “earnestly desire the higher gifts.” What does Paul mean by this exhortation? What is the role and function of these higher gifts? How are they connected to the offices in the church–like minister, elder, and deacon?
We are in a series on 1 Corinthians and we now wrap up our study of chapter 12. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, it is really too bad that we cannot tackle this entire section of Corinthians (chapters 12-14) in one sitting because all of Paul’s points are interconnected–but then that would take us several hours. Given the length and complexity of Paul’s three-chapter answer to a question the Corinthians had submitted to him, we have to unpack each of Paul’s points in chapter 12 not only to understand why he will devote so much ink to a discussion of speaking in tongues in chapter 14, but also because the points Paul makes in chapter 12 are so important to the life and health of Christ’s church. If there is one letter in the New Testament which speaks to the circumstances of those of us now living in Southern California, it is Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
Sadly, this section of Corinthians has been the source of great controversy–especially with the rise of Pentecostalism early in the twentieth century. Pentecostals look to this section of 1 Corinthians for support for many of their doctrines and practices. As I have been pointing out in the past few sermons, the key to avoiding some of the problems associated with Pentecostalism is to understand what these spiritual gifts actually entailed, as well as determining what role they played in the apostolic churches. One purpose of these gifts was to confirm the preaching of the gospel (this was especially the case with miracles and healing). Another purpose of these gifts was to equip each member for service in Christ’s church for the common good. A third purpose was to enable a diverse group of believers to love one another because Christ has loved us first.
As Paul lays the groundwork in chapters 12 and 13 to answer the Corinthian’s question about the role and purpose of tongue speaking in chapter 14, Paul reminds the Corinthians that in order to properly exercise the gift of tongues, the Corinthians first need to understand the role that spiritual gifts (the charismata) were to play in Christ’s church. But we cannot understand the role of spiritual gifts without placing them in the broader category of spiritual things (the pneumotikon). In making a distinction between spiritual things and the gifts of the Spirit, Paul is able to contrast the pagan conception of “spirituality” with the way Christians should view the person and work of the Holy Spirit.
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