Thursday, April 21, 2011
A God Who Speaks Through and To His People (1 Corinthians 12)
Like all the epistles in the New Testament Paul is writing to a particular context and occasion and really to understand what he is saying here about the gifts of the spirit we need to understand what that context and occasion is.
Paul had established the church in Corinth and then moved on and as he is travelling and he hears some disturbing news as to what is going on back in Corinth. The church seems to be at war with itself wracked by divisions and different groupings and Paul is writing to correct the sort of thinking that has caused these divisions.
Amongst other divisions there seems to be a group within the church who saw themselves as being the spiritual ones. That as Christ had come they had all the benefits of heaven today and now, Paul finishes his letter by explaining that while Christ has come that the consummation of the kingdom is yet to come when Christ returns. The focus of this group was that they could prove that they were the spiritual ones because of the manifestations of the Holy Spirit in their lives and in particular the gift of speaking in tongues. They saw themselves as being like angelic beings because they spoke in the tongues of angels. They saw these manifestations as badges of their spiritual superiority and Paul has to write to correct this. And that is the context we need to keep in mind when we look at the teaching on the gifts of the spirit and their use in Corinthians 12-14.
Paul starts by saying that he does not want his brothers and sisters to be uninformed about the gifts or manifestations of the Spirit. It was Not that they did not know what they were or they did not use them but rather that they needed to understand more about them and their proper uses. They were like men and machines, we like to operate them the moment we get them and we don’t consult the manual unless it all turns pear shape.
We find ourselves in the same situation today.
Some focus negatively on the gifts of the spirit saying the gifts of the Holy Spirit are not for the church today that they stopped, but this is not to be found in the scripture. Some of us may not teach that but we can live that way, Gordon fee laments that in that case the church has lost touch with the spirit of God in its ongoing life and has settled for the ordinary. We try and do it all in our own strength. Others, like those spiritual ones in Corinth, have majored on the gifts of the spirit and in particular speaking in tongues, traditional Pentecostal teaching used to say that you needed to speak in tongues to be filled with the spirit and some even took it as far as saying you needed to speak in tongues to be saved. They again were seen as badges of spirituality and the focus had been on the manifestations of the spirit not the manifesto. Praise god that changing now. But we need to see what Paul has to say to us
In this first section that we had read out to us today Paul makes three important statements about the gifts of the spirit.
Firstly that the manifestation itself is not the important thing rather the message is. As ex-pagan’s Pauls readers would have been used to spiritual manifestations. People who wanted to make important decisions in their lives would consult oracles, people who supposedly spoke on behalf of a certain deity, these people were sometimes in trance states induced by various drugs or starvation or dancing and from examples we still have the messages they gave were cryptic and hard to understand, there would be weird things associated with these folk, maybe even speaking in tongues. Paul says that these manifestations lead people astray to worship dumb idols. But when the spirit of God speaks it’s intelligible and the focus is on exalting Jesus Christ.
The focus of the gifts of the spirit is to glorify Christ. No one says Paul who is speaking by the spirit of God can say Jesus is cursed. Conversely no one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Spirit of God. To say that meant total allegiance to the one person Jesus Christ. This was why it was important to have an intelligible utterance in public worship not just speaking in tongues because the focus was Christ.
The second thing that Paul says is that the one spirit, God’s spirit gives a diversity of gifts. People often read this passage and focus on the nine gifts that Paul mentions in the list at the end of this paragraph and in doing so they miss the point. For Paul the gifts listed are almost secondary the focus is on the fact that the spirit gives a diversity of gifts. People have often seen a hierarchy of gifts in the list here saying that tongues is the least amongst them but rather Paul puts it last to highlight his point that there are many gifts not just that one, not to put that one down but so the focus is not on it.
He uses the trinity in the passage to show how there can be diversity in unity. He says that the one spirit gives many gifts, there are many services but the one Lord there are many works but the one God. Note gifts and service are again synonymous here. Just like the Godhead expresses itself as diversity in unity so it is with the body of Christ, we all have different gifts given for the common good. Diversity in unity.
The third point is that the gifts are given to the church not the individual and the focus is not on the spiritual superiority of the user, but rather they are given for the common good. After this passage Paul will pick up his great metaphor for the church again, that we are the body of Christ and all the parts function together for the good of that body. In our day and culture we do tend to focus on the individual and gifted individuals are given special honour, but Paul says the spirit has given us all gifts , in fact the implication is that all these gifts are available to everyone not the possession of one person, for the benefit of all.
Then Paul runs through a list of spiritual gifts and it’s not exclusive or exhaustive by any means and each list in scripture is different. The focus is on the different gifts given by the same spirit for the common good: diversity in unity.
Words of wisdom and knowledge
He starts with ‘words of wisdom’, we don’t know exactly what Paul has in mind when he said this and there has been much written about what these are. The Corinthians were very captivated by the idea of wisdom. Paul tells them that for the follower of Jesus wisdom and understanding comes not by human means but by the spirit. Paul had told them that the wisdom of God was Christ and Christ crucified and this was foolishness to the world, so a word of wisdom would be an utterance that line up with the gospel insight and how it applies to a certain situation.
Word of knowledge is often seen as knowing something that you could not know except by supernatural means. Jim Wallace tells the story of talking with a business man at a party and having the man tell him that he had no need for God he had everything together. Jim sensed the spirit say then ask him why he sleeps with a gun under his pillow, which Jim did and the man turned white and asked how he knew that. Then he really opened up and shared what was going on his life it was the start of that journey to faith.
It may not only be such supernatural manifestations. In Exodus 35 Bezalel and Oboliab are the first people in scripture who are said to be filled with the spirit. They were said to be filled with wisdom and knowledge and skills to design and work with metal and wood and cloth gifts given so that the tabernacle could be built. These may have seemed to people natural ability and talent but their wisdom and knowledge was in actual fact a gift of the spirit. We need both examples of
Faith, healing and miracles
Faith is seen as a gift. While we are all given the faith to believe and be saved there are some who the spirit gives the faith needed to move mountains. The film amazing grace comes to mind with William Wilberforce’s lifelong battle against the slave trade, a spiritual gift of faith perhaps to see a better future and tough it out. Faith enables us to act trusting God and in this list it is linked with healing and miracles.
It is a mystery it is grace, God uses people to heal, this is the next gift in the list. I am always reminded of John Wimber the founder of the Vineyard church when I think of healing, because he was asked if he believed God heals people today and what about people that don’t get healed and he replied all I know is this that more people get healed now I pray for them to be healed than when I didn’t’. We’ll look more closely at this later in the series.
Miracles are God’s intervention in supernatural ways other than healing. I am always reminded of the video viva christo rei where a catholic community in El Paso became involved with the people on the rubbish dump to the south of the border in Juarez they talked of often seeing God provide in miraculous ways, Having only fifty bags of flour and over sixty in the line and the last sack going to the last person in line. You can see why these two gifts follow on from the gift of faith and are connected with it.
Prophecy and the discernment of spirits
Prophecy, that is speaking God’s timeless word in a timely manner, we talked about last week and will talk about in depth later.
Discerning of spirits has often been equated with a deliverance ministry, but as it is in this list next to prophecy and a parallel with tongues and interpreting tongues and faith and healing and miracles, it does seem to be connected to the idea of prophecy. A prophet is encouraged in scripture to speak what they feel is on their hearts what God is telling them and it is up to the community to weigh that and to see if it is from God and this is where discerning of spirits naturally fits, being able to know and understand by the spirit where something is coming from: From the spirit or just a human voice or from another spiritual source like the demonic.
Tongues and interpretation
Then we have the problematic one for the Corinthians speaking in tongues and interpretation of tongues. Again this is in the context of public worship and Paul says that if one is to give a message in tongues there should be someone there to interpret it. If it isn’t interpreted it just builds up the one who speaks but if it is interpreted then it can be a message to encourage everyone. The first time I heard someone give a message in tongues it was done in a very Presbyterian way decently and in order. An elder stood up in an evening service when space was given for such things and said I believe I have a word in tongues for the church and he gave it. Then a few minutes afterwards another elder gave a message in English that we then discerned was the interpretation. A third lady was the wife of an elder had taught in Tonga for many years and said while it was not Tongan it sounded ;like a pacific island language and she heard certain words that she could identify that came out in the translation in the right places.
This list is not exclusive or definitive. It shows the great diversity of gifts that the one God the one spirit chooses to manifest within us. It’s not about uniformity it’s about diversity in unity. It’s about allowing the spirit to move within us for the common good: Both within the church and without: To be the body and to embody Christ. It is the same spirit that is in all of us and gives all of us gifts to use to glorify Christ lets use them to the glory of God. We serve a God who wants to speak and move through his people. You are the body of Christ We are the body of Christ, we are the body of Christ.