Twenty-second in a series
Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy. For those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God; for nobody understands them, since they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, those who prophesy speak to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. (
1 Corinthians 14:1-3)
Crucial to the teaching of the Apostle Paul is his emphasis on spiritual gifts. We have already seen several occasions in his New Testament writings where he has stressed the importance of spiritual gifts. The most recent has been our study of
Those of us who have put our faith in Jesus Christ are gifted people. It is our privilege and responsibility to discover those spiritual gifts that are ours and to, inspired by the Holy Spirit, use them to the glory of Jesus Christ.
The Apostle Paul, in addition to listing these gifts, notes a strategy for their use. Each of us, with those spiritual gifts that are ours, make up the Body of Christ. Each of us is an essential part of that body. Our gifts are deployed for the well-being of the body. We have already emphasized this strategy.
Right in the middle of this strong emphasis on spiritual gifts, the Apostle Paul shifts gears, stating, ". . .And I will show you a still more excellent way" (
We saw this more excellent way in our study last week, as we examined
I may speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have prophetic powers, understand all mysteries and knowledge and have all faith and give away everything I have, even ending up a martyr–but if all these wonderful activities are not motivated and undergirded by the love of Jesus Christ that constrains me, the whole business is rendered empty of its ultimate potential value.
This is why Paul lingers over what love looks like. As I muse on
I love the way Lewis B. Smedes writes about
A great love song is a moment of ecstasy frozen into words, a rhapsody of enthusiasm and passion, a metaphor pointing to a moment when the poet was lifted outside of himself to see reality in its ideal form. It charms us with a memory of the ecstatic moment or allures us with the hint that such a moment might yet be possible. A love song is meant to seduce us from routine into a fantasized ideal of perfect love.
He goes on to describe God's love song as being somewhat similar to other great love songs. He describes Paul as being taken outside of himself in his ordinary level of experience and being given a vision of ideal love. In this, Paul saw beyond the normal range of human vision, beyond life's patchwork of routine demands and conflicts, into love's ideal form. He crystallizes the qualities of love into simple absolutes that never, except for once, have taken hold in the network of demands that we recognize as our world. As idealistic as is his love song, it is designed for us to take seriously. He continues:
And yet his love song seems somehow meant for our living it. It draws a profile of ideal love, but it is too plain for mystic passion. Love is not jealous, does not get angry quickly, endures very much–these are qualities for ordinary living in ordinary days. This is our challenge: to find ways to bring the heavenly rhapsody down into our own worldly realities.
We are not village saints with little to do but find ways to be nice to needy people. We are salesmen trying to survive for our families' sakes against tough competitors. We are directors of business, who know from experience that "love" is not a byword in the board room. We are union stewards in conflict with an obtuse management. We are husbands and wives trying to survive in a marriage where love has wilted into the boredom of mutual toleration. And we are complicated individuals. We have needs, drives, rights, and goals that do not easily harmonize with self-giving love. Love may be simple. Life is complicated.
Now follow this progression. Paul has moved from the identification of spiritual gifts to a strong call for us to examine our motivation as we use these spiritual gifts. This motivation is to be the agape love that chooses to stand by and care for, no matter what, after the model of Jesus Christ. We are constrained by Him, the one whose love caused Him to give himself for us.
Very few topics have been more controversial in American Christianity in the last sixty years than the matter of speaking in tongues, or what is often called "glossolalia."
The first occasion on which I was forced to address this topic with any great seriousness was when I was a young pastor in the late 1960s in Key Biscayne. A significant number of people in the church I served began to experience spiritual renewal in what we call "neo-Pentecostal" ways.
One of the evidences of this was that they began to speak in tongues. In their private prayer life and in their small group prayer meetings, they would begin to make ecstatic utterances. Their words came out in a kind of free-flowing babble, uncontrolled by the speaker. It was a very emotional experience. Occasionally, one member of that group, who claimed to have the gift of interpretation, would translate what was said, so the others would understand. This little group began to grow in numbers and suddenly turned upon me as their pastor, demanding that I have the same experience, making speaking in tongues normative as the ultimate sign that one was a spiritual person living close to the Lord.
At the same time, there was another group in the same church who were convinced that speaking in tongues was not for the present era. It was a gift given in the first century, but it was no longer relevant. At best, it was a sign of emotional instability. At the worst, it was a result of satanic seduction.
Whereas the proponents of speaking in tongues viewed this as a sign of spiritual superiority, those who were opposed attributed it to emotional imbalance and satanic attack.
My inclination, along with that of many other Christian teachers and preachers, was to open the Bible to
Command #1: Make love your aim.
That's right. Let love be the motivating influence on all you do. These two competing groups, which vied for my attention and pastoral blessing, battled in ways that used these teachings from
Command #2: Earnestly desire the spiritual gifts.
My calling and yours also is to desire, in an earnest way, spiritual gifts. We are to give attention to these matters. We are to pray about them, yearning to be used by God, motivated by the love of Jesus Christ, effective in His service, exercising our spiritual gifts.
Command #3: Earnestly desire the gift of prophecy, prioritizing that particular gift above all others.
Just what is this gift of prophecy?
As we've already seen, there are two primary kinds. One is predictive prophecy that foretells the future. You are a false prophet if your predictions do not come true. This is no gift with which to play. A second kind of prophecy is that of forthtelling the Word of God. This involves the faithful teaching and preaching of the Scriptures, God's revelation revealed through the prophets and apostles. This prophetic ministry is one of moral exhortation and theological instruction, usually related to the particular problems and issues being faced by a community of believers. The gift of tongues is a legitimate gift. However, the gift of prophecy is one to be more greatly desired.
Paul was speaking to a situation quite similar to the one I was experiencing in the Key Biscayne, Florida, church and larger community.
You see, some of the believers at Corinth had become exclusivistic. They were spiritually proud because they spoke in tongues. Paul saw the malignancy of this pride and the destruction it would bring about. He addresses it head on, urging the Corinthian believers to make a radical shift in their priorities. He doesn't rule out the legitimacy of the gift of tongues. He simply states that the gift of tongues is edifying primarily to oneself. He writes:
For those who speak in a tongue do not speak to other people but to God; for nobody understands them, since they are speaking mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, those who prophesy speak to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. Those who speak in a tongue build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the church (
You see, the prophetic word, faithfully taught and preached in a language understandable to a community of believers, is extremely important. Ironically, the issue I faced in the Key Biscayne church in the later 1960s I experienced again as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the mid-'70s. And again I experienced it in the early years of my ministry here at St. Andrew's, although not in as great an intensity of expression, because there were strong churches in the area that were Pentecostal in orientation. Those particular churches were pastored by men who themselves were faithful to this teaching of 1 Corinthians 14 and went out of their way to state that, as helpful as the gift of tongues might be to one's own personal spiritual growth, it could be very divisive. But every so often, I will run into people who are not familiar with this teaching, and you almost have to start the whole process of biblical education over again.
This prophetic word, faithfully taught and preached in an understandable language to a community of believers, has three primary functions.
First, it provides upbuilding. This is the main theme of godly teaching and preaching. Our deepest desire is not to put on a fascinating show that impresses people with our erudition or theological skills. Nor is it to entertain. Our primary desire is to build up, nurturing men, women and children in the faith. We do this by faithfully expounding the Scriptures. The faithful teacher and preacher wants to help you learn more Christian truth and, at the same time, help you apply that truth in a way in which you are more productive in your daily Christian life. Your mind is to be instructed. You are encouraged to grow in your knowledge of the things of God and be better equipped for Christian living. This prophetic ministry desires to give you the strength to live the Christian life one day at a time.
Second, this prophetic ministry provides encouragement. At any given moment in the life of St. Andrew's or any other group of believers, there are those who are discouraged. You try so hard to live the Christian life and at times feel like you're making such little headway. If you're like me, the more you look at yourself, the more you are aware of your failures and inadequacies. William Barclay writes, "Within the Christian fellowship, a man should find something to cheer his heart, and nerve his arm, and make him lift up his head." Strong, prophetic teaching and preaching should not be afraid to confront. At the same time, its primary note, its final word is one of God's grace, God's unconditional favor purchased for us while we were yet sinners. The Gospel message is not authentic if it does not grapple honestly with the fact of sin. But a Gospel message is not a Gospel message if it does not move past sin to God's grace, showing men and women how they can find the forgiveness of Jesus Christ and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit that enables one to grow daily in that sanctification process of victory over sin.
That is why Sunday after Sunday I declare that there is nothing you have ever done that is unforgivable. If you've been attending here for the past twenty-eight years, perhaps you're tired of hearing that phrase. I'll guarantee that there is someone here this morning who is hearing it for the first time. It's a liberating word. It gives encouragement, because that person is fearful that they've committed the unforgivable sin. That's what Satan wants to accomplish. He wants to enclose you in a maze of defeat. Jesus wants to liberate you and encourage you.
Third, this prophetic gift also provides a word of consolation. Another translation of this word would be to comfort. However, whenever a few people come together, there will always be someone who is hurting. In the sanctuary this morning, there are a number of broken hearts. Within this Christian fellowship, there must be the possibility of finding what William Barclay refers to as ". . . beauty for their ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, and the garment of praise for the spirit of their heaviness."
I must keep this in mind every time I step before you. The word may be a hard word of rebuke or discipline. That's part of prophetic utterance. But the primary purpose is to deal with the truth revealed to us in Scripture in a way that is upbuilding, encouraging, and consoling.
This summer I read two books that were very helpful to me as I personally struggle with this.
One is a book titled Deadly Detours by the late Bob Briner. Briner, at the very outset, notes the importance of truth and the high standards of God's Word that would underline the importance of each of the following topics. But he warns that, if the church of Jesus Christ becomes known primarily for its "culture wars" battle on these topics, we will minimize our possibility of reaching out in love to a hurting world; and we will self-destruct within our own communities by elevating matters of importance, but second-level importance, to eclipse the first level of importance item — conveying the love of God expressed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, calling men, women and children to repentance and trust in a God who loves them and yearns to forgive them and give them a fresh start.
So through seven chapters of his book, he deals with what he calls seven "Deadly Detours": Squabbling Over Prayer in Public Schools; Making Jesus a Right Winger; Thwarting the Homosexual Agenda; Fighting Other Christians Over Doctrinal Purity; Shutting Down the Abortion Clinic; Cleaning Up Christian Television; and Fighting for Family Values. Now I dare not be misunderstood. The Bible speaks prophetically to each of these topics. And there are moments in which prophetic preaching speaks a word so firm that it produces martyrs. But the countenance of the prophetic preacher should be one of love for God and others, not anger and, even on the face of the one being burned at the stake, tears of a heart that yearns for the upbuilding, encouragement and consolation of others.
Another book I read was Blue Like Jazz written by Donald Miller and published by Thomas Nelson Publishers. It's a hot book among young people these days. Donald Miller, whom Christianity Today refers to as "Anne Lamott with testosterone," describes his evangelical upbringing to which he remains faithful. Yet for several weeks, he lived in what some of us would describe as a hippie commune of young people who had no understanding of the Gospel, none of the biblical mores. Instead, they were functioning in such an environment of free thinking and free sexual expression that, far from arguing with him about his viewpoints, they simply accepted him and showed him love that went far beyond any he had ever experienced in a Christian church or community. A chapter in his book is titled "Love." I'd love to read it to you in its entirety. How sad it is when people, confused, with no moral bearings on life, living with the limiting consequences of life with no restraints, actually model for the church that "unconditional love" that is supposed to be the bottom-line understanding of God's love for us and our motivation in mission.
I spent the week of August 13 on your behalf in Atlanta attending three meetings dealing with denominational issues. First, I met with the "Tall Steeple Preachers" of our largest evangelical Presbyterian churches. Then I met with the Presbyterian Coalition, which endeavors to bring together the members and leaders of the various spiritual renewal groups present in our denomination. Then I spent the rest of the week at the Presbyterian Global Witness gathering. I was joined in these last two meetings by our Clerk of Session John Lehman and our Associate Pastor Jim Birchfield. Needless to say, all week we were dealing with the tough stuff emerging from decisions made at our General Assembly that are threatening the very Peace, Unity and Purity that those actions were designed to provide. At all three of these meetings, we had to keep reminding ourselves that, in dealing with these very important truth issues, we not develop an attitude, tone and even message that is insular, negative, carping, vengeful, punitive and unloving. Instead, we need to see ourselves as the "missional church" in which, yes, some of these culture-war issues are important, but that we address them in a way that is not insular, inward-looking and self-protective of our denomination and our local churches. Instead, we need to be proactive, loving, looking outward. In fact, on several occasions, the 850 of us leaders who were gathered at Peachtree Presbyterian Church were asked to turn around and look to the windows and the world outside of the church, reminding ourselves that ours in not to be a self-protective, defensive, inward kind of operation, but that Jesus commissioned us to go into all the world with the life-transforming message of the Gospel, calling all people, whatever their walks of life, besetting sins, ideological commitments, economic systems, racial backgrounds, multiplicity of languages, to follow Him as Savior and Lord. We are to be an "uncommon community," a phrase from your church's vision statement, not trying to force our way on the world, but to invite people to be set free through faith in Jesus Christ. Some are called to dedicate themselves to political action in any one of these particular areas. Fine. That's their right. But that dare not be our overarching mission statement. We're called to worship, evangelism, nurture and servant ministry!
So, if you wonder what gift you should most desire, let it be the gift of prophecy, spoken in love, in contrast to the gift of tongues. You see, a spiritual gift, clearly, understandably exercised, is of primary significance as it builds up the church. The gift of tongues, or any other expression that is confusing to others, as wonderful as it may be, isn't as important. Why? Because it has a way of distracting from the primary purpose of ministry. Paul writes:
"Now I would like all of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. One who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up. Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I speak to you in some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching?" (
1 Corinthians 14:5-6).
You see, there's nothing wrong with speaking in tongues. It is edifying to one's personal devotional life. If there happens to be an interpreter who translates that ecstatic utterance, it can be of edification to others. But the presence of those who can interpret is infrequent. A prophetic ministry communicates with a certain sound. It is understandable in the language of the people. It brings some revelation, a word from God. That's why here at St. Andrew's, we teach and preach from the Bible.
I know there are some who like interesting stories and problem-solving messages. All the interesting stories in the world, all the entertaining, problem-solving messages are empty of help for you if they are not founded in the Word of God and that which is His revelation to us. You and I need that word of knowledge undergirded by love. And that knowledge is contained in the Scriptures and becomes amplified as a teacher or preacher shares that knowledge, as the Holy Spirit filters it through one's study into the flow of the spoken word. Prophetic ministry involves the forthtelling of the truth. No preacher is worth his or her salt if they're not a "Gospel" preacher. The Gospel preacher is one who tells the story, the old, old story of Jesus and His love. This simple and direct proclamation must be declared with great frequency. Far from being boring, the Gospel, presented in a straightforward, honest fashion, has the potential to capture our lives and draw us closer to the crucified and risen Christ.
This prophetic preaching involves teaching. All the ecstatic utterance, all the warm fuzzies, all the emotional religious experiences fall short, if they're not undergirded by strong, honest, deep, substantial teaching. Your Christian experience does not survive in a vacuum. Thank God for religious feelings. But check them out according to His Word.
Do you catch the dynamic oscillation here? You and I are called to think through our faith, grateful for the warm experiences of life, thanking God for the truth of His Word that is strong and substantial, even when our feelings fluctuate. I don't always feel good about myself or about God or about Anne or our daughters. I have my lonely moments, when Anne and other family members are preoccupied with their interests. How reassuring it is to see that gesture of love, that word of encouragement, that hug or kiss, that touch of intimacy that lets me know I belong. But there's a part of me that pathologically craves that acceptance. I can want more and more warm fuzzies, demanding of them and even of God experiences more ecstatic, more thrilling, more emotionally fulfilling, when what I really need is to trust their faithfulness and His faithfulness, taking them at their word.
Paul compares the gift of tongues with the gift of prophecy. Prophetic utterance is certain in its sound. The gift of tongues can make sounds that are confusing. He uses an illustration of the musical world. A flute or a harp can make sounds that are undistinguishable. A bugle blown by an untrained person can make the strangest sounds, can't it? Yet that same bugle can give a distinct sound, rallying the troops to battle. Paul writes,
"There are doubtless many different kinds of sounds in the world, and nothing is without sound. If then I do not know the meaning of a sound, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. So with yourselves; since you are eager for spiritual gifts, strive to excel in them for building up the church" (
1 Corinthians 14:10-12).
That's the bottom line. The love of Jesus Christ should motivate us to strive for that which excels in building up the church of Jesus Christ.
Finally, Paul speaks against what we could call mindless Christianity.
He's not putting down the gift of tongues. He thanks God that he himself speaks in tongues. He goes on to say that a ministry that builds up the church and sees beyond one's own personal satisfactions and narcissistic desires is so much more important. He writes,
"I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you; nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind, in order to instruct others also, then ten thousand words in a tongue" (
1 Corinthians 14:18-19).
If you speak in tongues, pray for the power to interpret it. Fruitfulness is the key. Pray both with spirit and mind. Sing both with spirit and mind. Do what you do in a way that outsiders can understand.
It is true there have been times in history when the gift of tongues has ministered eloquently to others. We see this on the day of Pentecost. Peter spoke in tongues. Some of the Jewish leaders assumed that he was drunk, because his words came out in a babble that was indistinguishable to them but, through the Holy Spirit, communicated in languages understandable to those thousands of persons gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost. They heard the Gospel in their own language.
However, if you and I indulge our own little private language that we find meaningful but it comes across in unintelligent language to others, they will consider us as insane. We are called to go out of our way to communicate in a way that commends itself to others.
So, just what is our thesis? Our thesis is that everyone of us who loves Jesus Christ is given a spiritual gift or two or three. These gifts will pass. We are not to pride ourselves in them. They are tools to be used to the glory of Jesus Christ. Our motivation should be love. When we make love our aim, we are not content to live in our own little world of spiritual ecstasy. That world is okay if it recharges our batteries in private, if it brings us closer to the Lord. Our faith, though, is ultimately to be expressed in words and deeds directed to the glory of Jesus Christ, motivated by a deep agape love.
So, once again, I ask you the question, What is your motivation?
When all is said and done, who has had the greatest impact on you spiritually? I'll have to say the greatest impact on me spiritually has been made by men and women who have modeled what it is to love Jesus Christ and have been willing to share that with me in a way that I could understand both in word and deed. There have been people who are brilliant in their knowledge of Scripture but were not motivated by love. These people left me cold. I learned their truth. But it was the winsomeness of the one who really cared that commended itself to me.
Let all things be done for building up. Speak the truth. Speak it clearly, intelligibly, and may it be undergirded by love!
John A. Huffman, Jr. is Senior Pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.