Spiritual Gifts in 1 Cor 12—14 (part 2)

Continued from part 1 (http://craigkeener.com/?p=4282)

The perfect forever versus the limited present

Again putting the gifts in context, in 1 Cor 13:8-13, Paul emphasizes that the gifts are only for the present time, whereas love is eternal. The gifts are partial, so we will not need them when we enjoy the fulness of God’s presence. I won’t need someone to prophetically correct my faults when I no longer have faults. I won’t need to study for my Bible exams when I know fully as I am known.

Paul offers three key examples of gifts that he elsewhere highlights in this letter: prophecies, tongues and knowledge (13:8-10) From 1 Cor 1:5, we see that the Corinthians highly valued knowledge, along with speech (1:5). Their culture helped make such gifts appealing: the rest of Corinth highly valued philosophy (“wisdom”) and rhetoric (oratory). But whether in Corinth or for us today, especially for those of us who teach others, loving others matters more than boasting in theological knowledge (8:1-3, 7, 10-11). If we use our knowledge to show students how smart we are, to make them feel inferior, or worst of all to cause these little ones to stumble, we abuse our gift.

People debate about the meaning of “word of knowledge” in 1 Cor 12:8. The tradition that has commonly arisen in charismatic circles is that it applies to special knowledge of someone’s sickness, sin, or the like. Certainly God can do that, and that sort of insight appears in many biblical examples. More often, however, the Bible would present that as an expression of prophecy.

“Word of knowledge” in 1 Cor 12:8 uses the same Greek words as “speech” and knowledge in 1:5, and probably refers to speaking knowledgeably (related to gift of teaching; 12:28-29; 14:6). We dare not boast in this gift, for one day it will pass away. When Jesus returns, I will no longer be a teacher; everyone will know the Lord equally (cf. Jer 31:34). I have the gift now to serve Christ’s body, but it is not my eternal identity. One time when I was worshiping I felt like God was commending me for my diligent labors for him. But then I felt something far more beautiful: I will not always be a teacher, or this gift or that gift. But I will always be his son. Love is forever.

The gifts pass away at Jesus’s return (13:8, 10, 12) not because they are bad or in the present unnecessary. They pass away because they are surpassed by something infinitely more wonderful. Our knowledge and prophesying are partial (13:9). (Consider, for example, John the Baptist’s uncertainty regarding Jesus’s identity, or people saying to Paul “through the Spirit” that he should not go to Jerusalem.) Partial gifts are no longer needed when we experience full knowledge—when we see our glorious Lord face to face (13:12; cf. Jer 31:31-34). Gifts valuable for the present, but they are resources for the greater objective: serving one another in love.

The Corinthians would concede Paul’s point that what is eternal matters more than what is temporary (13:11-12). Greek thinkers rightly valued eternal over temporal. Paul compares our state in the present era to being like a child; someday we will have full maturity in Christ (13:11; cf. Eph 4:13). Then, Paul says, we will see Jesus face to face (1 Cor 13:12). Now we see dimly as in a mirror. Corinth famous for its bronze, which was used in the best mirrors. The best mirrors then were not, however, as good as our mirrors today: one would merely see dimly. Paul’s language recalls the Greek translation of Num 12:7-8, which contrasts Moses with other prophets: Moses saw God face to face (comparatively speaking), not in riddles.

When Jesus returns, all will be revealed (3:12-15; 4:5; 11:26; 15:22-57; 16:22). Thus, Paul says, you need not lack any spiritual gift while you await Christ’s revealing (1 Cor 1:7). We share our gifts with others to help prepare Christ’s body to be ready as his bride. But once he appears, he will perfect us fully.

Sample lists

Paul gives various lists of gifts. They seem to be samples of gifts—the list is not limited, as some teach, to nine gifts. Paul lists in Corinth those most at issue in Corinth, but all sorts of ways that God gifts us could be listed.

In Eph 4:11, where the focus is primarily on Word-gifts, he emphasizes one body (4:4, 12, 16), and lists apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers. In Rom 12:4-8, Paul emphasizes, as in Eph 4 and 1 Cor 12, that we are one body with many members (Rom 12:4-5). As also in 1 Cor 12, in Rom 12:6 he indicates that these gifts are given to us according to grace (charis). The gifts he notes include (for example) prophecy, teaching, giving, leading, and so forth.

In 1 Cor 12:8-10, Paul lists such gifts as speaking wisdom and knowledge; miracles; and again (as always in his lists) prophecy. As in Rom 12, this is because we are one body with many members (12:12). Then again in 1 Cor 12:28-30, he lists gifts, because, he says in 12:27, we are one body with many members (12:27). Here he lists, for example, apostles, prophets, teachers, miracles. In 1 Cor 13:1-2, he lists tongues, prophecy, knowledge, and faith. In 1 Cor 13:8-9, he lists prophecies, tongues, and knowledge.

In 1 Cor 14:6, he lists as valuable for public use among believers prophecy, teaching, and in context tongues if accompanied with interpretation. In 1 Cor 14:26, he includes contributing to worship (with psalms), teaching, prophetic revelation, tongues, and interpretation.

We can elaborate here a few specific examples. I have already noted “word of knowledge.” All have some knowledge and some faith, but some have a special enablement. Moving mountains (1 Cor 13:2), for example, suggests an extraordinary gift of faith.

That healings (1 Cor 12:9, 28, 30) serves the body is obvious. Although they may overlap, healings differ from “signs” (dominant in the Gospels and Acts), the primary objective of which is evangelism. Healings can be, but unlike signs need not be, dramatic; if a person recovers gradually or through medical attention, we still thank God for answering our prayer. Some problems inhibited this gift in Corinth. In a congregation divided by social class and arrogance, this gift was blocked by failing to discern Christ’s body (11:29), thus allowing much sickness (11:30).

When we pray for healing, we should pray with confidence in the Lord who delighted to restore people’s health when he was on earth. Nevertheless, many of us are familiar with times that people pray for healing and do not experience it (though usually they receive some sort of blessing). This is not a new experience. The Bible mentions some who were not healed, treating it just in passing because it is the ordinary state of affairs when God does not act in a special way through his people. Paul had some sort of bodily infirmity when he ministered in Galatia (Gal 4:13), and Epaphroditus, though he survived, was sick close to the point of death before he recovered (Phil 2:27). Paul had to leave Trophimus at Miletus because he was too ill to travel (2 Tim 4:20). Elisha died of sickness (2 Kgs 13:14), but was so full of God’s power that when Israelites threw a corpse on top his bones, the corpse came back to life (13:21).

Jesus used healings as a foretaste of the kingdom (cf. Matt 12:28//Luke 11:20). Thus when John the Baptist asks whether Jesus is really the expected kingdom-bringer, Jesus replies by appealing to his acts, healings and preaching good news to the poor, that signal the promised future restoration (Matt 11:5//Luke 7:22; Isa 35:5-6; 61:1). But we don’t yet have the full consummation of the kingdom. Thus even Jairus’s daughter, Lazarus or others raised from the dead in the New Testament died again. Healings in this life are by definition temporary, as we await our resurrected bodies. Most nineteenth-century people of faith, no matter how often they got healed, are no longer walking among us. But when God heals anyone, it is a blessing to all of us, a reminder of his promise to us of complete healing of ourselves and a new heavens and a new earth, a restoration that Jesus purchased by his own suffering on the cross.

I can also make some comments about tongues, the abuse of which Paul addresses at length in 1 Cor 14. Keep in mind, though, that Paul really likes this gift: 14:18 tells us that Paul does it a lot. But he does it privately, rather than interrupting the service loudly with a tongue and no interpretation. Personal prayer in tongues is good, with or without interpretation; Paul says that it edifies oneself (14:4). Edifying oneself is good; that is why we study Bible devotionally (not just for sermon preparation) or pray personally as well as in church.

But of course Paul’s emphasis in 1 Cor 12—14 is what we can do to edify the body; when tongues is addressed to the whole church, it needs to be coupled with interpretation. What matters most in the gathered assembly is edifying others, so prophecy is more important unless tongues is interpreted. The same principle applies to any kind of speech: if I am preaching, I had better make sure I use my time to meet people’s needs and not just to show off. (That is, I would be wise to be prepared and not just waste everybody’s time.)

Paul approaches tongues from a somewhat different angle than Acts (Acts 2:4; 10:46; 19:6). In Acts, Luke shows tongues’ symbolic value as a sign that God has empowered his church to speak for him crossculturally. Paul, by contrast, explains tongues’ function for a congregation and for private prayer. When Paul prays in tongues, he explains, his spirit prays; his mind is not involved. (Sometimes I pray in tongues while doing something else with my mind.) Tongues communicates on a different level; from the depths of the heart, one’s spirit communicates on the affective (feeling) level, bypassing some of our mental defense mechanisms. I find that it helps resolve some problems I might not even admit that I was really dealing with. But while it communicates to God—God understands it—it does not communicate to others unless it is interpreted. So its function in private prayer unless interpreted.

Paul urges us to seek gifts (12:31; 14:1, 12). Seeing needs, we can pray for gifts to meet those needs. We can seek prophecy (14:1, 39) because it builds up the body. (At least it should, in churches that make room for hearing from God in this way. The larger the church, though, the more the constraints necessary to keep everything in order during the gathering.) Likewise, we may pray for the gift of healing, out of compassion for others’ needs, just as Jesus healed from compassion.

In the end, the point is that we need to use the gifts to serve one another. Paul’s conclusion to these chapters on spiritual gifts is relevant for us (14:39-40, NRSV):

“So, my friends, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; but all things should be done decently and in order.”

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