Last week we started to look together at 1 Corinthians chapters 13 and 14. We saw that love is more important than any spiritual gift, and that the character of love is to sacrificially seek the good of others. What we had was the conclusion that love is really very important, and that to be truly loving is no small challenge.
The question is: Why? Why is love that important? I mean, surely it can’t be more important to be loving than to have gifts that you can use to serve others? After all, what use is love if it doesn’t do anything? Sure, I take Paul’s point that gifts without love are useless. But surely the other way around is just as true – love without service is useless. Perhaps we should settle for saying that love and gifts are equal in importance?
Well that is where this morning’s passage comes in. You see, if verses 1-3 tell us that love is more important than any spiritual gift, and if verses 4-7 tell us that love sacrificially seeks the good of others, verses 8-13 tell us why love is so important.
1. Love Never Ceases (8-13)
And that is because love never ceases. Love never ceases.
Whereas the gifts will.
Verse 8: “Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.” Love never ceases. The gifts will cease.
Of course the million dollar question for this passage is: When? When will the gifts cease?
The answer becomes clear when we look at verses 11 and 12. Paul compares what life is like now with what it will be like in the future, at the point when these gifts have ceased. Verse 12: Now, the way we see God is like looking at a poor reflection in a mirror. Then we will see him face to face. Verse 12: Now we only know God partially, then we shall know him in the same full way that he knows us.
In other words, the gifts will cease when Jesus returns.
I could have brought in to show you an old round coffee table we used to have. The only trouble is that I gave it to the kind people at Leycett to look after. It was not in good condition, to say the least, so off to the tip it was. The coffee table had a brass top. With a bit of Brasso, it was possible with care to get it into quite a good shine. You could see your face in it. Not that well, it was brass not silver so everything looked a bit hazy. The metal was quite pitted too, so things we’re a bit distorted. But you could see your face. And in those days, mirrors were made out of shiny metal; our table would be rather a good one.
And Paul says that our knowledge of God now is like looking at him in a mirror like that. But one day we will see him face to face and know him as well as he knows us. Then the gifts cease. That can only be when Jesus returns.
Which means we can also say why they will cease. We will know God perfectly. So there will be no need for gifts that help us know him better. Because all the gifts he mentions are about growing in our knowledge of God. So when we know him as well as we ever could, those gifts will cease.
The gifts will cease. But Jesus was full of faith, full of hope and full of love. So as we become more like Jesus, we grow in faith, hope and love. And when Jesus returns we will be more like him than we’ve ever been. So faith, hope and love won’t cease. On the contrary: They will flourish when Jesus returns.
That’s why love is so important. Love never ceases, but the gifts will.
Which challenges us, I think, as to whether we value most those things that will last. There are lots of things in life that we value because they are valuable. But if we only have them this side of Christ’s return, they are far less important than the things we get to keep even when Jesus comes back.
So for example, our money. We can’t take it with us. Our job. Even if you hold down the same job for your whole working life, you won’t have it once Jesus comes back. Our families. We devote a lot of energy to our families, and for good reason – God cares about our families. But in hell there is no company, and in heaven men and women won’t be married to one another. Even our families don’t last.
Now, of course, there’s nothing wrong with money, job, family. But we should care far more about those things that aren’t just for now. Will we be in heaven, or will we be in hell? That matters, so if you’re still looking into the claims of Jesus can I urge you to keep looking. And are we becoming increasingly like Jesus in our character? We need to be challenged by these verses: Do we value the things that will cease more than we value the things that will not cease?
But we can be more specific than that, can’t we? Quite a number of us are involved in Christian ministry in one form or another. Perhaps we help with the Sunday services – leading services, preaching, reading, praying. Perhaps we help out with the children or young people, on Sunday or midweek. Well this passage reminds us that all Christian ministry will one day cease. There will be no Sunday school teachers in heaven. There will be no preachers in heaven. So we need to be warned against deriving our significance from the things we are involved in. What we do is really important. It helps other people at a level that does last. But the activities won’t last.
And of course supremely, the challenge is the same one we heard last week. Do we value love most of all?
Because love never ceases.
Which brings us to chapter 14. We’ll start to look in detail at this chapter next week. What we’ll find is that Paul has a great deal to say about two spiritual gifts in particular: the gift of tongues and the gift of prophecy.
The trouble is, we need to know what he’s talking about. What does he mean by “tongues”? What does he mean by “prophecy”?
The danger is that we assume we know what he means. Probably because we’ve witnessed, or heard about some activity today that is claimed to be one of these gifts at work. Clearly various different things happen today, that people call prophecy or tongues. And we have to at least admit the possibility that some of those experiences, whatever they are, may not be what Paul is referring to here. So let’s take the time to look at this chapter, and work out what Paul is referring to when he talks about “tongues” and what he is referring to when he talks about “prophecy”. That way, when we come to study and apply this chapter over the next few weeks, we’ll be understanding and applying Paul along the lines he would want.
2. What are “tongues”?
First then, the gift of tongues. What on earth is it?
The first thing to say is that we can’t work out the answer from the book of Acts.
Why not? Acts tells the story of some of the events that took place in the first few decades after Jesus’ resurrection. Luke, who records the events, doesn’t tell us everything that happened; he wrote Acts for a reason. He wanted to teach us things by telling the stories he did in the way he did. So as we read Acts we need to ask what Luke is intending to teach.
Some of the time, he is telling us how things will be for Christians whenever and wherever they live. At other times, he is describing events that are unique to that first generation of eye-witnesses. So as we read Acts we need to read it carefully, working out what Luke intends to teach.
There are four times in Acts when people are said to speak in other tongues, and those events happen for reasons which indicate that they are unique and unrepeatable. The first is at Pentecost, when God sends his Spirit, for the first time ever, to live in the hearts of ordinary men and women. The sound of a rushing wind, the sight of tongues of fire, and people praising God in other languages are what God does to show that this momentous event has just taken place.
The next two are when significant new ethnic groups join the church for the first time. The Samaritans, half Jews hated by the Jews themselves. Then the Gentiles, the complete non-Jews. People speak in tongues to authenticate these new believers to the Jewish Christians. God really does accept people from these people groups.
And the final example is with some people in Ephesus who are caught in some kind of a time-warp.
Lots of ordinary people become Christians in Acts at other times. When they do so they receive the Spirit, but nothing dramatic happens. But on these four occasions God causes people to speak in other languages for these very specific reasons. Which means that we cannot expect the tongues-speaking we find in Acts to happen again. It won’t.
But yet, in 1 Corinthians 14, we learn that ordinary Christians did speak in tongues. It’s not what went on in Acts, but it did go on. So what was it that went on?
What we’re going to do is look at chapters 12-14 to see what they have to say about the gift of tongues. What we discover will give us some boundaries. If we stay within those boundaries we may be on track. If we cross the boundaries, we no longer have a biblical view of tongues.
Let me illustrate. McDonalds describe their Big Mac as “two pure beef patties with an unbeatable sauce, lettuce, onions, pickle, cheese and sesame seed bun.” Which means that if McDonalds give you a Big Mac with only one beef patty you take it back. They’ve crossed a line. A real Big Mac has two. This isn’t the genuine article. Equally, if they omit the cheese, they’ve crossed a line. But within those boundaries there is some freedom. They could, for example, add yoghurt. It wouldn’t taste great, but no lines crossed. Equally, they could serve you two raw beef patties. Not tasty, but they’ve not crossed the boundary; they have two patties, as promised.
So that’s what we’re going to do with tongues and prophecy. What are the boundaries set by 1 Corinthians 12-14 within which we must stay if we want a biblical concept of those two gifts?
I’ve identified four.
The first thing to say is that tongues is not for every Christian. We got that when we looked at chapter 12. Different people are given different gifts, Paul says. According to verse 10, one of these is the gift of tongues. But Paul’s point is precisely that different people have different gifts, so that not everyone will speak in tongues. And we get this explicitly in verse 30 of chapter 12.
What this means is that the gift of tongues is not a mark of being a Christian, or that God’s Spirit live in us, or of Christian maturity. The gift of tongues is a gift given to some Christians.
The second thing to say is that tongues is a form of prayer. Paul says in chapter 14, verse 2: “Anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God.” So tongues is speech addressed to God. It is a form of prayer, prayer in another language.
Which brings us to the third thing to say. Tongues have meaning, but that meaning is hidden from the speaker. Tongues have meaning, but that meaning is hidden from the speaker. One of the ideas we’ll look at next time is Paul’s insistence that when tongues are used in church, there should always be an interpreter. Chapter 14, verse 13: “For this reason, anyone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says.” Chapter 14, verse 27: “If anyone speaks in a tongue, two €”or at the most three €” should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret.”
Which means that when someone speaks in tongues, the words mean something. If they didn’t mean anything, they couldn’t be interpreted. And notice that the speaker is to pray that he might interpret what he says. Which must mean that, apart from God answering that prayer, the speaker would not know the meaning of what he says. Which is why I say that tongues have meaning, but that meaning is hidden from the speaker.
And fourth, tongues are controllable. Paul tells people, in some circumstances, to stop their tongues-speaking and sit down. That presupposes they can do that. Which means that the person hasn’t lost control of themselves, they’re not in an altered state of consciousness or an ecstatic experience. No, they’re fully aware what’s going on, and could stop at any time.
So let’s put it together. What have we got? The gift of tongues would seem to be the miraculous ability to speak in a language you don’t understand. It’s a gift that God doesn’t give to every Christian, only to some for the common good. When someone speaks in tongues, they remain in control throughout, and although they don’t know it what they are doing is praying. That would seem to be what these chapters mean by tongues.
3. What is “prophecy”?
How about prophecy?
First off, what isn’t it? Well it’s not predicting the future. We tend to think, don’t we, that prophecy is about foretelling, announcing the future. But what’s interesting about Old Testament prophecy is that very little of it is foretelling. It’s more like forth-telling, bringing God’s message to the people. So we mustn’t start looking at 1 Corinthians with the misconception that prophecy is all about telling the future.
Second, it’s not the same as Old Testament prophecy. The Old Testament prophets brought God’s message to the people, but they did so as God’s authorised messengers. Their prophecies contained no mistakes, every single word was exactly what God wanted to say. If you ignored a prophet, you were ignoring God. If you listened to the prophet, you were listening to God. I suppose it’s a bit like the way an ambassador or a high commissioner today is entitled to speak on behalf of the British government. What the ambassador says is to be treated as what Britain says; ignore the ambassador, you ignore Britain. Well that’s how it was with the Old Testament prophets.
In the New Testament, you do find people like that. The apostles, Jesus’ closest disciples, were given that kind of authority by Jesus. They’re the New Testament equivalent of the Old Testament prophets. As we’ll see, prophecy in 1 Corinthians doesn’t share this same, elevated position.
So, then, what is the prophecy that Paul speaks of in these chapters of 1 Corinthians? Again, I found four boundary conditions that limit what it can be.
First, this kind of prophecy is fallible. It’s fallible. Why do I say that? Because of Paul’s insistence that all such prophecy should be weighed. We’ll think more about that in due course. But for now, it allows us to say that in any prophecy there may be things said that are true, and things said that are false. In short, it’s fallible.
Second, this kind of prophecy is called in verse 30 “a revelation”. It’s a revelation. That’s to say, the prophecy is something that God has revealed. The prophet didn’t make it up; it’s what God has to say.
Third, the purpose of prophecy is to build up believers. It’s for building up believers. That comes most clearly in verse 4: “He who prophesies edifies the church”. It also comes in verse 22: “Prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers.” Prophecy is given so that Christian believers may be built up in their faith. Which means that the content of prophecy is never going to be inane.
And the fourth requirement is the same as for tongues. For exactly the same reason, prophecy is controllable. The prophet is not taken over in some kind of way, rather they are in complete control of what they are saying and could stop at any time.
This time, these requirements leave us with a problem. Prophecy is fallible; it will contain mistakes, things that are not true. And prophecy is a revelation; it is what God has to say. But how can these both be so? To put it bluntly, how can what God has to say contain mistakes?
To answer that, we need to distinguish between two different ways in which the Bible uses the term “revelation”. Classically, those two different ways have been termed inspiration and illumination. On the handout are some examples of each use.
Inspiration is when God made sure that the biblical authors wrote down exactly what he wanted writing down. When we say the Bible is inspired by God, we don’t just mean that it’s inspiring, in the same way that Shakespeare might be said to be inspiring. No: What we mean is that God made sure that every word was the word he wanted written. In that sense, God revealed the message of the Bible to the Bible writers.
Illumination is when God opens our eyes and hearts to understand what is written in the Bible. Because we are all sinners, we are blind and deaf. We can read the Bible, understand the words on the page, but completely miss the significance of what is going on. You hear it so often when someone becomes a Christian. They’ll say, “Why didn’t anyone tell me about this before.” And the answer is usually: We did tell you, for 20 years. It’s just that all of a sudden God enabled you to get it. In that sense, God reveals what he has to say to us.
So the question is: When Paul talks about “revelation” here in 1 Corinthians 14, which does he mean? Is he saying that prophecy offers fresh information, that prophecy is fresh revelation in the sense of inspiration? Or is he saying that prophecy offers fresh insight, that prophecy is fresh revelation in the sense of illumination?
That’s where we need to return to the data in front of us. Prophecy is fallible. It contains mistakes. And it needs to be sifted and weighed to distinguish the true from the false, the good from the bad.
If prophecy were fresh information, it would contain no mistakes. What’s more, if it’s genuinely new, we would have no way to weigh what is said. But if prophecy is not fresh information but fresh insight into the meaning of Scripture then immediately it is no threat to us if it contains mistakes. Indeed, we’d expect it to be flawed. And we have the tools to weigh it – we compare it to other Scriptures.
Which means that the prophecy here is not grand pronouncements about the future. Instead, it is what happens when God gives us fresh insight into what the Bible means and into how it applies to our situation. It happens all the time, we just don’t call it prophecy. When you’re in a Bible study with some friends, and it strikes someone just how relevant that passage is – that is prophecy.
So that’s what Paul means when he talks about prophecy and tongues. Which sets us up nicely for the next few weeks.
But as we close let’s return to today’s challenges. The end of chapter 13 challenges us, really quite profoundly. Do we value most those things which will last beyond the return of Jesus? Or are we valuing more highly than that things that will one day just cease to be?
And, in particular, do we value love? Is being more loving one of our topmost, highest priorities? Is that what we want for ourselves and for others more than anything? It ought to be, explains Paul, because love never ceases.