A while ago I received the following e-mail:
Well, well, well. Ian Garrett (assuming it's the Ian Garrett I used to know). How have you been since we went our separate ways? Still Colonel Romeo, I've no doubt. I'm fine, in case you're wondering - which you're probably not. And no, I'm not hitched yet.
Now, by this time I had the distinct impression that I was reading someone else's mail - as you can imagine. Or, at least, as I hope you can imagine!
And as we start this new series on Paul's letter to the Corinthians, in one sense that's exactly what we're doing: reading someone else's mail. The difference being that God intended 1 Corinthians to be read by us, too - unlike the lady who sent that e-mail. But to understand 1 Corinthians, we're going to have to do what you were doing (consciously or subconsciously) as I read out that e-mail. We're going to have to try to work out what was going on at the other end - the Corinthians' end - so that we can understand what Paul was saying at his end, and why he was saying it. Then we can work out what it's saying for us, today.
Now since this is a new sermon series, let me throw out some challenges about how to make the most of it. Can I challenge you:
To get to all the sermons in this series - or if you have to miss one, to catch up with a tape or transcript (available from the Tape Desk or on the website - www.church.org.uk/sermons).
To read the passage through carefully a few times before you come each Sunday (you'll find the passage for the week on the Programme Card).
To bring a pen and try taking the odd note to help you remember what struck you especially from God's word. I'm not saying you should do that; simply saying that a lot of people find it helpful.
To pray for the preacher each week (if you use it, the Prayer Diary will prompt you mid-week).
So, into 1 Corinthians. Let me give you a bit of background. Paul went to this city called Corinth. He preached the gospel, people came to faith in Jesus and a church was born. Paul then left, but he kept in touch through letters (see 5.9, 7.1) and reports from visitors (see 1.11, 11.17-18). Here's one of the things Paul wrote in response to what he heard was going on at the Corinthians' end:
17In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. (11.17-18)
So, there were big problems with their church meetings. And chapters 12 to 14 address one specific problem: their understanding (or rather, misunderstanding) of how God worked among them by his Spirit. Let me try to sum up what was going on at the Corinthians' end. Some of the Corinthians seem to have had a fixation on one of the 'gifts' of the Spirit - 'speaking in tongues' (see 12.10, 30; 13.1, 14.1-19, 27-28, 39-40). This is an ability to pray to the Lord in a language other than one's own (more about it when we come to chapter 14). Some of the Corinthians emphasised this gift so much that it effectively became the 'acid test' of whether a person had the Spirit or not - ie, whether a person was born again or not; whether a person was really a Christian or not.
I wonder if you remember your chemistry lessons? Do you remember the test for an acid? An acid may be a colourless and odourless liquid; so how do you spot that it's acid rather than just water? The answer is: the litmus test. You put a piece of blue litmus paper into the test tube, and if it turns red, you've got an acid.
Well, how do you spot whether someone has God's Spirit in their life - whether a person has been born again or not; whether a person is really a Christian or not? It seems that some of the Corinthians would have said, 'You can spot it by whether or not they can speak in tongues.' Those who had this gift would use it at every opportunity - to show how 'spiritual' they were. While those who didn't have it were made to feel second class Christians.
So that's the issue behind 1 Corinthians 12-14. Paul was writing corrective stuff. It's not a systematic 'A-Z of the work of the Holy Spirit'. Paul was dealing with a very specific issue. But there are lots of lessons for us, today. And the way to get at them is to remember that 1 Corinthians was written to them, but also for us.
What we have to do, as we read a letter like this, is first of all to 'go back to Corinth' and ask, 'What was God saying through Paul to them, then?' Then, we 'travel along the time-line' back to today and ask, 'What is God saying to us, today?' Ie, what lessons are true and 'transferable' for all time? So, now into 1 Corinthians 12:
Firstly, HOW TO SPOT THE SPIRIT'S PRESENCE (vv1-3)
Remember: some of the Corinthians were over-emphasising the gift of 'speaking in tongues'. They virtually made it the 'acid test' of whether or not a person had received the Holy Spirit. So Paul says to them, v1:
1Now about spiritual gifts [literally, 'the things of the Spirit'], brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant. 2You know that when you were pagans [ie, unbelievers, non-Christians], somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. (vv1-2)
Ie, before becoming Christians, they'd had a whole lot of wrong ideas about the spirit world. They'd believed a whole lot of 'gods' to be real which weren't, and completely failed to believe in the one true God and Lord (see 8.4-6). So Paul goes on, v3, 'Therefore, I want you to know the true 'acid test' of whether someone is in touch with the true God - whether he is in their life, by his Spirit':
Therefore I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, 'Jesus be cursed,' and no one can say, 'Jesus is Lord,' except by the Holy Spirit. (v3)
Paul says there are two types of people in the world:
There are those who are against Jesus: those who cross him out of the picture, who say, 'I don't recognise him as Lord and God; I don't want to live for him.' To put it starkly, they're basically saying, 'Jesus be cursed.' Ie, 'I reject Jesus.' (That's represented on the left hand side of the picture above - the little crown stands for the person ruling their own life.) But then there are those who are for Jesus - those who do recognise him as their rightful Lord and God and do want to live for him. People who say, 'Jesus is Lord.' (Represented on the right hand side of the picture above.)
Now I said something like that in a talk at the Durham University CU Mission, and in question time someone said, 'Aren't you being unfair? Isn't there a middle ground of people who are still thinking about all of this?' And I said, 'No. I'm only representing what Jesus himself said. Jesus said: 'He who is not with me is against me' (Luke 11.23).
You see, by nature we are against Jesus and don't want to recognise him as Lord. Only something supernatural - the work of God's Spirit in us - changes what we want, so that we do recognise that Jesus died to forgive us, that he is our rightful Lord; and so that we do want to live for him. 'No one can say, 'Jesus is Lord,' except by the Holy Spirit,' says Paul.
Now I could (hypothetically!) go out onto the streets, find someone (smaller than me!), put them in an armlock and say, 'Unless you say, 'Jesus is Lord', I'll break your arm.' Well, imagine that because they don't think a broken arm is worth it, they say, 'OK. Jesus is Lord.' Now does that mean they've received the Spirit? Obviously not. So Paul must mean, 'No-one can say 'Jesus is Lord' and mean it, except by the Holy Spirit.' And the person who means it is the person who lives it.
So, here's a good diagnostic question as to whether or not we've received God's Spirit into our lives and so become real Christians. The question is: can we say, 'It's my heart's desire and my practical aim, day by day, to please Jesus?' (NB: that doesn't imply we do it perfectly - we never do, this side of heaven.) If you can say 'Yes' to that question, then Paul would say (v3), 'You cannot say 'Yes' to that question except by the Holy Spirit.' Only a born again person can say that and mean it. Only a person changed by God's Spirit can say that and mean it. That's the 'acid test' of whether someone has received God's Spirit.
So that's Paul's first correction. We're not to make the 'acid test' (of whether or not someone has received the Spirit) a particular gift or experience - like speaking in tongues. The only acid test is in v3: does a person - do I - say 'Jesus is Lord' and mean it, ie, live it (albeit imperfectly)?
That's what God was saying to them then. What does this have to say to us, today? Well, this exact issue is still alive. Eg, in some of the classic, Pentecostal churches you can still find it taught that speaking in tongues is the normal sign that someone has received the Spirit. And vv1-3 say: that's wrong. Other Pentecostals say there's a two-stage experience: first (they say) we receive the Spirit, but then later we need to receive the fullness of the Spirit - and the sign of this is speaking in tongues. And vv1-3 say: wrong again. Another example: a few years back, the 'Toronto blessing' (so called) blew into the UK. In that movement, shaking, laughing and falling over were taken to be sure-fire signs of the Spirit's presence. And vv1-3 say: wrong again. Now, Toronto has blown over but there will usually be some similar movements knocking around in the churches somewhere. And wherever such movements cause division between those who've had the experience and those who haven't - wherever there's a sense of 'first class' and 'second class' among Christians - the mistake that the Corinthians made is almost certainly being made again.
So how does this apply to us practically? You may not yet be a Christian. You may be saying, 'I'd like to believe, but I don't, yet. What has this slightly odd-sounding topic got to do with me?' Well, what v3 says is that you'll never believe, you'll never recognise Jesus for who he really is, and want to turn to him - unless God, by his Spirit, does something in you. You need to hear about Jesus from the Bible (do keep coming along; do read the Bible - especially the four Gospels - for yourself). But at the same time, you need God, by his Spirit, to overcome your natural resistance to him and distrust of him. So as you come and listen and read and think and investigate, can I say: do ask God to do that in you, by his Spirit. It's a prayer he loves to answer. Ask him to enable you believe and turn to Jesus. And keep asking.
But then the application for all of us is this: v3 is the 'acid test'. The true indicator of whether we really belong to Jesus is not some spiritual experience (past or present); it's not whether or not we can speak in tongues; it's not coming to church, reading our Bibles, or having been baptised and/or confirmed. The 'acid test' is my answer to that question: 'Is it my heart's desire and my practical aim, day by day, to please Jesus?' Ie, am I saying, 'Jesus is Lord' and meaning it - ie, living it? That's the test. That's how we spot the Spirit's presence in our lives.
Second, HOW TO UNDERSTAND THE SPIRIT'S GIFTS (vv4-11)
Remember, some of the Corinthians were besotted with one spiritual gift - speaking in tongues. People who had it thought it was the gift to have - that showed you'd really got the Spirit. While people who didn't have it thought, 'It's the gift I wish I had.' So in vv4-11, Paul continues to correct their understanding of the work of God's Spirit among them.
At this point, let me give a rough and ready definition of a 'spiritual gift'. A spiritual gift is an ability or activity which the Spirit uses for others' spiritual good. And Paul makes two points about spiritual gifts:
There are different gifts and areas of service in the church - not just one
4There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. (vv4-6)
It's hard to miss the point: there are different gifts and areas of service in the church - not just one. So we are not to exalt any one gift or area of service. Read on:
7Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. 8To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. 11All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines. (vv7-11)
So, not only are there different gifts and areas of service in the church (vv4-6), but this is how God designs it to be (v11). God loves diversity. He creates us, and wants to use us, as unique individuals - 'each one', v7. The illustration I've often heard is that, in a snow storm, each and every snow flake is different. Which is mind-boggling when you think how many flakes make up even the most modest fall. It shows how much God loves diversity. Whereas, as someone put it, we produce ice-cubes. In human organizations we so easily produce clones and conformity. That's what the Corinthian speakers-in-tongues were in danger of doing: 'You must all have the same gift as us,' they said (or at least implied). And Paul says: No. God intends each of us to be a unique individual whom he can use in a unique way. He loves diversity.
But the other point Paul makes about spiritual gifts is this:
The gifts are for the common good - not for the self-fulfilment of the person with the gift
Notice what v7 says, again:Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.The other part of Paul's correction is to remind the Corinthians that spiritual gifts are given for the common good. The tongues-speakers in Corinth were probably using their gift to show everyone how 'spiritual' they were (or so they thought they were). They probably insisted on using their gift in the church meetings - whether or not it was helpful to others. 'I must use my gift,' they might have said.
But that's a very selfish attitude - which is why Paul had to write 1 Corinthians 13 (the well-known chapter on love) as a corrective. Because any gift we have - any area of service we occupy in our church - is for the common good. Gifts and areas of service are not for our own self-fulfilment. They're for the common good - ie, for doing others good.
So that's what God was saying to them then. Again, we have to ask: what does this have to say to us, today?
Well, it's still true for us today that there are different gifts and areas of service, and that we shouldn't exalt any one of them and we shouldn't hanker after one that we don't have. And at this point can I say: it's important that we each get clear what our individual gift(s) is(are), and how and where in our church we should be serving. It may be that you are clear what your gift(s) is (are). In which case, can I ask: are you putting them to use? Have you found an existing area of ministry in church to use them in? Or do we need to create new ministry areas for you to use them in? If so, please talk to someone in leadership. Don't just try to fit into existing holes that aren't the right shape. But it may be that you're not yet clear what your gifts are. Well, the way to discover your gifts is to use them. That may sound paradoxical: how can we use our gifts if we're not sure what they are? Well, the answer lies in v7:
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.
Whatever gifts you've got, they're for the common good. So, to discover what your gifts are, start trying to serve the common good in a way that 'fits' you. Eg, you may be vaguely technical - in which case there are various roles (existing or yet to be created) that you would fit. Start serving roughly in that area, and it'll become clearer as time goes on how precisely you can best serve. Or, eg, you may think your area might be some form of youth work. Well, how about helping with this year's Holiday Club? Set yourself to serve the common good there, and over the course of the week you'll begin to discover whether your instinct was right or wrong - and, if right, what kind of age group you might best serve, and in what kind of role. And so on. We discover our gifts by taking the plunge into an area of service that we guess might be 'roughly the right ballpark' - and in the process, finding greater clarity about what we should be doing for the common good. And one of the aims of our new 'C.L.A.S.S.' (Christian Life & Service Seminars) system - especially 'C.L.A.S.S.' number 3 - is to help us all get clearer in this area of what our gifts are and how we can best serve the Lord in our church.
The other thing that's still true for us today is that gifts are for the common good - not for the self-fulfilment of the person with the gift. So can I ask us: what attitude do we have to the roles we play in church? Are we in them to serve? Or in them because we like the audience or recognition it gives us?
Let me mention two tests of a right attitude in our areas of service. One test is to ask ourselves: do we pray for the people we're serving? Eg, I've been praying for you who'd hear this, as I've been preparing this week. I've prayed that it would be understandable and relevant and that God would use it to do you good. Now if I hadn't prayed for you in doing this piece of service, you might rightly suspect that I was simply doing it because I enjoy studying the Bible - ie, simply for what I could get out of it. But I'm to use my gifts for the common good. The other test is to ask ourselves: am I happy and willing not to use my gift on occasions? Eg, am I happy and willing not to sing or play my instrument when that's best overall for a certain piece, or a certain service? Eg, am I happy not to lead my Bible study group when that's best - so that someone else has the opportunity to lead, and/or to learn how to lead? Being happy and willing not to use our gifts is a sign that we're not self-important; we're not people who insist, 'I must be used'; we're people who are glad to make way for others. Ie, we're people who want the common good more than we want to use our gifts at every opportunity.
A passage like this raises lots of questions that I haven't got time to go into. Eg, are the gifts spoken of in 1 Corinthians 12-14 still around today? (My understanding is that there is nothing in the New Testament that clearly argues that they're not. And I think 1 Corinthians 13.8-12 actually argues the other way - that until Jesus comes again, all these gifts may be seen in his church.) Or, eg, What exactly are some of these gifts mentioned in vv7-10? (To that I'd say: the answer is clearer for some of the gifts mentioned than for others. Eg, the gift of 'faith' is not the saving faith that all believers have in Jesus; it's probably the particular ability to perceive God's hand or plan in circumstances and trustingly to co-operate with him. So, eg, I think we have those in our leadership here at JPC with such a gift of 'faith'. We needed some to be able to perceive that God was guiding us to buy 3 Osborne Road for his purposes, and to lead us in that project. We'll come back to the gifts of 'tongues' and 'prophesy' in more detail in chapter 14 - that's where Paul tells us more about them. For other gifts, only mentioned here, like the 'message of knowledge' - I'm really not sure what they are.)
But leaving aside the questions we haven't had time to go into, what have we seen? We've seen how to spot the Spirit's presence: if a person is saying, Jesus is Lord', and meaning it (ie, seeking to live it), then according to this part of God's Word, they have the Spirit. And we've seen how to understand the Spirit's gifts: God gives different abilities and areas of service to each of us, so we can serve the common good. So let me leave you with these questions:
Q: Can you spot the evidence of the Spirit in your own life (v3)?
Q: Can you say what gift(s)/area(s) of service the Lord has given you (vv4-11)?