Love controls the spiritual gifts

May 24 — Acts 2:1-7, 12; 1 Corinthians 14:13-19; May 31 — 1 Corinthians 13

May 11, 2015 by

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May 24 is Pentecost Sunday in the Christian calendar and the Festival of Weeks in the Jewish calendar. It is the second of the three pilgrimage festivals stipulated in Ex. 23:13-17, celebrating the early harvest (“first-fruits”) of the year.



According to Lev. 23:15, the Festival of Weeks comes seven weeks, or 50 days, after the spring Passover festival. In Greek, pentakonta means 50, and so we celebrate Pentecost Sunday on the 50th day after Passover, the Christian Easter.

According to Luke in Acts 1, Jesus stayed around for 40 days after his resurrection and then ascended to heaven, after which 120 disciples gathered in an upper room to pray for another 10 days until Pentecost. At the time of that festival, when Jews from 15 language groups were gathering to celebrate in Jerusalem, God’s Holy Spirit descended on the 120 believers in flames of fire.

At first glance, our scriptures from Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 both discuss a phenomenon we call speaking in tongues. Both describe spiritual gifts relating to language, but the contexts and results are very different.

In Acts 2:6, the 120 disciples have moved to the Temple Mount, where each visitor hears them speaking in the native language of each. No foreign visitor that day had to struggle with Aramaic but only to listen to native Galileans miraculously preaching in Egyptian or Latin or Arabic or Parthian. We have no biblical record that this ever happened again.

In 1 Corinthians 14, the Apostle Paul discusses glossolalia, an unintelligible language that some believers, in an altered state of consciousness, speak during worship. It was common enough — and disruptive enough — in Corinthian assemblies that Paul felt the need to regulate it.

We saw in 1 Corinthians 12 that certain spiritual gifts were being ranked over others. Outbursts of unknown tongues were the most dramatic and thus the most desired, at least by some.

Paul’s solution is to require an interpretation, and if none comes, then one should keep quiet. His concern about outsiders implies that the assemblies meet in open spaces, such as a porch, where passersby can overhear them but may think they’re crazy and learn nothing intelligible about Jesus’ gospel. Although Paul says, “I speak in tongues more than all of you,” he does not mention tongues in any other letter.

Right in the middle of a treatise on spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12-14), Paul inserts an encomium (eulogy) in praise of agape love. Paul is using a technique in Greek writing called a chiasm (from the Greek letter X) where the most important point is in the center of a passage and the texts on either side complement each other. Chapters 12 and 14 both discuss and regulate the use of spiritual gifts. How does chapter 13 connect to what comes before and after it?

The agape love praised in chapter 13 as the most essential quality is not a spiritual gift. Instead, it is a discipline that must be exercised in order to properly use the spiritual gifts.

Unlike love of friends (philos) or erotic love (eros), agape is unselfish and disinterested — in the sense that it wants the best for others, regardless of whether or not they are lovable. This behavior strikes at the heart of human nature and calls for deep humility and self-discipline.

The core of Paul’s definition of agape is 13:4-7 (a chiasm within a chiasm). Believers in Jesus-following communities are called to lay aside jealousy (of others’ spiritual gifts), boasting (of one’s own gifts) or one-upmanship (pulling rank over others). Instead, kindness, patience and cheerfully putting up with difficult people characterize agape much better than gifts like prophesy or tongues-speaking (13:1-2).

We all know people with sharp elbows and rough edges. Some harbor deep grudges and resentments. Some are self-centered. Some need to be confronted — not to bring them down but to show them how they are hurting others. And if we truly use agape in these circumstances, we may unearth deep pain and insecurity that can be addressed to bring healing.

In the end, only faithfulness, hopefulness and agape will remain. But agape tops them all (13:13).

What kind of spiritual hierarchy exists in your church? Are members ranked by giftedness? Or by the practice of unselfish love that works for the good of each member in the body of Christ? (12:12).

Reta Halteman Finger is co-author of Creating a Scene in Corinth (Herald Press, 2014), a simulation of 1 Corinthians that can be read individually or used by Sunday school classes and small groups.

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