Pursue Love.

So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up. Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? – 1 Corinthians 13:13-14:1-6 ESV

Now Paul begins to differentiate between the gifts. He is not necessarily making one more important or more spiritual than another, but he is prioritizing them in terms of their particular benefit to the Body of Christ. Remember, he has just spent an entire chapter emphasizing the importance of love. Love is selfless and sacrificial. Those who practice godly love put the needs of others ahead of themselves. And the same should be true when they use their spiritual gift. Now, it seems that the Corinthians had so elevated the gift of tongues that it had become a problem within the church. And their practice of the gift was not in keeping with Paul’s admonition that love be the motivating factor behind all the gifts. For the Corinthians, the gift of tongues had become more desirable than all the other gifts. Evidently, they viewed that particular gift as more spiritual and therefore, more preferable. It was flashy and flamboyant. To be able to speak in an unknown tongue was sure to be an attention-getter. But that was a big part of the problem associated with their pursuit of the gift of tongues. Those who practiced it seemed to do so with the focus on self, rather than on the building up of the Body of Christ.

So while Paul encourages them to earnestly seek the spiritual gifts, he promotes prophecy over tongues. His explanation is simple and direct:

For if you have the ability to speak in tongues, you will be talking only to God, since people won’t be able to understand you. You will be speaking by the power of the Spirit, but it will all be mysterious. – 1 Corinthians 14:2 NLT

If no one is there who understands what you are saying, no one gets any benefit from your use of the gift. It will all be a mystery, known only to God. And while you may be speaking in the power of the Spirit of God, it will do nothing to build up those around you.

But one who prophesies strengthens others, encourages them, and comforts them. – 1 Corinthians 14:3 NLT

To prophesy meant to reveal truth from God that had not yet been revealed. It was a word from God intended for the benefit of the entire congregation. This gift was evident and necessary in the early days of the church before the canon of Scripture was complete. Those who had been given the gift of prophecy were to speak through the power of the Spirit of God for the benefit of the people of God. But tongues, at least as practiced by the Corinthians, was a more self-centered gift.

A person who speaks in tongues is strengthened personally, but one who speaks a word of prophecy strengthens the entire church. – 1 Corinthians 14:4 NLT

The one who speaks in an unknown tongue may receive a blessing from knowing that they are being used as an instrument of God, but if no one can understand what they are saying, the Body of Christ receives no benefit from it. But when someone prophesies, everyone gains from the experience. Remember what Paul said in the previous chapter? “If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-2 NLT). None of the gifts were of benefit if they were practiced without love. But tongues, because it involved speaking in an unknown language, was particularly troublesome. If you recall, the first time the gift of tongues was manifested in the church was at Pentecost.

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.

Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?” – Acts 2:1-8 ESV

The purpose behind this manifestation of the Spirit of God was the communication and comprehension of the gospel. The disciples spoke in languages they did not know, but for the benefit of the thousands of people who were there from other countries. There was no need for interpretation, because the hearers fully understood what was being said. In Corinth, the use of tongues had become self-centered and self-edifying. There were missing the point. At Pentecost, the people who heard the disciples speak in tongues, or foreign languages, were amazed. They said, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?” (Acts 2:7-8 NLT). But look closely and you will see that it was the substance of their message that got their attention, not the style. The very same people reacted, “‘we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.’ And all were amazed and perplexed” (Acts 2:11-12 NLT).

It was the content that was important, not the means by which it was delivered. For Paul, the bottom line was the spiritual edification of the church. The question to ask is, “how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching” (1 Corinthians 14:6 ESV). Speaking in a foreign tongue was of no benefit to anyone unless the message it contained was understandable and from God. We tend to think of the gifts of the Spirit as personal in nature. We seem to believe that our gift was given to us alone. But the gifts are given to individuals for the benefit of the community. My gift is for you. Your gift is for me. The one who received the gift is simply a conduit through whom God pours His blessings on others. As Paul told the Romans, when we practice our gifts in love, all will benefit.

In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you. If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well. If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly.

Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. – Romans 12:6-10 NLT

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So Now…

For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. – 1 Corinthians 13:9-13 ESV

We live in an interim stage. The “perfect”, as Paul refers to it, has not yet come. The Greek word he uses is teleios and it refers to “wanting nothing necessary to completeness.” It can also mean “full grown, adult, of full age, mature.” He uses childhood and adulthood to compare our present situation with what is to come as a child. At the present time, under our current conditions, we don’t know everything. We have limitations because of our flesh. So God has given temporary helps in the form of spiritual gifts to compensate for our lack of knowledge and understanding. Tongues, knowledge and prophecy are present-age necessities designed to help man grasp the reality of God’s truth. But the day is coming when they will no longer be necessary. The apostle John described our present limitations, but assured us of our future completeness when Christ returns.  “Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is” (1 John 3:2 NLT).

Paul explains that the gifts, while given by God, are like childhood qualities that will done day be outgrown. We will give up “childish ways” because we will be fully mature in Christ. In the meantime, we are hampered by a limited perspective, an earth-bound, flesh-restricted outlook that prevents us from seeing all the truth of who God is and what we will be. We have partial knowledge. We suffer from incomplete understanding. So God provided the gifts to help us speak truth and edify one another. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul describes our current predicament, describing our earthly bodies as tents. They are like temporary dwellings in which we are forced to live, much like the Israelites lived in tents during the 40 years they wandered in the wilderness.

For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down (that is, when we die and leave this earthly body), we will have a house in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands. We grow weary in our present bodies, and we long to put on our heavenly bodies like new clothing. For we will put on heavenly bodies; we will not be spirits without bodies. While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and get rid of these bodies that clothe us. Rather, we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life. God himself has prepared us for this, and as a guarantee he has given us his Holy Spirit.

So we are always confident, even though we know that as long as we live in these bodies we are not at home with the Lord. For we live by believing and not by seeing. –2 Corinthians 5:1-7 NLT

Paul wants the Corinthians to know that their true hope lies in the future, not the present. But in the meantime, we are to live according to faith, hope and love. Our faith is to be focused on what is to come, the final fulfillment of our salvation, when we will be glorified and united with Christ in sinless perfection. We are to place our hope on that future reality. The author of Hebrews tells us, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ESV). We hope in what we cannot see – our future glorification. As Paul says, “we live by believing.” And our faith and hope are to be accompanied by love. In fact, he says that of the three, love is the greatest. When Christ returns and our glorification takes place, faith and hope will no longer be necessary. The unseen will have become visible. We will see Him as He is and we will be like Him. But love never ends. It will continue on throughout eternity, because it is the very nature and essence of God Himself. We will love and be loved. We will live in an environment of perfect love, unhindered by sin and no longer impacted by hate.

The Corinthians were obsessed with the gifts, but for the wrong reasons. They didn’t understand their purpose. They saw them as spiritual badges of honor that gave them precedence and importance over one another. They failed to recognize their God-given purpose of enlightening and edifying one another. And their use of them was not accompanied by love. But Paul reminds them that love trumps all – even now. We don’t have to wait until heaven to experience the unhindered love of God. When we use the gifts He has given to us, we are expressing His love to one another. We are sharing and caring for one another. The gifts were intended not only to reveal the truth of God, but His love. Paul will close out this letter with some powerful words of encouragement: “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:13-14 ESV). We live in the now. And it is going to take faith, hope, strength, endurance, and patience. But none of these will be successful if we fail to love. Love brings heaven to earth. Love makes the future present, the unseen visible, and our hope tangible.

Love Lived Out.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. – 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 ESV

It is virtually impossible to read these verses without considering Paul’s description of the fruit of the Spirit found in his letter to the Galatian churches:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. – Galatians 5:22-26 ESV

It is important to keep in mind that Paul’s discussion of love found in chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians follows his discussion regarding the spiritual gifts. Those gifts, given by the Spirit of God, would most certainly reflect the fruit that He produces, and love would be included. To operate under the influence of the Spirit, utilizing a gift given by the Spirit, but without love, would be impossible. God is love and the same can be said of the Spirit of God. When we live by or under the influence of the Spirit, our lives will exhibit His loving nature. And Paul lets us know exactly what that love looks like.

It is patient – it puts up with a lot, including the offenses of others. It doesn’t seek to get even or enact revenge.

It is kind – it acts benevolently. In other words, it reveals itself in tangible expressions of kindness and goodness to others. Even to those who hurt us.

It isn’t envious – the actual Greek word means to “be heated or to boil with envy.” God’s kind of love rejoices with others, rather than getting jealous of what they have.

It doesn’t boast – It is impossible to love like God and grand stand at the same time. When godly love is in operation, it is other-focused, not self-promoting.

It isn’t arrogant – God’s love requires humility, not pride. It doesn’t have an inflated sense of its own self-worth.

It isn’t rude – you can’t say you love someone and treat them in a disrespectful or unseemly way.

It doesn’t insist on getting it’s on way – we can know we are loving like God does when we aren’t out for our own good. Love is selfless and sacrificial.

It isn’t irritable – when the Spirit’s love is operating in us and through us, we won’t be easily provoked. We will have a resilience and resistance to the words and actions of others.

It isn’t resentful – God’s kind of love doesn’t keep score, making a list of all the wrongs done to it. And it most certainly doesn’t seek to get even.

It doesn’t rejoice at wrong doing – when we love like God does, we won’t find pleasure in the sins of others. And we won’t love sinning ourselves.

It rejoices with the truth – godly love finds pleasure when others do what is right. It allows us to rejoice alongside them, rather than being jealous of them.

It bears all things – Spirit-empowered love is able to put up with all kinds of people and circumstances.

It believes all things – When are loving like God does, it allows us to maintain our faith in the midst of all kinds of situations and when surrounded by all kinds of people.

It hopes all things –godly love doesn’t become hopeless or defeated by what happens to us or what people do to us.

It endures all things –no matter what those we are loving might do or say. It patiently, persistently maintains its faith in the face of difficulties and difficult people.

It never ends – the kind of love Paul is describing is everlasting, not short-lived. There will never some a time when godly love becomes exhausted or non-essential.

But when it comes to the spiritual gifts, they have a shelf-life. They will not always be needed. When Christ returns and establishes His Kingdom on earth, there will be no more need for prophecies, tongues, or the gift of knowledge. All will be fulfilled. God’s plan will be complete. But love will prevail and persist, because God is love. So godly love should have preeminence in our lives. And if we are truly operating under the control of the Spirit of God, we will exhibit the characteristics of love. Our spirituality will be marked by love, not envy, deceit, or provocation. Godly love unites and never divides. It is always flowing out and never turning in on itself. When all is said and done, the kind of love Paul is describing is the love of God flowing through us to others.

The apostle John gives us a much-needed reminder of just how vital love is and the wonder of God’s love for us that should motivate our love for others.

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. – 1 John 4:7-12 ESV

The Bond Of Love.

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts.

And I will show you a still more excellent way.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.– 1 Corinthians 12:27-13:3 ESV

Paul says that we are individuals who, together, make up the one Body of Christ, the church. We are individuals and we are each, in a sense, indispensable. We have each been given a gift by the Holy Spirit that is intended for the corporate good of body of Christ. God has designed it so that none of us are independent agents operating in isolation. As Paul points out to the Corinthians, the body of Christ was made up of some who were gifted to be apostles. Others were assigned the gift of prophecy or teaching. Some worked miracles or performed healings, while others used their gift of administration or helping. And then there were those who had been given the gift of tongues. Each was necessary. Yes, some of the gifts might appear to have greater significance or importance, but all were essential to the overall well-being of the church. As typical human beings, the Corinthians were prone to elevate one gift over another and experience jealousy or pride depending upon the particular gift they had been given. So Paul determined to show them a “more excellent way.”

Essentially, Paul is going to address the one things holds the Body of Christ together. Interestingly enough, it isn’t going to be our shared faith in Christ. That is what places us in the Body of Christ, but it is not the glue that holds us together. Even our giftedness is not enough to keep us unified and operating in mutual compatibility. So what is the glue that holds this unique collection of individuals together? What prevents our diversity, even in our areas of giftedness, from creating division, disorder and dysfunctionality?

For Paul, it was simple: It was love.

Within the Corinthian church, there was evidently a tendency to make much of the gift of tongues. Obviously, it was a more flamboyant, outwardly obvious gift that garnered attention and created an aura of spirituality for the one who practiced it. But Paul is going to take a handful of the gifts, including tongues, and show that they are each worthless without love.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. – 1 Corinthians 13:1 ESV

The gift of tongues, practiced without love, is nothing more than a loud, irritating noise. It may be unavoidably noticeable, but it will also be undeniably unprofitable. Tongues, like all the gifts, was intended to build up and edify the body. To practice tongues without love would be to focus on self and to neglect the overall health of the Body of Christ. The goal would end up being garnering attention for oneself, rather than allowing the Spirit to use the gift for the good of others.

Paul is not done yet.

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. – 1 Corinthians 13:2 ESV

You could have legitimate prophetic power to foretell the future and reveal undisclosed truth from God, but if you did it without love, you would be nothing. In essence, Paul is saying that, while your gift might make you a somebody in the eyes of others, in God’s eyes you would be a nobody – unimportant and non-essential. Your lack of love would negate any value your gift might have had. To claim to understand the mysteries of God and to grasp the knowledge of God is nothing if it is not accompanied by love for others. And even if you had enough faith to move a mountain, but did so without loving others,  you would still be a nobody in the eyes of God, because your accomplishment would lack any redeeming value.

But Paul brings up a seemingly contradictory example.

If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. – 1 Corinthians 13:3 ESV

Isn’t sacrifice always motivated by love? Wouldn’t love be the only thing that would cause someone to give their life? After all, Jesus Himself said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13 ESV). But Paul’s point is that even the gift of giving, to the extreme point of martyrdom, can be done without love. You can die for a cause, but fail to do so out of love for others. You can give away all your possessions to gain the praise of men, but not out of love for them. It was Jesus who also said, “when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (Matthew 6:2 ESV). You may get the accolades of men, but you will gain nothing from God.

Love is essential, because God is love. To practice any of the gifts without love would be ungodly. It would be out of character. It is possible for us to emulate or imitate the spiritual gifts. We can easily confuse talents with gifts. Just because we are a capable leader in the marketplace, does not mean we have the gift of leadership or administration in the body of Christ. We may be a gifted teacher, in an earthly sense, but that does not mean we have the spiritual gift of teaching. When the Spirit of God gives a gift, it is always accompanied by love. It is intended to build up others in the body. It is inherently selfless in its expression. It doesn’t ask the question, “What’s in it for me?” A truly spiritual gift simply gives, expecting nothing in return. Because that is the essence of love.

As Paul will make clear in the following verses, love is the only thing that will last. There is a day coming when all of the spiritual gifts will be unnecessary. They will have served their purpose. There will be no need for tongues, prophecy, healing, or miracles. We will no longer need faith or hope, because all things will have been fulfilled and made complete. But love will never end. It is the glue that holds heaven together. It is the bond of unity between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Love is the more excellent way.

 

Individuality and Community.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. – 1 Corinthians 12:12-26 ESV

God’s goal for us is oneness. It was one of the primary requests in Jesus’ prayer in the garden on that infamous night just moments before He was betrayed.

I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me John 17:20-23 ESV

Jesus knew that the oneness or unity of His followers would be the greatest expression of the heart transformation that comes only as result of salvation. It is the Spirit-produced oneness of believers that proves to the world that Jesus was who He said He was and actually accomplished all that He claimed He would do. Paul picked up on the theme of Jesus’ prayer and echoed those same sentiments to the believers in Corinth. Their brand of spirituality was not working. Rather than leading to unity and reflecting the oneness of Christ and the Father, it was leading to arrogance, pride and division within the church. Even their view of the gifts of the Spirit were dividing rather than unifying the body. So Paul gives them a lengthy primer on the spiritual life, with special emphasis on the gifts of the Spirit.

Paul emphasizes that they are all one, but they are not all the same. There is still diversity in unity. That is what makes the body of Christ so unique and a reflection of God’s power. He takes people of all shapes and sizes, colors and creeds, backgrounds and tradition, and molds them into a single entity called the Body of Christ – His church. The unifying factor of the church is not our shared ethnicity or ancestry, our common cultural background or country of birth. It is our mutually shared calling by God and our redemption as a result of faith in the death of His Son. We are one because God has made us so. He has placed us in the Body of Christ. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul described Jesus as, “the head of the body. For he holds the whole body together with its joints and ligaments, and it grows as God nourishes it” (Colossians 2:19 ESV). It is our common faith in Christ that holds us together, and He does so through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit who indwells every believer. That is Paul’s point to the believers in Corinth, and to make it clear, he uses the analogy of the human body. Each of us has just one body, but it is made up of many parts. There are muscles, ligaments, organs, limbs – each with a different assigned purpose and designated function. Some operate behind the scenes, unseen and unrecognized for the role in the functioning of the body. Others are more obvious and seemingly important. We even place greater importance on them because we can’t imagine life without them. Paul emphasizes the ears and the eyes, the hands and feet.

If the foot says, “I am not a part of the body because I am not a hand,” that does not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear says, “I am not part of the body because I am not an eye,” would that make it any less a part of the body? If the whole body were an eye, how would you hear? Or if your whole body were an ear, how would you smell anything?
1 Corinthians 12:15-17 NLT

It is the diversity and unity of the human body that makes it so incredibly amazing. Each part, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, is necessary to the functionality of the whole. In fact, Paul states, “some parts of the body that seem weakest and least important are actually the most necessary” (1 Corinthians 12:22 NLT). There is a God-ordained design to the human body that causes it to operate most effectively when it is unified and each part is accomplishing its assigned role. And the same thing is to be true of the Body of Christ. Paul says, “All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27 NLT). No one is more important than anyone else. No spiritual gift is more essential than another. And the spiritual gift you have was not given to elevate your importance but to build up the Body of Christ.

Paul lists all kinds of spiritual gifts: apostles, prophets, teachers, miracles, healing, helping, administration, even tongues. His point behind the list is the variety, not the order or importance of the gifts. We tend to focus on which gift appears to be the most significant and spectacular. But Paul would have us remember that it is the Spirit who gives out the gifts – as He sees fit. We need to spend our time using the gift we have been given, rather than obsessing over a gift we think is more valuable. The goal is unity. And it is our God-ordained uniqueness that makes it possible. Our individual gifts, assigned to us by the Spirit of God, are intended for the mutual edification of the entire church. Our spirituality is not to be a badge of honor or a source of pride. Our giftedness is not intended to stroke our ego or prioritize our importance within the church. We have been gifted by God for the good of the Body of Christ. God’s goal behind our calling and our giftedness is “harmony among the members, so that all the members care for each other. If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad” (1 Corinthians 12:25-26 NLT). Individuality and community. Uniqueness and unity. Giftedness and shared good. That is what makes the Body of Christ function and proves that the faith we claim is real and our Savior is alive.

 

The Spirit of Unity.

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. – 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 ESV

Paul now takes on yet another issue causing conflict within the Corinthian church. Like authority in worship and the celebration of the Lord’s table, this one has led to conflict and confusion. It is being misunderstood and therefore, misused by many within the church. And Paul will dedicate far more time and attention to this topic than any of the previous ones, indicating its importance within the body of Christ. The topic is the Spirit of God and the role of the gifts of the Spirit within the church. There is an obvious difference of opinion between Paul and some in the church regarding the Holy Spirit’s role and the use of the gifts He gives. The Corinthians, having come out of a pagan background, brought their own definition of the Spirit to the table. They tended to tie the Spirit to the spiritual life as they understood it from their pagan background. We have already seen that they viewed life through their dualistic perspective. They separated the spiritual from the material. The spiritual portion of their life is what led to wisdom and knowledge. It was good. But the physical or material aspects of life and the world were evil. Even tongues, as practiced in the pagan religions of the time, was a means of having a spiritual, heavenly-like experience while living in the physical/material realm. We will see that they tended to view tongues from a self-centered perspective, seeing it as a highly personal experience, giving little thought about its influence of impact on the body of Christ as a whole.

Paul tells them, “I do not want you to be uninformed.” That word can also be translated as “ignorant.” He is inferring that they actually were ignorant regarding the role of the Spirit and the proper use of the spiritual gifts, but he didn’t want them to remain that way. Flowing throughout this section of the letter, and culminating in chapter 14, Paul will stress the role of love and the importance of community when it comes to the Spirit and the spiritual gifts. He will tell them, “Since you are so eager to have the special abilities the Spirit gives, seek those that will strengthen the whole church” (1 Corinthians 14:12 NLT). And sandwiched in-between chapters 12 and 14 he places his famous “Love” chapter – dedicating a section on the significance of love when it comes to the use of the gifts of the Spirit.

Early on in this chapter, Paul provides a simple test for true Spirit-filled expression. He wants to clear up any misconception that any seemingly spiritual-sounding utterance was necessarily from the Spirit of God. People could claim to be filled with the Spirit, but be anything but filled. So he tells them, “no one speaking by the Spirit of God will curse Jesus, and no one can say Jesus is Lord, except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3 NLT). In other words, a Spirit-filled person would never deny Christ. And a non-Spirit-filled person will never proclaim the deity of Christ. The presence of the Spirit is the key. And the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ – always promoting and making much of Christ.

Paul confirms that there are all kinds of spiritual gifts, but they all come through the Holy Spirit and are ultimately given by God to the church. In fact, Paul states, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7 ESV). Every spiritual gift is intended for the building up of the body of Christ, not the personal pleasure of the individual. Paul gives them a partial list of the gifts, indicating that each and every one of them comes from the Spirit. He is the one who determines how the gifts are distributed. And in the opening of his letter, Paul seemed to indicate that the church in Corinth had been given all of the gifts of the Spirit. He proudly proclaimed, “you are not lacking in any gift” (1 Corinthians 1:7 ESV). The problem was not the presence of the gifts, but the proper use and understanding of them. The Corinthians were guilty of prioritizing the gifts, making some more important or significant than others. They tended to elevate and aspire after the more flamboyant gifts, such as tongues or prophecy. They were turning the gifts into badges of honor, wearing them with arrogance and pride, and promoting themselves as somehow more spiritual than others because of their particular gift.

But the gifts of the Spirit, like the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5, were not to be self-promoting or self-focused. They were intended for the good of others. The Holy Spirit apportions or hands out the gifts based on community need, not individual merit. Your gift was given to you for the good of others. The gift of tongues was intended to minister to those who spoke another language. The gift of wisdom was not meant to make one person wiser than everyone else, but was given to share the wisdom of God with all. Healing, miracles, faith, prophecy, tongues – they are all other-oriented – designed to build up, edify, minister to and strengthen the body of Christ. The Spirit of God brings a spirit of unity and love, not division and competition. We know the Spirit of God is active within us when our lives have a positive influence on those around us. The Spirit does not produce jealousy, pride, anger, or division. When we think we are more spiritual than someone else, we can’t blame that conclusion on the Spirit. He produces a spirit of humility and a heart of service. He creates within us a totally unnatural compassion and care for others. When He is at work within us, He helps us focus on everyone else but us.

The words of Paul to the believers in Galatia are as applicable today as they were when he first penned them. “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another” (Galatians 5:25-26 NLT). Our new life in Christ was made possible by the Spirit. And He is the one who makes possible our daily walk with Christ, living in selfless, sacrificial, loving community with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

 

Proclaiming His Death Properly.

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.

So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another—if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. About the other things I will give directions when I come. – 1 Corinthians 11:23-34 ESV

The gospel was central in all of Paul’s life and teaching. Everything he did centered around and was based upon the gospel. So when he heard that the Corinthians were misusing and even abusing the ordinance of the Lord’s table, he was less than thrilled. The celebration of the Lord’s table was to be a time to remember the central aspect of the gospel: The death of Jesus. It was not to be taken lightly or treated contemptuously. Paul had given the Corinthians instructions regarding the Lord’s table – it’s meaning and it’s import. And he reminded them that what he had taught them regarding the ordinance had come from Jesus Himself, not from Paul’s imagination. “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you…” (1 Corinthians 11:23 ESV). This does not mean that Paul got his instructions regarding the Lord’ table directly from Jesus Himself, but that, ultimately, any teaching he or the apostles shared about this vital ordinance of the church came from one source: Jesus.

While the gospels are clear that Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with His disciples that night, He was actually instituting something new. He was taking that time-honored ritual of the Passover celebration and breathing into it new life. It was no longer about a meal, but about the work of the Messiah. Jesus was going to become the Passover lamb. His body and blood would be shed. His life would be given as a substitute, so that those who placed their trust in His death would receive life. In essence, the death angel would pass over them, just as it had over the homes of the Israelites in Egypt all those years ago.

Jesus had made Himself very clear that night. He broke the bread, gave it to His disciples and told them, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:24 ESV). Then He took the cup, held it up to His disciples and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:25 ESV). Jesus wanted them to call to remembrance, to recall, what He was about to do. The Lord’s table was to be a time of reflection and recollection, soberly considering the significance of what Jesus’ death had accomplished on their behalf.

But the Corinthians had turned the Lord’s table into a feast, focusing their attention on the food, not the selfless sacrifice of the Savior. Paul wanted to remind them that the intention of the ordinance was to proclaim the Lord’s death until the day He returned. It was to be a visual and verbal expression of the gospel. In chapter 15 of this same letter, Paul articulates the central message of the gospel:

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures… – 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 ESV

So when Paul accuses the Corinthians of eating the bread and drinking the cup in an “unworthy manner”, he is saying that they have been failing to remember and appreciate what Jesus had done for them. They were treating His death with contempt by focusing on the meal instead of the one to whom the meal was meant to point. To take the Lord’s table unworthily meant to do so irreverently, flippantly and with no regard to its significance. And to do so, Paul says, was to be “guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:27 ESV). They were profaning or treating with contempt the death of the Savior. In a less significant sense, it is what most of us as Americans have done to the celebration of Memorial Day. Rather than focus on those brave men and women who have sacrificed their lives in defense of our country as part of our military, we have turned the day into a personal holiday. We have made it all about us and our own enjoyment. It has become all about time off from work, shopping discounts and meals. In the same way, the Corinthians had turned the Lord’s table into little more than a reason to enjoy a good meal.

So Paul warns them to examine themselves. He wants them to take a long hard look at their motivation. He tells them, “if you eat the bread or drink the cup without honoring the body of Christ, you are eating and drinking God’s judgment upon yourself” (1 Corinthians 11:29 NLT). They were opening themselves up to God’s discipline and Paul even indicates that some of them were already experiencing it in the form of physical weakness and sickness. Some had even died. To treat the death of Jesus lightly was serious business. Several times in this letter, Paul has told them that they were bought with a price. Their salvation cost God the life of His own Son. Peter says, “you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19 ESV).

The Lord’s table was not to be taken lightly. The significance of Christ’s death was not to be treated flippantly. And the reality that He died so that we might become part of His body – the church – was not to be overlooked. The Corinthians were neglecting their love and concern for one another. The Lord’s table was to be a community celebration, not an opportunity to indulge one’s appetites. Belief in the sacrificed body and blood of Jesus was to be the bond that held the Corinthians together. It was to be the unifying factor that made it possible for them to live with and love one another. We are to remember the death of Christ until He calls us home or until He comes again. It was His death that gave us life. It was His sacrifice that provides us with salvation. It was His taking on of our sin and suffering in our place that made possible our righteousness and right standing before God. Why would we ever take that for granted? Why would we ever treat it lightly?

 

Body Loathing.

But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not. – 1 Corinthians 11:17-22 ESV

Disorder, disunity and division. All three were taking place within the church in Corinth. That is partly the reason Paul had to address the issue of authority and headship. It seems that there were those who were not comfortable with his teaching regarding headship and submission. Once again, the issue of freedoms and rights had come up. In the opening verses of this chapter, Paul dealt with women in the church who refused to cover their heads while in worship. This was not about value or worth. It was about God-ordained headship and authority, but also responsibility. Paul said, “the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Corinthians 11:3 ESV). Now, it is interesting to note that Paul makes it clear that both the husband and the wife, the male and the female, were free to prophesy and pray when the church assembled. But the man was to do so with his head uncovered, because to pray or prophesy with his head covered “dishonors his head” (1 Corinthians 11:4 ESV). In other words, he would be blatantly rejecting the headship of Christ in his life. And if a wife prophesies or prays with her head uncovered, she “dishonors her head” (1 Corinthians 11:5 ESV). Her actions would be construed as dishonoring the God-appointed headship of her husband.

This was all about order, unity and a submission to the will of God. And this was not the only issue going on in Corinth. Paul now addresses their attitude toward the practice of the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper. Ordained by Jesus Christ Himself, this ordinance was to be a regular occurrence in the church. And the early church commemorated it as a feast. Unlike our modern version of the Lord’s Table, theirs was a meal. In the book of Acts we read, “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people” (Acts 2:46-47 ESV). This “love feast” was a communal gathering at which they commemorated the Lord’s death with the bread and the cup. But they also shared a meal together. And that’s where the problem developed. Paul says, “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat” (1 Corinthians 11:20 ESV). In other words, they had turned the Lord’s supper into something altogether different. Their supper was marked by selfishness, division and even drunkenness. It had become all about the meal and not about the Messiah. They were there for the food, not to celebrate the sacrificial death of Jesus, which made possible their salvation.

Paul doesn’t sugarcoat the problem. “For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk” (1 Corinthians 11:21 ESV). The gladness and generosity mentioned in Acts 2 was long gone. It was as if everyone was in for themselves. Some ate, while others went without. It had lost its communal aspect, because people were eating without waiting on the others. And then there were those who were using the “love feast” as an excuse to get drunk. There was little difference between this Christ-ordained event and the feasts practiced by the pagans in their temples. Paul is shocked by their behavior and can’t understand why they don’t just eat their meals at home if they can’t control themselves. The Lord’s supper was meant to remember all that Christ had done to make their salvation possible, not to satisfy their fleshly appetites.

In a not-so-subtle attempt to shame their actions, Paul asks them, “do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” (1 Corinthians 11:22b ESV). Their actions made it appear that they had no love for their brothers and sisters in Christ. There was no sharing of meals and compassion for the needy in their midst. The church in Corinth bore little resemblance to the early church in the books of Acts.

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. – Acts 2:42-45 ESV

How easy it is to lose sight of our purpose as followers of Christ. We can turn our times of corporate worship into individually-focused moments of self-satisfaction. Forgetting that we are there to worship God, we can make it all about us, demanding that the music and the message cater to our personal preferences. We can go through an entire Sunday service neglecting those around us and never truly worshiping God. And in doing so, we miss the whole point of corporate worship. For Paul, the Corinthians had missed the message behind the Lord’s supper. It was not to be about enjoying a good meal. It was to be a celebration of our common bond in Christ and a commemoration of His sacrificial death on our behalf. Luke records the words of Jesus on the night that He instituted this sacred service.

When the time came, Jesus and the apostles sat down together at the table. Jesus said, “I have been very eager to eat this Passover meal with you before my suffering begins. For I tell you now that I won’t eat this meal again until its meaning is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God.”

Then he took a cup of wine and gave thanks to God for it. Then he said, “Take this and share it among yourselves. For I will not drink wine again until the Kingdom of God has come.”

He took some bread and gave thanks to God for it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this to remember me.”

After supper he took another cup of wine and said, “This cup is the new covenant between God and his people—an agreement confirmed with my blood, which is poured out as a sacrifice for you.” – Luke 22:14-20 NLT

Just moments after this sobering sequence of events, the disciples would be arguing about who was the greatest. They had missed the point. So Jesus said to them, “In this world the kings and great men lord it over their people, yet they are called ‘friends of the people.’ But among you it will be different. Those who are the greatest among you should take the lowest rank, and the leader should be like a servant. Who is more important, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves? The one who sits at the table, of course. But not here! For I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:25-27 ESV). The Kingdom of God was about selflessness, not selfishness. Followers of Christ, in imitation of Him, were to be servants, not self-serving. When we focus on self, we end up loathing the body of Christ. When we make it all about ourselves, we neglect the fact that Jesus died, not just that we might enjoy salvation, but solidarity as the people of God.

Say What?!

Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. That is why a wife ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God. Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God. – 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 ESV

What in the world is Paul talking about in this passage? There is little debate that this is one of the most hotly debated sections in the Bible. There are those who write it off as just another example of Paul’s male chauvinism. Others believe that we are obligated to adhere to Paul’s teaching regarding hair length and head coverings in the church today. Some simply state that what Paul is dealing with in these verses is a cultural issue unique to Corinth, and that it has no bearing on the modern church today. But if all Scripture “is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16 ESV), then it would seem that we need to discover just exactly what Paul is trying to tell us in these verses. There is little doubt that some of what Paul is addressing is cultural and contextual. It has to do with believers living in the Greek city of Corinth who were having to operate within an environment that was markedly different than the one in which we live. But there are timeless truths taught within these verses that apply to us as well. The key for us is to discover the non-negotiable principles intended for the church in every age, and to not allow ourselves to become distracted or deterred by the seemingly incongruous and archaic arguments of Paul.

I believe verse 3 is essential to understanding what Paul is trying to say in the passage: “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” The real point of this passage is authority – God-ordained authority. As you can imagine, in the cultural context of Corinth in which Paul was trying to preach and teach, there were some strong objections to much of what he had to say. And the topic of authority or headship was one of the more controversial. So he lays out the God-ordained order of things:

The head (or authority over) of Christ is God

The head (or authority over) of man is Christ

The head (or authority over) of the wife is her husband

Paul states that man, who was created by God, is “the image and glory of God” (1 Corinthians 11:7a ESV). Then he says that “woman is the glory of man” (1 Corinthians 11:7b) because she was made from man. The creation account tells us that Eve was created by God from one of Adam’s ribs. So, Paul concludes, “man was not made from woman, but woman from man” (1 Corinthians 11:8 ESV). And while Paul does not directly state it, he infers that Jesus came from God. Not in the sense that He was created by God, because Jesus is eternal. But His birth and incarnation were the work of God. Mary conceived because of the Spirit of God. All of this is to say that God has ordained an irrevocable order to things. And ever since the fall, mankind has been trying to turn that order on its head. It is interesting to note that one of the curses God pronounced on Eve and all women was “you will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16 NLT). One of the things that caused the fall to happen in the first place was Adam foregoing his God-ordained headship and allowing Eve to disobey the expressed will of God. It was to Adam that God had given His command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But Adam gave Eve the lead. He allowed her to make the decision and “she took some of the fruit and ate it. Then she gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it, too” (Genesis 3:6 NLT).

The issue of head coverings and hair length seems to be cultural in context. The real point is headship and the proper expression of it. A woman wearing a veil or head covering as a sign of submission to her husband’s authority, while culturally acceptable, did not necessarily mean that she was truly submissive. A man wearing his hair short as a sign of submission to the authority of God did not necessarily mean he actually lived under that authority. The outward evidences of submission are nothing if the inward expression of submission is missing. The bottom line about authority, headship and submission is that each of us ultimately submits to God. Paul states, “But among the Lord’s people, women are not independent of men, and men are not independent of women. For although the first woman came from man, every other man was born from a woman, and everything comes from God” (1 Corinthians 11:11-12 NLT). There is a God-ordained inter-dependency at work here. Eve was made from Adam, but every male since Adam has come from a woman. It is not that men are more important than women or of more value to God. It is about divinely orchestrated authority and responsibility. 

If we are not careful, we will spend all our time arguing and debating about head coverings and hair length and miss out on Paul’s primary point of headship. There comes a point at which we have to be okay with God’s will, even when it seems to contradict the world’s patterns and our own preferences. Jesus submitted to the will of God, even though it meant His death. Paul submitted to the will of Christ, taking the gospel to the Gentiles, even though it meant he would face rejection and persecution for his efforts. Men were to submit to Christ, acknowledging Him as their head, even though it would mean they had to give up their rights and learn to love sacrificially and selflessly. Wives were to submit to their husbands and daughters to their fathers, as to the Lord, even though they might be wiser and know better. As Paul told the Ephesians, each of us is to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21 NLT). And Peter would remind us, “So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honor” (1 Peter 5:6 NLT). We may not understand all that Paul is saying here. We may not even like what we do understand. But we must trust that God’s will regarding headship and submission is best. We must submit to His will and trust His wisdom.

Follow the Servant-Leader.

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. – 1 Corinthians 11:1 ESV

If we didn’t know much about Paul, this simple statement could come across as little more than prideful arrogance. It sounds a lot like someone with an over-inflated sense of spiritual self-worth. But this is the same Paul who said, “‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ – and I am the worst of them all” (1 Timothy 1:15 NLT). He knew he was far from perfect and had a flawed past. “I am the least of all the apostles. In fact, I’m not even worthy to be called an apostle after the way I persecuted God’s church” (1 Corinthians 15:9 NLT). At one point, he even referred to himself as “the very least of all the saints” (Ephesians 3:8 ESV). So Paul was far from a braggart. He wasn’t one to boast of his spiritual superiority or set himself up as some kind of icon of virtue. He was honest about his short-comings and always transparent about his life being a work in process.

I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. – Philippians 3:12-14 NLT

So how could Paul have the audacity to say, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ”? How could he set himself up as an example to follow? Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate for him to simply say, “Imitate Christ”? Shouldn’t He be our focus, and not Paul? But it is essential that we not take this verse out of its context. For three chapters Paul has been dealing with an issue within the body of Christ in Corinth involving the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. Most of what he has addressed has had to do with the legitimate rights of believers and their freedom in Christ. But his point of emphasis has been that their rights were never to trump their obligation to live compassionately and sacrificially among their fellow believers, as well as the lost. First and foremost, their goal should be the glory of God and the spiritual good of those around them. In order for the gospel to be lived out and spread about, it will require that they die to themselves. Their rights will have to take a back seat to the will of God and the spiritual well-being of others. And Paul has used himself as an example of that very lifestyle. “Don’t give offense to Jews or Gentiles or the church of God. I, too, try to please everyone in everything I do. I don’t just do what is best for me; I do what is best for others so that many may be saved” (1 Corinthians 10:32-33 NLT). Then he follows up this statement with his call, “And you should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1 NLT).

Unlike the original 12 disciples, we don’t have the benefit of having seen Christ with our own two eyes. We have not been privileged to watch Him work, hear Him teach or witness His selfless lifestyle firsthand. On the very night He would be betrayed, He washed the feet of the disciples, then said to them: “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:12-15 ESV). This was not about washing feet, but about servant leadership. Jesus was their teacher and Lord, and yet He was willing to set aside His rights and privileges to serve them. He willingly stooped down and washed their filthy feet, rather than rightfully demanding that they wash His. Jesus went on to tell them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:16 ESV). He was telling His disciples that they, His servants and messengers, were not to view themselves as somehow better than Him, unwilling to serve like He served and sacrifice as He sacrificed. They were to follow His example and serve those to whom He would send them.

It was the apostle John who wrote, “By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:5-6 ESV). So in a sense, we are to emulate or imitate Christ. We are to walk as He walked. But at the same time, if that is the way we live our lives, we should be able to call others to follow our example. In doing so, we are not claiming to have arrived at Christ-like perfection, but that we are faithfully attempting to live our lives in keeping with the example of Christ. Paul knew that his rights were never to stand in the way of the gospel, because He knew that Jesus had never let His will get in the way of His Father’s divine plan for His life and for mankind’s redemption. On the night of His betrayal and arrest, as Jesus prayed in the garden, He pleaded with His Father, “if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine” (Luke 22:42 NLT). In His humanity, Jesus dreaded the pain and suffering He was about to face. His human nature was no more a fan of pain than your would be. But His divinity knew that He must accomplish the will of His Father, even though it meant that He must give His life. And Paul reminds us that, “being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8 ESV).

Paul was willing to follow the example of Christ. He was willing to die if necessary for the sake of the gospel. And even if God did not require his life, Paul was willing to give up his rights and privileges to see that others came to know Christ. He was willing to sacrifice anything and everything to see that believers in Christ grew in their knowledge of Him and in their likeness to Him. They say imitation is the greatest form of flattery. So when we imitate Christ, we honor Him. And when we invite others to imitate our lives, we are taking a huge risk. We are telling them that they can do as we do and say as we say, because we are simply following the example of Christ Himself. And it all begins with sacrificial service and selfless love, putting the needs of others ahead of our own.