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.
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