Boys to Men

1 But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? – 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 ESV

11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. – Ephesians 4:11-16 ESV

Spiritual maturity. Among those who consider themselves Christians, there are few who would argue over the fact that spiritual growth is a non-negotiable biblical mandate. We can all relate to Paul’s use of infancy and adulthood as a comparative example of our Christian experience. When someone comes to faith in Christ, they display the characteristics of a child: Innocent faithfulness, trusting reliance, and a natural need to be led and fed. But it is only normal to expect infants to grow and mature into the next phase of life. We anticipate growth. As parents, we encourage and help facilitate it. And, as Christians, we understand that our spiritual maturity follows a similar pattern. It begins with new birth, the God-ordained and Spirit-empowered transformation of one who was dead into new life.

…even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved… – Ephesians 2:5 ESV

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses… – Colossians 2:13 ESV

Jesus told Nicodemus, a fully mature man who was a proud member of the party of the Pharisees: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3 ESV). Jesus’ analogy went over the head of this learned religious leader and he responded, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4 ESV). He missed the point altogether. Unaware of his own state of spiritual death, Nicodemus could not understand what Jesus meant by new birth. But everyone who comes to faith in Christ is born again or made new. Or as Paul put it, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV).

It is the new birth, made possible by the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, that makes it possible for believers to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4 ESV). Or as Paul later described it, “the new way of the Spirit” (Romans 7:6 ESV). The new birth is to lead to new life. Just as we view the birth of a baby as the beginning of life, to be followed by the normal and natural marks of ever-increasing maturity, so God sees our new birth in Christ as the beginning of a life marked by spiritual growth. Which is why Peter, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, provided the following directive to followers of Christ: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation…” (1 Peter 2:2 ESV).

We are to grow. It’s expected. And the lack of growth is to be viewed as unnatural and abnormal. It is not what God intended for us. In fact, Peter reminds us, “By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3 NLT). He has provided us with new birth and a new nature. He has placed His Holy Spirit within us and placed us in the body of Christ. He has given us His Word to teach us, the Spirit to lead us, and the family of God to care for us. God has given us everything we need to live the life to which He has called us. And that life is to be marked by ever-increasing evidence of spiritual maturity.

Look closely at Paul’s words to the believers in Ephesus. He told them that Christ had given “gifts” to the church, in the form of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. These divinely gifted individuals were “gifted” to the church by Christ and given the responsibility to “equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church” (Ephesians 4:12 NLT). And Paul infers that their job would not be complete “until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13 NLT). Talk about job security.

None of us are there yet. We have not yet arrived to the full and complete standard of Christ. But then, neither had Paul. He openly confessed, “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” (Philippians 3:12 NLT). While Paul fully understood that he stood before God as fully righteous because he bore the righteousness of Christ, he also knew that there were areas of his life that did not measure up to that reality. His old nature still had a habit of showing up and causing him to act in spiritually immature ways. His flesh was constantly doing battle with the Spirit within him. He made this painfully clear in Romans 7.

And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. – Romans 7:18-20 NLT

But while this internal battle was an ever-present reality for Paul, he also understood that his old nature had been crucified with Christ on the cross, which is why he could say, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20 NLT).

Like Paul, we have been sanctified, set apart by God for His use. He has placed His Spirit within us and placed us within the body of Christ. He has provided us with a host of gifted individuals whose sole responsibility it is to equip and prepare us for the work of building up the body of Christ. And Paul makes God’s objective in all this quite clear: “Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth” (Ephesians 4:14 NLT).

Maturity in place of childishness. Spiritual stability rather than the easy manipulability that too often accompanies immaturity. It is not that God doesn’t expect immaturity. It is normal and natural. It has its place. But He has provided all that is required for our spiritual growth and development. God has given us all we need for living godly lives. But we must avail ourselves of His gifts and graces. We must rely upon His Spirit. We must take advantage of the wisdom provided by His Word. We must submit to the authority of those He has placed in our lives as our spiritual fathers and mothers, tasked with the responsibility of equipping us for the work of the ministry.

Boys do not become men in isolation. They require care, discipline, instruction, and love. Infants left to themselves will grow, but not for long. And the same is true for believers. Any man or woman who attempts to grow more like Christ apart from the body of Christ will find themselves tossed and blown by every wind of new teaching. Their lives will be marked by jealousy and strife, immaturity and instability. And rather than being the spiritual people God has called them to be, they will be immature, stunted in their growth and stuck in the early stages of spiritual infancy.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

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No Free Meals

Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. 11 For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. 12 Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. – 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12 ESV

The body of Christ is an organism, not just an organization. While it’s made up of individuals, they are expected to exist together in a state of mutual love and submission, displaying selfless acts of compassion and a shared concern for the well-being of one another. Paul used the metaphor of the human body as a way of describing the symbiotic relationship between believers.

We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other. – Romans 12:5 NLT

The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. – 1 Corinthians 12:12 NLT

So God has put the body together such that extra honor and care are given to those parts that have less dignity. This makes for 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.

All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it. – 1 Corinthians 12:24-27 NLT

Paul viewed the body of Christ as a living organism in which the interdependence between its various members was essential to the overall spiritual health of the whole. And he expressed his desire that they act as a cohesive, mutually caring community in his first letter.

Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. – 1 Thessalonians  5:13-14 ESV

Paul was well aware of the fact that, inevitably, the body of Christ would be made up of all kinds of people who exhibited every conceivable level of spiritual maturity. In the verses above, he mentions the idle, the fainthearted, and the weak. And he spoke of the weak on more than one occasion, revealing his awareness that the spiritual immature would always be a part of any local body of believers.

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. – Romans 14:1 ESV

We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. – Romans 15:1-2 ESV

But in this second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul is addressing something quite different than spiritual immaturity. He specifically calls out those who are “walking in idleness.” Paul uses two Greek words to describe these individuals. The first is peripateō, and it can be translated “to walk,” but can also mean “to conduct one’s self” or “to pass one’s life.” These people were conducting their daily lives in a way that Paul deemed unacceptable. That’s where the second Greek word comes in: ataktōs. It describes a soldier marching out of step with his peers. They were “deviating from the prescribed order or rule” (Outline of Biblical Usage). These individuals weren’t just marching to the beat of their own drum, they were stubbornly refusing to line up with the teaching of Paul and the other apostles. Their actions were blatantly disorderly and disruptive to the local body of Christ. These were not weak or immature believers in need of instruction and encouragement. They were men and women whose undisciplined conduct and stubborn resistance to discipline were damaging the entire faith community. They were like rogue cancer cells in the body of Christ and Paul recommended radical steps to prevent their further contamination.

Based on Paul’s admonitions, we can piece together a picture of what these people were guilty of doing. Their disorderly conduct included a refusal to work. We’re not told why they held this view, but it could be that they had been impacted by false teaching that had led them to believe that Jesus was coming back any day. In light of that expectation, it’s likely that they viewed work as unnecessary and a waste of time. But their undisciplined lifestyles were wreaking havoc on the local body of Christ. Rather than work, they expected the church to support them. And Paul reminds the faithful that he and the apostles didn’t model that kind of lifestyle.

…we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. – 2 Thessalonians 3:7-8 ESV

These people were out of line, having broken ranks with the faith community and having placed an undue burden on the church. So, Paul gives a bold and unapologetic opinion regarding these people.

If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. – 2 Thessalonians 3:10 ESV

And this was not the first time Paul had addressed this problem in the church. He had warned Timothy:

But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. – 1 Timothy 5:8 ESV

And he had expressed similar advice to Titus.

And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful. – Titus 3:14 ESV

Paul and his ministry partners had demonstrated through their own lives what he was demanding of the Thessalonians. There was no place for disorderly conduct within the body of Christ. Laziness and idleness have no place in the church. The faith community, while an interdependent organism, is not intended to be a place where non-contributors thrive. Each believer has been gifted by the Spirit and is expected to play their God-ordained part in contributing to the overall well-being of the body. Yet, Paul states, “we hear that some of you are living idle lives, refusing to work and meddling in other people’s business” (2 Thessalonians 3:11 NLT). This was unacceptable, and Paul addresses these individuals directly and bluntly:

Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. – 2 Thessalonians 3:12 ESV

Paul labels these people as busybodies (periergazomai), a term used to describe those who occupy themselves with trivial and useless matters that don’t concern themselves. Rather than working, they had all kinds of time to worry about the affairs of others. So, Paul tells them to work quietly, a “description of the life of one who stays at home doing his own work and does not officiously meddle with the affairs of others” (Outline of Biblical Usage).

It was well into the 12th-Century that Chaucer labeled “idle hands the devil’s tools.” But Paul knew that to be true as early as the 1st-Century. And he warned the believers in Thessalonica to be wary of the idleness in their midst. It was dangerous and potentially deadly, because it emanated from an attitude of disobedience and disorderliness. So, it was sin. And, like cancer, sin spreads. Left untreated, in time it infects and impacts the entire body. That’s why Paul is so emphatic, providing the Thessalonians not just with advice, but with a command.

…we command you…that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness. – 2 Thessalonians 3:6 ESV

In a sense, Paul is telling them to avoid these people like the plague. They weren’t the spiritually weak in need of strengthening. They were the rebellious in need of spiritual discipline. They were members of the body of Christ who were refusing to play their part in contributing to the overall health of the church. Like unwanted parasites, they were sucking the life out of the faith community by taking but never giving. They had given love of self precedence over Christ’s command to love others. And Paul, knowing the danger behind that mindset, warned that it was not to be tolerated.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

1 Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (2d ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 64. All abbreviations of ancient literature in this essay are those used in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3d ed. (OCD).

Devoted to Good Works

12 When I send Artemas or Tychicus to you, do your best to come to me at Nicopolis, for I have decided to spend the winter there. 13 Do your best to speed Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way; see that they lack nothing. 14 And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful.

15 All who are with me send greetings to you. Greet those who love us in the faith.

Grace be with you all. – Titus 3:12-15 ESV

The early community of Christ was a close-knit one. Despite the fact that Paul was traveling from one end of the known world to the other, and planting churches in ethnically and geologically diverse regions, they shared a certain bond of unity. Wherever they were located, these fledgling communities of faith were in the minority and found themselves facing extreme opposition. To many Gentiles, Christians were nothing more than a sect of the Jewish religion. After all, the converts to Christianity followed the teachings of an itinerant Jewish rabbi. But to the Jews, Christians were a dangerous heresy that taught against the Mosaic Law and the rite of circumcision. So, wherever Paul and his companions took the gospel and saw its message of faith in Christ take root, they also witnessed intense antagonism.

These new congregations of believers were often ostracized and isolated from their former communities, and lacking in mature spiritual leadership, so Paul felt a strong sense of responsibility to provide them with instruction and encouragement. He wanted them to know that they were part of a much larger community of faith that was spreading around the world. Paul’s letters formed a kind of literary highway system linking these distant and disparate congregations together. His growing network of spiritual disciples included man like Timothy, Titus, Artemas, Tychicus, Zenas, and Apollos, who each played a vital role in ministering the far-flung Christian community. These men provided much-needed spiritual training to the faithful, but also served as the eyes and ears of Paul, giving him insight into what was happening within the body of Christ around the world.

Paul was constantly traveling from one place to another, fulfilling his commission to take the good news of Jesus Christ to the nations. But he tended to lave a part of his heart in every city, town, and village where the gospel found converts. In many cases, his first visit to a city was his last. His travels didn’t always allow him to circle back and check in on the churches he had helped to found. And, in time, his lengthy imprisonment in Rome would completely curtail his efforts to minister those whom he loved like his own children. But Paul never left them without adequate spiritual nourishment or oversight. And he wanted them to know that they were all in this together. They were all part of a much-larger family of faith that God was planting all around the world. And, for Paul, it was essential that each of these churches understand their role within the bigger picture. Rather than focus all their attention on their particular circumstances, they were to see themselves as members of the growing body of Christ.

Paul firmly believed that when an individual came to faith in Christ, they were to align themselves with a local faith community. They were not to act as a free agent, operating Lone-Ranger-style, independent and isolated from other Christians in their community. This corporate mentality was essential to the spiritual well-being of the individual and the community. And for Paul, it went well beyond geographic confines. He often used the metaphor of the human body as a way of illustrating the interconnected, interdependent nature of the body of Christ.

The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles, some are slaves, and some are free. But we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit. – 1 Corinthians 12:12-13 NLT

The concept of a global church made up of people from all walks of life, every conceivable economic background, and diverse ethnic makeups was revolutionary. And this new admixture of individuals into a mutually beneficial community of faith was making a radical impact on the world. The church was growing and people were noticing. And Paul was obsessed with getting his expanding family of faith to understand their need for one another. He encouraged an attitude of generosity and selflessness, and praised the churches in Macedonia for their gracious giving toward the needs of the church in Jerusalem.

For I can testify that they gave not only what they could afford, but far more. And they did it of their own free will. They begged us again and again for the privilege of sharing in the gift for the believers in Jerusalem. They even did more than we had hoped, for their first action was to give themselves to the Lord and to us, just as God wanted them to do. – 2 Corinthians 8:3-5 NLT

Paul went on to encourage the believers in Corinth to follow the example of the Macedonian churches.

Right now you have plenty and can help those who are in need. Later, they will have plenty and can share with you when you need it. In this way, things will be equal. – 2 Corinthians 8:11 NLT

And Paul wanted the believers on Crete to have the same attitude, telling Titus , “let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful” (Titus 3:14 ESV).

The church is a living organism, not an organization. It is an interactive, interdependent blend of individuals into a worldwide community that is to reflect the unity of the Godhead. And the letter that Paul wrote to Titus is as applicable today as it was in the 1st-Century in which he wrote it. His call to Christ-likeness, humility, submission, service, and an unwavering commitment to the truth is vital today as it ever was. The words Paul used to open his letter still apply.

I have been sent to proclaim faith to those God has chosen and to teach them to know the truth that shows them how to live godly lives. – Titus 1:1 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Fellowship of Faith

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. Philippians 1:3-11 ESV

When reading the letters of Paul it is essential to remember that, in most cases, he was writing to a community of believers, not a single individual. There are those cases where he wrote personal letters addressed to individuals, such as Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. But the majority of his correspondence was addressed to a corporate body of believers located in a specific city or community. This letters are usually referred to as his pastoral epistles. In them, we get a glimpse of Paul’s strong sense of calling as a shepherd over the flock of Jesus Christ.

At one point in his ministry, Paul told the elders of the church in Ephesus:

“I have done the Lord’s work humbly and with many tears. I have endured the trials that came to me from the plots of the Jews. I never shrank back from telling you what you needed to hear, either publicly or in your homes. I have had one message for Jews and Greeks alike—the necessity of repenting from sin and turning to God, and of having faith in our Lord Jesus.” – Acts 20:19-21 NLT

He wasn’t boasting, but simply reminding these men that he had made their spiritual well-being his highest priority. Without an ounce of pride or arrogance, Paul was able to say to them:

“I declare today that I have been faithful. If anyone suffers eternal death, it’s not my fault, for I didn’t shrink from declaring all that God wants you to know.” – Acts 20:26-27 NLT

And then he challenged to follow his example.

“So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock—his church, purchased with his own blood—over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as leaders.” – Acts 20:28 NLT

Paul had a deep and abiding sense of love for the church, the body of Christ. Yes, he cared for each individual Christian, but he knew that the strength of the church lie in the overall health of its constituency. While the body of Christ was made up of individual believers, God had chosen to place them within a single unit where their spiritual gifts, talents, and mutual love for one another could have the greatest impact. Paul made this point clear when writing to the church in Corinth:

“For the body does not consist of one member but of many.” – 1 Corinthians 12:14 NLT

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” – I Corinthians 12:27 NLT

His emphasis was always on unity and community.

“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 12:24-26 NLT

So, as we read the opening lines of Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, we must keep in mind that he is writing to a group of people. Even their reading of his letter would have taken place in a group context. But typically, we tend to read Paul’s letters as part of our personal devotionals. And, in doing so, we make the mistake of reading the letters as if they are addressed to us as individuals. We take every personal pronoun personally. When we see the word “you,”  we assume Paul is somehow speaking to us as an individual. So, when we read, “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ,” we apply it to ourselves. When Paul states, “I pray that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding,” we read it as if he is addressing us individually, and by name.

But each of these personal pronouns used by Paul are plural in nature. He is addressing the body, not the individual. You could almost read them as, “you all.” So, as you make your way through this letter, imagine it is being read to you as you sit alongside your brothers and sisters in Christ from your local fellowship. Yes, his admonitions most certainly apply on an individual basis, but we miss the point of his letter if we fail to see them as messages to the corporate body of believers.

With all that in mind, look at how Paul opens his letter to the church in Philippi. He expresses his thanks to God for their very existence. He is grateful that God has allowed him to play a part in the establishment of this local fellowship. Remember, it all began with the conversion of a woman named Lydia, who came to faith in Christ after hearing the gospel from Paul and Silas. This wealthy and influential Gentile woman became a key leader in the new faith community there in Philippi, even hosting the fledgling church in her home.

Paul is grateful to God, because he realizes that the ministry he played a part in establishing was continuing without him. Paul was under house arrest in Rome and unable to visit the many churches he had helped to plant. But he was encouraged to know that the believers in Philippi were his partners in the gospel. In his absence, the message of the good news of Jesus Christ was being spread throughout the city. The Greek word that is translated as “partnership” is koinōnia, and it can also be translated as “fellowship.” Even though they were separated by many miles, Paul shared a sense of unity and mutual commitment to spreading the gospel throughout Philippi.

But while Paul was concerned about the good news of Jesus Christ be taken to every corner of Philippi, he knew that the success of that enterprise hinged on the spiritual health of the faith community to whom he wrote. Paul always maintained a balance between his desire for salvation and sanctification. He greatly desired to see people come to faith in Christ, but was equally concerned that they grow in their knowledge of and likeness to Christ. That is why he told the believers in Philippi that he was confident that God “who began a good work in you will bring it to completion.” God would finish what He started – in the church there at Philippi, but also in the lives of each individual believer.

Yet, it is essential that we see Paul’s emphasis on spiritual growth within its corporate context. Any increase in Christ-likeness we may experience is not for our own benefit. The gifts of the Spirit we have been given are not meant for us, but are intended to benefit and bless the body of Christ. Our salvation is not meant to be myopic and self-centered, but other-oriented and selfless in its focus.

When Paul states that his prayer is that their “love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment,” he is speaking to the entire body of believers there in Philippi. He desires that their love for one another grow exponentially. He longs that their knowledge and discernment increase steadily. But knowledge and discernment of what? The will of God. What is excellent or, as the New Living Translation puts it, “what really matters.” And, later on in this same letter, Paul will summarize exactly what he means.

“And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing.” – Philippians 4:8-9 NLT

And as their love, knowledge and discernment grows, they will become “pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:1-11 ESV).

The fruit of righteousness. That’s an interesting phrase that can be easily overlooked. Paul is letting his audience know that their corporate increase in righteousness will have benefits. It will produce fruit. And if you think about it, a tree that produces fruit does so, not for its own benefit, but for the benefit of others. And when Paul discusses the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5, the list of attributes he provides are all outwardly-focused: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

None of these things are meant to benefit the individual. Love is meant to share, not hoard. Joy is something we give away, not greedily pursue for own satisfaction. Peace is something we enjoy with others, not in isolation. Patience is impossible without the presence of others in our lives who put it to the test. All of these things are meant to be mutually shared and enjoyed as a faith community. As Paul told the believers in Corinth: “A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other” (1 Corinthians 12:7 NLT).

So, Paul begins his letter to the believers in Philippi by reminding them that they are in partnership with him and with one another for the cause of Christ. They were in this together. Christianity is a team sport, not an individual event. Our salvation is meant to be lived out in community, not isolation. Our sanctification is intended to be a group activity, not an individual pursuit done in secrecy and seclusion.

The fellowship of faith is powerful. The community of faith is transformational. The greatest impact any believer will have will be in proportion to his or her connection to and reliance upon the faith community into which God has placed them.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Mutual Edification, Not Self-Glorification.

“Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. 

10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. 12 What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” –  Matthew 18:7-14 ESV

Jesus is in the middle of what began as a lesson on humility and its non-negotiable requirement for entrance into the kingdom of heaven. The disciples had been arguing about which of them was the greatest when Jesus intervened and, using a small child as a visual prompt, began to teach them about the need for humility, not hubris. But it’s important to understand that Jesus was not placing children in a higher position than adults. And it is unlikely that He was teaching that it’s easier for a child to be saved than an adult. His emphasis was the innocence, trust and natural humility found in a child.

When Jesus referred to “these little ones,” He was talking about those who willingly place their faith in Him, trusting Him as a child would – without guile, not driven by ego, or motivated by self-indulgence.

Jesus, knowing that His disciples were obsessed with status, reminded them that they were to accept these innocent believers in His name. They were not to categorize or rank them by outward signs of worth or treat some as more important than others. James, the half-brother of Jesus, had some strong words regarding this kind of prejudice practiced in the church.

My dear brothers and sisters, how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others?

For example, suppose someone comes into your meeting dressed in fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, and another comes in who is poor and dressed in dirty clothes. If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, “You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor”—well, doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives?

Listen to me, dear brothers and sisters. Hasn’t God chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith? Aren’t they the ones who will inherit the Kingdom he promised to those who love him? But you dishonor the poor! Isn’t it the rich who oppress you and drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who slander Jesus Christ, whose noble name you bear? – James 2:1-7 NLT

Don’t judge a book by its cover. Don’t allow status or worldly signs of significance to deceive you. Christ’s kingdom was not going to be populated by the powerful, pretentious, the popular, or the prosperous. It isn’t that these people could not have a place in His kingdom, but they would first have to become as little children: Full of humility rather than being full of themselves.

The world is full of stumbling blocks. There are all kinds of natural impediments designed to keep people from coming to Christ. And for those who do place their faith in Christ, there would be no shortage of barriers along the way, intended to keep them from growing in their faith. So, Jesus warns His disciples about the danger of becoming a source of discouragement to another believer. By arguing over who was the greatest, the disciples were inadvertently discouraging one another. It had not escaped the other nine disciples that Peter, James, and John were favored by Jesus. They had been included in His trip to the mountaintop, while the others had been left behind. Peter had received a blessing from Jesus because he had been the first to speak up and declare Jesus as the Son of God. A natural and normal competitive factor had developed between the disciples, and it left some feeling less significant than others.

This led Jesus to stress the need for mutual care and concern. And He used hyperbole to drive home the seriousness of His point. Anyone who caused a fellow believer to stumble in their walk would be better off dead. Jesus is not teaching that someone can lose their salvation for tempting another believer to falter in their faith. He is simply stressing how serious we should take our role in another person’s faith journey. Anything we do to discourage another believer by looking down on them or making them feel inferior will have destructive consequences. And Jesus stresses the seriousness of this offense by saying, “it would be better for him to have a huge millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the open sea” (Matthew 18:6 NLT). 

Jesus does not want His disciples to be sources of stumbling for other believers. So, He warns them to set aside their pride and to humbly serve any and all who place their faith in Him, regardless of their status in life. Again, Jesus uses hyperbole to make His point. He warns His disciples that anything in their life that might cause a brother to stumble should be eliminated at all costs. That includes their pride.

It’s interesting to note that Jesus uses hands, feet, and eyes as examples. It is with our hands that we grasp the things of this world. It is with our feet that we stray from the path that God has set for us. And it is our eyes that cause us to lust after the things of this world. The apostle John provides us with a strong word of warning concerning these things.

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. – 1 John 2:15-16 NLT

It’s important to remember that this entire exchange between Jesus and His disciples began with their argument over who was the greatest. The very fact that they were debating this topic reveals that they saw themselves as somehow superior to one another. So, Jesus told them, “See that you do not disdain one of these little ones” (Matthew 18:10 NLT). The Greek word Jesus used means “to think little or nothing of.” They were devaluing one another. They were assessing worth based on outward attributes. But Jesus stressed that God views all equally. He shows no partiality. Paul reminds us, “God does not show favoritism” (Romans 2:11 NLT). So, why should we? God cares for each and every one of His children. If one strays, He seeks them out. And when He finds them, He rejoices. So should we.

The sin-based pride of the disciples was destructive. Their obsession with self-importance and their need for recognition and status had no place in the kingdom of heaven. They were going to learn that the plight of the believer would be difficult enough in this world without having fellow believers placing roadblocks in the way. Unity was going to be essential to the success of the church. Mutual care and concern were going to be essential characteristics of the body of Christ. And the New Testament is filled with admonitions to model humility and to serve one another selflessly and sacrificially.

Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. – 1 Thessalonians 5:11 ESV

Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them. – Ephesians 4:29 NLT

So then, let us aim for harmony in the church and try to build each other up… – Romans 14:19 NLT

We should help others do what is right and build them up in the Lord. – Romans 15:2 NLT

Mutual edification, not self-glorification. Building up others, not pumping up ourselves. Putting others first and ourselves last. That is life in the kingdom. We are in this together. We are the body of Christ and each of us needs the other.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Blessed To Bless.

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. And in this matter I give my judgment: this benefits you, who a year ago started not only to do this work but also to desire to do it. So now finish doing it as well, so that your readiness in desiring it may be matched by your completing it out of what you have. For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have. For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.” – 2 Corinthians 8:9-15 ESV

Paul makes it clear that his call for the Corinthians to give to the needs of the Judean Christians was not a command. “I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine” (2 Corinthians 8:8 ESV). He knew that if he commanded that they give, their doing so would be out of a sense of legalism, not love. Their giving would be grudgingly, not willingly. It would be accompanied by regret, not rejoicing. It was Paul’s sincere desire that their giving be based on their understanding of and appreciation for all that Jesus Christ had done for them.

You know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich. – 2 Corinthians 8:9 NLT

Jesus sacrificed all that He had in order to pay for the sins of mankind. He gave His own life in order to redeem lost men and women, trapped in the debt they owed due to sin, and condemned to eternal separation from God. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul elaborates on the remarkable grace of Jesus and how it should motivate the believer’s life.

Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.

Though he was God,
    he did not think of equality with God
    as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
    he took the humble position of a slave
    and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
     he humbled himself in obedience to God
    and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
    and gave him the name above all other names,
     that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
     and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. – Philippians 2:3-11 NLT

The same attitude that Christ had. That is what Paul is calling the Corinthians to have. Humble. Selfless. Sacrificial. Obedient. Loving. And willing to finish what He started, to complete what He had been called to do – out of obedience to His heavenly Father and love for those He came to save.

Paul calls on the Corinthians to follow Christ’s lead and to finish what they began. A year earlier they had begun the process of giving toward the needs of the saints in Judea, but had evidently failed to finish the job. So Paul gives them a little friendly advice or counsel.

Here is my advice: It would be good for you to finish what you started a year ago. Last year you were the first who wanted to give, and you were the first to begin doing it. Now you should finish what you started. Let the eagerness you showed in the beginning be matched now by your giving. Give in proportion to what you have. – 2 Corinthians 8:10-11 NLT

Paul was not asking them to “give until it hurts” or to give what they did not have. This was not about the redistribution of wealth or some form of socialistic economic equality. It was simply the love of Christ lived out in everyday life, as the body of Christ ministered to itself, one group sharing what it had with those who had nothing. The blessed being a blessing. As Paul had told the Philippian believers, the mutual care and concern of Christians for one another was to be nothing more than an extension of their relationship with Christ.

Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? Any comfort from his love? Any fellowship together in the Spirit? Are your hearts tender and compassionate? Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose. – Philippians 2:1-2 NLT

While reciprocity or payback should not motivate our giving, Paul points out that the day may come when the tables are turned. We may find ourselves on the receiving end of someone else’s generous and loving aid. When there are needs to be met, we are to give out of what we have – no more, no less. We are to give selflessly, even sacrificially, because we share a common bond in Christ. And in giving, we should be encouraged to know that, should we ever find ourselves in need, our brothers and sisters in Christ will be there for us as well. We are a family. We share the love of God. We have a common bond in Christ.

The principle at play here is the sovereign blessing of God on His people. Paul uses the Old Testament story of the Exodus as an illustration. When the people of Israel were wandering in the wilderness, God had met their needs, including providing them with food to eat. In the evening, God provided them with quail. In the mornings, they found manna. And each day, the people would go out and gather the manna, provided to them by God. They were commanded by Moses:

Gather of it, each one of you, as much as he can eat. You shall each take an omer, according to the number of the persons that each of you has in his tent.” And the people of Israel did so. They gathered, some more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack. Each of them gathered as much as he could eat. – Exodus 16:16-18 ESV

God had provided and no one had need. And there was no need for anyone to hoard. In fact, if they attempted to keep more than they needed for their own personal needs, it rotted. God did not want them depending on the manna for their needs. He wanted them to trust in Him. He gave them what they needed and no one had any need. No one went hungry. That same principle applied to the people of Corinth. God was meeting their needs. They had all they required to exist. There was no need to hoard or selfishly withhold the blessings of God for a rainy day. Whatever the Corinthians enjoyed by way of abundance had been made possible by God. And their excess was not intended for their own security, but for the needs of others. Just as our spiritual gifts are intended for the body and not for our own benefit, so our financial blessings are intended for the good of all. God blesses us so that we might be a blessing to others.

 

A Wide Open Door.

I will visit you after passing through Macedonia, for I intend to pass through Macedonia, and perhaps I will stay with you or even spend the winter, so that you may help me on my journey, wherever I go. For I do not want to see you now just in passing. I hope to spend some time with you, if the Lord permits. But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.

When Timothy comes, see that you put him at ease among you, for he is doing the work of the Lord, as I am. So let no one despise him. Help him on his way in peace, that he may return to me, for I am expecting him with the brothers. Now concerning our brother Apollos, I strongly urged him to visit you with the other brothers, but it was not at all his will to come now. He will come when he has opportunity.– 1 Corinthians 16:5-12 ESV

Paul was a man on the move, because he was a man on a mission for God. He wrote this letter from Ephesus where he would spend three years ministering, one of his longest stops in any particular place. He was constantly looking for opportunities to share the gospel and to help believers grow in their knowledge of God and their faith in Christ. Paul had a deep love for the churches he helped establish and saw the members of the congregations as his children in the faith. He felt a special bond with them and had a strong sense of responsibility for their spiritual well-being. In the case of Ephesus, there were “many adversaries” who were opposing his work and making life difficult for the believers there. Like a mother hen protecting her chicks, Paul was not about to leave the Ephesian believers alone and defenseless. Plus, he saw a “wide door for effective work” opened to him. And as long as there were unbelievers with whom to share the gospel and new believers who needed to grow, Paul would see himself as a man with work to do. His job was never done. And even in spite of pain and suffering, rejection and times of apparent failure, Paul was prone to soldier on, giving everything he had to accomplish the mission given to him by Christ.

When Paul wrote his letter to the believers in Philippi, he did so while in prison in Rome. For a man like Paul, the real pain of imprisonment was not the conditions, but the fact that he was kept from visiting the churches he loved so much. And while he knew that he might very well die for his faith, he was not quite ready to give up his mission.

For I fully expect and hope that I will never be ashamed, but that I will continue to be bold for Christ, as I have been in the past. And I trust that my life will bring honor to Christ, whether I live or die. For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better. But if I live, I can do more fruitful work for Christ. So I really don’t know which is better. I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live. – Philippians 1:20-24 NLT

You get a glimpse into Paul’s heart in this passage. He longed to be bold and unashamed, even while under Roman guard. He desired for his life to honor Christ – either in life or death. And he was torn between those two options, because in a way, he knew it would be better if he could die and go to be with Christ. But he also knew that there was work yet to be done. Notice that he puts the needs of the Philippians ahead of his own. “But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live.”

Paul longed to see the Corinthians again, but he did not want it to be “in passing.” In other words, he wanted to have an extended stay with them, probably because he saw the spiritual needs there as great. His entire letter has reflected the many concerns he had for their spiritual well-being. But while Paul had to delay his visit because of the open doors in Ephesus, he had made plans to send Timothy, his young protegé and disciple in the faith, to Corinth. And because Paul knew that the Corinthians were prone to judge by appearances and were already struggling with divisions over leadership (1 Corinthians 3:4), he had to remind them to “see that you put him at ease among you, for he is doing the work of the Lord, as I am. So let no one despise him” (1 Corinthians 16:10-11 ESV). Timothy was young and easily intimidated. Which is why Paul had told him, “Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity” (1 Timothy 4:12 NLT).

In verse 12, we have Paul’s sixth and final use of the phrase, “now concerning…” In each and every case that he has used it, he was referring to a question or concern raised by the Corinthians. In this instance, we are not sure what the issue was concerning Apollos, but we know that there was a group in the church in Corinth who considered him their leader. They may have been wondering when Apollos was going to return to them. In fact, they may have preferred his presence over that of Paul. But rather than be offended, Paul simply stated that he had urged Apollos to visit them, but for some reason he had chosen not to do so. Paul didn’t throw Apollos under the bus or malign him in any way. For Paul, it was not a competition. It was about sharing the gospel and building up the body of Christ. As he stated earlier in this letter, “I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow” (1 Corinthians 3:6 NLT). Paul assured them that Apollos would come when he had the opportunity.

In the meantime, Paul longed to return himself. He saw much work that needed to be done in Corinth. The church was divided. The people were immature and misusing their their spiritual gifts. Selfishness and pride were evident in the church. The influence of paganism and Hellenistic dualism was having a negative impact on the fellowship there. And all of this would result in Paul’s eventual return. As long as there were immature believers needing to grow and lost individuals needing to hear about the gospel, Paul had work to do. The door was wide open, and he was more than willing to walk through it. No rest for the weary. No retirement plans. No extended vacation. Open doors are meant to be walked through. Opportunities need to be taken advantage of. Pressing needs require immediate attention. And Paul was always reading, willing and able.

 

 

Immaturity and Spirituality.

Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. In the Law it is written, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you. – 1 Corinthians 14:20-25 ESV

The Corinthians had revealed their spiritual immaturity to Paul by elevating the gift of tongues to a primary position. They saw speaking in tongues as a sign of spirituality and were pursuing and practicing that gift to the detriment of the body of Christ. So Paul calls them out and encourages them to “grow up” in their thinking. It is one thing to be innocent when it comes to evil, but they were acting like children when it came to the gifts God had given to the church. They were enamored by the more showy, flamboyant gifts and were allowing jealousy, pride and envy to characterize their use of the gifts, rather than the mutual edification of one another.

One of the most important distinctions Paul makes about the gift of tongues is regarding its purpose or objective. He quotes a passage from Isaiah 28 to show that tongues “are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers” (1 Corinthians 14:22 ESV). The context of the Isaiah passage is that God had sent Isaiah to warn the people of Israel of the coming invasion of the Assyrians. He has been calling them to repent and return to Him as their God, but they have stubbornly refused the calls of the prophet, Isaiah. Isaiah had been speaking to them in their own language, but they had refused to listen. So Isaiah warns them that God was going to send the Assyrians, and “by people of strange lips and with a foreign tongue the Lord will speak to this people” (Isaiah 28:11 ESV). Their unbelief and stubbornness was going to force God to punish them by sending them into captivity, but even then they would not repent.

Paul is trying to get them to think logically and maturely about their view of tongues. He even uses a real-life scenario to make his point. “If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?” (1 Corinthians 14:23 ESV). In other words, if tongues is the superior gift they seem to think it is and everyone in the church practiced it at the same time, what would unbelievers think when they walked in the door and experienced the chaos and confusion firsthand? They would most likely conclude that Christians were crazy. Rather than see Christians living and worshiping together in unity, they would experience a spirit of competition. Instead of hearing a clearly articulated and understandable delivery of the gospel, they would walk away confused and convinced that Christianity was no different than the pagan religions with which they were already familiar. It is important to note that Paul is describing a time of corporate worship. This is supposed to be a time when the body of Christ gathers for worship and mutual edification.

If we look back at Acts 2 and see the first evidence of the gift of tongues being used, we see that it was not during a time of corporate worship. They had been waiting together in a room, just as Jesus had instructed them to do. And then something happened.

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. – Acts 2:1-4 ESV

And there was a purpose behind this one-of-a-kind event. Luke goes on to record:

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 2:5-8 ESV

In this case, they all spoke in tongues at the same time. A scenario much like Paul described in his example. But the reason was simple. There were thousands of people present who were from other countries and who spoke other languages. And each was able to hear what was being said in their own language. And the result of this amazing event was that 3,000 people came to faith in Christ. The gift of tongues had a purpose. It was God-ordained and Holy Spirit-directed. But this was not intended to be the norm. It was not a prescribed method or form of worship for the early church. And yet the Corinthians had childishly elevated tongues to a superior position, misunderstanding its purpose and missing the point behind what God was trying to do in their midst.

Ultimately, Paul was interested in heart change. He compares tongues with the gift of  prophecy, describing another scenario in which a lost person visits the corporate worship service. This time, rather than confusion and chaos, they hear the truth being proclaimed through the gift of prophecy. Paul says, “they will be convicted of sin and judged by what you say. As they listen, their secret thoughts will be exposed, and they will fall to their knees and worship God, declaring, ‘God is truly here among you’” (1 Corinthians 14:24;25 NLT). Understandable truth results in undeniable heart change. Revelation brings about redemption. Edification and evangelism were the primary purpose behind the gifts when the church gathered. There would be a proper place and time for the gift of tongues, but it had to be Spirit-determined and directed. Choosing to use gifts because of their seeming spirituality revealed an immature perspective. It was childish and short-sighted. A more mature outlook would view the gifts as given by God and up to Him to use as He sees fit, with the ultimate purpose being the building up the body of Christ.

 

Edification, Not Emotion.

Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up. I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue. – 1 Corinthians 14:13-19 ESV

Once again, Paul emphasizes the importance of the spiritual gifts as tools given by God for the mutual edification of the body of Christ. He indicates that a person who prays during worship using an unknown language may be giving thanks to God, but the rest of the congregation will not be built up. They will not understand what is being said, so they will be unable to join in thanksgiving. In fact, Paul says that someone praying in a tongue has no idea what they are saying as well. “For if I pray in tongues, my spirit is praying, but I don’t understand what I am saying” (1 Corinthians 14:14 NLT). That’s why Paul encourages those who say they have the gift of tongues to pray that they might also be given the ability to interpret what they are saying. The spiritual part of a believer’s life was not to be viewed as separate or distinct from their intellectual or cognitive capacities. God puts a high priority on knowledge. He wants us to know Him. He desires for us to know truth. He wants us to “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19 ESV). Even Paul said, “I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death” (Philippians 3:10 NLT).

Earlier in this same letter, Paul spoke of the Spirit’s role in helping believers understand and comprehend the mind of God.

For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. – 1 Corinthians 2:10-13 NLT

The Spirit of God exists to make God known. He helps us understand those things given to us by God. Without the Spirit living within us, we would still be natural and not spiritual. And the “natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14 ESV).

So the Spirit within us is there to help us understand. And when the Spirit speaks through us by means of our gift, others should be able to understand as well. They should be drawn closer to God. But Paul indicates that the gift of tongues, without interpretation, is of no use to anyone. It may make the one speaking feel spiritual, but there is no benefit to their understanding. Underlying all of this is Paul’s emphasis on the content of the message. What is being said is far more important than the means or the method of delivery. That’s why he makes the very bold statement: “But in a church meeting I would rather speak five understandable words to help others than ten thousand words in an unknown language” (1 Corinthians 14:19 NLT). He is discounting the validity of tongues as a gift, but he is elevating the priority of communication and edification.

One of the more difficult portions of this passage to understand is Paul’s claim, “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you” (1 Corinthians 14:18 ESV). Many in the charismatic movement who view tongues as ecstatic utterances and not actual languages, use this verse as proof that Paul used the gift of tongues in secret. But in every case where tongues is mentioned in the New Testament, it is in a corporate context. And it always involves unbelievers, such as on the day of Pentecost. Paul will even go on to clarify that “tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers” (1 Corinthians 14:22 ESV). So what does Paul mean when he says that he speaks in tongues more than any of them. I think Paul is using sarcasm. He is actually saying that what they are claiming to be the gift of tongues is not tongues at all. Paul had evidently spoken in tongues before. And more than likely he did so in keeping with the New Testament criteria that it be done for the benefit of non-believers. More than likely Paul was given the use of tongues when he spoke in the synagogues in the towns he visited. There would have been non-Jews present who had become followers of Yahweh. They would have spoken other languages and it is likely that it was on those occasions that Paul spoke in tongues, using languages that would be understood by those present.

But the bottom line for Paul was using the gifts properly and in keeping with God’s design for them. If they did not benefit others, either the lost or other believers, they were being misused, even abused. Paul will go on to use an absurd example intended to show the danger of the Corinthian’s improper view of gifts. If one Sunday the entire congregation broke out in the gift of tongues and an unbeliever walked in the door, they would probably conclude that everyone had lost their minds. The disciples of Jesus got a similar response when they spoke in tongues at Pentecost. Some were amazed, others were perplexed, and then there were those who just accused them of being drunk. But Peter used the opportunity to share the gospel. The gift of tongues had a divine purpose. Any gift that does not edify is being misused. Any view of the gifts that emphasizes the emotions over spiritual edification is misguided and dangerous. There must be a benefit to the entire congregation. Which is why Paul said, “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 14:6 ESV). When we are operating in the power of the Spirit, it is for the benefit of all. It is for the building up of the body of Christ, not the individual.

Build Up.

If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church. – 1 Corinthians 14:7-12 ESV

Paul is not attempting to prioritize one gift over another. He is simply trying to point out the community mindset that should always be dictate the use of the gifts. They are meant for the body of Christ, not the individual. The gift of tongues, if used in a corporate context, but without interpretation, would be useless to those who heard it. It would be unintelligible and, therefore, of little or no value to them spiritually. As Paul mentioned earlier, the unknown language was not the point, but the message it conveyed. God gave the gifts for a purpose: to build up the body of Christ. There was a time and place for each of them to be utilized. To speak in a language no one in the audience understands would be inappropriate and unnecessary. It would have no purpose. In fact, it could end up being confusing. Paul compares it to a military bugler calling the army to battle, but playing a tune no one understands or recognizes. The result would be potentially devastating.

How is anyone going to enjoy a tune being played if the notes themselves are unrecognizable? You will hear sounds, but they will be unknown to you and the tune attempting to be played will go unrecognized. Paul seems to be indicating that there is to be a purpose behind the use of tongues. God is conveying a message through the gift, but if it comes across as unintelligible to the hearers, its value is lost. Once again, Paul is trying to point out the value of the content or message. Look closely at what he says:

Even lifeless instruments like the flute or the harp must play the notes clearly, or no one will recognize the melody. – 1 Corinthians 14:7 NLT

All of this reminds me of a contemporary worship service where the music team is playing a song that no one knows and the leader is encouraging the congregation to sing along. But the tune and the lyrics are unfamiliar to them. While the worship band plays and sings with skill and confidence, the congregation is lost and unable to join in with enthusiasm. They become spectators, watching and listening, but failing to participate in the worship experience as intended. Now, imagine being in that same situation, but the band is singing in a foreign language. They are gifted, skilled, energetic and well-intentioned. The song they are playing has wonderful lyrics with a powerful message. But the audience does not understand a word that is being said. How will they benefit from the experience? How will the content of the song being played have an impact if they cannot understand the words being sung?

Paul says, “It’s the same for you. If you speak to people in words they don’t understand, how will they know what you are saying? You might as well be talking into empty space” (1 Corinthians 14:9 NLT). The objective should always be communication and comprehension for the purpose of edification. When it comes to the gifts, Paul says “seek those that will strengthen the whole church” (1 Corinthians 14:12 NLT). But the New Living Translation actually conveys an unintended message in their translation of this verse. It seems as if Paul is encouraging the Corinthians to seek out or to pursue particular gifts, as if it is somehow up to their discretion, but earlier in this same letter, he made it quite clear that the gifts are given by the Spirit. Back in chapter 12, Paul wrote, “It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts. He alone decides which gift each person should have” (1 Corinthians 12:11 NLT). We don’t get to chose our gift, it is given to us by the Spirit of God.

In the original Greek, Paul is essentially saying, “In your eagerness to have a spiritual gift, make sure you don’t forget that their purpose is to build up the church.” The Corinthians were looking at the gifts from a selfish perspective, desiring particular gifts because of the perceived status they carried with them. They desired the more flamboyant gifts. But Paul is reminding them that God’s purpose behind the gifts is the spiritual edification of others, not the prideful elevation of the one with the gift. Three times in the first 12 verses, Paul emphasizes the building up of the body of Christ – the church.

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

For prophecy is greater than speaking in tongues, unless someone interprets what you are saying so that the whole church will be strengthened. – 1 Corinthians 14:5 NLT

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

Paul emphasized the same thing in his letter to the church in Ephesus. “Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-12 NLT). Earlier in this letter, Paul wrote a very similar thing:

All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it. Here are some of the parts God has appointed for the church:

first are apostles,

second are prophets,

third are teachers,

then those who do miracles,

those who have the gift of healing,

those who can help others,

those who have the gift of leadership,

those who speak in unknown languages. – 1 Corinthians 12:27-28 NLT

God the Father has appointed the gifts to be given to the church. But it required the life of His Son, Jesus Christ, be sacrificed before the gifts could be given. And once Jesus was resurrected the Holy Spirit was free to distribute the gifts as He deems necessary, for the good of the body of Christ. As a believer in Jesus Christ, your giftedness is guaranteed. And the objective behind your giftedness is clear: The building up of the body of Christ. When God saved you, He placed you within the body of Christ. He made you part of His family, the community of believers. Your presence within that corporate body is God-ordained, and your mission is clear. You are to use the gift given to you by the Spirit to help build up, edify, encourage and strengthen those around you.

Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other. – Romans 12:4-5 NLT