To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Spiritual Gifts and the Great Commission

1 Corinthians 14:1-25
Preached Sunday morning, December 10, 2006
Lexington Church of Christ, Milton Stanley

In our journey through 1 Corinthians, we are still in a part of the letter dealing with spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12-14). But even though the immediate topic at hand is speaking in tongues, Paul throughout this section manages to turn the discussion to larger issues. In chapt. 12, for example, the Apostle used the topic of spiritual gifts to teach a lesson on the unity of the body. In chapt. 13, he reminds Christians of the centrality of love. Here, in chapt. 14, we learn about the superiority of prophecy over speaking in tongues.

By way of reminder, let's look back over the teaching in this section so far. Some Christians in Corinth apparently had the gift of tongues and had let the gift go to their heads. Spiritual gifts, given by God to edify the church, had instead become the subject of pride and one-upsmanship. The result was further divisions in the body. Paul reminded the Corinthians that the gift is not more important than the giver, God's Holy Spirit. That Spirit is love, not simply the sentimental kind, but love that changes thoughts and actions. In chapt. 14 we see how love looks in practice. And if we look carefully, we will find powerful implications for discipleship and evangelism. I urge you to carefully consider the text of this morning's lesson with me today.

The first lesson we learn here is that the gift of prophecy is superior to the gift of speaking in unknown tongues. Paul makes that point repeatedly in this chapter. In verse 1 he urges Christians to desire the gift of prophecy, and in v. 5 he tells them that he himself wishes it for them. The rest of the chapter then shows why prophecy is superior to tongues.

At this point you may well be asking why it really matters which is superior, because we don't have these miraculous gifts today in the church, right? Well, looking back through biblical history we see that miraculous gifts come upon God's servants differently in different generations. The first two centuries of the church were a time when these miraculous gifts were seen in force, but once churches began to have copies of the New Testament, these gifts began to fade from the scene. When it comes to tongues, that situation should be easy enough for us to accept. Paul speaks well here of the gift of tongues, but clearly sees prophecy as having a more important role to play in the congregation. And what is that role?

Do you see the answer in v. 3? Prophecy is given to the church for edification, exhortation, and comfort. Edification is a term meaning to build up. So prophecy is given to build up the church. Exhortation means to stir up to action. Therefore prophecy is intended to urge us on to good works. The word used for comfort here means to console the depressed and grieving. All of these qualities of prophecy, Paul reminds the Corinthians in vv. 4 & 5, are to build up the church. And while the church no longer has miraculous prophecy as in the days of Paul, we still have ways to edify, exhort, and comfort the church. The primary way the church brings that kind of edification about today is through preaching the Word of God.

God is not giving us new revelations as in the days of Paul, but today preaching takes the role prophecy played in the days of the New Testament. In fact, some modern versions of 1 Corinthians 14 translate the Greek word in this chapter not as prophecy but as preaching, proclaiming, or instruction [1]. In any case, today preaching the Word of God plays the role in the church once accomplished by prophecy.

There is an even bigger principle involved here than prophecy itself. That principle is this: prophecy is superior to tongues not for what it is, but for what it does. Let's look again at v. 3: "the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation" [2]. These results are far more important than someone flexing his spiritual muscles through the exercise of a spiritual gift. Prophecy is important for what it does. Speaking in unknown tongues is not as useful to the church because it doesn't build up the body. Unless someone in the assembly has the gift to interpret tongues, the tongues-speaker is only making noise as far as the rest of the congregation is concerned. As Paul says, it's better to speak a few words that minds can understand than ten thousand words that have no meaning to the hearers. Tongues are a vehicle for the Spirit to work, but it may not be a good way to edify the church. The lesson here, then, is that the vehicle for the Spirit's working is not as important as the results. Edification is more important than spiritual razzle-dazzle. The Lord wants the church to be edified, built up, through prophecy, preaching, or whatever means. And do you notice here that the prophecy, the building up, is directed inward, to the saints? This is not preaching or prophecy to the lost, but to the saints in the assembly. So the Apostle gives priority here not to reaching out to the lost, but to building up the saints.

On the other hand, let's look at vv. 24 and 25: "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." Did you catch that? Prophecy is directed to the assembly of Christians, but in the process, it may lead to conversion of the unbeliever! Remember the purpose of prophecy: edification, exhortation, and comfort. Not only do those qualities build the church, those are the qualities of God's Word that convert the lost. So even when we direct our attentions to building up the saints, the lost may still come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ.

This teaching in 1 Cor. 14 helps put the Great Commission of Mt. 28:19-20 in context. First Corinthians is directed to a group of Christians much like those in our own culture today: sophisticated, worldly wise, exposed to ideas from all over the world. And have you noticed, as we’ve made our way through the letter, that Paul never tells the Corinthians to go out and try to convert sinners? That’s right. The message is not to convert sinners, but to convert themselves. The Christians in Corinth need to come together in unity. And in the process, sinners might be saved. The Corinthians enjoyed speaking it tongues—but in doing so, they ran the risk of looking crazy to unbelievers. But if they were doing what they should—building up one anther—then visitors to their assemblies might be saved.

So Paul doesn’t tell the Corinthians to go out and try to convert the lost. Yes, he does say that tongues are for the benefit unbelievers, but he also says they are not as important as prophecy, which is for the benefit of believers. As we’ll see, it’s not that unbelievers aren’t important; it’s simply that the edification, the building up, of believers is more important.

Do we have the same emphasis in the church today? Do we keep the emphasis where it belongs? Remember, 1 Corinthians is written not only to Christians in Corinth, but to us as well (1 Cor. 1:2). Have we made building up the church a priority over bringing in the lost?

If we’ve read our marching orders, of course, we know that we need to do both. We call those marching orders The Great Commission. Let’s have a look at that Commission, from Jesus’ words in Mt. 28:19&20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

That’s the church’s mission in relation to humanity: to baptize new disciples and teach them to be obedient to everything Jesus commanded. In other words, we are to bring in the lost and build up the saved. That’s the two-fold message of the Great Commission.

The problem is, we Christians naturally prefer the semi-Great Commission! And what is the“semi-Great Commission? Simply this. Left to our own devices, we will naturally gravitate to fulfilling only one of the “folds” of our two-fold mission. Christians are commissioned to bring in the lost and build up the saved, but if we're not careful, we'll favor one over the other. The problem is that following only half of the Great Commission is like buying half a horse. Can you imagine wanting to save money so badly that you buy only half a horse? In a way, it makes sense. We put the harness on the front of the horse, and it’s the back end that gives us most of the trouble. So let’s save money and buy only the front end! The problem is that half a horse won’t pull a load. And pretty soon, it stinks!

Sad to say, all too often a congregation wants to follow only half of the Great Commission. In fact, most congregations lean one way or another. Either they focus too little effort on saving the lost or too little on building up the saints. This kind of whop-sided work is as natural as gravity.

Some congregations, for example, are good at going and making disciples. They baptize soul after soul. But if they don’t build up those disciples, teaching them to follow Jesus, then pretty soon the congregation becomes arrogant. Discipleship becomes simply a matter of “We’re in, but you’re out. You’re lost, but we’re on God's good side.” Congregations that turn too much attention outward always become numbers-oriented. Why always? Because if a church doesn’t care to build up the saved, then they don’t really love the ones that are being saved. Baptism becomes not a way to build disciples, but to build attendance. And if we aren’t building up souls, teaching them to obey Jesus’ commands, then we’re not really making disciples.

And that stinks.

Some congregations are good at teaching one another. The members work hard on being better and better Christians, more and more obedient to Jesus Christ. They may develop a very comfortable fellowship, and they may work hard on keeping it that way. But all their attention is focused inward, on their own behavior, and there is no evangelism. Those congregations become smug, thinking they are better than the lost. Church becomes “our thing,” a little mafia. The problem is, if a church isn’t going out to the lost and baptizing the lost into Christ, then they don’t really love them.

And that stinks.

But when congregations fulfill both aspects of the Great Commission—to baptize new Christians and edify the saints, then we are following our marching orders. And here’s the wonderful lesson we learn from 1 Cor. 14: when congregations truly edify one another by the Word of God, the lost are saved. That’s right. As Paul says in 1 Cor. 14:24-25, when edification abounds in the assembly, the lost may well end up worshiping God. That’s why building up the saints is more important than impressing the lost. I can hear it now: “Milton says we don’t need to evangelize.” No. If we don’t seek the lost, then we have only half a horse. But if we edify one another, the lost will see the Holy Spirit among us and glorify God.

There’s another important lesson in these verses of 1 Cor. 14. Evangelism and discipleship are done by congregations. We need to ground new Christians in the Word to build them up. But where does that take place? In the assembly of believers. Yes, it’s important that Christians pray and study the Bible on our own, but where does the building up of Christians take place? In the assembly. There's no way around this process; it's part of the enculturation into the Kingdom.

Imagine if football teams worked the way some congregations try to do church. Let’s say the Oakland Raiders draft a rookie quarterback, fresh from college. Does Art Shell go to that quarterback and say, “Welcome to the NFL! Here’s the play book, now go back to your house and practice patterns in your front yard!” No. They take that young man and throw him into practice with the rest of the team. Sure, there’s an orientation for rookies, but the real learning comes when the rookie starts hanging with the big boys, when he learns what it means to scramble and pass and get hit by a 350-pound defensive tackle in the National Football League. Football is a team activity.

So is discipleship. It’s significant that the only time winning the lost is mentioned in 1 Corinthians is in the context of the spiritual power of a whole congregation. A whole congregation! Conversion is not primarily the job for the preacher or the brother with lots of notches in the cover of his Bible. It’s a congregational mission!

Are we edifying each other in such a way that the lost see us and want to praise God? Do we spend more time building each other up or tearing each other down? The way we build up the church is through edifying, exhorting, and comforting one another. Edification doesn’t arise out of pride, bragging or big dog syndrome; not from criticizing our brothers and sisters when they’re not around; not with blaming the preacher or anyone else for our problems; not with grudges and the silent treatment.

But with love. When a congregation begins to love so that our words and our works are sincere, then we can begin to build the Lord’s church like he intends. That’s what the Corinthian church needed, and that’s what this church needs. We already have the gifts to do it. Remember how 1 Corinthians begins?
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge— even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 1:4-8).
“In every way enriched in him . . . not lacking in any spiritual gift.” Remember, too, that Paul is not talking here strictly to the Corinthians, but also to “all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Cor. 1:2).

So if we already have those gifts, how do we use them effectively? By trying harder? No. God’s Word seldom if ever calls us to work harder. The only way we can learn to use God’s gifts to his glory is through repentance: through admitting our own weakness and God’s power in the Holy Spirit. Repentance, remember, is not simply turning from our sins at conversion. It’s the process of conversion that goes on throughout the life of Christians as we learn more and more to observe everything Jesus commands. It’s turning to his wisdom, his power, his strength. It’s remembering the message Paul preached day-in and day-out for eighteen months in Corinth: Jesus Christ and him crucified.


1. See, for example, the New English Bible, the New Testament in the Language of Today, the New Testament: An American Translation, the Twentieth Century New Testament, and The Message.
2. Scripture quotations here are from the English Standard Version.

(c) Copyright 2006, A. Milton Stanley


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Milton, I am here again. And i am sorry for the comments that I deleted, I just edited them now:

I now agree to Milton when he said:

" preaching takes the role prophecy played in the days of the New Testament. In fact, some modern versions of 1 Corinthians 14 translate the Greek word in this chapter not as prophecy but as preaching, proclaiming, or instruction [1]. In any case, today preaching the Word of God plays the role in the church once accomplished by prophecy."

But I do not agree with Milton when he first started the statement with: "God is not giving us new revelations as in the days of Paul, but..."

Because revelations are not revealed by God all at the same time. There is a time for everything.

Like this one: I commented to his sermon previously about head cover christians should wear and follow as one of the traditions.

Milton said that it is a head cover like veils or hat. But I say based on the bible that it is the natural hair that covers the head.

I want to know Milton, if you changed your stand. But there are still underlying meaning to the tradition of hair as head cover.

Going back to the present topic of Milton, though Paul has mentioned of this, still there are prophecy like that of written in Daniel 12:

4But thou, O Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book, even to the time of the end: many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.

5Then I Daniel looked, and, behold, there stood other two, the one on this side of the bank of the river, and the other on that side of the bank of the river.

6And one said to the man clothed in linen, which was upon the waters of the river, How long shall it be to the end of these wonders?

7And I heard the man clothed in linen, which was upon the waters of the river, when he held up his right hand and his left hand unto heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever that it shall be for a time, times, and an half; and when he shall have accomplished to scatter the power of the holy people, all these things shall be finished.

8And I heard, but I understood not: then said I, O my Lord, what shall be the end of these things?

9And he said, Go thy way, Daniel: for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end.

10Many shall be purified, and made white, and tried; but the wicked shall do wickedly: and none of the wicked shall understand; but the wise shall understand.

11And from the time that the daily sacrifice shall be taken away, and the abomination that maketh desolate set up, there shall be a thousand two hundred and ninety days.

12Blessed is he that waiteth, and cometh to the thousand three hundred and five and thirty days.

13But go thou thy way till the end be: for thou shalt rest, and stand in thy lot at the end of the days.

Milton, though all that is important for salvation has been written already, the underlying meaning will only be understood at the end of days.

Revelation 1:3 Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.

Next one, Milton, do you agree that miracles shall be used by false prophets or teachers. I learned that they will use it to make those that will believe them twice as much a son of hell as themselves as people shall depart from the truth.

But I am glad that since that we can distinguish them from the one who preaches the true Word of God:

John 7:17-18 If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself. He that speaketh of himself seeketh his own glory: but he that seeketh his glory that sent him, the same is true, and no unrighteousness is in him.

I am sorry for the long comment, I will read more of your post, and will comment later.

5:23 AM

5:25 AM  
Blogger Milton Stanley said...

Again, I appreciate your interaction with my work here. But again, I don't have anything to add right now to the head coverings discussion. I will continue to look into the issue, though.

Yes, I agree that some truth we will not understand till the end of time. And yes, I do believe that false teachers or prophets will do signs and wonders.

All the best.

7:50 AM  
Blogger Sista Cala said...

While we are from quite different 'camps', I appreciate the way you handled the text in today's post. Certainly, there would be less divisions in churches today if all would heed the call to EDIFY one another. You are doing just that in your ministry here. Thanks.

8:27 PM  
Blogger Milton Stanley said...

Thank you, SC, for your kind words, and for recognizing that even though we may be in different "camps" we are called by the same Savior to glorify God and edify one another. Peace.

11:08 AM  

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