a sermon during our seminary’s January orientation
Orientation at Justo Mwale is an important time to seek direction. Orientation is a good word. It means getting aligned at the beginning so the future becomes what it’s meant to be. I’ve selected one verse to direct our thoughts this morning, 1 Corinthians 14:1. “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy.” Or, as a literal translation says: “Pursue love, and be zealous for the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.”
I’m not sure how you tend to interpret this verse of Scripture. From my experience, many Presbyterian and Reformed congregations think, “This is not for us. This may be for other believers, but not for us.” Sometimes we act as though Paul said, “Pursue love, ignore the spiritual gifts, and don’t even think about prophesying.” Sometimes we treat these words as though Paul wrote the verse only for the believers at the Pentecostal and charismatic churches.
My hope is that we can move away from the idea that other kinds of churches have access to gifts and power that we don’t have. We need to claim the whole Bible for ourselves. Why should we leave some parts of the Bible for other Christians if there might be some benefit for our own life of faith? We need to claim 1 Corinthians 14 as a passage of the Bible that’s for us.
I think it would be a big surprise to Paul that there would be churches that don’t treat 1 Cor 14:1 as relevant to their life and ministry.
We need freedom to explore what these words mean, these words that seemed so important to the apostle that they’re a summary of 1 Corinthians 12 to 14. What better place to explore the meaning of these words than at a theological college? Here we are, training to be people who speak the word of God, and setting aside a year to think about what it means for us to be pastors and preachers. It is a good time to take a closer look.
Verses take their meaning from the context in which they are found. So even though our passage is short — one verse, one sentence — we need to take a close look at 1 Corinthians to understand what this statement means, and especially chapters 12-14, the section where our verse is found.
We as a community have some important things in common with what Paul is talking about in this section of 1 Corinthians. In chapters 12-14, he’s giving directions regarding the Corinthians’ life and ministry together. He tells them they’re the body of Christ, and that as individuals they have gifts to use and ministries to grow into so that the body will be built up.
This is similar to us at Justo Mwale. We’re here because God has called us, and the church has said we have gifts for ministry, and we’re here to prepare for a ministry of building up the church, and especially to become qualified to speak the word of God to God’s people.
Let’s notice that Paul says three things in this verse which sums up what he urges the Corinthians to do: 1) Pursue love. 2) Be zealous for the spiritual gifts, and 3) Especially be zealous that you may prophesy.
Let’s start with the second part of the verse: “Be zealous for spiritual gifts.”
Paul used a very strong word when he commanded the Corinthians to desire the spiritual gifts. Eagerly desire them. Be zealous for them. An important question for us to address is: Why would Paul tell the Corinthians to eagerly desire the spiritual gifts?
I believe Paul answers this question for us in the way he describes the spiritual gifts and what they accomplish for the church. Paul says in 12:7 “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” A spiritual gift is a manifestation, a bringing to light, a disclosure of the activity of God the Holy Spirit. The gift makes it clear that the Holy Spirit is alive, present, and doing things. In the spiritual gifts the power of the Holy Spirit is manifest. This is why people who are hungry for God in their lives often desire spiritual gifts.
Paul also says a spiritual gift is a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good, for the advantage of the body of Christ as a whole. Paul speaks of the spiritual gifts in several places in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 as edifying the church, encouraging the congregation, and strengthening it. He repeats the word “build up” at least six times in chapter 14.The repetition of this important term helps us to realize what Paul cares about— building up the church – and that the spiritual gifts are for this specific purpose.
Sometimes we give the impression that our churches, as churches of the Reformation, are about the past; we bear witness to the faith of the 16th century European Reformation. We bear witness to the faith brought by missionaries 100 years ago. This is true and good, but we also need to bear witness to a living God who is doing things today, right now, in our midst. Perhaps young people especially need to hear that, and see it.
And sure enough, the Bible uses present tense words to describe the Christian life. In 12:7, Paul says, “To each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit”; he uses the present continual tense of the verb “give”. God gives the manifestation of the Spirit in an ongoing way. It’s something that happens now, and continually. God is giving the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. And so Paul responds to this reality, in 14:1, when he says, “Eagerly desire” or “Be zealous for” the spiritual gifts. He also uses the Greek verb tense that means ongoing action in the present, as though he says: Eagerly desire, and keep on eagerly desiring the spiritual gifts.”
God wants us not only to be open to the spiritual gifts but to eagerly desire them. The church needs to experience the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. We’re to be eager for the gifts, because the church needs to be strengthened, encouraged, and built up.
Now let’s go back to the first part of our verse: “Follow the way of love.”
Paul speaks of love and the spiritual gifts in the same sentence. Back in 1 Cor 1:7, Paul said that the Corinthians had all the gifts. They were not lacking in any spiritual gift. BUT in 1 Cor 3:1-3 Paul says he could not speak to the Corinthian church as to spiritual people. He had to speak to them as spiritual infants. They had every spiritual gift at work in their church, and yet Paul said he could only treat them as infants in Christ. How could this be? Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 — Where there is jealousy, where there is strife, where there is disunity, where there is boasting, spiritual maturity is absent. Notice: Spiritual gifts are not the mark of spiritual maturity. The mark of spiritual maturity is love.
So Paul says to the Corinthians, “Pursue love.” If Paul could be here at Justo Mwale, I think he might say the same thing. Look what he says in 1 Cor 8:1: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Knowledge needs love. Justo Mwale, as an academic institution, is in the business of giving knowledge. And when you graduate, you will graduate with knowledge.
But Paul says, in 13:2, “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, … but have not love, I am nothing.” I am nothing without love, even if I have all knowledge.
The NIV translation of 14:1 says, “Follow the way of love”, but the verb being translated is stronger and more intense than the word “follow”. Paul uses the same Greek verb when he says in 1 Cor 15:9 “I persecuted the church of God”. Paul didn’t just follow Christians around before he became a believer in Jesus. He chased them. He pursued them. He caught them. And so translators use the word “persecute,” to get at the intensity of the word. And that’s the word Paul uses to tell us what to do with agapē love. We go after it and pursue it.
If we chase and pursue something, then our mind is on it. We set it before us as a goal, and then we start running, and we don’t give up. It’s impossible to do this casually or lightly. When Paul uses the same word for pursuing love as the New Testament uses for when early Christians were pursued by their persecutors, it’s clear that we have a picture of zeal, of earnest desire, and seriousness about this goal to love.
But what is this love Paul speaks of in 1 Cor 14:1? Words of Scripture take their meaning from the part of the Bible where they’re found. In this case, we don’t have to look far. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 says, 4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
What if we spent our years at Justo Mwale in the pursuit of that kind of love?
When it’s time to graduate, the registrar, the dean, and the rector may not get together and ask, Is this student patient? Is he kind? Doe she envy? Does he boast? He’s not proud, is he? Is he self-seeking? That conversation probably won’t happen. But when you go to your first congregation as a pastor, they will be asking questions like that. Does the pastor care? Is he kind, or is he self-seeking? Is she easily angered, or does she keep no record of wrongs? Is he rude, or is he patient?
Paul says to earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, but he also says: Pursue love. The gifts are manifestations of the Spirit and of divine power. Paul knows that power without love is destructive.
If we place even more emphasis on love than on our other gifts and skills for ministry, we are less likely to use our gifts for self-gratification. We’ll use our gifts for building up the church. If we spend our years at Justo Mwale learning to love, then we’re on our way to becoming good pastors.
Now the third part of the verse: “Especially that you might prophesy”
Throughout chapter 14, Paul attempts to encourage and convince the Corinthian church of the importance of a particular gift. Paul was convinced that this gift of prophecy was the spiritual gift that the Corinthians most needed. If Paul would tell a local congregation to be zealous that they might prophesy, how much more would he say the same to us, as a community of people preparing for ministries of speaking the word of God to others!
We need to think about what 1 Corinthians means by prophesying. It would be helpful if we had a video of a Corinthian worship service, so we would know exactly what gift looked like. One of the difficult things about interpreting 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 is that we only have Paul’s words. Although we can turn to Acts and see some of the same words for the spiritual gifts used, such as tongues or prophecy, it’s not always clear that they have the same meaning in Acts as they have in Paul’s letters.
The word prophesy itself just means to proclaim something that God wishes to say. But other verses in chapter 14, besides verse 1, give us a little more information. Verse 29 says, “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.” Paul says that others in the church should weigh, evaluate, and discern what is said. It looks like prophesying in 1 Corinthians may not carry the same authority as when Old Testament prophets would say, “Thus says the Lord…” It sounds like Paul is saying we need to be humble when we use this gift, because we may not always say exactly what the Lord wants us to say. We don’t always hear God’s voice with accuracy, so the congregation needs to evaluate what is said.
Verse 14:3 can also help us in knowing what Paul means by prophesying: “The one who prophesies speaks to people to build them up, encourage them, and comfort them.” Genuine prophesying is for building people up, encouraging them, and comforting them. Verse 31 is also clarifying: “For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged.” “So that all may learn” – it involves learning.
I don’t see any evidence in 1 Corinthians that Paul means to say this gift is the ability to tell the future. He doesn’t rule it out, but he also doesn’t mention it. I also don’t see any evidence that the person has to have a magnetic, exciting personality. He doesn’t need special clothes. He doesn’t have to have a nice car or access to a TV camera. And she doesn’t have to be someone who speaks to huge groups of people.
People who prophesy speak deeply into people’s lives, so their listeners are not the same afterward. The person is enabled by God to speak a word that is on target for people’s hearts and minds, to build them up and encourage their faith. He or she speaks just the thing that the people need to hear at a given time. The Holy Spirit is manifest because people know that God has addressed them and not just a person. The word not only rings true with Scripture; it goes to people’s hearts, so they know the Holy Spirit has been present.
Is preaching the same as prophecy? This is something we need to explore. I can only begin an answer.
It seems clear from Paul’s words that prophecy does not require a sermon. It can happen separately from a formal sermon.
But it also seems that preaching can qualify as prophecy. Often when I sit in one of these chairs, and someone else is standing here preaching, I sense that God is speaking to me. I experienced it yesterday. Maybe others were having the same experience. If so, that’s a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. Yesterday’s preacher might not think of himself as a prophet among us, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t exercising a prophetic gift, if God was addressing us through him.
Let’s be honest: I don’t think preaching always qualifies as prophecy. But it can qualify as prophecy. Prophecy is when God speaks through a person what people need to hear. Preaching can do that. And when it does, it is prophetic.
Whether we understand this gift completely or not, one thing is clear: Prophecy is something we should eagerly desire. And just in case we miss it in 14:1, Paul says it again in 14:39 – “Brethren, be zealous to prophesy.”
Our studies can give us perspective and help us say informed things. But it takes the involvement of God to say what God wishes to say. It takes the involvement of God to say something, and then have people know that God has said something to them. When God speaks through us, the Holy Spirit is making himself manifest and activating the gift of prophecy through us.
Some pastors and congregations steer away from spiritual gifts because they can be abused. The gifts can certainly be abused. But staying away from them was not Paul’s solution. He taught love and emphasized that love is the real mark of being spiritual. Some Christians think, if you really want to be a strong, mature Christian, you must learn about spiritual gifts. But we’ve seen that spiritual gifts are not the mark of a mature Christian. Love is the mark of a mature Christian. Yet we’re still to desire the spiritual gifts, especially to prophesy.
As you go through your years at Justo Mwale, pursue love, desire the spiritual gifts, and especially that God would reveal to you what’s on his heart to say to God’s people. Earnestly desire the gift of prophecy.
Maybe we need to think about our experience here as training to be prophets. We may be Reformed. We may be Presbyterian. We’re going to do things decently and in order. But we also need divine power. We need divine gifting. And we sell ourselves short if we settle for getting academics but miss integrating our studies with the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
God has things he wants to communicate to people. Let’s become pastors who have insight into what those things are. “Pursue love, be earnest for spiritual gifts, and especially that you might prophesy.”