Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
Paul writes extensively on the topic of spiritual gifts. I like the chapter in 1 Corinthians about speaking and tongues and prophecy because Paul comes down pretty hard on speaking in tongues (and as most know, those who can’t speak in tongues find the whole idea to be absolute rubbish). At the same time, Paul elevates prophecy, advising people to seek that instead of tongues. However, the Holy Spirit reminded me that one gift outranks them all, and that said gift is accessible to everyone. 1 Corinthians 12:31 serves as our introduction for today:
But eagerly desire the greater gifts.
And now I will show you the most excellent way.
To be sure, speaking in tongues is nothing to write home about (sorry angel-whisperers, being able to speak in a language nobody understands [including you] isn’t very helpful to the church). Paul actually stated, “But in church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Corinthians 14:19). During his time, tongues were such an issue that Paul put limitations on how many people were able to do it during a church service. He instructs, “If anyone speaks in a tongue, two – or at the most three – should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret” (1 Corinthians 14:27). [As a side note: Interpretation of tongues is an extremely specific gift and probably is in high demand at some churches – if you’re looking for gifts, pray that Jesus grant you this one. I imagine that tongues, when translated, would be quite awesome.] Speaking in tongues is cool – for you – but to everyone else it is just rambling or gurgling. Paul said of it, “He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church” (1 Corinthians 14:4). A tongue speaker may know that they have the Holy Spirit, but no one else may believe it. As Paul noted, “So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?” (1 Corinthians 14:23). Therefore Paul advises us, “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy” (1 Corinthians 14:1).
Prophecy and teaching rock hard. As we’ve already seen, Paul recommends it. And it is good for getting people saved; for Scripture notes,
But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!” (1 Corinthians 14:24-25)
However, those with such gifts must be more careful; for it is also written of teachers and prophets, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1). The lives of teachers and prophets are constantly under scrutiny, as are their words: “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said” (1 Corinthians 14:29). That’s why when pastors fall, they fall hard.
Any comparison between spiritual gifts is moot, though. Firstly, the body of Christ needs both tongues and prophets. Scripture tells us,
Now you are the body of Christ, and each of you is a part of it. And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having fits of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? (1 Corinthians 12:27-30)
But more importantly, all spiritual gifts are meaningless without the greatest gift of them all: Love. “Love isn’t a gift!” you may protest. But yes it is; for 1 John 4:19 tells us, “We love because he first loved us.” God gave us love, thus qualifying it as a gift from him. Without an understanding of Jesus Christ’s love for us, we cannot love like he loves. However, after accepting Jesus’ sacrifice in our stead we are filled with the Holy Spirit and allowed to love the way God intended it. The Bible makes it clear that everything else is rubbish without love:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-2).
Both tongues and prophecy are worthless without love. What are tongues without love except for the incoherent ramblings of a crazy person? And without love one who prophesizes is what, a cult leader? But love is special; it overrides all things and carries on in all situations. Paul wrote of it, “Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away” (1 Corinthians 13:8). Love, too, is better for the church than other gifts. The Bible tells us, “Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). My God-given wisdom makes me arrogant, but love helps everyone because…
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (1 Corinthians 8:4-7).
So make sure that when you’re measuring your gifts you measure the one that actually counts.
Love is a gift given to all of Christ’s followers; he actually commanded it be utilized: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). Since it is a command, this means that such love is accessible to all believers. But if love is a gift, doesn’t that mean it is subject to the whims of the Spirit? After all, people don’t speak in tongues all the time. Let’s check what Scripture has to say: “The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of the prophets” (1 Corinthians 14:32). If prophets can control their spirit then certainly the spirit of love is always accessible to those walking with God. And that’s pretty awesome, because it also means that we always have access to God as 1 John 4:8 points out, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” God is not only the God of love, but is love itself; how cool is that?
Rock on God!