This article is the 19th in an ongoing series on the Holy Spirit. To read other articles in this series, click here.
There is a often disconnect between the way the New Testament speaks about the Spirit and how the church speaks about the Spirit today. In the New Testament there is a major emphasis on the importance of applying the teachings and example of Christ to our lives (see Part 18). Today discussions about the Holy Spirit tend to focus on questions and debates about miracles.
When the Spirit was initially poured out, this was often accompanied by miraculous signs. These wonders served an important role. They signified that the Spirit had indeed been poured out in fulfillment of Old Testament promises (see Part 11).
Some of the Corinthians had been given miraculous spiritual gifts, but they had completely missed the point of these gifts. Instead of using the ability to speak in tongues to build up the church, Paul compared their noise to that of a “lifeless instrument” (1 Cor. 14:7). What was intended to be used as a sign for unbelievers (14:22) had become an occasion for mockery (14:23).
Into this situation, Paul introduces Christ-like love as the key rule by which spiritual gifts were to be exercised.
If I speak in tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.1 Corinthians 13:1-7
Without love, miraculous spiritual gifts are worthless (13:1-3). Love does not insist on getting its own way, but is patient and kind towards others (13:4-5). So it is with the exercise of miraculous spiritual gifts. Spiritual gifts were not to be used to build up the individuals who practiced them, but rather to build up the church (14:1-5). The Corinthians were in need of a shift in how they thought about the Spirit.
Imitators of Christ
Paul’s emphasis on love stems from his encouragement for the Corinthians to mimic his example as he follows Christ.
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.1 Corinthians 11:1
When Paul mentions “Christ,” he specifically has in mind “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 11:1 serves as the conclusion of his reply to the Corinthians regarding the question of eating meat offered to idols (8:1-11:1). Paul began this section of his letter by contrasting knowledge and love.
Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up.1 Corinthians 8:1
In the middle of this section, Paul presents himself as an example of relinquishing his own “rights” (9:4, 5, 6, 12, 18), and keeping his body “under control” (9:27), for the sake of benefiting others. He summarizes his own example as that of seeking the advantage of others before himself.
I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.1 Corinthians 10:33
That is what Paul means when he says, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” which is the very next verse.
Love as a Work of the Spirit
As has been seen throughout the rest of the New Testament, Paul identifies the work of the Spirit as this kind of Christ-like love. First, Paul identified Christ as “him crucified” (2:2). Second, Paul urges people to be imitators of the crucified Christ by following his example as one who denies his own interests for the sake of others (11:1). Then, Paul defines love as patience, kindness, loving the truth, forbearance, belief, hope, and endurance, and as opposed to boastfulness, arrogance, rudeness, self-seeking, irritability, resentfulness, and wrongdoing (13:4-6). These contrasting characteristics are remarkably similar to the “works of the flesh” and the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:19-23 (see Part 16).
By placing the “love chapter” (1 Cor. 13) right in the middle of his discussion of the miraculous spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12-14), Paul establishes self-sacrificial, Christ imitating love as the governing rule by which the Corinthians were to rightly use their spiritual gifts.
The Temporary Nature of Miraculous Spiritual Gifts
In the context of this argument, Paul emphasizes the significance of Christ-like love in contrast to the temporary nature of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit.
Love never ends. As for prophesies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.1 Corinthians 13:8-13
Paul emphasizes that while spiritual gifts will cease, love never fails. Love will continue to be relevant long after the temporary gifts of prophecy, speaking in tongues, and miraculous knowledge pass away.
Paul uses three images to describe the temporary nature of miraculous spiritual gifts.
The first image is that of a child growing into maturity (v. 11). Paul viewed prophecy, speaking in tongues, and miraculous knowledge as child’s play for the church. Paul urged the Corinthians to move on to the grown-up stuff, namely, Christ-like love, which would carry on into the maturity of the church. Even if it could be proved that the Spirit continues to give miraculous spiritual gifts today, this would prove nothing except that the church continues to exhibit the maturity of a child.
The second image is that of a mirror. In the first century, mirrors did not present a clear reflection as most mirrors do today. There were often blurry and misshaped, resulting in an imperfect reflection. This is how Paul viewed miraculous spiritual gifts. Yes, they served an important role, through which they communicated something important about God’s plan, namely that the promises of the Spirit had been fulfilled. But Paul saw that they day was coming when we would see God’s plan face to face rather than looking in mirrors. Just as mirrors are unnecessary when we can see face to face, so Paul saw the day approaching when miraculous gifts would be unnecessary.
Then Paul says the same thing in a third way. “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully.” The miraculous spiritual gifts did serve to communicate important knowledge, but the knowledge they communicated was incomplete in nature. Once the completed knowledge is present, the partial knowledge that results from miraculous prophecy and speaking in tongues would be unnecessary.
A Change of Focus
This passage served to direct the Corinthian’s attention away from the pursuit of miraculous spiritual gifts to the imitation of Christ’s love, which is itself a work of the Spirit. Paul wanted the Corinthians to think about the work of the Spirit beyond the miraculous experiences of those in the first century. The fact that love is more enduring made it all the more important for them to prioritize love in the center of their loves in the present.
Unfortunately, many today continue to be infatuated with talking about the Holy Spirit primarily in terms of miraculous gifts, speaking in tongues, and modern-day prophecy. To such, I believe Paul would point to his discussion in 1 Corinthians 12-14 and say, “I will show you a more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31b).