"Building Up the Church"
Jan.31, 2010 1Cor.14:1-19 Annual Meeting
Community is a great thing, especially the faith community we call 'church'. Today we praise God for what He's done in our church as we look back through 2009, review reports, and what in His strength we've been able to accomplish together in the name of Jesus. But community doesn't happen naturally. Humans are born selfish; a two-year-old's favourite word can be 'mine!' Selfishness walls us off from each other, it erodes or even sabotages community. It doesn't build others up but tears them down.
A couple of quick little examples to illustrate how the world recognizes our penchant to be self-serving. On Wednesday this past week, Steve Jobs of Apple Computer unveiled the company's latest technological wonder, a tablet-style computer with touch-screen and 16GB or more of flash memory that will browse the internet and play video files for about USD $500. They're calling it the 'iPad' - to go along with their previous products, the iPod, the iPhone, and their online marketing stores, iTunes for music and videos, and now the new 'iBooks' for electronic publishing. Do we start to see a pattern here? 'i-this', 'i-that' - everything geared for us personally, individually - the market appreciates that I want my own personal gadget. Big business not only acknowledges but even applauds selfish desire in a consumer.
The second example also comes from this past Wednesday - not big business but big government. US President Obama gave his State of the Union address marking the beginning of his second year in office. He was making the point that politicians have to look beyond personal advantage in setting policies that will benefit the whole nation. He said (aiming mostly at Republicans), "Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions."
Community requires going beyond selfishness. In today's Scripture reading, the apostle Paul attempts to counter a tendency toward religious selfishness that had emerged in the early church's worship. Let's hear what the Holy Spirit would say to our congregation as we have our Annual Meeting, come together prayerfully, and seek God's will for our whole church - not the 'i-Church'.
VARIED GIFTS THE CHURCH'S STRENGTH
Before zeroing in on chapter 14 of 1Corinthians, let's step back and look at the context: chapters 12-14 form an attempt by Paul to coach a very young congregation in southern Greece on the subject of spiritual gifts so they're not 'ignorant' (12:1). As we skim over the chapters, a few general principles about spiritual gifts emerge.
First, it's not about me: if a spiritual gift is genuinely from the Holy Spirit, my use of it will honour Jesus Christ. They're not like some sort of Brownie badge system, seeing who can get the most. 12:3 says, "Therefore I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, "Jesus be cursed," and no one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit." It's about honouring Jesus; He's the direction toward which spiritual gifts point. It's never about showing off your gift, no matter how dramatic or unusual it may be.
Vv4-6 bring out the point that there are many different kinds of gifts, but they're all from God; v11, they're given to each one "just as He determines"; v18 God is the one who has "arranged the parts of the body, every one of them, just as He wanted them to be." They're sovereignly distributed, so there's no ground for boasting or comparing or resentment if you don't have the sensational gift believer 'X' has; don't get bent out of shape or feel you've been shortchanged, just accept whatever you've been given, with thanks. The great variety of gifts is evident in vv8-10: Paul lists wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, and interpretation of tongues; and there are other gifts listed in the companion passages in Romans 12(6ff) and Eph 4(7ff). Vv14-20 in chapter 12 highlight this variety is the STRENGTH of the body, akin to having eyes and ears as well as nose. People are different than you are - get used to it! Variety of members means a variety of abilities.
A third general principle comes up in 12:7, "Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good." Here's where selfishness yields to community. V25, God has combined the members of the body in such a way "that its parts should have equal concern for each other." When we come to worship together, we don't just head for the door as soon as the Benediction is pronounced: we interact, we talk, we show concern for one another. Otherwise the body would never connect. 14:4 says, "He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church." V6 about tongues vs prophecy, Paul asks, "what good will I be to you unless..." So we ask, Do I bring good to the Body? V17, "You may be giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified." When you construct something it's called an 'edifice', meaning something built. So Paul's observing that the other person is not built up.
In 14:19 Paul gives the opinion, "But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue." Because the instructing helps them, does them good. In vv22-25 the relative value of tongues and prophecy is judged by the effect of each one on visitors from the outside. Does it have a positive impact? V26, "All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church." There's that word again, same root in the Greek, 'building-up' or strengthening. And in v31 people are to prophesy in turn "so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged." The dominant theme that weaves chapters 12-14 together is that all these different gifts are to be exercised for the common good, to edify or build up others; are other people being truly helped by my exercise of this gift?
Fourth, gifts are not something about which to have a take-it-or-leave-it kind of attitude: they're to be eagerly sought. 12:31, 'eagerly desire the greater gifts'. 14:1, "eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy." 14:12, "Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church." It's good to have a pure passion for gifts, wanting to excel in them. Go for it! Strong gifts make a strong church. Conversely, spiritual apathy where people don't care about discovering and developing their gifts makes a weak, fruitless church. What category are we? Are you 'eagerly desiring' greater giftedness, or do you have a 'take it or leave it' attitude? There's a little link on our church's homepage to help you find out what spiritual gifts you might have. "Excel in gifts that build up the church."
12:31 leads into chapter 13: Paul writes, "And now I will show you the most excellent way" - and proceeds to describe how love is the greatest gift. In fact, tongues, prophecy, faith, and generosity are all POINTLESS or futile - and passing - without love, which is lasting. Loveless gifts make a church that may seem active but that is really the equivalent of a 'gong' show (13:1). Remember what Paul was telling the Colossians in 3:14 - "And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity."
So, to sum up our quick little overview of these chapters on spiritual gifts: 1) a great diversity of spiritual gifts, divinely determined and distributed, is the church's strength. 2) Gifts are given, not just for our own personal enjoyment, but to have a positive effect on others - to edify them, strengthen them, for the common good. 3) Gifts are GOOD, to be eagerly desired and excelled in. 4) Love is the required 'wrapper' needed to give any gift true value.
TONGUES AND PROPHECY: WHO'S BEING HELPED?
Sometimes in a discussion of spiritual gifts, tongues are relegated to the bottom of the list. But the gift of speaking in tongues is a positive thing in private worship or when publicly interpreted. This is obvious from many phrases Paul uses throughout chapter 14: v2, anyone who speaks in a tongue speaks to God; they utter mysteries with their spirit; v4, they edify themself, or build themself up; v5, Paul would like every one in the church to speak in tongues; v14, when praying in a tongue, your spirit prays; v16, you're praising God with your spirit; v17, you're giving thanks well enough; and to cap it off, Paul even says in v18, "I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you." Wow! So no ragging on the gift of tongues - it's a valuable, desirable gift, an upbuilding personal private prayer language we should appreciate. If that happens to be your gift - use it, don't knock it! It's God-given and legitimate. It's a gift that demonstrates your willingness to honour Jesus as Lord by letting Him be in charge of your tongue - which James points out is one of the most challenging aspects of life to yield in discipleship (Jas 3:2,8).
So, speaking in tongues is definitely a positive. But there are loving limitations. V6, "What good will I be to you," Paul asks - unless it's interpreted or there is some otherwise intelligible communication in plain language, such as a word of instruction? That's the key point - bringing good to others. From vv7-9 Paul switches to the metaphor of musical instruments such as flute or harp not playing a recognizable tune if they're just sounding random notes; that's what a person speaking in tongues sounds like to others, so they should pray that they may interpret what they say (v13). Later in the chapter, vv27f, Paul instructs that in a worship setting, speaking in tongues MUST be interpreted - else those with this gift are to keep quiet in the church "and speak to himself and God". That's still sound policy today.
Prophecy is highlighted in this chapter as a gift "especially" to be desired (1). Now, don't assume this means Old Testament-style prophecy of events far in the future! (Though it may include that, too.) Paul elaborates more on what he means by 'prophecy' in v3 - "But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort." Consider that bit by bit. 'Strengthening' - literally building-up, as in constructing a house; New Living Translation puts it, "helping others grow in the Lord." Does that sound like something you can do, with the help of the Holy Spirit? Bolster the foundation of another believer, help them try stretching into that next stage or story where you perceive God's leading them?
'Encouragement' - literally 'paracleting', obviously Holy Spirit-territory because that's the term Jesus used for the divine Counselor / Helper. A paraclete is 'One called alongside to help.' Would another believer sense your words are a means of Jesus coming alongside them to give them hope and spur them on? If so, perhaps you're prophesying to them - though you wouldn't have put that formal label on it.
'Comfort': this word can also mean cheer or incentive. Do your words help someone feel God's rooting for them, cheering them on, inspiring them to step out in faith? Or perhaps God gives you a promise from Scripture to share with someone who's hurting or grieving. Prayerfully chosen words written in a card with love could be a means of prophesying to someone's spirit. As the person reads the card, they hear God's voice deep in their spirit echoing what you've inked. Do you suppose it's possible to prophesy by a simple phone call when you obey the Holy Spirit nudging you to pick it up and dial?
V4, "He who prophesies edifies the church" - there's that Greek word for 'building-up' again. Does the Lord show you things, perhaps a Biblical promise or verse of a spiritual song, that, when you share them with another person, they feel supported and helped, even if challenged?
Towards the end of the chapter, in v31 Paul adds, "For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged." There's that 'encouragement' aspect again; the verb for 'instructed' here is like the one behind the word 'mathematics' - definite learning going on.
In the early church, prophets were not rare. In Acts 21(9f), Luke notes that Philip had four unmarried daughters who prophesied; and in the next verse, a prophet named Agabus predicts Paul would be bound by the Jews and handed over to the Gentiles. Sometimes prophets communicate visually: in this case, Agabus takes Paul's belt and ties his own hands and feet with it. Acts 13:1 lists several prophets and teachers at Antioch, including Barnabas (whose name means 'Son of Encouragement' - Acts 4:36) and Saul. Acts 15:32 mentions the prophets Judas and Silas at Antioch who "said much to encourage and strengthen the brothers". So in the first century there were many prophets who, along with the apostles and teachers, guided the church by declaring what God had revealed to them.
'STRENGTHEN YOUR BROTHERS'
What is it the apostle commands us? "Eagerly desire spiritual gifts;" "try to excel in gifts that build up the church." Real Christian gifts help us become less selfish - "I"-oriented - and more other-centred, loving God, loving our neighbour.
The gift of tongues is a valuable one that edifies an individual and enhances one's sense of a private connection to God. Prophecy likewise has to come supernaturally, but its focus is more on building up the church, strengthening, encouraging, and comforting others. Remember what Jesus said to Peter - that, though Peter's faith would be tested, Jesus had prayed for him; and when he had turned back, what was he to do? "Strengthen your brothers." (Lk 22:32) That's the focus of true prophecy - not stroking one's ego by the ability to predict events in the future or know what is whispered in the secrecy of the king's palace like Elisha, but strengthening other believers, building them up (2Kings 6:8-12). In closing, here are a couple of brief stories of 'encouragers'.
Katherine, the wife of Martin Luther, dramatically revived the depressed Reformer's confidence in God's providence. This has been versified by FW Herzberger:
One day when skies loomed the blackest,
This greatest and bravest of men
Lost heart and in an oversad spirit
Refused to take courage again.
Neither eating or drinking nor speaking
To anxious wife, children or friends,
Till Katherine dons widow garments
And deepest of mourning pretends.
Surprised, Luther asked why she sorrowed.
"Dear Doctor," his Katie replied,
"I have cause for the saddest of weeping,
For God in His heaven has died!"
Her gentle rebuke did not fail him,
He laughingly kissed his wise spouse,
Took courage, and banished his sorrow,
And joy again reigned in the house.
The second story has to do with the origins of a much-loved hymn that has itself encouraged many - In the Sweet By and By...
Joseph Webster walked wearily into the little drugstore in Elkhorn, Wisconsin. It was a lovely day in the late fall of 1867, but Webster looked as though he had lost his best friend. His problems had gotten the best of him, and his mood was heavy. The proprietor of the little shop was Samuel Bennett, 31, who not only filled prescriptions--he sometimes wrote them. On this day, he had just the prescription for his discouraged friend.
After listening carefully to Webster's accumulated burdens, he picked up his pen and began writing on a 5x7 piece of paper. In a few minutes he handed his friend a poem, one he had composed on the spot. Webster read the poem, picked up his fiddle, and began improvising a simple melody. "Hand me some paper," he said, "so I can jot down the notes before I forget them." He played the tune two or three times, then, recruiting a couple of customers who had walked into the store, they formed a makeshift quartet and sang it. Thus the world was given the popular gospel tune:
There's a land that is fairer than day,
And by faith we can see it afar
For the Father waits over the way, To prepare us a dwelling
In the sweet by and by, We shall meet on that beautiful shore.
In the sweet by and by, We shall meet on that beautiful shore.