What’s Your Function?

(Fair warning: this post will be lengthier than usual

because it’s two Sundays messages combined into one.)

We are all gifted & we need all the Gifts.

          One of the positive aspects of aging is the whole gift giving and receiving thing becomes less and less important.  Whether we’re talking about Christmas or birthday, it just feels like too much trouble to go out and buy a gift for somebody else and after years of receiving crummy gifts, you give up on ever getting something you want.  So – eventually – you say, “Ah, who cares?”

A way to breathe some life into stale gifting is to give “joke” gifts.  That’s always fun, right?  I found a website that offered 42 “hilarious gag gifts” and after weeding out the stuff that’s not church-appropriate, here are my top ten.

#10 = Bacon Bandages.  Band-aids that look like strips of bacon.  If you combine this with bacon hand soap, you will become irresistible to dogs and hygienic too!

#9 = An Emergency Clown Nose.  Because no one wants to be caught without a clown nose when you really need one.

#8 = Inflatable Unicorn Horn for Cats.  Only for cats who deserve to be ridiculed.

#7 = The Bathe & Brew Coffee Maker.  The box appears to contain a coffee maker with an attached shower head, to allow you to make coffee as you clean up.  However, the whole thing is a prank as the note inside informs the recipient.

#6 = Screaming Goat Figure.  For what-ever set of reasons, screaming goats are an internet thing.  This little goat figure will scream every time you push the button.  Fun at home or at the office!

#5 = Edible Insects Bag of Edible Bugs.  Trust me; no one will care if the expiration date is passed!

#4 = Yodeling Pickle.  You will likely be the first on your block to be the proud owner of a battery-powered plastic pickle that yodels.  It’s all the rage is Switzerland!

#3 = A Chia Pet Donald Trump.  Here’s a nostalgic return to the 80s that will appeal to friends in either party.

#2 = Dynamite Fire Starter Sticks.  Enliven a boring old camp fire when you take out a box labeled “dynamite” and light it up!

#1 = Spam Can Diversion Safe.  As the average thief spends less than 6 minutes in a place he’s burgling, it seems unlikely he will waste a second look at this authentic-looking SPAM can.  But will it keep your valuables safe from a hungry thief. (See https://dodoburd.com/gag-gifts.)

OK, let’s get serious about gifts.  In Matthew 7:11, Jesus promised that our heavenly father knows how to give good gifts to His children.  His most important gift is salvation through Jesus Christ.  After that gift is accepted, the Father gives Spiritual Gifts to His children to enable each and every one of us to serve Him through the Church and in the world.  It is this set of Gifts we will examine in this message.

  1. We all have different Gifts. (Romans 12:4-6a)

In verse four Paul used the human body to illustrate how God intends the Church to function.  Science tells us that a human body is made up of cells, organs, and systems.  These “members” work together to give life to a person.

Similarly, the Body of Christ (the Church) has many members with different functions (5).

Each local church needs all its members on hand to maintain the life of the church and cause it to grow.  This teaching is intended to counter the ego, pride, and individualism that is typical to human nature.  The Bible emphasizes the gathered and united people of God.

Here and in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul used this symbolism to teach 3 things about Church.

– Its diversity = a diverse set of Gifts and personalities are required.

– Its unity = all the people working toward the same goal – making disciples – while using their diverse Gifts.

– Its mutuality = EACH MEMBER BELONGS TO ALL THE OTHERS.

The church is not meant to be a loose association of those who hold similar views, who merely put up with one another.  Instead, a church is a set of people who are bound together in a deep and spiritual way; we’ve got to be devoted to each other and devoted to Jesus.

God’s GRACE determines which Gifts each individual member is given (v. 6a).  Let us first observe that Paul launched into this section with the words BY THE GRACE GIVEN ME I SAY TO YOU: this is a reference to Paul’s apostleship.  He means to say, “By God’s grace I have the authority to tell you the following things about Spiritual Gifts.”

The other understanding of GRACE is that it is the means by which we receive these Gifts.  Every time he wrote about Spiritual Gifts Paul wanted to make that clear.  The Gifts are not to be confused with “talents.” or “skills.”  On the contrary, all the Gifts are “Spiritual” in the sense that they are given by means of the Holy Spirit, not by our choice.  While some of the Gifts are more clearly supernatural and some feel more ordinary or natural, all of them are not something the Gifted person could do on their own.

This list in Romans 12 is not meant to mention every Spiritual Gift.  We need to compare Paul’s lists, note the similarity of some Gifts, and list the unique ones separately.  I have done that and come up with 14 Gifts.

  1. Here are some of the Gifts. (Romans 12:6b-8)

Prophesying (6b).

The definition of this Gift is also based on 1 Corinthians 14 and Ephesians 4 where it is listed.  Prophecy may take either of 2 forms:

– “Foretelling” (supernatural accurate prediction of the future).

– “Forth-telling” (relating God’s word to His people in ways similar to preaching and teaching).  This is the most common form of prophesying in the Bible.

Here in Romans 12, Paul explained that the Gift of Prophesying is to be exercised IN PROPORTION TO the FAITH of the Gifted.  This means that true prophecy springs from FAITH, not from emotion (1 Corinthians 14:32) and presents itself in an orderly fashion (1 Corinthians 14:30).  Persons using this Gift speak for God and obviously always tell the truth.  Since they are not speaking to please themselves or their hearers, prophets don’t pull punches.

PROPORTION was a mathematical term, so this phrase could also mean that the prophet needs to speak only the messages that come by faith; it would violate the trust of the people if he/she were to speak out of self-interest, wishful thinking or outright falsehood.

Examples of ways this Gift might be put to use in a local church include Supply Preacher, Worship Leadership, giving Testimony, and Deacon.

Serving (7).

This Gift is not well-defined; to distinguish it from the other Gifts, we might say it is sensitivity to need and insight on how to support others.  It is based on the Greek word diakonia, which was used in Acts 6 to refer to the newly-created officers called “deacons” who waited on tables.  They were both administrators and workers in the program of feeding widows.  Examples of ways this Gift may be used in a local church include church and community service programs and social action agencies.

Teaching (7).

Identified as a Message of Knowledge in 1 Corinthians 12 and with the office of Teacher in Ephesians 4, this Gift enables knowledge of the Bible and an ability to communicate it effectively.  A difference between Prophesy and Teaching is that prophets relate truths that come to them personally from God.  Teachers use the already-existing word of God; the Scriptures.  In a typical church, this Gift is needed in all programs of Christian Education.

Encouraging (8).

Identified as a Message of Wisdom in 1 Corinthians 12 or Pastors Ephesians 4, this Gift enables the Gifted to help other believers grow in spiritual maturity.  The Greed word for “encourage” can also be translated as “comfort” or “exhort”.  This opens up a range of emotional approaches, all of them valid in the scope of this one word.

– On one end of the spectrum, the word “exhort” has an assertive feeling

– On the other end, the word “comfort” has a passive feeling to it.

– “Encourage” is somewhere in the middle, demanding change or affirming as the situation demands.

Examples of use in a typical church includes Christian Education, Mentoring, Discipleship, Small Groups, and Visitation.

Contributing (8).

Sometimes called “Giving,” this Gift  provides the means and motive to use God-given resources to meet human needs and do ministry in a way that is timely, generous, and strategic; all to God’s glory.  In Romans 12, Paul qualified the Gift as being directed at THE NEEDS OF OTHERS.  His qualification of the Gift is that it should be exercised GENEROUSLY.  This refers to giving that is done without mixed motives.  In Acts 5, Ananias and Sapphira made a generous gift to the church, but they did so with the motives of pride and greed.  They paid the ultimate price for their deception.  There are many ways in which the Gift of Contributing might be useful in a church: Tithing, Stewardship Ministries, Financial Officers, Trustee.

Leadership (8).

Also known as Apostles (Ephesians 4), this Gift enables management of God-given resources to achieve His will.  The Greek word for “leadership” literally means “to stand before others.” Paul called on Gifted leaders to work DILIGENTLY.  They are to serve with purity of motive, not abusing the benefits of office and/or neglecting the responsibilities.  They are to govern with integrity.  Any Church Office or Ministry Team or Committee would provide opportunity to use the Gift of Leadership.

Mercy (8).

The command associated with this gift is cheerfulness; it may be a “contagious kindness” that lifts up the virtue of patience and the practice of forgiveness. This word is associated with helping the sick and needy.  Help should be offered CHEERFULLY so it does not impart a sense of obligation or insult upon the people being helped.  In a local church, this Gift would be useful in small groups, auxiliary organizations, and in all kinds of Visitation.

  1. Here are the rest of the Gifts.

There are five Gifts that are unique to 1 Corinthians 12:1-11.  All five of them are the most supernatural of the fourteen Spiritual Gifts we will identify.

Faith (9).

Everyone needs faith to believe in Jesus Christ as Savior to be saved.  This cannot be that kind of faith.  Instead, this Gift is a boldness and confidence to express one’s faith and live by faith.  The Gift of Faith provides an ability to perceive God and His will (“vision”) and trust Him even “common sense” may disagree.  This is a degree of faith that accomplishes more supernatural things.  In 1 Corinthians 13:2, Paul referred to a FAITH THAT CAN MOVE MOUNTAINS.  This echoes the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 17:20 where He promised that a faith no bigger than a mustard seed could move a mountain.

In 1 Corinthians 12:7, the Apostle Paul noted the manifestations of the Spirit are GIVEN FOR THE COMMON GOOD.  This reminds us that all the Gifts are designed to benefit everyone when they are used.  In this case, it is the exercise of the Gift of Faith that calls God’s people to a vision of God and what He is doing among us.  In a local church, the Gift of Faith might be exercised in groups setting forth a vision and/or writing a Mission Statement, in prayer meetings and groups, and in all leadership positions.

Healing (9).

This Gift provides miraculous deliverance from illness, injury, even death.  This Gift cures all aspects of illness; physical, mental, and spiritual.  Paul listed this as GIFTS (plural) OF HEALING.  It seems likely he chose the plural form to indicate the multifaceted aspects of healing we have just mentioned.  In other words, Healing is not just for the body, but for the mind and spirit as well.

We see numerous examples of healings in the book of Acts; chapters 19+20 highlight Paul’s healings.  Examples of the uses for a Gift of Healing include Hospital, Hospice, and Homebound Visitation.

Miraculous Powers (10).

Miracles are acts accomplished outside normal human power or the laws of nature.  In the Greek, this expression is literally translated as “acts of power.”  I see it as a general term that covers supernatural phenomena not expressly covered under the other Gifts.  Biblically, miracles are a means of validating the testimony of a person or church, that they truly represent God.  This was true of Jesus’ ministry as well (see John 14:11).  Given the broad definition of this Gift, examples of use are a little difficult to nail down, but I would love to have someone with this Gift leading service ministries and prayer ministries.

Distinguishing Between Spirits (10).

Also called “discernment,” this Gift allows a person to sense the true nature of persons and things, identifying their source and purpose as spiritual good or spiritual evil.  The Gifted is given insight into the true moral and spiritual nature of people and things.  All believers are commanded to exercise good judgment and not accept claims of being in Christ at face value (1 Thessalonians 5:20-21; 1 John 4:1).

This Gift would be useful in examining expression of the other Gifts, making certain they genuinely come from God and are not counterfeits.  Other uses of this Gift could include advocacy on social Issues and spiritual leadership in a church, such as Deacon or Elder.

Tongues (see also 1 Corinthians 14:1-25).

Another word for TONGUES is “languages.”  As he did with Healing (GIFTS OF HEALING), Paul listed this Gift in plural form too; DIFFERENT KINDS OF TONGUES.  I believe he was thinking of two KINDS of this Gift: the public kind, appearing in worship and the private kind, appearing in prayer.

Paul observed two sides to this Gift.  First, “Speaking in Tongues” is the supernatural use of a language the Gifted does not know, done in a public or private context.  The first instance of Speaking in Tongues was in Acts 2, on the Day of Pentecost, the very first time the Holy Spirit was given to all God’s people.  On that occasion, the worshipers spoke in known human languages that were recognized as such by bystanders.  Other instances are recorded in Acts 10:46 and 19:6, where we are not told what specific language was used.  In 13:1 he referred to THE TONGUES OF MEN AND ANGELS; these two kinds of languages may be the KINDS to which Paul referred in verse ten.

Second, “Interpretation of Tongues” is a supernatural ability to translate a language not known by the speaker and the interpreter.  In 1 Corinthians 14:27-28, Paul set a limit on speakers (2 or 3 at a time) and required an immediate interpretation.  When an interpretation was lacking, Paul required the speaker to be silent.

The Gifts of Tongues (Speaking and Interpreting) became a fixation and source of division in the Corinthian church and that’s why Paul devoted more of his writing to these Gifts than to all the others combined.  Paul attempted to curtail their use in worship in two ways (1 Corinthians 14:27-28); he set a limit on the number of speaker (no more than 2 or 3 at one time) and required an immediate interpretation or the speaker should be silenced.

Combining all the teaching in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, we emerge with an understanding that Tongues is a Gift to be used in worship but in a controlled way, so as not to bring disorder or disunity (see 14:33+40).  Paul preferred the Gift of Prophecy to the Gift of Tongues (14: 1, 5)because intelligible speech has an obviously greater value in communicating truth.  Whether the Speaker speaks in a human language or an angelic one, an Interpreter must understand what was said and translate it for the benefit of the worshipers.  Speaking in Tongues is also manifest in private prayer (14:4) and in that context requires no interpretation.

The Give of Evangelist is found in Ephesians 4:11-13.

All believers are called to be witnesses to their faith.  Our Christianity is not something to be kept “private,” but it is to be on display in everyday actions and conversations.  Persons gifted to be Evangelists are better equipped and enjoy more success in making new disciples.  In Ephesians 4 passage Paul developed a teaching about the unity of the Church by listing some of the officers of the Church. The diversity of Spiritual Gifts demonstrated unity because they had all the officers were appropriately Gifted and they had received their equipping from Christ.  It is their shared job was to build up the Church into maturity.  Echoing the language of Romans 12 which linked grace and the Gifts, verse seven says that GRACE has been APPORTIONED to each of us by Christ.  The Gift of Evangelist would be useful in positions of ministry in outreach and service-oriented witness.

The fourteenth Gift is Workmanship, found in Exodus 31:1-6.

This Gift empowers the use of one’s mind and hands for the creation and maintenance of physical items and the house of worship.  This is for the glory of God and the benefit of God’s people.  Take note of God’s words in verse three: “I HAVE FILLED HIM WITH THE SPIRIT OF GOD, WITH SKILL, ABILITY AND KNOWLEDGE IN ALL KINDS OF CRAFTS.”  The crafting ability that Bezalel demonstrated in creating the tabernacle and all its furnishings was based on the filling of the Spirit.  By means of the Filling of the Spirit, God endowed this man with the knowledge and ability to create items with ALL KINDS OF CRAFTS.  This kind of language is unique in the Old Testament but fits with what we’ve studied about the Gifts of the Spirit in the New Testament. For this reason I have chosen to list Workmanship among the Gifts even though it is the only Gift not included in Paul’s lists.  This Gift may also be the most practical; it is useful in maintenance and improvement of a church’s facilities; a Gifted person could also perform acts of service outside the church building, doing good work for the needy.

We are all gifted & we need all the Gifts.

(The following story is from an article entitled “Living Our Spiritual Gifts: The Challenge of Carl” by Dan R. Dick, director of connectional ministries for the Wisconsin Annual Conference, UMC.  What appears below is an abridged version.  The unabridged version may be found at  http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/living-our-spiritual-gifts-the-challenge-of-carl.)

“Once in a great while God grants us the opportunity not only to hear the gospel, but also to meet it incarnate. For me, one such experience materialized in the form of a huge, lovable, mountain of a man named Carl.  Carl stood fully seven-foot tall, wide as a doorway, with a bushy beard — reminiscent of Bluto from the old Popeye comic strip.

“Over time, this small congregation embraced Carl in spite of itself. He was so friendly, kind, generous, and lovable that he was met, first with tolerance, but soon with real affection.

“Through our time together, we determined that Carl’s gifts were evangelism, exhortation, and shepherding. He once said, ‘God gave me a car with four seats in it, so it would be poor stewardship to show up at church with one of the seats empty.’

“Longtime members were often distressed about the people Carl invited. They saw disruptions to their comfort where Carl saw children of God.

“[It came to a head one Sunday when Carl entered the sanctuary] followed by seventeen inmates and four armed guards from a nearby correctional facility. The prisoners were in prison uniforms and leg irons.

“Carl’s ‘prison ministry’ brought everything to a head. I fielded dozens of phone calls and visits in the first twenty-four hours after the service. Carl himself came by on Wednesday and said, with tears in his eyes, saying that might be a good idea for him to look for another church. Twisting a baseball cap in both his mammoth hands, Carl looked me in the eye and asked, ‘What did I do wrong?’ I received word a few years ago that Carl had passed away. Rarely a week goes by that there wasn’t a place for Carl in a church I pastored.”

 

RESOURCES:

Expositor’s Bible Commentary #10, Everett F. Harrison

The Communicator’s Commentary #6NT, D. Stuart Briscoe

Thru the Bible #4, J. Vernon McGee

Zondervan Bible Commentary, F.F. Bruce, Gen. Editor

https://dodoburd.com/gag-gifts

Messages #338 & 761

Zondervan Bible Commentary, Paul W. Marsh

http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/living-our-spiritual-gifts-the-challenge-of-carl

Unity, Maturity, and Vice-Versa

Communion Table (1)

Art by James Best, used with permission.  More are can be found at https://www.behance.net/gallery/82544295/Sermon-Illustrations-2019.

Please read Ephesians 4:7-16.

          A ladder is a common household item.  But – can you name the parts of a ladder?

The steps or “rungs” are the most familiar part as that’s where we put our feet.  But what are the side pieces called?

Rails.  The rails are the vertical pieces to which the steps are attached.

The spreaders are the hinges which connect the front and rear rails, allowing the ladder to open and close.

There are lots of NT images for the church, but I felt lead to offer a ladder as a metaphor.  Here’s the point; what part of a ladder can you do without?  Steps without rails are useless.  Rails without spreaders would make the ladder unstable.

So it is with the church.  All the parts are indispensable.  Whenever any of the parts fall away, a local church becomes something less useful than it was before.  There is nothing in the Bible that makes attendance and activity optional; just the opposite; we are to be on campus and in service as often as possible.

CONTEXT = V. 7 starts with the word BUT, indicating a contrasting idea is about to be introduced.  In verses one through six Paul examined the topic of UNITY from the perspective of all we have in common.  In verses seven through sixteen he will explore it from the perspective of what makes us diverse.

In this passage the important mark of diversity is a supernatural one: Spiritual Gifts.  As Paul made clear in Galatians 3:28; the superficial distinctions of nationality, gender, and economic status are irrelevant in Christ.  What matters in the Church instead is the diversity of Spiritual Gifts.  As we will see later, Spiritual Gifts are God-given abilities to do ministry. Paul refers to them here as GRACE.

All who believe in Jesus share the “ONE” items listed in vs. 4-6.  BUT, GRACE has been APPORTIONED to each believer individually, as Jesus wills.  GRACE (charis) is close to charismata in the Gk; the word translated as Spiritual Gifts, it literally means “a manifestation of grace.”  Paul will explain this statement after he digresses on a brief theological interlude.  For now, it’s enough to know that Jesus is in charge and He has a plan.

Unity and maturity are inseparable necessities.

  1. A theological interlude. (8-10)

This is a long “rabbit trail.”  Only here and in 1 Peter 3:19-20 does the New Testament seem to teach that Jesus went to some kind of underworld to preach to dead folk.  That is a provocative statement and it may be new to you, but it’s been talked about for a long time: it’s in the Apostle’s Creed.

There is no productive way for us to touch this discussion in our time this morning.  Instead, we’ll just observe Paul’s line of reasoning and move on.

– In vs. 1-6, he described unity by noting all we share.

– In v. 7, he introduced the idea that we have diversity in our unity, a teaching he will complete in vs. 11-16.

– In vs. 8-10, he introduced a new idea, seeming to go off on a tangent.

This paragraph is here to show that Christ exercised authority, the kind of authority that allows Him to apportion GRACE.  Verse eight quotes Psalm 68:18 which refers to a king who gives gifts to his subjects.

Paul’s thought might be paraphrased in this way; “Considering all God has given all of us – all that we share – we must be unified.  On the other hand, we’ve also been given GRACE – gifts for ministry – that underline our diversity.  Jesus Christ has the power to do that.  After all, He’s the only one who’s come from heaven to earth, gone under the earth, and to back to heaven again!”

  1. We have a diversity of gifts in order to promote maturity in each other. (11-13)

Let’s don’t overlook the little words and phrases in verse eleven.  IT WAS HE: Jesus, who descended from heaven and ascended back, He is the one who APPORTIONED GRACE to every believer.  Don’t miss the word GAVE; these are Spiritual Gifts we’re talking about.  SOME refers to “some individual believers,” but not to all.  Here’s where diversity runs parallel to unity, both to the benefit of the Church.

What are these “Spiritual Gifts?”

The subject can be a little confusing.  Though these verses list five offices in the Church, the Gifts and the offices are not always the same.

The Gifts are, at the same time, individualized and universal.  The Gifts enable some to do things all believers should be doing.  For example, Paul lists “Teacher” as a Gift.  All of us have opportunity to teach and we must all be prepared to do so.  Not having the Gift of Teacher does not relieve us of that responsibility.  It does mean that persons with that Gift will be better suited to teaching and be more successful at it.

The Spiritual Gifts are particular endowments that God grants to individual believers.  Followers of Jesus will have individual combinations of Gifts.

These five are offered as examples; they are not an exhaustive list.  If we cull Gifts from other listings and eliminate the duplicates, then we have about 20 different Spiritual Gifts.

APOSTLES = In 2:20, APOSTLES were one of the two foundational roles in starting new churches.  The word apostle means “one who is sent.”  Their authority rested in being sent by Jesus.  In our time we might call them “church planters” and “missionaries.”

PROPHETS = Also mentioned in 2:20 as foundational in new churches.  Their function is not often telling the future.  Prophets give messages of strengthening, encouragement, and comfort to build up the church (1 Corinthians 14:3-5).  We would call a prophet a “preacher.”

EVANGELISTS are gifted with messages directed primarily at non-believers, to help them accept Jesus as Savior and Lord.  Evangelists aid church members by calling them to take their eyes off themselves and their comfort to keep working to make Jesus known outside the church walls.

PASTORS is a role we mix with preacher, but the two were seen by Paul as separate offices and Gifts.  This is the only place in the New Testament to use this word for a church leader; in Hebrews 13:20 and 1 Peter 2:25 it was used as a title for Jesus Himself.  The work of a pastor tends to focus on people who are already Christians, helping them mature in their faith.  The role is a nurturing position not unlike shepherds to their sheep.

TEACHERS = All four of the other roles will require a person to teach Bible truths.  In Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus, he required the ability to teach as a qualification for all church leaders (1 Timothy 3:2; 5:17; 2 Timothy 2:24; Titus 1:9).  Godly teachers do not just pass on intellectual content, but they also exhort and encourage the hearts of their students, and provide an example of their teaching lived out.  This is a big responsibility and is no doubt part of the reason James warned against aspiring to be a teacher (see James 3:1).

The diversity of Gifts serve a single purpose: maturity.  The Gifts are used to PREPARE GOD’S PEOPLE FOR WORKS OF SERVICE and build up the BODY OF CHRIST.  In contrast to our modern version of church (with its professional clergy versus laity distinction), the leaders are not to be the ones DOING the ministry for the members, they’re to be preparing the members to serve each other and people outside the faith.  Serving others has the effect of “building” the church by maturing the believers and converting the unbelievers.

Building each other up is a process of growth measured by experiencing UNITY achieving MATURITY.  UNITY is manifest in a church in two ways.  First, in UNITY IN THE FAITH.  This means that we share the same views and values.  Sure, there is room for different opinions about doctrines that are on the periphery.  (Verses eight through ten are a prime example.)  But on the central parts of our faith, the things that are only true or false, we must have perfect agreement.  (The doctrine of Jesus Christ (verse thirteen) is a prime example.)

Second, UNITY IN THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE SON OF GOD. Our beliefs about Jesus are central and on these there can be no compromise.  Salvation is at stake.  Our experience of UNITY is one of the things that create MATURITY.  MATURITY is one of the things that enable UNITY.  Logically, the two virtues are two sides of the same coin.

  1. How we recognize maturity. (13-16)

Paul supplied five benchmarks of maturity.

The first is in verse thirteen: ATTAINING TO THE WHOLE MEASURE OF THE FULLNESS OF CHRIST.  Paul never lowered his expectations for the Church; he always set forth perfection as the goal.  As perfection is a state only possible in God, this goal forces us to rely on God.  You don’t get a higher ambition than the WHOLE MEASURE of the FULLNESS of CHRIST.  Paul promised the eternal perfection of the Church will occur when Jesus comes again (5:27).  For now, it only occurs in part.  But having the ambition raises us higher than having a lower ambition.

The second is in verse fourteen: NO LONGER INFANTS.  INFANTS are believers who are immature, ignorant of what the Bible teaches and thereby easy targets for false teachers.  Maturity brings a stability of character because it is developed by learning the Bible and correctly understanding the experiences of life.  To put it another way, immature people are characteristically credulous and are also easily bored; they tend to shift to follow what is new and exciting whether it is true or not.  Paul is not warning against innocent misunderstandings, but against those who deliberately distort the truth by the CUNNING AND CRAFTINESS seen in the DECEITFUL SCHEMING men do.

Paul pictured immature instability with the image of a ship adrift at sea; it is not going in a direction chosen by anyone.  Instead, its heading is determined by the forces of WAVES and WIND.  (James 1:6)

The third is in verse fifteen: we will counter evil falsehood by SPEAKING THE TRUTH IN LOVE.  SPEAKING THE TRUTH without LOVE is legalism and shows none of the humility, gentleness, patience and forbearance Paul commanded in verse three.  On the other hand, showing LOVE without SPEAKING THE TRUTH excuses sin and removes our need for a savior.  To avoid these deadly and false extremes, followers of Jesus must be careful to uphold both TRUTH and LOVE in their relationships in and out of the church.

The fourth is also in verse fifteen: we will GROW UP (mature) into greater Christ-likeness.  Where TRUTH and LOVE are actively practiced, MATURITY will follow.  In 2:21 the verb “to grow” was used to encourage numerical growth.  Here it is used to encourage spiritual growth, greater maturity.

Paul did not leave the virtue of MATURITY undefined; he defined it in the person of Jesus Christ.  Mature people will bear more moral, emotional, and spiritual resemblance to Jesus Christ than immature persons.

The fifth mark of maturity is submission to the authority of Christ.  After all, Christ is the HEAD (source and ultimate authority) of the Church.  As we are the BODY below the HEAD, we do nothing apart from Christ.  The local church as a BODY of CHRIST functions well when all the parts build each other up in LOVE and as EACH PART DOES ITS WORK.  It’s not a matter of love OR work; both of these virtues are necessary for the building up of the BODY.  It’s not a matter of waiting around passively for God to do something.  Our partnership with Christ is God’s will and it is the primary way things get done in this world.  Things that happen that don’t have some human agency are called “miracles” and they are rare.

Back to UNITY and DIVERSITY.  The WHOLE BODY benefits when all the parts are healthy and working together, as God designed them to do.  EACH PART refers back to the Spiritual Gifts, the diversity of the members being equivalent to the diversity of parts in the human body.

Maturing is a way of life that starts in LOVE.  It grows because we stay in the TRUTH and connected with Jesus our Head.  LOVE is a virtue that is best expressed in community; loving God together is God’s command and the very best way to live.

Unity and maturity are inseparable necessities.

  RESOURCE:

Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament – Ephesians, Clinton E. Arnold

Love Never Fails

Take up your preferred Bible and read 1 Corinthians 12:31-14:1.  Myself, I used the NIV to prepare these remarks.

Love is the virtue at the center of our identity.

Now that the turkey is reduced to leftovers, we put Thanksgiving behind us and think more about Christmas.  I know we have Christmas overachievers in our church family; you already have your gifts bought, probably wrapped, and either hidden or placed carefully under your tree.  The underachievers who will wait until Dec. 24 OR LATER to shop and all the rest of us are going to be out and about the next three weeks.

One of the things we experience while out and about, especially this time of year, are strangers doing “random acts of kindness” to other strangers.  This week, Richard Hanson had a great idea to improve the custom.  His idea was to have a card prepared explaining that your act of kindness was not random at all, but was the product of a love-relationship with Jesus Christ.  Do the act, leave the card and have a “silent witness” of Jesus.

We have printed several of these cards for your use.  Let me recommend you take a few of these and when you buy lunch for the people in line behind you or pay for the purchases of the person in line ahead of you, give them one of these cards and put the face of Jesus on your kindness.

J.B. McPhail wrote, “Love is the fabric of a life well lived.” Acts of kindness are seasonally appropriate and give evidence of good character.  If you use these cards, you will add witness to service and improve both, with eternal consequences.

  1. Context: THE GREATER GIFTS, THE MOST EXCELLENT WAY,

THE WAY OF LOVE (12:31 + 14:1).

There are three expressions Paul used that provide context for this teaching, so it’s important to interpret these first.

The first is, EAGERLY DESIRE THE GREATER GIFTS.  Paul wrote about Spiritual Gifts because his original teaching had been corrupted by false teachers for their purposes.  The Gift of Tongues had been exalted as being above all the others, so Paul countered by saying there are greater Gifts than Tongues. Paul didn’t identify which Gifts are GREATER, but in chapter fourteen, he made it clear that the Gift of Prophecy is a more useful Gift than Tongues.

The second phrase is THE MOST EXCELLENT WAY.  This is Paul’s transitional statement, the way he introduces this chapter about love.  1 Corinthians 13 is a passage lifted out of its context possibly more often than any other in the Bible.

Paul wrote about Spiritual Gifts in the chapter before and after.  Ch. 13 is NOT a parenthesis, but part a chain of reasoning covering chapters 12-14.   In chapter 12 he introduced the reader to the Spiritual Gifts, listing and defining them as God’s way of growing churches.  In chapter 13 he puts them in proper perspective vis-à-vis LOVE; the Gifts are ways to express and enact love.  In chapter 14 he showed how misuse of the Gift of Tongues messed up worship in the Corinthian church.

Paul made it clear that LOVE is superior to t Gifts; it is THE MOST EXCELLENT WAY.  The Greek word for LOVE here is agape.  The word was used only once in all the secular Greek texts which survive into modern times.  This word was taken up by New Testament authors and the Church to convey the ultimate love given by God to humanity.  It is the deepest, most spiritual version of the three Greekk words for LOVE.  It is the ultimate kind of LOVE.  It is not superficial, sensual, or sentimental.

The third phrase is FOLLOW THE WAY OF LOVE is in 14:1; LOVE is a WAY of life.  We are to pursue this virtue in our daily living and ultimately, in our character.

  1. Without love, even the Spiritual Gifts are powerless (13:1-3, 8-10)

Without love, TONGUES fail to communicate (1) and will ultimately be STILLED (8).  LOVE is the difference between merely making noise and communicating in a godly way.  Without a translation, public use of the Gift of Tongues only succeeds in making noise and worse, may irritate the Body of Christ, like the clang and bang of a GONG and CYMBALS, say.  The GONG and CYMBALS were used in Old Testament worship (see 2 Samuel 6:5; 1 Chronicles 13:8; Psalms 150:5) and also idol worship; not referred to in a derogatory way. Instead, there’s just not a lot you can communicate with a GONG or CYMBALS.  We need to make words, not just noise.  One aspect of love’s superiority over Tongues is that LOVE will continue to exist after the Second Coming, while the Gift of Tongues will cease (8).

Without love, the knowledge and faith bestowed by PROPHECY amounts to NOTHING (2) and will ultimately CEASE (8).  The Gift of Prophecy can involve FORE-telling the future but it is mostly FORTH-telling; interjecting the truth where people are misunderstanding or misbehaving.

MYSTERIES and KNOWLEDGE are variations of the same Gk word.  They refer to deep knowledge of hidden and significant things.  In Paul’s time as in ours, “moving mountains” is an expression for overcoming great challenges (see Mark 11:22-23).  BUT – done without love, even great achievements are NOTHING.  After Jesus’ Second Coming, there won’t be any need for the Gift of Prophecy because all survivors will know God’s will (see JMH 31:33-34).

Without love, GIVING has no benefit (3).  The kind of sacrifice Paul describes in verse three is total, even to the point of giving up one’s life.  In modern terms we might paraphrase Paul to say, “Even if I become such a workaholic that I suffer burnout”.  This may be a reference to the fiery trials of Shadrach, Mesach, and Abenego in Daniel 3.  Notice that Paul did NOT say in verse eight that giving will cease.  Heaven will be a place of ultimate and true giving (never false or for evil, only good).

Our knowledge is, at best, partial and immature (8-12).  It requires love to make it valuable.

Our knowledge is always partial.  People who ignore this fact fall into a vice that makes people hard to live with: the arrogant assumption they know it all.  Paul identified this vice in 1 Corinthians 8:1, Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up.  KNOWLEDGE PUFFS UP means that knowledge can lead to pride.  The Bible teaches that only God is all-knowing, so put your pride in park and get real!

Our knowledge is always immature.  Growing old and maturing are not the same thing.  Growing old happens automatically; the longer we survive, the more birthdays we accrue.  Maturing takes time, so it looks similar, but maturing is a process that happens by intention and application of hard work.  Spiritual maturing, the greatest of all kinds of maturity, happens only with hard work and the help of the Holy Spirit.

The more we learn, the more we have to admit there is more we CAN learn.  It takes a maturing person to admit there is still room for self-improvement and then to take up that challenge.  There is no reason to be “puffed up.”

In heaven (WHEN COMPLETENESS COMES, v. 10), our knowledge will be full and mature.  Now we see God only as He is reflected in human beings – sometimes a very poor likeness – but then we shall see Him FACE TO FACE.

(Corinthian mirrors of polished metal were famous in the ancient world – Paul refers to them here.)  In heaven we will KNOW FULLY, even as God now has perfect knowledge of each of us.

  1. The qualities of true love (13:4-8, 13).

Paul expressed the qualities of LOVE positively: LOVE IS…

– PATIENT (4) = it overlooks small offenses; resists becoming resentful; is active, not passive.

– KIND (4) = it thinks of ways to help others.

– Joyful in the TRUTH (6) = lovers are happy with honesty.

– Unfailing (8) = as God is love, love will always be needed, appropriate, and powerful.

– Maturing (11) = childish ways of thinking and speaking giving way to adult means are Paul’s way of symbolizing spiritual maturity.

– Protective (7) = it helps, doesn’t hurt unless pain is necessary for healing.

– Trusting (7) = by being trustworthy.  Loving people have discernment but start with positivity.

– Hopeful (7) = Negativity always hinders and hurts.  Hopeful people give others the benefit of the doubt.

– Persevering (7) = will not give up on people and is willing to endure adversity in order to love.

– The greatest of all virtues (13) = HOPE and FAITH are important, even essential virtues.  They will all remain for eternity, but LOVE is t GREATEST.

– You could summarize all ten of these virtues as being having a focus on someone other than self.  Those who truly love are focused on God first, others second, self last.

Paul also expressed the qualities of LOVE negatively: LOVE IS NOT…

– Envious (4) = it is not materialistic; it does not want what others have.

– Boastful (4) = it does not seek superiority over others, nor is it characterized by “one-upmanship” and an insistence on “winning” arguments.

– Proud (4) = it is not arrogantly centered on one’s achievements and qualifications to the point of feeling entitled.

– Dishonoring (5) = it is not so self-absorbed as to disregard the well-being of others, even to the violation of God’s standards.  It doesn’t withhold respect.

– Self-seeking (5) = this vice sums up this entire section.  The other eight vices explain how to recognize self-centered people.

– EASILY ANGERED (5) = it’s focus is not on one’s self manifest in a short temper and/or perceiving insults or injuries where none were intended.

– A recorder of WRONGS (5) = it does not withhold forgiveness.  When we pray, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” we may be asking for a world of hurt.  Selfish people hold grudges.

-Delighted with evil (6) = it does not derive a wicked happiness when seeing someone else “get what they deserve” or get away with wrong-doing.

Horror is not a genre I enjoy, so I rarely read or watch it.  One of the most horrifying movies I’ve ever seen has no monsters or killers or violence of any kind.  It is a film shown to us in elementary school, called “Cipher in the Snow.”  It is the short story of an ordinary school kid who walked off the school bus one morning and fell over dead.  His teacher undertook to understand what killed Cliff.

The film was based on a story by Jean Mizer, a lady who worked as a teacher and guidance counselor, published in the NEA Journal in 1964.  It was produced by Bringham Young University and has been used extensively for anti-bullying education and moral training.

Although the film does not come out and say so explicitly, it is clearly implied that Cliff died from a lack of love.  The teacher finds that Cliff’s parents divorced and he had no friends at school.  There was no one there to love him.

It scared the willies out of me, but I took the lesson to heart.  The film illustrates the disaster that is a loveless life.

Love is the virtue at the center of our identity.

Love is one of the easiest things to talk about and sing about.  Everyone wants to celebrate love and everyone wants to receive love.  It’s not so easy

to do.  It’s not always part of our nature or personality to be loving, especially not at the high standard God sets for love.

It’s much easier and more natural for us to love self first, or substitute legalism for love and then make excuses to conceal our lack of love.  Love is not optional for a follower of Jesus, it is essential, indeed, the defining aspect of our character.

Seek ways to love.  Act on opportunities that present themselves.  Love is too important to be kept waiting, so get to it.  And, there’s no better time than Christmas to go about proclaiming and enacting the love of Jesus Christ.