Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. 1 Corinthians 14.1-4.
Having just spent the whole of the glorious previous chapter — 1 Corinthians 13 — teaching both what love is and what love is not, what love does and what love does not, Paul now begins this morning’s reading with the exhortation to pursue love but also to desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy.
There are one or two thoughts that strike me immediately as I read his words. The first is that the pursuit of love and the desire for spiritual gifts are not, in Paul’s book, either/or activities but unambiguously both/and activities. Where there is the one there should also be the other. Yet in many Christian circles today the underlying thrust, spoken or unspoken, is, “Let’s learn how to love God and love one another and leave all that charismatic stuff to the Pentecostals. It only makes things messy and causes trouble.”
Well, yes, by all accounts the “charismatic stuff” was indeed making things messy and causing trouble in the church at Corinth, but the last thing Paul wanted to do was put an end to it. Rather he wanted it to be harnessed to love because then, far from destroying the church, the charismatic stuff — particularly prophesy — would build the church up, cause it to grow, and make it strong.
The verb dioko means “to follow earnestly and after someone or something” and that gives me a lovely picture of what Paul means when he says, “pursue love.” I see “love” being almost personified — presented to me as a person on the move, dashing here and there, attending to this thing and that; and I see myself being given the task of keeping up with him, following in his footsteps, not letting him out of my site, going where he goes and doing what he does. And the “he” is, of course, Jesus. Jesus is love personified. When I read 1 Corinthians 13, I can substitute “Jesus” for “love” … “Jesus is patient and kind; Jesus does not envy or boast; Jesus is not arrogant or rude etc” … and I can do the same here.
But if that is what Paul means when he says “pursue love” — “follow in the footsteps of Jesus, go where you see him going, do what you see him doing” — then it becomes clear why I must also “desire the spiritual gifts.” Quite simply, without the spiritual gifts I do not have a hope of imitating Jesus. Luke starts the book of Acts by saying, “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach,” and the plain implication is that this second book is about what Jesus continued to do and teach through his church. And that is just what we find as we read the book of Acts, but it is a church whose “acts” are the exercise in love of spiritual gifts … left, right and centre. Without that, there would quite simply have been no continuation.
What are “the spiritual gifts”? Paul has spelled that out in the penultimate chapter. “Now concerning spiritual gifts,” he says, and goes on to list (some of) them: “To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills” (1 Corinthians 12.1, 8-11).
The spiritual gifts are meant to be the love-tools of the Christian who is following after Jesus, and without them I am going to be severely hampered almost to the point of uselessness. So I must “earnestly desire” them. The verb is zeloo from which we get the word “zeal” and that tells me that there must be no half-heartedness about my longing to have gifts of discernment, wisdom, healing, etc … and, above all, prophecy. But, at the same time, I must never forget that they are love tools, and if I receive them and use them without love, “out of Christ” rather than “in Christ”, for self-promotion and self-glorification, and just to get on a high by being “charismatic”, I will wreak havoc in the church. If I use them aright, however, there will be nothing but “upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” for the church in which God has placed me.
Lord, give me the grace to follow after you and live out your love. And, to that end and for that purpose, give me, please, the gifts of your Spirit and teach me how to use them. Amen.