“Gifts vs Fruit” on 1 Corinthians 12:27-14:1 by Joe Ellis - June 12, 2022
Today, we are reflecting on the first fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5:22-23 — love. This in a way is the fruit of all fruits. Last week, I said that all of the other fruits are sub-fruits of love. I stand by that — after all, Jesus summarized the Old and New Testament as an outworking of the commands to love the Lord your God, and love your neighbour as yourself. All ethical commands that you’ll find in the New Testament are elaborating on what it means to love God and neighbour. In our faith, everything is rooted in love.
Now, I’ve chosen 1 Corinthians 13 as our text to take us on a deeper dive into understanding the New Testament concept of love — not only because it is likely the most beautiful articulation of love ever written — but also because of the surrounding context. This chapter on love is written in the context of Paul talking about gifts of the Spirit. Gifts of the Spirit are what you think of when God does supernatural things through followers of Jesus — like when someone prays that God would heal and He does, or when someone prophetically speaks a word from God to a congregation and the people are moved to tears, overwhelmed by the love of God, or when someone speaks in a language they don’t know and then someone interprets. Paul calls these gifts of the Spirit. The gifts of the Spirit are sometimes contrasted with the fruit of the Spirit. Look again at the fruit of the spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Someone being kind doesn’t necessarily seem supernatural, unless you’re working with governmental bureaucracy — then kindness can seem like a miracle. But compared to the gifts of the spirit, the fruit of the Spirit can sometimes seem bland. Which church ministry would you rather be apart of — a ministry where there are signs and wonders, where God is prophetically speaking through people, where the sick are being healed, where people are healed of that which is oppressing them, where miracles are happening all the time — or a ministry where people are really patient with each other. Or a church where everyone is long-suffering? Yet, we are wrong to pit the fruit of the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit against each other. Stories abound of the Spirit’s gifts being used apart from the fruit of the Spirit. One person shared their experience of going to a summer Bible camp and not being allowed to leave the room until they spoke in tongues.
This is where this passage in 1st Corinthians is so helpful — Paul shows us to see how the gifts of the Holy Spirit relate to the Spirit’s chief fruit, which is love. He helps us to see how the gifts of the Spirit — those supernatural manifestations like miracles, and prophecies and words of knowledge — these gifts need to always be married to the fruit of the Spirit. When the gifts of the Spirit manifest in the life of the church, they must be imbued with the quality of love. This was where so many in the Corinthian church were going wrong. They eagerly desired the things of the Spirit. They wanted to speak in tongues. They saw themselves as having special knowledge from the Spirit. They thought that because of their exalted spiritual status it didn’t matter who they had sex with. They thought that they had become more like angels than men — and in all this, love was the furthest thing away from how you’d describe their behaviour.
Throughout the letter to the church in Corinth, Paul is repeatedly trying to reign in their arrogance and move them towards loving one another. In chapter 8, Paul reminds them, “Knowledge puffs up, while love builds up.” That’s the problem, they have become inflated with a sense of self-importance and over-estimated their spiritual maturity. So they would act without thought to how their behaviour impacted others. During the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the rich would gorge themselves on fine meats, wine and bread, while the poor would nibble on a crust in the other room. They would eat meat sacrificed to idols, not caring how this impacted the conscience of a convert who weeks earlier had been offering sacrifices to those idols as an act of worship. They would act like rules didn’t apply to them, or they would heap on extra rules to show just how spiritual they were. Some would have sex indiscriminately, like the son who was sleeping with his mother-in-law. Others saw it as more spiritual to abstain from sex altogether, undoubtedly putting a strain on their marriages. And of course, they thought that speaking in tongues was the sign that they had spiritually arrived, and were more like angels than men. They looked with disdain on those who didn’t share in their special gift. While the specifics will certainly differ, these are pitfalls that many churches can fall into. Finding subtle and unsubtle ways of expressing your spiritual maturity, raising yourself up while pushing the ‘weaker’ brother or sister down. Climbing the spiritual ladder. Those on the outside of the community can often see it clearly, but those on the inside can so easily be blinded.
Paul clearly sees what is going on. In Chapter 12, 13 and 14, he is trying to shift their view of spiritual gifts away from being used to build up individuals and towards building up the body of Christ. Paul wants to help them see that tongues are one important gift alongside many others, and those other gifts are often more useful towards building up the body of Christ. Paul’s main point is that whenever gifts are expressed in the congregation, the goal must be to build others up in love. That’s the point of chapter 13, to argue that the manifestation of the Spirit’s gifts must be shaped by love.
So in chapter 13, Paul starts out with the gift that’s causing the problem — tongues. Tongues is a language unknown to the person speaking or praying. Sometimes the person praying is speaking another human language, sometimes it’s an angelic language. He says, “If you pray in tongues without love, you’re a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” Then he moves on to other gifts — “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 do not have love, I am nothing.” Note that Paul isn’t simply saying that if a prophetic word is said without love, that it nullifies the prophetic word. Paul goes far beyond that. He says, “If I have faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”When we act without love, we’ve lost the most important thing about us as Christians. When we act without love, we are nothing!
This is the chief criticism that you will see repeatedly volleyed against Christians again and again in movies, shows and novels. Typically, whenever you see a Christian portrayed in a story, it is someone who is acting religiously without love. They might show an outward display of piety, they might turn their nose up at sin, they might say the right spiritual things, they might pray — but they are often portrayed as impatient, or unkind, or boastful, or proud, or easily angered, or vengeful, or delighting in the hardship of others. These sort of Christian characters show up again and again in modern stories. The impact of seeing someone act religiously and righteous without loving is so incredibly distasteful. You feel sick watching it.
I wish I could say the caricature is entirely unfair. This is a common trap. Acting religiously without love is a challenge we will come to experience as we take our faith more seriously. Whenever we are really intentional about trying to live into our faith, conditions become ripe to express our faith in unloving ways. Listen to the way Eugene Peterson puts it:
“The sins that we are faced with in the early years of our faith are, if not easily resisted, at least easily recognized. If I kill a man, I know that I have done wrong. If I steal, I might make a diligent effort not to get found out. The so-called “loser sins,” the sins of the flesh, as they were once categorized, are obvious, and there is not only a community of faith but a civil community that protests against their proliferation. But the higher sins, “sins of the spirit,” are not so easily discerned. Diagnosis is difficult. Is this outburst of zeal energetic obedience or human presumption? Is this exuberant confidence holy boldness inspired by the Holy Spirit or a boastful arrogance fed by an anxious ego? It is not easy to tell. Not at all easy. Deception is nowhere more common than in religion.”
Peterson is speaking particularly to leaders, but the tendency to act without love is a trap that all earnest Christians must be wary of.
Paul fights so hard to avoid this trap. Look at this story that Luke tells about Paul in Acts 14:10-11. Paul looks directly at a man who cannot walk and calls out, “Stand up on your feet.” The man jumps up and begins to walk. When the crowd saw what they had done, they cried out, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” How tempting it is to think that sort of thing about ourselves when the Holy Spirit works through us in powerful ways. “How good it is that God is working through me in these ways.” That statement can so easily be tipped from godly gratitude to unloving arrogance. When we read Paul, we see Paul working tirelessly to take himself off of that pedestal, while at the same time saying, “Follow my example!” Not an easy balance to strike. That sort of thing takes incredible maturity, and real intentionality. Look at how Paul shows up to this church in Corinth that was so concerned with being elite, strong and powerful. Paul could have beat them at their own game, but instead he says, “When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power,so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” Do you hear the balance Paul is trying to strike? How much maturity did it take to Paul to have such a posture among those Corinthians — to not boast, to not be proud, to not be self-seeking. To have the qualities he later describes as love, even when the church was demanding he show up in the exact opposite way. The first four chapters of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is Paul explaining why he didn’t show up as boastful and self important. They were wondering what was wrong with Paul. Paul knew that nothing is as damaging to the work of the Spirit than when people religiously show up without love. Prophecies, faith that move mountains, great personal sacrifice — when they’re done without love, Paul says we are nothing. Yet, when followers of Jesus have love imbue their actions — nothing is as powerful a witness.
For Paul, love is not so much a feeling but a verb. When you look at all the ways Paul says that “Love is — patient, kind, not envying, not boasting, not proud, not dishonouring, not self-seeking, not easily angered, not keeping record of wrongs, not delighting in evil but rejoicing in truth.” — a person who loves in this way carves out space for the other person to be human, to be really human. When someone loves me by showing patience, they say that it’s OK that I’m not perfect. They make it OK for me to be slow, to be a learner, to be on the way. When someone loves me by showing kindness, they recognize that it is OK to be weak and in need of kindness and tenderness. I feel safe. When someone loves me by showing me honour — they affirm my worth as a child of God, they mark me out as a fellow human being, as one who deserves dignity and respect. When someone loves me by not delighting in evil, by not taking pleasure in my failures — they create a safe place for me to be in my brokenness. I can confess my sin to them, and they can gently walk alongside me and restore me to God’s loving grace. “Love always protects, always trust, always hopes and always perseveres.”
For Paul, love is the first thing. Learning to love—acting with patience, kindness, humility, service, forgiveness—learning to live this out is the first thing and that which must be woven into all else that we do. Love gives prophesy its power, love gives focus for speaking in tongues, love gives substance to our faith. Love is the first thing. And who of us have mastered it? Do you consider learning to love well, to love as Christ loves you, to be your primary task as a follower of Jesus? Learning to be patient with others, to be kind, to be humble, rejoicing in what is good and true — do you consider these your primary tasks as a follower of Jesus?
I wonder how many would articulate what we are doing here that way? Or if that's how others would see those who follow Jesus, as people who are devoted to learning and growing in love, loving others well, and who train one another in how to really love? I wonder if instead, is there a misunderstanding that following Jesus is considered more about believing the right things? Or having the right answers for things, and more about having strong convictions than it is about loving well. Yet Paul says even if our faith might move a mountain, if we act without love we are nothing. Paul makes no bones about how central love is in following Jesus. Maybe Paul saw first hand what happened when people became unanchored from love. People following charismatic leaders who centre the community around themselves, the arrogance and division that can occur when being right becomes unmoored from loving well, the outbursts of anger that have more to do with having one’s own way and not being followed, than in response to injustice for another’s sake.
What would the impact be if the main thing our surrounding community saw from Telkwa Community Church, and all the churches here in the valley was this? “Those people sure know how to love well. They love each other well, they love the community well, they love their place well—those people know how to love!”
Loving well is such a powerful witness. It is so rare. And loving well in very practical ways shows God’s character in such a powerful way. Because God is love. “For God so loved the world that He sent His one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”(John 3:16) We see that love on display throughout the Gospels. Paul’s description of love, is really a description of Jesus we see in the Gospels: Jesus is patient. Jesus is kind. Jesus does not envy. Jesus does not boast. Jesus is not proud. Jesus does not dishonour others. Jesus is not self-seeking. Jesus is not easily angered. Jesus keeps no record of wrongs. Jesus does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. Jesus always protects, always trusts, always hopes and always perseveres. God so loved the world that He sent His one and only Son that whoever should believe in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. Eternal life begins here and now — and that is what happens when we experience God’s love, and love from others.
That’s the whole point of what Paul says next. He says that “Love never ends.” The Spiritual gifts will cease. Spiritual gifts are wonderful, beautiful gifts geared for our present mode of existence. Paul tells us to seek them in love. Yes, we are to lament of our apathy around seeking these gifts — Paul challenges us to seek them in prayer. Yet in our future life with God, there will be no need for tongues, or gifts of knowledge or prophesies — these are all gifts from the Spirit because of the limitations we experience here in the present. When everyone and everything is healthy and whole, there will be no need for miracles like healing. When we know and are fully known, we will have no need to have a prophetic word to share with us the heart of God. Love endures forever. Love never ends.
So, when we love, we begin to experience eternal life here and now. That is the purpose of the gifts of the Spirit — to help us to experience love here and now. So, after underlining the importance of love, Paul knows that the Corinthians are ready to hear more about how the gifts of the Spirit can be used to build up the community in love. That’s what chapter 14 is about. Paul says, “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire the gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy,” and goes on from there.
I would love for our church to be strong in the spiritual gifts. I would love to see healings, and words of prophecy and miracles. Let’s seek them together, pray for them. Yet, let’s make sure that whatever we do in the Spirit, whether it seems mundane or supernatural, it’s characterized by the love we see in Christ Jesus for us all. Let us have love be the chief fruit among us and in this way together build up of the body of Christ and bring glory to God.