The context of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians is vital. Corinth was a pagan city, full of immorality, idolatry, and divisiveness. Paul was not writing to a church that had no exposure to the use of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Rather, he wrote to a church that did not use the gifts for the common good (see 1 Corinthians 12:8). The Corinthians were immature in their use of spiritual gifts. From Paul’s letter, we can glean that the Corinthians likely used spiritual gifts in a free-for-all, no-holds-barred, anything-goes approach. They were not ignorant about the Holy Spirit’s gifts per se; they were uninformed about how to use the gifts well.
The Corinthian church faced many serious issues that Paul addressed in his letter to the Corinthian church: sexual immorality, a lack of love among Jesus followers, a lack of order when celebrating Communion, and a lack of wisdom using these spiritual gifts.
Interestingly, Paul never doubted that these gifts are from the Holy Spirit, and that’s important. Given the Corinthian church’s immature use of spiritual gifts, not to mention the church’s moral failings, he might have questioned the validity of gifts or told the church to quit “livestreaming” until their lives were more ordered. I can imagine Paul writing: “Now listen up, you Corinthians. You are no longer allowed to speak in tongues or prophesy until you get your lives in order. You’re a disgrace to us all. You need to grow up. Stop using spiritual gifts until you learn to use them responsibly. That’s an order!”
I find it intriguing that Paul didn’t take this approach. Instead, he wrote: “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy” (1 Cor. 14:1).
What Paul Did Say to the Corinthians
Instead of discouraging the use of spiritual gifts, he encouraged the Corinthians to desire them even more. Why? Because a mature use of the Holy Spirit’s gifts is vital for the healthy growth of any church. We should not be surprised to learn that most churches multiplying worldwide are very open to the use of spiritual gifts. Paul knew that the gifts of the Holy Spirit were not the real problem in the Corinthian church. Instead, immaturity, immorality, and the lack of proper teaching were at the root of the church’s problems.
Paul’s letter was probably the first time the Corinthian church had heard any instructions on the mature and orderly use of spiritual gifts so that everyone could benefit. Helpfully, Paul gave the Corinthian church extensive advice to help them use spiritual gifts well. We do well to keep these in mind:
- Don’t be ignorant about spiritual gifts. (1 Cor. 12:1)
- There are different types of gifts and ministries, and all of them are needed for the church to function well. (12:7–11)
- God gives different spiritual gifts as he deems fit. (12:11)
- Spiritual gifts are intended for the common good, not to make you look good. (12:7, 21–25)
- Speaking in tongues might be talking in human or angelic languages. (13:1)
- Unless our motivation is love, using spiritual gifts gains us nothing. (13:1–3)
- Even the most gifted of us only see or know part of the picture. Stay humble. (13:9–11)
- If anyone speaks a public message in tongues, they should also pray for the interpretation so everyone can benefit. (13:13)
- Eagerly desire spiritual gifts; they help build the church. (14:1)
- Speaking in tongues is speaking mysteries by the Spirit. Only God understands it. (14:2)
- Those who speak in tongues don’t talk to people but talk to God. (14:2)
- The person who prophesies speaks to people for their encouragement, strengthening, and comfort. (14:3)
- Prophecy is a better gift for public worship. (14:5)
- Be eager to use spiritual gifts that build up other people. (14:12)
- When a person prays in tongues, their spirit prays, but their mind has no idea what’s going on. (14:14)
- It’s beneficial to pray both in tongues and your natural human language. (14:15)
- It’s great to speak in tongues, but in church, it is preferable to speak words that others can understand so they can be strengthened. (14:19)
- When the church comes together, everyone has a part to play. (14:26)
Up to three people may prophesy at one time, and others must carefully weigh what is said. (14:29)
- You are responsible for using spiritual gifts in an orderly way. (14:32–33)
- Be eager to prophesy. (14:39)
- Don’t forbid speaking in tongues. (14:39)
- Do everything in an orderly way to build up other people’s faith. (14:40)
Not everyone takes advice well. Some people are know-it-alls who don’t seek anyone’s help. Sadly, church history has had far too many such men and women. Thankfully, the Corinthians were not among them. How do we know? Paul writes to them again in 2 Corinthians and doesn’t see the need to bring up the issue again. The Corinthians appear to have taken correction well. We would do well to emulate the Corinthian church, not in their sensuality, but in their willingness to put things right.
Did you find this entry helpful? It’s an excerpt from Ivan Filby’s new book, Livestream: Learning to Minister in the Power of the Holy Spirit.
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