Beliefnet
Mark D. Roberts

Part 8 of series: Spiritual Gifts in the Body of Christ
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Desiring Spiritual Gifts
1 Corinthians 14 provides practical instruction on the use of spiritual gifts. Even though a substantial portion of the chapter deals with the specific problem of inappropriate tongue-speaking among the Corinthians, much in Paul’s discussion informs our use of spiritual gifts today.
“Pursue love,” Paul begins, “and keep on eagerly desiring spiritual manifestations, especially that you might prophesy” (1 Cor 14:1, my literal translation). By mentioning love, Paul connects his advice on spiritual gifts to the previous reflection on love in 1 Corinthians 13. Above all else, we should actively seek to love each other. Then, with this motivation, we should eagerly desire or strive for spiritual manifestations (gifts, energizings, etc.).
Paul’s advice might seem surprising at first. Isn’t the problem in the Corinthian church related to their zeal for spiritual experiences? Isn’t it risky for Paul to urge them to keep striving for such things? Yes, it is risky. But Paul is not willing to throw the baby out with the bath water. Christians should not settle for whatever gifts they have received in the past, but should be zealous for more gifts, just so long as they are motivated by love.
When I was a teenager, some Christians I knew imitated the Corinthians’ unbridled zeal for spiritual manifestations, especially speaking in tongues. My youth leaders reacted against this excess with what seemed at the time to be wise counsel. “Don’t worry about spiritual gifts,” they said. “Seek the Giver, not the gifts.” That sounded so solid, so balanced. What could be better than seeking the Holy Spirit, the Giver, rather than the gifts? Unfortunately, the “not the gifts” part of their advice directly contradicts biblical teaching. Paul says that we should keep on eagerly desiring spiritual gifts. We should seek them in addition to seeking God. It’s not an either-or situation. It would have been much better for my youth leaders to say, “As you seek first the Giver, seek also the gifts.”
The connection between love and seeking spiritual gifts can be easily illustrated. Suppose, for example, that you are praying for somebody who has cancer. The more you love that person, the more you will want the Spirit to give a gift of healing to that person. Or consider the example of a Sunday School teacher. If you have a class of first graders and your job is to teach them the Bible lesson, the more you love those children, the more you will seek a gift of teaching so you can explain the assigned biblical passage clearly and in a way that first graders can understand. So, the more we love others, the more we will seek the gifts that build them up. (Photo: Sunday School class from the First Presbyterian Church of Anaheim, California. Surely that teacher could use a spiritual gift or two!)
Focus on Building Up the Body of Christ
Paul tells us to strive for spiritual gifts, “especially that you might prophesy” (1 Cor 14:1). He explains the benefits of prophesying over speaking in tongues by pointing to the issue of intelligibility. Messages in tongues cannot be understood by those present in the gathering. Prophesies can be understood (1 Cor 14:2). Tongues-speaking, therefore, cannot help anyone other than the individual speaker, unless the message is interpreted (1 Cor 14:5). One who prophesies, however, is able to build up the body, to offer encouragement and comfort to those gathered (1 Cor 14:3-4).
When Paul speaks of prophesying, he is not referring primarily to foretelling the future. Prophecy within the Christian community happens when an individual delivers God’s word to the gathering. The prophecy could be words actually revealed by the Spirit, or a genuine revelation phrased in words chosen by the one who prophesies. The prophecy may refer to future events, but more often it addresses practical or theological matter in the assembly. Paul teaches that prophesy can build up, encourage, comfort, bring conviction of sin, and teach (1 Cor 14:3-4, 24-25, 31). If this sounds to you a whole lot like what we call preaching, then you’re getting the point. Most prophesying in church today happens when preachers, guided by Scripture and empowered by the Spirit, speak God’s word with pointed power.
New Testament prophets differ from Old Testament prophets in several ways. Most importantly, Christian prophets do not speak the word of the Lord with absolute authority, as the Hebrew prophets did. The church must welcome prophecies, therefore, but test them to see if they are really from God (1 Thess 5:19-22). Only the good prophecies should be embraced as genuinely from God, but even these should not be accorded the same authority as Old Testament prophecies. The content of our prophesying, even when it is judged to be from God, always stands under the ultimate authority of the Bible.
Paul urges the Corinthians to seek to prophesy, rather than to speak in tongues, because prophecy, being intelligible, leads to the building up of the church. This, Paul says, is the main purpose for spiritual gifts. The Holy Spirit gives bits of grace to members of the church so that they might edify each other and, therefore, the body of Christ. When we focus our attention on strengthening the church, spiritual gifts will follow.
The practical implications are obvious. If you wish to minister in spiritual gifts, don’t focus on the gifts, but on the ministry God has placed before you. Invest in building up Christ’s body wherever you are. If you feel the need for spiritual gifts, be sure to ask the Lord in prayer. As you serve, as you pray, as you step out in faith, the Spirit will empower for his ministry.

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