Scripture: 1 Corinthians 12:1-13
Earlier this year, I did a sermon series on 1 Corinthians chapters 1 through 3. In the early chapters of the letter, Paul is responding to things that he’s heard that the Corinthians are doing—which he does not like at all! For instance, in chapter 1, verse 11, he writes, “For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers [and sisters].” And he addresses that… and other things he’s heard about. That’s the first six chapters of the letter.
But at the beginning of chapter 7 he turns the page: “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote…” And one of those matters is the topic of today’s scripture. Chapter 12, verse 1: “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers [and sisters], I do not want you to be uninformed…”
It would be nice if we had the letter that the Corinthians wrote to Paul, but we can infer that the controversy about spiritual gifts mostly had to do with the gift of speaking in tongues.
So in this sermon I want to answer three questions. First, “What is the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues?” Second, “Why was it controversial in the Corinthian church?” And third, “What does this scripture mean for us today?”
So, number one… what exactly is the gift of tongues? And this is a fitting question because today we celebrate Pentecost Sunday, which describes what happened on the day when Christian believers first received the Holy Spirit as a gift. Acts chapter 2 is the first instance of speaking in tongues. Let’s read a short excerpt:
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. 1
Luke goes on to report that all of the Jewish pilgrims who had gathered in Jerusalem for the Pentecost festival—because Pentecost is the Greek name for a Jewish holiday that takes place 50 days after the Passover… but all these pilgrims, who had come from throughout the known world, were not hearing gibberish when the apostles and other disciples of Jesus were speaking in tongues; rather, they were hearing the gospel being proclaimed to them in their own native language… The disciples themselves didn’t know the languages they were speaking; the Holy Spirit was empowering them to speak these languages.
Does this still happen today? N.T. Wright, the renowned New Testament scholar and retired bishop in the Church of England, says he has a Christian friend who was on a bus in London one time, surrounded by native Indians who had emigrated to Britain, who were speaking their native Hindi language. Britain has a large Indian population. And suddenly his friend, a native Englishmen who didn’t know a word of Hindi, began speaking to these Indians, in their native language, and he began sharing the gospel with them! And I have heard other credible reports along those lines.
So, yes, by all means, I believe that this kind of “Acts chapter 2” gift of tongues still happens.
But let’s notice that the Corinthians’ experience of the gift of tongues, which Paul describes in today’s scripture, isn’t exactly like that.
Why do I say that? Because in Paul’s list of spiritual gifts, in verses 8 through 10, Paul refers in verse 10 to not only the gift of tongues but also the “interpretation of tongues.” In fact, in chapter 14, Paul insists that in public worship the church should always have someone with the “gift of interpretation” if the church allows people to speak in tongues during worship. That apparently wasn’t happening very often—and people in the Corinthian church didn’t understand what the people who had this gift were saying.
After all, you would only need someone with the gift of interpretation if literally no one in the assembly knew the language that was being spoken.
Paul’s principle was that in public worship, everything that is said and done should build up fellow believers—not confuse them or make them feel excluded or make them feel like outsiders since they don’t know what’s being said.
But do you see how this experience of tongues in 1 Corinthians is very different from Pentecost in Acts chapter 2? The point of Acts chapter 2 is that no interpretation was necessary! The point of Acts 2 was that all these different people, from different parts of the world who spoke different languages, could perfectly understand what was being said! No one needed to interpret for them!
Indeed, this is why many Pentecostal or Charismatic Christians—Christians who place an emphasis on gifts of tongues and miracles and prophecy—don’t say that they speak in a known human language. Rather, they speak in a private “prayer language” known only to God—or even possibly a language that angels speak… which might explain Paul’s reference in 1 Corinthians 13, verse 1, to the “tongues of angels.”
Who knows? We can’t be dogmatic about whether or not it must be a human language.
But I believe that there are many Christians today, even people in our church, who have received the gift of tongues; it’s an important part of their private prayer lives. And as a matter of doctrine, we Methodists should be perfectly okay with that. We Methodists believe that all of the spiritual gifts that Paul mentions in today’s scripture continue to be given by the Spirit. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, certainly believed that!
But even more,I believe this is the clear biblical teaching!
So I think it’s awesome that some people in our church have the gift of tongues! And Paul would think so, too. In verse 5 of 1 Corinthians chapter 14 Paul says that he wishes everyone had the gift of tongues, and in verse 18, he says he thanks God that he, Paul, “speaks in tongues more than all of you.” Finally, in verse 39, he says, “Do not forbid speaking in tongues.”
Why does Paul express such vocal support of the practice of speaking in tongues? Because it’s clear that some members of the church opposed the practice. And this brings us to Question Number Two: Why was the gift of tongues controversial in the Corinthian church?
To understand, we have to understand verse 3—which is a notoriously difficult verse for which there are many different interpretations. But never fear: I’m going to make it as clear as mud, I promise. The verse reads: “Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says, ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.”
This probably relates directly to something the Corinthians said in their letter to Paul. I wish we knew exactly what they said to him. But because we don’t, we have to read between the lines!
Let’s take the second part of the verse first… because it’s a little easier to understand: “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.”
Of course, even this is a little confusing because anyone can say anything, including the words “Jesus is Lord.”
But Paul isn’t talking about merely speaking the words. He means speaking the words, and sincerely believing the words! In other words, Paul is saying, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and mean it, except in the Holy Spirit.”
Paul’s point is this: If you genuinely believe that Jesus is Lord, then that means you are authentically a Christian. And if you are authentically a Christian, then that means that you are “in the Holy Spirit,” which means that you have the Holy Spirit living within you. You have received the gift of the Holy Spirit.
I am a hundred percent sure that’s Paul’s meaning in the second part of the verse.
But what about the first part of the verse? That’s trickier: “Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says, ‘Jesus is accursed!’”
I almost want to say, “Well, duh!” Are there really members of the Corinthian church who are saying, “Jesus is accursed”? And if there are, surely Paul would advise the Corinthian elders to kick them out of church… and fast! Paul would be righteously angry if that were happening, just as he’s righteously angry elsewhere in the letter about other things that these badly flawed Corinthian believers are doing in the church!
So why does he say, “No one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says, ‘Jesus is accursed!’”
Here’s what I think is a good guess… First, let’s notice that in verse 2, Paul reminds them of their previous life as pagan idol-worshipers… Prior to their conversion, most of these Gentiles went to pagan temples and worshiped idols. Paul has already warned them in this letter that there are demonic forces at work through the idols when people worship them. 2 The idols themselves are nothing—blocks of wood, metal, or stone; but the demons behind them are dangerous. That’s why he warns Christians not to go into these temples. He says you can buy meat in the marketplace that had been sacrificed to idols, but don’t go into the temples themselves. Because there are demons there.
So, as part of their former pagan practices, under the influence of these demonic forces, these Corinthians likely used—or at least heard others use—strange, ecstatic speech that sounded a lot like speaking in tongues!
So when some of these sensitive Corinthian believers—who had escaped from a life of pagan idol worship—heard their fellow believers speaking in tongues, they were reminded of their former pagan practices. And it scared them. They feared, understandably, that their fellow Christians who spoke in tongues might have been saying blasphemous things like “Jesus is accursed”—except in a language that the tongues-speakers themselves, as well as the rest of the congregation, didn’t understand. Because if you have the gift of tongues, you yourself don’t know what you’re saying! That’s why Paul says you need an interpreter. These Corinthians likely didn’t have an interpreter!
So from the perspective of these sensitive Christian converts, who left a lifestyle of idolatrous pagan practice, they feared that these Christians might have been blaspheming Jesus without even knowing it! And this is likely the issue that they raised with Paul in their letter… What if demons are influencing them to commit blasphemy and speak the words, “Jesus is accursed” in another language?
It’s a good question… And that explains the controversy of speaking in tongues.
So I read verse 3 as Paul’s response to their concern. So for what it’s worth, here’s how I would paraphrase verse 3:
If you can say, “Jesus is Lord,” and mean it—as do all professing members of the Corinthian church—then that means you all have the Holy Spirit living within you. And if you have the Holy Spirit living within you, you will never utter blasphemous words like “Jesus is accursed”—even if you’re speaking in tongues, and you don’t understand what you’re saying.
Question Number Three… What do Paul’s words here mean for us today? And answering this question, I’m happy to report, is much easier and clearer than the previous question… I’m going to answer it in six short points…
Point Number One: All genuine Christian believers have the Holy Spirit living within them. I’ve already shown this in verse 3: “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.”
I can’t emphasize this enough: If you are a believer at all, you have the Holy Spirit living within you.
Jesus taught this repeatedly. He promised us disciples that he was going to send his Spirit after he ascended to his Father; he promised that the Spirit would give us new birth and make us part of God’s family and work within us to change us and make us holy; he promised that his Spirit would empower us to continue his gospel ministry of reconciliation after his ascension; he promised that the Spirit would remind us of all of his teaching—and help us apply it to our lives; he promised that the Spirit would be a comforter to us during difficult times; he promised that the Spirit would make Christ present to us and to his church—for example, where two or three are gathered together in his name, he will be with us; he promised that his Spirit would enable us to bear witness to him.
And Jesus’ teaching about the sending of the Spirit was prophesied in the Old Testament!
Not to mention that Paul’s words in our scripture today reiterate this point!
So the idea that there would be genuine believers in Christ who don’t also possess the Holy Spirit is, in my opinion, preposterous!
Unfortunately, part of our confusion is often caused by our brothers and sisters in Christ who identify as Pentecostals. Some Pentecostals—not all, but some—teach that God’s gift of the Spirit is a “secondary” gift that we receive at some point after we’re born again through faith in Christ. Which may not happen at all, according to some Pentecostals! So they believe that there are Christians who have been genuinely saved, genuinely born again, who have not received the Holy Spirit. And the only way to know whether or not you’ve received the Spirit is… what? Your ability to speak in tongues!
I have great respect for Pentecostalism and Pentecostals, but this is a false teaching—which I believe has caused harm. I cannot reject this teaching more strongly! But as I say, many Pentecostals reject it as well!
Besides, this belief is contradicted by Paul himself in verses 4 through 11: Paul makes clear that Christians possess a variety of gifts, only one of which is the gift of tongues! And Paul doesn’t think that the gift of tongues is more special than any other gift! In fact, his words in chapters 12 through 14 have a way of demoting the importance of the gift of tongues!
So Point Number One, all believers have the Holy Spirit living within them.
Point Number Two: All believers have all of the Holy Spirit—they have all of the Spirit’s power available to them right now!
There is no hierarchy of Christians based on their particular spiritual gifts!
In Corinth, believers who possessed the gift of tongues were exalting themselves over other believers who didn’t possess that gift… As if to say, “We are more spiritual, or we have more of the Spirit, than all of you less spiritual people.”
But no… All believers have 100 percent of the Holy Spirit living within them. We are all equal in that way.
On a related note, this brings us to Point Number Three: The spiritual gifts we possess are nothing other than gifts of sheer grace; they are not based on merit; they’re not based on how holy we are. We don’t earn them.
This problem of spiritual elitism—that Christians who possessed the gift of tongues were somehow better or holier than Christians who didn’t possess it—was so severe that Paul spends three chapters of this letter dealing with it: chapters 12, 13, and 14.
Yes, even 1 Corinthians chapter 13, the great love chapter—which is often read at weddings… Paul wrote even this beautiful love poem in part to address the conflict in the church over the gift of speaking in tongues. Listen to the verse 1: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
Paul describes Christians in this poem who enjoy extraordinary, supernatural, and very conspicuous spiritual gifts of speaking in tongues, of prophetic powers, of faith that’s able to move mountains, of generosity that gives away all that one possesses, and of courage to lay down one’s life for Christ. Christians who do this are spiritually gifted, to be sure, Paul says. No denying that.
But… the fact that God has given them these gifts does not mean that they are holy. Not by a long shot! Their hearts have not yet been sufficiently transformed by the sanctifying work of the Spirit. Because the proof of holiness, Paul says, isn’t spiritual giftedness; it’s one’s ability to love—to love God and love others. That’s what these gifts are all about!
And on that note, Point Number Four: God gives us gifts for the sake of love… See verse 7: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” The common good means that the gifts are given for the sake of love…
A “manifestation of the Spirit,” by the way, means this: When we Christians gather together for worship, God shows up. And God shows out. And God makes himself known through the assembly of believers in worship. We experience God himself when we gather together for worship at Toccoa First United Methodist. Do we believe that?
If so, then we understand that the most loving thing that God can do for us is forGod to make himself known to people—to make himself better known to us who are already Christians and to make himself known to those who haven’t yet received Christ. And Paul says that God makes himself known through us… as we exercise the spiritual gifts that we each possess.
So the most loving thing that we can do is to manifest the presence of God to one another!
And that’s what church is about, Paul says!
And if we believe that God manifests himself—makes himself known to ourselves and others—when God’s church gathers together even through a humble worship service at Toccoa First United Methodist Church on Sunday morning, then how can we dare decide that we don’t need to go?
And this brings us to the next point…
Point Number Five: If physically possible, we need to be Christians together… in church. At the risk of stepping on toes, there simply is no New Testament category of a “non-church-attending Christian.” I mean, I get it… If “non-church-attending Christians” were themselves a denomination, it might be the largest one in America! But “non-church-attending Christian” isn’t biblical. Simply having one’s name on the church roll—if you are physically able to attend church but don’t—doesn’t count for anything. That may make you a part of our church’s mission field, by all means, but it doesn’t make you a member of the church that Jesus Christ himself founded.
I’m not suggesting you’re not saved, that you’re not a Christ… You may still be. But if you’re not attending church, if you’re not participating in church, if you’re being part of church—when you are physically able to—you are, at the very least, disobeying our Lord. It’s a sign of genuine spiritual danger, and I urge you to please repent.
Look at the metaphor Paul uses in verses 12 and 13: Each of us is a member of a body. Even the little toe needs functioning lungs, for instance, to remain healthy. And it doesn’t even matter whether the little toe likes the lungs, or vice versa: they need one another. If you’re staying away from church because you don’t like someone, or you don’t like a group of people, you’re hurting yourself. And you’re hurting the body of Christ, who needs your particular spiritual gifts.
When I was at Georgia Tech in the early-’90s, I had a professor who told the class he wasn’t really into religion, and he wasn’t so sure that Christianity was true… but he had his membership in the First Baptist Church of Atlanta… you know, just in case.
Look, that prof wasn’t a Christian, I get it. But if we’re Christians, let’s not be like him! No Christian needs the church “just in case.” If you’re going to be spiritually healthy, you need the church all the time.
We need to understand that when we gather together in worship with our brothers and sisters in Christ, it’s not about how good we sing or speak or preach or pray; it’s not about the choice in music or worship style; it’s not about how good the music is; it’s not about the performance.
No, the Bible says something supernatural is happening: God is doing something; God is showing up.
Church is not about us and what we do… it’s about God and what God does!
And this brings us, finally, to Point Number Six: We can accomplish very powerful things because it’s not about us; it’s about God.
One of the most encouraging stories to me in all of scripture is found in Judges 6 and 7: the call of Gideon, and the way God empowers him to lead Israel in victory over their powerful enemy, the Midianites.
At the beginning of Chapter 6, Gideon is a scaredy-cat. When we first meet him, he’s down in a winepress threshing wheat—separating wheat from the chaff. Down in a winepress… That’s down in the ground.
That’s exactly opposite of the place where an Israelite went to thresh wheat. No, you would normally go to the top of a hill, where the wind was blowing, and shake the wheat, so that the chaff would blow away. You wouldn’t go down in a winepress.
But Gideon was there, scripture tells us, because he was afraid… He was afraid that the hated Midianites would see him. So he was hiding from them.
And while he was hiding, we’re told, “the angel of the Lord” appears to him and says, “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor.”
Those words are ironic. Nothing about Gideon suggests that he’s a mighty man of valor. Then, later, his faith is so weak that, even after having this encounter with the angel himself, and even after speaking directly to God, hearing God’s voice, Gideon asks God for not one, not two, but three miraculous signs from God… to prove to Gideon that God was really calling him and empowering him to accomplish God’s supernatural purposes.
But here’s what Gideon had a hard time getting through his thick skull: All the power of God Almighty was with him… was really, really with him. Gideon could accomplish literally anything that God Almighty wanted him to accomplish. If God wanted it done, and God was calling him to do it, God would give him the victory.
Gideon is a man of very little faith in God, and as a consequence, he’s a scaredy-cat. He’s afraid. He’s very fearful. But Gideon overcomes his fear by convincing himself—or letting God convince him—that God is the One who actually has all the power here, that God is the One who’s in control, that God is the One who will give him victory.
The only thing that overcame fear in Gideon’s life was his conviction that God really is powerful enough to help him, and that God really does love him enough to help him!
And that’s the only thing that overcomes fear in our lives, too!
You see, I’m afraid that we Christians, including myself, often try to overcome fear in our lives not by reminding ourselves how powerful God is, and believing it, but by convincing ourselves that “things aren’t as bad as we seem.” Right? Things aren’t as bad as they seem therefore we don’t have to be afraid.
But that’s not Christian faith!
Faith is not convincing ourselves that things aren’t rally as bad as they seem… Faith is being convinced that God is actually much more powerful, much more loving, much more caring, much more willing to help us than we usually think he is!
Faith is believing that God actually does love us so much, and really wanted to save us so much,that he took on flesh through his Son Jesus and gave his life and suffered hell on the cross for the sake of his love for us.
Faith is convincing ourselves that sinceGod loves us enough to do that very hard thing—to take on flesh and die on a cross—then of course he’ll give us exactly what we need to handle, for example, this family crisis, this financial crisis, this health crisis, this problem with my job, this problem finding a job, this problem in my marriage, this problem with my kids, this problem with my parents, this problem with the United Methodist Church, this problem with you name it…
For all we know, maybe things are exactly as bad as they seem. Maybe, objectively speaking, we ought to be afraid. Maybe, just based on appearances, we have perfectly justifiable reasons for fear…
So what! We have the Spirit of God living within us! And God gave us a Spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control! 3 2 Timothy 1:7. We have a Spirit of power! Do we believe it? Paul also writes, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong! 2 Corinthians 12:10. Do we believe it?
Ultimately, because we have the Holy Spirit living within us—which means we have God himself living within us—our victories in life won’t depend on us, and how powerful, how talented, how clever, how wealthy, how well-educated, how good-looking, how well-connected, how healthy, how physically fit, how popular we are…
Because God alone, and not any of those other things, gives us the victory every time!
Do we believe it?
Be of good cheer, Toccoa First United Methodist: “The Lord is with you, O mighty men and women of valor.”