Paul begins this section with a call to imitate him, meaning Paul set aside doing things his way so that he could do whatever it was Christ wanted him to do. He even found something to praise the Corinthians for. Verse three begins with “but”. This introduces an exception to the praise. Head primarily means authority when used in the context of human relationships. But the Greek word for head can also mean source or origin. The relationship between man and woman does NOT involve inferiority, for in the parallel clause, Christ is not inferior to God the Father. Submission does not indicate inferiority but subordination. Just as Christ and God are equally divine, men and women are equal beings. But just as Jesus and God the Father have different roles in God’s plan of salvation, so men and women have different roles. We could also translate verse two as, the source of every man is Christ, the source of woman is man (think Eve coming from Adam’s side) and the source of Christ is God. Never had such a big deal been made about what to wear to church. Here the challenge is what to wear on your head in worship. A man who covers his physical head dishonors his spiritual head, Jesus Christ. But a woman who prays without her physical head covered dishonors her spiritual head and that of her husband. It seems that when the Corinthian women heard about freedom in Christ they thought that meant they didn’t have to cover their heads anymore, which was against social mores as well. It also seems that women in Corinth were praying and prophesying in worship but with uncovered heads they were sending ambiguous signals about their sexuality or religious commitment. Paul encouraged them to exercise restraint. For a woman not to cover her head with a veil or her own hair was as shameful as having a shaved head which was a sign of public disgrace. On the other side, if a man covered his head as he prayed he was showing great dishonor to his spiritual head, Jesus Christ because man was made in God’s image. Paul also indicates that women were to cover their heads because the angels were watching. Angels are the guardians of the created order, appointed to ensure everything is done according to God’s plan. Evidently God’s angels are present at the meeting of the church and actually learn of God’s work of grace through the lives and worship of God’s people. Verses 11-12 show that God has created men and women to be mutually dependent on each other. The first woman came from man but every other man has been born from a woman. In Paul’s culture, men would never wear long hair and he argues that social conventions regarding hair length express fundamental differences between men and women. There were some in the Corinthian church who did not agree with Paul but his final argument was that this was the established custom of the church.
The next issue Paul had with the Corinthian church centered around the Lord’s Supper. Early Christians usually met in someone’s home at least once a week, typically on the Lord’s Day. But there were issues, one of which was division. Paul becomes a bit prickly when calling the people out for some of their claims of being superior to others. Some were more concerned about eating their own supper than eating the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper was the centerpiece of early Christian worship. Gathered around one table, fellow believers met with the Lord and with each other in unity. Christ had expressed this type of humility and unity when he instituted the Lord’s Supper. By taking their own supper ahead of others, the believers violated the spirit and purpose of the meal. By acting in this manner they showed contempt for the church of God and shamed those who had nothing. And Paul would not praise them for this behavior. Verse 23 brings us the words of institution that are so familiar to us. Paul is passing on what he received from the Lord Himself. It is one of the few explicit references in Paul’s letters to traditions handed down from Christ. In taking the Lord’s Supper, Christians proclaim the saving significance of the Lord’s death to those around them until He comes again. To take the Lord’s Supper without recognizing it’s significance or with unconfessed sin in one’s life is to take it unworthily. The Corinthians had been making it a meal of overeating and drunkenness rather than a time of reflecting on the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. That makes Jesus’ sacrificial death trivial, and thereby will invoke God’s judgement upon the people. Confession averts God’s judgement. When God’s people are judged by the Lord and disciplined, it is for their ultimate good, so that they will not be condemned along with the world. Then Paul told the Corinthians he would be visiting soon.
The rest of today’s reading deals with the church in Corinth placing too much emphasis on the gift of tongues. Paul gives corrective advice regarding the value and use of spiritual gifts. He began by introducing the topic and emphasizing the active presence of the Holy Spirit in believers. Paul gives two criteria for discerning the presence of the Spirit in worship. First, those who curse Jesus thereby express their rejection of Jesus and His message and thus cannot be speaking by the Spirit of God. Second, the presence of the Holy Spirit in believers lives is shown by their sincere confession that Jesus is Lord. This is perhaps the earliest Christian creed. Though believers are united in the Lord and His Spirit, God gives different kinds of spiritual gifts to different people so that they can fulfill different kinds of service to the same Lord. All the work believers do for God is in fact God working through them. Spiritual gifts are not given for the individual recipients benefit but to help each other and bring God glory. The list of nine spiritual gifts is representative rather than a complete list. God’s Spirit gives supernatural wisdom or knowledge to some believers. The spiritual gift of great faith is not the faith required for salvation but an unusual ability to trust God for special needs.
The ability to prophesy does not refer primarily to predicting the future, but to speaking a special message directly from God. The ability to discern whether a message is from the Spirit of God or from another spirit is a necessary gift for any Christian community that is open to hearing a word directly from God. For Paul, the ability to speak in unknown languages here refers to spiritual language that requires the special gift of interpretation in order to be understood. By placing this gift near the bottom of the list Paul shows the lesser priority attached to the gift of tongues, with which the Corinthian church had become over enamored. The ability to interpret does not refer to natural intellectual ability to translate, but to a spiritual ability to understand the meaning of the Spirit’s message communicated through the gift of tongues. The Spirit decides what gift each person should have. Paul paradoxically affirms both the sovereign choice of God in giving spiritual gifts, and the human responsibility to earnestly desire the most helpful gifts. The church is a body composed of many different parts, each with its own function determined by God. No one function is more important than another.
Ethnic and social distinctions have no significance in the church because regardless of who we are or where we have come from, we are all united together with Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit in baptism. Every part of the body, physical or spiritual is important and essential to its proper functioning. Paul calls us to not boast of our ministries or belittle them in comparison to others. Every single one of us had a purpose. Every. Single. One. And God who made the body has put each part just where He wants it. When one part of the body has a need we are called to go be useful to help with that need. And some of the parts we may see as weak are actually the most necessary. Because the church is a unified body, harmony and care for each other is essential. Paul ends chapter 13 with a list of some of the different individual roles given to people in the church. Apostles are specially commissioned emissaries of Christ in the world. Prophets speak a word from God. Teachers instruct others in the faith. His rhetorical questions all expect the same answer, of course not! Paul gently rebukes those who are jealous of others. Believers are to gratefully accept the gifts God has given them, and not envy other gifts or elevate any gifts as more important than others. He even goes so far as to say that believers should earnestly desire the most helpful gifts; that is the gifts that have the greatest potential to build up the church. God is the only one who distributes gifts as He chooses. And Paul encourages the Corinthians to move beyond their desire for the gift of tongues because it has the least potential, of all the gifts, to build up the church. And then Paul shows the Corinthian church the best way of life.
Contrary to popular belief, 1 Corinthians 13 was not written specifically for weddings. Paul interrupted his discussion on spiritual gifts to emphasize that love is more important than any spiritual gift. The most important thing for Christians is to become deeply and consistently loving people. Spiritual gifts in themselves do not define our worth to God or to the church. In fact, apart from the expression of love, spiritual gifts are of no value. Paul uses an intentional exaggeration to illustrate the uselessness of each spiritual gift without love. The Corinthians could readily understand the images of sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. This is an illusion to pagan liturgy. Bestowing all of his gifts probably refers to the spiritual gift of giving to others. Some translations say if I give my body to be burned. Many early Christians experienced martyrdom by being burned at the stake. Verses 4-7 are a description of Christian love that emphasizes the willingness to give up one’s own desires for the good of others. This is how we are called to live today and while this text is often used at weddings, as you read what love is, picture what it really takes to be patient sometimes, what it actually looks like to be kind instead of snarky. Paul tells us that love does not demand its own way. If you love someone your relationship should be a partnership and not a dictatorship. Love is not self centered. It is not concerned with its own interests. Love isn’t keeping a list of all the wrongs that have been done to us, only to pull that list out as ammo when there are disagreements. Love celebrates the truth. It never gives up even when that would be easier and love endures through everything; the good, bad, and ugly. Love will last forever because God is love. Spiritual gifts are limited in their benefits, but not love.
The contrast between now and then is between this age and the coming age. Now we see in a mirror dimly. In Paul’s day mirrors were usually made of polished bronze so the view was imperfect. Our perception in this life is limited and our understanding is partial and incomplete. When the end comes and Christ establishes His eternal kingdom we will see everything with perfect clarity. Then the spiritual gifts that give knowledge will be unnecessary. Faith, hope, and love are more important than spiritual gifts because they last forever. The greatest is love because love is the quintessential nature of God Himself. That means that love should epitomize our relationship with both Him and others.
Having emphasized the supreme importance of love Paul returns to spiritual gifts. Their relative value is defined by the benefit they give to others, which is characteristic of love. In that light Paul contrasts the over valued gift of tongues with the more beneficial gift of prophecy. This seems to be the number one gift for Paul. The gift of tongues is not readily understandable for the majority of people but prophecy is immediately understandable and beneficial. These words both comfort and encourage. And messages need to be clearly intelligible if they are to communicate effectively. Paul doesn’t forbid the speaking in tongues but the ability to interpret is crucial, especially in public worship. Speaking in tongues engages the spirit of the speaker but not their mind because the message is not rationally intelligible. It is preferable both to worship in the spirit and to use words “I understand” in worship and ministry because public ministry should always bless both God and others. Paul also affirmed the personal value of speaking in tongues but speaking in a church meeting should help others, not only the speaker. Being mature means that one must consider the purpose of spiritual gifts and not treat them as ends in themselves for ones own enjoyment. Paul even argues that even unbelievers are more likely to be convicted by a word of prophecy than by speaking in tongues.
Paul gives specific procedures for the use of spiritual gifts in the church and emphasizes that they are to be expressed in an orderly way. Among the early Christians, church meetings were not led by professional pastors or priests. Instead everyone shared with the others what God had given them for strengthening the church. Everything done in worship is to be for the strengthening the church. Paul even put time limits on some things so the most helpful things for the body of the church will get the most time and play. And public prophesying is to be expressed in an orderly way, sensitive to the guidance of the Spirit so that everyone may benefit from it. Others will evaluate what was said. Verses 34-35 are a bit of an aside, based on chapter 11:5. Women were encouraged to pray and prophesy but are also encouraged to be silent and submissive. Paul expected the Corinthians to take his apostolic word seriously, as a command from the Lord Himself. And one last caution to do things in an orderly fashion.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W