These three chapters each address a significant topic, but they flow so neatly together that it’s reasonable to imagine they form a complete unit. As we did in Romans, pay attention to words like “For” and “Now” and “Therefore” that create logical bridges between subjects.
“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;” Paul asserts in chapter 12. “And there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Paul’s attention to unity has taken many forms in this letter: don’t be proud of who baptized you; purge the evil member from among you; don’t sue each other in pagan courts; don’t cause others to stumble… Here, the theme shines through the Holy Spirit’s manifestation of gifts: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”
This chapter concludes with a call to “…earnestly seek the higher gifts.” And the “still more excellent way” he wants to show them flows through chapter 13: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels… If I have prophetic powers…. If I have all faith… If I deliver up my body to be burned… but have not love, I gain nothing.” As you listen through Paul’s explanation of the nature of love, remember all that this church has been through. What is Paul’s hope for them? This chapter is to be read not at a wedding, but to a church; not as hopeful sentiment, but as observation of truth.
The assertion in chapter 13 that, “As for tongues, they will cease…” foreshadows the theme of chapter 14. Questions around prophecy and speaking in tongues were connected to this letter’s larger themes as well. Paul implores his readers, at least four times here, to use one’s gifts, in all things, to “build up the church.” As he summarizes at the end of the chapter: “So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But all things should be done decently and in order.”
These chapters are often heard individually in other contexts. Listen to them now, in sequence, as they were designed, and consider the deep threads that bind them. But also approach with caution some of the difficult subjects here. It can be tempting, just as it occasionally was in the prophets, to keep the instructions that come easily and discard the rest. I encourage you to pay attention to Paul’s reasoning in each instance, and also to honor how each topic contributes to the entire letter.
Our verse for this week is Deuteronomy 6:4: Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.
1 Corinthians 12 through 14. Now let’s read it!
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.