Summary: God gifts us to serve him and one another, in so doing we show off his love.
If your husband, fiancé, or boyfriend goes out shopping for a Valentine’s Day present this afternoon, would you prefer he make his purchase at a jewellery store or at Canadian Tire? I’m pretty certain that my wife would rather receive a pair of diamond earrings than a new vacuum cleaner for Valentine’s Day. In general we prefer gifts that will make us feel good about ourselves rather than gifts that will help us do chores around the house.
In our text this morning, however, the Apostle Paul urges us to seek spiritual gifts that are more “Canadian Tire” than “jewellery store” in nature. In other words we are to seek gifts that will help us serve, not strut.
Our text is taken from Paul’s first letter to the church in the Greek city of Corinth. The Corinthian church was a congregation with problems because the members were not unified. They had even taken their squabbles to court where they sued one another (1 Corinthians 6)! In spite of their shortcomings there was at least one commendable thing about this congregation. It was a congregation that eagerly desired spiritual gifts. Can the same be said of this congregation? Do we eagerly desire and pray for spiritual gifts, or do we spend more time asking God for physical blessings like good health, good friends, and a car that will start every morning?
Maybe the reason we don’t pray more often for spiritual gifts is because we don’t know for what to ask. The Corinthian Christians didn’t have this problem. They knew what they wanted. They wanted the spiritual gift of being able to speak in tongues. Now we’re not exactly certain what this gift of speaking in tongues entailed. It may have been the God-given ability to speak in foreign languages they had never studied before – like what happened to the disciples at Pentecost, or it may have been a God-given gibberish the people spoke in praise of him.
Although we don’t know what the gift of speaking in tongues was we do know why the Corinthians wanted it. They desired this gift because they felt it would set them apart from “ordinary” Christians. It’s no wonder this congregation was a church divided! They saw their fellow believer as a competitor to step over, not a companion to serve under. Things haven’t changed, have they? Our sinful nature would have us think that our plan for this congregation, whether for building or for evangelism, is the right one. If another member should propose a differing view we see that individual as a competitor, not a companion God has given us to serve.
To correct the Corinthians’ misunderstanding and to set us straight Paul wrote: “Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church” (1 Corinthians 14:12). It was great that the Corinthians wanted spiritual gifts but they were to desire these gifts so they could serve, not show off. And so if they wanted the gift of speaking in tongues they were to also ask for the gift of interpreting what they said. Paul wrote: “If you are praising God with your spirit, how can one who finds himself among those who do not understand say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since he does not know what you are saying? You may be giving thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified” (1 Corinthians 14:16, 17). I often experience what Paul just described when I visit shut-ins from St. John’s, Wetaskiwin. They sometimes like to share a favorite verse or prayer with me in German. While it’s obvious from the delight on their faces that they are benefiting from the words, my two years of German instruction doesn’t allow me to understand everything they are saying and I’m not as edified.
While the shut-ins from Wetaskiwin speak in German because that is the language they are most comfortable speaking, the Corinthians wanted to speak in tongues to wow those listening. That’s why Paul went on to say, “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Corinthians 14:18, 19). Paul was more gifted than any of the Corinthians in regard to tongues but he realized that he had been gifted to serve, not show off. And so he would rather speak five intelligible words in church than ten thousand words that no one could comprehend. Why? What was at stake? His members’ eternal future was at stake. Their faith would not grow as long as they did not understand what Paul was saying about their sin and their Savior. And so pray that as I work on my sermons that the Lord gives me the gift of speaking clearly that even the youngest child here my understand what I say about Jesus. Pray that my motivation in working hard on my sermons is not so that you’ll slap me on the back and say what a fine piece of oration it was. Please, slap me on the back, I need that encouragement, but do so because you were able to see your sin and your Savior more clearly. And after you have slapped me on the back let me know specifically how I was able to help you gain a better appreciation of your salvation. That will help me better serve you with God’s Word in the future.