Will We Use Power Tools or Tonka Trucks to Help Build Up the Church? Unwrapping the Gifts of the Spirit Today

My most recent blogs have dealt with the Gifts of the Spirit mentioned in First Corinthians 12. For some of you, this might have been very informative as a history lesson on early church practices, but the thought of seeing these gifts in action today made you ask: “Didn’t those die with the toga and the scroll?” Now I might occasionally wear a toga around the house when I am feeling “philosophical,” but the purpose of my recent blogs was to urge everyone to actually start using the gifts the Holy Spirit is giving us! I know many of us were that kid on Christmas morning that found the shiny wrapping paper and the boxes more intriguing than the gifts themselves, but hopefully we grew up and starting using the gift itself.

Paul says it this way: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.” (1 Corinthians 13:11) I know this chapter is often call The Love Chapter, but have you ever noticed what Paul is writing about before and after he waxes poetic about love? Chapter 12 and 14 are about the gifts of the Spirit! Chapter 13 is Paul’s commentary on the use of these gifts in light of love. He says that if we speak in tongues, but not out of love, then it is just meaningless noise. (13:1) He adds that if we prophesy or speak a message of knowledge or have the gift of faith, but do not have love, then it is all for nothing. (13:2)

So why is love the greatest? Because it will never end. It is just as important today as it will be when we see Jesus face-to-face. That isn’t true about the gifts of the Spirit. Why would we need someone else to prophesy when Jesus is standing right before us? Why would we need someone else to pray for our healing when there will be “no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4)?

All of the Gifts of the Spirit “will cease” (13:8), but some people like to debate about when they will cease. It really isn’t up for debate. Paul makes it pretty clear that it will be when we see God “face to face” (13:12), which will be “when perfection comes” (13:10). In other words, when Jesus comes back, we won’t need manifestations of God anymore. Manifestations are proof that God is present; they are an indication of His existence. When we see Him in person, we will need no further proof.

This should not diminish the importance of the Gifts of the Spirit in the church today. There are necessary to help build us up. But, in comparison to getting know Jesus face-to-face, the Gifts of the Spirit are dim reflections of Him in all His glory. Karl Barth describes beautifully why there will be no need for any of the gifts after Jesus comes back: “Because the sun rises, all lights are extinguished.” (The Resurrection of the Dead, ET:London, 1933, p. 86.)

Some people will insist that the Gifts of the Spirit were merely to help launch the church and were only for the Apostles. There is no Biblical basis for such a stance. Instead of interpreting the Bible in its context, they are interpreting the Bible through present-day “reality.” They are not explaining why Paul said the gifts of the Spirit would stop after the Apostles died; he never said that. They are trying to explain why the gifts of the Spirit have mostly disappeared from lack of use in most churches today. Instead of taking responsibility for not using the power tools that God wants to give us to build His church, they are content to build it with their own abilities and knowledge, which is like bringing your Tonka truck and Bob the Builder hat to a construction site.

Gordon Fee ponders: “One wonders how Paul would have responded to present-day cerebral Christianity, which has generally implied that we can get along quite well without the Spirit in the present age, now that the church has achieved its maturity in orthodoxy.” (Fee, NICNT, p.652)

Now I’m not suggesting that you start screaming in tongues in the middle of a service during that awkward pause when your pastor or priest says a joke and no one laughs. I suggest finding a safe place where people will not be quick to judge you; a place you can be free to make a mistake if you feel so bold as to prophesy in the middle of your prayer or lay hands on someone who has a cold and pray for their healing. A small group is a good place to start. Or maybe your family devotional before you tuck your kids into bed at night. Ask God for these gifts and you will be amazed at the opportunities He will provide to use them.

“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Luke 11:9-13



The Gift of Tongues and the Interpretation of Tongues; or How to Avoid Making Sad Pandas

Tongues is widely considered the most controversial spiritual gift. Perhaps it was controversial even in Paul’s day. Fee believes that the Corinthians were so obsessed with tongues that Paul wrote chapters twelve to fourteen to address their obsession. “The problem is almost certainly an abuse of the gift of tongues.” (Fee, NICNT, p.571) Paul’s frequent mention of tongues implies that the Corinthians put too much effort into pursuing it, believing it to be a sign of spiritual maturity and even elevated social status. Paul did not want them to become snooty and make snarky comments to others not given this gift; he wanted them to pursue God and allow Him to manifest Himself in other ways besides just tongues.

Tongues is probably so-named because it sounds like another language or tongue. Paul does not describe it or coach the Corinthians on how to speak in tongues; they were already very familiar with it – maybe too familiar. Paul, however, did not have anything against the gift of tongues, even boasting, “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.” (14:18-19) Paul is saying that he prays in tongues often, more than all of the Corinthians put together, in his own private prayer time. “But in the church,” Paul says there is little benefit without an interpretation – an interpretation usually done by the one who spoke in tongues. So he urges “anyone who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret what he says.” (14:13) He goes on to say, “If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God.” (14:28)

Paul is not saying prophecy is better than praying in tongues; he is saying the context determines which is better. “He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:4) In the church, prophecy is better. At home, praying in tongues would be better. What good would it do to prophesy in your bedroom? That giant stuffed panda isn’t going to get saved no matter how much he hears the gospel. He’s just one sad panda.

There are two different contexts: private use and public use.

Private Use

The purpose of tongues in private is to help build yourself up through prayer. Paul describes it as speaking “mysteries with his spirit” (1 Corinthians 14:2) and adds, “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.” In other words, tongues is a language known only to God, where even the speaker has no idea what he/she is saying. This gift empowers us to praise God and declare His wonders when we are otherwise speechless and in awe of Him. (Acts 2:11) This could be what Paul was referring to in Romans 8:28. “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” Sometimes I have no idea what to pray; sometimes grief or confusion or even joy and awe becomes so overwhelming that words cannot express how I feel. A private prayer in tongues might be the only way to express these feelings to God. May God loosen our tongues to praise Him and declare the wonders of God in our own tongues.

Public Use

The purpose of this gift in public is to preach the gospel message. As described in Acts 2, Peter and the others who had gathered to pray in the upper room began speaking in at least 15 other languages and dialects fluently. Peter does not refer to this as “tongues and the interpretation of tongues,” but simply “prophecy” (Acts 2:17,18).  In other words, interpretation of tongues IS prophecy. Though we might want to view each of these gifts as categories, we must allow for overlap within this list. Just as healings and miracles overlap as well as words of wisdom and knowledge, prophecy can overlap with interpretation of tongues when it is preceded by an utterance in tongues. This overlap is probably why Paul chooses to list tongues and interpretation of tongues immediately after prophecy; they all go hand-in-hand.

The reason why tongues can be really confusing is because it has two very different purposes for two very different contexts. Fee sums this up best. The Gift of Tongues “can be used privately as much as one pleases, but in the community only in the context of edification, which requires intelligibility. Hence it must always be accompanied by interpretation” (Fee, NICNT, p.571). May we never find ourselves tongue-tied again, but allow the Holy Spirit to use our tongues for His purposes.