What Is the “Most Excellent Way”?

No congregation is perfect, and the Corinthian congregations were no exception.  Individuals and factions boasted of being better than others within the congregations.  This is still true today.  Members of the Corinthian congregations viewed themselves as being greater because they “spoke in tongues”; others because they possessed “special” knowledge or “secret” wisdom through prophecy; still others due to how much they had sacrificed.

In his First Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul addresses these distinctions along with the related arrogance.  After his opening salutation and thanksgiving, he “appeals to [the Corinthians] in the name of Christ to agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among [them] and that [they] may be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1.10).  Several members of the congregations informed him of the quarrels that were dividing the congregations.  The topics of these quarrels show the spiritual immaturity of the Corinthians (3.1-5).

Building upon his opening appeal for unity, Paul spends much of the epistle addressing these topics and how to resolve them.  With the underlying theme of unity, Paul’s discussions build toward the image he offers in chapter 12.  He speaks of how the “gifts” of speaking in tongues, interpreting tongues, prophesying, etc., result from the Holy Spirit’s presence.  Since the Holy Spirit is one and not numerous spirits, we are to use these various “gifts” together to worship God and serve others.

Just as the human body comprises many parts that do different functions for the body, so congregations include many members with different gifts that serve the Church—the “Body of Christ” on earth.

What is true of the human body is true for the Body of Christ.  To work, members of the body must “be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1.10).

In the human body, the brain sends an impulse through the nervous system to the proper part or parts of the body to take action.  Now, let us ponder a question: What is the “impulse” that travels through the central nervous system in the Body of Christ?  If the “gifts” of the Spirit give purpose or role for each member, what is the message or command that travels through the central nervous system?

Allow me to add that as I Corinthians 12 closes, Paul will “show [the Corinthians and us] the most excellent way,” which occupies I Corinthians 13 and relates to the earlier question.  Yet, we need added information to appreciate what Paul says in I Corinthians 13.

Keeping the earlier question before us (What is the “impulse” that travels through the central nervous system in the Body of Christ?), let us examine a few passages outside of I Corinthians on “one mind” and “thought” before studying I Corinthians 13.

First, in Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, he discusses the “mind” of Christ:
“If there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”

So far, these words parallel with Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians in 1.10.  Yet, the similarities end there.

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.  Let each of you look not only to one’s own interests but also to the interests of others.  Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2.1-5).

Here is the root cause of the quarrels and factions in the Corinthian congregations:

  • Members do everything due to “selfish ambition and conceit.”
  • Few “count others as more significant than themselves.”
  • Individuals pursue their “own interests” without considering “the interests of others.”

Unity, “being of one mind,” has little chance of existing in this environment.

So, this provides us with the mind, the role of the human brain with the central nervous system.

The next two passages to consider occur during Jesus’ discourse in the upper room on the evening of his arrest.  In John 13.34-35, Jesus gives the disciples (his followers, which include us) a “new commandment”:
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.”

As John 15 begins, Jesus refers to himself as the “true vine” while the “branches” are those who follow his commands.
“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.  ….  This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command you.  ….  These things I command you so that you will love one another” (15.10, 12-14, 17).

Jesus’ repetition of his command further emphasizes that as believers abiding in Christ, we are to love one another.  A living union with Christ is necessary as obedience and love go together.  So, to be a “member” of the Body of Christ is to obey and love.

Therefore, Jesus’ command to love one another as He loves us is the impulse that triggers members of the Body of Christ to act, to love others.

The Gospels describe the love Christ exemplified during his ministry.  Paul provides a beautiful description of Christ’s love and humility in Philippians 2.  After addressing the quarrels within the Corinthian congregations, Paul tells his readers (and us) what perfect love—unconditional love (agape, love for the unlovely and unworthy); the self-giving redemptive love God has for us—looks like.

[Though some couples have I Corinthians 13 read during their wedding, the chapter never mentions the word for love between husband and wife (eros, desire).  {Then again, perhaps the bride is telling the groom he is “unlovely and unworthy,” but I digress.}]

Since God is perfect, God’s love is perfect.  So let us examine this “most excellent way”—the right way to exercise our spiritual gifts—the way of love.  Love is not a “gift” of the Spirit but a “fruit” of the Spirit (Galatians 5.22).

I Corinthians 13.1-3
If I speak in the languages of mortals and of angels but do not have love for others, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I were fluent in every language (known and unknown) but spoke without love, then my words would be nothing but noise.  This love shows a selfless concern for the welfare of others, a love that is not brought forth by any loveable qualities in the recipient of this love.  It is the product of a will to love in obedience to God’s command, as manifested in Christ’s love—his willingness to go to the cross.

If I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all the plans of God and possessed all knowledge, and if I have all the faith necessary to move mountains, but do not have love for others, I am nothing.  Even if my gift from the Spirit is unlimited knowledge or absolute trust in God, if I do not possess and exercise that trust and knowledge in love, I am nothing.

If I give away all my possessions to the poor, and if I sacrificed my body to be burned so I may boast, but do not have love for others, I gain nothing.  Even the supreme sacrifice of poverty and a martyr’s death, if not motivated by love, accomplishes nothing.

[Note that Paul is using intentional exaggeration (speaking all languages, understanding all God’s plans, possess all knowledge, all my possessions) and dramatic overstatement (sacrifice body to be burned) to emphasize the uselessness of these “gifts” exercised without love.  Having a gift for “tongues,” prophecy, knowledge, or faith is not evidence of a Spirit-filled life; selfless love is.]

I Corinthians 13.4-8a
Love is patient
Love is kind
Love does not envy
Love does not boast
Love is not arrogant or proud
Love is not rude nor dishonors others
Love does not insist on its own way
Love is not irritable or easily angered
Love is not resentful or keeps record of being wronged
Love does not delight in evil or injustice but rejoices when the truth wins
Love bears all things and never gives up, believes all things without losing faith, is always full of hope, perseveres and endures through all circumstances.  [Compare these “all’s” to those Paul used in his earlier “exaggeration.”]
Love never fails nor ends

[Read these descriptions of love once more, substituting “love” with “Christ.”]

[Considering all the problems Paul addressed in I Corinthians, these verses describing love are a rebuke to the Corinthians (and us as well) who fail to conduct themselves with love.]

I Corinthians 13.8b-10
But as for prophecies, they will come to an end and become unnecessary.
As for speaking in tongues, they will cease and become useless.
As for knowledge, it will end, no longer being useful
At this moment, our knowledge is only partial and incomplete, and our gifts of prophecy show only part of the larger picture.
But when the complete—the perfect—comes, these partial things will cease.  When Christ returns, they will end, fulfilled.

[Though spiritual gifts (prophecy, tongues, knowledge, etc.) will cease, love will always remain.]

I Corinthians 13.11-12
When I was a child, I spoke like a child; I thought like a child; I reasoned like a child.
When I became an adult, I gave up childish ways.
Now we see in a mirror, dimly—imperfectly—but then [when Christ returns] we will see face to face—everything in perfect clarity
All I know now is partial and incomplete; then [when Christ returns] I will know everything fully and completely, even as God knows me completely.

[In comparison with what we will receive when Christ returns (the final event in God’s plan of redemption and revelation), the present blessings as gifts of the Spirit are only partial and thus imperfect.  So, treating the temporary, incomplete gifts of the Spirit as having ultimate significance is a sign of spiritual immaturity on the part of the Corinthians (and us as well).  The partiality and incompleteness of our current knowledge emphasizes our dependence upon God’s grace.]

I Corinthians 13.13
Now faith, hope, and love—these three—abide now and forever.
However, the greatest of these is love.

[Love is “the greatest of these” because God is love (I John 4.8), God has communicated love to us (I John 4.10), and God commands us to love (John 13.34-35).]

[Love supersedes the “gifts” of which the Corinthians are boastful because love outlasts them all.  Long after these sought-after gifts are no longer necessary, love will still be the guiding principle that controls all that God and God’s redeemed people are and do.]

*****

I Corinthians 13 is a forceful critique of arrogant spirituality—spiritual immaturity.  The genuineness of spiritual gifts is undeniable.  However, they are not evidence of spiritual superiority.  Spiritual gifts have significance only within a congregation where love for others dominates over personal ambitions and selfish interests.

 

 

What scenes did you envision as you read this?  Did the Holy Spirit move within your heart?  If so, please share and comment below so we may all grow in community and fellowship with God.  Grace and Peace

 

Prayer of Victory IV

Dear Lord, may I realize afresh today what Your death and resurrection mean for me. Forgiveness … Freedom … and the ability to walk with You through this fallen world into eternity. May I always find my satisfaction in You and Your willingness to offer Yourself to me. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

– Rachel Olsen

Prayer of Victory III

Lord, death could not hold You, and because of You—the resurrection—we, too, can live. Thank You that the grave is only a journey into the presence of God. You have removed the sting of death and empowered this thing called life. Now I will live in Your presence forever. Amen.

– Rebecca Barlow Jordan