Today we finish Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. He just spoke about using the gifts of the Spirit to serve the church and build each other up, and he speaks of “higher gifts” and a “more excellent way” (12:31). Paul is speaking about the motivation behind the use of our gifts. And that motivation is love. And so begins Paul’s famous “love chapter.”
Paul’s rhetorical question about speaking in the tongues of men or angels (13:1) is just that: a rhetorical device. He uses it similarly in Galatians 1:8. He is not saying that there is an “angel language” here any more than he is saying that angels preach a false Gospel in Galatians. Paul is making the point that no matter the spiritual gift, if it is not used out of love, it is not useful, and the person using that gift is actually creating discord within the church. Paul says much the same in verse 2. Even if one has knowledge (see chapter 8) and great faith – if these aren’t used in love, it is useless. Even dying a martyr’s death, if not the result of love, is nothing (v. 3). Paul is saying that the motivation behind using our gifts (see chapter 12) must be love.
Paul then explains love in verses 4-7. The Bible has a much higher standard of love than we tend to! Paul then tells us why love must be our motivation. Love never end (v. 8). The gifts of the Spirit will end when Christ comes to complete all things, but love will not (vv. 8-10). The implication is that unlike prophecy and knowledge, which we only have “in part,” we are to have the love described in verses 4-7 in full. In verse 11, the word for “child” actually means “infant” (the same word is used in 14:20 where it is translated “infant”). Paul is comparing this age with the age to come like he compares the cooing of an infant with the words of a grown man. When Christ comes, we will know in full (v. 12). What will we know? This doesn’t claim that we will know everything. We won’t necessarily know why God allows out trials or wickedness to exist. What we will know in full is what we only know partially in this world. And the point is that we will know perfect love then, when all of these other things – including faith which will be replaced by sight, and hope by fulfillment – are no more. So since our eternity has begun and we have it “in part,” let us love now like we will in eternity!
In chapter 14, Paul brings together the last two chapters. First and foremost, we need to pursue love (14:1). Then, out of that love, we are to desire Spiritual gifts, especially prophecy. This is not speaking of the supernatural ability to predict the future or provide new revelation from God. This is talking about speaking forth the words of God. God has told us to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins in the name of Jesus (Luke 24:47). We should desire giftedness in proclaiming the truth of God. Paul specifically says not to seek the gift of tongues because we speak to God (v. 2) for our own edification (v. 4). Remember, we are to use our gifts out of love for each other. A supernatural gift that is between me and God is not useful for the edification of the church. In this regard, the gift of the interpretation of tongues is to be preferred over speaking in tongues (v. 5).
Paul then expounds this. It may be that the Corinthian church had an unhealthy preoccupation with speaking in tongues. He started this section (12:1-3) talking about the type of speaking the Spirit inspires. The confusion of speaking in an uninterpreted tongue is as useless as a musical instrument not playing distinct notes (vv. 6-9 – and by implication it’s unloving when we consider 13:1). In verse 10, Paul speaks of the languages of the world. The words of these languages have meaning. But if that language is unknown to someone, it is meaningless (v. 11). This would seem to indicate that the gift of tongues is speaking in actual earthly languages unknown to the speaker through an act of the Spirit (so too in verse 14 – see also below).
In verse 12, we see that the church is “eager” for manifestations of the Spirit, perhaps indicating they were, in fact, focusing on tongues too much. But Paul tells the to strive for the gifts that build up the church, which he already said speaking in tongues does not do (see vv. 3-4). In verse 15, Paul is insisting that the mind (the reason) not be removed from acts of worship so as to be “spiritual.” Both the mind and the spirit are necessary to worship God rightly, and for the church to be built up through our gifts (vv. 16-17). In fact, Paul says he would rather we use our minds to instruct each other than our spirits to build up only ourselves (v. 19).
Paul then cleverly uses the metaphor from 13:11 to reinforce this idea of removing the mind from our worship. Removing our reason from worship in favor of “spiritual” things like speaking in tongues is thinking like a child (v. 20). Paul then quotes Isaiah 28:11-12 (v. 21), to show that tongues meant to be used exclusively as a means of evangelism to the nations (v. 22). This reference is clearly to existing earthly languages. And if tongues are used in a confusing (non-rational) manner, then they do not serve their purpose (v. 23). Prophesy (proclaiming God’s truth), on the other hand, is beneficial for the church for whom it is intended, and even unbelievers (vv. 24-25).
Paul now turns his attention to the corporate worship service (“when you come together”) in verse 26. Everyone has something to offer, and should offer what they have to build up the church. Paul limits speaking in tongues, and even then only if there is an interpreter (vv. 27-28). Paul limits the amount of those who proclaim the Word of God, and calls for all to discerningly evaluate what is said (v. 29). But this, too, must be done with order and reason. Don’t talk over each other (v. 30), but speak one at a time (v. 31) so what is said can be evaluated (v. 32). Verse 33 (also often plucked out of context) is speaking specifically about the corporate worship service.
Paul then comes back to the roles of men and women in the church. Keep verse 34 in the context of the whole passage. Paul is talking about proclaiming the Word of God in an orderly fashion in the worship service. It is in this that women are to remain silent. This is speaking exclusively of preaching the Word in the corporate worship service. Paul has already (also in the context of the roles of men and women) said that women pray and prophesy. We can look to example of Priscilla in Acts 18:26. She taught – spoke forth the truth of God to – Apollos. But that was not the proclamation of the Word in the corporate worship service. Men are given the responsibility of preaching in corporate worship, like they are given the responsibility of leading the family in the home. Verse 35 speaks to this. It is telling wives to come to their husband first to be taught because of the roles of men and women in marriage. This is every bit as much a call for husbands to take responsibility for their wife’s soul! The church must be very careful not to ignore or go beyond the restrictions put upon women here (not preaching in corporate worship services, relying on their husbands first to teach them the word). Allowing women to preach or limiting them further in the worship service are both contrary to God’s Word.
The chapter ends with a final call for worship services to be orderly. They cannot determine for themselves what to do in corporate worship (vv. 36-37). The Word of God must determine it. Whoever fails to acknowledge that, is unacknowledged by God (v. 38). In other words, God does not accept that kind of worship. No matter what, God demands order in the worship service (v. 40).
In chapter 15, Paul remind the Corinthian church of the simple Gospel that saved them and is saving them (15:1-4). This appearance to Cephas (Peter) is likely what is referred to in Luke 24:34. Paul then recounts resurrection appearances that we don’t have records of in ay of the Gospel accounts (vv. 6-7), and finally the appearance of the resurrection Christ to him (v. 8 – see Acts 9). God’s grace to Paul, a former persecutor of the church (v. 9), is evident in the salvation of the Corinthians to whom he preached (vv. 10-11).
Paul then speaks of the implications of Christ’s undeniable resurrection (see vv. 4-8) to refute the error some of the Corinthian believers held about the resurrection (v. 12). If they believe that bodily resurrection is impossible, then they can’t believe in Christ’s resurrection (v. 13, 16), which means Paul preached it to them for no reason and they believed a lie that God Himself perpetrated (vv. 14-15). That means they are not saved (v. 17), the believers who have died have gone to hell (v. 18), and Christians have no hope beyond this life (v. 19).
But the fact is that Christ has been raised (as many can confirm – again see vv. 4-8), so we will be raised (v. 20). Just as in Adam death came into the world, so through the Second Adam, resurrection has come (vv. 21-22 – see Rom 5:12-21), and we will be resurrected when Christ returns (v. 23).1 Then, Christ will destroy the spiritual powers of darkness, death (for believers) will be destroyed forever (see below), and then Christ will deliver the kingdom over which He now reigns to God the Father (vv. 24-26).2
Verse 29 has been a problem for theologians for 2,000 years. While later (in the second century) there were heretical groups that baptized people on behalf of those who have already died to try and earn salvation posthumously, there is no evidence of this happening in the first century. And Paul would certainly not appeal to this practice since it would contradict his own teaching about baptism elsewhere. I would suggest a different translation (which is possible, even if not probable): “Otherwise (if there is no resurrection), why will people be baptized? For death? If the dead are not raised, why be baptized (merely) for deaths?” This would seem to go with the following argument. Why risk death, if death is the end (vv. 30-31). If death is the end, then this life is all there is (v. 32). Verse 33 is exhorting the Corinthians to separate themselves from those who teach that there is no resurrection (v. 33). Why have morality in this life if this is all there is? Living tis way is sin (v. 34). It is for those who do not know God.
Paul then answers questions about the nature of the resurrection body (v. 35). Paul answers by telling them that what our physical bodies are now are nothing compared to our physical resurrected bodies (vv. 36-37). Just as the human body is different from the bodies of other animals (v. 39) and earthly bodies are different from heavenly bodies (v. 40), and heavenly bodies even different from each other (v. 41), so will our resurrected bodies be different from our current bodies. Our resurrection bodies will be uncorrupted (v. 42), glorious and strong (v. 43), and spiritual (v. 44 – perhaps meaning “given by the Spirit”). Just as we resemble Adam in this life, so will we resemble Christ in the life to come (vv. 47-49).
Paul then talks about the fact that we must have spiritual, imperishable bodies in order to inherit the kingdom (v. 50, 53). That is why those who are alive at Christ’s coming will be given resurrection bodies without even dying (the rapture – vv. 51-52). This is how death will be defeated by Christ (vv. 54-55 – see v. 26). In verse 56, note the logical order: the Law brings sin, and sin brings death. But Christ will give us victory over sin and death (v. 57). So our work here is not in vain (v. 58).
Paul then ends the letter with some practical matters. Paul has asked for a collection to be taken up to help the poor saints of Jerusalem (16:). Paul advises them each to save up a little at a time so that there is no scramble to come up with money when the collection needs to be given (v. 2). Paul will allow them to choose who handles the collection (v. 3), and will even do it himself if he has to (v. 4). Some churches point to this passage (even quote it!) to warrant collecting money at Sunday service. While the financial support of the church is necessary, this passage has nothing to do with that. This is about donating to the poor. And money is stored up by “each” person himself, not given to the church in Corinth.
Paul then tells them that he plans to visit them again on his third missionary journey (v. 5) and hopes to be able to spend a longer period of time with them (vv. 6-7). He gets to spend three months there (Acts 20:2-3). Verse 8 likely indicates that Paul wrote this letter from Ephesus (see Acts 19). Paul asks them to be hospitable to Timothy, whom Paul is sending to them (vv. 10-11). Apollos will also eventually come (v. 12).
Paul then gives his final encouragements in light of all he has admonished them for (vv. 13-14). He tells them to heed Stephanas (vv. 15-16), who will likely be carrying this letter back to Corinth since he came to see Paul (vv. 17-18). He sends greetings from Ephesus, from Aquila and Priscilla (Prisca for short) and their house-church (v. 19), and asks to extend the greetings to the whole church (v. 20). Paul then signs the letter (v. 21 – see 2 Thess 3:17), and reminds them to separate themselves from those in the church who lack love for God (false converts) (v. 22).
1 Which will happen before the rapture (see 1 Thessalonians 5:16-17). We have here in 1 Corinthians 15 more straightforward, unambiguous teaching about Christ’s return.
2 This is what we are praying for when we pray “Our Father…Your kingdom come.”