The More Excellent Way
J. Foster Crane, New Zealand
UPON His RETURN TO HEAVEN as the victorious King, the Lord Jesus gave gifts (charisma) and ministrations (diakonia) by the Holy Spirit to members of His body on earth, Eph. 4. 7-13; 1 Cor. 12; Rom. 12. 4-8. These gifts were given at the sovereign will of God with a two-fold object in view:
1. To instruct and edify the infant church with a view to its ultimate maturity in the likeness of Christ, Eph. 4. 12; 6-15.
Until the completion of the New Testament the early New Testment chui' ches were passing through their childhood or growing-tip experience in their understanding of the things of God, hence God raised up Spirit-led men through whom He spoke to the assemblies.
2. To promote unity and harmony among the diverse members of the body and to maintain order in the church gatherings, 1 Cor. 12. 12-27
As members of one body, Eph. 4. 16, and stones in one building, Eph. 2. 20-22, each believer was expected to fulfil his respective ministry and not to intrude on the ministry of others. Only thus would schism and confusion be avoided and godly order maintained, 1 Cor. 14. 26, 33, 40.
It would appear that there are three basic factors to bear in mind concerning the gifts:
1. The possession of gifts, in themselves, was no evidence of personal spirituality or maturity. The Christians at Corinth were 'enriched by him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge ... so that ye come behind in no gift', 1 Cor. 1. 5, 7. Yet, in behaviour they were 'carnal and babes in Christ', 3. 1, 'puffed up', 4. 6, 18, 19; 8. 1-2, condoning sin 5. 1-2, divided 1. 11; 3. 3; 11. 18. Their meetings were characterised by confusion, 14. 33, outward show and shameful behaviour 11. 21, 22, 29, 30. Paul saw in their behaviour a subtle attack by the serpent, 2 Cor. 11. 3-4.
In 1 Corinthians 13. 1-3 he states that it was possible to preach in the language of men and angels, to understand all mysteries, prophecy and knowledge, to perform the greatest of miracles, to give away all possessions, to sacrifice one's life, and yet 'be nothing'-a person of no importance by Divine estimation, Matt. 7. 22.
Gifts were not the common possession of all believers as part of their inheritance in Christ; they could not be claimed in faith. Gifts were given at the will of God and were to be used for His glory alone.
2. Gifts were concerned with the welfare of the church on earth and could not adequately convey the ultimate perfection of believers in heaven. God in His goodness has, by the Holy Spirit, the written word, and the ministry of His servants, revealed to us a great deal of knowledge concerning Himself and the life to come, but even Paul, with all the revelations given to him, 2 Cor. 12. 1-7, had to say, 'we (including himself) know in part, prophesy in part ... see through a glass darkly', 1 Cor. 13. 9-12.
It is quite impossible for any believer to attain to a state of perfection as long as he lives in the flesh and in the world. The natural cannot penetrate into the spiritual, nor the earthly the heavenly. Not until a believer dies, or the Lord comes, will perfection come, and he will then know as he is known, 13. 10-12.
3. Gifts could, and would, be withdrawn as their particular function was fulfilled. The Holy Spirit will, of course, exercise His ministry in the church as long as it is on the earth, but the churches of New Testament times needed a special activity of the Spirit till such a time as they were firmly established in the faith and the scriptures completed. This activity took the form of:
a) Divinely inspired preaching and writing by the apostles and prophets.
b) Special and spectacular signs, tongues, healings, miracles etc. to confirm the word to the Hebrew nation, Mark 16. 20; 1 Cor. 14, 22; Heb. 2. 4.
c) Special teaching revelations as prophecy, wisdom and knowledge.
The apostolic ministry ceased with the death of John, and the special revelatory gifts as tongues, prophesy, and knowledge would, says Paul, similarly fail, cease and vanish away, 1 Cor. 13. 8. The Wycliffe Bible Commentary comments, 'Today it is questionable that there exists anywhere the scriptural exercise of the three gifts referred to in this passage'. The Jew's final rejection of Christ-alive-from-the-dead nullified the purpose of the sign-gifts and their continuance became unnecessary and unwarranted.
The Better Way
Chapter 13 introduces us to a totally different line of thought. Paul here deals with things that are more excellent-that is, with the basic, abiding state of the believer's personal character and spirituality, rather than the exercise of the outward, public gifts of ministry and service as outlined in chapter 12. He is concerned with what a believer is rather then what he does. He emphasises those things that lie at the heart of all Christian life and experience and that apply to all believers, namely, faith, hope and love; but 'the greatest of these is love'.
It is by faith that a believer is saved, Eph. 2. 8; forgiven, Acts 13. 38; justified, Rom. 5. 1; receives the Holy Spirit, Gal. 3. 2; becomes a child of God, Gal. 3. 26; lives, Gal. 2. 20; 2 Cor. 5. 7; and dies, Heb. 11. 13.
Faith, in turn, is sustained by hope because all our inheritance in Christ is in the future, Titus 2. 13; Acts 24. 15; Rom. 5. 2; 8. 24. When we arrive on the other side, faith and hope will be things of the past-and the only thing that a believer will take into eternity is his personal love to God, Christ and His people. Love never fails.
It is right and proper to be busy in the Lord's service, to occupy till He comes but, in the final issue, it was Mary, rather than Martha, who received the Lord's commendation. 'Mary,' he said, 'hath chosen that good part (the one thing needful) which shall not be taken away from her'.
There are three areas in which the believer may express his love:
1. Love to God, the Father. To the proud Corinthians Paul wrote, 'If any man think that he knoweth any thing, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know. But if any man love God, the same is known of him', 1 Cor. 8. 2, 3. 'Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither the mighty man glory in his might. . . but... in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me', Jer. 9. 23, 24.
'God is love', 1 John 4. 8. Love originates in His heart and being. His first command is to love Him with all the heart and mind, Matt. 22. 37, and 'he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God', 1 John 4. 16. It is the Holy Spirit who sheds abroad in our hearts the love of God, Rom. 5. 5.
To love God is to know Him, to be filled with Him, Eph. 3. 19; to enjoy Hi; presence and peace for ever, Phil. 4. 7.
Love to Christ, the Son. The Lord's words to Peter art; full of depth
and meaning: 'Simon, lovest thou me?' So to the Christians at Ephesus, 'I
know thy works . . . thou hast left thy first love', Rev. 2. 4. To love Christ is to know Him personally, Phil. 3. 10; to share His sufferings, Phil, 3. 10; to magnify Him, Phil. 1. 20; to reproduce His life, Gal. 2. 20; 2 Cor. 4. 11; Gal. 4. 13. These are the basic, fundamental goals that will motivate and find their expression in the believer's outer life. 'If a man love me', said Jesus, 'he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him', John 14. 23.
2. Love to fellow believers. Love to the Father and Son will naturally and automatically express itself in our actions towards others. The 'fruit of the Spirit' as outlined in Galatians 5. 22 is nothing less than the 'divine nature' or the 'new man' reproducing itself in the life of the believer.
The second great command of the law is to love thy neighbour as thyself, but it is only by the indwelling Spirit that this command can be fulfilled. Love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, humility, patience, a forgiving spirit, etc. can only be practised as the believer lives in the Spirit, Gal. 5. 25, and is filled with the Spirit, Eph. 5. 18.
In the Upper Room the Lord said nothing to his disciples about gifts, but he had everything to say about love-'a new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you', John 13. 34, 35. 'If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us', 1 John 4. 12; 'Love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God', 1 John 4. 7.
Paul sums it all up so beautifully in his magnificent words concerning the 'more excellent way' in 1 Cor. 13. 4-8. These are the things that make better Christians, better assemblies and assure us of a belter entrance into the everlasting kingdom in the ages to come, 2 Pet. 1. 11.