The way Paul writes to the Corinthian church, it’s easy to assume that it was rife with gross sins. The truth is, however, they were greatly gifted by the Holy Spirit. Indeed, it’s because of the Corinthians that we know about the gifts of the Spirit; Paul’s letter to them shows how powerfully those gifts were operating in them. But even though the Corinthians had a great knowledge of the things of God, they lacked the love that Jesus commands of us. Paul hit them hard on this point:
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).
Note Paul’s operative word here: nothing. That’s what the love of the Corinthian church was worth. He was telling them they could never accomplish God’s purposes. Christ’s love—the lay-down-your-life-on-a-cross kind of love—is a tall order, one that’s impossible except through the Spirit.
Now, this may sound to you like a surprising interpretation of 1 Corinthians 13. Most of us know this chapter as the Bible’s “love chapter.” Even non-Christians are familiar with it because it is read at so many weddings. In that context, 1 Corinthians 13 isn’t much more than a greeting card sentiment. In truth, this chapter is a counterpoint to all the carnal sins Paul listed in 2 Corinthians 12. That list includes quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. Note the contrast:
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7). When we compare this list with the other, we begin to see 1 Corinthians 13 as a spiritual solution to a problem of sin—indeed, the only solution.
Let’s remember how one becomes a Christian. Before a person can feel the need for Jesus Christ as a savior, that person must first be convicted of sin. “When [the Spirit] comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8, NIV). The Holy Spirit shows us our sin and our need for a savior. That is what every believer experiences in conversion to Christ.
Jesus also taught that entrance into the kingdom of God (being “born again”) can happen only by the Holy Spirit’s work: Jesus told Nicodemus, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5).
It is the Holy Spirit working inside of us that causes us to turn from our sin and fix our eyes on Jesus. While we may be tempted to think that we can create emotional environments for this to happen, the truth is that this kind of rebirth or transformation can happen only through the work of the Holy Spirit.
The apostle Paul taught that believers are “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19), and because the Spirit lives inside of us, that make us different from the rest of the world. If the Holy Spirit doesn’t live inside a person, no church membership or even a sincere effort to live a good life can make that person a Christian. Only true faith in Jesus Christ as Savior, confirmed by the Holy Spirit, makes us a new creation. The Spirit inhabiting every believer is just another way of saying, “Christ in us,” for the Holy Spirit’s presence represents Jesus.
When God looks down on earth, He doesn’t focus on ethnicity, and He never acknowledges religious denominations. He just sees two kinds of people: His children who have the Spirit living inside of them and unbelievers who don’t have the Spirit living inside of them. It’s as simple as that. Today we split hairs about doctrinal positions to validate our faith, but to the early church the definition was simpler. Either we are temples or we are not temples. “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ” (Romans 8:9). It would have been impossible for the apostles to consider someone a true believer in Jesus without the accompanying witness and work of the Spirit. The Spirit of God was the bottom line.
Jim Cymbala began the Brooklyn Tabernacle with less than twenty members in a small, rundown building in a difficult part of the city. A native of Brooklyn, he is a longtime friend of both David and Gary Wilkerson.
Jesus told His disciples to begin their work in Jerusalem, their home city, before going to the uttermost parts of the world (see Acts 1:8). This tells me our first mission has to be to our own hearts. In other words, the Holy Spirit has to do His work in us before He can work through us.
A few years ago, I began asking the Lord to enlarge my own vision for missions. At the time, I had begun traveling the world holding ministers’ conferences, and I’d seen some of the world’s worst slums. My heart burned to know how to answer the desperate cries coming from those slums, so I spent hours before the Lord in prayer, seeking His burden and asking for direction.
The first word I received from the Holy Spirit was this: “David, first of all, take the lowest seat in the house. If you want a heart to reach human need, humble yourself.”
I prayed for God’s grace to do this. I also began to preach this word in our church, so our missions-minded congregation would receive the same word I was hearing from the Lord.
Then, later in prayer, I received the following word: “Mortify the remnants of your pride. I can’t work through you in fullness unless you deal with this. Reaching human need is strong business, and all pride must be dealt with.” Again, I asked God for His grace.
Then later came this word: “Deal with your temper. You are still easily provoked at times, in your work and with family. That must be mortified by the Spirit.”
In all of this, the Spirit kept reminding me of Paul’s words: “Yes, there is faith, and there is hope. But the greatest of all is charity” (see 1 Corinthians 13:13).
Right now our ministry is putting roofs over churches in Kenya. We’re helping finance a Kenya Kids program for orphans in the capital city of Nairobi. We help dig wells in poor areas. We’re helping support a center for addicts and alcoholics. We help feed hungry children. The Lord has clearly called us to do each of these works of compassion.
Yet all these works would be without profit if they were not flowing out of true Christ-like charity.
It is important that you not be frustrated because you are not a missionary in Africa or some other mission field around the world. The Lord never brings condemnation to any of His children over a calling when He Himself has placed you where you are in His body. “God has set the members in the body, as it has pleased Him” (1 Corinthians 12:18, paraphrase mine).
Of course, it is important to stay open and willing to hear from the Spirit about serving elsewhere. But we are to surrender the issue completely to the Lord’s stirring and direction. God knows how to inspire us and open doors to ministry, at home and abroad.
The apostle Paul brings a deeply convicting word on this matter of serving the Lord. He was a world-traveling missionary with a heart of love for the poor. He heard the cries of the poorest in every nation he visited and he instructed every pastor and evangelist under him, “Remember the poor.”
Paul regularly took up offerings for the poor, at one point traveling to several cities to raise money for Jerusalem when a famine was imminent. Of anyone who ever lived, Paul understood the cry of human need. Yet, as much as this godly apostle sacrificed—even to the point of dying a poor martyr himself—Paul gave a convicting warning:
“Though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3, my italics).
I have to wonder: Are we ready to accept Paul’s convicting word here? He is saying, in effect: “You can weep over the desperate cries of the poor. You could go to Africa to the filthy slums. You could be ready to die a martyr. But if you have not laid hold of charity, everything you do is in vain—whether at home or as an overseas missionary.”
On the day of accounting, I picture the apostle Paul being called forth. All of his soul-winning victories will be recounted, as well as all the churches he established. Then a number of unknown men and women from Antioch will be called forward to stand next to Paul. These are the people who fasted and prayed for the apostle, who laid hands on him and sent him out as a missionary. They also supported him with sacrificial gifts.
Why will these others be handed a portion equal to the apostle’s? It is because they played a part in every soul Paul won, every church he built, every trip he took.
God desires that we all rest—and rejoice—in our calling. Many Christians feel guilty that they’re not serving on a foreign mission field. But staying home is also a high calling in Jesus Christ. If you love the Lord and walk in His Spirit, you can be sure of your calling. God’s Word assures us: “Now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him” (1 Corinthians 12:18).
Do you see what Paul is saying here? If you’re a church elder, you have a high calling in the Lord. The same goes for those who teach Sunday school. Yet the same is equally true for any single mother striving to raise her children for Christ. She has a high calling right where she is.
If you’re a businessperson, a lawyer, a doctor, rest in your calling. If you’re a salesperson, a mechanic, a teacher, a food service worker, you don’t have to try to work up a calling to some mission field to please God. Unless the Spirit Himself is stirring you, you can be at rest where you are.
“Ye are the body of Christ. . . . And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.
“Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles? Have all the gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:27–31).