Perhaps THE most important “key” to understanding what the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write about miracles is to recognize that 1 Corinthians 12-14 is actually one long, complete context. It was NOT divided into chapters by Paul, and dividing it has led many to miss the continuity of thought here. Paul introduces the subject of “spiritual gifts” (miraculous abilities) in chapter 12 and explains that, while each miraculous gift had its own purpose, all came from the same source (the Holy Spirit). He also emphasizes that each gift is meant to complement the others, not compete with them. (In vv. 12-13, he points out that members of the body of Christ are supposed to “mesh” in the same way.) The last verse in chapter 12 is the “key” to this context, because it points us toward what Paul says is “more excellent” than even the “best” miraculous gifts – Christian love (chapter 13).
First Corinthians 13 is often read (usually as a “stand-alone” passage!) in the context of weddings. In reality, it is Paul’s inspired “antidote” for the factiousness and contentions among the Corinthians concerning spiritual gifts. At Corinth, there were basically three groups of Christians;
- Those who had received no spiritual gifts – these Christians had no ability to perform miracles of any sort:
- Those who had received – by an apostle’s laying hands on them – one or more miraculous abilities, but were “dissatisfied” with the gifts they had received:
- Those who had received (also from an apostle) spiritual gifts that they considered “superior” to the gifts others had received – and used them to humiliate their brethren.
Paul’s description of love here is actually meant to chastise these saints for focusing on temporary and “external” things (spiritual gifts, vv. 8-10) while neglecting something that should survive into eternity (love, vs. 13).
Chapter 14 is a summary of how Christians were supposed to use these spiritual gifts, and it shows that they were, 1) intended to be subordinate to the actual message of the gospel (vv. 6-12), and, 2) merely signs that would confirm the authenticity of the message (vs. 22). Paul emphasizes here that the “flashiness factor” of a gift (such as speaking in tongues, vs. 23) does not indicate that it is a “better” or more important gift than a “less impressive” one (such as “prophesying”/preaching by inspiration, vv. 29-32). Those who could speak in tongues were commanded to keep silent if no one was present who could interpret/translate so that the whole church could be edified. Notice also that the “tongues” were not “prayer languages,” or “angelic” words, but simply ordinary human languages which the speaker had not studied or learned by normal means.
The key to understanding this entire context (chapters 12-14) comes in 14:26 & 40, where Paul shows that strengthening/building up the church be THE fundamental motive for everything these Christians did in worship, and that everything they did should be done in an orderly and proper way.
Chapter 15 presents a magnificently logical treatise on the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The fundamental point comes in verse 19, that everything about the gospel and Christianity is pointless without it. Without the resurrection, preaching is pointless and believing is a waste of time (vv. 14 & 17); our sins have not been forgiven (vs. 17); those who had already died “in faith” were lost instead of saved (vs. 18), and Christians would be the most misguided people in all of history. Without the resurrection of Jesus, we have no hope! The rest of chapter 15 presents an orderly explanation of the consequences of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and it culminates at verse 58 with the admonition for Christians to realize that their “labor” in Christ is not pointless! The final exhortations in 1 Corinthians 16:13-14 remind saints to keep uppermost in their minds the thing that should be our key motivator in everything we do; Christian love.