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Few passages of Scripture are as well known as 1 Corinthians 13, and few are as abused and misunderstood.  The language of love resonates with a mindset which interprets it either romantically (as when it is used at many weddings) or as the height of a tolerance which reduces everything to indifference.  1 Corinthians 13 is not a call to a warm feeling, but for Christians to bear with one another in Christ.

The Corinthians, seemingly always divided, fought over the question of spiritual gifts.  Through the Holy Spirit, the Lord gives gifts to men for the purpose of building up the Church.  All of these gifts are different, and no one has the same gift.  This should not be confused with salvation, for then there is no difference.  “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).  But in terms of spiritual gifts, the Lord gives as He wills, for His own glory.  The grain which falls on good soil differs in its abundance, though the seed is the same (Matthew 13:8).

However, does this difference in gifts mean that there are higher and lower gifts?  Paul answers yes.  There is such a thing as “higher gifts,” and he states rather clearly in 1 Corinthians 12:28 that God gave the gifts apostles first, prophets second, and so forth.  Prophesy, better understood in terms of preaching, is greater than speaking in tongues (when the latter is not interpreted), because then the Church is built up in the Lord (1 Corinthians 14:5).  Nor is it a sin to seek after the higher gifts of God when it is done for the edification of the Church.  “Are all apostles?  Are all prophets?  Are all teachers?  Do all work miracles?  Do all possess gifts of healing?  Do all speak with tongues?  Do all interpret?” (1 Corinthians 12:29-30).  The question is not whether there are higher and lower gifts.  In our desire to be egalitarian, we try to put them all on the same level, which is not what the Word says.  The real question is what does that mean for the unity of the Church?

The great temptation with the gifts of God is to use them as an opportunity for pride.  Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body.  To use a different example, because I do not preach, therefore I am not a part of the body.  Because I do not exercise leadership, I am not a part of the Church.  The Lord’s gifts are twisted into an occasion for sin, and division results.  This is not what the Lord intends in giving His gifts to His Church.  He intends the body to be built up together into Christ, to grow as one into her Head (Ephesians 4:15).

Love, therefore, in 1 Corinthians 13 is Christian love, the love which builds up rather than tears down.  Paul’s ultimate point is that all of the spiritual gifts are meant for building up for a time, but love endures even into the new heavens and the new earth.  If I spoke even the language of the angels, but despise my brother in Christ, I am no better than noise.  If I could move mountains by faith, but can’t be bothered with all of these other Christians, it makes for a nice show, but is nothing else.  Christian love is not self-serving, but other-serving, and the gifts of God serve the Church and not the one who possesses them.  All of these gifts will come to an end, when the Church no longer needs to be built up.  The partial building will eventually be complete, and then what need is there anymore for architects and masons?  This does not mean that their work was useless or pointless.  When Christ returns, their work will be tested by fire, revealing what sort of work they have done (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).  Nor does it mean that all distinctions are abolished, as noted above.  What it means is that “since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the Church” (1 Corinthians 14:12).

“You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:5). While these words found in the Ten Commandments are familiar enough, what does it mean for God to be a jealous God? Jealousy, at least in English usage, tends to be a generally negative word. It is a word which tends to be associated with possessiveness, but in a negative, controlling sense.

In Hebrew (and to a lesser extent in English), jealousy is not primarily negative. It is a broader word used in a wide variety of contexts, and certainly some of them are sinful. In those contexts, the word translated here in Exodus as jealous is also translated as envy or envious. Where coveting is frequently a desire to have something which properly belongs to someone else, envy is often the desire that another person would not have something which they have. Rachel envies the fertility of Leah (Genesis 30:1). Joseph’s brothers envy his favor and his dreams (Genesis 37:11). The Scriptures frequently warn the godly to not be envious of the seeming prosperity of the wicked, because it is empty and fleeting (Psalm 37:1; 73:3; Proverbs 3:31; 23:17; 24:1; 24:19; et al). Sinful jealousy is also corrosive and tends toward even more sin (Job 5:2; Proverbs 6:34; 14:30; 27:4; Ecclesiastes 4:4; 9:6). It can even seem to be good, even godly, but be directed toward evil ends, like Saul slaying the Gibeonites in his false zeal (2 Samuel 21:2).

But jealousy is not necessarily evil. In Numbers 5, the Lord gives to Moses a ceremony designed to test whether a wife has been unfaithful. Her husband, in a “spirit of jealousy,” turns to the Lord to know whether she is adulterous. However, here the jealousy is legitimate: adultery is interacting with another man or woman in a way which is only appropriate to marriage. In Numbers 5, the jealousy may still be misplaced, and it provides for a way to prove innocence. But the motive is right: she has been set apart for him in marriage, and vice versa. It differs from a sinful possessiveness, because the latter is interested only in the self rather than in the other.

This, then, is how the two concepts are related in a single word in Hebrew. Sinful jealousy is a burning desire to have what belongs to another or to deprive them of it, although there is no legitimate claim on the thing in question. It is a perceived right to it rather than an actual one. Godly jealousy, on the other hand, is a burning desire for a legitimate claim. A husband is right to be jealous for his wife, because she belongs to him, and vice versa.

Therefore, the word jealousy is most often used of the Lord. God calls Himself a jealous God often in the context of forbidding idolatry (Exodus 20:5; 34:14; Deuteronomy 4:24; 5:9; 6:15). Because idolatry is taking what properly belongs to God—worship–and applying it to something else, God is right to be jealous. Israel provokes God to jealousy through their sin. He is their Husband; why are they acting like a faithless wife (Deuteronomy 29:20; 32:16, 21; 1 Kings 14:22; Ezekiel 8:3; 16:38, 42; Psalm 78:58)?

Yet even here, the Lord is not jealous only in a negative sense, so to speak. Israel may be adulterous and provoke Him to jealousy, because she is His wife and belongs to no other. But Israel is also His. She may stray, but she belongs to Him. It is not because of her faithfulness, because that is clearly lacking. The Lord is her Husband because of His great mercy, and He will not suffer her to be mistreated. He will bring vengeance on her enemies (Isaiah 26:11; Ezekiel 5:13; 36:5-6; Nahum 1:2). He will have mercy on her and restore her, even after punishing her for her sins (1 Kings 19:31; Isaiah 9:6; 37:32; Ezekiel 39:25; Joel 2:18; Zechariah 1:14; 8:2).

Thus, God is a jealous God, because He has called us out of darkness into His marvelous light. God is a jealous God, because He has brought us out by a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm. God is a jealous God, because we are His through Christ. “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine’” (Isaiah 43:1). “And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord” (Hosea 2:19-20).