Putting 1 Corinthians 13 in Context

While 1 Corinthians Chapter 13 is often referred to as the love chapter, you will sometimes find this chapter at the heart of a much heated debate: Have the spiritual gifts ceased, or do they still exist today? No matter which spectrum of the discussion you find yourself on, at some point you will be led this chapter of the bible. People use this passage all the time to prove, or try to disprove, that the spiritual gifts either exist or do not. It can often be confusing, even to those who are familiar with the subject, as pieces of it here or there are used to make various points.

Before we delve into it though, we must first look at it's immediate context by examining the chapters that precede and follow it. Sometimes when we begin a chapter it will be leading us into a new thought or concept, but many times it is not. We must remember that when the Bible was originally written it was not divided into chapters and verses. Those were added in by translators to make it easier for us to find key passages. So when Paul wrote the letter to the Corinthians, he was not purposely dividing this chapter from chapters 12 and 14. It was written as one complete thought. If we look at the context we can see that topic in all three of these chapters is the same. The topic of chapter 13 is the same as chapters 12 and 14 which is the proper use of the spiritual gifts in the church.

At the beginning of Chapter 12 Paul purposely states the topic of the following passages. The thought begins here and does not end until the close of chapter 14. Paul begins by telling us:
1 Cor 12:1 Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant
So, the topic is now spiritual gifts and is specifically trying to give us enough information so that we will not remain ignorant on the subject. We must note that having a proper knowledge about the subject was important to Paul. Often times people do not want to discuss or address the issue and believe that everyone should have their own opinion. Paul was not of the same mind. He specifically did not want the church to remain ignorant about the spiritual gifts.
He then begins to address the specific concerns he had about the way the church was using their spiritual gifts. In verses 4-6 we see that even though there are different kinds of gifts, works and service, it was by the same Spirit that they were given. This thought is expounded on in the next several passages.
1 Cor 12:7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. 8 To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.
Note that it says the “manifestation” of the Spirit was given for the common good. This means that each gift was to be used to edify everyone in the church (see also 1 Corinthians 14:12). It makes sense that these gifts were necessary for the whole church when we remember that the New Testament was not yet written. The church needed direction about the new covenant they were now under. Since they could not turn to 1 Corinthians 13 or even John 3:16 they needed instruction about the faith.
The physical manifestation is said to be for the common good, it is not said to be given for personal edification purposes, nor it is said to be for a confirmation that a person is saved. There is also no statement that says the manifestation will always be physical one.
These verses in 1 Corinthians 13:7-11 list several different physical “manifestations” and tells us how each person was given different ones. It reads very clearly that “to one there is given” a certain gift and then “to another” yet a different manifestation. Not one of these gifts, including tongues, were given to every person.
I must take a moment here to address the argument that the “gift” of tongues mentioned here is not the same thing as the “evidence” of tongues that was experienced in Acts chapter 2. There is simply no Scriptural backing for such an argument. They always make that statement as if it is a fact, yet there is not one single Scripture that ever tries to distinguish between two different kinds of tongues. They are both referred to as “tongues” and both are given by the Spirit. There is never a mention of tongues as the “evidence” of anything nor is there ever any suggestion that everyone speaks any sort of tongue. Scripture never makes any of these these distinctions. In fact we see just the opposite.

There are several passages in Acts where people are converted and yet there is no mention of them speaking in tongues, including those who believe at the end of Acts chapter 2. Since the bible makes absolutely no distinction between two different kinds of tongues, then neither should we. Certainly if there was a tongue that was for all people Paul would have made mention of that in these three chapters. He would have said I am referring to the “gift” of the tongues, not the tongues that are the evidence of salvation. But he made no such statement for no difference exists in Scripture. Tongues has one meaning; it is a foreign language. The same word for tongues in Acts 2 is used here in 1 Corinthians. We can see from Scripture that there is only one kind of tongue and it was not given to everyone.
So when Paul says that every person was not given the same gift, that included tongues as well. He further clarifies this thought by using an illustration of a physical body. A body needs more than eyes, more than arms and more than legs. All those parts make the body function properly. It does us no good if everyone has the same function. Paul makes that point in the next passage of Scripture.
1 Cor 12:12 The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body — whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free — and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
14 Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. 15 If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
If we were all tongues, where would the body be? If we all had the gift of knowledge, where would the body be? The gifts were given for the edification of the entire church body and each part was necessary for that time, again because they had no complete Bible to help guide them. So we have many members of one body, each with a different job.
1 Cor 12:27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28 And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But eagerly desire the greater gifts.
First we have apostles, second prophets, third teachers and it goes on until it says “and those speaking in different kinds of tongues.” There are two things obvious from that statement, one is that not everyone spoke in tongues and two is that tongues was the last gift listed, not the first as if it had some priority. We also see a few others “gifts” listed that do not get much mention. The gift of helps and administration. Those gifts along with teachers are gifts that do not include any outward physical manifestation of the gift. Having a spiritual gift, even in the times of the New Testament, was not always about nor was it always accompanied by, an outward appearance.
It has been suggested that there must be some sign, experience or physical evidence that the Holy Spirit has indwelt the believer. Many will turn to these passages to try and suggest that this outward manifestation must be necessary, whether all speak in tongues or display some other manifestation. When doing so they over look these less “experiential” gifts while ignoring the context and purpose for which the gifts were given to begin with. We must remember that Jesus and the apostles warned us that there would be false teachers and prophets among us. If there were some sure fire way to know who had the Spirit of God those warnings would not be so urgent. But instead of telling us to test each person and see if they could speak in tongues, or manifest some other gift, they said that even unbelievers could do such things. We must heed the words of Jesus that warn us that people going to hell will be able to perform these miracles. We must be sure that we are looking at the fruits of believers and not their gifts. Even then, it is often hard to tell the difference. What we do know for certain is that even those who can preform miracles, including speaking in tongues, can be wolves in sheep's clothing.
Matt 7:15 "Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them...
21 "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' 23 Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'
And with this context we enter into the next chapter, the core of our study. Paul was telling the Corinthians he wanted them to stop making the gifts more significant than they were. He wanted them to stop acting as if one gift was more important than another or that the people who had certain gifts were somehow more significant. He wanted the focus to stop being on self gratification and start being about edifying the entire church body. He wanted to show them a better way and the next chapter is all about that. The context does not change from spiritual gifts on to love, rather it is about using their spiritual gifts with love.
1 Cor 12:31...And now I will show you the most excellent way.

Print Page