Earnestly Desire the Spiritual Gifts

1 Corinthians 14:1-19

It’s easy to lose the principle in a fascination with the concept of speaking in tongues. And that’s understandable. It’s a fascinating phenomenon, isn’t it? What was it like? How come it doesn’t seem to happen anymore, hasn’t in fact seemed to have happened since the time of the Apostles immediately after the ascension of Christ? We do know this, though: on Pentecost God used this gift to enable his people to proclaim Christ to the gathered crowd in words of languages they could understand. The gift of tongues was given for the furtherance of the gospel message and not for calculated showmanship or self-aggrandizing.

Part of our fascination may also spring from the fact that some still today claim to have this gift. Yet what often seems to pass for speaking in tongues today is not what the Bible presents as speaking in tongues, that is, speaking in actual languages, which is what happened on Pentecost. St. Paul here also says, “There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.” Actual languages, actual meanings.

Yet in our fascination with tongues, we ought not miss the principle. Words matter. They are not to be squandered, especially in the church, because words are how the message of the Savior is conveyed, the message of Him who is the very Word of God. “So with yourselves,” St. Paul urges, “since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.”

We might not have the gift of tongues anymore, much as some might desire it, yet you have gifts wrapped in bread and wine, water and book covers, and you have a tongue and a language and words given you by none other than the Word Himself. Let us treasure the latter as did those same Apostles who spoke in languages they’d never studied in school and use the former in prayer, in praise, in song, in thanksgiving, and in declaration of Him through whose death and resurrection we have been declared righteous, together with all who come to faith in Him and His work on our behalf. The Church is to build up, and she does so in words, and so words must always hold sway—words of the Word must dominate our preaching, words of the Word must dominate our teaching, words of the Word must dominate our singing—yes, taking the melody into their service and not vice versa, words of the Word must dominate our lives.

“Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.” And you do prophesy when you announce the coming of the Coming One, when you report the news of the Good News, when you call back the straying and console the penitent, when you share the story of salvation, of paradise lost and restored. How do you do this? You do this in your home as parents, catechists to your children in so many ways. You do this in church, as the Lord opens your lips to declare His praise. You do this in life in general when the Lord opens doors, sets forth works prepared in advance for you to walk in. It might not be as exciting as tongues, but St. Paul’s point is that tongues shouldn’t be all that exciting when compared with an opportunity to build up a brother or sister in Christ, a chance to sound the clear notes of the sweet song of God’s mercy to one whose never yet danced to the tune. You have a tongue. You have a language. And you most certainly have words—they’re even written down. What more could we want?

Wade Johnston

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