“Pursue love, and desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.” (1 Cor 14:1)
We all know the above scripture: it’s wheeled out often enough as a proof text for the prophetic and for the gifts of the Holy Spirit. And we all know the context: it follows Paul’s famous treatise on Love, and is sandwiched in the middle of the New Testament training manual on exercising the gifts of the Spirit. Both the “command” words are emphatic in their meaning. To pursue is to chase after someone until you have caught up with them, not just jog behind then a t a distance; and to desire has a connotation of a zealous, earnest longing and reaching for something, not just a wishy-washy want, an “it would be nice if…”
Chase after love, reach for spiritual gifts, especially prophesy. How do we respond to this verse in the context of church? And is one of these two injunctions more important in God’s sight than the other? I think the following story can give us some insights:
“And behold, there came a man named Jairus, and he was a ruler of the synagogue. And he fell down at Jesus’ feet and begged Him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter about twelve years of age, and she was dying. But as He went, the multitudes thronged Him. Now a woman, having a flow of blood for twelve years, who had spent all her livelihood on physicians and could not be healed by any, came from behind and touched the border of His garment. And immediately her flow of blood stopped. And Jesus said, “Who touched Me?” When all denied it, Peter and those with him said, “Master, the multitudes throng and press You, and You say, ‘Who touched Me?’ ” But Jesus said, “Somebody touched Me, for I perceived power going out from Me.” Now when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before Him, she declared to Him in the presence of all the people the reason she had touched Him and how she was healed immediately. And He said to her, “Daughter, be of good cheer; your faith has made you well. Go in peace.” (Luke 8: 41-48)
There are many points in this story that we can ponder on, but one thing that stands out for me is this: Jesus stopped for the woman who touched him. I can imagine myself in that situation. It would probably go something like this: ‘I’ve just got a call to pray for the daughter one of the city’s leaders; and not only that, but she is dying! So not only am I being called on by a VIP, but this is serious stuff, and it’s urgent. Out of my way everyone! I can’t stop! I’m on an important mission…” And so on. How many snares for the flesh there are in that scenario. And even if had “perceived power going out of me,” I would probably just have thought “Great! Someone ese has got healed too. That’s cool. Now how much further to Jairus’s house?”
How different is the way of the Spirit. “Who touched me?” The disciples just wanted to get to Jairus’s house and thought Jesus was being ridiculous, but they hadn’t understood the meaning of “touched.” They saw just the clamouring of the flesh, but the touch that Jesus felt went beyond the flesh and reached His Spirit. So He put the “important” mission on pause while He stopped to give the woman her life back. Not only did she receive her physical healing, but He affirmed her identity (“Daughter”), He encouraged her heart (be of good cheer), He built her faith, He ministered wholeness beyond her symptoms, and He gave her peace. He did not just impart a gift of healing; He loved her.
Again, when the 5,000 were fed, it was because Jesus allowed their need into His agenda. He had just heard of the death of john the Baptist and was in a “remote place” with His disciples, where the context suggests He had planned to spend some time processing and no doubt praying over what had just happened. But the crowds followed Him, and he had compassion on them (Matt 14: 13-21). On this occasion the gift of the Holy Spirit was the working of miracles, and He empowered the disciples to minister it. But again the vehicle, as it was throughout His ministry, was love.
I see gifting like an Arabian coffee pot with a long curved spout, full of coffee. This is our gifting. We stay full of the Spirit, and we keep the coffee on the heat – close to Jesus. It’s full of everything in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. But the “most excellent way” that Paul shows is in chapter 13 is how we pour the coffee: we pour it carefully, in love, into the cups that come our way. We do not pour unless God tells us to, and He shows us which cups to pour into. Sometimes, as with the 5,000, there may be more cups than we have coffee in the pot, but if God has told us to pour, we pour. And He will keep filling the pot as we do. However it happens. we direct our gifting in Love. Because if we don’t, it goes all over people’s laps…This “most excellent way” is actually the ONLY way: without it, as 1 Cor 13 emphasises, we are nothing.
Jesus Himself makes it clear that it is possible to have gifting without love:
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name? “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matt 7: 21-23)
To do the will of the Father and to keep the law of Christ is to love. To minister without it is to practice lawlessness: it’s that simple. So to come back to the original question: can we say that love is more important than gifting? The answer, I think, is that we can’t. Not because of the relative values of each, but simply because we can’t weigh them against each other. I think the assumption for first century Christians was that everyone could expect to move in supernatural giftings. I don’t think anyone at Ephesus, or Sardis, or even lukewarm Laodicea would have thought of saying “I don’t operate in any gifts of the Holy Spirit, but I’m full of love!” In His letters to the seven churches in Revelation, Jesus didn’t tell any of them to work on their prophesy and healing ministries: He told them to return to their first love; not to tolerate compromise, and to persevere to the end, even unto death.
I think most churches today are probably a long way from the level of faith of first century believers. In the last century – since Azuza Street – the Lord has been leading His people to contend for that faith again. And now, since Covid, the world has changed: one of the consequences of lockdown has been a proliferation of digital meetings, and along with that trend an increase in both the awareness and the availability of training courses for ministry, especially in the realm of the prophetic, to help believers satisfy their biblical desire for spiritual gifts. Even though we can’t meet as churches, the Holy Spirit is making sure that the resources are available for the five-fold ministries to “equip the saints for the work of ministry.” But in this digitised, Covidised world, where we can no longer say “Who touched me?” it is even more essential that we “pursue love.”
Proverbs 25:16 says:
“Have you found honey?
Eat only as much as you need,
Lest you be filled with it and vomit.”
If we pour, God will fill. But if we make the filling, rather than the pouring our priority – the pot rather than the cups, the spiritual gifts rather than the way of love – we run the risk of swelling in self-importance rather than growing in faith, and we will “vomit” instead of pouring. We don’t pursue the gifts; we pursue love, desiring the gifts. And as we concentrate on the cups and let them interrupt our agendas, God will give us what He wants to pour into them.