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Tongues Speaking in the Early Church (pt. 2)

Here is part two of an article I wrote a few years ago for The Biblical Illustrator.   Make sure you read part one!

Even if the origin and practice of glossolalia in early Christianity remains obscure, Paul’s stance on the matter could hardly be clearer.  He addresses it straight on in 1 Corinthians 12-14 in response to a question raised by the congregation. .  We can read Paul’s “answer.”  The problem is: we don’t know the exact question.  What we do know is that Paul offers a corrective to the abuse and misuse of the gift of tongues in the church.

Above all, the apostle is concerned to order the worship of the community.  Because of its significance worship must be protected.  Disordered worship had led to disunity within the fellowship.  Tongues apparently is at the heart of that disorder for some tongue speakers valued their gift above all others and possessed an elitist attitude which excluded rather than included the otherwise gifted.  For Paul ecstatic experience and what appeared to be inspired speech is no guarantee of spirituality.  Indeed the pagans practice ecstasy and forms of prophecy.  The true test of inspiration is a confession, that is, “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor 12:1-3).  For the apostle this meant that Jesus is the God of Israel manifest in human flesh and now exalted to the highest rank in heaven (Phil 2:6-11).

To those who ranked tongues first as the most important spiritual gift, Paul counters by mentioning it last (1 Cor 12:4-11; see also 12:28-31).  In fact it is Paul’s point to highlight the diversity of grace gifts sovereignly distributed on the church by the Holy Spirit and to downplay tongues.  It is also crucial to his argument to point out that the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each believer for the common good (1 Cor 12:7).  Although tongues is a legitimate gift which Paul himself used, it is good for the church only when it is practiced decently and when there is an interpretation.  Gordon Fee states it well when he says that for Paul there is an absolute need for intelligibility and order in worship.[5]  Otherwise the church is divided.  Intelligibility is provided when there is an interpreter (1 Cor 14:4-5).  Order is ensured when tongues speakers wait their turn (1 Cor 14:26-33).  Evidently Paul believes that their ecstatic experience and speech is under their control for he writes that the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets and God is not a God of confusion but of peace (1 Cor 14:32-33).

If any gift should be sought, according to Paul, it should be the gift of prophecy.  Whereas those who speak in tongues speak to God and not to men, those who prophesy speak  to men words of edification, exhortation and consolation (1 Cor 14:1-3).  Whereas the one who speaks in tongues build up only the self, the one who prophesies builds up the entire congregation.  Prophecy therefore is the better gift (1 Cor 14:1, 5) because it is already intelligible to any who hear it.   Though Paul did speak in tongues, he preferred five intelligible, prophetic words to ten thousand unintelligible words in a tongue (1 Cor 14:18-19).  The Corinthians should follow his example.

If prophecy is the greatest gift, love is the surpassing way.  In the midst of Paul’s discussion of spiritual endowments he places a beautiful bit of prose to signify that all the gifts must be practiced in love.  First Corinthians 13 is certainly one of the most memorable chapters in the entire Bible   Paul begins: “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong, or a clanging cymbal” (13:1).  The rhetoric is unmistakable.  Tongues speaking is nothing but noise when carried  out without.  When it comes to the church and its worship, love for one another will make all the difference.  Paul then celebrates the qualities of love (13:4-8), concluding with the observation that “Love never ends.”  In contrast, prophecy, knowledge and tongues will end “when the perfect comes” (1 Cor 13:10).  The question arises: what is “the perfect”?  Some have concluded erroneously that “the perfect” refers to the Bible, in particular, the full revelation of the New Testament.  They say when it is complete, tongues and prophecy cease.  According to these interpreters, the New Testament was complete around the end of the first century.  Therefore, they conclude, tongues cease with the close of the apostolic age.  The problem is this; no where in Paul’s writings does he anticipate the completion of our New Testament nor would the Corinthians have been able to understand that..  Furthermore, there is no perfection for Paul in this present age.  The “perfect” quite clearly refers to the time when God’s purposes are fulfilled, namely, at the second coming of Christ.  What Paul means is rather straightforward.  The spiritual gifts, including tongues, prophecy and gifts of knowledge, are for the present time.  They edify the church until the second coming of Christ.  When he comes, what we have seen and heard and known “in part” is fully realized.  Prophecy, tongues and gifts of knowledge—to name only a few—become obsolete when we see Christ face to face.  Love, therefore, is of a higher order.  It never ceases.  It is a permanent part of the life of the church on both sides of his appearing.  For Paul the truest manifestation of the Spirit’s work was not inspired speech but love.pentecost 3


[1] Luke Timothy Johnson, Religious Experience in Earliest Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998), 111.

[2] Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 598.

[3] Johnson,  113-4.

[4] E. Andrews, “Tongues, Gift of,” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon), 4:671-2.

[5] Fee, 571.

Tongues Speaking in the Early Church (Pt. 1)

Here is an article I wrote a few years ago for The Biblical Illustrator.   

In 1 Corinthians 12-14 Paul provides the first record of the Christian practice of speaking in tongues, or glossolalia.  Those who study Scripture and early Christianity find the practice a bit baffling for a number of reasons.  First, the earliest, firsthand description of speaking in tongues depicts a church divided over the practice with Paul urging restraint on the part of those who do and tolerance by those who don’t.  In the final analysis to forbid tongues speaking is no better than flaunting it (1 Cor 14:39).  Second, it is not at all clear how pervasive the practice is.  pentecost_crossAlthough Paul wrote thirteen letters in the New Testament, the practice is mentioned only in 1 Corinthians.  Moreover, in the two other places where Paul catalogs spiritual gifts–Romans 12 and Ephesians 4—tongues fails to make the list.  Some have concluded the practice is so widespread it is hardly worth mentioning except when there was a problem (as at Corinth).  Others read the evidence to say there was little or no tongues speaking going on in Paul’s other churches.  Third and perhaps most puzzling, it is also not clear whether Luke’s account in Acts of the disciples speaking in tongues is of the same sort as what we find happening in Corinth.  In Acts 2 Luke recounts the coming of the Spirit on the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem during Pentecost after Jesus’ crucifixion.  When the Spirit comes, they see visions and begin speaking in tongues.  Those Jewish pilgrims who have come to Jerusalem for the festival hear the disciples praising God in their own languages (Acts 2:1-11).  Some interpreters have understood this not so much a miracle of speaking as it is a miracle of hearing for the pilgrims say: “Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans?  And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born?” (Acts 2:7-8, NASV).[1]  Despite this way of reading the text, it may well be that Luke meant to describe miraculous speech.  Therefore, let the reader understand that Galileans began speaking the native languages of Parthians, Medes, Cappadocians and many others although they had never studied or learned those languages.  The other accounts in Acts which describe speaking in tongues (Acts 10:44-48; 19:1-7) occur with the newly converted but no mention is made whether these “gifts of the Spirit” should be understood as real, human languages.  Paul’s description in 1 Corinthians 12-14, on the other hand, points to the fact that tongues speaking does not involve a known, human language; rather it is Spirit-inspired speech directed toward God not other people (1 Cor 14:2).[2]  For these and other reasons, the origin and practice of tongues speaking in the early church lays shrouded in mystery.

The situation is complicated to some extent by the fact that similar practices are found in other religions.  The Old Testament records that some early Hebrew prophets experienced episodes of ecstasy and inspired speech which may border on glossolalia (1 Sam 10:5-13; 19:18-24; 2 Sam 6:13-17; 1 Kings 20:35-37) although not all are agreed on this.  Perhaps more to the point is the pagan phenomenon known as mantic prophecy.  In mantic prophecy a divine spirit so possesses a prophet (known as a mantis) that the person falls into a trance-like state and speaks messages from a god.  Evidence suggests the language used was inarticulate and had to have an interpreter to be understood by the one seeking the oracle.[3]  Similar phenomena appear in the ancient cults of the Dionysius and Cybele.[4]  The relationship of early Christian glossolalia to any parallel phenomona is not self-evident.

 

 

pentecost 3


[1] Luke Timothy Johnson, Religious Experience in Earliest Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998), 111.

[2] Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 598.

[3] Johnson,  113-4.

[4] E. Andrews, “Tongues, Gift of,” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon), 4:671-2.

[5] Fee, 571.

Larry Hurtado’s Blog

One of the blogs I like to follow is by Larry W. Hurtado, retired Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins from the University of Edinburgh.  He is one of the most adept readers of the New Testament text that I know.larry-hurtado1

Recently, he reviewed favorably a paper I wrote for conference at the University of Edinburgh.  Unfortunately, I was not able to be there to give the paper, but it was still discussed anyway.

Here is a brief summary and review of my paper by Professor Hurtado:

Cut and paste the following URL:

https://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2019/05/06/capes-on-yhwh-texts-and-jesus/

or click here.

 

 

The Surprising Recipients of God’s Righteousness

Dr. Jonathan Linebaugh, Lecturer in New Testament at Cambridge and Fellow of Jesus College, helps us slow down and read Romans 3.21-26.  In particular, he considers the Greek verb, dikaioō (to justify, make right, rectify) at the beginning of 3.24. He asks who is one who justifies and who is justified. The surprising thing about the gospel is that in Christ God has come on the scene to make all things right and he begins by making right those who are sinners and who lack God’s glory.dr_j_a_linebaugh

Copy and paste the following URL:

http://exegeticallyspeaking.libsyn.com/the-surprising-recipients-of-gods-righteousness

or click here.

Jesus, the Lordly Example (Phil 2.12ff.)

 

The lofty thoughts of Jesus’ universal acclamation (Phil 2.9-11) did not hijack Paul’s original intent which was to set Jesus as the lordly example of humility and self-sacrifice.  He continued to drive the point home by appealing to the examples of Timothy, Epaphroditus, and Paul himself.  They have actualized the mind of Christ as their own life-stories will show and serve as examples for the church to imitate.timothy and epaphroditus

 

Implicit within the story of Jesus’ humiliation, incarnation, exaltation and acclamation is the promise that those who humble themselves will be exalted.  This teaching is certainly consistent with what we find elsewhere in the NT.   Nevertheless, the exaltation of the humble followers presents no counterpart, even remotely, to the universal acclamation of the Lord Jesus.  Still, even without developing the point, believers are left to ponder how God will exalt them for their humble obedience.

 

The only proper response in the face of so lordly an example is obedience, “working out your salvation with fear and trembling” (2:12).  This does not mean, of course, that people can save themselves; it means they cooperate with God’s transforming energy in them.  They work without grumbling so their light can shine in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation (2:14-15).  They hold on to the “word of life” now so that in the day of Christ (at the parousia) Paul can be proud (2:16).  After all, their apostle may be poured out as a libation on the altar, facing obedience unto death sooner rather than later.

 

Timothy and Epaphroditus provided Paul with good examples of faithful followers who exhibited the mind of Christ.  Paul hoped to send Timothy soon to Philippi.  Like Jesus before him, Timothy was genuinely concerned about the Philippians’ welfare (2:20-21).  While others were watching out for themselves, Timothy would seek the good of Christ and his church.  Epaphroditus too had nearly died for the work Christ.  He had risked his life to serve Paul on behalf of the Philippians (2:29-30).  Now the apostle was going to send him back with his sincere thanks in hope they would receive and honor him.

 

Paul next turned to his own life as an example of one who had “the mind of Christ.”  Following a warning against the threat of false teachers (“dogs,” “evil workers,” “the mutilators,” likely referring to circumcision), the apostle claimed that believers were in fact the true circumcision (3:1-3).  After all they worship God in the Spirit, boast in Christ Jesus and place no confidence in the flesh.  It was this last remark, “no confidence in the flesh” that prompted Paul’s discourse on his own past.  Prior to his Christophany, Paul had quite a resume and enjoyed a number of bragging rights: (1) circumcised as per the Law on the eighth day; (2) from God’s covenant people; (3) from the important tribe of Benjamin; (4) a conservative, Hebraist Jew; (5) from a prestigious sect, the Pharisees; (6)  practiced “zeal” against the church; and (7) blameless under the Law regarding righteousness (3:4-6).  The pre-Christian Paul enjoyed a status nearly all would have envied.  But like the pre-incarnate Christ, he emptied himself of those gains and wrote them off as losses for the sake of Christ (3:7).   Indeed, he suffered the loss of all things and considered them “dung” compared to the excellence of what it meant to “know Christ” and be found in Him (3:8-10).  To “know Christ” implies intimacy and a knowledge based on experience.  It is knowledge of a person not knowledge about a thing.  The upshot of his own Christ-patterned humility meant that he left behind a law-based righteousness for the faith-based righteousness of God made possible through the faithfulness of Christ’s obedient sacrifice on the cross (3:9).  As Paul identified completely with the humiliation and death of Jesus, he expected also to share in his exaltation/ resurrection (3:10).  In that sense, Paul’s own story would be absorbed one day into the wider story of Christ.

 

Although Paul had journeyed deep into the knowledge of Christ, he had certainly not arrived at his final destination.  So he pressed on toward the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (3:14).  To do so he had to forget his past, namely, the “exalted” status he formerly enjoyed, and stretch out toward the future.  Those who wish to move toward perfection in the Christian life need not look back.

 

Paul invited the Philippians to join him in imitating Christ and to pay attention to those, like Timothy and Epaphroditus, who present a model for how to walk.[6]  They are not to follow the example of those who lives as “enemies of Christ.”  Their destiny is not exaltation with Christ but destruction and shame because their mind is not the mind of Christ.  Their mind is set on earthly things (3:18-19).  Genuine believers understand their citizenship is in heaven; they belong to another city.  As “resident aliens” they are not at home in the world; instead the waiting patiently for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.  The Christian churches of Paul stand therefore as an alternative community in the world.  They do not look to Rome for guidance; they look to heaven.  They do not worship Caesar as Lord; they worship the Lord Jesus.  They expect only small benefits from any so-called earthly saviors; they wait ultimately for a Savior from heaven who will transform the world with power beyond belief.  Those who pattern their lives on the story of the Christ’s humiliation and exaltation can expect their humbled bodies to be transformed in conformity with the body of His glory.   As the apostle looked the future, the Christ hymn continued to echo in his inspired imagination.  We note here the following correspondences:

The humiliation of Christ (2:6-8) à  the body of our humiliation (3:21)

The exaltation of Christ (2:9)  à transformed to the body of his glory (3:21)

The universal acclamation (2:10-11) à  the subjection of all things (3:21)

 

Clearly the Christ hymn provided Paul with more than a pattern for humble service to others; it also provided the (implicit) promise that believers who enter into his humiliation will also enter into his glorious exaltation (3:20-21).

 

 

[1] E.g., Ralph Martin, A Hymn to Christ

[2] Dunn, Theology, 286.

[3] The reading the Dead Sea Scrolls on Isa 53:10 (e.g., 1QIsaa) is different that what we find in many Bibles today.  Whether the Servant sees “light” or “his offspring,” the end of the Servant poem depicts some kind of exaltation of the Servant who has poured out his life to death for many.   Martin Abegg, Jr., Peter Flint and Eugene Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1999).

[4] David B. Capes, Old Testament Yahweh Texts in Paul’s Christology

[5] Larry J. Kreitzer, Jesus and God in Paul’s Eschatology (JSNTSup, 19; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1987), 116.

[6] The imperative in 3:17 is difficult to translate.  It means either “join together in imitating me” or “join me in imitating Christ.”  Both are possible since Paul clearly urged believers to imitate Christ elsewhere and he also encouraged others to imitate him as one who imitates Christ (see Eph 5:1; 1 Thess 1:7; 1 Cor 11:1; cf. Phil 4:9).

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