Part Three: Grace
One of the weirdest and most confusing stories to me in the Bible has to do with Saul, the OT one who became king…not the NT Christian-killer. I see two interesting features in that whole deal with him becoming King of Israel.
First, there’s the nation of Israel itself. They no longer wanted God to be their King. They wanted to be like all the other nations who had a king. They were feeling left out, I suppose. “Everybody else has a king! Why can’t I have one,” I can hear it in my mind, with a nasaly, whiny tone of voice…much like the one I hear from my kids!
“…Give us a king like all the other nations have. Samuel was very upset with their request and went to the Lord for advice. ‘Do as they say,’ the Lord replied, ‘for it is me they are rejecting, not you. They don’t want me to be their king any longer. Ever since I brought them from the Egypt they have continually forsaken me and followed other gods. And now they are giving you the same treatment. Do as they ask, but solemnly warn them…’” (1 Sam. 8:5, NLT).
So we have God’s chosen nation, confused about their identity, asking for a leadership replacement. Don’t miss two things going here, however. They were sinning in their foolish request. But they remain the chosen people of God in their identity.
Second, there’s the King himself. Look at several of the elements at work here making this guy quite an interesting choice for King.
First, He was an amazing fellow, physically speaking.
“Kish was a rich, influential man from the tribe of Benjamin. He was the son of Abiel and grandson of Zeror, from the family of Becorath and the clan of Aphiah. His son Saul was the most handsome man in Israel – head and shoulders taller than anyone else in the land” (1 Sam. 9:1-2, NLT).Second, he was also aware of the power of God in prophecy, even in little things like trying to find his dad’s straying donkeys. So for something so seemingly insignificant to us he knows of and seeks after the miraculous intervention of God in prophecy…looking for Samuel to help out here (9:3-20).
Third, he was also a humble man, who understood his place in Israel’s demographic, and therefore his own place in the nation of Israel.
“But I’m only from Bejnamin, the smallest tribe in Israel, and my family is the least important of all the families of that tribe! Why are you talking like this to me?” (9:21, NLT).Fourth, the Spirit of God came on this fellow in an amazing way. To affirm God’s choice of Saul as king, Samuel prophesied the following.
“When you arrive at Gibeah of God, where the garrison of the Philistines is located, you will meet a band of prophets coming down from the altar on the hill. They will be playing a harp, a tambourine, a flute, and a lyre, and they will be prophesying. At that time the Spirit of the Lord will come upon you with power and you will prophecy with them. You will be changed into a different person. After these signs take place, do whatever you think is best, for God will be with you” (10:5-7, NLT).
“As Saul turned and started to leave, God changed his heart, and all Samuel’s signs were fulfilled that day. When Saul and his servant arrived at Gibeah, they saw the prophets coming toward them. Then the Spirit of God came upon Saul, and he, too, began to prophesy. When his friends heard about it, they exclaimed, ‘What? Is Saul a prophet? How did the son of Kish become a prophet?’ But one of the neighbors responded, ‘It doesn’t matter who is father is; anyone can become a prophet’” (10:9-12, NLT).
Floating down this same river, we saw what became of Saul, didn’t we? He turned out to be quite the wicked fellow, even demon-oppressed, in the very least, driven to hunt down and kill the next king of Israel, a man after God’s own heart. Yet even in the midst of this wickedness, I don’t want you to miss what happened in the sovereignty of grace. For while attempting to hunt down David one time, God took hold of Saul once more.
“When the report reached Saul that David was at Naioth in Ramah, he sent troops to capture him. But when they arrived and saw Samuel and the other prophets prophesying, the Spirit of God came upon Saul’s men, and they also began to prophesy. When Saul heard what had happened, he sent other troops, but they, too, prophesied! The same thing happened a third time! Finally, Saul himself went to Ramah and arrived at the great well in SEcu. ‘Where are Samuel and David?’ he demanded. ‘They are at Naioth,’ someone told him. But on the way to Naioth the Spirit of God came upon Saul, and he, too, began to prophesy! He tore off his clothes and lay on the ground all day and all night prophesying in the presence of Samuel. The people who were watching exclaimed, ‘What? Is Saul a prophet, too?’” (19:19-24).
I sort of get this picture here of me tickling one of my kids, until they are laughing uncontrollably, begging me to stop because they can’t breathe…beating the floor laughing…begging for me to stop. But it’s just so funny it’s hard to stop! Similarly, the Spirit comes upon Saul so that instead of being tickled to death, he’s prophesying to death…tearing his clothes, beating the floor, probably wishing in his mind he could stop! Fascinating! And amazing much more so when considering what kind of fellow this Saul really was.
Now let me point you toward an interesting comparison in the case of the case of the Corinthian church for a moment.
First, there’s the church itself. They were as mixed up as Israel was about their identity. They had allowed influences of others around them to make their way into the church: immorality, lawsuits, divisions, false doctrine, etc. I thought about citing a few references here, but I’d encourage you to read the letter. It make this point much better than a few verses.
I geot done reading the letter and said to myself, “So, Rob, what we have here is God’s chosen people, the church, confused about their identity, seemingly displaced in their usage of the gifts, doing so without love as the primary motivation and aim.” And I said, to myself in response, “That’s right, Rob!” And was this also not the case with Galatians, the Colossians, and perhaps other churches through Paul’s missionary journeys? Churches filled with Christians who do not understand their identity in Jesus, nor the implications and applications it should have on their lives?
Second, there’s this same feature as we saw with Saul…people acting sinfully, yet with supernatural, spiritual gifts, functioning in the church. Look at the elements here. First, like Saul, they were an amazing people.
“We are writing to the church of God in Corinth…you who have been called by God to be his own holy people. He made you holy by means of Christ Jesus, just as he did all christians everywhere – whoever calls upon the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and theirs” (1 Cor. 1:2, NLT).
“He will keep you strong right up to the end, and he will keep you free from all blame on the great day when our Lord Jesus Christ returns. God will surely do this for you, for he always does just what he says, and he is the one who invited you into this wonderful friendship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (vv. 8-9, NLT).Second, the Spirit of God was on them in an amazing way.
“I can never stop thanking God for all the generous gifts he has given you, now that you belong to Christ Jesus. He has enriched your church with the gifts of eloquence and every kind of knowledge. This shows that what I told you about Christ is true. Now you have every spiritual gift you need as you eagerly wait for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:4-7, NLT).What I see when comparing Saul to the church of God in Corinth is defined by a two-word phrase: sovereign grace. Let me break this down briefly.
First, God is sovereign, and in both cases pretty much does whatever He wants. He chose to display His supernatural gifts on, in and through Saul, despite the man he was at heart and turned out to be. Second, God is about grace, and in both cases displayed this grace of gifts despite who the people were or turned out to be.
That’s about as simple as I can make it. Now let me explain some implications.
This one doctrinal truth is severely under-emphasized in most discussions about spiritual gifts. There seems to be this sense that because the Corinthians were involved in the sins that were present, and because they were involved with false doctrine, that the expressions and manifestations of the spiritual gifts were somehow unauthentic, not from God, or even Satanic. That simply is not the case, as we read in black and white, right from the words of the writers themselves.
I think what’s going on here is that grace seems scandalous to us. The grace of God in the gospel, while never, ever excusing ungodliness or wickedness in a believer, continues to pour out forgiveness, covering, and empowerment to be who God called us to be, who Christ saved us to be, and who the Spirit sanctifies us to be. Christians who have been taught the biblical doctrine of grace know this and embrace it. But somehow, mixing in the sinfulness that was going on in Corinth (or even in churches today), with the practice of spiritual gifts invalidates those gifts. That’s not gospel-driven grace, at least as I understand it.
It’s interesting to note the illogical biases some writers have on this subject. In their minds it seems that the presence of division, lawsuits, sexual immorality, prostitution, gluttony, rebellion, disobedience, selfishness, and false doctrine in a local church must invalidate the exercise of spiritual gifts. In other words, “there’s no way these gifts are really from God, what with all the other nonsense and ungodliness going on!” The implication is contrary to grace, however.
Paul wrote to Titus that the grace of God teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, and to live self-controlled, righteous, and godly lives while we wait for Jesus to return (Titus 2:11-13). But that doesn’t mean that where a Christian is somehow sinning that God’s grace is somehow invalidated, inactive, or gone dormant. Again, a Christian can certainly grieve the Spirit of God (Eph. 4:30) and ought not do that. But if he does, God’s grace is not rendered ineffective. Rather, where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more (Rom.5:20). Once again, a Christian ought to have a “God Forbid!” attitude to sinning (Rom. 6:1-2). But, if he does sin, he still as an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous One, pleading His own blood, and pouring out grace on the saint.
It’s so hard to embrace both sides, isn’t it? We so often believe that embracing one too much leads to the abuse of the other, and vice versa. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The Corinthians were saints who were involved in terrible sin, and for that Paul was quite hard on them about these things, even threatening to take some sort of apostolic action against them, it seems. But the Corinthians were nonetheless saints who were recipients and participants of some amazing, incredible, supernatural, miraculous giftings and workings of the Holy Spirit. And the point is this: their sin did not stop God’s grace.
Their divisions only revealed the selfishness with which some of them were acting in the church, a selfishness that made some misunderstand, misperceive, and/or abuse the spiritual gifts of God. But the gifts didn’t stop coming. And Paul didn’t tell them to get their life right with God before seeking after the gifts again. But that’s how we pretty much tend to communicate these things today, don’t we? And that’s not grace…at all. It’s works righteousness. It’s performance-oriented Christianity. It says, “God is not going to give you guys spiritual gifts when you’re acting like you are! And if you think those are biblical tongues you are speaking when you’ve got all this other sin going on…you should think again, buddy!” That tone, or implication, or inference is never found in the Scriptures.
Rather, we are given narratives of people who were recipients and participants in the spiritual gifts of God, including the miraculous ones, even despite their misunderstanding or abuse of them…despite their selfishness…despite their divisions…despite their disobedience…despite it all. And so we have to ask ourselves, would grace really be grace if God did it any other way? We may never abuse grace. But God is sovereignly free to give as much of it, in whatever form He chooses, to whomever He chooses, whenever He chooses, however often He chooses. That’s real grace. And it seems so scandalous, doesn’t it!
That’s precisely the point in this post. The gift of tongues, especially in the midst of a church like Corinth, is still very much a glorious display of the gospel of Jesus Christ, even in churches which seem like Corinth today. It’s a glorious display of the gospel because it’s a glorious display of grace (which is the root word for charismatic to begin with). The gifts, especially including tongues in this case, are “grace-gifts” from God. That means they are doled out by Him despite what’s wrong with us…because it’s based on what’s right with us, namely, that we are in the beloved and are found righteous in His sight.
God gives the gifts of tongues to a church like Corinth because of who they were in Jesus Christ. “We are writing to the church of God in Corinth, you who have been called by God to be his own holy people. He made you holy by means of Christ Jesus, just as he did all Christians everywhere…” (1 Cor. 1:2, NLT). God gives the gift of tongues based on the merits and holiness of Jesus Christ, and not on mine…because I don’t have any.
So let’s embrace and welcome and rejoice in this wonderful gift of tongues where the grace of God abounds among us in miraculous gifts despite the sin we struggle with. Let us breathe deeply and drink freshly of this grace of God that is the source of tongues (and every other gift), as well as the fuel for it. When grace is the source and fuel, then the love Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians will be more likely to dominate the usage and experience of tongues than it did in his day, as well as in ours.