Reading: 2 Cor. 6:11-13; 1 Cor. 4:14-15; 2:15; 3:1; 12:1; 2 Cor. 5:13-18.
It is very well known and fully recognised that the theme of the Corinthian letters is spirituality. The passages just read bring that up clearly before us and you have only to think for a moment of these two letters to realise that that is so.
The apostle opens his first letter with a reference to the Corinthians having been blessed super-abundantly with spirituals: spiritual blessings, spiritual gifts, coming behind in no spiritual gift. Because the Corinthians were so richly endowed with spiritual gifts, because they were a church in which spiritual gifts had such a large place, they had the idea that they were very spiritual people. It is something of an anticlimax when the apostle so soon says, "I could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, as unto babes", though they came behind in no spiritual gift - making it perfectly clear that possession of spiritual gifts does not necessarily imply a large measure of spirituality in life.
What Spirituality is Not
Paul mentions a variety of kinds and orders of spiritual gifts. Among them there is the gift of knowledge, but in relation to that he says with startling, almost frightening emphasis, that spiritual knowledge is not necessarily a sign of spirituality of life. That rather pulls us up, does it not? Surely to have spiritual knowledge is a mark of being a spiritual person! Not at all, not necessarily. You can be a spiritual person and have spiritual knowledge, but you can have spiritual knowledge and not be a very spiritual person in any very real marked sense. Of course, basically it is true, but not in any fuller sense than being babes. That is how the apostle deals with this whole situation of spirituality, on the one hand showing what spirituality is not, and so cutting away all false ideas and letting the false structure down with a bang. It is a very necessary thing sometimes to have your building pulled to pieces and made to tumble over your head if it is false.
You have an idea that because of this and that and some other thing which is of the Lord, which is a mark of the Spirit's power and of the Spirit's presence, because you have light and because you have truth, because you have this or that gift, you are necessarily either a spiritual individual or a spiritual church. It may be necessary to just let that whole structure down with a crash. That is what the apostle does here. He shows in a devastating way what spirituality is not.
Then, on the other hand, he gets to work to show what spirituality is, and it is that positive side that we will consider now. Some very heavy, severe blows might be struck on the negative side, but we should all suffer, for we are all living in glasshouses and not one of us dare throw any stones. A good deal of revision is needed in the position of every one of us. We all have some mistaken ideas; perhaps we have a false position in some things, maybe where we have a large amount of light and truth and can talk about the profounder things of the eternal purpose and so on. We assume that that represents some large measure of spiritual attainment on our part, that we occupy a position of some spiritual significance, that we are somewhere where other people are not - and that might just be a false structure, an altogether wrong idea, it may be utterly untrue.
The Lord may be hammering at the base of our supports and causing the whole thing to tumble round our ears so that we do not know where we are, after having all the teaching we have and all the knowledge we have. Well, in faithfulness the Lord would save us from every false position.
What Spirituality Is
But the Lord is not merely destructive or negative in His dealings with us and if the apostle addresses that side of things in these letters, he also in a very full and rich way deals with the constructive and positive. He makes it perfectly clear for anybody who has eyes to see and a heart really in quest, what spirituality really is after all. If it is not this or that or the other thing, what is it? The apostle sums up this whole matter of spirituality in one word - love. "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels... though I have the gift of prophecy... and have not love...". Though I have all knowledge and all the gifts, the spiritual gifts which are regarded as making me spiritual, it may be, after all, nothing. I may be nothing and nothing may be profitable.
The Love of Christ Shown Through Paul
Paul is certainly not saying that you make a choice between gifts and love, that you can have love, and gifts do not matter. But what he is saying is this, that you can have gifts and not be in any real measure spiritual. There is something more, whether you have gifts or not. This other thing is the thing that matters. Spirituality, then, according to the conclusion of these two letters, is love. The whole subject of spirituality is headed up in love, and in reading these letters in the light of that, I am tremendously impressed with the exemplification of this truth in the apostle himself.
You are certainly dealing with a spiritual man in Paul if love is spirituality and spirituality is love. Nowhere else does he shine forth in terms of love as in these letters. You are tremendously impressed with the wonder of Paul's love for these Corinthians. You notice how repeatedly he speaks of them as his children, "my children", "I speak to you as my children"; "You may have ten thousand tutors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers; for in Christ Jesus I begat you through the gospel" (1 Cor. 4:15).
Then you go through the two letters and see the large place that love has. You know the classic of 1 Corinthians 13. Then you know these first six chapters of the second letter and this great word, "Our mouth is open unto you, O Corinthians, our heart is enlarged... I speak as unto my children." "For a recompense in like kind, be ye also enlarged" (2 Cor. 6:11,13).
And this love of his was over against very much in them which was set against him. There were several factions which had little or no place for Paul. They said, "We are of Peter, we are of Apollos!" Some were of Paul, but more were not. They had no place for him although he begat them through the Gospel, although they owed their spiritual life to him in Christ. You know very well the allusions in these letters to things which they said about him: criticisms of his personal, physical appearance, of his methods, his ways; judgments on him, misinterpretation. He was a yea and nay man. Because he said that he would come and he did not come, did not arrive at the time, they said, "Well, you cannot count on Paul, he is a yea and nay man, you cannot be sure of him!"
Now, all that is not calculated to provoke love naturally, but "the less I be loved, the more I love". The letters are full of this wonderful love of the apostle, and when you come to think about it, it is the only thing for the situation. Seeing what people are, seeing how things are, there is only one thing called for. You are either going to close it all down, and give it all up and wash your hands of them and go and try somewhere else, or you have to have a love that will get on top of all this, go beyond it, transcend it, a love that is greater than all this unloveliness, and not least in the unloveliness is this assumption of spirituality with all its carnality. That is a difficult thing to put up with. If people were really faulty, weak, defective people and they knew it and humbly acknowledged it and had a meekness of spirit about it, you could get on. But when, with all their gross, horrible carnality, they assume that they are very spiritual people, then that is rather difficult. That calls for some grace that more than flesh and blood can produce, and that is the grace of this love.
There is only one thing for it, and that is a love like this. Either the edifice is going to be brought down, levelled to the ground, or else you are going to build with this unpromising material, with all this stuff. You have got to build, and if their very assumption of spiritual knowledge is one of the difficulties, you cannot build with spiritual knowledge or more spiritual knowledge. If those very spiritual things taken up in the flesh have constituted the impasse, it is no use laying your emphasis upon those things, gifts, whatever they may be, as the things which are going to count. No, you will only be building more and more of this false position.
The only thing that really does build is love. "Knowledge puffeth up, love buildeth" (1 Cor. 8:1). So it is either going to be no building, a false building which must come down; you know what he has said earlier in this letter that every man's work, every man's building, will be tested by fire, "I laid a foundation... let each man take heed how he buildeth thereon... each man's work shall be made manifest... because it is revealed in fire" (1 Cor. 3:10-15); a false building which will sooner or later crash, or it is going to be a true building. And if it is going to be a true building there is only one thing that will really build and that is love. The only real building-up factor is love. There may be, there are gifts, and they may be important, but they, in themselves, will not build up.
The apostle sought to point out that the gifts were given with the object of building up, "edifying" is the word in our old translation. They were given for edifying or building up, but they have become things in themselves, ends in themselves, they are not accomplishing that for which they were given - building up. Why? Because they have been taken up in this natural carnal way to bring men into evidence as "gifted" men.
You will forgive me if I am rather exploring and interrogating. You see, as we get on and we know more and more of the testing fires, we steadily lose interest in everything that is not of immediate practical value. I suppose that is a phase of getting old! You realise that you have not much longer to live, and that you had better begin to see that everything is counting; there is no room and no time for decorations. Things have got to be of the utility order, have to be of practical and direct value, and you have no patience with mere words, no longer any interest in great ideas as such. You are being sifted right down, and the thing that really does concern you is, what is happening? What is being done? How far are we getting on? What is the measure of downright reality and spiritual and practical value? Not how great are the addresses and how wonderful the ideas, but what is happening, what is the real value of things? And that is where we are. At a time like this, what matters is real solid building that is going to stand through the fiery testing, that which really is spirituality in essence; not a great idea or a set of great ideas, but the solid thing that will not disappear and go up in smoke when the day of the ordeal arrives.
And are we not perhaps in such a day, when the work is being tested by fire and the real value of all that has gone on before, all that has been said, all that has been stood for, the real value of it is going to be brought to light? Then such an enquiry as this has a real point: what builds? And Paul says that love builds, and love is the only thing that really does build, and there is no hope for building unless there is love. You may as well give it up, you are only getting something false, mistaken, artificial, which will not stand and will not work if there is no love.
With a situation such as this is, with people being what they are, the Corinthians being what they are, then and now, you have to have something that is bigger, that transcends, that will not be put off, something that will not be disheartened unto despair by all this. You have to have something that will deliver you from taking the attitude of, "Well, just look at these people, what an awful mixture and mess and contradiction they are! I am going to wash my hands of them all, it does not amount to anything!" You have got to have something that will save you from that, seeing what they are, and they are just the same today as they were in Paul's day. I am sorry if I sound insulting! But we are just like that, we are not accusing the Corinthians - we are like that. Every one of us is capable of the same things as they were. There is a good deal of carnality about us.
Every one of us here likes to feel spiritually good. What is the one desire, the one clamour and craving of your being? Is it not to feel that you are getting on somewhere, becoming something, that you now have spiritually attained, that you are really now something spiritually? And if anybody should remark that you are a good man, you are a saint, how very nice and comfortable it all feels. Yes, there is that about us, but that is simply the root, the seed, of this thing. It is original sin. What was the original sin? Adam, under Satan's suggestion, reached out his hand to have things in himself instead of in the Lord, "You do this and you will be as God yourself, you will be independent of God, you will have it in yourself, you will not have to be dependent upon God!" And so he reached forth to have it in himself, to feel he had it in himself: the power of knowledge, judgment, decision, achievement, of realising his own destiny in himself. It is original sin. It is in all of us; we want to have it in ourselves.
So the Corinthians had simply, by original sin, taken hold of Divine gifts to make something of themselves. That is just the opposite of love - making something of yourself, being something yourself. "Love", says Paul, "vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly" - "giveth itself no airs", says Moffatt; "no self-important bearing", says a hymn. But that is human nature. Love is not that. That is original sin. It does not build up.
Love - The Fruit of the Cross
So, you see, the apostle brings us right to the Cross over this whole matter. In 2 Corinthians 5 we are brought right to the Cross. "The love of Christ constraineth us." A marvellous word, that word "constraineth". It is a big, strong word translated in various ways in the New Testament. When the Lord was touched by the woman and said, "Who touched Me?" the disciples said, "Master, the multitude press, or throng Thee, and sayest Thou, Who touched Me?!" That word, "throng" or "press", is the same word in the Greek as this word, "constrained". You know what it is to get in a crowd, in a throng. How helpless you are in a throng. Get in a crowd that is surging in a certain direction and it is no use putting your back up against that crowd. The only thing to do is to go with it. The love of Christ throngs, carries, constrains, "because we thus judge, that One died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, that they that live should no longer live unto themselves" (henceforth not unto themselves because they died), "but unto Him who for their sakes died and rose again. Wherefore we henceforth know no man after the flesh." That is love which is the fruit of the Cross.
The work of the Cross in us bears fruit in that it gives us another outlook upon people which is not after the flesh. That is the only thing that is going to build up. If we have a fleshly outlook upon people, there is going to be no building up. Can you or I really build up anybody spiritually when we are looking at them all the time naturally and in the flesh? We cannot, it cannot be done. And it does not necessarily mean that they are very bad people in the flesh and we are taking account all the time of their badness in the flesh. You cannot build people up even if they are very good in the flesh. There are a lot of these sentimental friendships between Christians, wrong kinds of friendships, infatuations. The person is a very attractive and infatuating person, and someone becomes infatuated with them, attracted, lured, obsessed. Now tell me what the real building up value of that is after a time? It does not get anywhere spiritually. Very often it becomes a real menace and hindrance to spiritual life. No, whether it is like that where there is no vice or defects particularly to take account of, or whether it is like these Corinthians in their carnality with another fault and weakness, failure or sin, if we are going all the time to be dominated in our consciousness by people naturally, we are not going to do any building.
We can only build upon Christ, with Christ. Does that sound complicated? Oh, the building is Christ; all that that building is, is Christ, and if we are going to take account of Adam, man, that is not Christ and if we are all the time influenced and affected by that, we shall not get very far with the building. What it amounts to is this, that if I am going to help you and you are going to help me, somehow we have got to get on top of what we are naturally, otherwise we simply wash our hands of one another or else be always in conflict with one another. There certainly will not be the positive building up spiritually.
And so you and I have got to be very careful about our preferences about people, our selections, our discriminations, our liking this one and not liking that one, and allowing such things to affect us. Too often among Christians that sort of thing prevails, "I have no room for that one, I do not like So-and-so!" All right, if that is the case, there is going to be no building; all building is set aside. I am not saying that we are not going to be aware of people's defects. Paul knew all about them and could say exactly what they were, but he did not allow that to be the level, the end, the measure. He had a love which went beyond that and took the attitude, "Now, that one is a very imperfect, faulty, weak one; there are horrible things about that one, things I naturally detest and dislike immensely, but this is a child of God, Christ is there, and I have to build upon what is Christ there and seek to increase that and all the time refuse to be put off by what else I find there! It would be the easiest thing for me simply to turn them down and have nothing to do with them, but that will not get us anywhere. We must bring in the love of Christ to transcend all that and we will get somewhere!" And it has so often proved to be that the most difficult and unpromising ones, calling for much love, after a time have responded and come into a place of spiritual growth. And we thank God for patience and that we did not allow the temptations to give up on them to prevail.
It is a simple, elementary word, but it is important. Are we building something that is going to stand, or some great, big, inflated thing of words and truths and interpretations, and the whole thing will count for nothing when it is put to the test? God forbid! As we were in our previous meditation occupied with the need for a great new love for the Lord, so now the emphasis is upon the need of a new love for His own. For love is the building element and the only thing for building, and unless we have it, there really will be no building, we had better give it up. The Lord fill our hearts, then, with a great love for His own, whatever they are.