Our Lord Jesus Christ ceased not, during his continuance
on earth, to prove, by his miracles—the truth of his claims as the Son of
God; and constantly appealed to them in his controversy with the Jews, as
the reasons and the grounds of faith in his teachings. By him the power of
working miracles was conferred on his apostles, who in the exercise of this
extraordinary gift, cast out demons, and "healed all manner of sickness, and
all manner of disease." Christ also assured them, that under the
dispensation of the Spirit, which was to commence after his decease, their
miraculous powers should be so much enlarged and multiplied, as to exceed
those which had been exercised by himself.
This took place on the day of Pentecost, when the ability
to speak other languages, without previous study, was conferred upon them.
The apostles, as the ambassadors and messengers of their risen Lord, were
authorized and enabled to invest others with the high distinction; for to
confer the power of working miracles, was a prerogative confined to the
apostolic office. This is evident from many parts of the New Testament. But
while apostles only could communicate this power, anyone, not excepting the
most obscure and illiterate member of the churches, could receive it—as it
was not confined to church officers. It is probable that these gifts were
sometimes distributed among all the original members of a church. But as the
church increased, they were confined to a more limited number, and granted
only to such as were more eminent among the brethren, until at length they
were probably restricted to the elders; thus being as gradually withdrawn
from the church as they had been communicated.
It is not necessary that we should here explain the
nature, and trace the distinction of these endowments—a task which has been
acknowledged by all expositors to be difficult, and which is thought by some
to be impossible. They constituted the light which fell from heaven upon the
church, and to which she appealed as the proofs of her divine origin.
For the possession and exercise of miraculous gifts, the
church at Corinth was eminently distinguished. This is evident from the
testimony of Paul—"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." 1 Cor.
1:4-5. And in another place he asks them—"How were you inferior to other
churches?" It is indeed both a humiliating and an admonitory consideration,
that the church which, of all those planted by the apostles, was the most
distinguished for its gifts, should have been the least eminent for
its graces, as was the case with the Christian church at Corinth.
What a scandalous abuse and profanation of the Lord's supper had crept in!
What a schismatical spirit prevailed! What a connivance at sin existed! What
resistance to apostolic authority was set up!
To account for this, it should be recollected that the
possession of miraculous gifts by no means implied the existence and
influence of sanctifying grace! Those extraordinary powers were
entirely distinct from the qualities which are essential to the character of
a real Christian. They are powers conferred not at all, or in a very
subordinate degree, for the benefit of the individual himself—but were
distributed, according to the sovereignty of the divine will—for the
edification of believers, and the conviction of unbelievers. Hence says the
apostle—"So you see that speaking in tongues is a sign, not for believers,
but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for the benefit of believers, not
unbelievers." 1 Cor. 14:22.
Our Lord, also, has informed us that miraculous
endowments were not necessarily connected with, but were often disconnected
from, personal piety. "Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we
not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform
many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from
me, you evildoers!'" Matthew 7:22-23. Paul supposes the same thing in the
commencement of this chapter, where he says—"If I could speak in any
language in heaven or on earth but didn't love others, I would only be
making meaningless noise like a loud gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the
gift of prophecy, and if I knew all the mysteries of the future and knew
everything about everything, but didn't love others, what good would I be?
And if I had the gift of faith so that I could speak to a mountain and make
it move, without love I would be no good to anybody. If I gave everything I
have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if
I didn't love others, I would be of no value whatsoever." 1 Cor. 13:1-3.
This hypothetical mode of speech certainly implies that gifts and grace are
not necessarily connected.
This is a very solemn consideration, and, by showing how
far self-deception may be carried, ought to be felt as a solemn admonition
to all professing Christians—to be very careful and diligent in the great
business of self-examination.
It is evident, both from the nature of things, and from
the reasoning of the apostle, that some of the miraculous powers were more
admired, and therefore more popular, than others. The gift of tongues, as is
plain from the reasoning in the fourteenth chapter, appears to have been
most coveted, because eloquence was so much esteemed by the Greeks—to reason
and orate in public, as a talent, was much admired, and as a practice, was
exceedingly common—schools were established to teach the art of oration, and
places of public resort were frequented to display it. Hence in the church
of Christ, and especially with those whose hearts were unsanctified by
Divine grace, and who converted miraculous operations into a means of
personal ambition, the gift of tongues was the most admired of all these
extraordinary powers. A desire after conformity to the envied
distinctions of the world, has ever been the snare and the reproach of many
of the members of the Christian community.
Where distinctions exist, many evils will be sure to
follow, as long as human nature is in an imperfect state. Talents, or the
power of fixing attention upon one's self, and raising admiration to one's
self—will be valued above virtues. And the more popular talents will occupy,
in the estimate of 'personal ambition', a higher rank than those that are
useful. Consequently, we must expect, wherever opportunities present
themselves, to see, on the one hand, pride, vanity, arrogance, love of
display, boasting, selfishness, conscious superiority, and a susceptibility
to being easily offended. While on the other hand, we shall witness an
equally offensive exhibition of envy, suspicion, imputation of evil,
exultation over the failures of others, and a disposition to magnify and
report the offences of others.
Such evil passions are not entirely excluded from the
church of God, at least during its present earthly state—and they were most
abundantly exhibited among the Christians at Corinth. Those who had gifts
were too apt to exult over those that had none. While the latter indulged in
envy and ill-will towards the former—those who were favored with the most
distinguished endowments, vaunted of their achievements over those who
attained only to the humbler gifts. And all these petulant passions were
indulged to such a degree, as well near to banish Christian love from the
church at Corinth. This unhappy state of things, the apostle found it
necessary to correct, which he did by a series of most conclusive arguments.
Such, for instance, as that all these gifts are the bestowments of the
Spirit, who in distributing them, exercises a wise sovereignty—that they are
all bestowed for mutual advantage, and not for personal glory—that this
variety is essential for general edification—that the useful gifts are to be
more valued than those of a more dazzling nature—that they are dependent on
each other for their efficiency. And he then concludes his admonition and
representation, by introducing to their notice that heavenly virtue, which
he so beautifully describes in the chapter under consideration, and which he
exalts in value and importance above the most coveted miraculous powers.
"But eagerly desire the greater gifts. And now I will
show you the most excellent way." 1 Cor. 12:31. "You are ambitious to obtain
these endowments which shall cause you to be esteemed as the most honorable
and distinguished people in the church; but notwithstanding your high
notions of the respect due to those who excel in miracles, I now point out
to you a way to still greater honor, by a road open to you all, and in which
your success will neither produce pride in yourselves, nor excite envy in
others. Pursue love, for the possession and exercise of this grace is
infinitely to be preferred to the most splendid gift."
Admirable tribute—exalted eulogy on love! What more could
be said, or be said more properly, to raise it in our esteem, and to impress
it upon our heart? The age of miracles is past—the signs, and the tokens,
and the powers which accompanied it, and which, like the brilliant lights
from heaven, hung in bright effulgence over the early church, are vanished.
No longer can the members or ministers of Christ confound the mighty,
perplex the wise, or guide the simple enquirer after truth, by the
demonstration of the Spirit and of power—the control of the laws of nature,
and of the spirits of darkness, are no longer entrusted to us. But that
which is more excellent and more heavenly remains—that which is more
valuable in itself, and less liable to abuse, continues; and that is—Love!
Miracles were but the credentials of Christianity, but Love is its essence!
Miracles but its witnesses, which, having ushered it into the world, and
borne their testimony, retired forever. But Love is its very soul, which,
when disencumbered of all that is earthly, shall ascend to its native
place—the paradise and the presence of the eternal God!