The popular press allows you to consult your horoscope, but Bible prophecy is firmly out of fashion. Except, that is, at Christmas time. Even if a Service of Lessons and Carols combines readings from Charles Dickens and the like with the book of Genesis, the prophet Isaiah is still there. You can’t have a real Christmas service without prophecy. It’s an essential part of the story. In fact, Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus is held together by a whole series of prophecies about his coming (Matthew 1 v 22; 2 v 6, 15, 18).
One of the remarkable things about these prophecies is that the baby Jesus could not have engineered their fulfilment. The point is that, through the prophets, God had foretold what would happen.
True, most Old Testament prophecy isn’t like that. It’s not so much fore-telling the future as forth-telling God’s word for the present. Perhaps that is why Paul links it here with understanding what he calls “mysteries” (by which he doesn’t mean spooky things, but things we can’t understand unless God explains them to us). But in either sense, being able to prophesy was also a big deal in Corinth. It was a prominent spiritual gift. Paul seems to have valued it above all the other gifts, even speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14 v 1). But a loveless prophet is “nothing”.
As if that were not enough, Paul adds something else: mountain-moving-faith without love is also nothing. He probably knew Jesus had spoken about this kind of faith (Matthew 17 v 20; Mark 11 v 23). We still use the expression “faith that moves mountains”. It is picture language. None of the apostles moved mountains to make their journeys easier; they went the long way around, or even by sea. Moving mountains means doing what seems impossible.
Likewise, the word “faith” here doesn’t mean simply “trusting Jesus”. You can’t be a Christian without that kind of faith. But Paul is speaking about a special gift that not everyone had (he had explained this earlier in 1 Corinthians 12 v 8-10, 29-30). Mountain-moving faith—like making a lame beggar walk or the blind see—is extra-ordinary.
Our instinct is to be in awe of a person who can prophesy or who has mountain-moving faith. We tend to assume that anyone who can do those things must be deeply spiritual, and marked out for a position of leadership and for a “ministry” that we should support, perhaps even financially.
But there is a problem. Apparently, you can have mountain-moving faith and not have love. And if that’s true, instead of being someone to be respected, followed and supported—you’re nothing. That’s no thing; nobody; zero.
You should keep a careful watch on people who claim to have special gifts. In particular, you need to watch their lifestyle. You can’t afford to be naïve. And most of all you need to avoid the biggest mistake—confusing gifts with grace. They are not the same. Having special gifts, even extraordinary ones, is not a mark of grace.
Does that sound like sour grapes on the part of somebody who doesn’t have mountain-moving faith? It could be. But the fact is, it is what Jesus Himself said:
On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” (Matthew 7 v 22-23)
These words are from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, a passage that has something in common with 1 Corinthians 13: everybody loves it, but not everybody hears what it’s saying.
So, what is the point? This: when Christ gives you a gift, it will be a blessing to you; but the gift isn’t primarily for you. It is to enable you to express your love for Him by serving others. Paul had these gifts in abundance. But whenever he used them, he would say, We are your servants (bond-slaves) for Jesus’ sake (for example, see 2 Corinthians 4 v 5).
You may have met people who complain, “The church isn’t recognising my gifting”. But you probably have never met anyone complain, “The church isn’t recognising my loving”! The truth is that if we are focused on looking for opportunities to love, we’ll usually find opportunities to use our gifts along the way.
The Holy Spirit accompanied Jesus throughout the whole course of His life, from the moment of His conception until His resurrection (Luke 1 v 35; Romans 1 v 4). Throughout His life He had the Holy Spirit “without measure” (John 3 v 34). In the face of all the pride and failure of His little disciple band, He never said, You’re not recognizing my gifting. Instead…
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God … rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it round his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. (John 13 v 3-5)
Jesus had all prophetic powers; He understood all mysteries and all knowledge. He had mountain-moving faith. But because He loved us, He kept coming down. See Him in the upper room, kneeling at the feet of His sinful disciples. Since Judas didn’t leave the room until later on (v 30), we know that Jesus knelt down and washed the feet of His betrayer.
We see this humble love in its perfect form at the first Christmas. The incarnation means that “though he was in the form of God … [Christ] made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2 v 5-8). That is what love looks like. That is what love is. And that Love came down at Christmas.
“The church isn’t recognising my gift!” Have you ever felt something similar? What will you seek to remind yourself of next time that happens?
I ask thee for a thoughtful love,
Through constant watching wise,
To meet the glad with joyful smiles,
And to wipe the weeping eyes;
And a heart at leisure from itself,
To soothe and sympathise …
Wherever in the world I am,
In whatsoe’er estate,
I have a fellowship with hearts
To keep and cultivate;
And a work of lowly love to do
For the Lord on whom I wait.
So I ask thee for the daily strength,
To none that ask denied,
And a mind to blend with outward life
While keeping at thy side;
Content to fill a little space,
If thou be glorified …
In a service which thy will appoints
There are no bonds for me,
For my inmost heart is taught “the truth”
That makes thy children “free”;
And a life of self-renouncing love
Is a life of liberty.
Anna Laetitia Waring (1820-1910)