The Corinthian Experience
Ernest L. Martin, Ph.D., 1978
Edited by David Sielaff, November 2003
Read the accompanying Newsletter for November 2003
All Christians want the evidences of the Holy Spirit actively working in their lives. There is much debate among many people concerning the manner in which this is accomplished. Some say there must be physical responses in the human body to show that one has the Holy Spirit, while others say that only spiritual attributes are essential. This article is designed to show where the biblical emphasis concerning the matter is placed.
Nothing is more important to the Christian than to have the Holy Spirit of God as a part of his or her life. This is true for several reasons but one factor is predominant above all. The Spirit is the only agency by which humans can come into an intimate contact with the Father and with Christ who are now in heaven. This is why it is so important. The apostle Paul made the role of the Holy Spirit so influential in his teachings of basic Christianity that without it actively working within a person, one could not be called a child of God,
“But you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Any one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you.
So then, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — for if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.”
This point alone makes the matter of the Holy Spirit very consequential to all who profess Christianity. It would seem, then, that all Christians would want to know:
All these matters concerning the part that the Holy Spirit plays in one’s life should be simple to understand for the Christian. But strange as it may seem, this is not the case with many. There is presently much debate going on among various Christian groups relative to the function of the Holy Spirit. Some say it acts in one way, while others have opposite opinions.
This is manifested in the beliefs of certain Christians that one must speak in spiritual “tongues” to show he has the Holy Spirit, while others say that such outward actions are not in any way necessary. Some maintain that the Holy Spirit commonly performs miracles today just as was done in the time of the apostles, while others say that such things no longer need to be evident. It is also felt by some Christians that the Spirit will reveal modern prophecies like those given to the prophets of old, and others say such things ceased long ago.
One might well wonder, since there are such diverse beliefs among present day Christians, is it possible for people to really comprehend what the role of the Holy Spirit is? We believe it is time to place some essential teachings of the matter into the hands of Bible students. Once some principles of the biblical revelation are comprehended, one should have little trouble ascertaining basic truths concerning the subject.
The surest guide that anyone can have to gain spiritual truth is the teachings of Christ Jesus. All real Christians believe that Christ was (and is) the Son of God — a member of the God family. Whatever He taught or whatever He did are reflections of the divine attributes of God the Father. Christ even said, “He that has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). All of Christ’s actions were completely in tune with the wishes of God the Father. No one who has lived on earth (either before or since) has so expressed the exact will of God as has Christ Jesus. This belief is fundamental to Christian teaching, and it is the very essence of all New Testament truth.
Once the perfection found in Christ Jesus is acknowledged, one can go on to discuss the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of Christ and that of the present day Christian. Note a significant scripture. If nothing else is gained from the information in this article, the truth of the following quotation can form an indelible truth about the true role of the Holy Spirit in our minds. The Scripture is in John and it should be read in context.
“For he whom God has sent [Christ] speaks the words of God: for God gives not the Spirit by measure [unto him].”
Though the words “[unto him]” are in the King James Version but do not appear in the original text—there can be no doubt that they should be supplied to give the true meaning. All one has to do is to read the context. It is made abundantly clear that only Christ is being discussed. It was only He who had the Holy Spirit without measure. All of us are in a much inferior position. Were we to have the Spirit as Christ had it, we would then be able to be as perfect as He was. But Paul, as much as he had God’s Spirit, had to admit that he was very much unlike Christ in the matter of sin (Romans 7:14–17).
But what a marvelous truth! Christ Jesus had the Spirit without measure. He had every factor of the Spirit operating in Him. He possessed every attribute of the Spirit, every manifestation of it, every fruit of it, — every perfection that can come from it! Whereas with us (even though all Christians have the Holy Spirit working in their lives), we do not show a perfect reflection of the Holy Spirit directing our lives. We still find sin resident within us (1 John 1:8). None of us has the Holy Spirit energizing us, as it was with Christ, “without measure.”
Look now at the fruit of the Holy Spirit as revealed by the apostle Paul. Christ had them all.
“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.”
Since Christ had the Holy Spirit without measure, let us now ask some questions which can help to place our subject into proper focus,
There is absolutely no one better for humans to follow in expressing righteousness and proper spiritual attributes than Christ Jesus (1 Corinthians 11:1).
Now is the time, however, to look at some important distinctions between the manner of spiritual expressions found in the example of Christ Jesus and that found in some Christians today who insist that the Holy Spirit now manifests itself differently. Let us look at some of the disparities.
Though Christ was perfect in every way and had the Spirit without measure, did He ever speak in some kind of “spiritual tongue”? No He did not. At least, there is not a single record that He did. If Christ did such a thing, and if it were reckoned as spiritually essential, why is there no recorded instance of it?
The fact is, Christ did not speak in “tongues.” And while it is presently common among certain Christians to “pass out” (literally to become in a state of ecstatic unawareness) in order to give prophecies which they claim come from the Holy Spirit, it must be asked if Christ Jesus ever gave such an example as the proper way of prophetic revelation? Of course He never “passed out.” When He gave the most important prophecy in the New Testament — the Olivet prophecy recorded in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 — He was acting very much like any normal human being by simply relating to His disciples what was to occur. There is not the slightest hint that Christ ever became ecstatic (as is common today in some circles) when He uttered His prophecies.
And again, when Christ gathered several thousand people together to give them a message about Himself and to feed them supernaturally, did He try to work them up psychologically to a state of frenzy or ecstasy? Again the answer is, No!
Is not Christ the best example to follow in such matters? If He did not speak in “tongues,” why should we? If He did not “pass out” when He gave prophecies, why should we? If He never went into some kind of ecstatic condition, why should we? What He did do (and profoundly so) was to love people, to show joy, peace, longsuffering, etc., and these appear reasonable accomplishments that could profit all people who try to duplicate them.
All students of the Bible are able to see how normal and simple the lifestyle of Christ really was. But the duplication of His normal manner has not satisfied some today. They point to the fact that on the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was first dispatched to mankind in a general way, a difference in the operation of the Spirit seemed to emerge. But really, is this the case?
The fact is the apostles were anxious to tell the story of Christ’s resurrection and the fact that salvation was now centered in Him. Their desire on that Pentecost day was no different than that of Christ when He talked to the multitudes. There was, however, a simple difference. Whereas Christ talked in the local language of Palestine (probably a dialect of Aramaic), the apostles on Pentecost found themselves in the midst of Jews from all around the known world — and those Jews did not understand the ordinary language of Palestine. Yet when the apostles began to speak, every one of the foreign Jews heard the clear message of God each “in his own language” (Acts 2:6). The teaching that they heard was the most important factor of spiritual worth on that Pentecost day, not that “tongues” were a sign that the Holy Spirit was now available.
This was a reversal of what happened many centuries before at the Tower of Babel. At that time God changed the language of mankind into many tongues so that people would leave off their evil ways and be scattered into the world in order to form separate groups of nations. But on that Pentecost day, there was a foretaste of a rectification of events surrounding the Tower of Babel. God was now showing that this Pentecost experience was the start of a new age — the beginning of a time when all peoples would once again speak the same language. Great benefits will accrue to the human race when this becomes an accomplished fact. Pentecost was the initial symbol that God was beginning to bring the world back together again.
Observe how the Pentecostal experience that the apostles went through just after Christ’s resurrection can be applied today. Truly, there are many people who insist that they are “Pentecostals” and that their activities are a duplication of what happened with the apostles. A close examination, however, will show that no such phenomenon has occurred in modern times. Where is there evidence that sixteen different linguistic groups (the number recorded in the Book of Acts) — or even ten, five, or two national groups — have been together to hear some evangelist speak in the Pentecostal language, while people hearing him receive the message in their own languages without a human interpreter? The only times in history, that I am aware of, where this occurred was on the Day of Pentecost mentioned in Acts chapter 2; at the conversion of Cornelius (the Roman centurion) and his household (Acts 10:46), and when the Gentiles of Ephesus spoke with similar “tongues” (Acts 19:6).
The “tongues” of the last two references in the Book of Acts must be the same kind of “tongues” spoken on the Day of Pentecost because Luke gave no explanation that they were in any way different. Note that on all occasions the “tongues” were spoken either to those who normally spoke different languages, or to those who were Gentiles and speaking languages different from the Hebrew or the Aramaic of the Old Testament revelation.
The “Pentecostal” experience has never been witnessed since Bible times to my knowledge. It would mean that a large group of people representing several linguistic categories would have to hear several Christians who know none of the languages, speaking clearly in those tongues. When and where in modern times has this been done and thoroughly authenticated by a variety of independent people? I know of none.
No one has a legitimate right to call himself a Pentecostal unless the exact miracles of speech mentioned in the Book of Acts which happened on Pentecost Day are being duplicated. Since this is not being done today, it appears better that people desist from using the term “Pentecostal.”
It is also common for some Christians to call themselves charismatics. The word “charisma” from which the term comes, pertains to spiritual gifts that God gives to His people through the Holy Spirit. Actually, the New Testament shows that all Christians who have received any gifts from God are “charismatics.” This means that the term should apply to every Christian, because they all have obtained certain gifts. Indeed, no one can be called a Christian unless he has faith — and faith is a gift of God (Ephesians 2:8). Also, no one can be a Christian unless he believes in Christ (Romans 10:9) — and belief is likewise called a gift (Philippians 1:29). Even the Holy Spirit working in the Christian’s life is itself called a gift (Acts 2:38). Thus, all Christians are “charismatics.”
The term today, however, has become limited in some circles to signify, in a special sense, those Christians who speak in “tongues,” or those who utter “prophecies,” those who practice spiritual “healings” or “miracles” in their ministries, or of those who claim to discern good or bad spirits in the lives of people. It is true that Paul mentioned such gifts as being a part of the activities of the Holy Spirit in the time of the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 12:9–10), but should one confine the term “charismatic” only to those who perform the outward gifts mentioned above? It is amazing that the one person practicing the other gifts mentioned by Paul (some of them far more important) is not classed as charismatic. Why do people want to single out certain gifts as some of the main proofs (some say the only proofs) that a person has God’s Holy Spirit? But Paul mentioned other gifts, and as stated before, they are far more important. Look at them:
“And now abides faith, hope, and charity [love], these three; but the greatest of these is charity [love].”
1 Corinthians 13:13
These are all important gifts of the Spirit. In fact, Paul went so far as to say that the gifts of “tongues,” “prophecy,” and even “knowledge” will cease (1 Corinthians 13:8). These are very inferior gifts. So subordinate are they that Paul did not even reckon any of these last three as being among the fruits of God’s Holy Spirit.
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law”
The reason for this is plain. “Tongues,” “healings,” “prophecies,” “knowledge,” and the “discerning of spirits,” are all external in demonstration (though motivated by the Spirit), while “faith, hope, and love” — especially love — are all internally motivated. The author of Hebrews said that, “faith is the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Hope is not something in present evidence, but it is an expectation for the future.
“For we are saved by hope; but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man sees, why does he yet hope for?”
Also, the love within a person cannot be seen, touched, or weighed. However, “tongues” are not only seen, they are also heard.
“Healings” are an evidence which is external and physical in scope. “Prophecies” are normally stated in a physical way. “Discerning of spirits” is also within the realm of sight, of the physical. But no one can measure, weigh, or physically feel faith, hope, or love. These things are not physical evidences, but the other gifts mentioned above are shown through the physical.
Who then is a charismatic? He is one practicing the gifts of the Spirit, and especially the essentials of “faith, hope, and love” — with love above all. For one to say that a charismatic Christian is one who shows the evidence of the physical gifts predominant in his life (as many proclaim today) is not biblically true.
Those who emphasize “tongues,” “prophecies,” and the other physically manifested gifts are not “Pentecostals” nor are they “Charismatics” (in an exclusive sense). If they could be called any type of Christian, it would be appropriate to call them “Modern Corinthians.”
The Corinthian Christians, at first, felt it needful to emphasize “tongues” and “prophecies.” So much were they into the practice of these matters that Paul had to step in and correct them for their misplaced emphasis on less-important points of God’s (and Paul’s) teaching. Note this litany of errors,
Frankly, the audience at Corinth, the Corinthians to whom Paul wrote his first epistle, was acting very much like the heathen,
And as stated before,
Why were the Corinthians acting in such a fashion? The reason is quite simple. Even those who had been converted the longest had only become Christians about five years before (Acts 18:1–11), and for the last three years the whole region was practically without personal apostolic leadership. Not only that, the moral environment in Corinth was one of the worst in the Mediterranean area. The term “to Corinthianize” was an epithet used throughout the Roman world to describe intense corruption and immorality (Pollux, ix, 6, 75).
It is not difficult to understand why Corinth got into such degradation. It was a port city located on an isthmus in the center of the Greek peninsula. It was a meeting place for all peoples of the known world. People from the western part of the Roman Empire settled it some hundred years before Paul preached in the area. But people gravitated to the city from Egypt, Syria, Palestine, North Africa, Persia, Spain, from the area that is now France, and, of course, from Rome itself. 1 These peoples not only brought with them their different lifestyles and established them in Corinth, but they also brought their peculiar religious beliefs. And what a hodge-podge it was—with different races, different social customs, and different religious beliefs — all were mixing in one small area of Greece.
It was out of these various peoples that the small Corinthian church had its beginnings about 50 C.E. And though Paul taught among them for eighteen months (Acts 18:1–11), when he left the problems arose. The church began to grow and into its ranks flowed peoples converted from the mixed masses of ordinary Corinthians. Without personal apostolic supervision, the Corinthian church by 55 to 56 C.E. was beginning to resemble something little different than the other heathen religious organizations in Corinth — indeed, in some instances Paul said it was worse (1 Corinthians 5:1).
The truth is, the Corinthian church had gone backwards. They were immature Christians to begin with, but when Paul wrote to the Corinthians he had to tell them: “And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:1). He reckoned them as “children in understanding” (1 Corinthians 14:20). And that is exactly what the Corinthians were — they were infants in Christ and getting younger every day. The way they were acting made Paul feel heartsick (2 Corinthians 11:28–29) and he rebuked them strongly. He hit them with such stinging reprimands that he later wondered if he had not gone too far (2 Corinthians 7:8). But Paul stood his ground and the Corinthians learned a lesson from it.
The Corinthians had been emphasizing a basic belief in Christ but they were practicing a near-heathen way of life. True, Paul still recognized them as Christians (1 Corinthians 1:8), but just barely. They had come to the place of being keen on experiencing the physical and outward things associated with early Christian teaching: miracles, tongues, prophesyings, discerning of spirits, healings, etc., all at the expense of more important matters. Paul censured them strongly for their emphases.
“I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousands words in a tongue.”
1 Corinthians 14:19
The essential gifts were not those which the Corinthians gloried in, but they were those which motivate the heart: faith, hope, love — and especially love.
The Corinthians, however, learned their lesson. Is it not interesting that in Paul’s second letter to them (written shortly after the first), there are no longer any scoldings regarding tongues, healings, prophesyings, miracles, etc. His whole emphasis was then on them having a relationship with God through the heart (2 Corinthians 3:1–18). And though the Corinthians were still having trouble with party spirit (2 Corinthians chapters 11 and 12), Paul’s main advice was for them to “examine yourselves, whether you be in the faith; prove your own selves” (2 Corinthians 13:5). They had now grown up sufficiently to make proper decisions concerning the faith.
About six years later when Paul wrote to the Ephesians, he was then talking about people being full adults in Christ (Ephesians 4:14–16). No longer did Paul mention a single teaching about “tongues” or the physical manifestations of spiritual gifts. It was infants in Christ who got carried away with such things, but full adults saw it was the spiritual things that counted.
“Be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit: speaking to yourselves [not to others through such things as physical “tongues”] in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.”
All the outward, physical manifestations that babes in Christ felt were important are completely unimportant when Christians had become spiritual adults.
Perhaps a major question can now be asked: Why is it that so many Christians who wish to reemphasize what the Corinthians once thought was important? It must be reckoned that it is the carnal and physical signs that they are after. They must want the Corinthian experience. Paul said, however, that there were things infinitely more significant (1 Corinthians 13:3). The fruit of God’s Spirit produces love, joy, faith, meekness, etc. At no time did Paul (or any other biblical writer) say that tongues, or miracles, or healings, or prophesying, or the discerning of spirits, or the interpretation of tongues, represent the fruit of God’s Spirit. And though Christ certainly performed miracles and prophesied, He never felt it necessary to speak in “tongues” or “interpret tongues” at any time — and He had the Spirit without measure.
As a final word, look at a central biblical example of the Holy Spirit in action. When Christ taught His disciples the night before His crucifixion, He said that He would no longer be around in physical form in times of the future. But He was not to leave them (or ourselves) comfortless.
“I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you.”
This Comforter (the Holy Spirit) was to remain with Christians until Christ would once again appear for His saints in glory. The Spirit was to be an Advocate or a Stand-in for Christ until He comes again. 2
Are we then to imagine that Christ, who had the Spirit without measure for 33½ years, would give His disciples a “stand-in” for Him that would exercise principles of action totally unlike Christ during His life on earth? This is not likely because it would be like meeting an entirely different person. It would be like knowing person “A” for 33 years, and then person “Z” appears on the scene who says he represents “A” though he acts like “Z.” This makes no sense whatever. True, the Spirit inspired people who heard the apostles at Pentecost to understand their words in their own native languages (and Christ did not do this), but the messages they gave were based on the manner of life expressed by Christ while on earth.
And though God winked at the ignorance of the early Christians who went far astray from mature spiritual actions (even to the misuse of spiritual gifts), God now expects full, adult Christians to act their age — at least that is what Paul said. The later epistles of Paul and those of the other apostles show nothing of “the Corinthian experience” manifesting in the lives of Christians.
Surely, the reason God wanted Paul’s writings about the childishness of the early Corinthians recorded in Scripture was NOT to show what should be done, but to show an example of what all mature sons and daughters of God should not do. The “Corinthian experience” was only an intermediate stage in Christian development. It was not intended that all Christians should act like the early Corinthians.
“Be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; but speaking the truth IN LOVE, [you] may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.”
The Bible expects all Christians to grow up and act like the adults they should be, and not bring into any Christian worship the childishness, the physical emphasis, the foolishness, and the confusion of “the Corinthian experience.”
Ernest L. Martin, 1978
Edited by David Sielaff, November 2003
1 See Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, vol. I, pp. 673–681.
2 “Advocate” is the general meaning of the word “Comforter” as expressed through the Greek. See Arndt and Gingrich, Lexicon, pp. 623-4.
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