This is (not) a test (part 2)

In the previous post, we asked the question of what Paul could have meant when he wrote the following words to the Corinthians: “So I want to make it clear to you that no one says, ‘Jesus is cursed!’ when speaking by God’s Spirit, and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3).  If this isn’t some kind of spiritual litmus test, then what is it?

A bit of context.  What was the situation or question to which Paul was responding?  We already know that there had been obvious manifestations of the Spirit in Corinth, including what may have been Spirit-inspired utterances like speaking in tongues.  That’s clearly the subject of chapter 14, and may already be hinted at all the way back in 1:5-7.  We also know that this was a prideful and divisive congregation, in which groups and individuals found different reasons for thinking they were wiser or more spiritual than others.

In 12:2, Paul refers to their former life of idol worship.  He’s already said that idols are nothing (8:4; 10:19-20), and here repeats the point by noting that they are “false gods that can’t even speak” (CEB), echoing similar prophetic judgments from his Jewish heritage (e.g., Ps 115:5; Jer 10:5; Hab 2:18-19).  We can’t be certain, but it may have been that in their old life of pagan idolatry, ecstatic utterances were part of the worship, marking off those who were especially favored by the idol in question.  Paul’s words, then, would be partly ironic (what honor is there in speaking on behalf of a false god who can’t speak for himself?), and partly cautionary, as he has already warned them about the demonic influences involved in pagan worship (10:20-22).

Whatever the practices of their past, then, this is a new day.  What they say and do is not devoted to mere idols, but to a living God who indwells them through his Spirit.

“Jesus is cursed” and “Jesus is Lord” are not mere passwords that distinguish true from false spirituality.  After all, we might miss the significance of the latter in a culture in which anyone can buy and display a “Jesus is Lord” bumper sticker without fear of repercussion.  In Paul’s day, it was a dangerous confession: blasphemy to non-believing Jews; a challenge to rampant paganism; an affront to the emperor.  It wasn’t merely a matter of whether people could somehow get those three words past their lips, but a matter of whether they could say it, keep saying it, and mean it.

At the head of his discussion of spiritual gifts and church unity, then, Paul raises the issue of lordship.  You used to serve worthless idols.  Now you serve Jesus.  He’s not just another idol; worshipping him is not business as usual.  If you have spiritual utterances in church, fine, but it’s not about you anymore; it’s not about how special you are as an individual.  Everything is subject to the lordship of Christ and what he wants for the church.  So listen up: I’ve got something to say to you.

And to us, lest we be tempted to settle matters of theology before settling the matter of whom we worship as Lord.