When Paul wrote of love in 1 Corinthians 13, he described it in terms of the perfection that would outlast everything lesser, everything partial. Expressions of the Spirit like speaking in tongues, divine insight, even prophecy would all fade away, but love would last forever. Using the metaphor of a child becoming a grown-up, he suggested that the Corinthians’ way of thinking about spiritual gifts was still immature. It is only love that never fails; true spiritual maturity, therefore, is centered there.
In chapter 14, Paul picks up the metaphor again, as he tries to change their perspective on the gift of tongues:
Brothers and sisters, don’t be like children in the way you think. Well, be babies when it comes to evil, but be adults in your thinking. (1 Cor 14:20, CEB)
He doesn’t actually use the word “adults”: he’s telling them, “Be mature in your minds,” using the same root word as he did earlier to describe the completeness and perfection of love. Many of the Corinthians, as we’ve seen, were claiming to be spiritually mature but engaging in questionable behavior: sexual immorality, pagan rites, taking one another to court, and so on. Paul wants them to be as innocent as babes in their conduct — but that goes with being mature in their thinking.
And growing up sometimes requires having to hear some tough stuff from your mentors. Paul quotes (loosely) from the prophet Isaiah:
I will speak to this people with foreign languages and foreigners’ lips, but they will not even listen to me this way, says the Lord. (1 Cor 14:21, CEB; see Isa 28:11-12).
On the surface, Paul cites the passage as an example of a spiritual problem with unintelligible speech. But he may intend something deeper.
Read Isaiah 28:9-13. It’s a withering prophetic word of condemnation to a disobedient people. The essence of the passage seems to be this: God has given the people a gracious promise of rest (vs. 12). But will they listen? Can they even be taught, or are they too immature? They mock Isaiah, God’s prophet, deriding his message as nothing but childish babbling. Very well, then: that is how God will speak to them, with the consequence that “they will go and stagger backward, they will be broken, snared, and captured” (vs. 13, CEB).
Imagine that a friend says to you, “I don’t know why, but God told me to give you this verse” — and then points you to Isaiah 28.
I’m guessing you’d be just a wee bit taken aback.
With only Paul’s letters in hand (and not all of them, at that), we can only guess at how the Corinthians would respond. But to me, the citation of Isaiah 28 suggests that he thought of them as somewhat recalcitrant, resistant to counsel.
Grow up, he says. This is serious.
I hope nobody has to send those verses to me.