The underlying message of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was spiritual progress. Paul started by depicting his work of preaching the gospel as laying a foundation that others could build on (1 Corinthians 3:10), then he identified the type of building that was being constructed by asking the rhetorical question, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16, ESV). The analogy of building a house for God was Paul’s way of explaining the slow, but steady spiritual progress believers were expected to make in their growth as a Christian. When Paul talked about celebrating the Lord’s supper and receiving spiritual gifts, he was explaining to the Corinthians a spiritual process that sometimes takes place outside of our awareness. Afterward, Paul stated, “But earnestly desire the best gifts. And yet I show you a more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31, NKJV).
The excellent way of love that Paul described in 1 Corinthians 13 was about an intentional effort to grow in one’s faith. Paul wanted the Corinthians to understand that there would come a time in their spiritual growth when they would have to work harder if they wanted to continue to make progress. Paul instructed the Corinthians to “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (1 Corinthians 14:1, ESV), then he went on to explain that speaking in tongues compared to prophesy was useless in building up the body of Christ. He stated, “The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church” (1 Corinthians 14:4). The point I believe Paul was trying to make was that increased spiritual progress has more to do with helping others to grow than helping ourselves.
The Greek word Paul used to describe spiritual progress was oikodomeo (oy-kod-om-eh’-o). Oikodomeo, as a verb, means literally “to build a house” (G3618). Paul may have wanted the Corinthians to understand that when Jesus said, “I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2), he was talking about an actual house or place for them to live in. Paul clarified this point in a letter he later wrote to Timothy. He said, “but if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15, NKJV). Paul was writing to Timothy about leaders in the church setting a good example for others. Paul’s reference to “how you ought to conduct yourself” meant that he was looking for a certain type of behavior in mature Christians and told Timothy that godliness was a great mystery (1 Timothy 3:16).
The Greek word translated mystery in 1 Timothy 3:16 is musterion (moos-tay’-ree-on). In the New Testament musterion “denotes, not the mysterious (as with the English word), but that which, being outside the range of unassisted natural apprehension, can be made known only by divine revelation, and is made known in a manner and at a time appointed by God, and to those only who are illumined by His Spirit…its Scriptural significance is truth revealed” (G3466). Paul eluded to this in 1 Corinthians 14:19 when he said, “Yet in church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.” Regarding spiritual progress, Paul was saying that being able to teach others the truth of God’s word through the anointing of the Holy Spirit was the ultimate expression of godliness or Christlike character.