Explaining the Gifts, Part 1: 1 Corinthians 12


Wow, it’s been awhile since I blogged last on things related to this topic (“The Holy Spirit in Our Church” Part 1 and Part 2). Before I dive into an exegesis (what the biblical text says) of 1 Corinthians 12, I need to give several disclaimers.

Disclaimer #1: I believe that if a person has a sound faith in Jesus Christ- regardless if he holds to a continuationist or a cessationist view of the gifts of the Holy Spirit- he is a fellow brother (or sister) in Christ. I’ll mention this again within my exegesis, but I believe that the true mark of spiritual maturity is how we respect and love those who are different than us or hold different beliefs than us (e.g. continuationists vs. cessationists).  So it’s my desire that those of us engaged in this discussion can do so in such a worthy manner.

Disclaimer #2: After I did my initial study of 1 Corinthians 12-14, I realized that D.A. Carson, a highly respected New Testament scholar, had actually written a book back in 1987 called Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14.  I was also pleasantly surprised to find that much of my own study of the biblical text were in agreement with Carson’s conclusions.  With that being said, almost all of my thoughts were from my own original study of the text.  The exception is 1 Corinthians 14:33-35, which is an especially difficult part of Scripture about women speaking in the church.

Disclaimer #3: I do think it’s very important to consider Christian tradition when sorting out theological issues, but still our primary source of knowing sound doctrine is the Scriptures.  That’s why I’m choosing to just work through 1 Corinthians 12-14 to get a biblical understanding of spiritual gifts.  I’ll place bite-sized portions of the text from 1 Corinthians 12-14 and then write my exegesis and connections to our own specific church context after each portion.  This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive exegesis of these texts, but only highlighting the parts relevant to this discussion.  Lastly, specific verses that are explained are referenced in parenthesis.

Section 1: 1 Corinthians 12:1-11

1 Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2 You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led. 3 Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.

4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.

This text was intended to be prescriptive for the church- even for today (v. 1).  It is important to note that the apostle Paul wrote an epistle, which was meant to be instruction for the churches.  Specifically, Paul wanted to teach the church the topic of spiritual gifts (v. 1) and their use in the church. This implies that it is primarily prescriptive and the interpreted principles from this letter to the Corinthian church in most cases should be applied to churches and Christians today.

The Holy Spirit can do miraculous, Christ-exalting work (v. 3).  Paul also made it clear that when people confess that “Jesus is Lord” it is the work of the Holy Spirit and that no one who genuinely believes in Jesus Christ can curse or do things that curse his name (v. 3).  Oftentimes cessationists argue that the extreme examples of deceit, abuse, and excess (Satan as an “angel of light”) should cause us to completely reject miracles and the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit.  In my opinion, eliminating the possibilities of this work of the Holy Spirit based solely on the negative possibilities is not a justifiable reason to reject them all together.  The Scriptures should still form the basis of our beliefs, regardless of our experiences.

To Paul, spiritual gifts- “natural” and “supernatural”- are normal (vv. 4-6).  It seems from Paul that the possession of the Holy Spirit’s gifts- of various types- were normal for the Corinthian church (vv. 4-6).  There are no indications that it shouldn’t also be normal for the church today.  Going on, he gave some examples of gifts of the Holy Spirit (vv. 8-11), which interestingly can all be labeled as “supernatural.”  There are other lists of spiritual gifts in the New Testament (see Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:8-12; 1 Peter 4:10-11) that have a mixture of “supernatural” and “natural” gifts.  It is reasonable to say that all gifts- no matter if we classify them as “supernatural” or “natural”- are from the Holy Spirit and we cannot pick and choose which ones are possible today.

The Holy Spirit is sovereign in giving any and all spiritual gifts (v. 11). Specifically, the Holy Spirit is the one responsible for distributing these gifts to the church (v. 11).  It’s important to remember that two of Paul’s purposes of writing this letter to the Corinthian church was 1) to stop any idea that some were more “spiritual” than others because of their gifts and 2) to promote a sound and biblical unity in the Holy Spirit instead.  So it is clear that the Holy Spirit is the one who is sovereign and can and does give gifts as he wills.  In our context, this means that it is at least possible that any spiritual gift that leads people to glorify Jesus Christ can be attributed to the Holy Spirit.

For our church today: It would be great to experience both natural and supernatural works of the Holy Spirit in our church!  I’ve said this when preaching through Acts 2:42-47, but perhaps the most powerful miracle the Spirit performed among believers is transforming selfish people into people who actually can selflessly care for others and give away to others.  Any of these “signs and wonders” that will point people to Jesus Christ are welcome in our church!  We want to see greater work of the Holy Spirit in saving people and sanctifying them; God often uses people, with their God-given, Spirit-empowered ministries, to be involved in that process.

Section 2: 1 Corinthians 12:12-20

12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.

Baptism and filling of the Holy Spirit is a one-time event at conversion (v. 13). This “baptism” that Paul talks about (v. 13) is the one-time event of conversion: the cleansing and renewing work of the Holy Spirit to redeem people from spiritual death to spiritual life.  According to this verse, it is also the entrance into God’s family, “one body,” united by the Holy Spirit.  Dr. Wayne Grudem explains that the traditional Pentecostal and Charismatic understanding of the “filling of the Holy Spirit” in Acts 2 was a second baptism (they were born-again believers long before this event) that 1) empowered them for greater effectiveness in ministry and 2) manifested through the speaking of tongues. Therefore, according to this view, Christians today should also seek a special “baptism of the Holy Spirit” that will result in much more power for ministry and speaking in tongues.

This is where I believe Pentecostal/Charismatic theology misses the mark.  It is inconclusive in the New Testament what the phrase “baptism of the Holy Spirit” means exactly (see Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, John 1:33).  Pentecostals usually use v. 13 to support  the view of this “baptism of the Holy Spirit” because while Jesus did all the baptisms in all the other referenced passages in the New Testament, in this one (v. 13) it appears that the Holy Spirit does the baptizing.  But the correct understanding of verse 13 is that the Greek text actually says, “in one Spirit…we were baptized” (as the English Standard Version translates it).  In other words, believers are unified because of the new spiritual life that they all receive through the one-time regenerating and empowering work of the Holy Spirit.  As far as the apostle Paul is concerned, baptism in the Spirit occurs at conversion.

For the church today: God gives us all that we need when our lives are in Jesus Christ!  That means that we don’t need to wait for that supernatural spiritual experience to make us better or more effective Christians.  It also means that we are not second-class citizens of God’s Kingdom (or that we’re not saved) if we’ve never had that “second baptism” or don’t speak in tongues. When we believe in Jesus, what also happens in the spiritual realm is God gives us an irresistible call to rejoin His flock (see John 10:27), the Holy Spirit makes us spiritually reborn (see John 3:6), and the Holy Spirit fills us (see 1 Corinthians 3:16).  Therefore believers have all they need to overcome sin, strongholds, and habits in their lives.

Section 3: 1 Corinthians 12:21-26

21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.

No spiritual gift is more important or prestigious than others (vv. 21-26). Paul’s main point in verses 21-26 is that all the parts of Christ’s body- with whatever they contribute- are valuable to the body.  Also, that means no person’s “gift” is more important or more prestigious than another’s.

We must strive for unity with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ (v. 25). We must highlight one other important statement that Paul makes in verse 25.  God’s will is that “there may be no division in the body.”  Therefore no matter where we stand on the issue of the gifts of the Holy Spirit (as long as one’s core/critical issues are correct), we should conduct ourselves with love and humility, striving for unity.

For the church today: It is part of sinful human nature to want power or recognition for abilities, as well as to attach more value to more “flashy” gifts.  Just like the Corinthian believers in the first century, we also need a “mental revolution” in understanding how God works and what God values.  God wields his power according to his own sovereign will and can use anyone- even donkeys!  What a believer ought to value is not power but obedience and faithfulness to the Lord.  Additionally, within our church and with other churches, we want to be unified on our core beliefs and flexible with less critical differences such as continuationist or cessationist positions.

Section 4: 1 Corinthians 12:27-31

27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But earnestly desire the higher gifts.

And I will show you a still more excellent way.

Is this list of spiritual gifts sequential according to time or ranked according to importance (vv. 28-31)? There is some question as to what verses 28-31 mean.  Some believe that this list a “dispensation” of gifts over a specific period of time that were needed only for the start of the church: first apostles as the pillars of the church with authoritative teaching and leadership, second prophets as divinely inspired by God to pen the New Testament, third teachers as able to teach the Scriptures, and so on.  But this breaks down after these first three items on the list.  Do miracles, gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues follow teachers sequentially alone?  In fact, at the time of the writing of this letter to the Corinthian church, all of these gifts were apparently present at the same time.

On the other hand, is this list some sort of “ranking” according to the most important or most useful gifts?  This seems like a more likely option, if we look at it from a “both-and” perspective.  What I mean is that both these statements can be true: BOTH leaders are not more important than regular members AND leaders are important for the proper functioning of a church.  The first four gifts can be regarded as leadership gifts and are important and useful for a healthy church, but all believers have equal value and special roles in the church.

Therefore, it is permissible to desire the more important/useful gifts (v. 31).  That is why Paul says in v. 31 that believers should earnestly desire the higher gifts.  What are these “higher gifts” (note it is plural) that he refers to?  In chapter 13, the apostle goes on to talk about how love is the greatest “way” (not a gift), so that is not the answer.  Once again, if the list that he just mentioned is in order of importance and/or usefulness, then the “higher gifts” (not offices) are apostolic, prophetic, teaching, and miraculous gifts.

An important word about “prophetic words”: The biggest issue for cessationists is the reckless use of “prophecy” characterized in some (but not all) Pentecostal and Charismatic churches.  In the worst cases, these “words” are improperly given equal authoritative weight as the Scriptures.  It is true that these “prophetic words” can and are often misused.  Too often I have heard that phrase, “I have a word from the Lord,” when it is not.  But “prophetic words” or “convictions” should not be disregarded completely.   “Prophecies” that are often mentioned in this way can be explained as spontaneous “revelations” or “convictions” that are ways God communicates through the Holy Spirit, only in a broader sense than the Word of God (therefore without equal authority).  Discernment should be used with such revelations/convictions and should never contradict the Scriptures.  There are also, in fact, many Pentecostals and Charismatics who affirm that the Bible is the final authority and primary revelation of God to man and who exercise “prophetic” words properly.

For the church today: “How can I know and discern the will of God?”  This is a question I get asked a lot as a pastor.  For most people, my answer is pretty boring: God decided that everything we need to know about Himself and his will is found in the Bible.  Of course there are the countless decisions that the Bible does not specifically address, and that is when we both are led by the Holy Spirit and use our God-given, Bible-saturated minds to guide us.  As well, we should desire the most important and useful gifts of the Holy Spirit in order to serve the most important and urgent needs in the church community.  In fact, as Ephesians 4:10-16 says, the more people in our church who have apostolic, prophetic, evangelistic, pastoral, and teaching gifts, the stronger and healthier our church will become.  So my prayer is always, “Bring ‘em on, Lord!”