Big Idea: One Holy Spirit and many different gifts.
1 Corinithians 12:1-6
The question Paul addresses over the next three chapters remains an issue in the church today. I believe that our unwillingness to accept and apply what Paul says here has a devastating impact on local congregations everywhere. It also has a negative impact on the potential growth of new believers.
From the entire context it appears that gathering of the church body had become a chaotic competition. In the previous chapter Paul addressed how that worked out with the practice of communion. The competition in that case was for who could provide and participate in the most lavish meal. Now Paul is going to address the competition that seemed to have developed around who had the best spiritual gift. It is not hard to imagine people shouting over one another attempting to gather the most attention from the rest of the group present. Some would be claiming to present a message from God and demanding to be listened to as they spoke in their native language. Others would also claim to have a message from God, but their message was validated by being in a language that no one could understand. The motivation of all parties seems to have been selfish and unloving. The end result was that newcomers were discouraged and sent away by the chaos.
The first point that Paul makes is that the Holy Spirit does speak through human beings. When anyone claims to be speaking by the power of the Spirit, we can test their message by what they have to say about Jesus. This simple test is hard for us to understand in a world of charlatans who will say anything to capture our attention. There are now no consequences for proclaiming Jesus is Lord. That was not the case for the people Paul is addressing. In their culture there was only one lord and that was Caesar. To claim that Jesus was Lord, the one and only Lord, was to risk persecution and possibly death. Only a person filled with and led by the Holy Spirit would make such a claim.
Paul closes his introduction with a confirmation of the trinity and the diversity that is given us by the Godhead. The gift is just that, a gift, and the source of the gift is the Holy Spirit. The next thing Paul lists is different kinds of service. The word Paul uses here is one that would be used for the duties performed by a household servant. These acts of service come from Jesus, who is both our Lord and the best example of a servant that there is. The final thing is kinds of working. The focus of the word Paul uses is on the effect produced by the activity. Work should produce something. The work comes from God and the effect will depend on how much God is present in the work.
The repeated word in these three verses is “different”. The source of each of these things is the same: Holy Spirit, Jesus (Lord), and God. What is provided is different depending on who we are. If we did not struggle with our differences, Paul would not have had to write these three chapters.
The other thing that struck me as I began writing about these verses is that the impact that the gifts have is related to our acceptance of what we have been given and our relationship with the giver. Paul will use different analogies to get this point across. Let me try another one. Water is precious to all of us. It is necessary for life. For it to be useful to me it needs to be delivered from the source to where I can use it. To accomplish this, I need for there to be many pipes. Spiritual gifts are like pipes. There are many different kinds, and they are all necessary even for something as simple as filling my glass with water. The source of the water may be a well or reservoir and it might be very far away. The desired effect is that my thirst is satisfied. My role as a pipe is to enable the water to flow and direct it. Spiritual gifts are like this. They enable something vital provided by God alone to flow to someone who needs it. As soon as I begin thinking that I am the solution I shutoff the flow from God and substitute a flow from me. The person receiving from me is short changed.
What is your understanding of spiritual gifts?
Where do spiritual gifts come from? How can we know?
What should we expect when trying to determine what spiritual gift we have been given?
1 Corinthians 12:7-11
In the introduction Paul told us that the gifts of the Spirit were different, there are a variety of them. The list of gifts that Paul provides here gives us a hint of the variety available. The purpose of this variety of gifts is to bring good to a unified body. The beauty and love of God are seen when we find unity in diversity working for good. We appreciate the beauty of a garden filled with different varieties of plants and flowers clad in a wide range of colors. Why do we not value this kind of variety when we gather as the body of Christ? Here is the definition of “manifest” from merriam-webster.com: to make evident or certain by showing or displaying. The Holy Spirit makes itself evident or shows itself through these spiritual gifts that are given. The Holy Spirit is always working for the good of the entire body. Spiritual gifts are primarily intended to be of benefit to the entire church body.
There is much debate over the list of gifts that Paul provides here. They definitely seem like supernatural gifts that result in activities we associate with Jesus or some of the apostles. To see these gifts at work, just read through the book of Acts. The debate is about whether these gifts are still available to believers today. I was raised in a tradition that taught that supernatural gifts disappeared after the completion of scripture. The charismatic tradition teaches that they continue. Having a son who spends much time in other cultures, my view on this has softened as I’ve gotten older. I believe that God has not changed and that it is unfortunate when we put Him in a box by saying that He no longer does something. I also do not want to limit the work of the Spirit in my life.
What evidence should we look for when someone claims to have a specific spiritual gift?
How do all these gifts work together for the common good?
Who determines who receives which gift?
1 Corinthians 12:12-20
What if the only actor or actress on the screen in your favorite movie was the star? What would the movie be like if there were no character actors and actresses or extras? I’ve developed an appreciation for the people who play the bit parts over the last several years. We tend to watch old television series when we do watch, and I’ve begun to notice that some of the character players become quite familiar. They often have unusual looks and I wonder how they ever got into acting. What they do have is the ability to act. If they are very good, they may get “supporting” parts. They might even win an Oscar at that level, but what about all those who never reach that level of fame? I would argue that our enjoyment of television and film are dependent on them.
The church is no different. While the most visible role is the preacher who stands up to give the message on Sunday morning, the church cannot be the church without all the rest of its members being active. Paul uses the example of the body. Most of us who are older know what is like to have one part of the body stop functioning the way it should. Until that happens, we never think about it. Once something doesn’t work the way it should, it becomes all most of us think about.
The healthy growing church is one in which every member uses his or her spiritual gift. The unhealthy church is one in which some members all want to be in the most visible roles and many members are not using their gifts at all.
Which one of your bodily organs or physical senses would you prefer living without?
What is the most vital spiritual gift to the health of your church body?
What spiritual gift would you like to have and why?
1 Corinthians 12:21-26
We would never think of one part of our body as independent of all the other parts. Our body is a system and even a simple action like typing these letters requires many parts of the body to work together. Paul wants us to understand that the church, the body of Christ, is as connected as our body is. It is easy for us to understand that a stubbed toe or a toothache cause us discomfort far beyond the size of the body part that hurts. It is still possible to function, but we are preoccupied with the source of our pain.
The church body should be no different. We should be so well connected to one another that when one person hurts, we all hurt. This is where our independence hurts us. Most of us do not want to be dependent on anyone else. We view dependent people in negative ways, especially those who have made choices that led to their being dependent. The result in most church bodies is a reluctance to share when we are hurting and allow others to hurt with us and minister to us. Worse, we aren’t aware when a spiritual gift is not available to the body because the person with that spiritual gift is not functioning.
When our bodies aren’t functioning as expected we go to the doctor and hope that she can diagnose where the problem is. Doctors who have excellent diagnostic skills are highly valued. Without the correct diagnosis it is only chance if the recommended treatment works. Within the church the elders have the responsibility of knowing the people well enough to diagnose when there is a part of the body that is hurting or not functioning well.
The lack of connectedness that we generally experience may prevent us from experiencing someone else’s pain, but it also keeps us from sharing in the joy of others.
How connected are you to the other members of your church body?
What could you do to increase your connectedness?
How many spiritual gifts are you aware of in your body?
1 Corinthians 12:27-31
If we are followers of Jesus, then we are individually a part of the body of Christ. Whether you gather weekly with other followers of Jesus does not change this. In Paul’s day the body of Christ in a city was probably distributed across many house churches since church buildings did not yet exist. The point is that Christianity is not an individual thing. The spiritual gifts work most effectively when utilized within a community of believers.
Paul loves lists and they can be found throughout his letters. This list of spiritual gifts is an ordered list, and this is important as Paul instructs us to seek the greater gifts. An apostle is one who is sent: a delegate, messenger or envoy. The best example today would be a missionary, someone who is sent out to spread the gospel and start new churches. A prophet is someone who communicates messages from God. These messages might predict something coming in the future, but more frequently are messages pointing out sin issues and calling God’s people to repent. Prophets are rarely popular, so this is not a gift that most people seek. Many seek to be teachers even though James warns us not to (James 3:1). Teachers strive to increase our knowledge and to help us learn how to do new things or old things better.
The next four spiritual gifts provide resources for the body of Christ in need. Miracles are manifestations of God’s power. Healing is a specific expression of God’s power to restore the human body to health. When we encounter difficult circumstances, we cannot deal with on our own, we need help. This may be one of the most practical spiritual gifts and is rarely talked about. The spiritual gift of guidance is needed all the time and most of all during difficult times. We need this spiritual gift now as we determine what to do during the COVID-19 crisis. This could be guidance for an individual or entire church body.
The final gift listed is the gift of tongues. There are two common approaches to defining this gift. Some see this gift taking the form of a supernatural language that requires interpretation. The unknown nature of the language is seen as confirmation that the message is from God. The other approach defines this gift as the ability to speak a known language that you were never taught. There are probably many other definitions that people apply to this gift. Our son seems to have this gift to the extent that he can learn new languages quickly. In his short time in Kenya he was able to become fluent in Swahili.
Paul challenges us to desire the greater gifts. Our natural desire is to desire the greater gifts so that we can have more visible and higher status within the body of Christ. If this is our motivation, then whatever gifts we have will probably be misused or misdirected. A better desire would be to see God glorified and people brought to Jesus. In the next chapter Paul is going to tell us how this happens.
How do you feel about Paul’s instruction to desire the greater gifts?
What gift could your church body really use right now?
Think about each spiritual gift and the difference it might make in your church body if it were clearly present.