Many gifts, one Spirit

First Corinthians 12:1–13 is part of the lectionary readings for Pentecost Sunday, May 31st. On this momentous day in the life of the Church, the passage highlights the gifts of grace the Spirit brings to Jesus’ followers.

A key purpose Paul had in writing 1 Corinthians was to explain that the crucified and risen Messiah embodied the gospel. He was also the basis for the church’s unity, service, and hope.

Part of that unity was maintained through the presence and practice of “spiritual gifts” (v. 1) within the body of Christ. The Greek text (pneumatika) is more literally rendered “spiritual things” and can either refer to persons filled with the Holy Spirit or the special abilities He confers on them to serve others and build up the Church.

Spiritual Gifts Defined

• In 1 Corinthians, the Greek noun rendered “gifts” is charismata. The singular form of this word is charisma. Both terms relate to the word charis, which means “favor” or “grace.”

• While charisma denotes a personal endowment of grace, charismata refers to a concrete expression of grace. The main idea is that the Spirit bestows His gifts of grace on Christians to accomplish God’s will (vv. 4–6).

• On one level, God’s grace gifts signify the supernatural empowerments He entrusts to believers. Yet, on another level, these special abilities entail events (such as a teaching session), roles (such as having the formal responsibility of a teacher), and functions (such as the act of teaching).

Previously, in 1:5–7, Paul mentioned some of the spiritual gifts the believers at Corinth were diligently exercising. Later, in 12:8–10, the apostle supplied a longer, representative list of these special abilities.

In 1:5–7, Paul expressed gratitude for the spiritual enrichment his readers enjoyed in baptismal union with the Savior. The apostle said that in every way they had been blessed with a multitude of gifts. For example, God had given the Corinthians the special ability to speak in tongues, prophesy, interpret tongues, and discern spirits.

Clearly, then, what Paul and his coworkers declared about the Messiah had been confirmed in the lives of the believers at Corinth. Their behavior was transformed in measurable ways and their service for the Lord was dynamic and effective, especially as they waited for the Second Coming.

It seems that no spiritual gift was lacking in the congregation at Corinth. Yet, despite such an abundance of charismata, Paul admonished his readers for misusing their gifts. This was due in part to their being theologically “uninformed” (12:1) or “ignorant.”

Moreover, from what Paul described in chapter 14, it seems his readers were emphasizing the gift of speaking in tongues almost to the exclusion of all other gifts. Perhaps they thought this gift confirmed their mistaken view about their elite “spiritual” nature. The apostle, hearing about the overemphasis on tongues, taught that a variety of gifts were needed in the church.

As previously noted, the believers of Corinth did not have a proper understanding of spiritual gifts (12:1). So, Paul reminded them about how they had once lived as “pagans” (v. 2). The apostle literally called them “Gentiles” (Greek, ethnē; or non-Jews) to refer to the fact that they were previously unbelievers.

Paul noted that the Corinthians had been enticed into idol worship, which was prevalent in their city, even though none of the heathen deities could speak a word. Scripture reveals that idols are powerless, lifeless objects (Ps 115:4–8; Hab 2:18–19).

In contrast to the idols, the “Spirit of God” (1 Cor 12:3) was not mute and was the only true source of divinely-inspired speech. He spoke through Jesus’ followers, never directing them to curse the Savior, but rather prompting them to confess Him as “Lord.” Put another way, the speech empowered by the Spirit was always edifying, never slanderous.

Admittedly, anyone could say either “Jesus is accursed” (Greek, anathema; something so detestable and fraudulent that it is declared to be under God’s curse) or “Jesus is Lord” (Greek, kyrios; the sovereign Master of the cosmos). Be that as it may, no one who blasphemed the Lord was ever enabled by the Spirit to do so.

Oppositely, no one who ever affirmed Jesus’ supreme lordship—and genuinely meant it—did so apart from the divine Spirit (John 20:28; Rom 10:9, 12; Rev 19:16). Paul’s point seemed to be that having an inspired utterance was, in itself, not most important. Instead, the content of that utterance was what mattered most.

In 1 Corinthians 12:4–6, Paul focused on the absolute authority of the triune God in the distribution and exercise of spiritual gifts among believers. For instance, while there are varieties of “gifts,” they have their source in the “same Spirit.”

Also, there are varieties of ministries, yet believers serve the “same Lord.” Moreover, even though there are varieties of activities, it is the “same God” who produces all of them in everyone.

In these verses, Paul linked each of three synonyms for spiritual gifts and ministries—“gifts,” “service,” and “working”—with different names for the Creator—“Spirit,” “Lord,” and “God.” In this way, the apostle showed that the variety of spiritual gifts within the unity of the church mirrors the diversity of the Persons within the one divine Trinity (specifically, the Holy Spirit, the Son, and the Father, respectively).

Paul stated that to each believer was given a “manifestation of the Spirit” (v. 7). This phrase refers to the Spirit’s presence being shown in distinctive, supernatural ways with the intent of serving the entire congregation of believers.

Peter likewise taught that the Lord had given believers spiritual gifts (such as teaching and preaching) and that they were to use these to serve others (1 Pet 4:10–11). The Spirit bestows on Christians these special abilities to accomplish God’s will.

Jesus’ followers do not own the grace gifts. Instead, believers are stewards of what the Lord has apportioned to them. These endowments, which take various forms and operate in diverse functions, are to be faithfully used wherever and whenever possible to edify the body of Christ.

In 1 Corinthians 12:8–10, Paul listed nine special abilities. These represent only a few of the many gifts the Spirit has entrusted to Jesus’ followers within their faith community.

Are All the Spiritual Gifts for Today?

• Believers often disagree about which gifts are still given by God’s Spirit to Christians today.

Continuationism: Some argue that all the gifts described in Scripture (including the so-called spectacular gifts, such as miracles, healings, speaking in tongues, and prophecy) are still given to the Church. It is asserted that throughout the entire present era, from the day of Pentecost until Jesus’ second advent, the needs of the body of Christ remain the same. Likewise, it is claimed that there is evidence of these gifts operating among believers today.

Cessationism: Others think that all the so-called spectacular gifts were only given to the early church (delimited to the age of the apostles) and not to the body of Christ today. It is argued that, over the course of the following centuries of church history, these special abilities gradually disappeared.

Partial continuationism / cessationism: Still others maintain that one or more of the gifts ended with the early church, while most of the gifts still exist. For example, some hold that the gift of apostleship died out with the original apostles, but other gifts (such as prophecy) remain in operation.

“Message of wisdom” (or, “knowledge”; 1 Cor 12:8) denotes the ability to deliver profound truths consistent with biblical teaching. Some conclude that this grace gift refers to information received through supernatural means. Others maintain it points to the effective application of biblical teaching to people’s lives.

While all Christians have saving “faith” (v. 9), the reference here is to the display of amazing trust in God regardless of circumstances. “Gifts of healing” denotes a believer’s ability to restore others to physical health or spiritual wellness through supernatural means.

“Miraculous powers” (v. 10) spotlights the ability to perform supernatural acts, that is, signs and wonders (for instance, expelling demons and restoring the dead to life). “Prophecy” refers to the ability to spontaneously proclaim fully inspired and authoritative revelations from God.

Manifestations of the prophetic gift the foretelling of future events, the heralding of apostolic truths, or the denouncing of social injustices. “Distinguishing between spirits” highlights the ability to discern which messages and acts come from the Spirit of God and which come from evil spirits.

Discerning God’s Spirit from Sham Entities

• In Paul’s day, there were many pagan ecstatics from Asia Minor and numerous Jewish mystics, all of whom claimed to receive special revelations from any number of heathen deities. These non-Christian oracles were either of human origin or, worse, demonic origin. The Spirit gifted certain believers to distinguish between false and true revelations.

• During the Old Testament era, young prophets usually had sages over them, such as Samuel and Elijah, to help them distinguish a message from the Lord and mere impressions arising from their own minds. Meanwhile, demonic forces misled false prophets who claimed to speak for God.

• First John 4:1 seems to indicate that every Christian has some ability to critically examine and determine the genuineness of the “spirits.” Yet, as with other gifts, the Spirit has bestowed on some believers a unique, special ability in this area.

“Speaking in different kinds of tongues” (1 Cor 12:10) could be human languages or dialects inspired by the Spirit and unknown to the person speaking them (Acts 2:1–12). Others think they are heavenly languages spoken by angelic beings (1 Cor 13:1).

Either way, it seems these languages are unintelligible to the speaker and (at least in some instances) to the hearers (unless they possess the gift of interpretation), and are directed to God as prayer or praise (14:2, 14–16). Accordingly, “interpretation of tongues” (12:10) refers to the ability to translate what is being spoken and clearly explain what it meant to listeners.

Paul reminded his readers that they had done nothing to receive the gifts of the Spirit, for He bestows them openly and unsparingly according to His sovereign will (v. 11). This means believers were not to become conceited or divisive because of their gifts. Rather, they were to use their special endowments to help others become better Christians.

As noted earlier, Paul’s list of spiritual gifts was representative, not exhaustive, in nature. His intent was to stress that each special endowment is important to the Church. To further emphasize this truth, the apostle drew an analogy between the faith community and a human body.

The Greek converts at Corinth might have been familiar with the concept that a community of people is comparable to a body. After all, the idea is found in Stoic philosophy prevalent in Paul’s day. Yet, the apostle took the preceding idea one step further by stating that the church is the body of Christ, as expressed by the actions of its members throughout the globe.

According to Paul’s analogy, a human body has many different parts, and yet it is a single entity. Expressed differently, it is a unity made up of diversity. Paul declared that the same situation holds true for the body of Christ (v. 12).

In 1 Peter 2:4–5, the writer used another analogy to convey a similar truth. Individual believers are like “living stones” that are being used to build a single “spiritual house.” In turn, the Lord Jesus is the living cornerstone of God’s sacred temple.

In 1 Corinthians 12:13, Paul explained that what unites diverse believers in the faith community is their common experience of the Holy Spirit. The apostle described this circumstance as everyone being “baptized” into a single “body” by “one Spirit” (Mark 1:8; John 1:33; Acts 1:5; 11:16).

Some deny that 1 Corinthians 12:13 refers to water baptism. Allegedly, Paul had in mind a purely metaphysical understanding of baptism, one that only signifies Christians being identified with and united to the rest of Jesus’ spiritual body.

Nonetheless, water baptism remains the most straightforward way of understanding Paul’s reference. Through this sacrament (or means of grace), God’s Spirit places believers into the body of Christ and joins them with the Savior (Rom 6:3–5).

In the Roman world of Paul’s day (as also in ours), ethnic, social, and cultural distinctions were clearly drawn, thus setting up barriers between people. For instance, from the earliest period of the Roman Empire, wealthy citizens of noble birth were regarded as possessing greater value than people who belonged to the lower classes of society.

Paul took note of this situation by mentioning “Jews” (1 Cor 12:13) and “Gentiles,” as well as “slave” and “free”. Regardless of one’s social status in life, all Christians were part of the same spiritual body.

Key ideas to contemplate

This week’s lectionary reading encourages believers to ponder the importance of the gifts of the Spirit to everyone in the congregation. The reading also reminds Jesus’ followers that every ability given by the Spirit is equally valued and important to the proper functioning of the church.

1. Validity of spiritual gifts. First Corinthians 12:1–13 presumes that every believer has at least one spiritual gift, if not more than one. In brief, the presence and practicality of spiritual gifts is a theologically valid truth to affirm without hesitation.

2. Varieties of the Spirit’s gifts. Paul noted that there are different kinds of gifts bestowed by the Spirit to a congregation. Pentecost Sunday is a unique opportunity for parishioners to consider what each of these may mean for their church today.

For instance, who in your church seems to be blessed with which gifts? Are these individuals encouraged to minister their gifts to others? How can your congregation give equal emphasis to all the gifts of the Spirit present within the church?

3. Value of individual gifts. Pentecost Sunday is also an ideal occasion for parishioners to reflect on how they might be a blessing to others through the exercise of their spiritual gifts. This includes how the Spirit has equipped you through one or more grace-filled abilities to serve your fellow believers.

4. Vital to the church. Finally, Pentecost Sunday is a wonderful time to discern what has God called and appointed you to do in the body of Christ. Whatever your specific gift might be, rest assured that it is a vital part of the total ministry of your church.

Also, remember that you are one of the many individual links that keep the congregational chain strong. The Spirit has blessed you, as a faithful follower of Jesus, with special endowments so that you may be a blessing to others. Therefore, remain eager to use your God-given gifts (as well as aptitudes and talents) in Christian service to others.

Professor Dan Lioy (PhD, North-West University) holds several faculty appointments. He is the Senior Research Manager at South African Theological Seminary (in South Africa). Also, he is a professor of biblical theology at the Institute of Lutheran Theology (in South Dakota). Moreover, he is a dissertation advisor in the Leadership and Global Perspectives DMIN program at Portland Seminary (part of George Fox University in Oregon). Finally, he is a professor in the School of Continuing Theological Studies at North-West University (in South Africa). Professor Lioy is active in local church ministry, being dual rostered with the Evangelical Church Alliance and the North American Lutheran Church. He is widely published, including a number of academic monographs, peer-reviewed journal articles, and church resource products.

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