The Point: God has uniquely gifted us to serve Him.
Concerning Spiritual Gifts: 1 Corinthians 12:4-11
 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;  and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord;  and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.  For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit,  to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit,  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.  All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.
For the common good [12:4-7]. “How, then, does the Spirit of God underwrite and spell out the fundamental fact that Jesus is Lord? By enabling the church to embody His presence in the world in a variety of ways, through each individual member, but always pointing to Jesus as Lord. Paul expects the church, even the divided and arrogant church of Corinth, gradually to provide a model of Christian community. The church is the means by which Jesus Christ is uniquely present and distinctively expresses Himself in the world. In the church there is a rich diversity both of people [13,28] and of gifts [4-11]. There are many members in this body, and each member is different. No person, no gift is a replica of another. God never imitates; that is Satan’s nature, when he attempts to mimic all the good gifts of God with his own counterfeits. In fact, the nine gifts specifically mentioned in verses 8-10 are exactly paralleled in spiritualist practices. Any desire, let alone any effort, to extinguish or diminish this rich diversity is not inspired by the Holy Spirit. Just as the very grace of God is “multi-colored” [1 Peter 4:10], so is the way He distributes His gifts and creates us as individuals. From beginning to end, from the smallest detail to the broad scope of church life, God is in control. That ensures variety, because He is infinitely rich in mercy and grace, always working out creatively new ways of demonstrating His love and truth. There are, first of all, varieties of gifts, of ‘charismata’, i.e., grace made concrete or actual. Timothy is urged by Paul to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you [2 Tim. 1:6]. Peter urges his readers: As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace [1 Peter 4:10]. Paul wants his readers to understand that all the variety of God’s grace is not a matter of earning His favor or attention: out of His love God gives to everyone in His church. Secondly, there are varieties of service, of ways in which we can be servants of one another. Paul is here emphasizing the attitude of mind towards the things of the Spirit which He wants the Christians at Corinth to develop. They probably tended to see the church as an arena for demonstrating their own talents and prowess, almost a stage on which to perform. The temptation remains with us today, but Paul is reminding us of our essential calling to be servants one of another. The attitude of mind supremely points to Jesus as Lord. There are infinitely diverse ways in which the Spirit will inspire willing servants to this kind of service. It is not a matter of waiting till something comes over me and forces me, but a readiness to give out what God has placed in me. Thirdly, there are varieties of activities, i.e., God’s energy going to work within Christians and spilling out into the life of the community. Here Paul is stressing the sheer power and inherent energy in each Christian. The Spirit produces results, varied results which can be noticed: changed lives, transformed relationships, increasing congregations, effective testimony, released talents. As each of these is energized by the Spirit, the Lordship of Jesus is demonstrated in as many diverse ways as there are people who possess this energy. A fourth phrase is used in verse 7 which also illumines this facet of variety, and the whole verse stresses the overall theme of community: To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. Again and again Paul is bringing the Corinthians back to the good of the community, not the personal whims of the individual. But the most important truth here stressed is that individual Christians are intended to demonstrate that they have the Spirit of God within them. The Spirit intends to make Himself felt and known through His gifts, as well as by His fruit. It is important to appreciate that the rich variety of such operation by the Holy Spirit in the body of Christ is completely unrelated either to Christian maturity or to personal deserts. Paul is adamant that to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. That refrain runs through the chapter like a theme in a symphony. The Christian community is the community of the Holy Spirit, of the living God. He is a richly diverse God and every single member contributes to this living diversity.
God’s grace in action [12:8-10]. Paul now gives nine examples of this rich variety. In Romans 12:6-8, Ephesians 4:7-11 and 1 Peter 4:7-11 we have three other lists, which overlap but also delineate over twenty clear gifts of the Spirit. The distinction between natural gifts and supernatural gifts clearly needs our further attention. It would seem wrong either, on the one hand, to confine the gifts of the Spirit to natural abilities harnessed and released by God, or, on the other hand, to assert that the real gifts of the Spirit are only those which are manifestly supra-natural. As both Creator of our natural abilities and Redeemer of our whole being so that we receive new abilities, God works in a variety of ways to produce many diverse examples of His grace in action in the Christian community. We now look at the list of particular gifts in verses 8-10. 1. The utterance of wisdom . The literal Greek is “a word of wisdom.” Such a gift could well be revealed by a thoroughly wise Christian who has learnt consistently to fear the Lord, and does not lean towards or upon his own understanding [Pr. 3:5-6], so that he clearly is a wise person, both in counsel and in behavior. Such a person will sometimes manifest a specific gift on a specific occasion, as the wisdom of God is communicated with succinct and precise clarity, so that this particular utterance manifestly reflects the wisdom of God. Such a ‘word of wisdom’ will shed light on one confused situation, bring perspective on another, provide an irrefutable frame of reference in a third. Having underlined the specific nature of such a gift for a particular occasion, we need also to stress that any Christian who has been growing steadily in Christ, who is the wisdom of God and whom God has made our wisdom [1 Cor. 1:30], could for that reason be regularly used to utter wise words. The tense of the verb is given indicates that this is not necessarily a gift which is given for permanent possession and for regular manifestation by one particular Christian. It could mean that, but its far more likely meaning is to focus on God meeting the need of a particular situation by equipping one member of the body with this gift. It is also important to remember that these are gifts of God’s grace, i.e., they are not rewards for or indicators of spiritual maturity. If a Christian falls into the trap of appropriating any gift or ministry to himself, then the Lord may well steer that person away from a situation where he assumes that his gifts, his ministry, are crucial for the body of Christ in that place. Such a sense of importance, even indispensability, subtly takes the focus off Jesus as Lord, and the sensitivity of the Holy Spirit in this very area leads Him to move the person on from the situation or into another area of ministry. This is a painful experience, and we do well to remember that God is very sensitive about the sovereignty of His Spirit in His church. 2. The utterance of knowledge . The Holy Spirit is concerned to equip the body of Christ with knowledge of the truth that is in Jesus [Eph. 4:21], both in the wide arena of truth and with specific knowledge of specific facts. In these ways the Spirit enables the kind of ministry which makes Jesus Lord of people’s lives and of different situations. Jesus Himself clearly demonstrated such knowledge in His overall teaching. Peter seems to have been equipped in dealing with incipient hypocrisy in the early days of the church [Acts 5:1-11]. The story of Ananias and Sapphira illustrates how the Holy Spirit apparently equipped a particular Christian (Peter) with a specific gift (a word of knowledge) to deal with a clear situation which might never have been known, let alone dealt with, except by such a manifestation of the Spirit. There are obvious applications and equally obvious dangers in any such specific exercise of this gift today. It is so manifestly relevant and powerful that it could be very dangerous either in the wrong hands or in the wrong spirit, i.e. without the love on which Paul concentrates in chapter 13. 3. Faith . It is probably best to say what this particular gift is not, before we describe what it is. It is clearly neither the saving faith by which every Christian is enabled to receive the salvation of God, nor the faithfulness which comes as fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work in a Christian’s character. Faith looks at God’s character and stands firmly on God’s promises. Like all true faith of whatever kind, this gift of faith in certain members of the body looks through the immediacy of the situation to him who is invisible [Heb. 11:27] and brings the confidence that God will move in apparently impossible situations. In practice, this gift often seems linked with miracles and gifts of healing. We see this in the life of Jesus on numerous occasions, but most notably at the death of Lazarus. The gallery of the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11 certainly lends reality to this gift, as seen consistently in the lives of men and women of God who, through faith, were assured of things they could neither see nor prove, and consequently pressed on with God through the most testing circumstances conceivable. These individuals all demonstrate the gift of faith. But it would be a pity if we allowed such pinnacles of faith in action to take this gift beyond the experience of any local church and any Christian. Every type scenario in each local church requires the gift of faith, distributed by the Spirit as He chooses to boost the flagging morale of His people. The steady perseverance of the local church in pursuing the upward call of God, either in its general life or over a particular issue, truly underwrites our obedience to Jesus as Lord. The most insignificant member may well be used to impart such faith to the whole body at a crucial moment of decision-making. 4. Gifts of healing . The literal translation of the Greek seems to be of unusual significance here: gifts of healings, i.e. both are in the plural. Paul is not talking about ‘the gift of healing’ or ‘the healing ministry’. He is encouraging the Corinthians to expect many different ways in which God in His sheer grace gives healing of all kinds to different people, relationships, even situations. In both Old and New Testaments it is plain that the Lord brings healing through His chosen instruments to all kinds of people in all kinds of need. Often this healing bypasses human agency. Such healing continues into the early days of the church. There were always those who were not healed. Sometimes these are mentioned and occasionally the reason for lack of healing is given. It is legitimate to infer that there were many who did not receive healing – as, for example, there were many who were not healed when Jesus was carrying out His ministry in those three short years. It seems proper to say, also, that similar healings have continued throughout the history of the church. If the Lord is our healer, there are surely gifts of healings for all kinds of sickness, both through the training and skill of medically-qualified people and through the faith and availability of ordinary Christians. This is not to say that the Lord always brings physical healing. He clearly does not. 5. The working of miracles . It is here that we undeniably encounter a gift which is impressive and beyond the ordinary. The ministry of Jesus Himself impressed people with its amazing power of an extraordinary kind. A similar ministry was carried through by the apostles. It must be stressed with special care in this area of ministry that this gift, like all the gifts in this paragraph, is to be exercised in the worshipping life of the Christian community. When so-called healers and exorcists embark on itinerant ministries of a specialist nature, operating usually on their own apart from any local church, it is a sure sign that something is badly wrong with both individual and, probably, the local church. By placing this gift firmly within the body of Christ, Paul had an inbuilt safeguard both against over-valuing this gift and against specialists in such a ministry. Without doubt no Christian should ever allow himself to be drawn into such ministry on his own; Paul certainly would not have envisaged such a situation without the guiding presence of elders. On the other hand, we must be careful not to over-react; any Christian in the body can be used in this gift as any other. 6. Prophecy . At the outset we must stress that, as with the ministry of the first apostles, so with the prophets who with them became the foundation of the church, their authority is unique and unrepeatable. Whatever Paul means in encouraging the gift of prophecy, he does not suggest that any Christian can be on a par with those original prophets as organs of divine revelation. Any subsequent manifestation of this gift must be submitted to the authoritative teaching of the original apostles and prophets, as contained in the Canon of Scripture. Is there, then, a subsidiary prophetic gift and ministry today? If so, what is it? It has often been equated with preaching, or with the kind of preaching which teaches biblical truth, notably expository preaching. But this does not agree with Paul’s stress on the special value of prophecy and his desire for every Christian at Corinth to use it. The gift of prophecy here probably refers to special insight given by God to any sensitive and obedient believer: insight into God’s will for a specific situation, or into the application of God’s word to the times in which we live. 7. The ability to distinguish between spirits . This could refer very specifically to the ability to discern the presence and the nature of evil spirits in a person, a place or a situation. More widely, it probably means an ability to recognize from what source any purported spiritual manifestation comes. Of such sources the Bible seems to identify three: the Holy Spirit, the human spirit and evil spirits. In the general area of spirituality, therefore, and in the specific area of spiritual gifts of varying kinds, the Spirit provides the gift of discernment as to which of these three spiritual sources is in operation in a particular case. 8. Various kinds of tongues . It is important to try to understand what Paul means by the gifts of speaking in tongues and interpretation of tongues. If we take the text of 1 Corinthians 14 at face value, speaking in tongues bypasses the mind [14:14], is addressed to God Himself and not to other human beings [14:2], and is acknowledged to be for the individual’s own edification [14:4], as well as being unintelligible because he utters mysteries in the Spirit [14:2]. If we interpret 1 Corinthians 14 in light of Acts 2, then we would understand speaking in tongues as a miraculous power to speak intelligible, foreign languages. But the context and the content of 1 Corinthians 14 are different from Acts 2. Paul’s situation at Corinth is the fellowship-life of the local church at worship; the Pentecost experiences took place in the presence of large crowds of outsiders. All use of tongues in the church at Corinth required interpretation, whereas in Acts it did not require interpretation for those who heard in their own language. So it is difficult to understand exactly what Paul means by tongue speaking here in Corinthians. What is clear is that speaking in tongues is a gift of God’s Spirit, is therefore to be prized and used, and is valuable enough for Paul apparently to want all the Christians at Corinth to enjoy it for their own personal benefit. 9. The interpretation of tongues . Invariably interpretation is taken to mean translation. But the Greek word rendered interpretation does not necessarily or exclusively carry that meaning. In classical Greek there were three nuances in the verb: to explain or interpret, to articulate or express clearly, to translate. It would seem that Paul’s use of interpretation in 12:10 and 14:5 is more akin to discerning what the Spirit is saying through the one who is speaking in tongues. Thus the gift of interpretation would then be understood as that of rendering intelligible the pre-conceptual spiritual ecstasy of the tongues-speaker. Therefore the gift of interpretation is then essential for Paul’s desire for the edification of the body of believers by the spiritual gifts [14:3-5]. That is why in 14:5 Paul treats the gift of prophecy and the combined gift of speaking-plus-interpretation of tongues as equivalent – both are vehicles for God to communicate His mind to His people. As with all spiritual phenomena in the Corinthian context, we must beware any gullible acceptance of any apparent speaking-in-tongues as God-given. There is much room for the counterfeit in the area of spiritual gifts.
The One Spirit [12:11]. Along with this variety, harmonizing and arranging it for maximum effectiveness, is the unity of God Himself. There is an implicit and spontaneous Trinitarian ring to verses 4-6, the same Spirit … the same Lord … the same God, with an apparently natural emphasis on gracious giving on the part of the Spirit, sacrificial service on the part of the Son, and purposeful power on the part of the Father. However diverse the gifts, however different the people both in background  and in abilities [8-10], it is all the work of the one God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In particular, the Spirit delights in this variety and Paul endorses this by the phrase the same Spirit, which he repeats in verses 4,8,9 and 11. Thus it is true equally that the Spirit never imitates Himself and that the Spirit never contradicts Himself. Only God can sustain such variety in unity. Only God knows the best way for the body of Christ to be built up and to grow up into maturity: He inspires this variety and He apportions to each one individually as he wills . The three verbs in verse 11 are all crucial for a proper approach to these gifts – He wills, He empowers, He apportions. There is a plan, a divine purpose, into which we are to fit sensitively without any attempted manipulation either of God or of others in the body. The desire to make these gifts available to God for the service of others comes from God alone; it cannot be produced by purely human exhortation or pressure.” [Prior, pp. 192-210, 235-242].
Questions for Discussion:
1. What does Paul say concerning gifts in 12:4-7? What does he mean by varieties? What is the relationship between gifts … service … activities? How does Paul connect these three things with the trinity? Who is in control of the gifts … service … activities? Who are they given to? Why are they given? What does Paul mean by the common good?
2. What is the relationship between natural abilities and spiritual gifts? List and explain the nine gifts Paul describes in 12:8-10.
3. Why are the three verbs in verse 11 crucial for a proper understanding of spiritual gifts? What is Paul telling us with these three verbs?
1 Corinthians, David Garland, BENT, Baker.
Let’s Study 1 Corinthians, David Jackman, Banner of Truth.
The Message of 1 Corinthians, David Prior, Inter Varsity.
The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Anthony Thiselton, Eerdmans.