God’s Will and the Church

1 Corinthians

Week of November 3, 2019

The Point:  God often reveals His plans for us through His church.

Spiritual Gifts:  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.   [ESV]

Varieties of Gifts [1-11].  It is the height of tragedy that spiritual gifts have become such a divisive issue amongst Christians in our generation. It is also a supreme irony, because the purpose of the gifts is to build up, unify and edify Christ’s body, not to pull it apart. However, we are in good company, or at least Corinthian company, because this chapter begins the most extended passage of biblical teaching about the gifts of God’s grace (the charismata). It is in this context of a church being torn apart by factions and jealousies that Paul focuses the clearest teaching about the identity and use of spiritual gifts. Obviously this was a major ingredient in the problems that beset the church in Corinth. Why is it so often like that? Almost all Christians today know of churches that have suffered severe division and persistent wounding as a result of this very controversy. Let me suggest two reasons. Firstly, because of the existence of an enemy who counterfeits all of God’s gracious works and gifts, the spurious will always be found alongside the genuine. In a city like Corinth, where every sort of religious experience under the sun was practiced and promoted, it was not always easy to determine what was of God and what was not. Satan is an arch deceiver who loves to throw dust in the eyes of God’s people so as to confuse them about what God is saying in His Word. Secondly, the sinful nature of every Christian is at war with the Spirit and obstructing the work of making us holy. The Holy Spirit, who is carrying out this work in our lives, is always being opposed by the world, the flesh, and behind them both, the devil. Satan continually uses the world, with its temptations, and our own weaknesses in the flesh, to divert us from God’s purposes. One of his most successful tactics is to puff us up with pride, and to keep us concerned about our status in the church and our imagined place in the spiritual pecking order. We then begin to think that in some way we are better, more blessed, more gifted, and more spiritual, than other believers. The Corinthian church was facing all of these issues, but blindly, not realizing that they were in a battle with an enemy. As we consider this passage in its biblical context, we realize that it is a corrective section, addressing the Corinthians about the wrong, worldly judgments into which they had fallen. They had accepted the Greek belief that the more you are taken over or possessed – the less you are in control of yourself – the more spiritual you must be. These same ideas often circulate in Christian circles today, but Paul wants his readers to know that such thinking is essentially worldly. The measure of greatness of any spiritual gift is not its degree of impressiveness, or its apparent miraculous nature, but its usefulness in building up the body of Christ, in love and in truth.

Foundation Truth [1-3].  As the chapter begins, Paul uses his characteristic formula to indicate a change of subject matter and a major new section. Now … brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed. Such ignorance or agnosticism is characteristic of the pagan mind-set, because it has not yet been illuminated by God’s self-revelation in the truth of Scripture. Paul’s comment, you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led [2], is a description that typifies all forms of pagan religion that tend to subvert the mind and concentrate on the passions and emotions. But Christian faith is directly opposed to this in its intention and direction. It does not lead to speechless idols, because it is the revelation of the one God who speaks, the only true and living God. Although the Corinthian temples were strong on mystical experiences, ecstatic states, trances and visions, with plenty of noise and excitement, at the center of it all were mute idols or lifeless ‘gods’ who could not therefore communicate at all. Doubtless there were prophecies, ecstatic language and miracle cures, but they did not, and could not, lead to a knowledge of, and relationship with, the Creator of the universe. His Spirit is not mute. He speaks with penetrating clarity as He declares that Jesus Christ is Lord [3]. That is how genuine Christians come to recognize the living God, and to recognize one another. Verse 3 makes it inescapably clear that one’s attitude to Jesus is the acid test of true spirituality. No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit [3]. The Spirit will always bear witness to the true nature of the true Son of God, and never anathematize Him. Therefore, real Christians will have this common foundation, which is strong enough and deep enough to bridge all their divisions and heal all their differences. It is not just our confession in words, important though that is, but the devotion of our lives to Christ’s lordship in practical, everyday obedience that is the proof of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives.

Functional Differences [4-6].  Throughout the chapter we find the twin themes of unity and diversity being explored, but the appropriate diversity is always within the framework of fundamental unity. Thus, there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit [4]. So as to underline the unity theme Paul takes us to God Himself, from whom all the gifts of grace spring, and focuses on the unity of the Holy Trinity. He speaks of the same Spirit [4], the same Lord [5], and the same God [6]. Clearly, these are not three different deities working in three different ways, but the Persons of the Godhead in perfect unity, providing for us a perfect model of unity in functional diversity. The inescapable implication is that if we are members of His body, we must reflect the unity of God in the way we relate to one another in our different functions, gifts and ministries. Another way of understanding the same point is to ask, ‘What is God doing through the church in the world?’ The most fundamental answer must be that He is bringing men and women to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord. Such is the Father’s gracious purpose and the Spirit’s constant work [Phil. 2:9-11]. Yet an infinite variety of ways and means are employed by the Spirit to bring people under Christ’s rule, and verses 4 to 6 categorize three distinctive groups. The varieties of gifts are, literally, charismata – gifts of grace. These are freely and generously given by God with different provisions for different individuals. In verses 8-10, we shall discover some of these abilities, and others are added later in verse 28. Other places where gifts are listed in the New Testament include Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-12 and 1 Peter 4:10-11. The varieties of service, of diakonia, refer to the way in which God-given abilities are to be used. The emphasis is on serving others, whatever demands that may make on the servant. Verse 6 speaks of varieties of activities, or energies, stressing that it is God’s energy or power working through them all. We must, therefore, accept our differences as God-given and thank Him that in His mercy we are not all clones of one another. It will prevent us from expecting other Christians to be just like us, or expecting them to jump through our hoops. Our common confession of the lordship of Christ will be expressed through a wonderful variety of channels and ministries.

Practical Outworkings [7-11].  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good [7]. This classic statement of verse 7 encapsulates the theme tune of the whole chapter. It instructs us that every believer has a manifestation, or unveiling, or appearing, of the Spirit. And that is a very significant statement. Just as the Holy Spirit indwells every believer [John 7:39; Acts 2:38-39; Rom. 8:9] so He will reveal Himself to be present; He will appear in a variety of ways. Wherever God’s people are serving out of love for God and for their neighbors, with the intention of expressing their conviction that Jesus is Lord, there is to be found a manifestation of the Holy Spirit, whatever the form of that service might be. But if each Christian has something to contribute, each Christian is also a beneficiary, since these gifts are given for the common good. If this is the reason God has given them it must also be the criterion for their exercise. But so often the fulfilment of the person using the gift is given priority over the benefit of the body as a whole. In a culture obsessed with self-fulfillment, the church is easily conditioned to express her ‘spirituality’ in a culturally acceptable currency. We so easily translate secular priorities into a church context. Gifts and energies are then diverted into the seeking of our own spiritual satisfaction, the acceptability and ‘success’ of our church, the meeting of our own inward needs of significance, value and happiness. Subtly, we become introverted, whereas the Spirit’s work is always for the good of others. We are back to the error of mainstream Corinthian thinking and Paul’s insistence that true spirituality is measured, not by the yardstick of the world, but by the selfless sacrifice of the Lord Jesus. Verses 8-10 contain nine gifts, or manifestation of the Spirit, for the good of all. Every gift, except the last two (tongues and their interpretation) was exercised by the Lord Jesus during His earthly ministry, and if the body of Christ is to continue His work on earth, one might expect these manifestations to be present as evidence of His active lordship in His church. But what we must remember is that this is a Corinthian list, not an exhaustive catalogue. The utterance of wisdom and the utterance of knowledge characteristically head the list [8] because word ministry is always the apostle’s primary concern. The same point is evidenced in the later summary of verse 28. We know that the word of wisdom is the preaching of the cross [1:23-25] and that the knowledge of Christ and His example [10:32-11:1] is at the heart of the apostle’s concerns for them. Whilst all believers have been granted the gift of faith in order to become Christians [Eph. 2:8-9], verse 9 indicates that there is a special gift given to some, to those, perhaps, who are called to serve God in unusually demanding circumstances. Gifts of healing is literally ‘cures’, and the plural is very important. It helps us to understand that there is not a gift of healing that is exercised indiscriminately by an individual. Rather, there are actual cases of healings, or cures, carried out by God through His chosen human agents, perhaps, as in James 5:14 through prayer and anointing with oil. The word miracles [10] has the same root as the word translated empowers in verse 6 and linked with the familiar New Testament term dunamis, with its basic meaning of ‘ability’, the successful completion of a task. The last four gifts all relate more specifically to the congregational meetings at Corinth and are dealt with in greater detail in chapter 14. Perhaps the ability to distinguish between spirits [10] was a particularly contentious issue in Corinth. The emphasis Paul has laid on it in verse 3 of this chapter would indicate that some ecstatic utterances were not glorifying Christ as Lord, and so spiritual wisdom was needed in order to distinguish the false from the true. In a congregation inclined to value highly any ecstatic speech, this would be a much-needed gift from God. The same misuse can occur in the context of tongues, of course, a phenomenon often evidenced in non-Christian contexts – hence the need of the gift of interpretation. Paul’s dominant concern throughout this section is the unity of God’s people, which he secures by his constant emphasis on the one Spirit, working for the good of the whole body. Verse 11 closes the paragraph by reiterating with even greater clarity the principles emphasized in verse 7. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. So there should be no cause for complaint. If we are unhappy about the gifts we have, or do not have, or that others have, or do not have, Paul wants us to know that our argument is with God. He chooses the gifts He will give and those to whom He will give them. If such matters generate rivalry and division, this is a mark of childish immaturity. Their true purpose is to unite, build up, and promote harmony and acceptance amongst Christians gathering together for the common good under the lordship of Jesus Christ. To splinter and fragment over the gifts of God’s grace is a tragedy and a scandal. It indicates that the life-style of the world, with its concerns for status and prominence, prestige and fulfilment, has won out over the life-style of the cross. A church where such divisions are prominent might well be in terminal decline.”  [Jackman, pp. 199-205].

 Questions for Discussion:

  1. What does it meant to confess Jesus is Lord? How do you make this confession the measuring rod for both your beliefs and the way you live your daily life? How should this confession impact your witness to non-believers?
  2. 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?
  3. List and explain the nine gifts Paul describes in 12:8-10. What is the purpose of these spiritual gifts? 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?
  4. Jackman writes: “The measure of greatness of any spiritual gift is not its degree of impressiveness, or its apparent miraculous nature, but its usefulness in building up the body of Christ, in love and in truth.” As you seek to understand your particular spiritual gift and how to use that gift, pray that your focus will be on using your gift to build up the body of Christ in love and in truth.


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.

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