What Can We Learn From The Spiritual Gift Passage?
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
This is not a passage where everything has direct application today, and it might be good to explore or review that.
In the sense and context of this chapter, we do not have spiritual gifts today. Certainly, there are tasks we can do; opportunities we can seize; talents we can develop and good methods we can use in teaching and preaching.
But I cannot perform a miracle, can you? And I cannot write or preach with the direct guidance Paul and the other apostles had. I am not an apostle. I am an evangelist charged to deliver what the apostles delivered, written in the New Testament. We have no prophets where I preach. We do not have people who can, by miraculous empowerment, speak a language they have not studied and learned.
Let me explain further. The New Testament teaches: The apostles were baptized in the Holy Spirit (Acts 1 and 2). With this unique empowerment, they spoke and wrote the truth from God (John 13-16; 1 Cor. 2; Eph. 3). The apostles had the power from God, to impart special abilities to certain Christians, necessary during the time while the New Testament was being written. You can read about this in Acts 8:14-19; Acts 19:6, and here in these three chapters in First Corinthians.
I believe it is implied in all these passages that when those people who received these gifts passed from the scene – at about the same time when the NT writings were circulating and being copied – no Christian in subsequent generations had such powers. In addition to what is implied in Scripture, I am aware of nobody who lived after the apostle Paul and his companions, who had the apostolic powers he had, or the ability to impart them.
So regarding the above text – some of this has no direct personal application for me or you today. But, there are clear, guiding principles here which transcend any generational or dispensational boundaries. We are obligated to do the work to get our hands on those principles useful for us in our time.
“Led astray to mute idols?”
In pagan religious rituals and activities (parties!) it was claimed that a god would get hold of someone and cause erratic and bizarre behavior. There were written accounts from ancient Greece of people who claimed they were seized and the spirit of some god would come into them, and take hold of them and lead them to do extraordinary things against their will. (Very much like demon possession).
In some cases it became like an entertainment event. People would gather and watch, while some individual would jump or fall down or yell strange things. Pagans were well acquainted with those kinds of behaviors.
Paul is simply saying to the Corinthians, the Holy Spirit doesn’t do that. The Holy Spirit’s work is not to cause people to put on a sideshow.
Then and today - the Holy Spirit doesn’t cause people to say strange things, or act in some way that amounts to nothing but entertainment. The pagan model cannot be imposed on the activity of the Holy Spirit.
Paul gives an example. No one speaking in (or by) the Spirit of God ever says, “Jesus is accursed.” The Spirit acts in such a way (then and today through the Word) to cause people (who are willing) to confess that Jesus is the Lord and then live under His Lordship. The Spirit doesn’t cause people to contradict the truth.
So, the first idea in this section is: You cannot impose the pagan model of being seized on the work of the Holy Spirit. One commentator has observed, “…Paul makes it clear that the origin of the problem that the Corinthians have is their pre-Christian spiritual experiences in pagan idolatry,” (p.#278, COLLEGE PRESS NIV COMMENTARY, FIRST CORINTHIANS, Richard E. Oster, Jr.).
Application: if you see on religious TV or in person, people jumping, dancing and yelling – no teaching of the Bible, just physical and vocal bizarre behavior, don’t let anyone tell you the Holy Spirit caused that. The Holy Spirit doesn’t imitate the pagans.
Beginning with verse 4, Paul is saying one primary thing: In the initial stages of the spread of the gospel, a variety of gifts were imparted, but each one came from the same source, and there was continuity of purpose. Variety in gifts, but all from the same source and for the common spiritual good.
“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit.” “There are varieties of service, but the same Lord.” “…there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.”
Notice carefully and simply – the Holy Spirit, the Lord Jesus Christ and God were all on the same page, working the same plan, in perfect unity – though the expression of that power was varied through the human agents!
Not everybody empowered by the Holy Spirit did the same thing. But in that variety there was no conflict or intended division. Verse 7 says: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit, for the common good.”
I would mark that last phrase in verse 7, and remember it. It will be predominant in this section of First Corinthians. The Holy Spirit – in that age of the supernatural launching of the gospel - acted and caused that which was for the common spiritual good.
TO ONE … AND TO ANOTHER (vss. 8-11)
To one – a certain gift was imparted to further the gospel and edify Christians. To another – a different function was enabled, for the common good, but all these came from the same Spirit.
The theme here is a variety of gifts, but from one divine source and for the common spiritual good, not entertainment, or attraction to a person!
While there may be some value in attempting to define each of the spiritual gifts listed here (nine), setting forth objective and definitive explanations for each one may be troublesome for us today, since we have no direct experience with these. The primary point of this is not for us to understand exactly what each gift was. The key here is - each one came from the same source and was for the common spiritual good.
In the end of my study of these, I must admit: I have no direct personal experience with any of these gifts, nor do I have sufficient information to provide an exact definition that is undisputable. What I know is, God imparted these to various Christians through the hands of the apostles. And some in Corinth didn’t understand the right way to use these, perhaps because of pre-conceived notions from the pagan backdrop.
Verse 11 is another key that helps us understand the main idea – “All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.”
In the pagan religious experience there were many gods doing many things through many people which had no spiritual value, no character development or eternal salvation. Many of the Corinthians were familiar with the pagan rituals and parties – and many of them had just come out of that.
But in the work of the Holy Spirit through the apostles there was no similarity with the pagan religion at all. One Spirit – sending different people a variety of functional, practical gifts for the spread of the gospel. NOT FOR THE RECIPIENTS TO PERFORM BIZARRE ACTS TO AN AUDIENCE … But – remember verse 7 – For The Common Good.
What Can We Learn From All This Today?
You cannot boast or take credit for a gift. One of the problems with spiritual gifts in the church at Corinth was – boasting, or, the receiver of the gift boasting about what he or she had. But really, nobody earned the right to receive a gift; nobody could claim any merit or that they originated the gift. So what emerges is – You cannot boast or take credit for a gift.
There is an immediate application for us today, who are Christians – saved by the grace of God and the death of Christ!
We didn’t save ourselves; we received a gift, so boasting is at once excluded. Earlier in this letter Paul wrote, “So, let no one boast in men,” (3:21) and 1 Cor. 4:7 – “What do you have that you did not receive?” Whatever we have that is spiritually valuable, we received it by the activity of faith. We didn’t originate it or make it or earn it. We are recipients of what God’s grace allows us to have by faith.
Let’s learn from this chapter – the purpose of a worship assembly of God’s people is never to make a spectacle of yourself; boast about what you have, or entertain people. There is something like this back in chapter eleven. In our assemblies – we are not here to make a personal statement; eat a bunch of food . . . divide up in rival groups . . . or perform. We are here to worship God, and in such a reverent and orderly manner, the common spiritual good is served. Anything that disrupts, denies or dismisses that purpose, we should remove from our practice (see also 1 Cor. 14:12).
This passage teaches something we learn from other passages as well, that might be called A Foundational Test of a religious teacher who asks for our attention. Look at verse 3 – “…no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed’!”
While we do not work miracles today, we must use the Word of God to apply discernment and there is this simple foundational test. If someone wants to teach you about God or religion and they are wrong about who Jesus Christ is, do not accept them as your teacher!! This is very much like what Jesus said in Matthew 7,
that by their fruits we shall know them. If a given teacher or teaching is contradictory to what the New Testament says about Jesus Christ – they do not deserve our confidence. (See 1 Jno. 4:1-3).
Read over again the 12th chapter of First Corinthians. Do not dismiss it based on the absence of apostolic gifts today. Learn the lessons that undergird Paul’s teaching. It was written to them in their situation, but for us in principle.
By Warren E. Berkley
From Expository Files 20.7; July 2013