Alan G. Nute

Reading: 1 Corinthians 12

THIS is an important subject which is very meaningful to us all. In our considerations we must be careful to take the Scriptures as our sole guide. Fortunately they are explicit on the matter, and extensive teaching is supplied by the Spirit of God through the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12.

The Nature of Spiritual Gifts

First of all we find that in this chapter the nature of spiritual gifts is defined. This is done by means of two words, the first of which is ‘gift’ (vv.4, 9, 30, 31). This is a precise translation of the Greek word here used. A gift is not something purchased or otherwise acquired; it is not something achieved or obtained as of right. It is bestowed quite gratuitously, a fact which we can plainly recognise when we notice its use in connection with the subject of eternal life. Death is a wage paid by sin, whereas eternal life is the free gift of God (Romans 6:23). The actual text says “the gift of God”, but people often insert the word ‘free’, and this is a legitimate amplification and rightly stresses the point. It would apply equally to the subject we are now considering and may help us to realise from the first that spiritual gifts are a free gift of God.

The second word gives further definition, for it is the word ‘spiritual’. The actual phrase in verse 1 is “spiritual gifts” but in certain versions the word ‘gifts’ is in italics. This denotes that it is absent in the original text and has only been inserted to complete the sense to English readers. For us the word is an adjective, but here it is allowed to stand on its own and thus to do service as a noun. By this means emphasis is laid on the fact that such gifts are essentially spiritual. And no wonder; for they originate with the Spirit, are operated in the power of the Spirit, and have as their object the spiritual benefit of the Church. That their essential nature is spiritual is further indicated by the fact that their exercise is described as ‘the manifestation of the Spirit’ (v.7). It may be concluded therefore that gifts are divinely and gratuitously bestowed and are essentially spiritual in character.

The question is frequently raised as to the relation of a spiritual gift to a natural ability. The two may not be equated; frequently, however, they are closely related. In bestowing His gifts God does not do despite to the individuality of the recipient, imposing on His children that which will rob them of that which is vital to their character. In any case, it needs to be borne in mind that all our natural endowments are divinely bestowed and to a Christian they are all gifts of God’s grace. For as long as natural ability is used in the power of the flesh and for personal ends it remains just that; but when it is surrendered to God, set apart for His purpose and used truly in the power of the Spirit, it may well be constituted a spiritual gift. Both Jeremiah and Paul speak of having been under the eye and hand of God from their very birth, and Ephesians 2:10 possibly gives us a hint that this is how God deals with us all. But of course there will always be certain spiritual gifts which are additional to and independent of any natural talents or qualifications which might be possessed.

Not only are spiritual gifts defined in this chapter, they are listed . Several such lists are to be found in the New Testament (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4). It is doubtful whether these were ever intended as formal lists and they are certainly not exhaustive ones. The differences in the catalogues found in the passages referred to would indicate that it is a mistake to regard them as an inventory of gifts always to be found in each local assembly of Christians. Perhaps it would be better to take them as samples of the gifts which were in evidence at that time, having been given by God to meet needs then current. We may well believe that certain gifts will be given to answer situations which may arise in different places and at different times.

Honesty demands that we should also acknowledge our inability to provide an accurate description of the precise nature of some of the gifts listed. Considerable divergence of opinion exists on this question and humility should keep us from dogmatism. One of the two catalogues in 1 Corinthians 12 (vv.8-10) describes ‘abilities’, [66/67] whereas the other (v.28) describes ‘persons’. This suggests that God by His Spirit may either grant to a member of the church a special endowment or may give to the church a person already so gifted. It also conveys the important truth that God works through people, and that it is wrong to think of gifts and persons separately.

The nature of spiritual gifts is illustrated as well as being defined and listed. A gift is to the church what a member is to the body. This analogy is used to pin-point two facts, unity and diversity. Unity, since four times we are informed that there is one body, and also that we are incorporated into this body by the ‘one Spirit’. But unity is not to be confused with uniformity. That is no part of the Spirit’s work. Instead there is diversity. Just as a body is composed of a variety of members, so the Church is blessed with a variety of gifts. These, as the members of the body, are interrelated and interdependent. Each is different from every other, representing distinct abilities, having separate contributions to make, and yet all operating together so that the whole body functions fully and properly.

The Bestowal of Spiritual Gifts

The chapter under consideration plainly teaches that gifts are bestowed according to the sovereign action of God. They originate with Him. The emphasis in this action of Scripture is on the role of the Holy Spirit in the granting of those gifts, but Paul is at pains to stress that their source is the triune God (vv.4-6). This is further developed by the fact that in verses 18, 24 and 28, God, that is God the Father, is said to take the initiative and to exercise control in this matter, whereas in Ephesians 4 the gifts are seen as the largesse of that ascended Christ who distributes them as the fruit of His great victory. The leaders of this same church at Ephesus are described in Acts 20:28 as having been bestowed upon that church by the Holy Spirit. So there is a beautiful harmony of the Godhead dispensing all these spiritual gifts; Father, Son and Spirit unitedly operating to further the divine will through anointed servants here on earth. The sovereignty of the divine action is affirmed in verses 11 and 18 where the gifts are seen to be the implementation of God’s will and the expression of His pleasure.

Why then, we might ask, do local churches so often appear to lack an adequate supply of spiritual gifts? The answer is surely this, that the truth of divine sovereignty must never be played off against that of human responsibility. This may be the reason why the apostle indicates that gifts are given in response to the fulfilling of certain conditions. There are two main areas where there should be exercise, the first being desire on the part of the individual (12:31; 14:1, 39). We have no right to remain passive in this matter. It is our responsibility to cultivate an earnest desire to serve God and His people in the way He appoints. Clearly this ambition must be purged of all self-interest and born of a pure longing and zeal to make a worthwhile contribution to the work of God. But we must know that it is not really spiritual to be passive and withdrawing. The servant in the parable who was ‘slothful’ was condemned by the Lord as being ‘wicked’ and ‘worthless’ and found that in the end his talent was taken from him because he was too timid to make use of it. If God tells us “earnestly desire … spiritual gifts” then He means what He says and can be trusted to respond to genuine desires which have His glory at heart. Such desires will not only find expression in prayer but in humble consultation with others as well as in observing needs and opportunities which are to hand.

There must also be a concern on the part of the church. The gift of Barnabas and Saul as missionaries arose from a deep spiritual concern on the part of the church at Antioch (Acts 13:1-3). They must have been aware of the Saviour’s commission to His disciples to take the gospel into all the world, and perhaps they were concerned with some sense of failure to discharge this commission. Certainly they had sufficient soul-exercise to set aside time for concerted prayer and fasting. It was then that the Holy Spirit spoke. He had been waiting to do so. He had already gifted men and called them to this task. So as they listened to His voice He indicated to the leaders who these two men were. Without hesitation the church identified itself with them by the laying on of hands and ‘sent them off’.

There was a somewhat similar position in the case of Timothy. His ministry did not arise from his own initiative. Prophecies led the way, as God made known His will to and through others. It seems that this young man’s call to service was disclosed to Paul and his company as well as to the brethren at Lystra and Iconium (Acts 16:2). So it was that Timothy was separated to the ministry to which God had called him, and at [67/68] that very time God imparted to him the spiritual gift requisite for the work.

In this way see the harmony between God’s sovereign work by His Spirit and the spiritual exercise both of the individual and of the church.

The Exercise of Spiritual Gifts

In 2 Timothy 1:7 Paul enunciates three great principles which should govern the exercise of spiritual gifts:

(1) Spirit of Power

Timothy was plagued by timidity. Such a spirit of fear will always prevent the proper discharge of responsibility in connection with the exercise of a spiritual gift. It does not come from God. There is a world of difference between a proper modesty and a crippling timidity. So Timothy was urged to respect, to develop and to use the gift which he possessed. Its flame must not be allowed to die down. “Neglect not the gift that is in thee” (1 Timothy 4:14). In a similar way God had sent a special message to Archippus, saying: “Take heed to the ministry which thou hast received in the Lord, that thou fulfil it” (Colossians 4:17). A spiritual gift cannot be cultivated and employed apart from the Holy Spirit: it is designed to operate on spiritual power and on none other. If such a gift is used on the basis of a man’s natural strength it becomes not only worthless but positively dangerous. Thank God that an adequate supply of the power essential for true functioning in Christ is freely available in the Holy Spirit. But we must be ready as well as careful always to obey Him.

(2) Spirit of Love

In this chapter the apostle writes of the danger that exists of exercising one’s gift in a spirit which is other than the spirit of love. He warns of jealousy, and does so by means of an imaginary conversation between the foot and the hand, and the ear and the eye. Peevishly, with a blend of self-pity and mock-modesty, both foot and ear wish to opt out of the body! They represent that churlish attitude which exclaims: ‘If I can’t be what I want to be, I won’t be anything at all’. Paul replies that this is both illogical and irreverent. It is illogical in that someone has to supply the hearing — we cannot all be ‘eyes’. And if all were hearing, he asks, what would happen to the faculty of smell? Jealousy is stupid. It is also irreverent, for it is virtually a censure on the Creator who arranged the organs in the body. Why be resentful against God? What a tragedy it is when God’s people give way to this kind of jealousy which shows itself in fleshly ambition and worldly rivalry. The spirit of love is quenched, and the exercise of true spiritual gift is prevented.

Paul also warns of pride. The imaginary conversation this time reflects a spirit of arrogance. The eye conceitedly disparages the hand, and the head adopts a similar attitude to the foot. But what ground is there for such pride? None! There never is. The very word ‘gift’ underlines how wholly unjustified it is. If each, however seemingly insignificant, is indispensable, how can one elevate itself against another?

All this is negative. Positively, the spirit of love will manifest itself in a ‘care for one another’ (v.25). It will foster that mutuality, that interdependence, which is the hall-mark of the body of Christ. Love is never selfish. It is outgoing. It is characterised by a solicitude and a concern which promotes the well-being of the whole. Spiritual gifts are not to be exercised for private enjoyment, but for the common good.

(3) Spirit of self-control

Holy Spirit control and self-control may appear at first sight to be mutually exclusive. This, of course, is not the case. It may well be that the Corinthians imagined that being under the control of the Holy Spirit would mean an abdication of self-control. Paul reminds them that prior to their becoming Christians, as idolators, they were often swept away, however they happened to be moved (v.2). They had submitted to the powers of darkness and these had ‘taken over’ in such a way that they were borne unresistingly along. It seems likely that they had carried the same notion over into their Christian life, wrongly supposing that what was required of them was an attitude of passivity to the controlling Holy Spirit. It was needful, therefore, that they should be informed that the Holy Spirit operates in conjunction with a spirit of self-control. The presence of the Holy Spirit in the life does not make a man an automaton: it demands the human contribution of personal discipline.

In this matter of self-control four criteria are applied:

(a) The intelligence. ‘In thinking be mature.’ Paul has just expressed his intention to pray and to sing not alone with the spirit but with the mind (14:15). As John Stott wisely says: ‘in all true [68/69] worship the mind must be fully and fruitfully engaged’ (Your Mind Matters , p.27).

(b) The effect. This must be profitable. The stress throughout the chapter is conveyed by the repetition of such words as edification, up-building, etc. Does the gift exercised promote the spiritual well-being of God’s people? This is the crucial question.

(c) The judgment of others. ‘Let the others weigh what is said’ (14:29). Self-control will always be manifest by a willingness to submit to the spiritual judgment of other brethren, and in particular to those who are leaders in the church. It is their responsibility to assess the profitability or otherwise of the contribution made, and it is a mark of maturity where members defer with grace to such an assessment.

(d) The Word of God. This is our sole and final authority, and must judge and determine all things (14:37). Only so can we be a living proof of the fact that our God is not a God of confusion but of peace.

We close these considerations with a reminder that the exercise of gifts in the church is described as “a manifestation of the Spirit” (12:7 and 14:12). This is a challenging thought. We may well ask ourselves whether this is true in our case. What Spirit is manifest? If it is a spirit of timidity, self, jealousy, pride or indiscipline, then it cannot be the Holy Spirit. A true “manifestation of the Spirit” can only be seen where there is a spirit of power, of love and of self-control. This is the divinely appointed means of achieving ‘the common good’.


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