Spiritual Gifts 

Spiritual Gifts 

Calvin Lashway
May 2012

The first manifestation of a spiritual gift occurred on the Day Pentecost following Jesus’ death and resurrection. When the disciples who  “were all together in one place,” began to speak in a multitude of languages (Acts 2:1-13 All scriptures quoted are from the English Standard Version).  A spiritual gift is a special ability, or talent we do not naturally have, that God gives us through the Holy Spirit to serve the Church. In this article we will examine what spiritual gifts are, and how we should use them. Focusing on the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapters 12 through 14. Other scriptures dealing with spiritual gifts are found in Romans 12:3-8; Ephesians 4:7-16 and 1 Peter 4:7-11.

Spiritual Gifts - 1 Corinthians 12 

In the initial six chapters of First Corinthians, Paul writes about the serious problems confronting the Corinthian church. Starting in chapter seven he begins answering several questions put to him by the congregation in an earlier letter they sent him. We see this shift in the letter when Paul says, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote . . .” This phrase “now concerning” introduces a series of questions Paul address throughout the remainder of his letter (1 Corinthians 7:1; 7:25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1; 16:12).

Paul begins in chapter 12 with, “Now concerning spiritual gifts,  brothers,  I do not want you to be uninformed” (verse 1). The Corinthians appear to have questions about the spiritual gifts of speaking in tongues and prophesying. In referring to the pagan background of the non-Jewish Greek members of the congregation, Paul states, “You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led. 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” (verses 2-3). The Greeks were familiar with the concept of individuals speaking on behalf of the “mute idols” in ecstatic and prophetic speech. It appears some of the Corinthians were wondering if what they were saying was coming from the true God or some pagan deity; i.e., a demon. Paul reassures them that if what a speaker is saying is coming from God, they will not be able to curse Jesus, even if they cannot understand the words they are speaking. Also, only a truly converted person can really proclaim Jesus is Lord, and mean it.1

Purpose of Gifts - In writing about spiritual gifts, Paul explains there are a “varieties of gifts,” but the  “same Spirit” of God is the source of these gifts (verse 4). Spiritual gifts provide us with “varieties of service,” but the one Lord Jesus is in charge of these ministries (verse 5). Lastly, spiritual gifts produce a “varieties of activities” or works, but there is only one God empowering or working to produce these activities (verse 6). Spiritual gifts are “the manifestation of the Spirit” in the physical world. God gives them to us “for the common good” of the church (verse 7). We use are spiritual gifts in service to our brethren. To accomplish this we must be associated with an assembly of believers. 

In verses 8-10, Paul gives us the first of three lists of spiritual gifts he writes about in this letter, “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” (verses 8-10).  The other two lists are found at the end of chapter 12 verses 27-28, and the beginning of chapter 13 verses 1-3.2 

According to Paul these gifts “are empowered by one and the same Spirit,  who apportions to each one individually  as he wills” (verse 11). The Spirit of God  produces and distributes these gifts to individual Christians as God wills.  The implication is every believer is given some sort of gift.

Not Everyone Has The Same Gifts - In verse 12-30 Paul points out that the Church (the body of Christ) is like a human body,  made up of various parts. All these parts are crucial to have a functioning body.  Paul is writing about this in the context of spiritual gifts. Not everyone will have the same spiritual gifts. One gift does not make a person more righteous or spiritual then someone with another gift. In the middle of this discussion, Paul adds, “But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose” (verse 18).  When it comes to spiritual gifts, God decides who gets what gifts, not us. 

Paul completes his discussion of the church being the body of Christ with his second list of spiritual gifts: “Now  you are the body of Christ and individually  members of it. And  God has appointed in the church first  apostles, second  prophets, third teachers, then  miracles, then  gifts of healing,  helping,  administrating, and  various kinds of tongues.” He then asks a series of rhetorical questions, driving home the point that not everyone has the same divinely given gifts:   “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?  Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?”  (verses 27-30). 

Paul finishes this chapter by saying, “earnestly desire the higher gifts.” It is not wrong to desire spiritual gifts, and some gifts are  “higher” or “greater” than others. As we will see in chapter 14, these greater gifts are concerned with spiritually building up, encouraging and comforting the brethren. Yet, Paul declares there is something superior to spiritual gifts; he calls it the “more excellent way” (verse 31). Throughout Chapter 13 Paul shows that the “excellent way” is more important then spiritual gifts, because it is the way of love.

 The More Excellent Way - 1 Corinthians 13 

This chapter begins with Paul’s third list of spiritual gifts. Most of these gifts Paul has already mentioned. The important point Paul brings out is spiritual gifts are useless if they are not used with love. Love of others must be the motivating force behind our use of spiritual gifts.  We may have the gift of speaking in an unknown language, but if we do it without love we are nothing more then “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” We may have the gift of prophetic speaking or blessed with having a deeper understanding of biblical mysteries and knowledge, and a faith that can move mountains. But, if we fail to use these gifts with love, we are “nothing.” Finally, we may have the gift of generosity, giving away all we have; or the gift of martyrdom, delivering our body to be burned. But, if love is not the motivation for these actions, we “gain nothing” (verses 1-3).

According to Paul the gifts of God can be misused. It is sobering to think that we can use spiritual gifts for selfish reasons. That is one of the issues Paul addresses in his letter. The Corinthian church appears to have had a large number of people with an assortment of spiritual gifts, but they had become proud. They thought you could judge someone’s spirituality based upon the gifts they possessed. Having more dramatic gifts like speaking in tongues, as compared to a modest gift like “helping” showed ones spiritual superiority.

In the long run what matters is love for others. Love will never end; there will always be a need for it. But, as Paul brings out the there will come a time when the need for the gifts of prophecy, speaking in tongues, and knowledge will cease and pass away. There will come a time when these and all other spiritual gifts are no longer needed.  But what remains, what will always be  needed “faith, hope, and love . . . but the greatest of these is love” (verses 8-13), the “more excellent way.” 

Proper Use of Spiritual Gifts - 1 Corinthians 14 

In chapter 14 Paul discusses the proper application of spiritual gifts, using speaking in tongues, and prophesying as examples of the right and wrong ways to exercise spiritual gifts. He begins by repeating the importance love plays in the use of gifts by telling them to “pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (verse 1). The reason Paul wants them to especially desire the gift of prophecy is that “the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church” (verses 3-4). Paul is not discounting the value of speaking in tongues. He writes, “I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up” (verse 5). Prophecy (inspired speaking) is a “greater” gift then speaking in tongues (an unknown human language to the speaker) because the message of a prophet edifies and helps others. The speaker of an unknown tongue will personally benefit from this gift, but unless there is someone who can interpret what is said, no one else will “be built up.” One gift being greater than another gift has to do with how helpful a gift is in a given situation. It has nothing to do with the spiritual greatness of the person using the gift.

Paul then shows in detail why the ability to speak in another language is useless, unless the people hearing can understand what is said (verses 6-19). What is crucial to Paul in the use of a gift is its service and benefit to others, “There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church” (verses 10-12). Our motivation for wanting and using gifts must be the spiritually well-being of our brethren. This is an expression of the godly love Paul mentioned in chapter 13.

Paul goes on to explains how the misuse of a spiritual gift, for example speaking in an unknown tongue can cause more harm than good.  He states, “Tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers” (verses 23). An example is the gifts of tongues given to the disciples on the Day of Pentecost in Acts. Speaking in another language was a way to help unbelievers see the power of God. Paul writes,  “prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers” (verse 22).  We also see an example of this in Acts 15, when  "Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers [of Antioch] with many words" (Acts 15:32). 

Paul now instructs the Corinthians on the proper use of spiritual gifts during their congregational meetings, “What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson,  a revelation,  a tongue, or  an interpretation.  Let all things be done for building up” (verse 26). All that takes place during a congregational meeting must be for the edification of everyone present. Their assemblies should be orderly and not chaotic, he adds, “If any speak in  a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged” (verses 27-31). Paul is also telling them they need to put a limit on the number of people using their gifts during an assembly.  If everyone tried to use their gifts at one time there would be chaos. Or even if they took turns, the service could be excessively lengthy. To the apostle Paul the use of gifts, especial during an assembly is so “all may learn and be encouraged.” The use of any spiritual gift must be guided by love as we saw in chapter 13. 

Paul is also telling them something very important about the use of spiritual gifts. All spiritual gifts are under the control and direction of the person using the gift.  Paul writes, “For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged” (verse 31). Then, he follows with the statement, “the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (verse 32-33). All spiritual gifts are under the control of the individual using them. If someone is taken over by a “spiritual gift,” then this is not a spirit that comes from God.

At the end of chapter 14, Paul concludes his discussion of spiritual gifts with, “So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But all things should be done decently and in order” (verses 39-40). Paul does not want to limit the use of spiritual gifts, he just wants to make sure we use them in a loving way.

We have seen that spiritual gifts come from God. There is a diversity of gifts, which we have to use in service to others. Spiritual gifts are under our control, but they can be misused. To avoid this, godly love must be the motivating ingredient behind the use these gifts.

1 See Introduction to The First Letter of Paul to Corinthians and notes on 1 Corinthians 12:1-3, The ESV Study Bible. Accordance electronic ed. Wheaton: Crossway Bibles, 2008

2 It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the above mentioned gifts in any detail. Separate articles could be writing on each one. I do want to briefly mention two gifts that have been misunderstood over the years. The first is prophecy. Most of the time this gift is mentioned in the New Testament it is referring to inspired speaking that builds up, encourages and comforts the hearer, not predicting the future.  First Corinthians 14, discuses this inspired speaking in detail. The other misunderstood gift is speaking in unknown tongues. Which is the ability someone is given to speak in a human language they do not know how to speak. We find an example of this Acts. This is a normal human language, not some ecstatic jumble of words.

© Calvin Lashway 2018  -  Contact: cinfowritings@gmail.com