Salvation brings priceless blessings to each individual Christian believer. These include justification, peace with God, union with Christ, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. When we consider union with Christ, and new birth into the family of God, it becomes apparent that our blessings are not simply individual, but corporate; God’s grace has made us members of the church, the body of Christ. The Holy Spirit is Himself a surpassing gift both to the church and to each individual believer, God indwelling His people in all His plenitude, power, and grace. Just as a human body has a spirit to animate it, so the body of Christ is unified, animated, sanctified, and energized by the Spirit.
The Spirit Himself has several important functions in relation to the church: (1) inspired the New Testament: John 14. 25, 26; 16. 13; (2) pours out God’s love in our hearts, Rom. 5. 5; (3) enables worship of God in the Spirit, Phil. 3. 3; (4) reveals deep things of God, inaccessible to human reason, 1 Cor. 2. 10; (5) strives within us for sanctification, Gal 5. 16, 17; (6) empowers God’s people for service through the sovereign allocation of spiritual gifts; (7) glorifies Christ, John 16. 14.
In relation to (7) J. I. Packer describes the Spirit’s floodlight ministry in respect of the Lord Jesus?1 ‘It is as if the Spirit stands behind us throwing light over our shoulder, on Jesus, who stands facing us. The Spirit’s message to us is never, “Look at me, listen to me, come to me, get to know me," but always, “Look at him, and see his glory; listen to him and hear his word; go to him and have life; get to know him and taste his gift of joy and peace”’.
Just as successful organizations seek the alignment of each individual’s objectives to their overall strategies, so our gifts will honour God and build up our fellow Christians, not when they draw attention to the users, but when they support the Holy Spirit’s declared priority to magnify the Lord Jesus. The emphasis of this paper is practical and pastoral, and will focus on 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14.2
The usual word denoting a spiritual gift is charisma, meaning a gift involving grace (charis) on the part of God its giver. Other words translated ‘spiritual gifts’ are literally ‘spiritualities’ 12. 1; 14.1, and ‘spirits’, 14. 12, pointing to various manifestations of the Spirit of God.
Since gifts are grace-gifts, they can never be a basis for pride or boasting, ‘What hast thou that thou didst not receive?’, 4. 7. Instead they should enable humble and loving service to others, ‘Freely ye have received, freely give’, Matt. 10. 8. Four main passages address the subject of spiritual gifts in the New Testament: Rom. 12. 4-8; 1 Cor. 12-14; Eph. 4. 7-16; 1 Pet. 4. 10-11. None of the lists of gifts is exhaustive, indicating the rich variety and diversity of the Holy Spirit’s resources and operations.
Chapters 12-14 of 1 Corinthians emphasize the Holy Spirit’s role in relation to spiritual gifts. We might summarize as follows: Endowment of gifts, ch. 12; Energy for their use, ch. 13; Exercise of gifts, ch. 14. Chapter 12 may be summarized as follows: Harmony, vv. 1-6; Variety, vv. 7-11; Necessity, vv. 12-26; Responsibility, vv. 27-31.
The opening verses introduce the topic of spiritual manifestations. Some are helpful, others definitely not so, vv. 1-3. The Corinthians were once at the mercy of the dark spiritual forces at work in idolatry, swept along like debris on a tide. How may a genuine spiritual utterance be assessed? As noted above, the Holy Spirit will always reflect the Lordship of Christ and magnify Him, v. 3; cp. John 14. 16.
Further, the harmonious operation of each member of the Trinity is set out, vv. 4-6; ‘administrations’ denote service and responsibility; ‘operations’ focus on powerful activity. Paul is here applying the doctrine of the Trinity. Just as there is absolute harmony in the activities of the Godhead, so also there will be in the local assembly under the influence and powerful ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Variety and diversity mark the Spirit’s endowments, vv. 7-11. Each believer is given a gift for the edification of the whole assembly, ‘to profit withal’ v. 7; 1 Pet. 4. 10. To be ‘in fellowship’ therefore not only provides opportunity but involves weighty responsibility.
Often people ask, ‘Will this church meet my needs?’; ‘Do I get anything from it?’; ‘Is there anything here for my wife and children?’ Whereas we should be asking, ‘Is there opportunity to serve the Lord and develop my gift?’; ‘What can I contribute to build up my fellow-Christians?’ In a New Testament assembly there is liberty for the proper development and functioning of every gift that God has given to its members. To settle for less is to stop short of God’s design.
The Corinthians’ abuse of the gift of tongues suggested a failure to value differing gifts, hence Paul gives teaching based on the analogy of the unity, diversity, and interdependence of the human body. ‘So also is the Christ’, v. 12 lit., relates to Christ and His body, the universal church - ‘Christ corporate’. The emphasis in relation to the body of Christ is on both unity and diversity. How did this profound spiritual oneness come about? Each believer has been baptized into the Holy Spirit, of whom he or she drinks. The Holy Spirit therefore constantly unites and ministers life and vigour to the body of Christ of which every believer is a member, vv. 12, 13. Following the analogy of the human body, Paul sets out the following directions:
(1) There should be no envy, and no opting out, vv. 15, 16. In comparison to the foot the hand is elevated and far more versatile. The foot could easily give up, feeling that it is insignificant. Similarly, the eye receives far more information than the ear; ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’.
John Chrysostom made the acute observation, ‘It’s the members that are most similar that are likely to be envious one of another, e.g., foot/hand, ear/eye’. Those of us with lesser gifts dare not opt out! Note that in the Parable of the Talents, Matt. 25. 14-30, it was not the five-talent or the two-talent servant, but the one-talent servant who slothfully hid his master’s talent in the ground, with severe consequences.
(2) No monopoly, vv. 17-20. If the body were full of eyes good sight would be assured, but what a disaster if there were no hearing or smelling! At Corinth many would speak in tongues, sometimes even simultaneously, 14. 23! Other more edifying gifts such as prophecy and teaching were, apparently, discounted.
(3) No independence, vv. 21, 22 The head looks down from on high at the foot. But could it really do without a foot? In verses 15 and 16 the issue was not valuing one’s own gift; here the fault is not valuing someone else’s differing gift. This can be a snare in assembly life: undervaluing other believers whose gifts are different, and who maybe also think differently from oneself.
(4) Godly harmony and sympathy. There are parts of the human body which seem to be feeble, v. 22. Internal unseen organs are not on display but are absolutely vital, vv. 23-26. There are those which are not attractive, i.e., not for public display: we compensate by clothing them carefully. Many vital assembly ministries are not in the public eye, but are most important nonetheless. God has ‘tempered the body together’ according to His own wonderful plan. This chapter teaches the sovereign design of the Spirit of God in relation to the distribution of His gifts, vv. 18, 24, 28. Let us therefore accept and celebrate His wise allocations.
Enriched by the diversity of the Spirit’s gifts the local assembly’s character is ‘body of Christ’, i.e., a local expression of the universal church, vv. 11-12. This realization should impart great dignity to all our activities.
Paul ranks certain gifts in order of importance. The ministry of apostles and prophets was fundamental and foundational to the church, Eph. 2. 20. Foundations are laid only once. Whilst these functions have passed away their ministry is permanently available in the scriptures of the New Testament. ‘Helps’ support the poor, weak, and needy, cp. Acts 20. 35 RV, ‘so labouring ye ought to help the weak’. This reminds us that many valuable spiritual gifts do not relate to ‘pulpit ministry’, and instead have a practical and personal focus, cp. Rom. 12. 8b. ‘Governments’, a nautical term, suggests spiritual wisdom for piloting believers through difficult situations and times.
Spiritual ambition is to be encouraged, provided one’s motive is wholesome; but, writes Paul, ‘Covet earnestly the best gifts’, v. 31. How may we assess the excellence of a gift? Some criteria may be suggested: (1) acknowledges the Lordship of Christ, v. 3; (2) builds up fellow Christians, 14. 4; enabling in turn their gifts to flourish, Eph. 4. 8 ESV; (3) glorifies God, not the recipient, in order ‘that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ’, 1 Pet. 4. 11.
An important distinction has to be made between spiritual gift on the one hand, and the spirituality for its profitable exercise on the other. The Corinthian assembly ‘came behind in no gift’, 1. 7, yet sadly the selfish behaviour of some members illustrates this distinction. Paul therefore devotes chapter 13 to stress that a loving desire to build up one’s fellow believers must be the controlling motive for all spiritually profitable use of gift. Spiritual gifts are a means to Christian growth in faith, hope, and love; these latter graces will persist, whereas one day the gifts will be no more, 13. 10-13.
Sometimes one hears downbeat assessments to the effect that an assembly is ‘devoid of gift’, but is that really so? On the contrary, Paul suggests that if the lack of particular gifts is felt, that should be a matter of prayerful exercise, 14. 13. How little attention seems to be given to this in prayer!
At the same time prayer and action belong together for, as with muscles in the human body, gifts are developed through use, cp. 2 Tim. 1. 6. Diligent elders will therefore be concerned to help Christians identify their latent gifts and potential contributions, as well as creating openings for their exercise and development, cp. Eph. 4. 15, 16.