In our last essay we studied 1 Cor. 12:4-11 in which Paul stressed the tremendous diversity of gifts of the Spirit found in the body of Christ. We noticed that there are nine gifts listed in verses 8-10. Since we are continuing that study in this essay, I will give a quick review of the five gifts that we studied last time.
The first gift on this list is a word (or utterance) of wisdom, which I defined as a perceptive insight into an immediate situation. In other words, God reveals to a believer “wisdom” in that situation that the believer would not otherwise have.
The second gift listed is a word (or utterance) of knowledge, which is a gift or revelation of specific information of which the recipient had no previous knowledge.
Ken Kinghorn defines faith, the third gift listed, as a gift “given to some Christians as a special ability to see the adequacy of God and to tap it for particular situations.” We noted that this gift of the Spirit is not the faith that saves and sanctifies us. Rather it is an enablement to believe for something that God will do, even though the person gifted has no idea how God will do it.
The fourth gift, gifts of healing, enables the one gifted to function as an instrument of God’s healing grace in the lives of others. I pointed out that God heals sick spirits, sick relationships, sick emotions, and sick bodies although spiritual healing is more important to God.
Next we noted that physical illness must be understood in the context of God’s circumstantial, or permissive, will. That is, he does not intend or cause sickness; but he does permit it. I indicated that a direct instantaneous healing miracle means that God has chosen to act miraculously in a particular situation. Many cannot understand why God chooses to act miraculously in certain situations, but not in others. I gave my opinion that God acts miraculously in certain situations in order to produce a new situation that somehow better reflects his will at a level beyond the individual involved. In other words he doesn’t work a miracle for you and not for me because he loves you more. Rather he is addressing another situation, perhaps one completely unknown to us, in which the healed one is not directly involved.
This discussion of physical healing led us to the fifth gift, miracles. Paul evidently distinguished in his mind between healing miracles and other miraculous acts of God. The gift of non-healing miracles is given on special occasions to meet special needs, according to the good judgment of God.
All right, in this essay we are studying 12:12-31. The sixth gift listed is prophecy. A gift of prophecy is inspired speaking on behalf of God. It is not primarily predictive, though some seem to forget that. Prophecy sometimes does function to predict future events (foretelling). But it usually provides a word from God for the present (forth-telling). It is the latter type of prophecy that predominates.
Paul’s letters contain four lists of gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:8-10, 28; Rom. 12:6-8; and Eph. 4:11). And prophecy is the only gift that appears in all four passages. Some Christians, mostly from a Pentecostal background, believe that prophecy always is a spontaneous message given in the assembly, rather than a prepared sermon. Others believe that a prepared sermon can be a vehicle for a gift of prophecy. In either case, the gift is given for the sake of believers (1 Cor. 14:22).
The seventh gift on the list is the discernment of spirits. This gift enables one to discern whether person’s (primarily prophets) are moved by their own human spirit, the Holy Spirit, or demonic spirits (see John 4:1; cf. 1 Cor. 14:29).
Eighth on the list is the gift of various kinds of tongues. The gift of tongues, as Paul describes it, has several characteristics. One, it is spirit-inspired speech (vv. 8-10). Two, it is given to some, but not all Christians (1 Cor. 12:30). Three, it is unintelligible to both the speaker (1Cor. 14:14) and the hearers (1 Cor. 14:16). Four, the speaker is in control of the gift (1 Cor. 14:27-28). Five, the message is directed to God, not to the people (1 Cor. 14:2). Thus six, tongues are a form of prayer, primarily thanksgiving (1 Cor. 14:14-17).
Therefore the gift of tongues, as Paul describes it, is not a means of God’s sending divine messages to congregations. The gifts of prophecy and teaching, assisted on occasion by the gifts of wisdom and knowledge, serve that function. The gift of tongues, rather, provides a vehicle for prayer and thanksgiving.
The ninth and last gift on the list is interpretation of tongues. Of course the purpose of this gift is to make something spoken in tongues in a worship service intelligible to outsiders (1 Cor. 14:13-17). There are three major views of the gift of tongues current today:
One is the view of liberal scholarship. Liberal scholars tend to interpret tongues as a kind of ecstatic speaking that was practiced in several of the Hellenistic religions of the first century. In other word, it was a typical religious activity of the day that was neither unique nor a gift from God.
Another view is that of Pentecostals and Charismatics. In their view the gift of tongues in 1 Cor. 12-14 are the glossolalia practiced in their groups today. Many of them view it as a language of angels, based on 1 Cor. 13:1, where tongues of angels are mentioned. But that is unlikely.
In any case, this means that the tongues of 1 Cor. 12-14 are a different type from those of Acts chapter two. In Acts two, the tongues clearly were intelligible, earthly languages that were understood by the hearers. That definitely is not the case in 1 Corinthians.
Most Pentecostals and Charismatics agree that the tongues in 1 Cor. function to edify the individual who exercises the gift, rather than the community. Some speak of it as a “prayer language,” meaning a language used in private prayer. That may be a legitimate deduction from what Paul says, but he never uses the phrase “prayer language” anywhere.
Still another view is that of traditional orthodoxy, which has tended to view the tongues of 1 Cor. 12:14 as the same as those of Acts two. In other words in this view, there are not two different types of tongues in the New Testament. They interpret the gift of tongues consistently as a gift of intelligible languages. That is why, in this view, Paul forbids their use in public assembly without an interpreter. No one would understand it.
In difficult cases of biblical interpretation like this, I believe in going with the broadest evangelical interpretation that the evidence allows. In this instance, the case made for the gift of tongues in 1 Cor. 12-14 as intelligible languages is not strong enough to overcome the likelihood that there are two gifts of tongues in the New Testament.
Now then, that completes Paul’s discussion of the diversity of spiritual gifts in the early church. In the next section of the epistle, which is the rest of chapter 12, Paul glories in the unity of Christ’s body, in spite of the diversity.
Verse 12 offers a straight-forward analogy. As a physical body has many members, yet is one body; the body of Christ has many members, yet is one body. In other words, there is both unity and diversity in the church.
Verse 13 frequently is interpreted as a reference to salvation. In that view, the baptism mentioned is interpreted as water baptism, though I personally believe it would be more accurate to interpret it as spiritual baptism, of which water baptism is the symbol. But in any case, Paul is emphasizing the unity of the church that is based on our union with the Holy Spirit.
In verses 14-20 Paul clarifies the necessity for the diversity of gifts. We need diversity of functions in both the physical body and the body of Christ. As Paul illustrates, each member is important to the whole.
Paul shifts his thinking a little bit in verses 21-26 and begins to emphasis how interdependent we are. Not only is each member important, each has to depend in important ways on the others. Notice in verse 22 that Paul describes certain body parts as “weaker” and “indispensable.” presumably he is referring to the heart and other vital internal organs. The fact that they are found deep within the body, where there is maximum protection, indicates their importance.
On the other hand, Paul describes other parts of the body as “less honorable” and “less respectable.” Those we treat with greater honor and respect by covering them with attractive clothing. In my opinion Paul is referring here to the parts of the body that deal with elimination and sexual functions. Most agree that the “more respectable members” mentioned in verse 24 (the face and hands) do not require covering.
In verses 24b-26 Paul applies the body analogy directly to the Corinthians. As we saw earlier in the epistle (1:10-4:21; 11:18-19), there was discord, literally division in the body of Christ at Corinth. And Paul is saying here that it is not supposed to be that way. Rather the members are to “care for one another” (v. 25). Paul had made that point about caring back in chapter eight (vv. 7-13) when he discussed the eating of meat sacrificed to idols, and again in chapter 11 when he dealt with the Lord’s Supper. He instructed the Corinthians to be sensitive to their weaker members regarding what they should eat (chapter 8), and to be sensitive to the poor members when hey met for Holy Communion (chapter 11). And now Paul is saying the same regarding the distribution of spiritual gifts, Christians are to “care for one another.”
I like William Barclay’s application of this part of the passage to our situation today. He puts it in three “ought” statements. First, “we ought to realize that we need each other.” Second, “we ought to respect each other.” And third, “we ought to sympathize with each other” (p. 127).
At the end of the chapter, in 12:27-31, Paul returns to the subject of spiritual gifts. As you can see, Paul gives us a second brief list of gifts of the Spirit in verse 28. This time he emphasizes gifts that set persons apart as officials in the church. The first two gifts are apostles and prophets (v. 28), which we already have discussed (9:1-2 and 12:10). The third gift is teachers (v. 28), meaning those who instruct Christians, including new converts about what it means to be a Christian and how to live the Christian life. However, I believe it would be a mistake to separate these offices too sharply. There was considerable overlap in function among early church leaders. For example, in Acts 13:1 five men, including Barnabas and Paul, are listed as both prophets and teachers. And the same kind of overlap exists today.
Coming back to verse 28, after apostles, prophets and teachers Paul lists miracles, healings, helps, administration (NIV) and tongues. We already have dealt with all of these, except “helps” and “administration.” The gift of helps is the ability to see the needs of others and move to meet the need. The gift of administration, on the other hand, is the ability to provide leadership or governance where it is needed.
In verses 29-30 Paul asks a series of rhetorical questions the answer to all of which is “No.” Clearly not every Christian is to have every gift. And then in verse 31 he indicates that some gifts are “greater” than others. Although Paul already clearly has stated that God is the one who apportions the gifts, it is legitimate “to strive for the greater gifts.” Unfortunately the Corinthians have desired lesser gifts. Be that as it may, Paul says that there is a better way, the way of love that is laid out in chapter 13.