RPM, Volume 14, Number 7, February 12 to February 18, 2012

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

A Sermon




By Rev. Scott Lindsay



This past week, while I was getting my hair cut, I had an interesting conversation, or at least an interesting listening session, with the lady who was working on me. Now, if you can?t tell from just looking, the fact is that cutting my hair is not that challenging of a proposition. You grab the electric shaver, slap on a #4 blade, and then you go for it. I told someone yesterday it was the ?basic German Shepherd? haircut.

So you can imagine the boredom that might descend upon a person doing these things and thus the absolute necessity of occupying your mind with some other activity. Which, for this lady, consisted of telling me about her life, her current boyfriend, her former boyfriend, why he?s not her boyfriend anymore, her dog, etc.

When she finally drew breath, which we must all do from time to time, she paused to politely ask what it was I did for a living. So I told her - which then set her off again - this time in a different direction. The topic now was ?spiritual things? and she began to relate to me her church experiences and how she believed that she was a "Seer".

When I asked her what she meant by that she explained that God had given her the gift of being able to see what was going to happen - before it happened. She offered a few examples of how this had worked out for her - typically through dreams that she felt were clear predictors of particular events. Now, as she described these things, it did not seem to me that the dream and the event matched up all that well. But to her mind it was as clear as day.

Now, I have no doubt that this lady was sincere and that she had good intentions, but she also was clearly confused about the whole subject of spiritual gifts and their use and how one?s gifts related to the wider Body of Christ, etc. And that confusion, in my judgment, is not an isolated example but is symptomatic of a fairly widespread lack of understanding in these matters. I

ndeed misunderstandings on this subject have been around ever since the beginning of the church and are, in fact, the subject of the chapters before us now in 1 Corinthians - chapters 12- 14. Although it was certainly the case that the manifestations of the Holy Spirit amongst the Corinthians in Paul?s day were quite numerous, and they probably considered themselves quite knowledgeable on the subject - the reality is they weren?t - which makes Paul?s opening words in chapter 12, even more telling when he says, ?I do not want you to be uninformed....?

And so, in these chapters, Paul sets out to answer some questions they have asked him about spiritual gifts and their use in their meetings together. And it would seem that in addition to responding to their questions, Paul is also responding to things he has heard were going on - either through their letter to him or some other source. But he is clearly concerned in this letter to address not only misunderstandings about spiritual gifts, but also some abuses that were taking place because of those misunderstandings, and which were hurting the Corinthian fellowship. In particular, it was the gift of speaking in tongues, and to a lesser extent prophesying, which seem to be foremost in Paul?s mind throughout these chapters.

That?s the subject we will begin exploring this morning as we turn our attention to 1 Corinthians 12:1-11. Before we go any further, however, let?s pray and acknowledge, again, our great need:

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2 You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led. 3 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. 4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 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. 11 All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually has he wills.

Now, as we begin to think about these particular verses, you have to keep in mind, as we have already seen, that they form part of a larger unit and so we will not be dealing this morning, or any morning, with the entirety of Paul?s discussion on this subject of spiritual gifts. We will only deal with a portion of it at a time. As we move forward over the next number of weeks, we will try and tie the bits and pieces together, but it means that along the way you?ll have to be patient as more than likely all your questions or concerns will not be addressed right away, or within any one message. Hopefully, however, we will see most of those concerns and questions addressed and, at the end, we will be able to make some helpful, summarizing sorts of statements on this subject that will be both encouraging and useful for us as a congregation.

So, turning to the verses before us this morning, I want us to think about what is being said here in three movements. Firstly, we?ll look at some background/introductory stuff. Secondly, we will look at how these verses give us some foundational principles that will shape our understanding both now and in some of Paul?s later statements in chapters 13 and 14. Finally, we will draw some tentative conclusions and applications based on what we have seen so far.

Firstly, then, as regards the Corinthian culture outside the church, we have already seen in our study of chapters 8-11 that, like so many Greek cities in that day and age, Corinth had a number of temples that were devoted to all sorts of ?gods? and lesser deities. It was common for the average ?Corinthian? to attend any number of these temples throughout the year - taking part in certain festivals, or ceremonies, or sacrifices, or rituals - or simply eating in the temples themselves in what was something like our modern day restaurant. Paul made it clear earlier in this letter that one of the reasons it was inappropriate for Christians to spend time in these temples was not because the idols were real - they weren?t - but because even though the idols themselves were nothing, there was still demonic activity that went on, and which was associated with some of the practices that took place in these temples.

Now, from studying other, extra-biblical writings we know that it was not unusual to see strange things happening in these temples - things like people being put into ?trances?, or behaving wildly, or even uttering unintelligible phrases - engaging in ?ecstatic speech? or ?free vocalization?. In short, the average Corinthian would likely have seen some pretty out-of-the- ordinary things, including things that, on the surface at least, resembled speaking in tongues.

Another background thing to keep in mind is that we are talking about a church whose ?clocks were all wrong? - (at least for some of them) and which thought that the last days had fully arrived and that the fullness of what God was doing had descended upon them.

Indeed, it was the very presence of the gift of tongue-speaking that seems to have fueled this sort of thinking. To the Corinthian mindset, if they were already speaking with the ?tongues of angels? - as chapter 13 puts it, then that must indicate they were in that final age when men and women will be ?like the angels? in certain respects - as Jesus himself indicated. That conviction, although wrong-headed, nevertheless seems to have been at least part of the source of their great enthusiasm for this particular gift and is part of what led to its abuse within the congregation.

Further, with regard to the previously mentioned chapter 13 - if you read that chapter with this background in mind - the misunderstandings and abuses of certain gifts - but if you keep those things in mind as you read that chapter then it makes a great deal more sense - not only with regard to why it appears where it does, but also with regard to what Paul is trying to accomplish by saying it - a purpose that is actually quite different from the way it is normally misread in today?s churches when it is completely lifted out of its context.

Still further, it is this background that also helps us to understand chapter 14 better - and vice versa. That is, the background helps us to understand why Paul focuses so much in chapter 14 on two issues - intelligibility and order. And, at the same time, the fact that Paul sees intelligibility and order as the means of addressing the ?spiritual gift problem? in Corinth points us to this background and gives us some clues on how to read these earlier chapters.

That being said, let?s look very quickly at some of these verses to see what sorts of preliminary conclusions we can come to, starting with verses 1 through 3. Right from the outset, Paul wastes no time in getting to some very important, foundational ideas that should guide them in their thinking. In doing so, he acknowledges their former religious life and experiences and wants to make sure that they understand how what is happening to them now ought to be distinguished from what was happening to them then.

In particular, the point that Paul seems to be making in these first three verses is this: the fact that someone speaks in tongues is not, by itself, proof of anything. We cannot assume that these sorts of ecstatic experiences are necessarily or automatically Christian or even spiritual. Paul makes this point by first reminding them of their former life and practices, when they would go to the temples of these mute, lifeless, pagan, idols, and some of them would be ?led astray? - a word which, as C K Barrett says, in the Greek, suggests a person being led into an ecstatic sort of experience. And however they were led - and Paul?s vagueness here seems to leave the door open for the possibility that their doing these things was either through direct demonic influence or simply through their imitation of their peers - but however they were led into these things, the fact is they were so led. And so, they would have seen and/or participated in these things themselves, in a non-Christian setting.

Even further, it seems from the example that Paul uses here, that when they were in these settings some of them may have even said, or heard other people saying - as they were caught up in one of these ecstatic experiences, things like ?Jesus is accursed?. Now, as Paul says, no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ?Jesus is accursed?. That seems obvious, but that is precisely Paul?s point. No one moved by the Spirit of God says these sorts of things - but someone moved by some other Spirit might. In other words, there are spirits and there are spirits.

And so Paul, at the very beginning, wants to move the focus off of the fact that some of them are having these ecstatic experiences because such experiences are not exclusively found or practiced within the Christian religion and therefore the fact that one utters unintelligible phrases doesn?t prove anything. Yes, the Holy Spirit can move people to do these things, but so can demons.

And what distinguishes the one from the other is not the practice itself, but the CONTENT of what is being said. No one speaking by God?s Spirit is going to utter things that are untrue or ungodly - like ?Jesus is accursed?. At the same time, no one without the Holy Spirit can truly confess Jesus as Lord.

Now, of course, Paul does not mean that a non-Christian cannot say the words, ?Jesus is Lord?. Clearly they can. He is obviously referring here to the fact that no person can hold a credible, genuine Christian confession of the Lordship of Christ, except by the working and influence of the Holy Spirit.

So, the content of what is being said is more important than the fact that they are saying it, or the manner of their saying it - whether by tongues through an interpreter or by prophecy which needs no interpretation. However it is happening, these sorts of experiences in themselves cannot be used as any sort of litmus test for Christian fellowship. You have to look beyond experiences to something more substantial - to whether the things being proclaimed through these experiences are true and consistent with what God has already given to us. Paul is, of course, going to supplement and nuance what he says here. But this is where he wants his readers to start.

Now, moving on from that for the moment, the remaining verses seem to hang together as a unit and offer another foundational reality that helps us in thinking about this subject. If you read through verses 4-11 again, it is easy to get so caught up in the details that you miss the overall point which, I believe, is fairly straightforward. The main point Paul is making is to say that God - who is himself an example of unity and diversity - intends this same sort of university and diversity to be an operational reality in the Church.

Let me put that another way. The common possession of the Spirit does not lead to a common manifestation of the Spirit. To be sure, there is much that we have in common by the Spirit - specifically the fruits of the Spirit - as Paul shows in Galatians 5. But while we are the same in some ways, we are not at all the same in others, and intentionally so. God - as Father, as Son and as Holy Spirit - blesses his people with different gifts, different kinds of service, and different kinds of working or ministry.

However, the different gifts are not to serve different agendas but, in fact, serve the same agenda: They are ?for the common good? - as Paul says. They are to build up and encourage the Body of Christ. And that is a big, and multi-faceted task that requires a great variety of gifts and service, and God provides these things by means of His Spirit. So, diversity is a good thing, in terms of our gifts, abilities, and ministries. We ought to expect that, and look for that. A church where everyone was a clone of everyone else would not only be scary - it would be downright unbiblical.

Now, in making this point, Paul describes a number of different ways in which the gifts of God are manifested among the people of God. And you need to know, if you don?t already, that this is not the only place where Paul provides us with a list of ?gifts? - And, when you put these lists side by side you discover, very quickly, that no one list is exhaustive - nor is there any particular order to the lists that seems to prevail.

So, as you read this list, you need to keep in mind that these are representative examples of that kinds of gifts that God gives, but these are not the only gifts that God gives. Further, we probably should not make too much of the order here, except to say that it is likely that Paul places tongues, and the interpretation of tongues last - not because they are the least of the gifts - but because the Corinthians are over-emphasizing them. And so, because they are over- emphasizing them, Paul de-emphasizes them.

Now, in looking at the gifts mentioned in verses 8-10, I don?t want to spend a great deal of time trying to explore what they all mean. There are two reasons for this. For starters, Paul does not give us any more than labels here and so any statements about what these gifts consist of have to be made with a certain amount of tentativeness. To be sure, that fact has not stopped thousands of people from producing thousands of books, tapes, sermons, etc. which attempt to define these gifts in mind-boggling detail, but the reality is that there are limits on what we can say for sure about any one of them.

And that leads to the second reason why I don?t want to say a great deal about them: because I don?t think that is the reason Paul has listed them here. Clearly, Paul is not trying to provide the Corinthian church with a ?Manual on Spiritual Gifts? in which he explains what they all are and what they are for. His interest in these chapters is not in doing that but it is, as we have seen, to address the Corinthians on the subject generally and then to give specific attention to two gifts in particular - tongues and prophecy. And so, because that is Paul?s main concern, it will be our main concern as well. Still, it may be helpful to make a few comments, such as we can, about the gifts mentioned here as they will be relevant to our discussion both now, and later on.

For starters, in verse 8, Paul talks about the ?utterance of wisdom? and the ?utterance of knowledge?. Now, on the surface, this would seem to refer to an extra-ordinary gifting such that the person so affected exhibits uncommon wisdom and insight on matters of life and doctrine. And then, along with the gift of knowledge there is perhaps a strong natural and Spirit-enhanced ability to understand and express truth in a relevant and meaningful way. One commentator concludes that these are gifts that might typically be given to those who teach in the church.

Verse 9 talks about the gift of faith which - in this context - must refer to something other than ?saving faith? since that is the possession of all Christians. And if it is the possession of all Christians then it would hardly qualify as a particular gift that is, by definition, limited in its distribution. More likely, this is referring to extraordinary faith - the Spirit-given ability to believe and trust God in situations where most Christians would find it impossible or even ludicrous to do so. Christian history is full of stories of people who believed God in this very way - and saw amazing things happen. One example is George Mueller, of Bristol, in England who ran an orphanage and about whom there are numerous illustrations of him trusting God in the most extreme of circumstances - only to see God come through in ways that were nothing short of miraculous. Likewise, the accounts of missionaries over the centuries have exhibited this same sort of thing, time and time again.

Also in verse 9, Paul talks about ?gifts of healing? which, in the Greek, is simply ?healings?. Now this could refer to either instances of people being healed, or to people through whom God effects healing - or both. It is impossible to know from the immediate context.

However, on this subject, a passage that has always fascinated me is James 5:14, where James writes, ?Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.? The thing that fascinates me about that verse is what James DOESN?T say. He doesn?t say, ?Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for someone with the gift of healing....? If the gift is around, and prevalent in the church, why not call for it? Unless, of course, it?s not around...

Now, to be sure, arguments from silence are never very strong and should not typically be the basis for deciding any major issue. However, I have wondered about that verse for a long time and what bearing it might have on our understanding of other passages - including this one here in 1st Corinthians. I leave that to you. End of digression.

In verse 10, Paul then refers to the working of miracles which, I?m fairly sure, means just what it seems to mean. He then refers to prophecy which we will have more to say about later but about which at this point, I would simply quote J I Packer who understands Paul to mean that the prophecy in view here is not the same as that which occurred in the Old Testament but instead is a ?...God- prompted application of truth that in general terms had been revealed already, rather than a disclosure of divine thoughts and intentions not previously known....? Now, why Packer says this we will explore at a later point, but we?ll leave it there for now.

Paul then refers to the ?ability to distinguish between spirits?. Now, as we have already seen, ecstatic experiences like speaking in tongues occurred in contexts other than Christian ones. Further, if you look at the Bible you will see that other extraordinary such things are capable of appearing, and in fact DID appear in an alternative or even counterfeit form. For example, in Exodus we see that some of the miracles that God performed through Moses were imitated by the court magicians of Pharaoh. More explicitly, Jesus himself says, in Matthew 7,

?Not everyone who says to me, ?Lord, Lord,? will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ?Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?? 23 And then will I declare to them, ?I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.?

Clearly, amazing things can be done in Jesus? name by people that do not even know Jesus - a sobering thought, to say the least. And that sort of reality renders the gift of being able to ?distinguish between spirits? - i.e., the ability to determine the authenticity of a particular thing - as a valuable gift for Christ to give to His church.

Finally, Paul gets to the gifts of tongues and the interpretation of tongues. Now, we will say more about these things as we go along but at this point let it suffice to say that he is referring here to the utterance of things that are not intelligible to anyone hearing them - including the speaker - unless someone with the gift to interpret them does so. So it is a sort of ?package gift? - and therefore it is rather pointless to have one without the other - at least in a public context - and, indeed, God would not give one, without the other - for reasons which Paul will make clear later on. Now as to whether these were human or angelic languages, we may explore that later on, but my own view is that in the NT there are reasons to believe that both occurred.

Now, again, this is only an introductory study, and there is a lot that needs to be said. Still, taking just what we have seen so far, there are a number of ways that these verses are significant for the church in our own day:

1) Spiritual experiences - however exciting and extraordinary they may be - are not in themselves proof of anything. Jesus words about counterfeit experiences in Matthew 7 are proof enough of that. More important than the experience itself, as Corinthians shows us, is the context and the content associated with that experience. If the context and content are out of step with what God has already revealed for his people in Scripture, then something is clearly wrong and the experience itself ought to be rejected - no matter how personally fulfilling it might seem.

2) Every one who professes Christ truly has the Holy Spirit. Paul says so clearly in these verses. Therefore, no class distinctions can be made in the church between those who ?have the Holy Spirit? and those who do not. Further, the idea that the Holy Spirit only comes to believers in a second-blessing sort of way - as some sort of additional experience after conversion - those sorts of ideas are patently unbiblical and, practically speaking, cannot help but create divisions within the church, as well as promote pride and an air of super-spirituality among those who believe they have a leg up on other believers.

3) Because diversity is the norm in terms of gifts, any attempt to mandate any sort of uniformity in terms of gifts is unbiblical and ill-informed. E.g., For a church to require that everyone demonstrates the gift of tongue-speaking, or prophecy or whatever would be to grossly misunderstand what Paul says about the gifts and their varied distribution. It is one thing to seek the gifts of God. It is quite another to require the reception of them.

4) Because God is the distributor of the gifts, then there can be no basis for pride simply because a person has one gift as opposed to another. To be proud over such a thing would involve the belief that one had some sort of special standing with God or was perhaps more deserving, or some other unbiblical idea.

5) Following on from that - since all three persons of the Godhead are involved in the distribution of the gifts (see vs4-6), then this means that it is wrong for people or churches to value or elevate God the Spirit as more important than God the Father and God the Son. And vice versa. The focus in our churches, in other words, ought to be thoroughly Trinitarian - and not Unitarian - in emphasis. That is as much a rebuke and a caution for some Pentecostal churches as it is for some Reformed churches, including our own.

6) The way that Paul describes the various distributions of God - using words like ?gifts? in verse 4, and ?service? in vs5 and ?activities? in vs6 - indicates a kind of flattening of distinctions between those things normally described as ?charismatic? gifts - and those things that are not. Every gift, if it comes from the Spirit - is, by definition, a charismatic gift. Even further, if you look a little further on in verse 28 you see that not only is the distinction between charismatic and non-charismatic somewhat artificial - so too is the distinction between ?natural? and ?spiritual?. Verse 28 lists things that we normally refer to as ?natural? abilities - like being helpful and administrative gifts, etc - and sees them as gifts of the Spirit. This means, at the very least, that we ought to understand that natural abilities are just as much the gift of God as the ones that the church has typically focused on in discussing these matters. Further, I think it means we need to think seriously about how clearly we ought to draw the line, or if there should be any line at all, between gifts which we deem to be ?spiritual? and ones which we see as merely ?natural?.

7) Paul says that the purpose of the various gifts is for the common good. Therefore it is incumbent upon churches to think about what the practice of the gifts in their church is producing. Any use of the gifts or emphasis of the gifts which results in division or which degenerates into clear acts of shameless self-promotion, ought to be immediately suspect.

8) The possession and use of God?s gifts - even when they are present in great abundance - is no guarantee that those who possess them are necessarily or even deeply mature or godly. The example of the Corinthian church - which had an abundance of the gifts and yet which had endless problems and divisions and rampant immaturity - ought to be proof enough of that. Godliness and giftedness are not the same thing.

9) Given all that has been said above, it is quite wrong for one branch of the church to claim the title ?charismatic? over against all the others. There is no such thing as a church in which the Spirit of God does not dwell. There is no such thing as a Christian without the Holy Spirit. Therefore, every church is and must be a charismatic church and its people, charismatic people. Charismatic is a good word. It is a Bible word. And it is our word. And we ought not be ashamed or afraid to claim it for ourselves.





This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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