The gifts of the Holy Spirit

In a previous post, Michael Morrison, Grace Communion Seminary professor and dean of students, addressed the work of the Holy Spirit. In this post he addresses the work the Spirit does in equipping believers with particular "gifts of the Spirit." This post excerpts a lecture on this topic by Dr. Morrison.

Pentecost by Jean Restout (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

One of the ways the Holy Spirit works in individuals and within the community as a whole is by giving "gifts of the Spirit" to members of the church for the benefit of the church. We find the fullest explanation of this in the apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth, a community of believers that needed instruction concerning the Holy Spirit and church unity. Paul writes this:
Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. (1 Cor. 12:1)
Paul then comments on how God works in different ways in different people:
There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. (1 Cor. 12:4-6)
Paul seems to equate gifts, service and working as roughly equivalent, just as Spirit, Lord and God are equivalent. The three terms are not necessarily distinct categories, but they highlight different aspects of the same phenomena:
  1. The abilities are given—they are not something we can take credit for ourselves. 
  2. They are given for service, to help other people.
  3. They work; they produce results in our lives.
The main point is that God works in different ways in different people; he does not treat us all identically. Paul then summarizes the purpose:
To each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. (1 Cor. 12:7) 
Spiritual gifts are not for a person’s private benefit—they are to help the church as a whole. In 1 Cor. 12:8, Paul lists some of the gifts: knowledge refers to awareness of facts; wisdom refers to the ability to apply facts to the right situation. The Corinthian believers seem to be interested in knowledge and wisdom, and that may be why Paul began with these two gifts. Presumably someone who has a gift of miraculous healing also has more faith than most people (1 Cor. 12:9). These gifts overlap; Paul is giving examples, not creating distinct categories.

Paul ends the list with the gift that was causing the most problems in Corinth: “to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues” (1 Cor. 12:10). No matter what the tongues were, no one in the church in Corinth understood them, except people who had the special gift of interpretation.

The main point for Paul here is that “all these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines” (1 Cor. 12:11). Not everyone is given the same abilities; the Spirit purposely distributes them. Why? As 1 Corinthians 12:7 says, it is for "the common good." When no one person has all the abilities, then we need to work together, and that in itself is good for us.

Paul compares the church to a human body: “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12)—that is, with the body of Christ, the church. Paul is still stressing diversity within the one body. The Corinthians needed to know about that diversity, because it seems that some of them were saying that everyone should have one gift in particular—tongues—and they looked down on people who did not have that gift. Paul explains the body analogy:
For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. (1 Cor. 12:13) 
The Spirit places people of all ethnic and social groups together. We have a common origin and a common purpose, but (Paul reminds us again) we do not all function in the same way: “Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many” (1 Cor. 12:14).

All the parts are needed – the body cannot be all hand, or all foot, or all tongue. If a person were to say, “Because I do not speak in tongues, I do not belong here,” Paul would respond: “That does not disqualify you—you are still part of the body. That is no reason to drop out.”

Paul develops the analogy further: “If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?” (1 Cor. 12:17). In other words, “If everyone in the church had the gift of tongues, who would be doing the prophecy? If everyone had the gift of miracles, who would have the wisdom?” Paul is stressing diversity:
God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. (1 Cor. 12:18-20)
We cannot turn a spiritual gift into a requirement for social acceptance, because God has distributed different roles, and therefore different gifts of the Spirit to different people. There are many parts to play within the body of Christ.

Earlier, Paul encouraged those believers who felt left out. Now, Paul addresses those who looked down on others: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’” (1 Cor. 12:21). One person might say, “I don’t need prophecy, because I have tongues. I don’t need discernment, because the only gift that is important is the one that I have.” But Paul says, “We need every part, and every person.”

God puts his people into a community of people in which we need to work together to help each other. “Those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor” (1 Cor. 12:22-23a). Is this true in the church today? Do we give special honor to people who are not in the limelight?

“The parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment” (1 Cor. 12:23b-24a). Do we take special efforts for church members who are less glamorous in the eyes of the world? We need to include everyone, and to make everyone feel an important part of the body—because everyone is important.
God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. (1 Cor. 12:24b-25)
God wants his children to love one another, no matter which gifts they have or lack. We should not separate into the haves and the have-nots; we are all in this together, and we are to help one another and learn from one another.

If we have this equal concern, what does it look like? Paul will say more about that in 1 Corinthians chapter 13. Here in chapter 12, he gives one example: “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (1 Cor. 12:26). Our sorrows and our successes are shared; we support those who suffer, and congratulate those who have blessings. Someday the shoe will be on the other foot, but everything will work best if we stick together, each doing the part God has given us to do.

Near the end of chapter 12, Paul again explains that God appoints different roles in the church. He asks, Is everyone in the church an apostle? Of course not, he implies. It’s silly to expect everyone to have the same role (see 1 Cor. 12:28-30). Nevertheless, some gifts are better than others, and Paul encourages the Corinthians to “eagerly desire the greater gifts” (1 Cor. 12:31a). It’s OK to ask the Spirit for a particular gift, as long as we realize that the Spirit will choose whether or not to grant our request. But even if we get better gifts, how are we to use them? Paul explains: “Now I will show you the most excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31b).

The way of love (1 Corinthians 13)

This superior way, Paul says in chapter 13, is the way of love. Love is not a gift that some people have and others don’t—it is the way in which all gifts should be used. This is what the Corinthians needed most. Without love, all the other gifts given by the Spirit were pointless.

Love is not proven through spectacular performances. Rather, it is demonstrated in much smaller things we do in everyday life: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud” (1 Cor. 13:4). This is a description of the life that the Father, Son, and Spirit enjoy with one another. This is the life God wants us to enjoy forever—and the life he wants us to have now.

Love “does not dishonor others" (i.e. it is not rude) Paul says. “It is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Cor. 13:5). God encourages us to participate in this life now: freed of selfishness, fits of anger and grudges. The reason that God wants us to live this way is because this is the way God already is. He does not keep a record of wrongs—he has already forgiven us for everything we’ve done. He does not tell us to do something he has not already done himself.

Paul makes a quick comparison between love, which is eternal, and the spiritual gifts favored by the Corinthians:
Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. (1 Cor. 13:8-10, ESV)
After the return of Christ and everything is made right, love will still be an essential part of life. But in that perfect age, there will be no need for prophecies or for tongues. When we all have knowledge, there is no need for a gift of knowledge. Those things will pass away; they are temporary.

Paul compares this to stages in human development: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me” (1 Cor. 13:11). Prophecy, tongues and other spiritual gifts are designed for the immature (and that includes all of us); they (unlike love) are not part of mature life in the kingdom of God. “Now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).

Even the best spiritual life is on a far lower level than what we will enjoy later. We know only a fraction of what that future life will entail. God knows exactly what we are now and what we need to be; we can trust him to work it out for our good.