1 Corinthians 14 begins, “Eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit.”
The Good News Translation says, “Set your hearts on spiritual gifts.” The Voice translation says, “Passionately seek the gifts of the spirit.” We are allowed and encouraged to desire to exercise the gifts the Holy Spirit gives. We said this morning that the body of Christ, the church, is only built up when everyone plays the part God has given us. 1 Peter 4 10 Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.
We also said that spiritual gifts are for every Christian. 1 Corinthians 12 7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.
I am going to preach next Sunday morning on the spiritual gift of prophecy – listening to God and passing on his messages. Prophetic gifts deserve a whole sermon, not least because in 1 Corinthians the apostle Paul definitely says that prophecy is the most important of the gifts. The week after I will preach on speaking in tongues and the interpretation of tongues. That is not because I think it is a particular important spiritual gift but rather because it has certainly been the most controversial. At the same time, across the world church today, speaking in tongues may be the spiritual gift exercised by more Christians than any other. Those sermons will address some spiritual gifts, so this evening I want to think about some of the other gifts of the Spirit which you probably won’t have heard discussed in a sermon. But before that I want to talk more generally about what Christians generally call “the gifts of the Holy Spirit.” There are few important things to say if we are to understand correctly what the Bible says about the gifts of the Spirit. And the first thing is this. The Bible doesn’t actually use the phrase, “gifts of the spirit.”
1 Corinthians 12:1 introduces the topic like this.
Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.
The King James Version, the Authorised Version, introduced the translation “spiritual gifts” there and that was the phrase the first Pentecostals adopted. But there is just one word in the Greek, pneumatika, and that literally means “spiritual things” or “things of the spirit”. It doesn’t say “gifts.”
It is the same in 1 Corinthians 14 where Paul goes on say more about prophecy and speaking in tongues.
1 Corinthians 14:1 says “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy.” (NIV 2011 Anglicised). NRSV says Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts.
But again there is just one word there, pneumatika, “spiritual things”. It doesn’t say “gifts.”
New Living Translation prefers to say, desire the special abilities the Spirit gives. That fits the context. But there is no word for gifts or for special abilities.
On the other hand as chapter 12 continues Paul does talk about gifts. He uses the word charisma, in the plural charismata. He uses that same word in Romans 12 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.
Peter uses that same word charisma in 1 Peter 4 10 Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.
Gifts. The thing is that the word gift carries a much more general meaning than “gifts of the spirit.” The root of the word translated gift is charis, grace. Charisma just means a gift of grace, a favour which a person receives without any merit of their own. Elsewhere in the Bible, charisma is used in that much more general sense.
Romans 6 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The free gift of God, the charisma God gives, is eternal life.
Romans 5 15 But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! 16 Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: the judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification.
So there Paul uses charisma when he is referring to God’s free gift of salvation or justification.
2 Corinthians 1 10 He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, 11 as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favour granted us in answer to the prayers of many.
There the “gracious favour” of God’s deliverance from danger is the same word charisma. The meaning of charisma and charismata is much broader than “spiritual gifts.” And the key thing is that nobody ever uses the complete phrase the charisma or charismata “of the Spirit”. Only either gifts or things of the Spirit. Charisma, or charismata, in itself does not mean spiritual gifts.
Another different word is used in
1 Corinthians 12 7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.
A manifestation means a revelation or a disclosure of the Spirit. To translate manifestation, Good News Translation says, “The Spirit’s presence is shown in some way in each person for the good of all.” J.B Phillips says God works through different men in different ways.
I like those translations for manifestations of the Spirit. So I believe that New Living Translation is wrong when it reads, A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other. A manifestation of the Spirit definitely does not mean the same as a spiritual gift.
Let me be as clear as I can. The concept of spiritual gifts, or gifts given by the Holy Spirit, is there in the Bible. But the actual phrases, “gifts of the Spirit”, and “spiritual gifts” don’t appear anywhere. That said, for simplicity I will still use those phrases this evening to refer to the concept behind them, the idea that the Holy Spirit works in human beings in a recognisable variety of ways.
Now let’s think for a moment about the experiences of gifts of the Holy Spirit which we find in churches today. Early in the 20th Century God began to break into established churches in new ways with experiences particularly of miraculous healing and of speaking in tongues. The movement which we call Pentecostalism grew and spread from the Apostolic Faith Gospel Mission in Azusa Street in Los Angeles in 1906. The Pentecostal Christians looked in the Bible and they found that their new experiences seemed to mirror those of the First Christians in the Early Church. They looked at 1 Corinthians 12 and found a list of nine spiritual gifts.
a message of wisdom, a message of knowledge, faith, gifts of healing, miraculous powers, prophecy, distinguishing between spirits, speaking in different kinds of tongues, and the interpretation of tongues.
These are the nine spiritual gifts which Classic Pentecostalism experienced and which they expect to be part of the life of every church. I absolutely affirm that for the last century the Holy Spirit has been and still is at work in Christians who would call themselves Pentecostals and Charismatics. But I want to suggest that certain aspects of the Classic Pentecostal understanding of spiritual gifts are mistaken and we need to think a bit more deeply if we want to understand how the Holy Spirit has been and still is at work in the churches today.
Firstly, early Pentecostals limited the range of the gifts of the Holy Spirit to just the nine found in 1 Corinthians 12 verses 7 to 10. On the contrary, this morning, we saw that there are other activities also described as gifts which we would surely want to add to any list of spiritual gifts. There are not just nine “gifts of the Spirit”. From the end of 1 Corinthians 12 we would want to add at least the gift of helping or giving assistance. And the gift of leadership, of steering the ship, or some translations say administration. Romans 12 also adds serving, encouragement, giving generously and showing mercy and being compassionate. There are definitely many more than nine gifts of the Spirit.
The second point I want to make is quite profound but also subtle. The first Pentecostals were experiencing the Holy Spirit working among them in new and dramatic ways. They looked to Scripture and matched up their experiences with the list of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians. But I am not totally convinced that was always correct. For example, the practice of prophecy in Early Pentecostal churches and still sometimes today is very different from the patterns of prophecy which I believe the New Testament teaches which I will be talking about next Sunday. The week after I will explain that the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues is primarily a language for personal prayer, which is not exactly how the first Pentecostal Christians experienced that gift. Nor is that the way that many Pentecostals practise speaking in tongues today. The fact is, we don’t exactly know what phenomena Paul had in mind when he referred to “speaking in tongues”, or equally to “the interpretation of tongues”. We think that he was not primarily referring to the same experience as the disciples had on the day of Pentecost when they began to praise God in recognised human languages. And most Christians who speak in tongues today are not using known human languages. So what was Paul referring to? We really don’t know. We can think that our modern experiences of gifts of the Holy Spirit correspond to gifts in the lists Paul and Peter give us. It may be a reasonable working assumption that God is continuing to work in the church today in the ways he did in the Early Church. But we actually can’t be certain.
This leads to an important question. How necessary is it that our experiences of the Holy Spirit working in our lives today do correspond to one of the specific spiritual gifts listed in the New Testament? Or is it possible that some people might experience the Holy Spirit today in ways we don’t find in Scripture? This was a big deal in the mid 1990s in the spiritual explosion of what was called the Toronto Blessing. Personally, my view is that we limit the Holy Spirit if we think he will only ever work in the church today in ways which are mentioned in Scripture. We do always need to test the spirits. But I think it is short-sighted if we always reject experiences which other Christians attribute to the Holy Spirit just because we can’t see those kinds of phenomena in the Bible.
There is also a third way in which that understanding which the first Pentecostal Christians had of spiritual gifts is still muddying the waters for Christians today. They believed that the gifts are static or fixed. They believed that God gave each Christian a particular gift out of the list of the ninefold gifts of the Spirit. That would be that person’s gift. So they might prophesy. Or they might speak in tongues. Or they might have special faith, or the ability to bring healing or work miracles. But that would be that believer’s spiritual gift. That specific gift, and only that specific gift, would be the way that God would work in their lives to build up the church. As I suggested briefly this morning, I believe that understanding is incorrect. It actually limits the ways that the Holy Spirit might work in his church.
I completely accept that there are some spiritual gifts which Paul lists at the end of 1 Corinthians 12 which are static and fixed.
28 And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping,99999 of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues.
If a person is an apostle they are always an apostle. If they have been recognised as a prophet they should always be respected as such. If a person is a teacher then that is usually the way God will use them in the church. By the way, to those three Ephesians 4 adds evangelists. Those gifts are generally static and fixed. But I believe we are misunderstanding the gifts in the ninefold list earlier in 1 Corinthians 12 if we think of them as fixed abilities which a Christian will have.
6 There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.
NRSV says and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.
There is nothing there to imply that God will always only do the same one thing in a particular Christian’s life. Paul is just giving a list of examples of how the Holy Spirit might work in different Christians from time to time.
7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.
Paul is talking about different manifestations of the Spirit. I read that to mean different instances where the Holy Spirit is at work. He will go on to list different expressions of the Spirit’s work. But I believe it is wrong to understand that to say that each Christian will have a fixed unchanging spiritual gift. He is saying that on one particular occasion, 8 To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom. On another occasion, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit. Similarly, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. I believe that Paul is listing the kinds of ways the Holy Spirit can be manifested in various individuals on different occasions. I do not believe he is saying that the Spirit will only ever work in that one way in a person’s life. I do not believe this says we each have one spiritual gift (or maybe two) and that is fixed forever. Instead, I believe Paul is saying that the Holy Spirit can work in any Christian’s life in any way he chooses whenever he likes, and then he gives some examples of how the Holy Spirit might be manifested.
As I said earlier, on this point I believe that the New Living Translation is wrong. It says 7 A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other. I disagree. Spiritual gifts are not static or fixed. In my understanding, the gifts of the Holy Spirit are dynamic. God can give any of us any spiritual gift he likes at any time. The Holy Spirit can be manifested in any way God chooses at any time. It is often the case that the Holy Spirit chooses to work in the same ways in a person’s life. At the same time, with practice and experience a person is likely to become more confident and skilled in exercising a particular gift. They may become more confident in prophecy, in hearing God speak in dreams and visions and messages of knowledge and wisdom. They may become more skilled in teaching, or in administration, so they and others recognize that God has given them that gift. But spiritual gifts are not limited by being tied to a particular person. God can work in my life in one way today, and another way tomorrow.
This distinction is particularly important when we look at three of spiritual gifts in the nine-fold list. Paul says,
9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers,
I believe that the Holy Spirit can give the gift of extraordinary faith to any Christian at any time. I don’t believe any Christian should ever say, “I don’t have the gift of faith. Faith isn’t my spiritual gift.” If he chooses, God can give any of us the gift of faith we need, when we need it.
Similarly I believe that “gifts of healing” does not mean that particular Christians have the spiritual gift of being able to bring healing to others. I believe the “gifts of healing” are the instances of the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the people being healed. The person who prayed for them to be healed happened to be there – God answered their prayers. But that doesn’t mean that that individual has “the gift of healing.” In the New Testament healing is part of the ministry of the church. Healing not associated with a specific ministry of “healers”.
In the same way, Paul says 10 to another miraculous powers. I believe that he is referring to different instances when God in his grace works supernatural miracles. Each separate miracle is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. I do not believe that means that any particular Christians have “the spiritual gift of working miracles.” So you will understand why I have great reservations about preachers who claim to have a ministry of healing or a ministry of working miracles.
The Bible speaks in all these places about the idea of gifts of the Holy Spirit, although that phrase and the phrase spiritual gifts do not appear anywhere in the text. In our thinking and our expectations, we shouldn’t limit the working of the Holy Spirit just to the list of nine gifts of the Spirit we find in 1 Corinthians 12:7-10. We shouldn’t necessarily assume that our experience of the work of the Holy Spirit are exactly the same as those of the Early Church. But most important, we should not think of the gifts of the Holy Spirit as fixed, with each person having just one or two of the gifts. The Holy Spirit can work in each of our lives at any time in any way he likes.
1 Peter 4 10 Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. … so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.
Spiritual gifts are for every Christian.
1 Corinthians 12 7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.
1 Corinthians 14 “Eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit.” “Set your hearts on spiritual gifts. “Passionately seek the gifts of the spirit.”
1 Corinthians 14 begins, “Eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit.”