I was listening to Di talking to our son Paul about his holiday around Europe the other day trying to piece together the conversation from what I could hear Di saying, but of course without being able to hear what he had to say. I’m sure you’ve done that from time to time, these days probably in the train or at a restaurant while the person next to you talked on their mobile! Sometimes it’s easy to work out what’s being said and other times it’s more difficult. Well, today we come to one of those moments, in this letter to the Corinthians. We can work out that this section is a response to a question the Corinthians have asked about Spiritual gifts, but then we need to think further about the details of their question.
Clearly they have a question about certain expressions of supernatural gifts. It sounds like there were people in the church who were claiming to exercise some sort of gift in the power of the Spirit, but the result of their ministry has actually been to undermine the gospel. Perhaps the Corinthians have asked "How can we tell when we see supernatural gifts being exercised by people, whether they really are gifts of the Holy Spirit or whether people are just making out that’s what they are to persuade others? Worse still, could they even be the works of demons?" So Paul begins by pointing them to 2 tests that will help them work out whether these so-called gifts are Spirit inspired or are the work of demons.
1 What do they say about Jesus?
The first test is, what do they say about Jesus? Do they exalt him or do they speak against him. Do they proclaim him as Lord, or do they say he’s cursed (v3)? Cursed because he died on a cross. It’s pretty obvious isn’t it, that if it’s the Holy Spirit, that is, Jesus’ own Spirit that he promised to send to guide us, then he’ll be exalting Jesus, not denying his Lordship.
In fact this is the same test that John gave, in his first letter, to help the early Christians work out whether someone claiming to come as a prophet of God, was genuine or not. Listen to what 1 John 4:1-3 says: "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God." ( NRSV) It’s a simple test that can probably be applied whenever we see some apparent manifestation of the Spirit, whether it’s speaking in tongues, healing, the Toronto blessing, words of prophecy, whatever it is. Is it leading others to worship Jesus Christ as Lord, that is, as God, or is it deflecting our attention from him?
2 Do they build up the Body of Christ?
The second test he gives has to do with the way these gifts are used within the Church. He asks, "are these so-called gifts of the Spirit being used to build up the body of Christ, being used for the common good?" (v7) Remember last week we saw how Paul moves from Christ’s body and blood shared symbolically in the communion service, to the idea of the body of Christ represented by his followers gathered together around the common meal. So, here, he says the whole purpose of the gifts that God gives is so that his body, the Church can be built up.
Now why are these the 2 primary tests for genuine spiritual gifts? Look at v4. First, consider their source. There are all sorts of ways that God gifts us. We’ll see that over the next few weeks as we look more closely at the sorts of gifts that God has given each of us. But while there are varieties of gifts, they all have one single source. There is only one Spirit who gives them all.
Then look at their object. While there are many areas of service, there’s only one Lord for whom that service is carried out. Finally think about the motivating power behind them. Although there are many ways that we’re activated for service, that activation has only one origin, the one God who initiates and empowers all of them. And why does he activate us for service? Why does the Spirit give us particular gifts? What is it that Jesus our Lord desires from our service? It’s that the Church will be built up. That together we’ll be blessed.
But while there’s a single, common, source, object and motivating power behind these gifts, notice that there’s also an incredible variety among them. James tells us that God is the giver of every good and perfect gift, and here Paul outlines for us just some of the rich variety of gifts that God gives his church. I guess he’s thinking here of the sorts of gifts the Corinthians are blessed with. Theirs was a good example to use because it was a very gifted place. Still, notice that this is just a selective list. If you read through the New Testament there are a whole range of gifts that aren’t mentioned in this chapter. This list is purely representational of all the other gifts that God gives.
But look at what he lists here: the utterance of wisdom, or of knowledge. That is, the ability to instruct and direct God’s people in ways of wisdom and truth. Faith. Not saving faith; all believers have that; but a particular ability to believe and trust God beyond the ordinary. Perhaps this is related to the next couple of gifts: healing and miracles, which might refer to a range of supernatural events. Remember how Jesus talked about a little faith being able to move mountains. Then there’s prophecy, the ability to speak words from God. Whether in a moment of ecstatic speech, or in a considered, but nevertheless inspired, word of encouragement or rebuke. The discernment of spirits, perhaps to discern between those words of prophecy that truly come from God and those that come from human imagining. Finally various kinds of tongues, and the interpretation of tongues. This, it seems, refers to speaking in some otherwise unintelligible, heavenly language. He’ll say more about that in ch 14 which we’ll look at in September.
So there are all these different gifts. In fact as we’ll see next month there are far more than are listed here. But notice where they all come from. These are not just natural leanings or abilities. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
Now I want you to think about that for a moment. Let’s say you have a particular gift. Say forms of assistance (v28). That is, you’re the sort of person who seems to have a natural flair for helping people out, for giving a helping hand when it’s needed. You’re the sort of person who’s always the first to notice a need and do something about it. What does v11 tell you about that gift? Your gift is activated by one and the same Spirit, who has allotted it to you individually just as he’s chosen. That is, the Holy Spirit has singled you out to receive that particular gift for God’s service. So how does that make you feel? Special? Scared? Honoured? Having a particular responsibility perhaps?
When our children were growing up we had one of those special family traditions that lots of people have. When each of them turned 12 we gave them a Swiss Army knife for Christmas. It was a special gift because it said that we believed they were now old enough to be trusted with the responsibility of having something as dangerous and as valuable as a high quality penknife. But that gift carried with it a responsibility to use it with care and only for the sorts of things it was meant for. They could enjoy using it, but it had to be used with care.
So too, when God gives us a gift it’s a sign of God’s trust of each of us. It’s something that carries with it a responsibility to use it for its intended use; not to misuse it nor to ignore it. And what’s the purpose of these gifts? It’s to build up the body of Christ. In fact he again takes that image, that metaphor, of a body and uses it to illustrate both the variety of gifts that God gives, and the way they’re meant to be used.
He says, think about what a body is like. In essence a body is a diverse organism. Apart from some single celled amoeba, every body is made up of a great variety of different parts. There are hands and feet, there are eyes and ears, noses, fingers, toes, there are parts that we parade with pride if they’re shapely enough or muscly enough and there are parts that we hide away in modesty. And they all work together as a team so that the body continues to function properly. And when one part of your body stops functioning properly the whole body suffers.
I remember a number of years ago I developed an ulcer on my cornea. It was a tiny thing. The eye specialist needed to use a magnifying glass to see it. But it had a devastating effect on my body. I was knocked out by it. Like I had the flu. These days I’m more likely to be knocked around by arthritis in some joint or pinched nerves in my back. All little things, but things that my whole body is affected by.
Well that’s a picture, of course, of the way the Church works. "God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it." We as a church are an organism that depends on every member contributing to the whole. That’s one reason why it’s important that we all meet together regularly. Ephesians 4 puts it like this: "speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love." (Eph 4:15-16 NRSV) There are no parts of the body that are indispensable. There’s no sense in which this particular gift or that gift is more important than any other. All gifts are necessary if the body is to work properly, to grow and be healthy. And no member is inferior to another. Why? Because the way the body works is that those who at first seem inferior are given greater honour, so as to remove the possibility of dissension (24,25). We’re to mimic God who treats humanity with an honour that we could never earn and will never deserve, who takes our failed attempts at worship and accepts them as if given to him by his own Son. We saw this principle at work in the last few chapters, where we were encouraged to see that although all things are lawful, not all things are helpful; that it may be better to forgo our rights for the sake of a weaker brother or sister or for the sake of proclaiming the gospel. And the greater honour that we give the weaker brother or sister is given out of respect for the body as a whole.
Of course this principle works itself out in the way that what happens to one of us affects the others. When one of our members suffers, there’s a sympathetic effect that touches every other member of the body, in the same way as my corneal ulcer affected my energy levels throughout my body or the way that when I’m feeling stressed it shows itself in the muscles in my shoulders tensing up. When one is honoured, we all feel honoured. And that’s true isn’t it? When David received his AO last year, or when Betty received her Centenary medal, we all felt proud, we all shared their honour, because they’re part of our body.
So we’re collectively Christ’s body and individually members of it. There’s both unity and diversity in the body of Christ. We should rejoice in our diversity while working hard to maintain our unity. Our unity derives from our common relationship with Christ and the common source, object and empowering of our many gifts. But our diversity is equally important. God is a God of details as well as of the big picture. That’s why he’s given us such an abundance and variety of gifts to share with one another. No-one can claim to have a monopoly on gifts. No-one must keep their gifts to themselves.
But finally, notice that there are certain gifts that imply a function in the life of the church and that within those functions there is a certain hierarchy of importance. He lists them, perhaps as a counter to what the Corinthians have been asserting. That certainly seems to be the implication of his argument from here to the end of ch 14. He says there are "first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues." He explains in ch 14 why he puts tongues last, perhaps in response to their suggestion that all Christians should speak in tongues. Certainly, if that’s what they’ve suggested they weren’t the last to suggest it. I guess, at least from what I’ve heard, that speaking in tongues is such an encouragement for those who experience it and such an obvious outward sign, that it must be hard not to suggest that all Christians should have it. But his consistent teaching here and in ch14 is that this is not the most important gift to desire. Much better to be an apostle, That is one sent out by Christ to preach the gospel, or a prophet, one who speaks the word of God to his people, or a teacher, who expounds the Scriptures.
For those who want to suggest that all Christians should speak in tongues, he points out that not everyone has every gift. Only some are apostles, only some prophets, only some teachers, etc. And if you want to be considered to be a spiritual person then don’t seek the lower gifts, seek the greater ones.
But in fact, as we’ll see when we get to ch 13, there’s an even better way to show just how spiritual you are. But that will have to wait for the first week of September.
Well, what have we learnt for now? First, test the gifts to see whether they exalt Jesus as Lord. Second, check whether their exercise is building up the body of Christ. And thirdly make sure you use whatever gifts God has given you to do what he intended them for, to help the body grow, to promote the common good. Finally, don’t think of yourself any more highly than you should. Remember that the body is made up of many members, all of which are vital if the body is to function correctly.
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