Summary: What you think you know about spiritual gifts, is probably wrong, in ways that actually inhibit ministry rather than encouraging it.
This morning I would like us to think about spiritual gifts: skills and abilities given by God the Holy Spirit to followers of Christ for the purpose of ministry. And my hypothesis is that what you probably believe about spiritual gifts is wrong. Wrong in a way that’s diminishing your joy in serving God, and inhibiting your potential usefulness to God. And my intention is to offer a correction. My hope is that you will find this topic to be enlightening and thought-provoking, somewhat challenging, but ultimately, encouraging.
Encouraging, because all of us want, deep down, to matter. We don’t want to take the easy path, just getting by with as little effort as possible, sleepwalking our way to heaven. We want our lives to have significance. When we stand before God, we want to hear him say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant!” Instead of, “What have you been doing all these years?” And this topic of spiritual gifts is one that will help us to matter. Matter to the church, matter to God’s purposes in the world, matter to our friends and families, matter to our communities. Does that sound like something you would like to understand more deeply? OK. Good.
Let’s start by defining the term “ministry”. Ministry, for a Christian, isn’t just helping people, or doing good things. Ministry is serving others for the sake of the gospel. Ministry is serving others in ways that reflect God’s character and advance God’s purposes.
This definition of ministry is broad. It isn’t restricted geographically or chronologically, which means that it isn’t limited to the activities which take place here in this building, on the first day of each week, what we do in church on Sundays. Nor is it limited to the things we do for one another; for other followers of Christ. Because God’s purposes also embrace those who do not yet know him; those whom he is calling to himself.
Why does that matter? Having a clear definition of ministry is important, because our topic this morning is spiritual gifts, which are gifts for ministry. I said at the beginning that spiritual gifts are often misunderstood, in ways that have the effect of inhibiting ministry rather than encouraging it. And one of the reasons is that our view of ministry, and therefore our view of spiritual gifts, is too narrow.
Let me explain what I mean. When you read or hear teaching on spiritual gifts, it usually includes these main points:
1. Everyone has a spiritual gift (perhaps more than one).
2. Spiritual gifts are distributed by God the Holy Spirit, as he pleases.
3. The purpose for which God distributes spiritual gifts is ministry.
4. There is a list, or a set of lists, in the Bible that together encompass the various kinds of gifts.
5. You must therefore determine which of the gifts on the list you have received, so that you can exercise it.
Some of these are true, and some are only partly true. Where it starts to go awry is between points three and four. In Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12, as well as Ephesians 4 and 1 Peter 4, we find the lists of spiritual gifts that are familiar to many of us. And if you have a narrow view of ministry, then the limited set of gifts identified in those lists seems sufficient. In other words, if what happens in a church building on a Sunday morning is your definition of “ministry”, then the gifts in those four lists are all that is needed.
But if your view of ministry is broader, then those lists seem rather restrictive. Where does, for example, feeding your neighbor’s cat while they’re on vacation fit in, or painting backgrounds for the Vacation Bible School program, or writing novels which portray the human condition insightfully, or stopping to help a stranger fix a flat tire? I’m not saying it can’t be done. You can define the spiritual gifts in those four lists broadly enough that they would cover all of those activities. I’m just saying it doesn’t feel like a good fit. It feels like you’re stretching the definitions a bit to accommodate all those other types of ministry. And it makes you think that perhaps there’s something amiss with our entire approach.
And that brings us to the Biblical gift of embroidery. How many of you knew there was a spiritual gift of embroidery, the ability to create designs in fabric? You think I’m making this up. I can see it on your faces. But I am not making this up. This is an actual spiritual gift, found in the actual Bible.
“30 Then Moses said to the Israelites, “See, the Lord has chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, 31 and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills— 32 to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, 33 to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic crafts. 34 And he has given both him and Oholiab son of Ahisamak, of the tribe of Dan, the ability to teach others. 35 He has filled them with skill to do all kinds of work as engravers, designers, embroiderers in blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen, and weavers—all of them skilled workers and designers.”