2 Corinthians 12:3-13: The Gifts of the Spirit

Spiritual Gifts (610x351)Before the time of Jesus, God limited His gifts of speaking to prophets, judges, the 70 elders of Israel, and two other men in Moses’ day (Numbers 11:24-29). Oh, well there was that donkey (Num 22:28-30)! But life for God’s people is now different. Jesus’ resurrection has ushered in the age of the Spirit, first publicly revealed at Pentecost.

That was when Christ sent the Holy Spirit as He promised. And the purpose of the Spirit’s outpouring was the Gospel’s proclamation. And so, when it comes to the list of spiritual gifts that Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 12, many overlook that God gives such gifts to build others up in the faith.

Paul didn’t say that “the Holy Spirit gave wisdom and knowledge as gifts.” He said the Spirit gave “the Word of wisdom” and “the Word of knowledge” (1 Cor 12:8). For it’s someone speaking that “Word of Wisdom” or that “Word of knowledge” that builds up the Church. Worldly wisdom and knowledge don’t do that.

And amid the many gifts that he mentioned, Paul also spoke of “the same Spirit,” “the same Lord,” and “the same God.” Although each person is individually baptized and brought into the Church, “we [we!] were all given to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13).

We are to keep no one away from the gifts of the Gospel, through which the “one Spirit” works. Whoever they are, all people put on Christ through baptism (Gal 3:26-27), which transforms someone into a member of the Body of Christ and a bearer of the Spirit. Through baptism, the Holy Spirit connects someone to the saving work of Christ’s cross and resurrection (Rom 6:3-5).

Paul corrects us against thinking that we’ve outgrown speaking about our sinful nature, or turning away from sin, or hearing Christ and Him crucified preached into our ears. After all, the Holy Spirit’s work in the Church is to glorify Jesus (John 16:13-15).

And so, we ponder the Corinthian congregation. Through the Word and Sacrament, something wonderful had happened. The Holy Spirit had moved people from their inborn idolatry and kindled faith in their hearts through the Gospel.

But they didn’t understand how the Spirit worked in them, or how He wielded His power. So, Paul teaches them to know what was from the Spirit and what wasn’t. To do this, Paul didn’t direct them inwardly. He didn’t say, “Now, if you want to know what the Spirit is doing, you can feel it in your heart.” Paul didn’t say that.

So, why do we sometimes think that way? How does Paul direct the Corinthians, so they could tell if something was from God? He says that “no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, “‘Jesus is cursed’” (1 Cor 12:3). Is someone belittling Jesus by what he says or does? Then that’s not from the Spirit.

But Paul doesn’t stop there. He also says that “no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3). Is someone exalting Jesus as God, for that’s what Paul means when he uses “Lord”? If that’s what someone does in his speaking, then it’s from the Holy Spirit.

Paul starts out saying that confessing Jesus as Lord is what’s important. After that, he then talks about the Spirit giving such gifts so, through them, people can serve others in the Church (1 Cor 12:5). That’s what happens when Jesus is Lord. “Serving” and “activities” are other ways to describe the gifts that God gives to build up one another.

Indeed, the Holy Spirit had given the Corinthians a great diversity of gifts:

The Spirit gives one person the Word of wisdom. The same Spirit gives to another the Word of knowledge. To another, the same Spirit gives faith. To another, the one Spirit gives gifts of healing; to another, miracles; to another, prophecy; and to another, distinguishing between spirits. Another can speak in different kinds of tongues, and another can translate them.

So, let’s explore these gifts.

The faith that Paul mentions here isn’t saving faith. All Christians have saving faith. This faith is a faith that some in Corinth had and others didn’t. That faith was a strong and unwavering confidence in God, able to reveal itself in extraordinary deeds and to do what may seem impossible. Abraham, Moses, and Paul had this gift of heroic faith.

The Spirit gave others the power to cure diseases. That was a marker of someone being an Apostle. But we also know that those who worked with the Apostles during their lifetimes could also heal, at times. But remember, the purpose of every physical healing was not in the healing itself. It was to point to the perfect healing that our bodies would have at the resurrection when Christ returns.

Others had the gift of prophecy. That was the ability to speak God’s Word, but also apply it when teaching and correcting others. How else were people to learn all that Jesus commanded His people to know (Matt 28:20)? Someone teaching you God’s Word is to go on until the day you die.

The Spirit also gave some the power to judge the spirits. That’s the ability to recognize false prophets and the false “Gospel” they brought, which led people away from Christ. Notice that’s a gift the Spirit had given to some in Corinth and, yet, Paul still had to teach and correct the Corinthian congregation.

Others could speak in different tongues. They could speak strange words, which they didn’t know before. But this gift wasn’t valuable in itself—if the Holy Spirit didn’t give someone else the ability to translate that speech to benefit the congregation.

When Paul later discussed the gifts of speaking in such tongues, he stressed the need to evaluate them (1 Cor 14:29). Prophets were subject to other prophets, who were to judge what they said (1 Cor 14:29, 32).

And what was the supreme test of a Christian prophet? It was his confession of Jesus Christ as Lord. The Apostle John also wrote that you could tell if someone was speaking by the Spirit if he confessed that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh (1 John 4:1-3). In Romans 12, Paul said that prophecy, speaking God’s Word, had to be according to the standard of the faith (Romans 12:6).

Are you beginning to notice a trend when it comes to what someone says in the Church and if it comes from God? Do someone’s words point to Jesus as Savior? Do those words confess Him? That’s the work of the Spirit. For “no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3). So, why would it make sense that gifts of speaking would point to someone or something other than Christ?

The purpose of all the Spirit-given gifts is “for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7). It’s to benefit our spiritual lives; it’s to build others up in the faith. That’s why Paul put a leash on speaking in tongues during worship.

In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul wrote that someone who speaks in a tongue “is building up himself” (1 Cor 14:4), not Christ. Because of that, Paul would only allow speaking in tongues during worship if someone was there to translate those sounds (1 Cor 14:27-28). But how would someone know—ahead of time—if someone would even be there to do that—if they hadn’t colluded together ahead of time?

Paul was politely shutting down the Corinthian practice of people speaking in tongues during worship. He was teaching them to use that gift privately, in prayer.

And then, after that, Paul explains that prophecy, speaking God’s Word, was more useful than speaking in tongues. That was because speaking God’s Word in words that people understood built them up; tongues didn’t. Prophecy built up other people because it confessed Christ, pointing them away from themselves to their Savior from sin, to their Savior who gives eternal life.

Did you know that Jesus warned about relying on miracles in one’s faith, saying that it was a sign of unbelief and unrepentance (Matt 12:39, 16:4)? Jesus even foretold that, in the last days, “signs and wonders” were a marker of false messiahs and prophets (Matt 24:22-24). In 2 Thessalonians, Paul wrote that Satan uses “miracles, and signs and wonders to deceive those who are perishing” (2 Thess 2:9-10). It’s no wonder then that Paul directed the Corinthians to “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7).

Paul speaks of gifts AND unity in Christ’s Church. Unity in the Church is being one in Christ. It’s also a unity in our confession of Christ. So, although a rich diversity of gifts exists in the Church, they all come from the one Spirit, to build up the Body of Christ.

1 Corinthians 12:18 tells us that “God has arranged the parts of the body just as he wanted.” The human body, with all its parts, help us understand how life in the Church is to be. Each member has a distinctive role—as part of the Body.

An eyeball doesn’t leave the body to do what it wants. So also are the parts within the Church. Jesus is the head. He directs what takes place in the Church, not us. The unity of Christ’s body is not something that we can produce or achieve. God brings that about by nourishing us through the Word of the Gospel, of salvation in Christ. We can only mess up this unity by letting our sin have sway in the Church.

Praise Christ for His gift of the Spirit, which He has given to us, with the forgiveness of our sins! Praise Christ for the Spirit, who is the Guarantee of our inheritance! Praise God for the Spirit, who equips us with His gifts for the common good! Amen.