an exposition of 1 Corinthians 12:1-11
Re-Introduction to the epistle of 1 Corinthians
It’s the Epiphany season, and that means we’re back to Saint Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians. For the past two years we’ve followed this monumental letter through the Epiphany season, and this year we’re outlining it mostly to its end. I know preaching through the majority of a book broken up over three years isn’t the ideal way to go about things, so let’s have a quick review of where we’ve been with this book already.
Corinth was a problem congregation. It was a church largely made up of former Gentile Pagans, hardly any Jewish presence can be gleaned from Paul’s writings to them. This makes this epistle kind of the counterpart to Galatians – there the congregation was turning back to Judaism, here the congregation was turning back to Paganism. Corinthian culture in general was very cosmopolitan: many philosophical and religious ideas were in vogue, morality was looser in that enlightened trade port, and a sort of smugness had crept into the church regarding their intellectual superiority. This makes the Corinthian situation very similar to our own today: we live in an affluent society where all sorts of ideas are constantly in exchange, and various parties – political, religious, or otherwise – very easily fall into a smug self-assuredness about how enlightened we are.
In the Corinthian church, specifically, there were issues with members vying for power over one another and lording their “spiritual gifts” and their “wisdom” over one another, entering into lawsuits with one another, oddly legalistic marriage rules yet permissive sexual morals, and an insidious sort of dualism that pitted the physical body as evil against the immaterial spirit as good. They were beginning to think that they’d outgrown that “basic gospel” and had moved on to more sophisticated stuff. And so Paul had to bring them back to the basics of several issues: divine wisdom versus earthly wisdom, the ministry and authority of the apostles, the centrality of the bodily resurrection, the practice of marriage, the celebration of holy communion, and other topics.
Needless to say, Paul had a history with them. He was there around the year 52 as one of the church’s founders, wrote them a letter a little while later when he heard about some issues, and then wrote this letter around the 55. So, most of these members are only 3-year-old Christians and they’re already thinking they’ve outgrown the basic Gospel of repentance and faith in Christ that Paul preached to them!
Quick Summary of the epistle so far
Chapters 1-4 deal with the divisions in the Corinthian church. Paul addresses the idol of human “wisdom” and so-called “spirituality” and the party factious spirit it was beginning to engender in their midst. He brought them back to the basics of the Gospel, pointing out that what seems folly to man (a crucified Savior, the preaching of the Word) is actually the wisdom of God. From there he moved onto the related subject of ministry: Christian leaders are ministers of the Word who embrace the wisdom of God and reject the wisdom of men, proclaiming the Gospel in word and deed by being servant-leaders, not taking advantage of the flock and pushing other people around.
Chapters 5-6 present two specific issues in Corinth that resulted from their divisive issues: a man “living with” his mother, and a case of legal litigation between members of the church. Paul follows a consistent pattern here and elsewhere of first identifying the problem generally, second presenting a theological principle or doctrine that addresses the issue, and third applies these principles to the situation at hand.
In Chapters 7-11, Paul switches tact from addressing problems he heard about them, to answering questions that they’d specifically written to him about. Chapter 7 focuses on marriage, remarriage, and virginity; chapters 8-10 focus on dealing with food that was sacrificed to idols (how to deal with the pagan world around them) including a note on his apostolic authority to teach all this, and chapter 11 addresses issues in their worship services such as gender separation and disorderly conduct at holy communion that was rendering the sacrament invalid! These topics are heavy-hitters indeed.
Chapter 12 begins a new subject, introducing the basics of Spiritual Gifts
Here in chapter 12 we’re still dealing with issues in the worship at Corinth, but a new specific subject: that of spiritual gifts. This is another 3-chapter section following Paul’s usual argument style: chapter 12 addresses the subject of spiritual gifts at a general level, chapter 13 sets out a theological premise for the subject, and chapter 14 applies his teaching to their specific situation. Today we’re starting in on the introduction to all this: the basics of spiritual gifts.
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed.
2 You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led.
3 Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says
“Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.
Saint Paul wants the Corinthians to know about spiritual gifts. He begins by appealing to the past experience of the congregation: paganism. Their idols were mute, not providing any living word of truth to their worshipers. This is in contrast to the Holy Spirit who alone inspires and enables true worship of God. This true worship of God is paired with true knowledge of God: the phrase “Jesus is Lord” could be translated more literally as “The LORD is Jesus,” using the Old Testament name for God (Yahweh) respectfully put in Greek as kyrie (lord). After all, it’s one thing to say Jesus is God, but it carries a greater theological weight to start with the Old Testament biblical identity of God – the Lord – and identify him as Jesus of Nazareth. This is the work and testimony of the Holy Spirit. Paul starts here because the fundamental gift is the Spirit himself, who enables us to call upon Jesus as Lord. This, even with no other “gifts” beside, is blessedness and riches enough.
4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;
5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6
and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.
The parallelism in this statement is remarkable and reveals much about Paul’s belief about God and his works within us. There are “varieties” or “distributions” of gifts (charismata), gracious gifts – denoting their source; ministrations or service (like services rendered for others’ benefit) – denoting their purpose; and energies or activities (a sort of active force working within one) – denoting their power. These, in turn, are linked to three names of God: Spirit, Lord, and God. Although Paul is probably not going out of his way to make this point, this reveals his underlying understanding of God as Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We also see here that the three Persons work in unison; they aren’t each doing their own projects – the Holy Spirit is not a divine maverick running around giving special gifts to special people. Rather, God in his triune fullness works with and within each of his people in unique and particular ways.
7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
Verse 7 transitions our attention from God, the giver of spiritual gifts, to the gifts themselves. The emphasis is two-fold: each believer has his gift, and every gift is for the common good. Gifts are here called a “manifestation of the Spirit” to denote that it is the sovereign work of God that is revealed in spiritual gifts. The Corinthians, remember, had ego problems. They were vying for influence and power with one another, showing off their earthly wisdom and glorying in their gifts. This might be a bit extreme, but if you combine the tragically bad leadership in the Roman Church in recent times with the most wacky examples of Pentecostal worship you can see where the Corinthians were headed. They needed to re-learn the wise sovereign power of God and his purpose to build up the Body as one.
8 For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom,
and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit,
9 to another faith by the same Spirit,
to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles,
to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits,
to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.
Verses 8-10 give us the first list of spiritual gifts in the epistle. Others are listed later in this chapter and in other books of the New Testament, so we should consider this list merely a sampling. Considering it starts with “wisdom”, which Paul has dealt with in the opening chapters, and “tongues” which he’ll go on to address in chapter 14, it is likely that this list was devised to outline the interests, strengths, and weaknesses of the Corinthian congregation. As such, we shouldn’t read too much into the ordering of the gifts listed here. Some people assert that they form a prioritization of important to unimportant, similar to what Paul does later in this epistle. Many have suggested logical groupings in this list. The most reliable approach here is note the several pairings of gifts.
Utterances of Wisdom (sophia) and Knowledge (gnosis) are the first pair of gifts. They’re both gifts of the intellect, denoting the ability to speak according to the divine wisdom and knowledge. The difference between wisdom and knowledge in this context is quite slim; perhaps the former is about understanding and communicating the deep truths of God, and the latter is about the factual and doctrinal details of the gospel. Because “wisdom” is something the Corinthians both valued and misunderstood, it is probably a kindly pastoral move on Paul’s part to list it first here both to appeal to their interest while also reinforcing the correction they desperately need.
Next is the gift of faith. As a particular spiritual gift, this must be understood as being beyond “saving faith” common to all Christians. Rather, this faith is the sort of “faith, so as to remove mountains,” as Paul will later mention in 13:2. This also serves as a set-up for the next pair of spiritual gifts, Healings and Miracles, which are essentially specific gifts of Faith in action. Something important to note but easy to miss about the gifts of Healings and Miracles is that they’re both in the plural: the gift is the individual enactment of divine healing or miraculous work that God manifests through someone. This is sometimes misconstrued to be that someone has the gift of an ability to enact healings and miracles, but that is not what Paul wrote. You need only look at the likes of Kenneth Copeland and Benny Hinn to see how this false interpretation can so easily go awry.
Prophecy and the Distinguishing between spirits are the next pair of spiritual gifts. These are gifts of faith in speech. Prophecy has two levels of definition. Its basic meaning is speak forth the word of God – most of the Old Testament prophets were mostly taking the pre-existing word of God, primarily the Law of Moses, and preaching and explicating and applying its relevant sections to the situation before them. In this sense, all true preaching is prophecy: proclaiming the Word of God. But there is a second, even more miraculous sort of prophecy – the direct reception of divine inspiration to speak in God’s name and authority. The entire Bible was written by such sorts of prophets, as we understand it to be God-breathed in its entirety. The gift of distinguishing between spirits, then, is the special gift of discernment to recognize a true prophet from false. All Christians are called to distinguish between spirits (1 Corinthians 14:29), so as a spiritual gift this is a more particular gift of divine insight. Like Healings and Miracles, this is something that can be misunderstood and abused pretty easily. As Paul will go on to explain in chapter 14, prophesying is something that can and should be carried out in an orderly fashion. It is not in fits of ecstasy, or moments of a high emotional rush that prophecy is carried out; rather, a true prophet is in command of his or her words throughout, led by the Holy Spirit yet still in command of one’s faculties. If it looks like a show or a pagan frenzy, it probably is.
The last two spiritual gifts are another obvious pair: speaking in tongues and interpreting tongues. This, too, has seen quite a bit of controversy over its meaning. The biblical evidence, especially in the story of the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, teaches us that a tongue is a human language that someone in the world can understand. The gift of interpreting tongues matches this: such miraculous utterances are not to leave us in the dark. Paul will clarify this further also: if nobody present understands the tongue in which somebody utters, they should stop. As with prophecy, this is not an irresistible spiritual urge that overtakes you, but a purposeful gift to build up the Body for the common good.
Considering the list in its entirety, some of these gifts may be natural talents that are then heightened by the Holy Spirit, while others are entirely supernatural gifts suddenly and totally from the Holy Spirit.
11 All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit,
who apportions to each one individually as he wills.
Our text, and Paul’s introduction to spiritual gifts, ends with a clear summary of the same main points he started with: the “one and the same Spirit” empowers or energizes all of these gifts or works to “each one individually.” The addition of the last phrase “as he wills” is an emphatic closing to the section: God is in charge of his spiritual gifts! He has continued control or mediation in the exercise of these gifts. That rules out the abuse of considering them as magical powers. That rules out the abuse of considering such gifted people as superior to other Christians. God is in control, God is looking after us, we may not and can not usurp God’s glory.
Preparing for what’s ahead
These opening verses of chapter 12 give us a nice basic introduction to spiritual gifts. Next, Paul will elaborate on the principle of the unity of the church using the analogy of the Body of Christ. The various gifts and roles we have will be tied together into the critical context of a functional unity. Faith, hope, and love will prove to be the key underlying gifts – the theological virtues, if you will – that give meaning and significance to all others. This basic introduction to spiritual gifts will then spill out into more detailed considerations of some of the issues that come up in practice, or malpractice. Saint Paul’s call to orderly worship in the midst of all this at the end of chapter 14 will wrap up this section of the book. That is where we’ll be going over the next couple weeks.
For now, suffice it to say that God works in many different ways in each of his many different people. We must not think so highly of ourselves that we fall into the trap of believing that we can act with divine authority without actually being obedient to God. And we must not think so lowly of ourselves that we fall into the trap of believing that we are worthless to God and the Church. The Spirit manifests himself in us and through in many different ways, and Paul here has only begun to scratch the surface!
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world:
Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments,
may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory,
that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit
lives and reigns, one God, now and forever. Amen.