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TEXT: I Corinthians 12:1-31
SUBJECT: What Spiritual Gifts are for
Is the gift of tongues still with us? Are today's miracle workers performing bona fide miracles? If a man stood up in church with a prophecy, should we listen to what he says, or tell him to sit down? These are the kind of questions we typically bring to I Corinthians 12, and this is why we get so little out of the chapter.
Telling the Corinthians, 'The gift of working miracles will die out in the next few years' does not fix what's wrong with them. Because their problem is not fake miracles or phony tongues or men claiming to be Apostles when they're not.
The problem in Corinth is division, or rather, the attitudes that cause division. What are they? Pride and contempt; or in a word, selfishness. Back in Chapter 1, Paul thanks God for the gifts He's given this church, and he does it without irony or sarcasm. They have been--
Enriched in everything...coming short in no gift.
The gifts of tongues, healing, prophecy, and more were present in the church and being exercised by the brothers and sisters who had them. Paul is okay with all this--in fact, he's happy about it. What he's not happy with is how the gifts are being used, or what they're being used for.
'What are spiritual gifts for?' That's the question I Corinthians 12 answers, and why it's as relevant to us as it was to them. I believe the gift of tongues has served its purpose in the church and is no longer operative; I also believe that what's called 'the gift of tongues' today is not the gift of tongues, but something else altogether. I'll spend more time on this when we get to Chapter 14, but I say it now to underline the main point of today's chapter (and sermon), and that is: Your spiritual gifts are not for your own pleasure; they're for the good of the church.
SPIRITS AND THE SPIRIT
The chapter begins by distinguishing things that are different. The Corinthians were well acquainted with 'spiritual' gifts, gifts they possessed and used before they came to faith in Christ, vv.1-3--
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be ignorant: You know that you were Gentiles. carried away to these dumb idols, however you were led. Therefore, I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed, and no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.
Before coming to Christ, most of the Corinthians worshiped idols. Now, an idol itself is nothing but a block of wood or stone, but when men start bowing down to them, demons enter the idols and possess the people who serve them. I'm sure some of the worshipers were horrified by the experience, but most of them liked it very much. It was a kind of intoxication, a spiritual high. The English word, 'enthusiasm' comes from the experience; it literally means 'possessed by the gods', and this is how the pagans felt sometimes in their devotions.
The Gift of the God's Holy Spirit might feel the same as what they'd known in the past--but it wasn't the same! For one thing, it was God's Spirit who possessed them--and not a demonic spirit. For another, it was God's Holy Spirit--and not an unclean spirit--unclean both in itself and in what it does with you.
The unclean spirits made their people blaspheme God by saying such appalling things as Jesus is accursed. The Holy Spirit honors God by moving us to say--
Jesus is Lord.
By their fruits you shall know them, our Lord said, and what we say betrays what's inside of us, for good or evil.
THE ONE AND THE MANY
There is one Holy Spirit; He indwells all of God's People, and He gifts us all too. But He doesn't give us all the same gifts. This is an important Bible doctrine: Every Christian has gifts, but the gifts differ from one another--and this is a good thing! Paul makes this point repeatedly in vv.4-6--
Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are diversities of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but the same God who works all in all.
This is a hint of things to come, both in Chapter 12 and also, in Chapter 14. Every gift in the church is God's gift--and this means every gift is good and useful. No gift should be exalted over any other. They all matter!
In Corinth--and not only there--some gifts were more valued than others, and you know which ones they were: public gifts, the ones that got people to look at you. Preferring the noisier gifts to the quieter ones, however, is bogus. Because they're all from the same Spirit (v.4), the same Lord (v.5), and the same God (v.6). How can anything from God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be disappointing to the one who has it or resented by the one who'd rather have something else? Or looked down on by one who has a different gift? The gifts are not nearly as important as the One who gives them!
THE GIFTS AND THEIR PURPOSE
In vv.7-11, Paul tells us what the gifts are (in part) and what they're for. I do not believe he gives a complete list; in fact, I know he doesn't. Why he chose the ones he did name and not others, I can't say. In any event, here's what they are:
Wisdom, knowledge, faith, gifts of healing, the power to work miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues and interpreting tongues.
He revisits some of these gifts later in the chapter, and adds a few more--
Apostles, teachers, helps and administrations.
In preparing today's sermon, I had to make a hard decision at this point. Would I (a) define the gifts, say whether or not each is presently in effect, and why, or, (b) would I stick to the message of the chapter? Both are important, and if this were a different church, I might have chosen differently, but it seems clear to me that this church is better served by sticking to the message of the chapter, and saving much of what could be said here for the sermon on Chapter 14.
What is the message of our chapter? V.7 sums it up--
But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all.
The key words are each and all. The Lord has given each one of us spiritual gifts, and He wants us to use the gifts each of us has to bless the whole church.
Why did He give me one gift and you another? Because He wanted to, v.11b--
Distributing to each individually as He wills.
It has nothing to do with deserving; I suspect the most important gifts are given to the least important people so that--
No one should glory in the flesh, but if anyone glories, let him glory in the Lord.
If you're tempted to be a little too proud of your gifts, and how wonderfully qualified you must be to have them, remember the Lord has given them to you to prove He can use anybody! You, me, Balaam's ass...anybody.
THE BODY OF CHRIST
In vv.12-27, Paul proves his point by reminding us of what we are. What is the church? It is the Body of Christ. At one time, the Body was all Jewish, and most of the members were dead in trespasses and sins. With the coming of Christ, however, all this changed, just as the prophets said it would be.
On the Day of Pentecost, the Resurrected Jesus poured out His Spirit on all flesh--Jews and Gentiles, slaves, freemen, whatever. All these people, from different races and sexes and places in life became the Universal Body of Christ, of which the local church is a visible expression.
Paul doesn't spend any time documenting all this; he assumes we already know it. Then he draws the comparison between the Body of Christ and the human body. How many parts of the human body are needed? They're all needed. How many parts of the human body contribute to the health and vigor of the body? They all do. Including the parts we hardly ever think about, and the parts nobody's proud of.
Go to the gym and you'll see some people are very proud of their bulging biceps, their rock hard abs, or their tiny waistlines. Others are proud of their faces: her eyes are so blue, his chin is so manly; and what a smile! But, for all this vanity, all this primping, have you ever heard anyone say, 'Look at the pancreas on that one!' Or seen a book on how to get 'Sexy Tonsils'! We don't think about our tonsils, our pancreases, or our hamate bones.
But they're important for the health and vigor of our bodies. My father was in wonderful health for a man his age...except for the cancer on his pancreas, a part he had hardly ever thought about until the doctor told him what was wrong with it.
What's the most important part of the body for a baseball pitcher? We'd all say, his arm. But in 1930's there was a great pitcher named Dizzy Dean. One day on the mound, a batter lined a ball off his little toe and broke it. No big deal; after all, you don't pitch with your little toe. Or do you? Dizzy Dean didn't think so, and he came back too early from his injury; the little toe hadn't quite healed. Throwing off a sore toe changed his pitching motion, and this ruined his great right arm.
Moral to the story: Every part of your body matters, and so does every member of the Body of Christ! No one is insignificant; no gift is unnecessary!
The Corinthians felt otherwise. We know they did because everyone wanted the same gifts! Everyone, it seems, wanted to speak in tongues.
Paul is thunderstruck by their stupidity! In the Body of Christ, everyone speaking in tongues is like, in the human body every part being the same part, the eye for instance or the hands. If all your body was an eye, you couldn't hear. If all your body was a hand, how would you walk?
We don't need to envy each other's gift, but use the gifts we have, and thank God for the diversity of gifts He gives to the church. Every gift is needed, and no gift is more important than any other.
Being the Body of Christ means everyone and every gift contributes to the welfare of the church. But this is not all it means. It also means, v.25b--
That the members should have the same care for one another.
If you hit your thumb with a hammer, your whole body hurts. A good dinner makes you feel good all over. Why? Because the human body is, at the same time, both many parts and one body. So is the church. If we're really connected to each other, as Paul says we are, everyone's success is mine, and so is everyone's failure. This means, instead of resenting John's promotion at work, I should rejoice in it, as though it were my own. But if John loses his job, I should sympathize with him, as if I had lost my own.
Sympathy in the Body of Christ is not make-believe; it's real because we are the Body of Christ!
ONE MORE TIME!
This is one of the hardest lessons we'll ever learn; it must be hard to learn because Paul goes over the same lesson three times in one chapter. We preachers sometimes do this because we're not well prepared or disciplined, but Paul is both. He's not in love with the sound of his own voice, and being a poor man, he must have cringed at having to 'waste' paper saying the same thing over and over.
The Church of his time had Apostles, prophets, teachers, miracle workers, healers, helpers, administrators, and people who spoke in tongues.
Are all the gifts still in operation? Of course, they're not--nobody really believes they are--but I'll say no more because this is not what Paul's getting at here.
In vv.29-30, he asks a series of rhetorical questions, each demanding a 'no' answer--
Are all Apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles? Do all have the gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?
Now, if everyone is obviously not meant to be an Apostle--He implies--why should you think that everyone in meant to speak in tongues? It doesn't make any sense! If the whole church is a tongue, who's going to be the hands and feet and eyes and ears the church needs?
However Paul ranks the Spirit's gifts, he wants us to be content with what we have and to make maximum use of it. This brings us to v.31, a verse that seems to subvert all he's said before. Scholars differ, not only on what it means, but even on what it says.
Here's what I think: My Bible says, But earnestly desire the best gifts, and this seems to be an imperative, a command. I think it's something else (and, again, I have scholars' backing). I think it's an indicative, in other words, I think Paul is saying--
You are desiring the best gifts.
That is, the gifts you think best. But I'm going to show you a more excellent way, not a better gift than the tongues you're craving, but a better way of using whatever gifts you have, and that is, to use them in love.
Paul has brought us full-circle. Every Christian has gifts from God, and the Lord has given them to you to bless the church. This won't be done, however, if you're unhappy with the gifts you have, and resenting people who have the gifts you want, or looking down on people because you have the preferred gifts, and they don't.
The Body of Christ is only healthy insofar as every member identifies his or her gifts and puts them to use. But there's the rub: What is your gift? Many people don't know what it is, including very intelligent people who sometimes outthink themselves.
People who know where the Bible lists are--Romans 12, for example, or I Corinthians 12 or Ephesians 4--will sometimes go down them, and say, 'No, I'm not an Apostle, not a prophet, not a teacher...I might be a shower of mercy, but then again, maybe 'helps' is what I do best or is it giving? They can't make up their minds, and because exactly what the gift is is not fully defined in the Bible, they wonder if they can ever know for sure. And so, they sit there wondering what their gifts are and praying God will reveal it to them.
Your prayers have been answered! Your gifts are what you can do in the church that needs doing. If you can't carry a tune in a bucket, you're probably not called to lead singing--and besides, we already have people who can do that.
But maybe you can drive a car and somebody needs to go somewhere: there's your gift. Or maybe you lost your husband two years ago, and a sister has just lost hers. Maybe you can help her with the 'business side' of bereavement, and if you can't, you can still sit with her and cry with her and pray for her with a sympathy women who haven't lost their husbands can't. There's your gift.
Many things need to be done in the church: some here on Sunday mornings, but most in other places and other times. Things need doing, and if you can do them, there's your gift and your calling and your privilege. Working on a computer, visiting a shut-in, taking a meal to the couple who just had a baby. These things are about as sexy as a pancreas: and about as necessary.
Let us, therefore, commit to being what we are, the Body of Christ, people loved and redeemed by the Lord Jesus. People who matter to Him, and therefore, matter to each other.
I had to choose between (a) defining the gifts, saying whether they're operative today, and how we can know whether they are or not. And (b) sticking with the message of the chapter. I bet you know what choice I made: I chose (b) because
Some of the gifts speak for themselves; even if we can't carefully define them, we have a good feel for what he means by knowledge, wisdom, and the power to work miracles.
But what about faith? Is this a gift only some people have in the church while most don't have it? No. Allowing for some hypocrites who get into the church with false professions of faith, every church member believes in Christ, because that's what a church is: the community of faith. Thus, the faith he refers to here has got to be something else, a faith that is out of the ordinary, a faith only a chosen few have.
Most scholars say it's the faith to perform miracles. But if this is true, how does it differ from the working of miracles a few lines down? Does one man have the faith to work miracles and another works them?
I think it's a visionary kind of faith, the faith some people have to do bold things for Christ, things not required of all of us, but very much needed. Call it 'faith on steroids'. Barnabas, for example, had the faith to sell his property to support the poor widows in the church. He wasn't told to do it and neither was anyone else. But the money was needed and the Lord moved him to give it (without finding fault with others for being stingy).
Prophecy is a second gift we may not understand, but I think we should save that one for Chapter 14, since it is far more prominent there than it is here. The gift generating the most controversy today is tongues. Again, I'll spend more time on this in Chapter 14, but the following heads seem clear to me:
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