Gifts of the Spirit (May 10, 2105)

Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: 1 Corinthians 12:1-11

The apostle Paul certainly had his hands full trying to guide the Christians in Corinth as they struggled to live out the gospel together. From oral reports he had received and a letter the Corinthians had sent, Paul knew that there were problems. Competing groups threatened the unity of the congregation. Some believers considered themselves spiritually superior to others. Some members were involved in serious moral shortcomings, and some Christians initiated legal action against fellow believers. There was disagreement in this predominantly Gentile congregation about participating in banquets where meat sacred to their former gods was served. And when the Corinthians gathered to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, some got drunk while others went hungry. Even Paul’s authority was questioned by some members of the congregation he had founded several years earlier. To make matters worse, Paul was in Ephesus many miles away from Corinth. Replying to this worrisome congregational situation called for Paul’s most convincing rhetoric and pastoral wisdom.

1 Corinthians 12:1-3: The Holy Spirit speaks
Paul begins this section of his epistle by responding to a matter the Corinthians had raised in their letter to him. They asked about spiritual things (or perhaps spiritual people), by which they meant manifestations of spiritual power that must have been frequent in the Corinthian congregation.

To make his point, Paul provides an extreme and probably hypothetical example. If somebody curses Jesus, that person is not inspired by the Spirit of God, Paul writes.

When a person testifies “Jesus is Lord,” the earliest Christian confession, that person is inspired by God’s Spirit. Unlike the silent idols the Corinthians had worshipped, God’s Spirit spoke to and through believers, enabling them to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. The Greek word translated “Lord” (kurios) is the word most frequently used for God in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible.

1 Corinthians 12:4-7: Many gifts, one purpose
Before he describes specific spiritual gifts, Paul mentions three broad categories of spiritual empowerment: gifts, services and activities. What is crucially important is that they are all manifestations of God’s Spirit, and they are granted to every believer for the good of the whole community. The Spirit of God is active throughout the community of faith in many different ways. There is one purpose for the many manifestations of God’s power: the mutual betterment of the community. Manifestations of God’s power are not for personal or individual edification.

Although Paul began this chapter by discussing spiritual things, a term the Corinthians may have used in their letter to him, in verse 4 the word Paul uses literally refers to signs of God’s grace — charismata in Greek, the same word from which our English word “charisma” is derived. This semantic shift puts the emphasis on God’s initiative rather than human capabilities.

1 Corinthians 12:8-11: Different gifts for different people
Paul concludes this section of his letter by enumerating nine specific spiritual gifts God gives to believers. This list is certainly not exhaustive. Similar lists include other gifts (1 Corinthians 12:28-30; Romans 12:6-8). This list underscores the rich spiritual experience of the Corinthian congregation. Imagine a congregation that included persons who had gifts of wisdom (sophia) and knowledge (gnosis), others who had faith, gifts of healing and miracle-working power, and still others who prophesied or discerned spirits, and still others who spoke in tongues or interpreted tongues. What a spiritually gifted congregation!

It is important to remember that Paul does not challenge or question the reality of any of these spiritual gifts. Instead he repeats his main point: all these gifts come from God’s Spirit. It is the Spirit who distributes these gifts as the Spirit chooses. And the Spirit distributes these gifts to each believer personally. These are gifts from God, so there is no room for pride as if these gifts were a personal achievement. To Godbe the glory!

For discussion
Presbyterians confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. How would you describe what that means to a non-Christian? How does your congregation compare to the Corinthian congregation when it comes to spiritual gifts? How does a Christian recognize and acknowledge spiritual gifts? Have you seen in others or experienced yourself any of the spiritual gifts mentioned in this passage?

JAMES A. BRASHLER is professor emeritus of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.