If ever there was a chapter of the Bible that was frequently misunderstood, and that misunderstanding led to contention in Messiah’s Community, I’d say 1 Corinthians 12 is it. This chapter outlines the gifts of the Holy Spirit; misinterpreted and/or misapplied, it’s like theological nitroglycerine. Handle with care!
Considering how much division there is about the gifts of the Spirit, and whether they are still in operation, and who gets what gift, one might be tempted to pass over this chapter and avoid discussion of these things altogether. But that would be a mistake, and we would be the poorer for not taking to heart these divinely-inspired words by Paul, the Great Apostle to the Gentiles.
It’s just that we need to be careful and diligent about interpreting the Word.
Let me say this: chapter 12 isn’t meant to be an exhaustive or definitive list of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In fact, if we’ll keep in mind the big picture, we’ll see that this passage is less about specific gifts of the Spirit, and more about the overarching issue of the Corinthians’ disunity. Their egos and immaturity were adversely affecting every area of Church life, and in this context, the Apostle is aiming to help restore order to their assemblies.
Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant. You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols.
Paul was acknowledging that most of the Corinthian believers were new to the Faith, and that many of them had come out of horrific kinds of idolatry and raw paganism. As we have already learned, Corinth was a city of immense wealth, but also filled with depravity of every kind. The Corinthian believers may have been familiar with wild, counterfeit ‘spiritual’ outbursts and utterances. Some things have to be unlearned. As followers of Messiah Yeshua, they are now children of the Living God.
But the things of God were still new to them, and the fact of their ongoing discord made them unfit to walk wisely in the power of the Spirit. Instruction and correction were both needed here.
And we need it, too.
Question: Is it possible that you brought some ideological baggage with you into the New Covenant? When you were born again, did you begin to reorient your thinking and your priorities to conform to the Word of God? You’d be surprised to know how many people who profess to follow Yeshua, even for years, who won’t acknowledge the Scriptures as the authoritative source of truth (and some of them identify as ‘Evangelical’). They hold onto old, unbiblical ideas, and when those ideas are in conflict with Scripture, they default to their own ways. When the Bible says something with which they’re uncomfortable, they will disagree with it, or else desperately try to find a ‘creative interpretation’ that lets them off the hook.
Let’s consider the text. The word ‘gifts’ doesn’t appear in the Greek, but is implied. The actual word is rneumatikwn (pneumatikown) which is the equivalent of ‘spiritual things’. The translators added the word gifts for our understanding, and contextually they were right to do so.
Did you know that in all of his New Covenant letters, Paul only used the phrase“I do not want you to be ignorant…” three times? The other two things he didn’t want us to be unaware of are God’s benevolent, ongoing plans and purposes for Israel (Romans 11), and Messiah Yeshua’s second coming to planet Earth (1 Thessalonians 4). He is telling the Corinthians that the working of the Holy Spirit is a vitally important matter. So while we might be tempted to steer clear of a potentially divisive subject, we just can’t do that. We need to learn and understand.
Therefore, I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.
Have you ever noticed that most people are okay with talking about God, but the moment you insert Jesus’ name into the conversation it gets very uncomfortable? Paul puts it on the line here. It is all about Yeshua. He is the Alpha and the Omega (the Alef and the Tav, if you prefer), the First and the Last. The writer of Hebrews says that Messiah Yeshua literally holds the universe together by His word!
Consequently, those who deny that Jesus is the Messiah cannot possibly have the Holy Spirit. How much less anyone who would curse His name. And no one who does have the Holy Spirit would ever curse Him. Furthermore, it is only through the gracious work of the Spirit that a person can even believe Yeshua is Lord.
Therefore, this is a reminder that 1 Corinthians is an ‘in-house’ letter. The things that Paul is talking about here have no bearing on outsiders.
There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.
Do you see the three-fold synonymous parallelism? Different gifts, same Spirit; different kinds of service, same Lord (Messiah the Son); different works, same God (the Father). This is a subtle affirmation of the Trinity. But Paul’s purpose here isn’t theological. It is to stress the need for unity. God didn’t fashion us with a cookie cutter. We have different gifts, different areas of service, and different manifestations of God’s work in us. And you can have unity without having uniformity. In fact, Messiah expects it of us!
And we are given the key to that unity. If there is an outpouring of the Spirit, it isn’t so that individuals can claim authority or superior spirituality. Those who seek the spotlight to boast of their gift are acting contrary to this teaching. Manifestations of the Spirit are for the common good, not our individual glory.
And now Paul gives examples of these gifts and manifestations to reinforce the fact that we are individuals, and that God works individually in us.
To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and He gives them to each one, just as He determines.
Much has been written and spoken about all these Carismatwn – gifts. It’s the same word from which we get charismatic. It is an impressive list, but I don’t think it’s meant to be seen as exhaustive. There are nine described here. Commentators have written countless pages on this, defining and describing and even categorizing them. Furthermore, much has been written and spoken about the misuse of these gifts and about demonic counterfeits of the gifts. If we were to go into all that detail, it would make for quite a long sermon this morning. And I honestly believe it would be a mistake; because in narrowing our focus onto the particulars of these gifts, we would lose sight of the main point.
Paul isn’t setting out to catalog every single type of manifestation of the Spirit. He is merely pointing out that there are different types of gifts, and we need to respect the fact that God gives different gifts to different people, and to be content with our own portion, and do everything possible to maintain unity.
Maybe you resent the fact that person A is endowed with miraculous powers, but not you; and person B can discern spirits, but not you. Person C has healed people from sickness, but not you. Maybe to you God will give a word of knowledge – insight into someone’s circumstances that you otherwise couldn’t possibly know. Or maybe you have had an occasion where you spoke in a language you never learned. Maybe you have been given wisdom and insight. Maybe you have none of the above. It doesn’t make you less of a saint. And having one or more of those gifts doesn’t make someone else more of a saint.
In his splendid commentary on this passage, John Phillips wrote this:
“Various gifts, one God! God is a God of boundless diversity. No two fingerprints are alike, no two snowflakes, no two blades of grass, no two leaves, no two sunsets, no two personalities. God delights in variety… Believers have different gifts and different ways of serving God, but it is the same Spirit who bestows the gifts and the same Lord who is served by them.”
The key phrase here is: just as He determines. The distribution of those gifts is in the jurisdiction of God’s Spirit, and He knows what He’s doing. There are no mistakes with Him. So we need to be content in the way God has dealt with us, and we need to remember that these are for the common good, and we need to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit… (Ephesians 4:3).
The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Messiah. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
Think about all the different functions that take place in your body during the course of a day… feel free to think about it selectively. From the firing of neurons in your brain to the signals sent from the retina through the optic nerve, to the dexterity of muscles, big and small, to your sense of hearing and touch. It all works together – and ordinarily works well enough that we don’t have to think about it.
The point is, that it all works together. It is one body with an incredible number of different parts; vastly more than the apostle, at that time in history, could ever have imagined. And it is supposed to be the same in Messiah’s Holy Community. We were called to salvation individually, and from a plethora of different backgrounds, but by one and the same Spirit of God, and He calls us to live in community, not autonomy.
Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”
Is Paul actually talking about the human body? No, this is an extended metaphor. The human body with its various parts is used to represent Messiah’s Community which has all different kinds of people. He is talking about the great need for us to be unified, and how can that happen when we constantly compare ourselves with each other?! The scenario he sets up is wild and, I think, meant to be humorous. After all, did your foot ever start kvetching that it wasn’t a hand? Did your eye ever go and call your hand a shlemiel? Since when do body parts start getting inferiority complexes or delusions of grandeur?
But people do it all the time, and Paul tells us that among God’s people there is no cause for either self-deprecation or self-exaltation on the basis of our different giftings and areas of service. We’ve got to stop comparing ourselves with one another! Nothing good comes from it; only pride or self-loathing and resentment.
Why is it so vital that we have unity and harmony? Yeshua gave the answer: “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Our love for one another will reveal to mankind that Yeshua is true! Hinei ma tov, umanayim, shevet achim gam yachad! Behold, how good and how pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity! (Psalm 133:1). Do you want to see the world won to Messiah? It starts right here, with us. We need to be one!
On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable,
and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
Now, you might not like the way your feet look, but the fact of the matter is that they support the rest of you! And nobody in their right mind wants to see their internal organs. Ordinarily, they function properly and you don’t think about them. But you would not live long, or live well, without those necessary organs fulfilling their role. When one part of you is hurting it’s all you can think about. When I have a headache, I don’t tell myself, “Ah, but both my elbows and fingers are working fine, so it’s no big deal.” No, all I can think of is that I want my head to stop hurting.
Again, the apostle isn’t trying to give us an anatomy lesson. The human body is presented as a metaphor for what life in Messiah’s Holy Community ought to look like. Outwardly speaking, some will be more impressive than others, but the Community can only function properly if each one of us is doing his or her part. Those who labor behind the scenes are every bit as valuable and necessary and are doing work that is every bit as vital as those who are stand in the pulpit or speak in front of a camera or into a microphone.
Now you are the body of Messiah, and each one of you is a part of it. And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?
Once again, countless books and articles have been written by wise and scholarly men, outlining the various offices of the Church and setting their parameters. Passages such as this have been dissected and categorized ad infinitum. But if you thought this morning that Rabbi Glenn was going to add his $0.02 on what defines an apostle, or what is the proper jurisdiction of a prophet, or who has priority over the other, you were wrong. Because that wasn’t Paul’s intent. Remember, this isn’t an exhaustive list. He didn’t set out in this chapter to publish a complete list of official roles in the Church. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for the scholarship of so many over the years who have analyzed the grammar and compared this passage with others to help us stay on track doctrinally. But the point of 1 Corinthians 12 isn’t to define the offices of the Church any more than it is a primer on human anatomy. It’s about our need to live together b’yachad – in unity.
To drive home the point, Paul asks a series of rhetorical questions: Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? The answer to each of these is self-evident. “No – of course not.” I am not an apostle (and neither, for that matter, are some people who are using the title). But there are genuine apostles. I’m not a prophet, but it would be arrogant for me to think that because I don’t prophesy that the gift doesn’t exist. Rather than be resentful that I’m not a worker of miracles, I rejoice that God is accomplishing miracles in people’s lives.
I used to worry about not being able to speak in tongues, because some people made such a big deal about it that I wondered if maybe I wasn’t saved. To be honest, I think for some of them it was less about serving God and more about wanting to validate their own experience. All the consternation could have been avoided if I had understood then that this isn’t about who has what gift, but rather about not comparing ourselves to one another, but instead rejoicing in the way God has put us all where we are, and gifted us as He saw fit, so that we can enjoy life together, and serve Him shoulder to shoulder.
But eagerly desire the greater gifts. And now I will show you the most excellent way.
There is nothing inherently wrong in wanting to serve God in greater ways than you presently do. We should all aspire to give more of ourselves to Him. Paul tells us that it is good to desire greater gifting, and to walk in the power of the Spirit.
But it cannot, it MUST NOT become about us. The Corinthians were walking in pride and in competition with one another and it left the Church in Corinth woefully divided, and filled with contempt. What a terrible reflection on Yeshua that His people should behave this way.
So, the great apostle finishes this thought by reminding them that it isn’t all about them. Lest the Corinthians, or we who read this letter 2,000 years later, think that our worth depends on our spiritual ‘accomplishments’ or stature, he points out that there is something far greater than all of these gifts combined. Apostles? Prophets? Miracle-workers? Fine, but there’s something missing here, without which all of it becomes just so much hoopla. And, Lord willing, next Shabbat Jerry will expound on it from chapter 13.
But let me close with this thought: I think part of the problem, in fact, much of the problem, is owing to our own insecurity. When we argue that everyone should have the same experience we do, or that if we don’t have a certain ability, then it must not be legit for anyone else to have it, either – deep down, I think it’s an attempt at validating ourselves. The key to living in harmonious community, according to Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 12, is to not compare ourselves to each other. Learn the secret of being content in the circumstances God has apportioned to you. And rejoice with others in their successes; and mourn with others in their pain. Think of others more, and think about yourself less.
God doesn’t do things all neat and tidy. He doesn’t use a cookie-cutter and turn us out to be exactly like each other. Yeshua prayed for us to have unity, not uniformity. Amayn?
So let’s all sing Hinei ma tov!
 Exploring 1 Corinthians ©2002 by John Phillips, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI, pg. 261