Gifts Series: Commentary on 1 Corinthians 12

 

All Scripture quotations are from the 1901 American Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

 

Introduction

1 Corinthians 12-14 is the most lengthy and detailed passage in the Bible regarding the gifts of the Spirit. Properly understood, it’s a major key to settling the gifts issue. We must keep in mind that this was a transitional period of time, unique in history and never to be repeated. Without our initial study, we wouldn’t know how to approach these three chapters. But with that background, we can be confident of our interpretation. It all fits. The commentary on these chapters will focus on the verses that are relevant to our discussion.

The two questions that need to be asked is, what are we told in these three chapters and what are we not told? The answer to those two questions provide a means of determining how we should view spiritual gifts today.

 

Chapter 12

1 Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant.

Paul makes an emphatic statement that he doesn’t want the Corinthian believers to be “ignorant” regarding spiritual gifts — and of course, that goes for all believers for all time. That begs the question, why is there so much confusion and disagreement regarding the gifts of the Spirit today? The answer has to be found in the fact that Paul was dealing with the beginning, foundational-Church Christians who had an experiential understanding of the spiritual gifts that we don’t have today.

We don’t have the same understanding they had, because we are not living in the days of the Apostles. That’s likely why Paul didn’t find it necessary to define or describe each gift that he listed. It was already understood by them. For example, in regard to tongues, they knew what Paul was talking about, so he didn’t have to describe what it was or how it was used. Furthermore, if Paul knew that the miracle gifts would soon end with the completion of the NT Scriptures and the full establishment of the Church, then there would be no need to provide a detailed explanation of all the gifts.

Therefore, I believe the reason we have so much confusion today, is because Paul viewed several of these gifts as transitory, as ending in their lifetime. The fact that there is so much confusion about what some of these gifts were and how they were used, strongly suggests that they were not for future use, but for their present use until the NT Scriptures were completed.

So here we are as present-day Christians trying to figure out that which was not even intended for us, but for the early Church believers — during that transitional period of time from Old Covenant to New Covenant until Christianity was fully established. Nevertheless, the Lord doesn’t want us to be “ignorant about spiritual gifts.” Yet, there’s no doubt that this is the case for many Christians and churches today, and it’s because we’re trying to apply transitory and transitional gifts to current-day Christianity.

 

2 Ye know that when ye were Gentiles ye were led away unto those dumb idols, howsoever ye might be led. 3 Wherefore I make known unto you, that no man speaking in the Spirit of God saith, Jesus is anathema; and no man can say, Jesus is Lord, but in the Holy Spirit. 4 Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 And there are diversities of ministrations, and the same Lord. 6 And there are diversities of workings, but the same God, who worketh all things in all.

As we’re going to find out, the Corinthian Christians had serious problems with jealousy and pride regarding the gifts. So Paul begins by explaining that not everyone has the same gifts, and that it’s God who distributes these gifts according to His own will, as He sees fit.

 

7 But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit to profit withal.

NET – 12:7 To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all.

(“for the common good” – NASB, ESV, NIV)

As we see here, and as Paul makes it clear throughout this chapter, he is not talking about personal “profit,” but the profit of the whole assembly (also 1 Cor 14:4,5,12,19,26).

 

8 For to one is given through the Spirit the word of wisdom; and to another the word of knowledge, according to the same Spirit:

The NT doesn’t define the “word of wisdom” or the “word of knowledge,” nor does it give any examples of the use of these gifts — at least not by name. However, we do know, basically, what wisdom is, and we do know, basically, what knowledge is. Wisdom and knowledge go hand in hand. Wisdom is knowing how to apply knowledge. So let’s begin with the word of knowledge.

The primary question that needs to be answered is, what does Paul mean by knowledge? We need to go to the Scriptures to find out, especially to Paul’s writings. Because of space, I will only provide the references:

Jn 8:31-32; Jn 17:8; Ro 10:1-4; 1 Cor 15:34; 2 Cor 2:14; 2 Cor 4:6; 2 Cor 11:5-7; Eph 1:16-23; Eph 4:11-16; Phil 1:8-11; Col 1:9-10; 1 Ti 2:4; 1 Ti 3:15; 1 Ti 4:3; 2 Ti 2:24-25; 2 Ti 3:6-7; Tit 1:1; He 10:26; 2 Pe 1:2-8,12; 2 Pe 2:20; 2 Pe 3:18; 1 Jn 2:21; 1 Jn 4:6; 2 Jn 1:1; 3 Jn 1:12.

Based on these passages, it’s clear that when Paul speaks of knowledge, he’s talking about the knowledge of God, the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ and the knowledge of the truth that is in Him — which, of course, are all the teachings of the Christian faith.

We don’t know precisely what the gift of the word of knowledge was, nor how exactly it was used, nor do we know how it differed from the gift of prophecy, but we do know that it had to do with the receiving and giving of the truth regarding Christ. We have to keep going back to the fact that they were, at that time, without the completed NT Scriptures. This was the beginning of the Church. Those early years of the Church were all about receiving and learning and advancing the truth regarding Christ and His teachings — which was being compiled into what we have today in the NT Scriptures.

Now that we have a basic idea of what the gift of the word of knowledge was, we can also determine what the gift of the word of wisdom was. Again, wisdom is knowing how to apply knowledge. Thus, these two gifts must have worked together in some way. Those with the gift of the word of wisdom, were able to apply God’s revealed Word for the benefit of the corporate assembly of believers, as well as for, the benefit of individual Christians.

Those with this gift were probably relied upon for wisdom for the direction of their particular assembly, and to provide counseling to individuals — which is why pastor/teachers (elders) would have needed this gift (and still do). However, I believe the primary purpose of this gift was to apply the teachings of the Christian faith as they were being revealed and written as part of the NT Scriptures — which is our primary source of wisdom.

While the gifts of the word of knowledge and the word of wisdom were received via Divine revelation in the early Church, both of these gifts now come via the completed canon of Scripture. In other words, wisdom and knowledge are now given to us primarily through the study of the OT and NT Scriptures, as the Holy Spirit teaches us and empowers us. But to be clear, while all Christians will acquire wisdom and knowledge as they study God’s Word, there are those who are especially gifted in these areas. Those are the ones who are equipped to teach the Bible and to lead churches as pastors, teachers and counselors.

The Pentecostal/charismatic understanding of the gifts of prophecy and the word of knowledge cannot be substantiated by Scripture. The idea that these gifts were for the purpose of providing Divine revelation for the personal direction of Christians lives – as a normal and common practice – lacks an awareness of what was taking place in the early years of the Church. It’s an idea that has no biblical basis whatsoever, and therefore, this position must be entirely assumed. The position they have on these gifts, are not only erroneous, but it minimizes the importance and power of the written Word of God. It’s a viewpoint that fails to recognize the plan of God and how He dealt with His people during transitional times of history. Furthermore, and very serious, when one has such a false understanding of the gifts, it leaves people wide open to deception.

 

9 to another faith, in the same Spirit; and to another gifts of healings, in the one Spirit; 10 and to another workings of miracles; and to another prophecy; and to another discernings of spirits: to another divers kinds of tongues; and to another the interpretation of tongues:

All Christians have faith in God in varying degrees, but those with the gift of faith, have an unusual ability to trust God even in the most difficult and challenging and impossible situations.

Healings and miracles were primarily for the purpose of confirming the teachings of the Christian faith until the completion of the NT Scriptures, and as we already learned, they were limited to the Apostles.

The gift of prophecy was for the purpose of receiving and giving the Word of God — specifically the gospel of Jesus Christ and all the doctrines and teachings of the Christian faith. This gift was used until the full revelation of the Christian faith was complete in the form, which is what we have in the written NT Scriptures. To repeat what I said above, the idea that this gift was for the purpose of giving direction for one’s personal life – as the norm for Christians – is not supported by the New Testament.

There are, in fact, only two examples in the NT of the gift of prophecy being used to reveal a personal call into a specific area of work, and that is the call of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:1-3), and Timothy with his call to be a pastor (1 Tim 1:18; 1 Tim 4:14). This was such a rare occurrence, that in this same book of 1 Timothy, Paul gives Timothy instructions about choosing Elders (overseers/pastors) and Deacons (1 Tim 3:1-13; also Tit 1:5-9). There he lists the qualifications for those who “desire” to serve in that way. Nowhere does Paul mention the need for or the requirement for or the dependence on or the expectation of a personal prophecy for those who would fill those positions. Filling those positions of ministry was strictly according to a candidate meeting the qualifications (this also serves as pattern for all other areas of ministry and work). It’s highly significant that Paul gave those instructions close to the end of his life, which would have been at the end of his NT writings (after 2 Timothy) and towards the end of the apostolic period. This strongly helps to confirm what this study has revealed, that the miracle gifts – which includes prophecy – ended with the completion of the NT Scriptures and the full establishment of the Church, of which the Apostles had the oversight.

Therefore, it’s completely reasonable that the reason Paul didn’t mention the need for a prophetic call to ministry in choosing Elders and Deacons, is because he was fully aware of the temporary nature of that gift, and that they were, indeed, close to the end of that time period. And again, even when the gift of prophecy was in full operation, the use of that gift for personal direction for one’s life was very rare. The exception should never be the rule. It’s unwise to build an entire doctrine or practice out of situations that were obviously out of the ordinary, and during special times of transition. Furthermore, in regard to the call on Timothy’s life and the prophecies evidently related to that, we have to realize that the Apostle Paul was likely one of those who prophesied over him, as closely involved as he was in his life. We have to keep in mind that this was still during the days of the Apostles, when God was doing unusual signs and wonders through them, and was limited to them.

We have to understand that while the NT records instances where the prophets spoke of things relating to individuals, as with Paul and Timothy (Acts 13:1-3; Acts 21:10-14; 1 Tim 1:18; 4:14), and future events (not referring to end time events) – as with the famine spoken of in Acts 11:28 – that was a secondary function that was given to them at the time, and evidently rarely used in that way. Furthermore, this was still during the days of the Apostles and prophets, where their message needed to be confirmed via miracles in order to validate their ministry.

It should also be noted that as prophets of God, they were also given awareness of certain situations, such as what we see in Acts 5:1-1. However, again, the prophet’s primary function was speaking the Word of God in the form of Scripture. We have 27 books to prove it! What they spoke was the gospel of Jesus Christ and the doctrines of the Christian faith, which led to the completion of the NT Scriptures — little by little. Once the NT was in complete form, there was no longer a need for the gift of prophecy. With the passing away of this gift, was also the passing away of prophecies relating to individuals and future events. Once the gift ended, obviously all aspects and uses of that gift ended.

Now that we have the complete written revelation of God – including prophecies of end time events and of the Eternal Kingdom – these written Scriptures are to be our guide for life, as the Holy Spirit teaches and applies and empowers. We’re not to depend on prophecies of so-called prophets today to give us direction in life, but to live according to the written Word of God and the wisdom that He provides. Again, there’s no indication that prophecies, in the form of personal direction for someone’s life, was the norm even in the early Church. The few times that we see it in the NT indicates the extreme rarity of it, as with Paul and Timothy.

Also of significance is that there is no evidence that even John the Baptist – a prophet of whom Jesus said “there is none greater” (Lu 7:28), ever gave personal prophecies over people for personal direction. What he preached was the Word of God regarding Christ, of whom the OT prophesied. Jesus continued that same message about Himself, and it continued through His Apostles and prophets. That their primary function was to preach the message of Christ and the teachings of Christianity until the NT Scriptures were complete, is absolutely certain. Along the same lines, the revelations given to Simeon and Anna (Lu 2:25-38), were highly significant, for they were about Christ – their Messiah – the “Savior of the whole world” (Jn 4:42). It should also be noted that John the Baptist, Simeon and Anna, were still under the Old Covenant as OT prophets.

Note: It was the preaching of John the Baptist that began the transitionary period from Old Covenant to New Covenant.

I don’t think there is any doubt that the gift of discerning of spirits was used to discern between truth and error (1 Jn 4:6). At that time, this gift would have been needed to detect teaching that was not according to the truth, because at that time, they were still learning the Christian message. While this gift is still active today, primarily it’s something that’s acquired through a solid understanding of God’s written Word. The Holy Spirit uses His Word to make us sensitive to teachings and situations that require spiritual discernment. Those who don’t study and don’t have a correct understanding of the Bible, cannot expect to be discerning about truth and error. Indeed, those who don’t have a proper understanding of Scripture, open themselves up to deception.

The interpretation of tongues was a revelatory gift which revealed the Word of God as it was spoken via the gift of tongues — which was a confirmatory gift.

Tongues (and the interpretation of tongues) is a mystery today. Paul speaks of this gift in these chapters as though it’s something different than what we see in Acts 2. Nowhere does Paul explain what this gift is and how it was used in the churches of his day. The fact that Paul doesn’t explain what it is or what its purpose was, suggests that Paul was aware that it was temporary and not something that was intended to continue throughout the Church age. It’s foolish to assume to know what this gift was, when we don’t have any details about it. The confusion lies in the fact that Christians and churches today are trying to apply a gift that was not meant to be used past the establishment of the Church.

 

11 but all these worketh the one and the same Spirit, dividing to each one severally even as he Will.

(see also Ro 12:3; Eph 4:11; He 2:4)

The Holy Spirit distributes these gifts as He wills. This is the second time Paul mentions that the gifts are distributed according to God’s own will. It’s a weak argument that the reason non-charismatic churches don’t see the “same” miracle gifts that “they do,” is because of a lack of faith. The verse used to back up that argument is the one where Jesus could only perform a few miracles because of their lack of faith (Mark 6:1-6). The difference is, they were unbelievers! No matter what a church’s position is on the gifts today, if all the gifts mentioned in this chapter were still operational today, there is no doubt that God would provide those gifts in any true Christian church that consists of leaders and followers who are sincerely committed to living for Christ — as He sees fit. The outpouring of the gifts depend on God’s will, not on our acceptance of certain gifts or non-acceptance of them. As Paul states numerous times, God distributes gifts according to His own will. It’s senseless to think that God would not provide that which is necessary for Him to carry out His will for every local church that is committed to doing His will. If the miracle gifts were still active today, I believe God would provide those gifts to all faithful churches in general – as He sees the need and purpose. Furthermore, in giving those gifts would also come the full understanding of those gifts — just as they had in the beginning years of the Church.

The fact that so many faithful churches do not experience the “miracle gifts,” as other churches supposedly experience, reveals that they’re not active today, and that what’s going on in churches who claim to have those gifts, are most likely counterfeits, or they’re not seeing what they think they’re seeing. But let me be clear, God is still a God of miracles. I do not deny that God performs miracles today. It’s the gift of miracles (and healings) that’s under discussion here. However, miracles today are in no way the normal and abundant occurrence that they were during the days of the Apostles. The issue is whether the gifts of miracles are still active today. I have to believe that there is a lot of deception and misunderstanding going on in many churches today, and that things aren’t the way they appear to be. We have to rely on the firm and reliable written Word of God. That’s the only true firm foundation that we have, and that’s what we must cling to. We must fully embrace what’s actually taught, not what we experience or want to experience, or want to believe the Bible teaches.

 

12 For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of the body, being many, are one body; so also is Christ. 13 For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all made to drink of one Spirit. 14 For the body is not one member, but many. 15 If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; it is not therefore not of the body. 16 And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; it is not therefore not of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling?

Once again, this passage reveals that people in this assembly were jealous of others for the gifts they had. The indication is that they were not satisfied with their place in the body of Christ. They were self-seeking, more interested in themselves than they were of the benefit and edification of the whole assembly of believers. Paul confirms that this was a major issue with them in the next chapter.

 

18 But now hath God set the members each one of them in the body, even as it pleased him.

This is the third time that Paul reveals that the gifts are given totally at God’s own discretion, “as it pleases Him.” It has nothing to do with whether or not we accept all the gifts as being in use today or not, or based on having enough faith or not. That is an argument that has no biblical basis.

 

19 And if they were all one member, where were the body? 20 But now they are many members, but one body. 21 And the eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of thee: or again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. 22 Nay, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be more feeble are necessary: 23 and those parts of the body, which we think to be less honorable, upon these we bestow more abundant honor; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness; 24 whereas our comely parts have no need: but God tempered the body together, giving more abundant honor to that part which lacked; 25 that there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another.

For the fourth time Paul reveals that the giving of the gifts of the Spirit are according to His own will so that there is no division or lack in the body — both in the local assembly and in the Church worldwide.

 

26 And whether one member suffereth, all the members suffer with it; or one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. 27 Now ye are the body of Christ, and severally members thereof. 28 And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondly prophets, thirdly teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, divers kinds of tongues.

For the fifth time Paul mentions that it’s God who distributes the gifts, indicating that He does so as He sees fit. It makes sense that God would distribute the gifts in a manner that would best carry out His will for any particular church, or with the Church world-wide. He’s the only one who sees every area of need. Only He sees the purpose and plan that He has for each local assembly.

Here Paul also places an order of importance regarding the gifts of the Spirit. Notice that the Apostles and prophets are first, while tongues is dead last.

 

29 Are all apostles? are all prophets? Are all teachers? are all workers of miracles?

I discuss the Apostles and prophets throughout this study.

The gifted teacher was able to explain both the OT Scriptures and the teachings of Christ and the Christian faith. He was able to bring OT and NT teachings into harmony. The gift of teaching is the gift that is used today to teach the written Word of God, which comes through diligent study and proper rules of interpretation.

 

30 have all gifts of healings? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret?

In regard to tongues, certainly Paul must be thinking of what he was about to write in 1 Cor 14:23. Between verses 12:30 and 14:23, it suggests that Paul was aware of a lot of false tongues-speaking going on in their assembly, along with the true gift. In fact, we can be very confident about that since tongues were so widespread in this church, which is contrary to what this verse says (vs. 30). Paul’s overall discussion in chapters 12-14, reveals that these false tongues were introduced because of jealousy. Furthermore, I suspect that the false tongues spoken then is what Christians are speaking today (for more detailed discussion, please see commentary on 14:21-23).

 

31 But desire earnestly the greater gifts. And moreover a most excellent way show I unto you.

“desire earnestly the greater gifts”

Paul is referring to the whole assembly, not to individual Christians. After mentioning five times in this chapter that the giving of gifts are according to God’s own will, and after making it clear that the gifts were for the benefit of all, it’s senseless to think that Paul was referring to the desire of individuals here — especially when jealousy and pride and self-will was such a major problem in this church. I make this point because many Christians and churches teach that we can pray to have the gifts we want to have. But this is completely contrary to what Paul is teaching in this chapter.

So let’s be clear, Paul is telling them that they, as a church, are to desire the greater gifts, which would be the gifts of apostleship, prophecy and teaching. Within the context of Paul’s discussion, I believe he simply means that they’re to put the importance and emphasis on the same gifts that God Himself does…..rather than on the gift of tongues, which God places dead last. That’s exactly what the Corinthian Christians were guilty of. Some churches today, as well, are guilty of placing an emphasis on what they believe is biblical tongues-speaking.

“And moreover a most excellent way show I unto you.”

Since the Corinthian believers were not using their gifts out of love and for the edification of the whole assembly, Paul prepares them for what he’s about to teach them next: that selfless love is what we’re to pursue, and not the selfish use of our gifts.