Gifts of the Spirit
Sunday school lesson for the week of May 10, 2015
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson scripture: 1 Corinthians 12:1-11
In our scripture lesson, Paul is writing to a troubled church. These Corinthians have let their previous and non-Christian understanding of spirituality overcome their view of Christian spirituality. In that light, the Corinthians have misunderstood Christian Spirituality in numerous ways – what it means for leadership, for ethics, and for life together as the church.
Scholars inform us that all of chapters 1-4 are devoted to redefining spirituality. Then, beginning in chapter 5, Paul addresses specific questions about how to live as believers in Christ. Chapters 11-14 are all about how to conduct worship. Specifically, chapter 12, our scripture lesson, takes up the question of how to use spiritual gifts in worship. Because some Corinthians have been misusing their spiritual gifts and disrupting worship in the church, Paul opens the discussion of the meaning of gifts and how to use them.
Paul begins his discussion by saying, “Now concerning spiritual gifts (12:1).” Here Paul quickly points out how little these Corinthians know about gifts by reminding them that just a short time ago they were worshiping idols that could not even speak (v.2). Clearly, the implication is that it is ridiculous that some of them now think they are experts as to how the Spirit works.
Next, Paul states some basic rules. Initially, the Spirit will never lead a person to say, “Jesus be cursed.” To Paul, those Corinthians are so ignorant of spiritual matters that they do not even know that the Spirit would not inspire such speech.
Increasingly bold, Paul says that, in actuality, no one can confess that Jesus is Lord (12:3) except by the Spirit. Even faith is a gift given by God through the Spirit. Therefore, all people in the church have the Spirit because the only way to make the confession is through the Spirit. So no one can make the claim that he or she has the Spirit and others do not.
We have also been informed that this way of phrasing the confession of “Jesus as Lord” may also oppose allegiance to the Roman Empire. While others proclaimed Caesar as Lord, the authentic Christian community gives this title to Jesus. And the confession itself implies that the church lives by different values and commitments.
In the first three verses, Paul shows that the Spirit is in control. In verses 4-11, Paul emphasizes the essential unity of the church, stressing that the basic characteristic of a healthy church is that every part in it performs its own function for the good of the whole. But, according to Paul, unity does not mean uniformity as there are different gifts and differing functions of those gifts in the church. Additionally, Paul makes clear that every one of those gifts and functions are gifts of the same Spirit, and every one of them is designed, not for an individual’s glory, but for the good of the whole church.
The Corinthians struggled with the meaning of Christian Spirituality. This is not unlike the struggle of many modern believers today. For these Corinthians, the culture around them defined spirituality as an individualistic experience of the presence of a God that brought assurance and comfort to the person. And this is so much of what the self-help section of our bookstores stress about spirituality today. We hear this same theme frequently when someone says that he or she is “spiritual but not religious.” This is precisely what the Corinthians mean when they speak of spirituality Their spirituality is an individualistic experience between the person and God. The focus is always on the mountaintop experience as the authentic moment of spirituality.
But Paul would declare that all of us have much to learn about true spirituality. For Paul, Christian Spirituality is not simply an experience between God and an individual; it is about life in the community where everybody shares the Spirit and what the Spirit gives to all.
Please note that it is not that the inner life of the individual and God is not important. It is critically important as we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior. No doubt our faith is personal, but it is also social and the latter is Paul’s point here. Paul is saying that this personal experience doesn’t go far enough. Consequently, the focus of Paul’s Christian Spirituality is on the community and what is in the best interest of others. The Spirit does not come just for the well-being of the individual but for the community and the good of all. Now, the reason Paul feels this way is Christ’s acceptance of crucifixion as the pattern for the lives of his followers.
So, as someone observed, Christian Spirituality is not primarily about looking inward so much as it is about looking outward at creation, at other creatures, and at the Creator. It is not about becoming more self-centered and more self-focused. Rather, it is about becoming more “self-forgetful.” But one of my favorite definitions of Christian Spirituality was stated by New Testament scholar Robert Mulholland, Jr. He said, “Christian Spirituality is a process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.”
The Purpose of Spiritual Gifts
Scholars remind us that it was the way the Corinthians understood spiritual gifts that caused them to misuse them. Since they thought that such gifts were given primarily to enhance the life of the individual who received them, they were using their gifts to promote their own position and status in the church and in the community as well.
Paul’s task was to repair their understanding of the purpose of spiritual gifts.
Warning! When we accept the cultural understanding of spirituality as something about self-fulfillment we are riding on the same train with the Corinthians. Paul reiterates that the purpose of spiritual gifts is to assist the church, to contribute to the common good. Therefore, Paul encourages us to look outward to the good of the church rather than inward to our personal desires. Doing that, we will be enabled to see our spiritual gifts the way or ways God intended them to be used.
Paul begins by stating that all special gifts (Charismata) come for God. It was Paul’s conviction that any special ability that a person has comes from God and, consequently, must be used in the service of God.
Scholars tell us that any study of spiritual gifts should include not only 1 Corinthians 12-14 but Romans 12:3-8 and Ephesians 4:7-13 as well. Since none of the various lists of gifts Paul gives in these chapters is identical, it suggest that none of them, individually or together, is intended to be considered complete. And the range of functions covered by Paul’s various kinds of gifts makes it likely that any combination of talents, abilities and endowments may qualify as spiritual gifts, if a believer uses them for God’s glory and his work in the world.
Paul says in verse 7, "To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good." Thus, because all of these gifts have non-Christian similarities, a talent or ability becomes a gift of the Spirit only when it is used for the common good. So , we can't always draw a sharp line between spiritual gifts and natural abilities -- both of which come ultimately from God. The gifts of the Spirit are the ones that the Spirit gives a person for the good of the church.
Verse 7a states the important principle that all Christians receive at least one spiritual gift. We are also told that some may receive more than one, at the same time or at different times in life. And the repetition of “the same spirit” throughout verses 8-11 makes the point that diversity doesn’t necessarily threaten unity.
After mentioning the gifts of wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, and the working of miracles, those gifts that work outside of worship, Paul returns to the gifts used in the assembly.
According to scholars, the gift of prophecy was not predicting the future so much as it was bringing an authoritative word from God for the church in a particular moment. Discerning spirits is largely the ability to decide what a prophet says is really from God. Speaking in tongues was an ecstatic experience as it is in some churches today. It is an experience of the presence of God that seizes individuals and causes them to say things that they do not understand. And the gift of interpretation is the ability to translate what the tongue speaker said.
Repeating, Paul would have us recognize that in the context of the church that those things we call talents and abilities are gifts of the Spirit. He wants both the person who has them and the church to know that these skills and capabilities are gifts of the Spirit. And, in addition, Paul insists that the best gifts are not necessarily, as the Corinthians thought, the flashy gifts. Therefore, if we do not speak in tongues it is not a sign that we do not have spiritual gifts.
At the Billy Graham museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, there is a little garden with the tombstone of Ruth Bell Graham. The stone reads: “End of Construction – Thank You for Your Patience.”
As people of faith, we need to see ourselves as “Christians Under Construction.”
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries.