The Spiritual Gifts, Part 1

Let me begin with a question: what does it mean to be “spiritual”? What do we mean when we say that someone is “really spiritual?” Do we mean somebody who has a lot of bible verses memorized? Do we mean by spiritual, that they seem to be especially wise or discerning?

Maybe we equate being spiritual with someone who is interested in, and sensitive to, mystical things, constantly concerned with spirits and demons.

Or perhaps, when we think of somebody who is super-spiritual, we might think of someone SO concerned with holiness that they cease to be able to laugh or be happy, lest they get too close to sin. Some people think that way: for them, to be “spiritual” equates to a stoic solemnity, a glumness, a perpetual furrowed brow as THE expression of spiritual maturity.

Please turn with me in your bibles to 1 Corinthians chapter 12. 1 Corinthians 12. We are resuming our study of Paul’s letter to the church of God in the Greek city of Corinth.

It’s been a few weeks since we were last in this letter, but if you’ll remember, Paul is in the section of his letter where he is addressing specific questions that they had asked him in a previous letter.

They had raised issues related to marriage and singleness, which Paul addressed in chapter 7; questions about food offered to idols, addressed in chapters 8-10; and now in chapters 12-14 Paul addresses the nature and role of spiritual gifts.

What are the spiritual gifts, who should have them, how should they be used? These are all questions that Paul seeks to address with this church. Let’s begin by reading our text. I will read chapter 12 verses 1-11 for context, but we will simply cover the first 3 verses tonight:

Now concerning[a] spiritual gifts,[b] brothers,[c] I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.

Paul begins this section with the simple introduction: Now concerning[a] spiritual gifts.” The word now serving as our indication that he’s moving on to a new topic, i.e., the spiritual gifts. The actual word in Greek is just “spiritual” (Pneumatikōn). “Concerning the spiritual,” but translators I think rightly add the implied word “gifts” based on the context of the rest of the chapter, which highlights the variety and utility of the various gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Now concerning the spiritual gifts brothers, (or brothers and sisters, which is implied) I do not want you to be uninformed.

I don’t want you to be uninformed. I don’t want you to be ignorant. This kind of clause appears in many of Paul’s letters. For example, in Romans 1:13 he says, “I don’t want you to be unaware,” and he says something similar in 2 Corinthians 1:8, 1 Thessalonians 4:13, even in this same letter in chapter 10 verse 1.

Paul knows that ignorance of God’s truth leads to all manner of problems. Ignorance of the Lord’s doctrine makes us susceptible to err, vulnerable to deception, and spiritual gullibility is no virtue. In fact, it is the opposite of maturity in the faith.

Immaturity, James reminds us, is to be tossed about by every wave of doctrine, unable to discern the truth and cling tightly too it. We’re instead called to be fixed and stable, so much so that the church is called the pillar and buttress of truth in 1 Timothy 3:15, and the church of God can’t be a pillar of truth if it remains ignorant.

In sum, We must KNOW, if we are to GROW. Paul knew this. And that’s why he doesn’t want them to lack in knowledge. But let’s look at verse 2 and see what it is that he wants them to know:

You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led.

Paul reminds them of their past, of their lives prior to coming to faith in Christ. “You know that when you were pagans, or when you were gentiles…” He’s doing what he did earlier in this letter of bringing up their past personal history in order to prompt a present spiritual lesson.

Think back to chapter 1 when Paul says, “26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards,[c] not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” He’s saying, remember back before you were a Christian, you weren’t anything special. In fact, you were weak in the eyes of the world. And yet, God chose the foolish things of this world to shame the wise, so that he would get all the glory.

Paul likes to use their past, to teach them a present lesson. You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols,

I think it would be helpful to spend a little time here explaining the religious setting of their day. Understanding the milieu of ancient Corinth will help us understand some of what was going on within their congregation, and therefore better understand some of the things that Paul addresses.

These Corinthian believers largely came out of the pagan Greek polythesism, that is, they had a whole bunch of gods to choose from. And the Greek and roman religions of the day were part of a class of religions called the “mystery religions.”

These were any of the various cults and practices of their day that offered people religious experiences. These mystery religions are the result of what happens when mankind rejects the revelation of God.

When God’s word is rejected, you inevitably end up worshipping a god or gods of your own fabrication. And that’s the danger of false religion. Human beings are inherently worship-ful creatures, we were made to worship, and we reject the true God, we don’t become truly atheistic. Rather, we reject the true God and replace him with a false God. And that’s what happens in these mystery religions.

Specifically, we can note three different characteristics that seem to coalesce around these mystery religions, from which the Corinthian believers had been saved. Three traits that often manifest themselves in false religion. And as I work through them, ask yourself if any of these traits are present in modern culture and religion.

First, false religions like to elevate feeling over fact. They like to elevate feeling over fact. Or we might say, they make experience primary in determining truth.

These mystery religions had all sorts of festivals and ceremonies which worked, in part, to stir the affections, and raise the feelings. We might say, to help people have a religious experience. Whether it was the incredible architecture of the day, like the acropolis or the temple of Apollo in Corinth, they had unbelievably impressive structures meant to titillate the senses and stir the feelings.

You add to that the portions of the rituals which appealed to the human appetites, and it was no wonder these mystery religions were so popular. They had vast festivals with huge feasts, enormous reserves of wine, all for the purpose of dulling the senses and contributing to the worship experience.

That’s not even to mention the viler aspects of their worship, which employed the services of temple prostitutes in the worship service of their pagan Gods. All manner of behavior, which can’t be uttered in a setting like this.

The cumulative effect of all of these factors left the worshipper with this impression: “if such worship makes me feel this way, it must be TRUE.” THAT’s the formula for determining what is true, how it makes me feel. Do you see the deceptive problem there? And do you see how such a problem might have entered into the Corinthian church? And how it might enter into our church?

Here’s the nub of the problem: If my feelings become the ultimate arbiter of what is true, and then I don’t feel a certain way, it must not be true. I don’t get a warm and fuzzy feeling, I don’t have a burning in my heart, I don’t have an ecstatic utterance or I don’t speak in tongues, then it must not be truly SPIRITUAL.

That’s a problem, and it was dividing the Corinthian church, and it divides churches today. People walk out of worship services all the time and they say, “hmm, I just didn’t feel it today. The worship didn’t move me enough. Let’s try another church.” And they think that their feelings along are sufficient to determine what church is genuinely spiritual.

But that’s a major problem. We would all admit, I think, that our feelings can be fickle. Some days we wake up and the sun is bright, and skies are clear, work is great, your marriage is great, your kids are well behaved, and you FEEL wonderful. Life couldn’t be better.

And other days, you just wake up on the wrong side of the bed. The weather is nasty, your spouse seems cold, your job is unfulfilling and irritating, your kids are at each other’s throats. How do you feel in that moment? Some of us FEEL like walking away from it all, like throwing in the towel, you just want an escape. If Feelings alone determine what is true, then in that moment my feelings have determined that my wife doesn’t love me, my job is useless and my kids are the problem.

My feelings have led me astray. Our feelings can’t be the arbiter of truth, because they are fallible and they are fickle. And that means that feelings alone aren’t sufficient to demonstrate maturity, feelings alone can’t verify spirituality, they aren’t the sure mark of spiritual gifting.

Second, not only do false religions like to elevate feeling over fact, but they also elevate sensuality over sobriety. Sensuality over sobriety.

As I mentioned earlier, the mystery religions of the day employed sensual activity as part of their official cultic practice. They would use mind altering substances as part of their worship, they would engage in all manner of wicked debauchery, all under the banner of “worship.”

They would even work themselves up into a frenzy. The religion was characterized by bizarre behavior, ecstatic performances, and impulsive conduct. In short, it promoted anything and everything that could undermine godliness.

It promoted sensuality, rather than godly chastity. It promoted drunkenness, rather than sobriety. It promoted ecstatic outbursts, rather than temperance. It promoted the indulgence of the appetites, rather than self-control and self-sacrifice.

And such religious experiences are not hard to find today. Whether it is bourbon street in New Orleans, or the strip in Las Vegas, or at some seedy gentlemen’s club down on Mobile Highway, the same temptations that were present in Corinth, are present today.

But these false religions didn’t just promote experience over truth and sensuality over sobriety. Third, these false religions liked to elevate the flashy over the faithful. They tend to elevate the flashy over the faithful.

In other words, if it is impressive, it must be genuine. All that glitters, must be gold, we might say. If somebody have some impressive gifts, if they are worked up into a religious frenzy, induced by ecstasy and intensity, whereby they make prophetic predictions and have all manner of visions, hallucinations, out of body experiences, and bizzare vocalizations, if all that is happening in the temple, then it must be TRUE RELIGION. THAT must be the mark of spirituality.

This was the culture in which they were raised. The gifted, the flashy, the special, those are the ones with true value. Those are the ones that the gods really bless. Those are the ones that truly make a contribution.

And if you grew up in that world, don’t you think you’d bring that kind of baggage with you into the church?  Don’t you think that if you were raised to think that the bizzare and the ecstatic were markers of true spiritual power, that you’d be tempted to think the same thing in the church?

And that’s what was happening, as we will see. Those with the gifts of tongues and prophecy were being treated as more spiritually mature than everybody else. They were better, they were more godly, they were superior, and therefore worthy of more honor. And it was dividing their body.

And the same happens in the church today. If you’ve spent any time in the charismatic wing of evangelicalism, or if you’ve watched half of the televangelists, you know there is a whole segment of people who equate flashy spiritual gifts with spiritual maturity.

Some will even tell you straight up, “if you haven’t spoken in tongues, you don’t have the spirit,” and therefore you must not be saved. They are falling into the same trap as the Corinthian believers did, of elevating flashy spiritual giftings above all the rest, and dividing the body of Christ because of it.

That’s one of the main issues that Paul will address in the coming verses, which I hope to cover in the coming weeks.

But I think its important to be aware, and to be on guard against these temptations, which are present in some form in all the false religions. We mustn’t elevate feelings over truth; we’re called, rather, to worship in the spirit AND the truth.

And we must never let sensuality dominate over sobriety. We’re called to glorify God in our bodies, as Paul said at the end of chapter 6. The body is not meant for immorality, but for the Lord and the Lord for the body.

And speaking of body, we’re meant to protect the unity of the body of Christ, not elevate the flashiness of particular giftings over faithfulness. We can’t let pride inflate us to think that MY particular gifts are in any way superior to the rest. They all come from the same Spirit, they all are given according to His wisdom, and they all come from grace, so who are we to boast.

And so the question for us is this: if these marks of pagan religion are accurate, and are the opposite of how we ought to behave, how often are we tempted just like the Corinthians to measure things according to a flawed standard?

Are we tempted to elevate our feelings to the position of primacy over truth? Do we let our feelings tell us that we are guilty, when we’re actually forgiven? Do we let our feelings tell us that someone else is a guilty sinner, when in fact they haven’t sinned, they’ve just done something we disagree with? Do we let our feelings drive the train toward bitterness, rather than reminding ourselves of the truth of grace in Christ?

Or how about sensuality? Have we justified some little pocket of sin in our life, because we worked extra-hard somewhere else, and have earned a little fun? Have we acted like some of the Corinthians, and let a little area of liberty run amuck into full blown enslavement?

Or how about the flashy gifts? Are we tempted to think that the gifts that put us up front must be more important? That singing or teaching or leading must be more important that lame gifts of service, or working in the nursery with kids, or quietly praying alone where nobody will ever see? That’s a lie from Satan, that just because your gift isn’t exercised in front of everybody for all to see that you’re therefore less valuable or less spiritual.

Each of these areas is still a temptation for us today, and where we see we’ve fallen short, we need to repent. But more than that, we need to remember the Christ who sent the Spirit in the first place.

Christ never elevated his feelings over and above the truth. In fact, he submitted his feelings to what he knew to be true: “Father, take this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.” I don’t feel happy about this. In fact, in his humanity I’m sure he absolutely dreaded it, to the point of sweating blood. And yet he willingly submitted to the truth of God, that we might be forgiven.

And he never yielded to the temptation to permit sensuality at the expense of sobriety. He was accused of being a friend of gluttons and drunkards, but none of those accusations could stick. He was the spotless lamb, sinless in every way, never a slave to his passions, never bound by his appetites. And therefore he’s the perfect substitute for me and you, who too often are led astray by sensual temptations.

And Christ never elevated the flashy above the faithful. In fact, he taught that quiet, humble service, performed with child-like faith, demonstrates true Christian maturity. The first will be last, he taught, and the last will be first, and in a world that loves to spotlight the flashy, that means that in heaven, most of those people serving in the spotlight will be miles behind those who humbly served in the background, praying diligently, encouraging faithfully, serving peacefully.

Christ is our perfect substitute, who died for those of us who fall into the temptations of false religion. And for those who have trusted in him, continue to lean into him. Don’t elevate the gifts of the spirit over the giver of the Spirit. Remember when you were pagans, and remember from what you have been saved.

Recall the words from chapter 6 of this letter: “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” Be encouraged that you’ve been washed, you’ve been made holy. You’ve been gifted by the Spirit.

And if you haven’t trusted in Christ, then hear again of your condition. You’re led astray by a mute idol, Paul says. It may not be a little statue, and you may not worship in a big marble temple, but you are led astray nonetheless.

Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4 that the God of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel in the glory of Christ. You’re blinded. Blinded by worship of money, or worship of comfort, or worship of reputation, or worship of something else.

To you I would say, read the words of Jesus in scripture. Listen what he says. Consider his arguments, and see what he does. He’s the true light, who can cast out darkness, even the darkness that clouds your mind. He’s the light of the world, and any in the world who would come to him in faith will see their hearts changed and their eyes opened.

Consider this Jesus, ask of him your questions, test him. Christianity is afraid of no investigation, in fact it invites it. Trust in this Jesus, and you too can have him as your Lord and savior, and be free from the pagan religions of darkness and sensuality.

Now, lastly, let’s move on to verse 3, where Paul further refines our understanding of what the truly spiritual person, the truly spiritually gifted brother or sister would look like. He gives us two different markers, or two different boundaries or layers to help us determine what true spirituality looks like. Let me summarize those two boundaries like this

Number 1: true spirituality never contradicts God’s word. True Spirituality never contradicts God’s word.

And Number 2: true spirituality results in holiness. True spirituality results in holiness.

Let’s read the first part of verse 3 and see the first boundry:

Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!”

He says first that nobody speaking according to the ministry of the Holy Spirit would ever say Jesus is accursed. It seems plausible that somebody in Corinth had uttered such a phrase. And you could easily sketch the logic. Deuteronomy says that anyone that hangs on a tree is cursed, and Jesus was hung on a tree, therefore Jesus is accursed, anathema, condemned to hell. And such logic, if it was uttered as a prophetic pronouncement, or in a flashy spiritual tongue, might have the ability to mislead believers down a problematic path.

But let’s use our reasoning for a moment. Would we ever suppose that the Holy Spirit, the third person of the trinity who is sent By the Father and the Son, would that Spirit gift and lead someone to a prophetic conclusion that undermines the Son’s glory? Of course not. Jesus himself said that he would send the Spirit, and that the Spirit’s job would be to testify about Jesus.

John 15:26, ““But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.”

Christ’s spirit never leads someone away from Jesus. Christ’s Spirit never undermines the Son. The Spirit’s job is to highlight the Son and all of his work and glory. And so it doesn’t matter what somebody says, or what title they have, or how adamant they are about the spiritual nature of their message or the divine-origin of their prophetic tongue, if they don’t point people back to the Christ of scriptures, then they aren’t led by the Holy Spirit.

They may be spirit inspired, but it’s certainly not the Holy Spirit that’s inspired them. And so a first litmus test of the legitimacy of spiritual gifts and revelation, is whether that revelation elevates the Christ of scripture, or whether it detracts from Christ’s glory. If the former, we can consider it. If the latter, we must reject it.

Additionally, and related to the previous point, we can reason further from this text, that the Holy Spirit is never going to lead a person to confess anything that contradicts Holy Scripture. The Holy Spirit never leads believers into contradiction. If he inspired and revealed God’s word to the people of God throughout the ages, he’s not going to contradict himself. The Spirit shares the same divine essence as the Father and the Son, the same wisdom, the same power, and therefore no part of his ministry would be contradicting. No error. No oversight.

Thus, genuine spiritual gifts and genuine, spirit-inspired prophecy would necessarily comport with prior revelation. Spiritual prophecy, if it is genuinely inspired by the Holy Spirit, will necessarily confirm itself, rather than contradict itself.

So what does that mean for us? It means that when somebody says they have a word from God, and that word that they tell you doesn’t align with scripture, then you know what to do with it. You toss it out. You ignore it. You might even rebuke the person right then and there.

I’ve had people do this to me. They tell me they have a word from God for me, and then they tell me that I must go and do this or that, or that I need to give them a gift of a certain amount, or that Jesus would have me get them a hotel room for the night.

Now I certainly don’t mind being generous to those in need, but when somebody tells me that the Holy Spirit demands that I give them money, I draw the line.

The Spirit’s ministry in and through the spiritual gifts is to elevate Christ and to confirm prior revelation, not to manipulate or to cajole.

Next, lets look at the second part of this verse, and we’ll begin to wrap this up:

Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.

No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit. Is Paul saying that it is impossible to even utter those words without being filled with the Holy Spirit? I don’t think so.

Anyone can mouth the words, and yet have the Spirit far from them. Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus interact with demons a few times, and even those demons recognize Jesus’s identity and refer to him as Lord. See Mark 1 and Acts 16.

Paul is giving us here another litmus test, another benchmark for comparison. A person genuinely led by the spirit will proclaim that Jesus is Lord from a heart of faith.

Again, the problem is not the recognition of Jesus’s Lordship, but the reverence of it. It’s not that someone merely agrees that Jesus is lord, but that they believe it.

This is a complement to the previous litmus test. Just like before, a person who calls Jesus accursed demonstrates that he is not led by the Holy Spirit, so too are those who proclaim that Jesus is Lord with their lips and their lives demonstrate that they really are led by the Spirit.

And so we have two options. We can confess that Jesus is Lord and live accordingly, or we can refuse to confess it, and rebel against his Lordship.

Without that confession and submission to it, all our acts of service, however outwardly noble, will be in vain. “Some people may call Jesus Lord and even perform valuable tasks in his service. But if they are not filled with God’s Spirit and therefore fail to do the father’s will, Jesus dismisses them by saying: ‘I never knew you. Depart from me you workers of iniquity’” (Matt 7:23).[1]

But if we confess the truth that Jesus is Lord, one of the oldest creeds in Christendom, then we know we’re led by the Spirit, that the spirit has worked in our hearts to grant us understanding and faith.

In fact, Paul makes the promise to us in Romans 10 that if we confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead, you WILL BE SAVED.

That’s good news. Belief and confession, those are the fruit of salvation. Not how perfect we are, not how spiritual we strive to be, not how sinless, not how gifted. Simple faith. That’s what makes a person spiritual.



[1] Simon Kistemaker, Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1993), 416.


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