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Serving Selflessly with our Spiritual Gifts

1 Corinthians 12.  This sermon was preached by Pastor Marty Bonner on March 19, 2017.

Last week we talked about using our natural gifts to serve God’s people, and so today we will move to the area of spiritual gifts.  Though they are very different things, they are intended for the same reason, to help others.  Spiritual gifts may sometimes look like natural gifts, but they will always have a lack of natural explanation.  Thus, a person with a natural gift of healing has studied and learned through experience what works and what doesn’t.  But a person with a spiritual gift of healing simply prays for them.  When people are healed through either method, it is clear the source of gift, whether it is natural or spiritual.

It is easy to let fear in this area cause us to stay away from it, ignore it, or even reject that it is meant for today.  This fear can rise from the fact that spiritual gifts are not generally a part of our everyday experience, whereas natural gifts are.  Another issue is that the spiritual gifts have been abused quite often.  Thus many people stay away from them because they don’t trust people who are “exercising” a spiritual gift.  Many people who are not submitted to Christ have used the guise of a spiritual gift in order to manipulate people and bring glory to themselves.  However, in the Bible we are told to be careful in this area.  Just because someone seems to be spiritually gifted does not guarantee that they are motivated by God.  There are false spirits and false motivations within people.  In the Bible they had to be vigilant continually against false teachers, false prophets, and even false-Christs.  So, some have felt that this area is so fraught with difficulty and confusion that we would be best to just jettison it from our religious experience.  Let me challenge you on that kind of logic.  If we quit doing something because someone somewhere abused it, we would be hard pressed to find anything left.  In fact many Christians still believe in the gift of teaching even though this is one of the most abused spiritual gifts of all.  If they will not quit teaching the Gospel because of the fact that others distort it, then why would they quit seeking spiritual gifts and their use because they are abused by others?  The truth is that we need to grow up and approach this with a mature attitude.  We must exercise responsibility for our own motivations and the leadership of churches must also exercise responsibility for what they allow and promote as spiritual gifts.  Sure it is an area that can be abused, but when we look to the Lord for help, He helps us grow in understanding and discernment in this area.  God challenges us to grow up and become more mature, so that the spiritual gifts can operate through us and we can recognize their proper use.

The use of Spiritual Gifts

Starting in verse 1 we notice that Paul is concerned about ignorance.  All teaching is intended to counteract not just the lack of knowledge, but also those things that we have mistakenly accepted as knowledge.  For the Corinthians as well as for us, we come to Christ with a lot of cultural ideas and ways of thinking.  It is easy to make the Gospel conform to these ideas and “truths” that we think are true.   Paul has heard reports about some issues that are happening with spiritual gifts and wants them to understand the truth.  In verses 2-3, Paul describes what I would call testing for that which is genuine.  The Corinthians had come out of a pagan background full of idol worship, temple prophets and prophetesses, and the oracles of these false gods.  The pagan gods had no unifying principle.  Their prophecies and spiritual operations were generally cryptic and purposefully misleading.  One was left questioning the motivations of the gods and their prophecies.  This cultural background was affecting how spiritual gifts were being used in their church.  Thus they needed some instructions to help them guard against false spirits and to embrace the Holy Spirit.  Paul’s test is simply this question.  Does the person promote Jesus as the Lord or not?  Both Christ and his apostles had taught that Jesus was the King of all kings and Lord of all lords.  He had ultimate authority over all things in heaven and on earth.  Thus Paul reveals this as an important test.    We could add to this a more general test that Paul gives in Galatians 1:7-8.  There the question would be this.  Do they contradict the Gospel that has already been given from Jesus and his apostles?  In fact Paul goes so far as to say that if he himself were to come back later with a gospel different from what they had already received, then he should be excommunicated.  The technical term is to become anathema.  Galatians 1:8 says, “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed (anathema).”    So what it teaches about Jesus and about the Gospel becomes the test of what spirit is behind a person.  The apostle John in 1 John 4 gives these same tests only in different words.  There John says that if someone denies that Jesus came in the flesh or is the Son of God, they are of the spirit of antichrist.  He goes on to state that those who won’t receive what the apostles were teaching were not of God.  So we are given a very clear means of knowing whether someone is of God or not.  We check what they teach about Jesus and whether or not they embrace what the apostles taught.  This of course describes the New Testament.  The Bible itself becomes the means by which we can test the spirit behind any spiritual gift.

Spiritual gifts are intended to be motivated and enabled by the Holy Spirit.  The enemy loves to promote a knock-off fake of the original.  So, each of us need to be motivated by the Holy Spirit.  It is the New Testament that helps us to have confidence that we are being led by the right Spirit, as we read it and embrace it.  We are all to be truth and error detectors.

Starting in verse 4 Paul makes the point that the spiritual gifts are diverse in their expression, but unified in their source, the Holy Spirit.  This is important because we should not try to make everybody be the same.  No, there is to be a diverse expression of the spiritual gifts that is as diverse as the people God gives them to.  Just as the Creator makes a diversity of natural things, so He operates in a diverse manner through the spiritual gifts.  Yet, they are always united by their connection to the Holy Spirit.  This is an important point.  At times churches have descended into a chaos of “dueling prophets” or teachers, each trying to get the majority to come under their influence.  This is a sure sign that the Holy Spirit is not behind what is happening.  Each claims to have the Spirit of God, all the while, they tear the Church apart.  The true spiritual gift will work in harmony with all the others in the body, because it is motivated by the same Spirit that motivates the others.  Each of us must be submitted to this truth.  God is not trying to raise me up above others, but rather, He is trying to harmonize His work through us all.

Thus in verse 7 Paul states what should be obvious by now.  The purpose of the spiritual gifts is for the common good of all believers in the Church.  The spiritual gifts are given as rewards or badges of honor to individuals to lift them above others.  They are not meant to be used to win “the Olympics” of spiritual gifts.  This question must always be behind the use of any spiritual gift, “How can this be done for the good of everyone?”  When there is turmoil and factions that develop around the use of spiritual gifts, it calls for believers to stop and remind themselves of this truth.  Even if the Spirit speaks something to us to share, we should always seek wisdom for “how” and “when” to share.  The goal is not to conflict with the other gifts and to promote the good of the whole church.

Examples of Spiritual Gifts

In verses 8-11 we are given 9 examples of spiritual gifts.  We know that there are more than nine because later, at the end of the chapter, Paul mentions two other spiritual gifts: the gift of helps, and the gift of administrations.  So let’s acknowledge that though these are some pretty big spiritual gifts, they are not meant to be a complete list of all spiritual gifts.  The first two are a word of wisdom and a word of knowledge.  People who have these gifts will receive wisdom and knowledge from the Holy Spirit.  Wisdom has to do with the plan or how to do something.  We see this in Acts chapter 15 when the early Church was debating about what to require of the Gentiles who were being saved.  The Spirit of God gave them wisdom through certain individuals that led them to refrain from requiring the Gentiles to obey the Law of Moses plus embrace Jesus.  A word of knowledge has more to do with information.  It often works in conjuction with a gift of prophecy.  God will give individuals knowledge of things that there is no natural reason why they would have that knowledge.

Next we see the gift of faith, which should not be confused with the faith by which we are saved.  In this case we are talking about a spiritual gift in which individuals have great boldness and confidence in their natural and spiritual gifts.  God uses them to help encourage and embolden the other believers.  Next is the gift of healing.  I mentioned this earlier and it hardly needs much explanation.  Though we can all pray for healing, some are given a spiritual gift in this area.  Though healings would technically be a miracle, Paul lists the spiritual gift of miracles, which is the ability either to predict or direct events that cannot be naturally explained in their coincidence.

The gift of prophecy is not only about trying to predict the future.  Prophecy simply means to speak on behalf of God.  In a general way, all Christians are to speak on behalf of God to the lost of the world.  But, within the Church, God speaks to some in order to speak to the whole assembly.  These words of prophecy may be about the past, the present or the future.  Either way, it is up to the people of the church to discern whether the prophecy is in keeping with the New Testament.  Also, it would not be treated as being on par with Scripture.  However, we should recognize that if it truly is the Holy Spirit speaking to a person, it will be 100% accurate.  The idea that a person can be completely wrong in a prophecy and somehow still have been motivated by the Holy Spirit is a blasphemous thing to say.  At the very least, the person has presumed that their own ideas were from the Spirit of God.  It takes strong leadership to pull such people aside and caution them.   The spiritual gift of discerning of spirits has to do with an ability to recognize the spiritual motivation behind a manifestation of a “spiritual gift.”    There is no natural reason for them to question a person’s motivation, but they recognize it by the help of the Holy Spirit.

The last two spiritual gifts that Paul points to are speaking in different kinds of languages and the interpretation of such.  The Holy Spirit can help people to speak in a language that they have never learned.  This may or may not be understood by people present.  In fact, some languages may not be of this earth.  Either way, in the church assembly they are intended to be interpreted (not translated).  Both of these gifts go hand in hand.  They can be used by the same person, or with two different people.

Now in looking at all of these spiritual gifts, some of them have natural counterparts.  But, the emphasis with spiritual gifts is that there is no natural explanation for them.  They are powered and enabled by the Holy Spirit.

More about Spiritual Gifts

It is important to recognize that these are not things we can take a class on and learn.  They are not things that we can hang out with a person who has them and can mentor us.  These are given by the Holy Spirit as He desires (vs. 11).  There is no place for self-promotion or self-calling with the spiritual gifts, and yet, these very things are often on display.  Instead of worrying about what we have or don’t have, we are to be a people of prayer seeking to help one another.  In that context we will discover gifting within ourselves.  The emphasis is on helping each other, not on having a list of gifts embroidered on our lapel.  Now I want to skip to the end of the chapter to recognize how the apostle Paul wraps up this section.

In verse 31 Paul tells us to earnestly desire the best gifts, and yet there is a more excellent way.  Of course that way is the way of love in chapter 13.  This verse has two aspects.  The first has to do with desiring the best gifts.  As I said at the beginning, some are afraid of spiritual gifts and want to avoid them.  However, the apostle tells us to desire them.  I would point out that this is both individually and corporately.  However, sometimes our desire can be fueled by the wrong reasons.  The Corinthians all desired to speak in tongues because they thought that this was the most spiritual gift.  In their mentality, it must be the most spiritual because you couldn’t be understood.  Yet, Paul would show them that without interpretation this gift does not help the whole Church.   It is better to prophecy in a language that is understood than to only speak in tongues without interpretation (we are talking about within a gathering).  There misunderstanding of the purpose of the spiritual gifts had caused their gatherings to become a wild and chaotic free for all with everyone speaking in an unintelligible language.  His words are not meant to shut it all down, but rather to give it wisdom.  This way the true purpose of the gifts and the Spirit who gave them could happen.

Now the second part of verse 31 points us to the way of love.  There are some who believe that Paul is trying to replace spiritual gifts with love, like it is better than them.  However, when you honestly read the opening verses of chapter 13, we see that Paul is still talking about using spiritual gifts.  “If I speak with the tongues of angels and have not love…”  The Corinthians had become very self focused in their use of the spiritual gifts.  The more excellent way is to have our spiritual gifts tempered and directed by the love of God.  Spiritual gifts are meant to operate through the love of God.

I pray that you will not run from spiritual gifts, but I also pray that you will learn to be wise in what truly is of the Holy Spirit.  There is always going to be some immaturity in this area if we are winning people to Christ.  We will have our own moments that parallel Paul’s attempts to teach the Corinthians.  However, this can be a good thing if we have enough people who are spiritually mature in the use of the spiritual gifts and can help those who are not to grow and learn to serve properly.

Serving with Spiritual Gifts audio