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The Lord of the Gifts

*1 Corinthians 12:1-6
November 11, 2018
Lord’s Day Worship
Sean Higgins

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The sermon starts at 14:40 in the audio file.

Or, The Whence and Whither of One’s Spiritual Status

Paul had heard that when the Corinthian Christians came together for worship and fellowship, things were for the worse and they experienced more the antitype of communion. Instead of remembering and reflecting the Lord’s death at the Lord’s Table, some of them were feasting selfishly and excluding others. While they should have been celebrating the Savior they were actually serving themselves. It was so unworthy of the Supper that Paul refused to acknowledge it as the Supper, and God judged some of them with weakness, illness, and even death.

At the beginning of 1 Corinthians 12 Paul changes subjects to something they had written to him about. It is another problem, but we could also see it as the same problem with a different symptom. The problem is that they didn’t actually love one another. They looked for reasons to consider themselves more important than others.

It started in chapter 8 with the weak and the strong. There were two groups, two sides, not one. With the separation at the Lord’s Supper it’s the same thing: two groups, no unity.

We don’t know exactly what question they asked Paul in their letter, but it seems that with chapter 12 Paul begins to address another sort of taking sides: those who are spiritual from those who are not, or at least those who aren’t as significantly spiritual. Instead of unity in the Spirit, there was a spirit of competition. It further seems that the specific problem related to the spiritual gift of tongues (γλῶσσαι is “mentioned twenty-one times in chapters 12-14 and nowhere else in Paul’s letters,” Garland). A comparison between tongues and prophecy, both speaking gifts, takes up all of chapter 14. Paul appears to begin with a general discussion here in chapter 12, getting a running start into the specific concern.

In one sense we can be thankful for how much the Corinthians misunderstood and mishandled their spiritual gifts because we learn a lot about body life from Paul’s instructions. And, since we have a lot of information concerning some of what happens in other churches, there are truths in 1 Corinthians 12-14 that rebuke wrong elements of worship liturgy, These are things that at least ought to inform where/how we choose to worship. That said, in a disgracefully ironic twist, the kind of truth-teaching churches that most of us prefer tend to commit the same error of valuing a particular gift over the rest. For the Corinthians, and some of our Charismatic brothers, they value(d) tongues too much. For conservative, Reformed brothers, we tend to exalt prophecy/teaching too much, which is not actually understanding the teaching about the gifts.

Some in the body need to be humbled, some need to be encouraged, all need to be united. Verses 1-11 introduce the subject of spiritual gifts and even provide a sample list of gifts, then verses 12-31 emphasize how all these gifts work together. For this morning we’ll consider how the whence (from where, as in the source) and whither (to where, as in the goal) of our gifts determine our spiritual status.

Equality of Spiritual Status (verses 1-3)

The topic switches: Now concerning spiritual gifts. This is the fourth time the phrase now concerning has come up in the letter, and it introduces a response on Paul’s part to something they wrote and asked him about.

What did they ask? We don’t have their letter, obviously, so we have to put it together from what Paul says. Spiritual gifts is the main heading, but there are any number of questions that could be asked about that subject.

Verses 2 and 3 don’t initially appear to deal with gifts; what would be lost in the argument without them? But this is itself a clue. Paul thought that verses 2-3 were important to his argument. I do not want you to be uniformed, verse 1, and then he begins verse 2 with you know and verse 3 with I want you to understand.

They know their own spiritual background. You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led. The word pagans refers to non-Jews, but with an emphasis on religion not on nationality; pagans works better as a translation than “Gentiles” in this context. As pagans they had been “spiritual” but not in a way that prepared them for true spirituality. They were led astray, they were mislead, even carried away in the deception, to mute idols. Mute or “dumb” does mean that the idols didn’t talk, but they didn’t talk because they were lifeless (see Psalm 115:4-8 more a great description of senseless idols). Whatever god the pagans followed, and there were many gods to choose from, pagans always ended up nowhere nearer the truth.

Polytheism is not pre-evangelism; there’s more to unlearn than to build on. Also, men can worship idols in common, but not in unity. The diversity of gods and worshippers can never be complementary, only competitive, which is what the Corinthians knew too well. We moderns consider ourselves much more Enlightened in our darkness. We don’t talk about faith in “gods” but about empirical facts. But our impersonal view of the world hasn’t helped us get along any better. Men are blind, both in superstitious and scientific ways, and still individualistic.

There’s only one way to get to true spirituality. 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. What makes the difference, more precisely Who makes the difference, is God’s Spirit.

There are two confessions, but in front and behind of both of them is the Spirit. There is a universal negative and a universal affirmative. No man in the Spirit is a Jesus-curser, every man in the Spirit is a Jesus-server.

Who was calling Jesus anathema (ἀνάθεμα), that is, something devoted to destruction? The pagans? Maybe the Jews, thinking about Deuteronomy 21:23? Those who were persecuting Christians? Christians in a crazed-state? Is it a hypothetical contrast?

”Jesus is Lord” is not only a verbal confession, some sort of spoken entry code to the kingdom, but a whole-life commitment. Of course someone could blurt the words. In certain contexts, just blurting out could get you killed, so it was less likely to be unconsidered. But for Christians, “Jesus is Lord” is what we believe is true, and so we bow ourselves in humility before the Lord, and we build up His body, under His authority, as He tells us to. “Jesus is Lord” is a statement for life and godliness, not just an independent clause. “Jesus is Lord” is a banner, a uniform. No one submits to and works under His lordship for long without the Spirit.

Which means that if you do believe and bow and build for the Lord Jesus, You have the Spirit. Which means that each and every person in the body of Christ has the Spirit. Which means that there is an equality in our spiritual status. Which means that no one can claim to be superior in the Spirit.

Unity in Spiritual Manifestations (verses 4-6)

Everyone has the same confession and everyone comes to make that confession through the same Spirit, but there are a variety of expressions. This variety does elevate someone, it elevates the Lord who gives the gifts, not any particular person who has a certain gift. Verses 4-6 are one sentence with three parts.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all and in everyone.

What is the greater emphasis in this sentence: variety or unity? There’s no doubt that differences are observed and even valued, but the greatest emphasis is on the same whence and whither of all of the manifestations.

Even the word varieties misses the translation mark a little. The KJV uses “diversities,” and the NIV uses “different kinds.” These are fine, but could be better. The Greek word (διαιρέσεις) is only used here in all the NT. The first meaning in the dictionary is a “division or distribution of something to persons, apportionment, division” (BAGD). We could think about what’s announced at the reading of a will. It’s not just that the gifts are many-colored, it’s that they are all, regardless of what they are, handed out by the sovereign Lord according to His desire. He is the Lord of the gifts.

He doesn’t allocate the same gifts to everyone, but everyone has gifts given by the same Spirit.

In verse 4 the emphasis is on gifts, the Greek word is the plural form of charisma (χαρίσματα). It’s a combination of the Greek word for “grace” (charis) plus the +ma ending which emphasizes the result of something. These are effects from what has been freely given. There’s a lot more to say about these gifts through the end of chapter 14. For now, whatever gift you have is from the same Spirit. Everyone’s gifts come from the same source.

You can’t go to a class to get this. You can invest your talent (using the vocabulary from Matthew 25:14-30), but you can’t come up with the capital. Man doesn’t give it to you, man doesn’t take it away. Your gift is derived authority directly from God. And this means you are more accountable, not less. Yours is a direct answer on the org chart. You might get direction/training/encouragement from leaders, but you ultimately answer to the Lord Himself.

Verse 5 emphasizes not what you have but what you do. There are (divisions) of service, but the same Lord. The word service is a form of diakonia (διακονία), the basic word for “mediated service,” (BAGD), for assigned ”ministry” (NASB). These aren’t referring to the tools (gifts) but to the tasks (ministries). There are many different services/ministries. Everyone is assigned a different job, but everyone answers to the same Lord.

Verse 6 emphasizes how you use what you have to do what you’re assigned. There are (divisions) of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. That’s fine, but the translation activities (ἐνεργήματα) sounds unnecessarily similar to “service.” The point here is that there are different expressions of power, different effects, a variety of fruits. And a form of the same word describes God’s empowering. We could say, “there are many given energized accomplishments and they are all energized by God.” God is the one activating, the one putting capabilities into operation. He is Energizer of all in all.

So who can boast? Who can claim higher spiritual status? Who has a better gift? Who has anything that he hasn’t been given (1 Corinthians 4:7)?

The focus of the triple “same” is not that we are all the same in all the same ways. The “same” does not allow one gifted for this ministry and fruitfulness to claim superiority over someone differently gifted for some other ministry and fruitfulness. But even in the way that Paul brings us back to the same source he is preparing us for unity in diversity more than a flat equality. Here is the Godhead in three Persons, equal in divinity but not the same person. The Trinity is the theological basis for us not being the same and not being jerks to each other but actually loving each other and pulling on behalf of each other.

Can you imagine one of the Persons of the Trinity posturing, competing, for glory? Can you imagine Christians competing, “I confess Jesus is Lord better than him.” There are some lords who might reward that, but not the Lord of the gifts.


There is plenty to correct in the Church. I am thankful for teaching and confrontation on some of the gross errors in much of capital C Charismatic theology and practice. And also, I am first concerned with sins we need to repent from.

Even in churches that appropriately recognize the dangers of elevating tongues, whether in the expectation of new revelation or the pride in giftedness (which Paul is poking at), it is possible that we’ve just elevated a different gift onto the TMS pedestal, wherein TMS stands for “The Most Spiritual.” I’m talking about the gift of teaching, or prophecy (which will need more defining as we move through these chapters). Paul does say that prophecy has more to commend it than tongues. But chapter 12 starts by reminding us that we all put on our spiritual gifts pants one leg at a time.

Church members compete with each other for preeminence because preachers compete with each other, or at least put themselves above, other gifted members. Preachers are getting what they’re celebrating: they are getting mutant bodies by elevating the speaking gifts…just like the Corinthians. Even if one member doesn’t compete over speaking gifts, it still sets the example of competing.

Love your gift/ministry/fruit. Use your gift, do your ministry, thank God for your fruitfulness. Don’t get proud about it, or pushy about it. Likewise, don’t despise it, or avoid it. The favorite coffee cup knows the hand is coming every morning. Getting used is the job of the cup!

The whence and whither of body life in the Spirit is kind of thrilling. You are the body of Christ, and may God bless us as we use our gifts to build up the body in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.


The one thing everyone needs to do is do the different things God has called and gifted you to do. You have been gifted by the Spirit, assigned by the Lord, and will be energized by God Himself. May the Lord bless you to live up to your spiritual status.


Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Corinthians 13:11, 14, ESV)