Striving for Unity – 1 Corinthians Chapter 12: Spiritual Gifts

By Jenny Fulton

Guess What? It’s the spiritual gifts chapter!

Many people have heard or read at least some parts of this section in some contexts. Several churches emphasize and utilize the listed spiritual gifts and ministries a great deal while others don’t really do much with them.

What has your experience with these gifts and ministries been?

How do you think this chapter plays into the book’s overall theme of unity? 

Verses 1-3: Discerning the Spirit

Paul ends the last section (in chapter 11) by discussing appropriate conduct at the Lord’s Supper and then makes a pretty obvious transition to the next topic that someone has written to him about: “Now concerning spiritual gifts…” Paul wants to give the Corinthians more information about how the Spirit of God operates – what He gives and produces in the lives of believers.

Many of those in Corinth had previously worshipped idols. While the objects themselves had no life or spirit, Paul earlier, in chapter 10, said that demons attach themselves to the idols and interact with the worshippers in their sacrifices and devotion to the perceived gods. In other words, when they worshipped idols, people unknowingly worshipped demons. Having had that experience, how could these new converts to Christianity rest secure in the knowledge that God’s Spirit was different? How could they know they weren’t inadvertently worshipping and receiving power from another demon? 

To answer their question and set their mind at rest, Paul gave them a way to discern the nature of the spirit: if it’s God’s Spirit, you will be able to say and believe that Jesus is Lord. If you’re being influenced by a demon’s spirit, you’ll say Jesus is accursed (verse 3).

Verses 4-6: One Spirit

Having given the Corinthians a way to discern the spirits and rest in the assurance of the presence of God’s Spirit, Paul moves on to describe the different ways in which God might operate in the lives of believers.

  • The same Spirit, the Holy Spirit, gives different gifts to different people.
  • The same Lord [1]Jesus assigns different ministries to different people.
  • The same God works in all people and brings about the outcomes of their different gifts and ministries.

Verses 7-11: Different Gifts

The gifts given by the Holy Spirit reveal some aspect/characteristic of the Spirit and are given for the purpose of being used to help others. These gifts are never given for the benefit of the receiver alone and are never meant for solely personal use and gratification. I don’t believe the list in these verses is an exhaustive, all-inclusive description of the ways in which the Spirit manifests itself in the lives of believers but is instead a sampling of the various ways and various gifts which may be given.

For example, the Spirit may give:

  • Words of Wisdom
  • Words of Knowledge
  • Faith
  • Healing
  • Working Miracles (literally translates as, the act of ability or the act of powerful ability)
  • Prophesy (more literally means to speak inspired messages)
  • Distinguishing between spirits
  • Possessing various tongues/languages
  • Interpreting/translating various tongues/languages

Even though these gifts are different, and even though they may look and operate differently in the lives of the believers, they all have the same source and have been given by Him in whichever way and to whichever degree He deems is best for the good of others.

The gifts given by the Holy Spirit reveal some aspect/characteristic of the Spirit and are given for the purpose of being used to help others. #SpiritualGifts #HolySpirit #Christianity #Unity

Verses 12-14: One Body

After giving examples of how believers may have been gifted, Paul uses the analogy of a physical body to further illustrate how Christians should operate as part of a spiritual/figurative body.

  • A physical body is one entity made up of many parts
  • Christ is like a spiritual body in which the many different members (believers) are joined together into one entity
  • Regardless of culture, economic status, religious background, all people who come to Christ are baptized by the Holy Spirit into union with Christ. All who are joined with Christ are indwelled by the same Holy Spirit.

Verses 15-20: Different Functions

What happens when a physical human body stops functioning as one unit?

What would happen if the parts of the body became jealous of one another or began to seek out and fight over what they thought were the best gifts, roles, and positions to have in the body?

What if the foot got tired of being dirty and bearing the weight of the rest of the body? What if it decided it wanted to be a hand because they got washed more often and were able to do more interesting work?

What if the ear decided to hop off and leave because it wasn’t an eye?

What if the entire body was just one big eye, or one big ear?

Obviously, this sounds ridiculous, and a bit disturbing. But I think that’s Paul’s point.

Just as a physical body desperately needs each part in order to function in a strong and healthy way, the spiritual body of believers, the church, desperately needs people who are different from one another operating out of their different strengths and abilities to help one another grow in the faith in a strong and healthy way. 

Verses 21-26: The Same Value

What happens when elitism enters into the body? What happens when one part thinks it’s so superior to the others that it has no further need of them?

“And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; or again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”[2]

Christianity turns elitism on its head. There’s simply no room for superiority or supremacy in a healthy, united body of believers. The presence of such is an immediate testimony to that group’s weakened and unhealthy state.

Christianity turns elitism on its head. There’s simply no room for superiority or supremacy in a healthy, united body of believers. The presence of such is an immediate testimony to that group’s weakened and unhealthy state. #elitsim #unity #Christianity

Elitism says, “I’m better, stronger, and smarter than you.”

Paul says, “On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. [3]

Elitism says, “Serve me first. Do as I say. Think what I tell you to think. Speak what I tell you to speak. Esteem me. Honor me. Follow my advice, my instructions.”

Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”[4]

God, knowing the sinful desires of people to become lords over their peers, designed the kingdom of God to look and operate differently for a very specific reason. “But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.[5]

Elitism creates division and fosters supreme selfishness that doesn’t care about the well-being of others.

God’s love and the way in which He designed the spiritual body of His church to operate creates unity, love, care, and honor among the believers. When we see one another as equally loved and equally valuable, when we look with awe upon the work God is doing in each other’s lives and when we hold each and every gift and role in high esteem, our care and love for one another increases. We rejoice with the one who rejoices and weep with the one who weeps. This is God’s design. This is His plan and structure for how the church is meant to operate.

Verses 27-31: Different Structural Roles

The church is Christ’s body, and we are members of it. Within this body, there is an organizational structure with various roles. Paul gives examples of some of these roles, and, as with the gift’s list, I don’t believe this is an exhaustive description of all the roles within the church. Neither is it a list with value statements. The 1st, 2nd, 3rd, indicators aren’t statements of how valuable each role is but seem to be more structural in nature with the earlier roles serving to provide the framework and the latter roles filling in the details. These roles include:

  • Apostles
  • Prophets
  • Teachers
  • Workers of Miracles (those with great ability)
  • Healers
  • Helpers (literally, those who grasp, master, take up something)
  • Administrators
  • Possessing various tongues/languages
  • Interpreting/translating various tongues/languages

Paul ends this chapter by restating what he understands the mentality of the Corinthians to be and then leads them into the next section in which he will challenge their mindset. Given that the verb used for “earnestly desire” (verse 31) is 2nd person plural, this verse could be read, “Now, you all earnestly desire the greatest gifts, and I show you a more excellent way.”

Take-Aways:

What are some of your biggest take-aways from this chapter? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Until then, here are a few of mine.

  • God has uniquely gifted each and every one of us in an important way to encourage other believers in their journey of faith.
  • God created and loves diversity.
  • When aligned with God, diversity can unify and strengthen God’s people in their walk with Him.

God has uniquely gifted each and every one of us in an important way to encourage other believers in their journey of faith. #spiritualgifts #Christianity #encouragement

When aligned with God, diversity can unify and strengthen God’s people in their walk with Him. #unity #diversity #Christianity

United or Divided?

In light of the overall theme of 1 Corinthians and Paul’s call to unity, 

Things That Divide Us:

  • Discounting the work of the Holy Spirit in someone’s life because they don’t look, act, or live out the Christian life in the same way as we do
  • Believing that different gifts and roles within the church have different values
  • Seeking the gifts and roles thought to hold greater value
  • Looking down on someone we think possesses a less valuable gift or role
  • Ignoring those who suffer, resenting those who are honored

Things that Unite Us:

  • Allowing that the work of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life may look and operate in a different way from person to person
  • Believing that different gifts and roles within the church have equal value
  • Accepting the gifts and roles given to us by God and believing them to hold equal value
  • Highly esteeming others who possess different gifts and roles
  • Having the same care for one another – suffering with the one who suffers, rejoicing with the one who is honored

What Do You Think?

What stood out to you from this chapter?

Do you think you have been given any of the spiritual gifts listed in this chapter?

Do you think you have been given a spiritual gift that isn’t listed?

What other kinds of spiritual gifts do you think there might be?

In what ways can diversity bring unity?

In this Series

Women, Join In!

For almost a year, the book of 1 Corinthians has weighed heavy upon my heart. In May, I joined a women’s online fellowship site, Bloom.com, and decided to lead a Bible study on this book. These musings are a summary of my findings and the relevance/application I see surrounding us today. If you’re a woman and would like to participate in the study, head on over to www.Bloom.com and join the 1 Corinthians Bible Study group where you’ll find study guides to follow and discussion threads to participate in. 

_ _ _

* Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay


[1] seeing a pattern of the Trinity in these verses and pulling from Paul’s use of Lord in verse 3, I’m assuming Paul means Lord Jesus

[2] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 12:21.

[3] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 12:22–24.

[4] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), Mt 20:25–28.

[5] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 12:24–26.

19 comments

  1. Wow, what a lot of work you have put into this post. I have found it helpful, as in my role as childrnes and families minister I am really thinking about how we can see the holy spirit working in the lives of the kids, and how we can encourage them to grow in their gifting. Especially in the light of our current lockdown where we are unable to meet face to face with the children. Any wisdom you have would be much appreciated.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That sounds like a great ministry you have going there. I love seeing the work of the Holy Spirit in such young lives as well. I wonder if you could facilitate anything by Zoom or video sharing for the kids and their families. It does seem especially hard for the kids in not being able to see and get together with their friends. Tough times all around.

      Like

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