1 Corinthians 12: Spiritual Gifts Point to the Holy Spirit

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

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 (vv 4-6).

Are your talents a gift?

The Apostle Paul is not shy about discussing the role of the Holy Spirit.  In 1 Corinthians 12 he begins a 3-chapter discussion of spiritual gifts.  Hays (207)[1] sees this chapter divided into 4 parts:

  1. Introduction (vv 1-3);
  2. Manifestations of the Spirit (vv 4-11);
  3. Body analogy (vv 12-26); and
  4. Application to gifts and offices of the in the church (vv 27-31).

In his introduction, Paul grabs the bull by the horns and says:  Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed (v 1).  This direct approach is most interesting—these days we often read of churches torn up by controversies—often outright sin—that were allowed to grow in the shadows.  Paul does not let mold grow in the shade; he confronts controversy head on.  And he claims all things for Christ—no one can say Jesus is Lord, except through the Holy Spirit (v 3).

In discussing manifestation of the Spirit, Paul sees a Trinitarian (Spirit, Lord, and God) variety of gifts, services, and activities (vv 4-6).  In claiming all gifts, services, and activities for God, none is excluded and none is more important than the other.  Theologians get excited about Paul’s Trinitarian statement because it seems off the cuff rather than the focus of his comments.  In other words, Paul experiences God in three persons even though his does not articulate a formal theology of the Trinity (Hays 210).

Paul use of the body as an analogy for the church is interesting, in part, because he reframes the analogy from his peers.  Ancient authors often used the same analogy to argue for hierarchy in the social order; Paul uses it to illustrate diversity and interdependence (Hays 213).  In undertaking his discussion, he tailors his comments to the particular needs of the Corinthian church which becomes obvious in comparing the list of spiritual gifts with other lists that he provides, for example, in Ephesians 4:11-13 and Romans 12:6-8.  Neither alternative list, for example, cites speaking in tongues (v 10).  Clearly, Paul’s emphasis in listing gifts is not on the list, but on the legitimacy and use of each gift to build up the body of the church.

In wrapping up his comments, he exhorts the Corinthians to strive to work in building up the church and in attaining the “higher gifts” (vv 27 and 31).  One suspects in reading this section that Paul prioritizes spiritual gifts, in part, because Corinthian priorities were different.

One clue to this deficiency is Paul’s switch in words used in the Greek for gifts.  In verse one, a gift is πνευματικός, (BDAG 5999; mostly in the sense pertaining to wind or breath) already in verse 4 Paul switches to χάρισμα (BDAG 7896; that which is freely and graciously given, favor bestowed, gift).  In switching from an emphasis on the receiver of the gift to an emphasis on the giver, Paul highlights the role of the Holy Spirit.  A spiritual gift is a talent used to build up the body of Christ.

Are you musical?  Do you work well with kids?  How might your gift be used to build up the church?

[1] Richard B. Hays.  2011. Interpretations:  First Corinthians.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press.

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