Among the writings of Paul, 1 Corinthians is the letter which teaches the church what it means to be a Christian community.
The opening verses (ch1 vv1-9) have the effect of defining where the church comes from and what it’s based on, and I will want to show how the rest
of the teaching follows on from that.
I was drawing out a definition of the church in the attached thread;
Defining the church
Part of the definition was that the church is a “gathered assembly”, an EKKLESIA, richly endowed with “gifts” (CHARISMATA).
So the next concern is how this community relates to the activity of the Spirit. (ch12).
vv1-3 For these gifts are “things of the Spirit”, which means the Corinthians cannot understand them, unless they understand the importance of the
Spirit in the Christian life.
It goes back to the beginning of Christian faith, since nobody can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.
That is to say, the words themselves can be spoken
by anyone, but only by the prompting of the Spirit will anyone make that claim with serious
He’s already explained the reason for this in a previous chapter (ch2 vv9-14)
Without the Spirit, who knows the thoughts of God, we cannot know the Wisdom of God, and therefore we cannot come to any understanding of the
So every believer must have received the Spirit, since otherwise their faith would be impossible.
The other side of the coin is that only the non-believers, those not moved by the Spirit of God, will call Jesus “cursed”.
vv4-7 They need to understand that the gifts come in many different forms, but they all have the same source.
If we call them “gifts”, they’re all distributed by the one Spirit.
If we call them “ways of serving”, they’re all in the service of the one Lord.
If we call them “powerful effects”, it is the one God who makes them happen.
The Spirit is giving whatever is most appropriate for each person (v11), but always for the common good of the Christian community.
vv8-10 Then we get the famous list, in which Paul finds nine different categories for the phenomena that he knows about.
(He also finds nine ways of describing “the fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians, so the number clearly appeals to his half-Greek mind)
The list has been problematic in modern times, because these things had been missing from the standard life of the church.
When they re-appeared in the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements, they sometimes brought controversy.
I once belonged to a local church which had very divided sympathies.
So I’ll aim to tread carefully and focus on what Paul’s words are describing.
Most of the nine can be grouped in pairs.
The first pair in the series are named as “word of wisdom” and “word of knowledge”.
Commentators don’t find it easy to distinguish between them.
But “God’s Wisdom”, in the opening chapters, relates to the purpose of the Cross.
So the “word of wisdom” (LOGOS SOPHIAS) might be mainly theological, offering insights into the central message of the gospel which are not
accessible to the human “wisdom of speech” (SOPHIA LOGOU, ch1 v17).
That would leave “knowledge” to cover other aspects of teaching and/or information.
“Faith” is another puzzle.
It can’t be the “saving faith” that every Christian would have.
In the next chapter Paul talks about the kind of faith which can “move mountains”, but that seems to be covered later in the list.
An ancient suggestion was “the faith which produces martyrs” (something else picked up in the next chapter).
So perhaps Paul is thinking of the kind of faith which promotes a willingness to undergo the hardships involved in evangelism.
In which case the first three gifts in the list could all be related to some aspect of the presentation of the gospel, which would account for their
The next pair of gifts are “healings” and “acts of power”.
It’s been observed that both these words are in the plural, suggesting that the “gift” is not “the power to heal” or “the power to work
miracles”, but the individual act of healing or the individual miracle.
In other words, God does not delegate his powers, but “gives” the events which demonstrate his power.
Next come “prophecy” and “discernment of spirits”.
Prophecy, in the Old Testament, is not just speaking about the future.
It’s the medium for any message, of warning or encouragement, which God wants to give his people.
“Discernment of spirits” would be very closely associated.
If “messages from God” are being received, it would be important and valuable to be able to tell the difference between what comes from the Spirit
of God, and what does not.
Finally “tongues” and “the interpretation of tongues”.
The discussion in ch14 suggests that “tongues” may be used for different purposes.
It is possible for people to “pray in the Spirit”, or “sing in the Spirit”.
The “tongue” might be expressing some “revelation of knowledge or prophecy or teaching” (ch14 v6).
But, as Paul points out, the church gets no benefit unless the message is also interpreted.
For if a man speaks in a tongue, without translation, the practical effect (rather than the purpose) is that he’s talking only to God (ch14 v2).
As for the reason why “tongues” are given at all; Paul regards them as a “sign” confronting the unbelievers, relating to God’s judgement
upon them (in which case an assembly of believers is not really the right place)- ch14 v22.
vv12-26 But all these gifts come from the same Spirit, and should be serving a common purpose.
The fact that all the believers have “drunk from” or have been “immersed in” the one Spirit is one of the signs that they all belong to the
one body, the body of Christ.
And therefore they should be working together, like the different parts of a physical body.
Nobody should be taking pride in their own functions and abilities to the extent of despising those who have different abilities.
These criticisms seem to be directed at the people speaking in tongues.
The implication is that they they were looking down on other gifts in the list, in areas like prophecy and healing.
Which may have been the case at the time.
In the first flush of the charismatic revival, there seemed to be a danger that people with any of the gifts on the list might be valuing themselves,
or might be perceived as valuing themselves, more highly than those whose gifts were not mentioned at all.
But Paul has that angle covered as well.
vv27-28 Evidently the list of nine gifts was never intended to be exhaustive,
Paul now puts forward a different and slightly expanded list, a sample of different ways that people can serve the church.
The first rank are those who guide the church’s life through what they say.
The Apostle comes first, as the man who founds the church in the first place, then the prophets and the teachers.
We find miracles, and healing, and tongues in the second rank of activities.
But we also find “helpers and administrators”.
The first group would be helping the needy- the poor, the sick, the widows, the orphans.
The second group would be looking after other aspects of the practical life of the church.
In Romans, in another list of the gifts, we find people who are giving money and giving aid and “doing acts of mercy”.
On the principle that every believer has received the Spirit, the Spirit may be active in everything they do, including those things which are more
practical and less obviously “supernatural”.
So there may be a way for any believer to serve the community in ”the gifts of the Spirit”.