1 Corinthians 12:1-11
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware. You know that when you were pagans, you were led astray to the dumb idols, however you were led. Therefore I make known to you, that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, "Jesus is accursed"; and no one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit.
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. And there are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons. But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Our Epistle lesson today deals with one of the hottest topics in the church today, spiritual gifts. Actually, the text doesn’t start out with the word gifts, although it does appear in the text. It starts with the word that means “spiritual things”, or “spiritual stuff”. Paul is setting about to clarify for the Corinthians, and for us, spiritual matters dealing with powers, gifts, abilities, and what not. Apparently there was some confusion - likely the sort of confusion that has plagued the modern church in this regard. Our theme this morning is Spiritual Things.
I guess the first thing we have to deal with is that Paul divides mankind into two camps; us and them. There are the Christians, although he doesn’t use that word much (in fact, Paul never uses the word, “Christian”, in Scriptures), and those who are not Christians. He calls the “not Christians” the “ethnay” which can mean the “nations”, or the Gentiles, or the “Pagans”. In his day, everyone was once one of one group or the other, both the Jews and the Gentiles, although Paul tends to refer to the Jews as “Israel” or “Jews”. Still, in this text he is writing primarily to Gentiles who are now Christians, and he calls their former state, Gentiles – or the nations, or pagans. It is “us” contrasted with “them”.
Still the same today, by the way. Mankind is still divided into two camps, those who are Christians, and those who are not. It does not matter who is the majority – although today, just like in the first century AD, those who are not Christians are the great majority. We don’t accept unbelievers as part of “us”. They are “them” and we who believe are “us”. Period. The modern and yet pathetic attempt to wrap Jews and Moslems in with Christians because they identify their god with the God of the Scriptures (and of the Christian Church, more or less) is not acceptable. It is not even honest. We, who believe the Gospel and know Christ, are us. Everyone else, including hypocrites and false Christians, are part of them.
All of the early Christians had once been part of “them”. We too, although not necessarily at a time which we can recall. Paul makes the point, however, that when they were part of that pagan crowd, they were led to worship idols. He characterizes the idols as “silent”, “speechless”, “without a voice” – our translation uses the old-fashioned word, “dumb”. It is part of how remarkably unintelligent the pagan religions were: they worshipped statues, calling upon those things which were not God and had no way of communicating. The priests and leaders of those pagan religions basically made it up on the spot. They had no word from their “gods” because their gods had no words, no voice.
Now, instead, they, the Christians, worship a God who speaks, and they are lead by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit was no more visible then, generally, than He is today, so Paul gave them a very simple rule to use to decide if what they were seeing and hearing was connected in any way to the Spirit. The rule was, Therefore I make known to you, that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, "Jesus is accursed"; and no one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit.
Here is an idea that is definitely not a modern concept: God cannot be speaking and working through anyone who is not explicitly a Christian – at least not working religiously. God works through all sorts of people and events in the world to accomplish His will for us and the world around us, but truth and faith and good religion are not connected in any way to anyone who is not explicitly Christian, no matter what anyone says - and no matter who does the saying.
These words also tell us that apart from the working of the Holy Spirit, there is no true faith. If you believe, it is the gift of God, not something you did on your own or worked out within yourself.
On the other hand, God works in a great variety of ways among His people. Here Paul comes to gifts. Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. And there are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons. But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. There are a variety of gifts, but the same Spirit gives them all. There are a variety of ways to serve God, but those ways are all serving the same Lord. God accomplishes a variety of things, but among the people of God, it is always God at work. The manifestation of the Spirit simply refers to being able to see what the Spirit accomplishes or where He is at work. Whatever He does or gives or works is for the common good – literally to accomplish something or for the benefit of the church. And did you notice the Trinitarian formulation of that passage? Spirit, Lord, and God: that is how Paul would refer to the Trinity, as in God the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit – only in the opposite order here.
These words teach us a couple of things. First, everything in the church, all the talents, gifts, and accomplishments are gifts of grace. There are not ours, except that God gives them to us, and they are not to our glory – although they may be to our benefit. God is at work. When something works to our blessing, it is God at work. We are responsible for nothing, except to faithfully be and do what God lays before us. The results belong to God.
Secondly, doing what God gives us to do is never going to be a bad thing for the Church. God works among us for blessing, even when we do not see the blessings, or recognize them as blessings. Our skills, abilities, talents, and gifts are from God, and for the blessing of God’s people. Not everyone in every place will do exactly the same thing, but if they are faithful and trust God and do not wander off into deliberate sin, their work will accomplish God’s good purpose. So there are a variety of manifestations of the Spirit.
Paul lists these: For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. I don’t think that this list is intended to be exhaustive, but it probably covers the range of gifts seen in the early church, and about which controversies had arisen already.
Wisdom, knowledge, faith, the power to heal, miracles, prophecy (by which we think he meant preaching), distinguishing spirits, speaking in tongues, and the interpretation of tongues. Some of these gifts may not be given in the same way in every generation. Back when the Christian Church began, there were no schools for the Church, no background preparation for ministry like theological study or linguistic training. God worked what His Church required directly. He still does that, but He works through the means He has given, such as schools, and yet He still works these things in the people He has chosen to have each of these things. You can see some of how this works if you go to a school and see how some people just naturally pick up the languages, while others struggle with them. Some learn theology easily while others wrestle with it with less result. Some people are wise, and others not so much.
And then there is the gift of faith. Everyone who believes has the gift of faith, but what the Apostle mentions here is that gift of extraordinary faith that inspires others and faces down the greatest challenges to faith with remarkable, and often visible, confidence and security. This gift is sometimes a lifelong possession, and, I suspect, sometimes is given to the person who needs it in the unique circumstances in which they need it most.
The point of this lesson is that these spiritual things all belong to the Holy Spirit. He gives them and He uses them as He wills. There is no room for personal glory or advantage for any one of us in them. They are not personal possessions or personal talents, but gifts and workings of God in and among us. If someone is using them for personal glory or advancement, they are misusing them.
It also means that we can give thanks for what we have and who we are. It is the gift of God. We need to remember, though, that it all belongs to God, for the common good. You are who you are and you possess all that you possess for the blessing and benefit of the Church – not merely for yourself.
On the other hand, God has provided us all with what we need - what all of us need, not just what any one of us need. We can rejoice in the blessings of another, the gifts and talents, just as though they were our own because the Lord has given these gifts for the blessing of all, not just the one who has the talents or possessions. We cannot – and should not – envy the blessings of another, nor covet them, because God is the one who decides who has what and who can do what. To envy or covet or lust after the gifts God has given to another is to call God’s judgment in the matter into question. To cling to them and hoard them and their benefits for ourselves is also sin, and working against God.
I am not saying this attitude of humility is easy. Our flesh hungers for riches and good times and great talents and public appreciation. That is the nature of sin, to be focused on one’s self without regard for the wisdom of God. It is natural to wish we could do what others can do, and wish we possessed the gifts of another and wish that the blessings of another were ours, or that we were similarly blessed. It is natural, but it is sin. God knows what He is doing, and why He is doing it. We often know nothing more than the fact that someone else seems to have it better, richer, happier, or have something that we desire. When we find ourselves coveting, we need to repent, and remember that while we do not have the blessings of another individual, we do have our own, and they are quite substantial, and we will see that if we take the time to examine things honestly.
But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills. The difference between us and any other individual is the will of God – except when that difference is sin. He made us and He has saved us. We have everlasting life, and the righteousness of Christ, and the love of God. We have not earned any of that, not do we deserve them now. It is the grace of God. Would you seize control of the world and make it happen your way, and then lose what God has already given you – family, loved ones, salvation? What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?
You might imagine that it would not work out that way. And who knows? It might not. But what are you willing risk to make that trade? What will it cost to make the exchange? Your sins cost the very life of the Son of God. That is the sign of how deep the love of God is for you. Can you imagine that God is withholding anything that would be good for you, now that He has given His own Son to die for you?
No. Trust in the Lord, and be confident that He is doing things the right way. The spiritual things belong to Him – and so do the not-so-spiritual things. He blesses us as He will, for our benefit – our eternal benefit, as well as for our benefit right now. Let us humble ourselves before Him and acknowledge that He knows what He is doing, and that He does all things well. It might help to keep in mind that we are already part of “us”, not part of “them”, the lost and the unbelieving. And, after all, this moment is not the whole story, and this life is not the main event. Let us give thanks to God for His goodness toward us, and His love, and trust Him with all these spiritual things!
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)
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