An Exceedingly Brief Primer on the Use and Exercise of Spiritual Gifts


Recommendations: Derek Prime’s very short but useful commentary – Opening up 1 Corinthians and D. A. Carson’s “Showing The Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14”.

1 Corinthians 12:1–14:40 (ESV) — 1 Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2 You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led. 3 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.

RAF: The first contrast in the text is between “spiritual[s]” vs. pagan or natural[s]. The word “gifts” is not in the original. As with Paul in all places, one can only be “spiritual” if they are in Christ. The Bible does not equate spiritual with merely supernatural. Spiritual matters belong only to spiritual (redeemed) people. Note 2ndly that Paul is pitting “mute” idols, against the communicating God who has revealed Himself. Hence, this initial thought that those under the influence of this communicating God will never speak things which are contrary to the glory and honor of God and especially of Jesus Christ. These two are antithetical. The confession of truth is always a two-sided coin – content and conduct. These two are inseparable. The one who claims to be Christ’s also owns Christ as Lord.

Bishop Lightfoot says this refers to Jewish exorcists and magicians who would perform their “miracles” and yet say “Jesus is accursed.” This would seem an unlikely application in the Corinthian context – tho possible. More likely is the understanding (as per the New Bible Commentary) that as former pagans who were used to asking their deities to curse their enemies, no one who is a Christian would adopt that same practice and try to use Jesus’ name to curse others for one’s own advantage or revenge. The old life of pagan idolatry and how one’s relationship to those “mute” idols functioned, must be set aside. There is an entirely new paradigm in Christ. One which will culminate in chapter 13 – love.  

 4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.

RAF: Note the 3-fold description. There are:

a. Different gifts that the Spirit gives – many will be enumerated in this passage, others are found elsewhere (above 20 in the NT).

b. These gifts serve the Body of Christ in varying ways. They meet varying needs.

c. These gifts can sometimes function in different ways. Hence the need to be careful to not lump ALL prophecy together, and make it either all preaching, or all prediction, etc. Paul will capitalize on this in regard to the gift of tongues in ch. 14 demonstrating that it functions in several different capacities. Given all this variety – we still see it all comes from the same Spirit and is under the Lordship of the same God. So there can be no contradiction between them, and no other purpose than what is stated in the following section – for the common good. Spiritual MUST function “for the common good.” This cannot be over-emphasized.

 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.

RAF: I have already expatiated on the verbal gifts in another place and will not go over that again here. The bottom line in that discussion is simply this: as on The Day of Pentecost, note the content. They heard no new revelations – only a reiteration of the “mighty works of God.” This, it appears – with the rarest of exceptions – is how the verbal gifts typically  function within the local Church: They shine a spotlight on particular EXTANT Biblical truth at a particular place and time.   

I would only note that if we take the idea of “ecstatic” tongues out of the equation, then we are making this gift little other than linguistic capability which I think the rest of Paul’s discussion will not support. More on that later.

11 All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.

RAF: This portion cannot be over-emphasized. It is the Spirit who decides who gets what gift (or gifts) and when, or conversely when not. We must be content to use or NOT use both the gifts and ourselves as He sees fit. We dare not take the lead in this area – which to the great shame of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements (which is my own background) has led to untold damage, misuse, misunderstanding and outright blasphemy at times. We also need to recognize that the Spirit’s apportioning may include allowing a person to utilize a particular gift perhaps only once – to meet a particular need at a particular moment. That these gifts are necessarily abiding or permanent bestowals (though that may be the case in some instances) I think is a mistake. Balaam’s ass spoke only once, it didn’t continually counsel his errant master after that one incident. And so it may well be with all of these gifts.

Note too – how easily we impose our own concept of what ought to normative in terms of the frequency or exercise of the gifts – above what the Spirit may or may not do at His discretion. There was little (or no) prophecy in the 400+ years of the intertestamental period. That was up to Him. We cannot dictate to Him how much, when, where, whom or how. There is no “normative” in that sense. Congregations, times, places and circumstances will differ. To somehow require that all Churches under the influence of the Spirit must demonstrate certain gifts in certain ways is to try an usurp the Spirit’s authority. This holds true for both my Continuationst and Cessationist friends. Neither school has the last word on what is normative in this regard. The Spirit is free to apportion “to each one individually as he wills” – irrespective of our personal paradigm.          

12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. 14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.

RAF: No one has the right to promote or denigrate any of the gifts, either in ourselves or in others. Some gifts may appear to us to be less important or superfluous, or others more important. What is important is their source (the Holy Spirit) and His divine right and limitless wisdom in apportioning them as is best to Him for the best care of the Body in any given place, at any given time with any given people or individuals. 

27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues.

RAF: I think most commentators are right to note here that apostles, prophets and teachers are one kind of gift to the Church for the common good, which also fill roles which the other gifts do not. These are plainly offices and not just functions – while the ones following are functions and not offices. Here again is how the gifts both differ and differ in service and action. We have the offices in the Church (to varying degrees and at varying times) but no one holds the office of tongues-speaker or miracle-worker.

Without expansion – I consider apostles (small “a” after the 12 have gone, who are not replaced) are those occupied with the FOUNDATIONS of the Church. So it is Calvin referred to Luther as an “apostle” in that sense, helping recover the foundation central to the Church in justification by faith. We need such “foundationally” minded men in every generation – and at times (like in the Reformation) more critically than others. But we can never do without them entirely. Since the passing of the original 12, no one occupies that “office” in terms of apostolic authority. Nowhere in Church history has that ever been countenanced until recently or in fringe groups. Apostles in our age are men burdened with seeing the Church is stabilized upon its most central and important doctrinal and Biblical foundation stones.  

In contrast, prophets are occupied with reminding us of God’s original purpose and plan as articulated in the Bible, and calling God’s people back to it when that focus gets lost. In this way almost all of the OT prophets functioned, and is vital when the Church strays from its preoccupation with God’s plans and purposes above our own. J. Gresham Machen would be a good example of one who spoke “prophetically” to the Church in his generation. Such men are men of “vision”. Not a new vision, but a restoration to God’s vision. We need them especially at critical times. But as we will see (say with an Agabus) “prophecy has more than one way it can “act.” Sometimes predictively (foretelling – its least common function) and sometimes (most commonly) forth-telling. God’s voice calling us to see Him and His plan and purposes once more.

Teachers are always needed in every generation (hence the marriage of pastor/teacher in the NC era) due to our constant need to know and understand God’s Word and how to apply it to our lives.

It is only under these (or after these if you will) that miracles, healings, helps, administrations and even tongues are distributed in the Church. Hence these subsequent gifts are not the gifts which “lead” the Church in its understanding of itself, doctrinal truth, and/or its identity.

29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.

RAF: The summary point is clear – These gifts and roles are distributed at the sole and absolute discretion of the Holy Spirit. In terms of the overall good of the Church, the “higher” gifts (I think apostles, prophets and teachers is meant here, some disagree) are what we ought to desire to see manifested in the Church since they guide the Church in its call and function as a whole. Nevertheless, not even these are to be sought in the abstract. Sought either in terms of someone desiring to be able to function in such a gift, or desired in terms of simply seeing the need met within the Body. No matter who the Spirit may choose to bestow these upon – the guiding principle is more important: Love. What will ‘love” the Body of Christ best in any given situation and time? This must be the primary concern. What is best for Christ’s Church, in this place, and this time and under these circumstances in fulfilling Christ’s mission and goals (as seen in His Word) – so that any one person’s personal ambitions are completely cast aside. What will best equip Christ’s Church to fulfill Christ’s mission in the world.

This then is the great subject matter of all of Chapter 13, NOT MARRIAGE. Irrespective of any gift, seek to be filled with the love of Christ for His Church and its people and its mission – and in seeking to love others – to best serve them, and the “gifts” will rise up naturally as the Spirit’s ministrations. Don’t seek “gifts” per se, seek the opportunity to serve others, and let the Spirit use you to meet their needs however He sees fit.

On a side note, most often, when the Spirit is really in control and people are mindless of having or exercising their gift(s) and only concerned with blessing others in Christ – the gifts, like our bodily organs, bring no attention to themselves, but simply bless. I should not be aware of any internal organ of mine functioning, IF, it is functioning properly. They only time I am aware of my kidneys, is when they are sick or diseased. The same with my heart, lungs, gall bladder, appendix, etc. When they are really doing their work well, they do so quietly, efficiently and without calling attention to themselves. I think this way of seeing the gifts fits well with Paul’s “systemic” analogy of the Body above. Spiritual gifts functioning properly should be painless and appear outwardly as simply the natural function of the Body loving itself through each individual part, bringing health to the whole.

Hence I will not unpack 13 in any detail, since the call is to love, and love never manifests itself in self-promotion. (Insert the text of Chapter 13 here).  No matter what gift I may “think” I have, or really have, if it is not exercised in a way to bring people to know, love and serve Christ better, it is NOTHING. Without love my finest preaching DOES nothing. My highest theology, deepest understanding and greatest faith still do not make me more than nothing. And my severest sacrifices and expenditures – even of my own body gain me nothing.  

What does that look like?

Love is PATIENT outwardly, because love is KIND inwardly.

Love does not boast outwardly, because love is not envious inwardly.

Love isn’t rude outwardly, because love isn’t arrogant inwardly.

Love isn’t irritable and insist on its own way outwardly, because love isn’t resentful inwardly.

Love doesn’t rejoice when others fall into wrong outwardly, because love rejoices in the truth inwardly.

Impatient, boastful, rude, irritable people who gloat over other’s faults and failings do not love, and no matter what gift they might have, it is null and void as a result.

So what is Paul’s more excellent way than seeking any gift? Love. So…

1 Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.

Why prophesy? Because (as Paul will develop in great detail) – in the gathered congregation, what we are always aiming at is the maximum benefit to those around us.

Now without unpacking ALL of that here, let me just point out the particulars in the way he deals with the gift of tongues. And why does he focus upon that? Obviously from the text, misuse of this gift was a particular problem at Corinth. Also, (no doubt) this was fueled somewhat from their pagan experiences with ecstatic utterances. But also because it showcases how varied the uses of a particular gift may be, and how then to govern their use properly in the Church.

Now because tongues is SO controversial, I will do my best to limit most of my remarks to the particular remarks he makes regarding it, and not focus on the more general aspects applying to all the gifts which emerge. We’ll do that another time if God wills. Here are a series of observations without all of the extra arguments which need to be explored somewhere else.

2 For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.

Obs. 1 – In the first place, tongues DOES not address men, but God. Why? I do not know. But this aspect of tongues is not to be cast aside. In SOME capacity, it is directed to God in general. He’ll show in a minute how in order to benefit the Body it needs interpretation – but that does not negate his opening statement. If this then were simply a matter of foreign human languages, we would have a very strange occurrence indeed, for all human languages have people as their primary focus, not God. This will be expanded upon by Paul further down. “no one understands him” – apparently apart from an interpretive gift. Not even a foreigner. This does not appear to be human language. He however utters “mysteries” in the Spirit. If we remember what that looked like at Pentecost, it seemed to be a glorifying of God for His marvelous works. Paul will reiterate that below.

3 On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. 4 The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church.

Obs. 2 – 3 areas of action for prophecy are “upbuilding” (or building together – “edificing” if I may coin a word – the Church, bringing the “living stones” of the Church together), encouragement and consolation. Tongues (uninterpreted for the Body) may do something for the one speaking – but it does nothing for others. Not good. 

5 Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up. 6 Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? 7 If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? 8 And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? 9 So with yourselves, if with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. 10 There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, 11 but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. 12 So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.

Obs. 3 – Without interpretation, tongues is useless to others, and is clearly to be treated as such. Unless the gift is converted into usefulness for the congregation by interpretation so as to bring some “revelation” (I will take as illuminating truth here as it was in Acts 2), “prophecy” – speaking forth God’s mind (in accordance with the Word since it can be tested) or “teaching” (explicating and applying God’s Word) no one else is benefitted, and this contradicts the law of love. If it is unintelligible – forget it. Strive to build up The Church! Note however that tongues CAN serve in these 3 ways – if interpreted.

13 Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. 15 What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.

Obs. 4-  Contrary to some, apparently, tongues here can function in terms of prayer. But even then, if not interpreted it still does not even do the speaker good! An un-interpreted “prayer language” is useless. And the speaker is admonished (indeed I believe it is incumbent upon the individual) here to ask for interpretation. And I would add that if no intelligible interpretation is forthcoming, the practice ought to be discontinued. Paul says he will do BOTH – pray “in the Spirit” which he appears to equate with tongues here – AND with the understanding or the mind. No doubt this raises a difficult thing to understand – how one can pray or “sing” this way which in some manner excludes the normal intellect in its base operation. But no matter how we understand it, the one to is press on FOR understanding, even when used in this capacity, and if understanding is not forthcoming – cease. It should be an indication this was not the Holy Spirit.  

16 Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? 17 For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up.

Obs. 5 – Tongues can also apparently be a legitimate way of giving thanks. However, the interpretive aspect cannot be neglected even here. If no one else can understand it, it is not done in love and therefore is useless. 

18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. 19 Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.

Obs. 6 – If Paul is talking about mere linguistics here, I fail to see how the passage makes sense in the discussion. If he is not referring to something other than mere human languages, I am lost to understand it. However, no matter how we see that aspect, the basic issue remains the same; he apparently knows this experience personally, and also knows that love requires that whatever is said or done MUST be done in such a way to benefit others. And that is CLEARLY here, speaking to the Church in an intelligible, useful way.

20 Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.

Obs. 7 – This love/usefulness factor is central to mature, spiritual thinking. It is only rejected by the immature.

21 In the Law it is written, “By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.” 22 Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. 23 If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? 24 But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.

Obs. 8 – Yet another use for tongues is as a sign of judgment to the Jewish community. Paul’s quote here from Isa. 28 is without dispute in that context. While this application is probably less in use today, as it would increasingly be the case in the original spread of Gentile Christianity, nevertheless it may once again play a more prominent role if the there is a great ingathering of Jews to Christ in the last days. Either way, this was one of its applications or uses – to be a fulfillment of judgment prophecy against unbelieving Jews.

Obs. 9 – If all speak in tongues, and there is no interpretation to bless the Body, it would certainly appear to be madness to observers. Unfortunately, much of what is done today under the cover of the expression of this gift is absolutely open to that charge. Sad. 

26 What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. 27 If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. 28 But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God.

Obs. 10 – No matter what the contributions of anyone in the Body – the focus MUST be, “what is good for others?” – NEVER – “I need to exercise my gift”. And here is a most unambiguous rule to be followed – in regard to tongues, “let there be only two, or at the most three” – then, they must take turns (not blurting out all at once) and then, ONLY if there is someone to interpret. It appears incumbent upon those who claim to the have to gift of tongues to inquire whether or not there is an interpreter present – and if not, to shut up. In remaining quiet, to do this silently. And, if we marry that with what came above – even then to pray for their own interpretation. 

29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. 30 If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, 32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.

Obs. 11 – How many seem to believe it is their right or need to exercise their gifts irrespective of other’s gifts and the best benefit of the assembly. How often do we as pastors hear from people that they need to leave our Church so that can “use their gifts”? Hogwash. Paul clearly notes that part of our learning to love and be a true blessing within the Body is in cultivating the capacity to refrain from using my gift when someone else is being used. None of this is EVER out of the control of the individual. And learning to control it and NOT need to exercise it is basic to spiritual maturity. When I was pastoring, we had at least 4 men in our congregation with preaching and teaching gifts; but we each deferred and took turns and never ever felt the need to use our own gift when someone was in the full engagement in theirs. This is essential to Body order and health.

33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

Obs. 12 – I would concur with others that this reference to women is not absolute. If it were, they could not worship out loud either. Whatever else it may mean, it cannot contradict chapter 11 where in some context, women praying or prophesying in the congregation is regulated but not forbidden (a topic for another day). The most likely concept here is that women are not to be the ones judging prophecy – but that that task is left up to the elders or other prophets. 

36 Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached? 37 If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. 38 If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. 39 So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But all things should be done decently and in order.

Obs. 13However we define tongues, the unambiguous statement here is – it is not to be forbidden. And indeed, if it is regulated properly according to the rules in this passage, not the least harm could ever come to the Church. The safeguards are comprehensive. But it does take a bold, engaged and knowledgeable leadership. If regulated in strict accordance with the Scripture – spurious and foolish outbursts and practices will very quickly fade away.  

Obviously some of what is treated here is done so in only the most cursory manner, and open to all kinds of challenges, nuances and corrections. But I toss it out for consideration.

The bottom line to this entire section (11-14) is the ministry of love to the Body of believers, and to selfless service, with regard to order and decency in the assembly.

Heaven help us to so conduct ourselves at all times and in all places.

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