What are Spiritual Gifts?

What are spiritual gifts?
“Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.” — 1 Corinthians 12:1

What are your spiritual gifts?

If you’ve been around church circles for a while (or been to Koorong) you might have pondered what exactly ‘spiritual gifts’ are, and what yours might be. There’s probably a bunch of surveys you can do online to find out what your gifts are, and from this verse it seems pretty straightforward that this is something Paul wants us to figure out…

But ‘Spiritual Gifts’ aren’t, perhaps, quite as mysterious as the Koorong catalogue might make out, but they are perhaps ‘natural’ miracles from God that we take for granted in pursuit of something more ‘out there’.

For starters, the word ‘gifts’ is inserted by translators to make sense of Paul’s wording in the Greek; the most literal translation is something like ‘now about things of the Spirit’… Paul is about to unpack, over the next few chapters, what it is that the Spirit does for believers (and it’s a theme he’s been developing since early in the letter where he has been talking about the Corinthian church’s life in Christ as a present spiritual reality and about them having the mind of Christ such that the Gospel is persuasive to them (1 Corinthians 1-2).

It’s not wrong to talk about ‘things of the Spirit’ as gifts; because that’s precisely what they are — expressions of the grace of God in the life of his people, but Paul is talking about things of the Spirit that extend beyond what our books and web surveys see gifts as. Here are some things the Spirit gives us, from 1 Corinthians 11-15.

1. The Spirit allows us to follow Jesus.

The Spirit turns us to God, from idols, so that we can call Jesus Lord (1 Corinthians 12:2-3). We can’t follow Jesus without the Spirit first being given to us.

“no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.”

2. The Spirit gives work as God intended it back to us

While the Fall meant human work was cursed, the gifts distributed by the Spirit allow us to work for God again (1 Corinthians 12:4-6, also 1 Corinthians 15:58). This time the word ‘gift’ is actually used — and it’s the word for ‘divine grace’ (charisma in Greek).

“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them.” — 1 Corinthians 12:4

3. The Spirit helps us serve one another as we do God’s work

Spiritual gifts aren’t things designed to make ME more holy for my own sake; they are oriented towards others.

“Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” — 1 Corinthians 12:7

4. The Spirit allows us, as ‘gifts for one another’ to say true things about God, from God, to each other

When Paul lists the sort of people God gives to the church he speaks about how we are given gifts in order to give to others. So in his list Paul speaks of people bringing a message of wisdom, or knowledge, or tongues, or interpretation of tongues, or prophecy (1 Corinthians 12:8-10).

5. The Spirit works miracles in (all) our lives

Here’s where we need to be a little careful because in our modern world we tend to hyper-supernaturalise the miraculous. We operate as only the natural world is real and a miracle is an intervention outside the norm; this is a very modern phenomenon. It’s easy to forget that Paul’s going to spend a significant chunk of time in 1 Corinthians 15 writing about how the heart of Christianity is the miraculous story of resurrection and this resurrection being natural given that God exists as the eternal creator and life-giver. The Spirit is the deposit of God’s life-giving in us.

So, rather than getting weirded out or seeking super-supernatural examples of healing and miraculous powers (1 Corinthians 12:9-10) we need to start with the knowledge that faith itself is a life-giving, healing, miracle that secures for us a body that will not perish (1 Corinthians 15). That the Gospel miraculously restores people from death to life.

6. The Spirit helps us properly value the body

In 1 Corinthians 6:19 Paul starts making the case that what we do with our bodies matters because if we follow Jesus (by the indwelling of the Spirit) we are the ‘temple of the Holy Spirit;’ in 2 Corinthians 2 he talks about the Holy Spirit as the ‘seal’ God places on our hearts as a ‘deposit guaranteeing what is to come’ — 1 Corinthians 15 makes it clear that what is to come is physical resurrected bodies. There was a stream of Greek thinking, following the philosopher Plato, that saw the body as a thing to escape, and an approach to medicine in Rome that saw doctors as existing to treat those who could afford it, and a spirituality that saw ill health as a sign of disfavour with the gods, or the result of a lack of effort on a person’s behalf.

Now; what healing means, and how supernatural it is, is up for debate, but it’s quite possible that the gift of healing (which uses the Greek word for ‘healing’ and ‘medicine’) was about a particular ministry that Christians had (and continue to have) in the world because of what we believe about the body; and so now it includes gifting people to come to grips with modern medicine, the body, and to develop technologies that serve people, coupled with the power of prayer and the acknowledgment that God is the author of life and sovereign over broken bodies.

The early church certainly used the natural sense of the word ‘healing’ in ministering to those society had rejected (where ill health was a sign of judgment), and those who could not afford doctors. Here’s a quote from a journal article about the relationship between ‘Salvation and Health’ that I filed away for a time such as this, it’s in the context of talking about how ancient doctors would assess who to treat based on the chances of success, and how hospitals were developed out of Christian monasteries that took on the challenge of caring for those even without a good prognosis…

“Medicine involves faithful presence to those in pain, even—perhaps especially—when hopes for “cure” prove illusory and the provision of care throughout a longer or a shorter span of life becomes the sum of what medicine can offer. This is no easy task. Our helplessness to effect a hoped-for cure can too easily turn to hatred: hatred of sufferers for failing to get well and of ourselves for failing to make them better. In the face of this temptation to impotent rage and to the punitive abandonment of the sick and suffering, medicine needs the church, whose experience of the faithful presence of God in the midst of suffering undergirds its own willingness faithfully to be present to the sick. Only so can the hospital—and the practice of medicine more generally—be, in Hauerwas’ words, “a house of hospitality along the way of our journey with finitude . . . a sign that we will not abandon those who have become ill simply because they are currently suffering the sign of that finitude” — M. Peterson, ‘Salvation and Health’, Christian Bioethics, 2011

7. The Spirit unites us — or makes us one with — Jesus and each other

“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body” — 1 Corinthians 12:12-13

A metaphor is when you use one thing to explain another. Metaphors are funny things. We use them all the time but don’t always think deeply about how they function. A metaphor tries to simplify a complex reality it does not exaggerate a simple reality.

When Paul writes about us being united like the parts of the human body he is not exaggerating our oneness, but trying to give us a smaller picture by which to understand our new unity. We are as united as, or more united than a human body, not less.

The oneness that the Spirit brings is a radical change in who we are; we are by its presence in us ‘temples of the Holy Spirit’ — where God dwells in the world (1 Corinthians 6:19), and the Spirit also serves to unite us so that we are the body of Christ in the world; something akin to the ongoing incarnation of Jesus so that when people see us operating in this unity they are seeing Jesus at work in the world. This is the sort of oneness with God Jesus prayed for (John 17), and this is why Paul believes it is so vital that the Corinthians be who they are in Corinth, not be like people without the Spirit (1 Corinthians 1:2).

8. The Spirit recreates us so that we bring our whole selves (time, skills, property) as gifts to one another

One other way that we spiritualise spiritual gifts is that we see them almost exclusively as a thing that magically and supernaturally drops into our lap when we start to follow Jesus; God certainly has a history of working in weak vessels to provide people the strength to operate and speak in situations they were unprepared for (like Jesus promises in Matthew 10), but he also has a history of taking the gifts and talents he created in people and redirecting those gifts towards his purposes.

Paul is probably an example of this; he was on a significant ‘worldly’ career trajectory with the Pharisees, and clearly has a working knowledge of Graeco-Roman rhetoric, philosophy and poetry (see his speech in Athens), and God used him and his team to pen a significant chunk of the Bible, and to plant churches throughout the Roman world. When Paul lists the sorts of people God gives the church to build up the body he doesn’t just include people exercising the gifts he mentioned earlier in the chapter but also gifts of helping (a sort of practical ‘ministration of needs’ or aiding others) and administration or governing (guidance); it’s possible to also see gifts like teaching as involving a natural predisposition towards understanding and explaining things clearly to others.

Helping is particularly interesting, alongside healing, because it required a certain sort of generous disposition towards others, and in the context of the Corinthian church, this took place through the sort of hospitality modelled by those people who had much giving of their resources in order to host the gathered church in their houses (which would involved putting on a meal); helping is connected to giving aid to one another (and beyond our communities).

We arrange ourselves a little differently to the church in Corinth in that we have (at Carina) a church property that allows us to conduct hospitality and serves as a base we can provide help from; but our giving is a Spirit-led gift to the church that allows all these gifts to function and is an expression of our desire that our church community acts hospitably to the city around us, and to one another (consider Paul’s letter to the Romans, written from

Corinth, that thanks Phoebe, the church’s host and benefactor (Romans 16:1-2). Help in this sense is something we can do in our own lives as Christians in our city (even in our work), and through our Growth Groups.

9. The Spirit allows us to love as the ‘most excellent way’

“Now eagerly desire the greater gifts. And yet I will show you the most excellent way.” — 1 Corinthians 12:31

The Spirit transforms us so that we can follow the most excellent way of love (1 Corinthians 13) as we follow the example of Jesus (1 Corinthians 11:1).

10. The spirit allows us to love like Jesus, be like Jesus, and speak about God to those who do not know Jesus

”Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy.” — 1 Corinthians 14:1

What prophecy is is the subject of its own blog post; but what it does is lovingly makes clear truths about God.

“But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!” — 1 Corinthians 14:24-25

God is really among us because he is really dwelling in us by his Spirit and shaping us to be the body of Jesus in the world.

Nathan Campbell – Campus Pastor, Creek Road South Bank