Questions People are Asking: "Using your Spiritual gifts for God" – 1 Corinthians 12:1-31

Years ago I read an article about a man that was called to the scene of a death in a public park in Washington D.C. He was brought from his office by the police to identify a body, and when he arrived he realized that the man he was to identify was not someone he recognized. The man was a veteran, and he died in front of the Korean War Memorial on the Washington Mall – an eerie monument with lifelike statues of a platoon of armed men passing through a rice patty. Sit long enough in the dusk, and the figures begin to look more and more real. The homeless man, with tattoos that showed he served his country in a Marine division in Korea, died of exposure on a cold night in early January. He died beside the statues that identified a moment in his life when he thought he made a difference. He died with his fellows in arms just a few steps away – perhaps as he thought he might have years before. The man was wearing a coat he received from a local church mission, and in the coat was the business card of the man the police brought to identify his body. Unfortunately, the business card was from the donation of the coat, and the man from the office did not know the veteran who passed away. Yet, the man from the office did recognize the insignia of the tattoo and was able to give the police the necessary details to track down the dead man’s identity.

Why would a man lay on the cold ground beside the monument of his former wartime colleagues? In his stupor, a basic instinct emerged. He was drawn back to a familiar scene in his life. He returned to a time he felt he was productive and making a difference. He returned to a time when he KNEW someone else cared about him. One writer said it well: “War is strangely both a solitary place and a place of forged companionship. In war, you don’t fight for your home and family. You don’t fight for your honor or for metals and pins. You fight for the man in the hole next to you, and he fights for you. It is all you have.”

I don’t think the man’s return to a place where he made a difference is so hard to understand. Everyone wants to make an impact on their world. Everyone wants to help the people they care about, and make a difference in the conditions of the world they live in. For a soldier, basic training is not just about saving his life in conflict – it is about saving his buddies on the field of battle as well. Companionship is forged quickly in the fires of war…. And that takes us to our New Testament passage in 1 Corinthians 12.

The early Christians at Corinth faced a spiritual war, and a deep and significant personal emotional struggle to become real followers of Jesus, and when they made that choice – they wanted to make a difference. They came to Christ, but were disoriented because of a loss some of us may never have thought about. It is at the heart of every missionary’s presentation to a first generation culture when presenting Christ. Romans revered their dead ancestors. They lit candles daily for them, and believed their “pietos” (doing the right thing) included upholding the honor of all the family – both living and dead. As a Roman came to Christ, it became painfully clear that his family members were lost. A daily routine that once brought strength, now brought an enormous sting of pain to them. They could easily feel they “lost” part of their family in joining the body of Christ. As a result, God revealed truths that would help them connect to the body in a more full way, and make a difference in the lives of people that would fill up the empty holes left in their heart. He gave them His Holy Spirit to connect their identities – and He supplied gifts to them, to help the body flourish and grow. He continues to do the same for us. Just as in the training of the soldier, so in the regulated use of special “God enabling gifts” will a believer become both impacting and valuable to the work of the body of Messiah.

Key Principle: God offered the principles that govern both our understanding and use of the special enabling gifts He has given to each member of the body of Christ in the local congregation.

There were apparently at least four specific problems that came up in the public services at the Corinthian congregation that gave rise to the question they wrote to Paul:

Problem #1: Bad Message: Apparently someone shared in a public worship setting a “revelation” from God that Jesus, because of the crucifixion, was accursed by God. They evidently encouraged the congregation to follow after something other than Jesus, confused by false pronouncements. (cp. 12:3)

Problem #2: One Size Fits All: It appears that some in the congregation were emphasizing the unity and unchanging nature of God, and they could not believe that God’s gifts were not similar in their manifestations. They were struggling with the uniqueness of each believer (cp. 12:4-7)

Problem #3: Spare Parts: Some apparently were arguing about whether some unique manifestations in the lives of the believers were gifts of God, or mere expressions of differing personalities. They likely felt that some of the “so-called gifts” were unnecessary for the body. They were probably saying, “You know, Pastor, that stuff isn’t important! What we need here in Corinth is more of…” (cp. 12:8-11).

Problem #4: Over-importance: Many that got excited about the sense of the flow of the Spirit using them became convinced that their gift was the key to everything in the Word and the world. They believed that more of “their gift” would make the place break open for God and take off! (cp. 12:12-20).

“Eight Truths about Spiritual Gifts”

1. It is easy to get confused by what is actually a work of God when we came from a Christ-less and Spirit-less background (12:1-2).

12:1 Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware. 2 You know that when you were pagans, you were led astray to the mute idols, however you were led.

There was no experience background in their lives to help explain the work of the Spirit in the local church. The work of the Spirit is not like other religious processes, because God works internally to enable ministry. Three things are clear in the opening verses:

a. We need learning to understand how the gifts work – or we will be “unaware” (12:1).
b. Our God speaks, whereas false gods do not of their own accord (12:2). This is NOT to say that they possess no power, but that any voice of any spiritual authority that is not leading men to God is an echo of the voice of the enemy – not the voices of actual different gods. That was an important truth to those who believed they could hear the voices of both gods and ancestors.
c. Not everyone came from the same pre-Christ background – but were “led” in different ways before coming to faith and getting the Spirit (12:2).

There is an important underlying truth – not all men came to Christ from the same place. Some of our conviction, so deep, intense and real to us, is NOT God’s call to all men everywhere. Our understanding of one another should be tempered by patiently spotting “where the other guy came from”. This isn’t pablum, it is terribly important. Christians need to hear each other’s testimony stories to allow us to filter each other patiently. A man who came from a violent home may be much more sensitive to the violence in a film well accepted by other believers. A woman who grew up in a home with alcoholic parents may have no desire to be tolerant of another believer who will have wine with a meal. A man who came from an occult background may rage against anyone who would let their children eat from a candy bowl at Halloween… these are all perfectly understandable. In order for a body to grow, we must learn to listen to each other and hear the stories that helped the formation of people – because God’s work in them is individualized. He wants to grow all of us, but He works with us as individuals.

A patient church is a God honoring church. We need to be learning, but not harsh in our attempts to get everyone to “grow up” at the same rate. Patient instruction is the key to moving people from being “unaware” to allow the Spirit to use their Bible education to move them to obedience. Not everyone who is confused or even expresses the wrong opinion is evil – they may simply need loving guidance that will allow the Spirit to correct them.

2. God sets the boundaries on the use of gifts in order that they may produce His desired effect (12:3).

12:3 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.

God is the source of the gifts, and God has a message He wants to get out. Exercises of so called gifts that tell a different story are NOT exercises of the Spirit, but the mimicry of the enemy, or the pollution of the flesh.

I think that most everyone would agree that such a prophesy would be banned from any church. At the same time, the principle is clear: the gifts of the Spirit are only validly used in harmony with the revealed truths of the Word of God. People cannot claim to have a revelation that does not square with the Bible and expect to offer it unchallenged to the body. If someone says, the Lord told me… listen very closely. The Lord will not speak to them in contrast to the truths He spoke through His Word.

I have noticed that one influence of the charismatic movement on churches of all kinds is the tendency to equate deep emotional responses with the Lord’s Word. That is a mistake. Most of the time the Lord’s direction is not deeply emotional at all. If God directs you to act in a certain way, and you know it was Him, you need not expect anything dramatic to happen. Let me offer the most common example from my own experience. Let’s say I say something that as soon as it leaves my mouth, I know is wrong. I may not have formed the sentence to be evil, but what I said was wrong, or hurtful, or even untrue. At that moment, as a Jesus-owned and operated man, the Spirit of God will fire an arrow into my heart. I will know the sting of conviction. No one else will see it, but I will no, without a doubt, that God is unhappy with what I just said. I can quietly ask His forgiveness, and then openly correct what I just said. There need not be lights in the sky or dramatic music in the background – just a simple conviction.

Let me be clear: God DOES speak. Much of the content comes from His written Word, and ALL of the content must agree with His written Word. At the same time, we are not becoming emotion or weak minded when we say that the Spirit individually speaks in our lives. He does. He leads, He convicts, He corrects. Remember the principle: Every word of God fits within the revealed truth of the Written Scripture, or it is not from God.

3. God works as He chooses in different people in different ways – according to His Divine purpose and choice (12:4-11).

Without negating the truth that every word must fit within His revealed written Word, we must also see that God works in different ways with different people. Paul wrote:

12:4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. 6 There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons. 7 But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 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. 11 But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.

a. One Spirit gives a diversity of kinds of gifts, a diversity of ministry assignments, and produces a diverse set of products in ministry – but He is the same God (12:4-6).
b. Everyone who is in the body is given God’s manifest presence and empowering (12:7a).
c. The purpose is NEVER for the individual’s glory – but for the Body’s good (12:7b).
d. The gifts appear to be grouped in three ways:

1. Word of wisdom; word of knowledge.
2. Faith, Healing, Miracles, Prophecy, Distinguishing of spirits.
3. Tongues, Interpretation of Tongues.

e. Gifts cannot be taught or taken – they are freely given by God as He desires to give them. Paul acknowledged that all gifts were important and valid, and all believers are recipients – but not of the same ones.

One of the problems with the study of the gifts as Paul described them, is that each of the gifts has taken on the pattern of a modern day ministry, and as such we may think we understand their operation, when what we understand is someone’s idea of how a specific gift operates. For instance, maybe we grew up in a church that taught healing only as a work of God in a service – when clearly God works also by other means. We need to be careful about defining terms in Scripture by what we see on a television set.

The ministry of the Spirit in FAITH for instance, is an operation of God in a man or woman to have extraordinary comprehension of God’s Word and its principles. Some people have the ability – Divinely given – to set out God’s principles clearly without all the requisite years of study others of us take to get there.

4. We are all a unique and distinct package of God’s enabling gifts, but our distinctions are not bigger than our purpose together (12:12-20).

12:12 For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. 13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. 14 For the body is not one member, but many. 15 If the foot says, “Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear says, “Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. 19 If they were all one member, where would the body be? 20 But now there are many members, but one body.

The point of gift use is never the exaltation of any one gift or gift holder, but for the body to work together well for His purposes and His glory.

a. The body functions to support ONE LIFE (12:12).
b. Entry to the ONE body (in justification) made all other distinctions of less importance as it regards salvation (12:13). No one is MORE SAVED than the rest of the body.
c. No ONE gift or holder should see his or her value as ANYTHING apart from the whole (12:14).
d. No PART should over or undervalue itself (12:15-17).
e. God arranged the parts and God gifts according to His master plan (12:18).
f. We all NEED each other to function properly (12:19-20).

5. We must respect the value of our differences and not simply be “wowed” by some who have more visible gifts (12:21-24).

12:21 And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; or again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; 23 and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, 24 whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked…

The most critical members of the body are not the most easily recognized parts, but the parts that keep the body alive and well. The honor of the part is GOD’S to ascribe – not ours!

6. We must see and function as though our care for another as a greater priority than our complete understanding of one another (12:25-26).

12: 25 so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.

The body must focus on the way it can pull its energies to the benefit of all and the progress of the whole goal. Each believer must deliberately fight the notion that others are not held back by their disobedience and stubbornness. When I refuse to yield to God – others in the body suffer. When I hide sin, I wound the body. I set back the team when I don’t discipline my body and work out….

7. Each of us plays a specific type of role for God, yet these roles vary widely. We cannot anticipate that others will naturally understand our role, or see its significance (12:27-30).

12:27 Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues. 29 All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they? 30 All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they?

We should answer more of our conflicts by understanding that we are all gifted uniquely, and may struggle to see things through the eyes of others who are gifted differently. Evangelists will believe the only thing a Christian should do is share Christ. Teachers will worry about what people are learning and feel that evangelists are far too focused on a “conversion” moment, and not on the necessary equipping. Administrators will worry about sustainability of ministry in funding, and staying above any suspicion in accounting. All have their place, but they will pull in different directions.

8. God will (if asked) balance out your group with the right combination of gifts if the group is obediently using those He gave and find a lack among them (12:31).

12: 31 But earnestly desire the greater gifts. And I show you a still more excellent way.

Rather than teach people to be gifted in an area they are not, we should seek God to supply them, while covering the gaps. Churches that don’t encourage people to exercise their gifts, don’t know what they need, and don’t seek God for what they need. Slowly, they dry up by putting too much on a few and allowing most to coast doing nothing…

A man from Illinois decided to travel to Wisconsin to go duck hunting. He shot and dropped a bird, but it fell into a farmer’s field on the other side of the fence. As the flatlander climbed over the fence, a dairy farmer drove up on his tractor and asked what was going on. The hunter said, “I shot a duck and I’m retrieving it.” The old farmer replied, “This is my property and you’re not coming over here!” Well, this made the hunter mad so he said, “If you don’t let me come over the fence I’ll call my Chicago lawyer and I’ll sue you.” The farmer smiled and said, “Apparently you don’t know how we do things up here. We settle disagreements with the Wisconsin three-kick rule. I’ll kick you three times, and then you kick me three times, and so on, back and forth, until someone gives up.” The Illini liked this challenge because he thought he could easily take the old farmer. The Wisconsin Badger climbed down from the tractor and planted the steel toe of his heavy work boot into the man’s shin. The man fell to his knees. His second kick went directly to his stomach, knocking the wind out of him. The farmer than landed his third kick to the side of the hunter’s head. The disoriented man slowly got up and said, “Okay, you old codger, now it’s my turn!” To which the farmer responded, “Nah, I give up. You can have the duck.” (sermon central illustrations).

The modern church has spent too long turning God’s enabling power into a fight over how to use gifts. The whole topic of spiritual gifts has been a battleground for many years, going back to the first century church at Corinth. Some of the tension results from an overemphasis on certain gifts, others because we like to pick fights with those who are wired differently than we are. In the next few weeks, the principles should clear up much of the fog and allow us to confidently operate within the Word. Our problem has not so much been people MISUSING gifts, and UNDER USING gifts. Let me end this week’s installment simply by asking – Do you know what your gifts are? Are you using them? Is the Body of Christ being built up by them?