(A message delivered June 20th, 2005, at the 39th annual Bible conference of the Berean Bible Fellowship in Cedar Lake, Indiana.)
“Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant” (I Cor. 12:1).
Many Christians are uncertain about the precise definition of a spiritual gift. A spiritual gift is a special talent or ability given to men that is separate and distinct from any natural talent or ability they may possess. That is, while we sometimes say that someone has “a gift for music,” this is not what the Bible means when it speaks of “spiritual gifts.”
To define “spiritual gifts,” we need to employ “the law of first mention,” the Bible study principle which states that the first Scriptural occurrence of a word, phrase or idea often defines the word, phrase or idea, and sets the tone for its use throughout Scripture. The first spiritual gift given was the gift of “tongues,” defined for us in Acts 2 as the ability to speak instantly and fluently in a known, identifiable language other than one’s native tongue (Acts 2:4-11). Thus while “a gifted musician” must work very hard to develop his gift, a spiritual gift is a supernatural gift of the Holy Spirit that does not require any such development. It is this writer’s conviction that all of the spiritual gifts ceased with the completion of God’s Word, just as Paul predicted they would (I Cor. 13:8-10).
Paul begins his discussion of spiritual gifts with a seemingly unrelated observation:
“Ye know that ye were Gentiles, carried away unto these dumb idols, even as ye were led” (I Cor. 12:2).
Paul here reminds the Corinthians that they used to be idol-worshipping Gentiles who had a natural propensity to get “carried away” with their idolatry. While on the surface this might seem to have nothing to do with the subject at hand, Paul had observed that the Corinthians had made a god out of their spiritual gifts, and he is pointing out that they were now getting as “carried away” with their gifts as they used to get with their idols. Paul’s warning about this is timeless, for who can deny that even today there is still a tendency among at least some of our Pentecostal friends to get carried away with what they perceive to be their spiritual gifts.
But before we judge the Corinthians or our Pentecostal brethren too harshly, we must remember that Paul also warns us about “covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5). It is not inconceivable that believers who know better than to get carried away with any perceived spiritual gifts might instead be found rendering worship-like attention to “the almighty dollar” and all the material things it can buy. It would behoove each of us to examine our heart to see if we live in the “glass house” of covetousness before we consider throwing stones at Pentecostalists for their idolatrous adoration of imagined spiritual gifts.
“Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed; and that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost” (I Cor. 12:3).
This too is a puzzling statement in light of the context. Why would the Corinthians need to be told that no man speaking by the Spirit would call the Lord Jesus accursed? We believe that it was because of the convincing manner in which He was being called accursed. We believe He was being called accursed in tongues.
Satan is the great imitator of God, mimicking the Almighty on every hand. When God had prophets, Satan had “false prophets” (II Pet. 2:1). When God had apostles, Satan had “false apostles” (II Cor. 11:13). When God’s Spirit indwelt men and caused them to speak in tongues, Satan apparently countered by filling men with evil spirits who also spoke in tongues. These demoniacs spoke fluently and convincingly in foreign languages, but Paul here reminds the Corinthians that the content of their utterances would identify them as men who were speaking by a spirit other than the Spirit of God.
We do not wish to imply from this that the modern gift of tongues is Satanic; in fact, we believe quite the opposite. Since in this dispensation God has “ceased” from giving the gift of tongues, Satan is no longer trying to counterfeit this gift. Since no man today has the miraculous God-given ability to speak in a foreign tongue, Satan is not empowering anyone to do likewise. We believe that the gibberish that passes for the gift of tongues today is nothing more than the emotional product of the religious flesh of men.
“Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all” (I Cor. 12:4-6).
Did you notice that Paul here mentions each member of the Trinity? He says that spiritual gifts belong to the Spirit, they are administered by the Lord Jesus, but it is God the Father who works in the recipients of the gifts. Paul’s point here was to try to impress upon the Corinthians how the members of the Trinity worked together in glorious harmony in giving the gifts. This was in stark contrast to the discordant manner in which the Corinthians had received the gifts! There was anything but harmony in the selfish way they were glorying in their gifts or envying the gifts of others. Thus sin was taking the gifts that were designed by God to draw them closer together and using them to drive them further apart.
This is always the effect of sin on everything God gives to draw us closer together. Marriage, for instance, is surely designed by God to bring two people closer together, but every pastor who has done any marriage counseling knows how sin can instead cause marriage to drive two people apart. Human government is also devised by God to draw people together, but who can argue that some of the bloodiest wars that have ever been fought have been civil or revolutionary wars that have pitted brother against brother. Finally, the local church is surely designed by God to bring believers closer together, but we must sadly admit that some of the bitterest acrimony anywhere to be found is present in many a church split. The solution is for believers to give to one another the unconditional grace and acceptance that God extends to us (Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:13).
“But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal” (I Cor. 12:7).
The gifts of the Spirit were given to “profit” them spiritually. But it must not be assumed that when God caused spiritual gifts to cease that He left the Body of Christ without a resource for our continued spiritual profit. In II Timothy 3:16, Paul tells us that “all Scripture…is profitable.” The “profit” afforded to the Corinthians by their spiritual gifts is now provided to believers by the Word of God. This is why the cessation of spiritual gifts coincided with the completion of the perfect Word of God.
We see a vivid illustration of this in the miraculous “pillar” that led Israel through the wilderness to the promised land. The pillar is last mentioned when they were camped within sight of Canaan. Having led them through the wilderness, it seemed that the purpose of the pillar had expired, and so it was of course withdrawn. However, can it really be said that the people of Israel no longer needed guidance from God as individuals and as a nation? Certainly not! This is why the pillar was not just withdrawn, it was replaced in a symbolic as well as a literal way by the Word of God. The pillar was last seen “over the door of the tabernacle” (Deut. 31:15). Nine verses later Moses “finished” the Book of the Law and put it inside the tabernacle in the ark of the covenant (Deut. 31:24-26). From that time forward, the people of Israel no longer followed the supernatural pillar, but rather followed the ark which contained the Word of God to them through Moses. Wherever the ark moved, the people were to follow (Josh. 3:3,6,8,14-17). This was God’s symbolic way of teaching them that they would no longer be led by a supernatural manifestation, but instead by the written Word of God.
And so it is with the spiritual gifts. When God withdrew the spiritual gifts, He left us not without means of spiritual profit. He rather replaced the spiritual gifts with Paul’s epistles, the Word of God to us today. In the writings of Paul we find all we need to guide and “profit” us in the dispensation of Grace.
“For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit” (I Cor. 12:8).
Some in Corinth were given a supernatural gift of wisdom, similar to that given to Solomon, but little evidence need be presented to prove that no man today has a supernatural gift of wisdom! But if believers today seeking wisdom cannot turn to a man endued with the gift of wisdom, where can they turn? To the Word of God! Paul says that “we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery” (I Cor. 2:7), and prayed that God would give unto us “the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him” (Eph. 1:17).
This “spirit of wisdom” is given to us not to puff us up with knowledge, but so that we might do something with it. God gave select men in Israel “the spirit of wisdom” (Ex. 28:3) to assist them in designing Aaron’s garments, and building the tabernacle that was to be the dwelling place of God (Ex. 31:3ff). Similarly, God gives us the spirit of wisdom not to puff us up with pride but to build up the Body of Christ, the present dwelling place of God (I Cor. 3:17; I Tim. 3:15).
We must pause here in our examination of these individual gifts to submit that there is an order to the list of gifts as a whole. Paul begins with the spiritual gift that is of greatest esteem in God’s eyes, and ends with the gift that He esteemed least. That is, he begins with the gift of wisdom and ends with the gift of tongues (v. 10). But when Paul devotes an entire chapter to the Corinthian misuse of tongues (ch. 14), it is not difficult to conclude that the Corinthians had reversed this God-ordained order and had esteemed the gift of tongues above all others.
Incidentally, this helps us understand Paul’s peculiar statement in I Corinthians 6:4, where he tells the Corinthians that rather than taking one another to court they should “set them to judge who are least esteemed in the church.” Far from instructing them to allow slow-witted or unspiritual men to settle their important disputes, Paul is rather reminding them that they had men with the gift of wisdom in their midst who could be called upon to resolve their legal disagreements. We know this because Paul goes on to say,
“I speak this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you? No, not one that shall be able to judge between his brethren?” (I Cor. 6:5).
It was a “shame” that the men with the gift of wisdom were “least esteemed” among them, but it was a fact. It is likewise a shame that today the imitation gift of tongues is held in higher esteem than a knowledge of the “mystery, even the hidden wisdom” (I Cor. 2:7), but this too is a sad fact.
The next gift on Paul’s list is the gift of “knowledge” (I Cor. 12:7), and speaks of a knowledge of God’s Word. Thankfully, although the gift of knowledge has been withdrawn, a knowledge of God’s Word is still available to God’s people through diligent study of Scripture. However, if indeed this list is given in order of priority, it should be pointed out that knowledge here takes second place to wisdom in God’s eyes. Many Christians feel that knowledge of God’s Word is the pinnacle to which we should aspire, but in the mind of God wisdom, the application of Bible knowledge, is “the principal thing” (Prov. 4:7).
“To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit” (I Cor. 12:9).
The mountain-moving gift of faith of which Paul speaks here and in I Corinthians 13:2 reminds us of the mountain-moving kind of faith that the Lord said was needed to cast out devils (Matt. 17:18-20). Demon possession was still a problem around the time of the writing of I Corinthians (cf. Acts 19:15,16), and so the gift of faith enabled the Corinthians to cast out devils and serve the Lord in other ways that were specific to that day and time in God’s program. While there is no supernatural gift of faith available to men today, Paul says that “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Rom. 10:17). In the measure that we study God’s Word and believe it, in that measure we will be able to serve God in ways that are specific to our day and time in God’s program, such as proclaiming His Word by faith (II Cor. 4:13) and using “the shield of faith” to quench “all the fiery darts of the wicked” (Eph. 6:16).
The gift of “healing” enabled a man to heal “every one” who was sick (Acts 5:16). When the so-called “healers” of today cannot demonstrate this same complete mastery over disease, they force us to conclude that they do not have a God-given gift of healing.
However, there is a healing ministry in which our Lord was involved in which believers today can happily participate. We read that the Lord was sent to “heal the brokenhearted” (Luke 4:18), and this is a ministry to which every believer should aspire. This writer recently officiated at the funeral of a Christian man who took his own life. We could sense that some of his mourners believed the old fable that suicides cannot go to heaven, and so naturally were brokenhearted at the loss of their loved one by his own hand. It was our privilege to heal the brokenhearted that day with the sound teaching of the eternal security of the believer (Rom. 8:35-39; II Tim. 2:13).
“To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues” (I Cor. 12:10).
A “miracle” in Scripture is a “wonder” or a “sign” (Acts 2:22), and miraculous signs belonged to Israel (Psa. 74:9). God taught Israel to “require” a sign (I Cor. 1:22), and then gave them plenty of signs to see over the many centuries in which He dealt with them as a nation. Now that God has set national Israel aside, the gift of miracles has been withdrawn.
For the reader who laments the loss of the gift of miracles, let’s look at some of the different ways that Paul uses the Greek word dunamis, here translated “miracles.” This word is translated “power” when Paul declares that “the gospel of Christ” is “the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth” (Rom. 1:16). Hence believers today can still work the greatest miracle of all when they introduce a lost sinner to the Savior. Dunamis is also translated “power” when Paul prayed that the Romans might “abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost” (Rom. 15:13). When a believer today is able to abound in hope, filled “with all joy and peace” despite the oftentimes overwhelming adversities and heartaches of life, that’s a miracle! Lastly, Paul tells us of how the Macedonians contributed financially to the Lord’s work “beyond their power” (II Cor. 8:3). This begs the question, if they gave beyond their power, whose power prompted them to give so wonderfully yet so inexplicably? We submit that only the miracle-working power of God can cause believers to give out of “deep poverty” unto rich liberality. As you can see, God’s miracle-working power today is centered in the heart and mind of the believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, as he implements the Word of God into the very fabric of the details of his life.
“Prophecy” is the ability to speak authoritatively for God, and often involved predicting the future, a gift that passed with the completion of the Scriptures. Today God speaks only through His Word, and we can speak for Him and prophesy future events only as we teach His Word. But while the gift of prophecy has passed, there are still a number of predictions that we can make based on the principles of the Word of God. For instance, we can still predict the activities of the adversary, based on his modus operandi, his method of operation as exhibited in Scripture. We can foretell that He will continue to cause the believer to question God’s Word, as he did with Eve (Gen. 3:1). He even tried this tactic on the Lord Himself. When at our Lord’s baptism His Father declared, “This is My beloved Son” (Matt. 3:17), Satan immediately sought to cause Him to doubt God’s Word, saying, “If Thou be the Son of God…” (Matt. 4:3,6). And so a man need not be a prophet to predict that our adversary will continue to employ the tried and true method of attack that he has utilized for six thousand years, and to be forewarned about this is to be forearmed.
When Paul describes the gift of “discerning of spirits,” he uses a Greek word that is also used in I Corinthians 14:29, where he instructs them to “judge” the prophets, that is, discern whether they were speaking by the Holy Spirit or by some other spirit. Not all false prophets ran around calling the Lord Jesus accursed, and the gift of discernment was vital to detect more subtle false prophets. But once again, though the gift of discernment has passed, with the Word of God the believer today is completely equipped to discern the spirit behind all who claim to speak for God.
Next comes the gift of tongues. Believers today do not have the miraculous power to speak in the different languages of “men of other tongues” (I Cor. 14:21), as the gift of tongues has been withdrawn. But for any who sigh for the power to speak in tongues, we would invite you to consider that it is still possible for us to speak clearly to men of all languages. We are told that there are certain universal languages that transcend all human tongues, such as music and mathematics, whose notes and figures are the same in all cultures. In a similar fashion, when a child of God displays acts of kindness, or love, or forgiveness, our meaning is readily understood by men of all tongues, and we should be forward to “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” in all of these things (Titus 2:10).
Similarly, while the gift of “interpretation of tongues” is long gone, with a little practice we can learn to interpret the meaning of the words of others. Every parent knows that when a child says, “I hate math,” what he is really saying is, “I don’t understand math.” Oh, that we might learn that when someone at church says something hurtful to us, that perhaps all they are saying is, “I’m not feeling well today.” If we could only learn to interpret such snubs as perhaps expressions of, “I’m going through a rough time right now.” When once a man in our assembly expressed bewilderment over what he perceived to be the belligerence of another, I knew the cause. As his pastor, I knew that the man’s wife was divorcing him, perhaps prompting him to speak in a way that was out of character for this dear saint, which led to the quarrel. We may not have the gift of interpretation of tongues, but we can and should learn to listen to the words of others with understanding, “forbearing one another in love” (Eph. 4:2).
Paul concludes his list of spiritual gifts with the addition of a few more at the end of I Corinthians 12. Of these, we will conclude this message with the gift of “helps” (v. 28). Just prior to Paul’s shipwreck in Acts 27, the sailors “used helps, undergirding the ship” (v. 17). We are told that this is a reference to how ancient mariners in threatening seas would rush to the bow of the ship and lower ropes or chains around the fragile vessel and cinch them up tightly to prevent it from breaking apart in the raging sea. It is our blessed privilege as members of the Body of Christ to act in a similar way when our brethren in Christ are struggling through the storms of life. May each and every mature saint be willing to rush to the side of his struggling brother and undergird him with the strength of God’s Word rightly divided, and share with him the compassion that we ourselves receive from the Lord (II Cor. 1:4).
Yes, the spiritual gifts are gone, but it is a blessed truth that God has replaced them with His Word, equipping us therewith with everything we need to fully function as men and women of God in the dispensation of grace. How wonderful to know that the profit of spiritual gifts is still available to the believer who studies to show himself approved unto God, rightly dividing the Word of truth.