Spiritual gifts

This message was preached by me at ‘The Gathering’ in The Strand Centre, Dawlish, at 6:30pm on Sunday 18th June 2017.

Those of you who have been to a church service this morning have probably heard enough about Father’s Day, so I am not going to speak about that.  But I am going to speak on a related topic – that of gifts.  Jesus tells us (Matthew 7:7-11) that our Father in heaven desires to give us good gifts, provided we keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking.

God blesses us in myriad ways, practically as well as spiritually, but this evening I am going to focus on spiritual gifts.  We are experiencing, here on Sunday evenings, the development of a charismatic fellowship – and I, as much as anyone else here, am on that journey of discovering what that means for me and how God wants to bless me with spiritual gifts and to use me for His glory.

As you would expect, scripture teaches us a great deal about spiritual gifts, why they are given, what they are to be used for, and what our response should be.  I am going to turn to Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthian church and consider what chapters 12-14 tell us about all this.  It is a long passage, but I really encourage you to read through it all and pray through it over the week, as a whole, so that you get a coherent sense of what Paul is saying.  There is often so much to say about even a small part of scripture that we can easily end up isolating sections – and 1st Corinthians 13 is a prime example – without seeing them in their wider context.  So I am certainly not going to say everything that could be said about this section, but I hope by treating the three chapters together, we get a coherent picture of the message Paul writes about the gifts of the Spirit.  As you pray it through during the week, note down anything that God lays on your heart and bring it back to us here on Sunday evening, so we can all benefit from God speaking through you.

In 1 Corinthians 12:1-3, Paul writes:

Now concerning spiritual things, brothers, I don’t want you to be ignorant.  You know that when you were heathen, or Gentiles you were led away to those mute idols, however you might be led.  Therefore I make known to you that no man speaking by God’s Spirit says, “Jesus is accursed.” No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” but by the Holy Spirit.

Note first that spiritual gifts were, and still are, misunderstood.  One of the things I hope to do tonight is to encourage anyone who feels that they haven’t got a spiritual gift, or don’t know what those gifts are yet, or how to use them.  Know however that the Holy Spirit is working in you – Paul affirms that everyone who declares “Jesus is Lord” does so by the power of the Holy Spirit.  It is the Holy Spirit alone who can reveal that truth to you.

We read on in 1 Corinthians 12:4-7

Now there are various kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit.  There are various kinds of service, and the same Lord.  There are various kinds of workings, but the same God, who works all things in all.  But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the profit of all.

Paul starts here a theme that he will expand on shortly. God has not designed us to all be the same and have identical experiences and roles.  He treats us as individuals and we should rejoice in that individuality.  In respect of our spiritual gifts, our ministries and the way in which God works in our lives, we are all different.  That is not something God intends to divide us and breed resentment – it is something to be celebrated and to be used to build up the church.  As an example, compared to some of the testimonies we sometimes hear – of lives transformed from drug addiction, gang warfare, miraculous healings, audible or visible encounters with Jesus – my testimony is rather mundane … boring even.  But God still uses that in conversations with not-yet Christians and sometimes that is precisely the message they need to hear.  Most people we speak to have not had those sort of dramatic experiences either; but they have experienced difficulties and low points, they have asked searching questions about the meaning of life, they have experienced a yearning for something more.  And however boring your testimony might seem to you, it might be exactly what is needed to speak meaningfully to them.

My Greek is not good enough to know whether the final sentence is declaring whether “A spiritual gift is given to each of us, and it is given as a means of helping the entire church” or “To those who have a spiritual gift, it is given as a means of helping the entire church”.  I’ve looked at it in a number of translations and they all seem to retain the ambiguity.  What is clear however is the purpose of each spiritual gift: it is given for the benefit of others – the whole church in fact.  It is to be used and shared, not hidden away.

Paul goes on to describe the spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:8-11

For to one is given through the Spirit the word of wisdom, and to another the word of knowledge, according to the same Spirit;  to another faith, by the same Spirit; and to another gifts of healings, by the same Spirit;  and to another workings of miracles; and to another prophecy; and to another discerning of spirits; to another different kinds of languages; and to another the interpretation of languages.  But the one and the same Spirit produces all of these, distributing to each one separately as he desires.

Notice first the breadth and diversity within that list.  We tend to focus on the spiritual gifts we think are most dramatic – such as healing, prophecy and speaking in tongues.  But Paul starts with things that we might not even think of as spiritual gifts: giving sage Spirit-filled advice – how important that is; the word of knowledge – a special insight into someone’s life, revealed to us by the Holy Spirit; special faith – there are people here whose gift is that you have endured difficult times and your faith has emerged strengthened, or that everyone knows that they can go to you for encouragement, love and support, whose smile or hug lifts even the darkest mood – that is a really special gift.

The last sentence is really important: spiritual gifts are precisely that – they are gifts given by the Holy Spirit, not something we have earned or deserve or are markers of devoutness or holiness – and this is something that the Corinthian church needed correction on.  The Greek word for spiritual gifts is charismata, from charis meaning grace.  From this we get charisma meaning [a thing] given by grace and charismata is the plural, hence gifts given by grace.  Grace is undeserved favour, so by definition you cannot be deserving of a gift given by grace, otherwise it wouldn’t be God’s grace that is operating!

The Holy Spirit gives these gifts for specific purposes – they may be temporary or may stay with us, but they are given for a specific function in order to build up the body of believers that is Christ’s church – to encourage one another, to speak into each other’s lives, to teach, to help others and to heal.  As you may have heard it put before: God doesn’t call the qualified; he qualifies the called.  He alone sees how it all fits together in His grand scheme of building His church on earth.

This is a theme that Paul continues in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31

For as the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of the body, being many, are one body; so also is Christ.  For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all given to drink into one Spirit.  For the body is not one member, but many.  If the foot would say, “Because I’m not the hand, I’m not part of the body,” it is not therefore not part of the body.  If the ear would say, “Because I’m not the eye, I’m not part of the body,” it’s not therefore not part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the smelling be?  But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body, just as he desired.  If they were all one member, where would the body be?  But now they are many members, but one body.  The eye can’t tell the hand, “I have no need for you,” or again the head to the feet, “I have no need for you.”  No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary.  Those parts of the body which we think to be less honorable, on those we bestow more abundant honor; and our unpresentable parts have more abundant propriety;  whereas our presentable parts have no such need. But God composed the body together, giving more abundant honor to the inferior part,  that there should be no division in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another.  When one member suffers, all the members suffer with it. When one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.

Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually.  God has set some in the assembly: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracle workers, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, and various kinds of languages.  Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all miracle workers?  Do all have gifts of healings? Do all speak with various languages? Do all interpret?  But earnestly desire the best gifts.

Notice again the diversity of functions that Paul describes including those who can help others and those who can get others to work together (or gifts of administration or government in various translations), which are crucial to the effective functioning of the church.  To expand on Paul’s simile, who here has heard of mitochondria?  These are little bacteria that live in the cells of our body, millions of them.  They are tiny and are so insignificant that most of you have never heard of them.  Yet if our mitochondria disappeared we would die almost instantly – within a couple of seconds.  You see, they convert the sugars in our body into the energy needed to keep each cell of our body working.  They are astonishing, vitally important and yet outside of cell biologists, get little credit for the critical role they play in the working of our bodies.  God is amazing – he supplies the body with all the bits it needs, in order that it can function properly and so it is with His church.

Here it is worth spending a moment to understand more fully what is meant by the church.  Certainly, each of us have different functions in this fellowship of believers on Sunday evening and we are given relevant gifts to perform those functions.  But God recognises only one church – the entire body of believers with Christ as its head.  In fact, it is not even as simple as saying that all the Christian congregations put together comprise the church in Dawlish.  In part, the Great Reformation saw that argument played out with the Protestant Reformers insisting that the church visible and God’s church invisible are not necessarily the same thing: it is not up to the church or its earthly leaders to decide who is in and who is out; that is up to God and some who count themselves as inside the church are not in the book of life, and others who we might not consider as being part of the church, are, in fact.

The relevance for us, however, is to recognise that our functions are not exclusively within this fellowship, but we are called to serve the wider church.  Many of us are part of other congregations and this is an important aspect of our function within the church.  It may be that your reason for being part of this fellowship on Sunday evenings is to be encouraged and built up and filled by the Spirit, in order that you can take that love, joy, discernment and spiritual gifts back to build up another congregation in turn.  Or the opposite may be true: that you bring teaching and encouragement from other congregations here so that we can learn and grow from that.

Paul’s next passage on love is widely known, but is frequently preached out of context.  It is, at its heart, a rebuke of the Corinthian church and extols how we are to use our spiritual gifts responsibly (1 Corinthians 12:31-13:3):

Moreover, I show a most excellent way to you.  If I speak with the languages of men and of angels, but don’t have love, I have become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but don’t have love, I am nothing.  If I give away all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but don’t have love, it profits me nothing.

Here Paul works his way through some of the spiritual gifts listed and explains how they can only be exercised effectively when they are expressed lovingly to encourage others.

He continues in 1 Corinthians 13:4-13

Love is patient and is kind. Love doesn’t envy. Love doesn’t brag, is not proud,  doesn’t behave itself inappropriately, doesn’t seek its own way, is not provoked, takes no account of evil;  doesn’t rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth;  bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.  Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will be done away with. Where there are various languages, they will cease. Where there is knowledge, it will be done away with.  For we know in part and we prophesy in part;  but when that which is complete has come, then that which is partial will be done away with.  When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child. Now that I have become a man, I have put away childish things.  For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, even as I was also fully known.  But now faith, hope, and love remain—these three. The greatest of these is love. 

Again, Paul reminds us that our spiritual gifts are, in effect, temporary.  Once the new heaven and new earth are established and we see our Lord Jesus face to face, there will be no more need of these gifts.  This again points to the purpose of our gifts as building up the church on earth – they are given for a time, for a specific purpose and for a specific person to use them to the benefit of the entire church.

The New Living Translation expresses this as “Now we see things imperfectly as in a poor mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity”, whereas the King James version renders this as “see through a glass, darkly”.  To understand this, we need to realise that silver-backed glass mirrors, such as we have, are a relatively modern invention.  In Paul’s time, mirrors would tend to be a polished surface, such as a bronze sheet.  Imagine trying to fix your hair staring at your reflection in a bronze tea-tray and you get some idea of the contrast that Paul is drawing between our understanding now and how it will be at Christ’s return.

This should also be an encouragement to those of us who are just starting out trying to understand our spiritual gifts – learner charismatics as it were.  Even if we have the gift of prophecy or the word of knowledge, say, no-one exercises that gift with perfect understanding or crystal clarity.  It might just be a nagging impression, or a poorly-defined image, and as you pray it through, the Holy Spirit will guide you in what to reveal and when is the right time.  Often it might not mean something to you, but it may mean something to someone else – or it may have no immediate relevance but subsequently the meaning is revealed.

I am not going to read through chapter 14, but I am going to pick out a couple of key passages for us in 1 Corinthians 14:1 & 13

Follow after love and earnestly desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.  

Therefore let him who speaks in another language pray that he may interpret.

Paul exhorts us to pray both to receive spiritual gifts and to help us to exercise them effectively.  In the spirit of chapter 13, we are to do so selflessly, so that we can use those gifts in love to encourage others.

This perhaps is something that we don’t do as much as we perhaps should.  It is often easier to pray for others that to pray for ourselves, yet it is important that we don’t neglect our own spiritual development.  Jesus, our perfect example on earth, prayed for himself and teaches us in the Lord’s prayer to pray for ourselves – so we couldn’t want for a better example!

We return then to the words Jesus spoke that I began with in Matthew 7:7-11

“Ask [and keep on asking], and it will be given you. Seek [and keep on seeking], and you will find. Knock [and keep on knocking], and it will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives. He who seeks finds. To him who knocks it will be opened. Or who is there among you, who, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? 10  Or if he asks for a fish, who will give him a serpent? 11  If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

I’m going to ask you just to sit silently for a couple of minutes and just to reflect and pray through what the Holy Spirit has put on your heart.

Now I want you to talk to each other about that in pairs of threes.  Perhaps you are not sure what gift you have; perhaps you are nervous using that gift; perhaps you have lots of experience of your gift to share with others.  As you talk, let that lead you into prayer with each other: prayer to receive more spiritual gifts; prayers to help you use them wisely and lovingly.