1 Corinthians 12:1-11
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1 Corinthians 12:1-11 Biblical Commentary:
Corinth was an important and wealthy city on the isthmus (narrow strip of land) separating Northern and Southern Greece. The Apostle Paul spent 18 months there on his Second Missionary Journey and established a church there. Acts 18 gives us considerable detail about Paul’s work in Corinth during that time.
At the conclusion of his visit to Corinth, Paul left to visit Ephesus, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Galatia (Acts 18:18-23). After leaving Corinth, Paul wrote a letter to the Christians at Corinth warning them “to have no company with sexual sinners” (5:9), but that letter has been lost to us.
Paul is writing this letter in response to a report from Chloe’s people about problems in the Corinthian church (1:11). In this letter, he provides apostolic guidance for dealing with those problems.
In chapters 8-10, Paul addressed the issue of eating food that had been sacrificed to idols.
In chapter 11, he dealt with the issues of head coverings (vv. 2-16) and abuses at the Lord’s Supper (vv. 17ff.).
In chapters 12-14, Paul deals with the issue of spiritual gifts. Rather than celebrating one another’s gifts, the Corinthian Christians have become prideful concerning their particular gifts and dismissive of the gifts of others. Therefore spiritual gifts have become a divisive influence among them (see especially 12:12-31).
Paul repeatedly addresses issues related to the gift of tongues (12:10, 28, 30; 13:1; 14:2, 4-25), giving us reason to believe that those issues are especially serious in Corinth. In his lists of gifts (12:4-10, 28), he places the gift of tongues and their interpretation last. He devotes the first half of chapter 14 to counsel concerning the gift of tongues—much more space than he devotes to problems with other spiritual gifts. In that chapter, he says that the gift of prophecy is superior to the gift of tongues (14:2-5, 20-25). Elsewhere, he lists gifts without mentioning the gift of tongues (Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-12).
Paul lists various gifts, including the gift of tongues (vv. 27-30), and then promises to show the Corinthian Christians “a still more excellent way” (12:31). The gift of love is the highest spiritual gift (chapter 13, especially v. 13).
The first account of speaking in tongues took place at Pentecost (Acts 2:5-13). Peter spoke to a crowd composed of people from many different nations, and everyone heard Peter’s sermon in his/her own language (Acts 2:8-11).
The gift of tongues that we find in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church is different. Without an interpreter, the language of tongues is unintelligible (14:2, 9-13). Paul doesn’t forbid the use of tongues, but emphasizes the necessity of an interpreter to make the tongues intelligible. He speaks in tongues personally (14:18), but says, “I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I might instruct others also, than ten thousand words in another language” (14:19).
1 CORINTHIANS 12:1-3. CONCERNING SPIRITUAL THINGS
1Now concerning spiritual things (Greek: pneumatikon), brothers, I don’t want you to be ignorant (Greek: agnoein). 2You know that when you were heathen (Greek: ethne), you were led away to those mute idols, however you might be led. 3Therefore I make known to you that no man speaking by God’s Spirit says, “Jesus is accursed.” No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” (Greek: anathema) but by the Holy Spirit.
“Now concerning spiritual things (pneumatikon), brothers, I don’t want you to be ignorant“(agnoein) (v. 1). The word pneumatikon stands alone—there is no separate Greek word for “gifts” in this sentence. If it weren’t for the context, the word pneumatikon would be better translated “spiritual things” than “spiritual gifts.” However, verse 4 introduces the word “gifts (charismaton), and the subject of verses 4-11 clearly concerns spiritual gifts. The context therefore suggests that we should translate pneumatikon in verse 1 as “spiritual gifts.”
The word agnoein can be translated “unaware” or “ignorant.”
“You know that when you were heathen“ (ethne) (v. 2a). The word ethne is usually translated Gentiles. However, the context here suggests translating it “pagans” or “heathen” or “unbelievers.” The Corinthian Christians are still ethne (Gentiles), but they are no longer ethne (pagans or idol worshipers).
“you were led away to those mute idols, however you might be led“ (v. 2b). These Corinthian Christians, who are so proud of their gift of tongues, used to worship “mute idols.”
“Therefore I make known to you that no man speaking by God’s Spirit says, ‘Jesus is accursed.’(anathema) No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ but by the Holy Spirit“ (v. 3). This is a difficult verse. Was someone saying “Jesus is anathema“? Probably not. Paul uses the first part of this verse to establish a contrast with the last part. He says that the Spirit of God would never inspire someone to say “Jesus is accursed.” Such a statement would have to be inspired by a demonic power. Alternatively, no demonic power would inspire anyone to say, “Jesus is Lord.” Only the Holy Spirit would do so.
It was by the work of the Holy Spirit that these Corinthian Christians found Christ. The Spirit has inspired them to say, “Jesus is Lord.”
1 CORINTHIANS 12:4-11. THERE ARE VARIOUS KINDS OF GIFTS, BUT THE SAME SPIRIT
4Now there are various kinds of gifts (Greek: charismaton—from charisma), but the same Spirit. 5There are various kinds of service (diakonion—from diakonia), and the same Lord. 6There are various kinds of workings (energematon—from energema), but the same God, who works (energon—from energeo) all things in all. 7But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the profit of all (pros to sympheron—for what is beneficial).
8For to one is given through the Spirit the word of wisdom (logos sophias), and to another the word of knowledge (logos gnoseos), according to the same Spirit; 9to another faith, by the same Spirit; and to another gifts of healings, by the same Spirit; 10and 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. 11But the one and the same Spirit works (enegei) all of these, distributing to each one separately as he desires.
“Now there are various kinds of gifts (charismaton—from charisma), but the same Spirit“ (v. 4). Note that the word translated “gifts” in this verse (charisma) is different from the word translated “spiritual gifts” in verse 1 (pneumatikon). As noted above, in most instances, pneumatikon would be better translated “spiritual things” rather than “spiritual gifts.” It is only the context of verse 1 that called for translating it “spiritual gifts.” The word charismaton, however, is specifically a word about gifts—special abilities given by God to God’s people for God’s service.
The word charismaton comes from the word charisma and is related to the word charis, which is usually translated “grace” in the New Testament. Charis is a significant New Testament word, especially in Paul’s epistles. Its use in the New Testament has roots in the Hebrew word hesed, used in the Old Testament to speak of God’s lovingkindness, mercy, and faithfulness. Greeks (keep in mind that Corinth is a Greek city) often use charis to speak of patronage (financial or political support). To Greeks, the word charis connotes generosity—generosity that demands loyalty on the part of the recipient.
As used in the New Testament, charis refers to the undeserved favor of God. Likewise, the New Testament uses the word charisma to speak of spiritual gifts (special abilities or vocations) that are given by the Spirit to those who could never enjoy them otherwise.
As Paul notes here, there are a variety of gifts. In verses 8-10, he will list nine of those gifts—wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, the working of miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, and the interpretation of tongues. That list is not comprehensive, however, for there are other gifts. In Romans 12:6-8, Paul lists the gifts of prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhorting, giving, leading, and being compassionate. In Ephesians 4:11-12, he lists the gifts of being an apostle, a prophet, an evangelist, a pastor, and a teacher. Note the variation in those three lists. There is some overlap, but each list includes distinctive gifts. That suggests that these lists are not definitive. There could be other gifts not mentioned in any of these three lists.
In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul does not use the word “gift,” but speaks of things that are labeled gifts elsewhere, such as speaking in tongues, prophetic powers, understanding mysteries and knowledge, and faith. He goes on to say that these gifts, in the absence of love, are nothing (v. 2). He ends that chapter by saying, “But now faith, hope, and love remain—these three. The greatest of these is love” (v. 13). I interpret this to mean that love is not only a charismaton—a gift—but is the supreme gift.
BUT—and this is the point—while there are many gifts, there is only one Spirit of God who gives them.
“There are various kinds of service (diakonion—from diakonia), and the same Lord“ (v. 5). The word diakonion is related to our word “deacon,” and denotes a humble kind of service. Jesus said,“Whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant” (diakonos) (Matthew 20:26; see also Matthew 23:11). Paul uses the word to show that he is merely a servant of Christ (1 Corinthians 3:5, 9; 2 Corinthians 6:4; Ephesians 1:23; 6:21; Colossians 1:23, 25). He also calls Christ a diakonos (servant) (Romans 15:8).
If you want examples of the varieties of services that Christians might render, just consider the many kinds of service that Christians render on a regular basis in their local church. Those range from the humble (sweeping the floor) to the exalted (handling the sacraments)—but we must be careful not to appreciate the more humble services less than we appreciate the more exalted ones. Each kind of service has its place in the economy of the kingdom of God.
“There are various kinds of workings (energematon—from the noun energema), but the same God, who works (energon—from the verb energeo) all things in all“ (v. 6). The noun energema and the verb energeo are words from which we get our word “energy.” We could translate this sentence, “there are varieties of things that are created, but it is the same God who energizes (or creates) all of them in everyone.”
In verses 4-6, the emphasis is that, while there are many good gifts, it is the one God who gives them all—and gives them to everyone. All Christians are spiritually “gifted” in some sense. Some, like Paul, will have many of the gifts listed above. Others might have only one or two of the gifts (see the comments on v. 4 for lists of spiritual gifts).
If God endows each believer with one or more gifts, we should be careful to look for spiritual gifts in other believers. Doing so will help us to avoid some of the irritation that most of us experience as we rub elbows with other people in the church.
We need also to remember that these spiritual gifts are really that—gifts. They come to us by the grace of God rather than by personal achievement. If we keep that in mind, it will give us a humble spirit if we happen to be among those who are especially gifted.
“But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the profit of all“ (Greek: pros to sympheron—for that which is beneficial) (v. 7). In verses 8-10, Paul lists nine manifestations of the Spirit. As noted in the comments on verse 4 above, Paul gives additional lists of spiritual gifts in Romans 12:6-8 and Ephesians 4:11-12. In 1 Corinthians 13, he says that love is the greatest gift.
The point of this verse is that all these gifts are given by the Spirit for that which is beneficial—for the common good—not for the exaltation of the gifted person.
“For to one is given through the Spirit the word of wisdom (logos sophias—a message of wisdom), and to another the word of knowledge (logos gnoseos—a message of knowledge), according to the same Spirit“ (v. 8). The Corinthians are Greeks, and Greeks prize wisdom and knowledge. It would be an exaggeration to call Greek philosophy a religion, but Greeks tended to approach philosophy with religious intensity.
In chapters 1-4, Paul dealt with issues of wisdom and knowledge. He said, “For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the Good News—not in wisdom of words, so that the cross of Christ wouldn’t be made void. For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are dying, but to us who are saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
I will bring the discernment of the discerning to nothing'” (1:17-19).
“according to the same Spirit“ (v. 8b). Given his earlier assessment of wisdom and knowledge, it seems odd that Paul would put these gifts at the head of this list. However, the wisdom and knowledge that Paul lifts up here are different from the wisdom and knowledge that he was talking about earlier. Those were human wisdom and knowledge. These are Godly wisdom and knowledge—gifts given by the Holy Spirit.
“to another faith, by the same Spirit” (v. 9a). Which of these seven things from verses 9-10 is not like the other?
• Faith (v. 9a)
• Gifts of healing (v. 9b)
• Working of miracles (v. 10a)
• Prophecy (v. 10b)
• Discernment of spirits (v. 10c)
• Various kinds of tongues (v. 10d)
• Interpretation of tongues (v. 10e)
The answer is faith. The other six involve some sort of specific action—healing, working miracles, prophesying, discerning spirits, speaking in tongues, and interpreting tongues. Not all Christians have even one of those particular gifts, and almost no one has all of them.
Faith is different. While true faith will manifest itself in some sort of action, the possibilities for its manifestations are endless—not like healing, which is very specific.
Faith is also different in that all Christians possess faith. Therefore, we might think of it as the umbrella gift under which all the other gifts are gathered—healing, working miracles, etc.
“by the same Spirit” (v. 9b). Note Paul’s repetition of this “same Spirit” theme. There is in the church a great deal of variety, but only one Holy Spirit.
“and to another gifts of healings, by the same Spirit” (v. 9c). Note that the word “gifts” is plural. Perhaps that means that there is one gift for one kind of healing and another gift for another kind of healing. We certainly recognize that kind of specificity in the medical community today. Perhaps we need to think of that kind of specificity in the faith community. It is also possible that the Spirit might give one person the gift of healing for this situation and another person the gift of healing for a different situation.
Gifts of healing accomplish two things. First, they relieve the suffering of the person who is healed. Second, they equip the church to witness to the power of God in its midst.
Not everyone has the gift of healing, but Jesus did. Paul did. Other apostles did. We have no reason to believe that the gift of healing is not still alive today.
Paul will mention this gift again in verses 28 and 30.
“and to another workings of miracles“ (v. 10a). The first recipients of the gift of miracles are found in the Old Testament:
• Yahweh gave Moses miraculous powers to authenticate Moses’ ministry (Exodus 4:1-18; 7:14 – 11:10; 12:29-32) and to meet the Israelites’ need for food and water in the wilderness (Exodus 17:1-7; Numbers 11).
• Yahweh gave Elijah miraculous powers to defeat the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:20-40) and to bring an end to a severe drought (1 Kings 18:21-46).
• When Elisha succeeded Elijah, Yahweh gave him power to perform many miracles (2 Kings 2-6; 8; 13).
In the New Testament, Jesus worked many miracles, which served two purposes. First, they alleviated suffering. Second, they authenticated Jesus’ ministry. In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ miracles are called signs, because they point to something larger than the miracles themselves (John 2:1-11; 4:46-54; 5:1-9; 6:1-40; 9:1-12; 11:1-45).
Jesus’ disciples also worked miracles to authenticate their ministry (Acts 2, esp. v. 43; 5:12-20; 14:8; 16:16-27; 19:11-20; 20:9-12; Romans 15:18-19).
“and to another prophecy“ (v. 10b). While people today think of prophecy as foretelling the future, the role of a Biblical prophet was to convey a message from God to humans. In many cases, that involved giving people a glimpse of the future, but the foretelling was only in support of the larger prophetic message.
Prophets delivered their message in various forms. Often, they delivered it orally. Some acted out their prophecy in dramatic ways (Hosea, for instance). Many recorded their messages in written form. The seventeen books from Isaiah through Malachi are books of prophecy, but there are written accounts of prophecy in other books as well.
While most Biblical prophecy took place in the Old Testament, the New Testament also includes accounts of prophecy (Acts 11:27-28; 13:1; 15:32).
Clergy today often talk about preaching prophetically but their definition of prophetic ministry varies. Some think of prophetic preaching as preaching that takes risks by pronouncing unpopular judgments on powerful entities such as big government or big business. However, much of what is called prophetic preaching today is really popular preaching in service of current cultural or theological fads. There is little risk in preaching it, because it steps on no toes within listening distance—and it is very much in sync with the popular culture.
When I Googled “prophetic ministry,” I found a video of a preacher who (1) called his preaching prophetic and (2) claimed to have a message for a “Miss Murphy” sitting in the ninth row. His prophetic message was that God was going to give Miss Murphy her miracle. What flim-flam!
Jesus warned against false messiahs and false prophets (Matthew 7:15; 24:11, 24). How can we distinguish between true and false prophets today? Consider these ten tests:
1. Does their message exalt Christ? (John 16:13-14; 1 Corinthians 12:1-4)
2. Does it accord with scripture? (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 3:15b-16)
3. Does it build up the church? (1 Corinthians 12:7; 14:3-5, 12, 26)
4. Does it pronounce judgment on sin?
5. Does it emphasize the grace of God?
6. Does it produce Godly fruits? (Matthew 7:15-18; Galatians 5:22-23)
7. If the prophecy involves foretelling the future, does it come true? (Deuteronomy 18:22)
8. Does the alleged prophet have a prophet-motive or a profit-motive?
9. Does the alleged prophet have a Godly character?
10. To whom is the alleged prophet accountable, and to what degree? (1 Corinthians 14:29-33)
When applying these tests, we must be careful not to be hypercritical. Even Godly prophets are sinners (Romans 3:23), and few sermons will accomplish everything outlined in tests 1-7. However, these tests provide a starting point for evaluating those who appear to have the gift of prophecy—and also for evaluating our own ministries and our own sermons.
“and to another discerning of spirits“ (v. 10c). John counsels, “Beloved, don’t believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). This has much in common with distinguishing between true and false prophets (see comments on v. 10b above).
We shouldn’t be surprised that God gives some people a special gift for discerning spirits. We know people whose reasoned judgments and graceful manner inspire our confidence. Isn’t it possible that they are among those whose gifts include discernment of spirits!
“to another different kinds of languages“ (v. 10d). What are these various kinds of tongues? We have two very different examples of speaking in tongues in Acts 2:5-13 and in this letter to the Corinthians. In the Acts account, Peter’s sermon was heard by people from many nations—and each heard the sermon in his own language. In this letter to the Corinthians, Paul is concerned about speaking in tongues without an interpreter—which means that the speech was not immediately intelligible.
For more on the subject of speaking in tongues, see “The Context” above.
“and to another the interpretation of languages“ (v. 10e). Without an interpreter, the language of tongues is unintelligible (14:2, 9-13). Paul doesn’t forbid the use of tongues, but does emphasize the necessity of an interpreter to make the tongues intelligible.
It seems, then, that the gift of speaking in tongues and the gift of interpretation of tongues are two different gifts. Could they be combined in a single individual? Probably, but not necessarily.
“But the one and the same Spirit works (enegei) all of these“ (v. 11a). This reiterates the emphasis on one Spirit found in verses 4-6 and 8-9. There are many gifts, but one Spirit who energizes all of them.
“distributing to each one separately as he desires“ (v. 11b). The Spirit gives spiritual gifts to individuals as the Spirit wills. The emphasis here is more on the Spirit’s authority than on the individual distribution of gifts. The Spirit has a plan for distributing spiritual gifts, and distributes them accordingly.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Chafin, Kenneth L., The Preacher’s Commentary: 1-2 Corinthians, Vol. 30 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1985)
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Farris, Stephen, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
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Copyright 2012, 2017, Richard Niell Donovan