The “gifts of the Spirit” are found in three places in Scripture: 1 Cor. 12-14, Eph. 4, and Rom. 12.
[Read 1 Cor. 12:4-11; Eph. 4:4-16; Rom. 12:3-8]
What we should notice, first of all, about these passages is that they all occur in the same context, that is, Paul is always talking about the same subject when it comes to the gifts: the Body of Christ. Often times, when we hear this spoken about, we reduce it to a mere metaphor. However, Paul does not work that way. Reading a bit further in 1 Cor., he says, “For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body -- whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free -- and have all been made to drink into one Spirit” (v. 12-13). Very starkly here Paul says that when we speak of the many members of the Church, us, we are speaking of the one Body of Christ, as he says, “so also is Christ.” This should strike us as rather mysterious, because it is. As John puts it in his first epistle, “Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (3:2), or, going back to Paul, “And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man” (1 Cor. 15:49), which, in fact, is what we’ve been predestined for: “For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29).
There are two things in this last verse that are particularly striking: the word “conformed” is used one other place, in Php. 3:21. “The Lord Jesus Christ...will transform our lowly body that is may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.” This is riffing off of a similar term used earlier in that Epistle, where Christ, who was in the form of God, takes on the “form of a servant,” that is, our humanity. When Paul says in Romans that we are to be “conformed to the image of the Son,” it is a reference to Christ’s Resurrection that we share in through faith and baptism now and will have the ultimate fullness of later.
The second part of the passage, “that He might be the firstborn among many brethren,” points to the same fact. As Paul says in Colossians 1: “[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation...and He is the head of the body, the Church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things [both in creation and in redemption] He may have the preeminence” (vv. 15, 18). “If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through the Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11).
Why go into all of this? Well, if the Resurrection of Jesus is the context of speaking about the gifts, we won’t be able to properly understand the gifts without it. We have in us, as the Church, the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead. We are one with Christ in such a way that to be in the Church is to be in Christ, or as Paul puts it elsewhere, “putting on Christ,” which is a visceral metaphor for baptism. To be the Church, then, is to partake now of the Resurrection; when we are together in the community of the Spirit, we are living what it will be for all things after the Last Day. To use the technical language of theology, the Church is an eschatological community, bringing that which will be into the present time. The gifts of the Spirit, then, are manifestations of how God will finally and fully redeem His creation from its bondage to sin and corruption. The resurrected body of Christ shows God’s triumph over death, over the chaos that engulfs us and threatens to dissolve God’s good work entirely. The gifts of that body, or the way the Spirit manifests His life through the Body, signal and apply that triumph to the here-and-now, so that the Church herself might “come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ…[and] may grow up in all things into Him who is the head -- Christ -- from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (Eph. 4:13, 15-16).
Now that we’ve laid the beginning groundwork, let’s go a bit further. In 1 Cor. 12, starting in v. 7, Paul tells us something very important about this reality of being Christ’s resurrected body: “the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all.” The gifts, these expressions of God’s own life among us, are not for us individually, even though they are manifested through individuals. Rather, they are meant for all in the Church, including our own sanctification. The body is one, so when any part is given a gift, it has reverberations throughout the whole. This is why Paul continues in v. 15 that “if the foot should say, ‘because I am not a hand, I am not of the body,’ is it therefore not of the body?” That is, each part of the body is different and has different honor and receives different gifts, but just because one receives one gift and another a different gift, doesn’t mean they’re not of the same body. Rather, “God composed the Body, having given greater honor to that which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the Body, but the members should have the same care for one another” (vs. 24-25). Paul has, helpfully, clarified what he meant by “profit” earlier on: to be profitable in the Spirit is to use the gifts given to care for one another. In economic terms, this isn’t “enlightened self-interest” that we hope will “trickle down” from our largesse; no, this is work intended for the “common good,” which then redoubles back to ourselves.
In this passage, Paul is careful to note that the parts of the body differ, not only in kind, but in glory. There are “those of the body which we think to be less honorable...and our unpresentable parts” (v. 23). On these parts we “bestow greater honor and...have greater modesty,” that is, we clothe ourselves with protection and beauty. There is something particularly pastoral and important to consider here: there is no part of the body that is shameful, but that does not mean the whole body should be exposed. As Paul says later to the Corinthians, “For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven, if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked. For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life. Now He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who also has given us the Spirit as a guarantee” (2 Cor. 5:1-5). Note, again, that the language of clothing a body is resurrection language, “that mortality may be swallowed up by life”: our arraying the members of this Body is a sign of the resurrection. What that looks like will have to be negotiated on the level of the individual congregation.
The other piece of the fact that part of the Body differ in glory is that there is a hierarchy of gifts: while all gifts are manifestations of the life of God in and among us, some gifts are more glorious than others: “And God has appointed these in the Church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues” (1 Cor. 12:28-29). A similar list appears in Eph. 4: “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers” (v. 11). Paul says that we should “earnestly desire the best gifts” (1 Cor. 12:31), or as he says it to his successor Timothy, “This is a faithful saying: if a man desires to be an overseer, he desires a good work” (1 Tim. 3:4), but it must be done for the good of the whole body, not to have power, prestige, or any other reason of the flesh. These “best gifts” are for the right ordering of the Body, to keep it in line, to keep it healthy, to guarantee an unbroken connection to the Head, Christ, by His Spirit.
For Paul, all of this serves as introduction for the real meat: “And yet, I show you a more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31). Gifts are good, of course, and show God’s resurrecting power among us; but there is something better. In 2 Pt. 1:4, the Apostle says that we are to “partake of the divine nature.” What is that? The Beloved Apostle tells us: “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8). To have the fullness of God among us is to love. The Spirit is given as a downpayment, as a guarantee, for the whole inheritance of God Himself -- Father, Son, Spirit -- among and with and in us. In other words, love is the more excellent way, for to love is to be in God. We can fruitfully, then, read 1 Cor. 13 substituting the word God for love: “God suffers long and is kind; God does not envy, God does not parade Himself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek His own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the Truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. God never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away” (vs. 4-10).
There’s a lot of debate as to what “the perfect” is in this passage. It seems straightforward to me: it is love, that is, when we have perfect love of one another, when we are so filled with God that we are acting in concert with Him at all times, there will be no need for tongues or prophecies or even “the best gifts,” for God will be all in all. Each spiritual gift passage gets to this point. Let’s look at what happens right after Paul enumerates the gifts in Romans:
“Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn…” (Rom. 12:9-15) And he goes on. What is he describing here but love enacted, incarnated, in our Body, the Church? This is greater than any gift and what each and every gift is meant to lead to. We could add what he says in Ephesians 4, as well:
“...speaking the truth in love, [we] may grown up in all things into Him who is the head -- Christ -- from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (vs. 15-16).
The gifts, whatever they are and whenever they appear, are for the fostering of love, of true growth in Christ. In some ways, this can feel like a bit of a letdown: we want the gifts to be showy, to proclaim our holiness, to put us above others. But they aren’t for this and so we should be very wary when they are used in this way. Rather, all the gifts are meant to bring us more fully into Christ, to “grow us up” as individuals and as the Body, into His full stature, that is, the gifts give us the ability to better love one another. To do the hard, sometimes sorrowful, practical work of taking care of one another. The whole body of Christ was raised on the third day; it is part of our responsibility in God, in fact He’s gifted us for this very thing, to make sure that every part of our Body reaches the Resurrection. This is why John is so keen, in his epistle, to show that we cannot love God if we don’t love one another. This is why our Lord Jesus is so keen, in the Sermon on the Mount, to show that we must love not only one another, but our enemies as well -- this is what God does (“for while we were still sinners, Christ died for us...when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son” -- Rom. 5:8, 10). God desires to give His own life, His eternal life, to us through His Spirit -- the gifts are the means to do just that.