An understanding and application of the teaching of this chapter would transform us, both individually and collectively. It would rid us of arrogance and pride as we realise that Christ is, in fact, Lord; of lethargy as we come to terms with the idea that every believer has at least one gift; of indifference as we appreciate the wonder of the truth of the body of Christ; of heartlessness and selfishness as we see that every believer in the assembly is vitally important, and necessary for the good of the whole. It would rid us of compromise and collusion with the religious world around us. Then, humbled for our past failures, we would move forward with fresh zeal to put into practice the life-changing doctrines contained in these verses.
The First Epistle to the Corinthians was written in response to three things. Chapters 1-4 were written in response to a report to the apostle from the house of Chloe, informing him of the dangerous divisions in the assembly. In chapters 5 and 6 the apostle responds to the common report that there was immorality allowed in the assembly. The third and largest portion of the epistle consists of the apostles response to matters raised by the Corinthians themselves (7.1). These things were five in number, one of which, spiritual gifts, is dealt with in chapter 12.
Verses 1-3: The necessity of the recognition of Jesus as Lord
The word "gifts" (v.1) is in italics. The section beginning here, and extending to the end of chapter 15, deals with "spirit-matters", not just spiritual gifts. Chapter 12 does have things to say about spiritual gifts, as does chapter 14, but it also has to do with the evil spirits which carried idol-worshippers away, causing them to pronounce a curse upon Jesus. The work of the Holy Spirit is also in view, so the range is wider than spiritual gifts. In chapter 13 spirit-attitudes are in view, as well as spiritual gifts. In chapter 14 the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets, so human spirits find a mention. In chapter 15 the question is whether there is a future resurrection, or whether it is purely a "spiritual" concept. In response, the apostle shows clearly that Christ is risen and has been seen in a body. Believers wait the time when they will be raised with bodies that are spiritual, as opposed to the bodies they have now which are natural.
The apostle begins to write of spirit-matters by contrasting the result of the activity of evil spirits with that of the Holy Spirit. The former energises heathen idol-worshippers to pronounce a curse on Jesus, for they know that when His name is mentioned, their power is destroyed. They know who Jesus is (Acts 19. 15), and they know, too, that He will destroy them at Gods appointed time (Mt 8.29). The ministry of the Holy Spirit is markedly different. He empowers Gods people to recognise the Lordship of Christ. In fact, this ministry could be said to embrace all His other ministries.
Verses 4-11: The variety of gifts given to believers
Since the diversity of spiritual gifts is as a result of (and only as a result of) the ministry of the one Spirit, and since His ministry is to glorify Christ as Lord, it follows that every spiritual gift will result in glory for Christ when exercised in a Scriptural manner. So it is that all the varied ministries carried out as a result of the exercise of gift will be in recognition of the same Lord. The God who works out all of His purpose through all of His people will achieve His goal.
Continuing his theme of spirit-matters, the apostle indicates that the Spirit of God manifests His presence in the assembly gatherings by the exercise of the gifts Gods people have. He lists nine of these gifts. This list is clearly not exhaustive, for at the end of the chapter he mentions several that are not found here. Perhaps those listed in vv.7-10 are chosen because they would, if the Lordship of Christ was not kept in view, lead to the exaltation of man. The Corinthians had a tendency to pride (5.2).
They would be used to seeing philosophers discoursing, and gathering around themselves those who admired them and their teachings. Those in the assembly who were given the gift of a word of wisdom or a word of knowledge, should have been very careful not to attract men to themselves. They would need to take note of the apostles teaching regarding the danger of dividing the saints into parties (chs.1-4).
Then again, how impressive it was when Peter discerned the spirit of Ananias and his wife and of Simon (Acts 5.1-11; 8.5-24). Note as well the occasion when Paul penetrated through to the spirit of Elymas (Acts 13.6-12). Both Peter and Paul possessed the gift of miracle working also. Someone with a like gift in the assembly at Corinth was in great danger of being revered, and given power and prestige as a result, especially since some of the Corinthians would have had superstitious tendencies before they were saved.
How remarkable was the gift of tongues which enabled a believer to speak perfectly a language that had not been learnt. The gift of interpretation was equally wonderful as was the gift of faith, that special ability to move forward for God when others were hesitant - who would not admire believers thus gifted?
These gifts, then, imparted wonderful abilities to men, and, therefore, there had to be the reminder of the Lordship of Christ lest men become petty lords; the reminder, too, of the sovereignty of the Spirit, lest self intruded; and, furthermore, the reminder of the over-riding will of God, lest mans will come to the fore in the way of pride and self-assertion.
All these gifts have been withdrawn, for there is no need for them now. The completed canon of Scripture supplies us with wisdom and knowledge. The sign the gift of tongues represents, as with the other gifts mentioned, has made its point, and the need is gone. Those who claim to have this gift today must show several things. First, that what they have is what believers had at the beginning. Second, that the restoration of the gift is to be expected (for it is a historical fact that it ceased). Third, that there is a need for the gift. Fourth, that the result of the exercise of the gift is the exaltation of Christ as Lord.
As these gifts have been withdrawn, it might be asked why they are listed here. Three reasons may be given. First, since they were in use when the epistle was written, it was appropriate to mention them as examples of spiritual gifts. Second, one of them at least, the gift of tongues, was being over-emphasised at Corinth, and the apostle needs to correct this in chapter 14. Third, now that these have been withdrawn, and also now that there are those who claim to possess them, we need a standard by which to assess the genuineness or otherwise of modern claims.
The fact that not every believer in those days should have expected to possess the gift of tongues is seen in v.11, for the gifts are divided severally according to the will of the Spirit. So it is not His will to impart each gift to every believer. The gifts are distributed ("dividing") to separate individuals, ("severally"). We would do well to ponder this point, and assess our attitude to it.
It is good to be clear in our minds that the gift of tongues is not for today. It is equally good to be clear that the Spirit does still distribute to each believer those gifts that are for today. This should prompt us to ask ourselves whether the gift given is being used. Remember, God works in each member of the assembly for the profit of all - any lack of exercise of gift on the part of one, therefore, means that there is less profit for all. Since a gift is a spiritual thing, it should have precedence over natural things. We should not let self and the world stand in the way of the use of gift. The world is increasingly saying, in the language of the king of Sodom to Abraham, "Give me the persons (souls), and take the goods to thyself" (Gen 14.21). Abraham was strengthened to resist that temptation, and so should we be, resolutely determining to put the interests of God and His assembly first in both our thoughts and actions. This will undoubtedly involve sacrifices as matters of lesser importance are let go, and the primary purpose in the life of the believer is concentrated upon. An increase in salary is worthless if it results in a decrease in spiritual usefulness.
To be continued.