As we saw in the previous post, Paul speaks of spiritual gifts numerous times in his letters. But he never seems to be concerned to create a typology or catalog by which believers can locate their particular gift, as if it were an individual possession. Rather, his pastoral goal is to encourage unity between believers, to help them recognize themselves as part of a greater whole that depends on the gracious activity of God.
Nowhere is that more true than in his words to the church in Corinth, a congregation that struggled with various forms of spiritual pride. Imagine Christians who are constantly on the lookout for things that will elevate their status as spiritual people in the eyes of others. Then imagine them reading these words from Paul:
A word of wisdom is given by the Spirit to one person, a word of knowledge to another according to the same Spirit, faith to still another by the same Spirit, gifts of healing to another in the one Spirit, performance of miracles to another, prophecy to another, the ability to tell spirits apart to another, different kinds of tongues to another, and the interpretation of the tongues to another. (1 Cor 12:8-10, CEB)
No doubt many would read those words and ask, “Gee, which one am I?” In Corinth in particular, many might also have said, “Speaking in tongues—that’s the one I want.”
But there seems to be some larger pastoral and rhetorical strategy involved in the way Paul writes the list. He begins with “wisdom” and “knowledge,” two of the Corinthians’ sources of pride, which Paul has already had to deconstruct in his letter (e.g., 1 Cor 1:18-25; 1 Cor 8:1-2). And he ends with the issue of speaking in tongues, a topic that has become controversial in Corinth, which he no doubt already had in mind to address two chapters down the line.
Moreover, consider the words with which Paul brackets that list:
There are different spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; and there are different ministries and the same Lord; and there are different activities but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good. …All these things are produced by the one and same Spirit who gives what he wants to each person. (1 Cor 12:4-7,11, CEB)
The list that sits inside these verses is not the point of the passage: the list rather illustrates the principles outlined here. Paul uses three different words to describe what the Spirit was doing in Corinth: “gifts…ministries…activities.” One can certainly make something of the distinction between the words; they have different nuances and associations. But the basic point seems clear: God is the one who is intentionally at work in all these manifestations, whatever form they take, whatever you choose to call them. And as he will say just a few verses hence, it’s all for the good of the whole, for the building up the body of Christ, rather than for the private benefit of the individual.
Do you want to know what your gift is? Let me put it this way: your gift is not merely some special talent given to you by the Holy Spirit. First and foremost, your gift is the Holy Spirit, who then works in and through you in ways that we might describe variously as gifts or talents, ministries or forms of service, activities or the works of God.
Perhaps that sounds too different from the way we normally talk about spiritual gifts? I’ll say more in the final post.