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The Role of Spiritual Gifts

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This year your elders have asked me to talk about spiritual gifts and the fruit of the Spirit. I have more to say about these subjects than time will allow. I hope that you will pardon me if I leave something unsaid, and I trust that you will benefit from what I do say.

Our first subject is spiritual gifts.

We all know that a modern army is fitted with a strategic mix of weaponry to maximize its effectiveness. Some soldiers have rifles and others use machine guns, tanks, bombers or ships. All of these weapons are necessary to win the war, and those who use them must work together as a single army.

The Lord has followed a similar program in building his church. He gives spiritual gifts to his people so that we can work together to build his church on earth.

What are Spiritual Gifts?

It may surprise some Reformed people to learn that all Christians are “charismatics.” This word in Greek simply means gifts. All Christians have been gifted by the Spirit. Therefore, all Christians are charismatics.

We must also function as charismatics. Unless we are serving charismatically, we are not serving as member of the body at all. Why? Because the Spirit gives his gifts to individuals for the edification of the whole body (I Cor. 12:7). They are to be used within the body (Rom. 12:3–6; I Cor. 12:14–30). The body of Christ moves when the different parts do what they were designed to do. Pastors must teach the Word of God. Those who have the gift of mercy must show mercy. And those whose gift is giving must give generously, as unto the Lord.

It’s interesting that those who call themselves “charismatics” seem to think that the gifts begin with the Spirit. On the day of Pentecost, the Spirit descended as in cloven tongues of fire and the apostles spoke in languages that they had never studied. But it isn’t true that the gifts begin with the Spirit. They actually begin with Jesus Christ.

Two passages of Scripture teach this.

The first is Isaiah 11:2–3. Here the prophet foretold that the Messiah would grow out of Jesse’ stump. The Messiah would also be given seven gifts: wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, fear and quick understanding. More than one scholar has noted that these seven gifts parallel the gifts given to the church as Paul enumerated them in 1 Corinthians 12, where the list is much longer although the order is basically the same.

The second passage is Ephesians 4. In verse 7 Paul even refers to the gift of Christ. He gave these gifts to the church when he ascended into heaven (v. 8), and he gave them to the church for the edification of his body (v. 12), which will become mature as its knowledge of him matures (v. 13).

So, contrary to charismatics, the work of the Holy Spirit is to exalt Jesus Christ, not himself. Jesus said that when the Spirit comes he would teach them what Christ had taught them (John 14:26).

There are four passages in the New Testament that list the gifts of the Spirit (Rom. 12:3–8; I Cor. 12–14; Eph. 4:7–13 and 1 Peter 4:10–11). All in all, there are about nineteen gifts. I say “about nineteen” because it’s impossible to fix this number with certainty. Some of the gifts overlap a little, and there may be other gifts that are not specifically listed. Even so, the gifts are as follows: prophecy (Rom. 12:6; I Cor. 12:10; 28–29; 13:2; 14:26, 29–32; Eph. 4:11), service (Rom. 12:7; I Pet. 4:11), teaching/pastoring (Rom. 12:7; I Cor. 12:28–29; 14:26; Eph. 4:11) , exhortation (Rom. 12:8), giving (Rom. 12:8; I Cor. 13:3), ruling (Rom. 12:8), showing mercy (Rom. 12:8), wisdom (I Cor. 12:8; 13:2), knowledge (I Cor. 12:8; 13:2), faith (I Cor. 12:9; 13:2), healing (I Cor. 12:9, 28–29), miracles (I Cor. 12:10, 28–29), discerning spirits (I Cor. 12:10), tongues (I Cor. 12:10, 28–30; 13:1; 14:26), interpretation of tongues (I Cor. 12:10, 30; 14:26), apostleship (I Cor. 12:28–29; Eph. 4:11), helping (I Cor. 12:28), governments (I Cor. 12:28) and evangelism (Eph. 4:11).

Principles Relating to Gifts

Because there are so many spiritual gifts, it might be helpful to categorize them.

However, the problem here is that the gifts can be categorized in any of several ways. For example, there are some gifts that require miraculous intervention (miracles, healing, tongues, etc.) and others that do not (pastor, government, giving, etc.). Then there are gifts that relate specifically and directly to leadership in the church (apostle, pastor, elder) and others that do not (healing, tongues). And there are some gifts that all believers have to some extent (faith, charity) and others that are more specialized.

The most common method of classification is to divide the gifts according to their permanency. Gifts like pastoring, governing, and giving were intended to be practiced in the church until the Lord returns. But prophecy, tongues, and healing had a very specific purpose in the early church and were not intended to be practiced perpetually. We’ll come back to this idea in a little while.

The most extensive treatment of spiritual gifts occurs in I Corinthians 12, where the apostle Paul lays a theological foundation for us. Let me just point out a few things that he says here. First, Spirit-gifted people can be distinguished from impostors by their confession of Jesus as Lord (vv. 1–3). Second, all Christians have at least one spiritual gift, which is to be used for the edification of the entire body (v. 7). This means that we do not have to wait for some post-conversion experience  in order to receive a gift. This, of course, does not preclude God later giving additional gifts to individuals. Third, there is a diversity in the gifts, but since they are all bestowed by their same Spirit there is also a fundamental unity in their purpose (vv. 8–11). Fourth, the gifts are given as the Spirit determines (v. 11). This means that we should not expect others to have the same gifts that we have or that we will have their gifts (vv. 15–26). Fifth, all the gifts are necessary for the maturity of the church. We are not permitted to despise the gifts that we have or those that have been given to others (vv. 14–26). Sixth, we may desire other gifts in addition to those that we currently have (v. 31; see also I Cor. 14:1, 12). But we must also remember that God does not promise to give us the gifts that we desire. The choice is entirely his. Seventh, in regard to gifts of service, there is no single gift that God gives to all Christians (vv. 29–30). The all in 1 Cor. 14:31 is best taken as referring to “all prophets” not “all believers.

Prophecy and Tongues

Two of the gifts deserve special attention: prophecy and tongues. The reason for this is not that these two gifts are superior to others, but because these are the one that charismatics like to boast.

The book of Acts gives us an interesting illustration of how prophecy related to other gifts. When Paul arrived at Tyre in Acts 24, the brethren advised him by the Spirit not to go to Jerusalem (v. 4). The phrase through the Spirit indicates the special gift of prophecy (cf. Acts 11:28), for not every believer was a prophet. Later, he arrived in Caesarea, where a Judean prophet named Agabus told him that he would be bound in Jerusalem and delivered over to the gentiles (Acts 21:10–11). Although the brethren tried to persuade him not to go to Jerusalem, Paul was determined to go there anyway. He had to go to Jerusalem because the Spirit of God had called him there.

But this raises a question: how could the brethren advise him by the Spirit not to do what the same Spirit had commanded him to do? The answer is twofold. First, a prophetic warning of danger is not the same as a command. The fact that Paul knew that danger awaited him in Jerusalem does not mean that he should not go there anyway. Second, there are different gifts of the Spirit. The brethren who warned Paul had the gift of prophecy, and they, no doubt, were looking after his welfare and the well-being of the church. But they lacked the gift of courage and the gift of discernment. They couldn’t see that God had a greater purpose for Paul going to Jerusalem, and that was to lead him to Rome so that he could preach the gospel in the capital of the empire. Thankfully, Paul had the gifts that his brethren lacked. Even though his heart was broken by their tears (Acts 21:13), he had to obey the Spirit’s call.

New Testament prophecy can be anything from carefully prepared messages to specific revelations of God’s will in particular circumstances. It was not on a par with Scripture and did not supplement the canon. Rather, it was meant only to fill the void until the apostolic message had been recorded for all churches.

The gift of tongues is a little more intriguing yet. There are only three instances of tongues-speaking in Acts (Acts 2:1–13; 10:46; 19:6). But what we have in I Corinthians is different. For one thing, these tongues required a subsequent interpretation. This, plus the fact that Paul connects them with angelic language in 1 Corinthians 13:1 makes it even more likely that Corinthian tongues were not foreign languages at all, but something altogether different.

Paul also spoke rather frankly about how this gift should be used. It could be used privately in prayer (I Cor. 14:18–19). But there should not be more than three tongues-speakers at any given time, and tongues should not be used in public worship unless an interpreter is present (vv. 27–28). Clearly, these limitations were to preclude an excessive enthusiasm for this gift (v. 19).

Even more interestingly, Paul says that the gift of tongues, unlike prophecy, was a sign for unbelievers (v. 22). We might think that this refers to the events in the second chapter of Acts, but the quotation of Isaiah 28:11–12 in the previous verse makes this unlikely. What Isaiah meant is very clear: the Jews had refused to hear the prophets speaking their own language, so God threatened to judge them by a people whose language they did not know. This was God’s judgment. It was meant as a punishment. Paul quoted this passage to show that the Corinthians had perverted this gift by using for their own purposes rather than evangelism. And the fact that they could, therefore, not understand what was said by tongues-speakers showed how much they had deprived themselves of the blessings of God’s Word.

Cessation of Temporary Gifts

Earlier I said that some gifts were temporary. They had a limited use, and when that use was no longer needed, they would cease to function. One such gift that ceased is the office of apostle. There are four passages that I want you to look at in this connection.

The first is Hebrews 2:3–4. Here we find the purpose of the extraordinary gifts, viz., to confirm the teaching ministry of the apostles. This suggests that such gifts are not necessary any longer for two reasons: 1) the apostles are no longer with us, and 2) their message was confirmed for us by the signs that are already recorded in Scripture.

A second passage, Daniel 9:24, says that the Messiah at his coming will seal up the vision and prophecy. Now this can be taken in one of two ways. It could be that he would seal the prophecies of the Old Testament by fulfilling them, which is, of course, true. Or it could be that his coming put an end to all prophecy. There are several passages that teach this, too. In fact, this is more the emphasis of the New Testament. Hebrews 1:1–2 says, God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son. That is to say, the final revelation or the last prophecy came through Christ. The apostles simply recorded that revelation for us. Other prophets will not be needed after that revelation is complete. And Matthew 11:13 says the same: For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. John was the last prophet since he had the unique privilege of introducing the Messiah.

The third passage is I Corinthians 13:8–10. Paul says that various gifts will cease after that which is perfect is come. We’ve already seen how prophecy would cease, and along with it special knowledge. Tongues also will cease.

But the question is, What is that which is perfect? Since whatever it is replaces prophecy, knowledge and tongues, it must be something that conveys a message in a similar way. The goal of all of these things was the Bible in its final form. Therefore, once the Bible was finished, there was no more need for prophecy, knowledge or tongues.

On the other hand, although the extraordinary gifts would cease, the ordinary gifts would continue. And the greatest of the ordinary gifts are faith, hope and love; and love is the greatest gift of all (I Cor. 13:13). By putting it this way, Paul encourages us to focus more on the ordinary gifts and the fruit of the Spirit than on the extraordinary and temporary gifts. No matter what gift we have, if we do not have love, it will neither edify us or anyone else.

The last of our four passages, Ephesians 4:11–13, speaks to this very issue. Here we read that the purpose of the extraordinary gifts, and even the ordinary ones, is to minister the sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit to the Lord’s people. Apart from this, they serve no purpose at all. Paul wrote, And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.

In another sense, we can affirm that all the gifts continue. The office of apostle continues in the revelation that we find in Scripture. Today, some Christians have the ability to learn foreign languages, and this can be useful in one of two ways: missionary service or teaching Greek and Hebrew. Medical missionaries engage in healing. Again, we’re not talking about miraculous healing, just practicing medicine. And prophecy continues by preaching and teaching the Word of God.

In conclusion, I want us to consider our attitude toward spiritual gifts. It seems that most Christians either want more than God gave them or they think they are more blessed than others.

The following story identifies what our attitude should be. A young schoolboy auditioned for a part in the school play. His mother knew that he had set his heart on it, but she was also aware that he would not be good for it. She was afraid that her son would be devastated if he did not get the part. But she drove to school to pick him up on the day the parts were announced. He came running out of the school, his eyes shining with pride and excitement. He said, “I have been chosen to clap and cheer.” His part would not have satisfied many, but it made him the happiest little fellow in the world. And whatever gift or gifts the Spirit gives us should satisfy us as well.

This evening we'll continue to look at spiritual gifts. Tomorrow and Monday we'll look at the fruit of the Spirit, which is also a spiritual gift — a very specific one, as a matter of fact — though it's not often regarded as such.

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