The Corinthian church might have been Paul’s biggest headache- though the Galatian church could certainly compete for that distinction. Yet along with the headache, Paul believed there was also great promise in this group of believers. A necessary step to realizing the potential of the Corinthian church would be cultivating a sense of unity. Among the many debates and arguments causing disunity in the church of Corinth was that surrounding spiritual gifts. It seems safe to assume that the Corinthians ranked the importance of spiritual gifts according to their visibility. Just as many football fans can name their team’s quarterback but struggle to name the left guard, it would appear that those in Corinth coveted the gifts that would place them in a prominent position. Few seemed interested in the spiritual equivalent of blocking in the trenches. They wanted a position where the ball would be in their hands so to speak. This is why Paul addresses the issue in his first epistle.

     Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be unaware. You know that when you were pagans, you were led astray to the mute idols, however you were led. Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus is accursed”; and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.

     4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all personsBut to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.

     12 For just as the body is one and yet has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. 13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (I Corinthians 12:1-13)

     He begins by stating that he does not want them to be unaware. The implication of course is that they are either already unaware, or there is a danger of them being so. What does it mean to be unaware concerning spiritual gifts? They clearly are not oblivious to their existence. This leaves the purpose of spiritual gifts, which seems even more likely when we consider Paul’s next statement to them. He tells them clearly what the Spirit does and does not do.  First, the Spirit of God does not lead people to say, “Jesus is accursed.” Second, the Holy Spirit enables people to say, “Jesus is Lord.” When discussing spiritual gifts, we often jump right to verse 4 where Paul begins “now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit.” This is because our interest is often in the types of gifts. However, it is detrimental to begin discussing the variety of gifts without first acknowledging their purpose.  To put it simply, spiritual gifts exist and are given for the express purpose of enabling people to say, “Jesus is Lord.”

     This becomes even more evident when we note despite speaking of a variety of gifts, Paul credits them all to the same source. This common source is God, though Paul is sure to include each of the persons of the Trinity in his statement:

“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit.” (v. 4)

And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord.” (v. 5)

“There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons.” (v. 6)

In other words, if you trace the spiritual gifts back to their point of origin, you will arrive at the same place, God. Yes, the work of the Spirit yields diverse abilities, but those abilities have a shared source and a common goal. Perhaps Paul even wants us to see the Trinity as an example of what this unity amidst diversity should look like in a spiritual community. Despite being three persons, the Trinity exists as one God. We see these persons distinctly in moments like Jesus’ baptism where Jesus stands in the waters of the Jordan, the Father speaks from heaven, and the Spirit descends in the form of a dove. Three persons, yet one shared existence that strives for a common goal. We find Paul striking many of the same chords in his letter to the Ephesians when he writes:

     Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, being diligent to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you also were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6)  

     Notice that he is urging them to keep the “unity of the Spirit” (v. 3). To aid them in doing so, Paul reminds them that there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all.  You would be hard-pressed to find a place in Scripture where unity is more emphasized than here in this parade of “ones.”  And yet, amid all these “ones” we find the distinct persons of the Spirit (v. 4), Lord (or Jesus, v. 5), and God and Father (v. 6). While many in the 1st century (and later) accused the Christians of being polytheists worshipping the Father, Son, and Spirit as distinct deities, Paul refutes this.  And not only does he refute it, but he also argues that it is the diversity of persons in the Trinity that provides a framework for us to find unity.

     I state all this because it is impossible to understand the gifts of the Spirit apart from the God that bestows them. God does not grant unique manifestations of the Spirit to each believer so that the community might be fractured, and it certainly isn’t to foster competition. Rather, each person possesses a different gift because it takes a variety of gifts to achieve the one goal of bringing people to a place where they can proclaim “Jesus is Lord.” In my younger years as a teenager, I would often accompany my dad to job sites where he was working as an electrician. The only real gift I brought to the table was the ability to keep dad from being the one having to go back and forth to the truck for various tools and materials. The tools he used most frequently were kept either on his belt or in his bucket. If he was putting in an outlet, several tools might be required. If he was having to run a new wire, he might use needle-nose pliers to grab it and bring it through a hole to the outlet. Once he got the wires there, he would use the wire-cutters to trim and strip the wire to prepare it to be connected to the outlet.  Once the wires were looped around the screws of the outlet, a screwdriver was needed to tighten the screws down on the outlet, and then a drill could be used to fasten the outlet to the box on the stud. Many tools were used to create a source of power for that one location. In a similar manner, a variety of gifts might be needed to bring a person to faith. Furthermore, those gifts are likely to exist in multiple people. All these people possessing these diverse gifts are utilized in the bringing of people to faith. It is from this place of faith where they can say, “Jesus is Lord.” Just as the wire-cutters never once said “look what I did,” neither should we boast when our spiritual gifts play a part in bringing others to faith or strengthening the faith of those who already believe. Pliers accomplish nothing unless they are in the hands of a skilled tradesman. Similarly, our gifts are useless unless they are placed in the hands of the one who bestowed them.    

     Much of the Corinthians’ misunderstanding can be linked to a very selfish view of spiritual gifts. Their focus was on the visibility (or lack thereof) of the various gifts. Many wanted gifts that placed them in a prominent position. To think this way runs counter to the very purpose for which the gifts are given by shifting the spotlight off the Giver and onto us. God does not give us a portion of His Spirit so that we might exalt ourselves, but so that the world might proclaim “Jesus is Lord.”   

-Justin Simmons lives in Glenmora, LA and preaches for the Glenmora Church of Christ