Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12:8-11 Gifts point to the Spirit, not to us

1 Corinthians 12:8-11

8 To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.

This section of Pauls argument actually begins with verse 7, a verse we first discussed in the previous post: Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. After making this summary statement, Paul enumerates some of the gifts (1 Cor. 12:8-10). Some believe that Paul puts the gift of tongues last to counter an overemphasis on it in Corinth, but others think not. Either way, it is plain that Pauls list only includes gifts that can be seen publicly. Anthony Thiselton explains: The Spirit is at work where the public manifestation serves the common advantage of others, and not merely self-affirmation, self-fulfillment, or individual status.[1]

We will proceed mainly with brief statements about the nature of certain gifts in the list; a diversity of opinion exists about many of them. One reason for these differences of opinion is that many have tried to impose on First Corinthians certain dualistic categories like natural and supernatural that did not take on their current meaning until about 1700.[2] What does that statement mean? In the world of the first century, Christians rightly considered God to be involved in all aspects of life, both the natural and supernatural, as we might call them today. But, in our contemporary culture, many people take the term natural to mean something occurring in nature or produced by nature, without any thought of Gods involvement. If you look up the term supernatural in a modern dictionary, its primary meaning is relating to existence outside the natural world and we find no mention of God or his power until definitions three and four.[3]

An example of these dualistic categories could be schools. Our contemporary public schools avoid mention of God and generally offer natural explanations within every subject area. A school in Roman Corinth would have been baffled by the idea that God or the gods could be left out of any subject. Healing and sickness are also topics where many today might look for a solely natural explanation or treatment, but the citizens of Roman Corinth would never have discounted the involvement of God or the gods. These ideas affect how a commentator approaches the grace-gift of healing (1 Cor. 12:9) or that of performance of miracles (1 Cor. 12:10), among others. We must start with the viewpoint of Roman Corinth to understand what Paul would have meant in a message to the people living there.

We begin the gifts-list with the phrase message of wisdom (1 Cor. 12:8). The Christians in Roman Corinth had been accustomed to understand wisdom in terms of Greek philosophy, but Paul has already scorned human wisdom in comparison to the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:18-2:5). Thiselton explains what Paul meant by wisdom: Wisdom, in this context, becomes an evaluation of realities in the light of Gods grace and the cross of Christ. . . . Wisdom relates to building up the community for the common advantage of all through appropriation of the power and lifestyle of Christ.[4]

The phrase message of knowledge is more difficult to explain. It seems reasonable to think that the knowledge in view here is that which God has revealed through Christ. This knowledge would be essential to living a life in imitation of Christ (1 Cor. 11:1).

To another the Spirit gives faith, and this cannot be a reference to saving faith, because that is something every Christian must have to become a Christian. David Garland rightly reminds us that Internal trust in God results in external results.[5] Since faith is a response to what God has said or done, perhaps the Spirit gives particular boldness to some to lead the way in implementing what God has said.

The phrase gifts of healing (1 Cor. 12:9b) would probably be more understandable when rendered as various kinds of healing (Thiselton). Thiselton correctly adds, The kinds may appear to include sudden or gradual, physical or mental, [and] the use of medicine or more direct divine agency.[6] Thiselton includes a well-worded Anglican statement which warns us against thinking it is sinful for a Christian to be ill and against making the person seeking healing believe that their own faith is the determining factor in a favorable outcome. Christianity does not advocate some magical process that always results in healing.

Verse 10 is a real bear! The first gift is translated by most English versions as miraculous powers and that is certainly one possibility for Greek words that mean deeds of power or powerful deeds. Thiselton explains, The text leaves open whether these powers or deeds of power are restricted to the miraculous or simply may include the miraculous where otherwise they would not be effective ones.[7] God certainly works miracles; the question is whether the acts accomplished through this gifted person must always be so awesome as to be translated as miraculous.

Next in verse 10 we have the gift of prophecy, a much debated term. Again, we follow Thiselton, who summarizes by saying: Prophecy, as a gift of the Holy Spirit, combines pastoral insight into the needs of persons, communities and situations with the ability to address these with a God-given [message] . . . leading to challenge or comfort, judgment or consolation, but ultimately building up the addresses.[8] This can mean, as it does in our church, a sermon. Thiselton points out that few churches appear to test or challenge preaching from the pulpit as was probably the case in Roman Corinth. Discussion within small groups allows for such testing today.

Our extended discussion of tongues and their interpretation will wait until 1 Corinthians 14. We will note here only that tongues is a gift plainly not given to all or demanded as proof of salvation (1 Cor. 12:10b).

Pauls list of gifts given by the Holy Spirit was not intended to be exhaustive. But the ones he does list are not available for anyone to claim; they are distributed according to the desire of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:11). For the strong to exalt themselves over others by claiming a gift of the Holy Spirit — possibly one they were not given — is a presumptuous act. We can hope that someone with the gift of wisdom told them what result their audacity would bring.

Copyright 2013 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas.


[1] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 936.

[2] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 946.

[3] supernatural, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th edition (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2011) q.v.

[4] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 93940.

[5] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 581.

[6] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 948.

[7] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 953.

[8] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 964.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!

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