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By Dr. Craig S. Keener

Some kinds of church bodies accept only particular kinds of gifts, hence they amputate certain kinds of members. Other kinds of churches pile together the amputated members and celebrate that they are an ideal body. Yet ideally, a body that is whole welcomes all its members.


Some value teaching but disregard prophecy (1 Thess 5:20); some exalt tongues but resent teaching; and so forth. We need to appreciate all the gifts. By definition, gifts given by God’s grace are good. We just need to make sure that we use them in the right ways!



SuperSmallFall19Building up Christ’s Body

We should, therefore, keep in mind the purpose of gifts: to build up Christ’s body. God gives us gifts, especially to minister to others. If we use them to boast of our superiority, we abuse them. We dare not despise others’ gifts, no matter how small they seem. Nor dare we minimize the value of our own gifts.

In explaining this point, Paul waxes eloquent. Many Corinthian Christians were unimpressed with Paul’s rhetoric, so he uses here the rhetorical technique called anaphora: three times he repeats, but varies, the same sort of expression: “varieties of … but the same” (12:4-6). Then he offers his thesis in 12:7: “But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (NASB). Then he again uses rhetorical repetition, linking diverse gifts with the phrase, “to another …” (12:8-10, varying the Greek terms for “another”). In 12:11, he returns to “the same Spirit,” as in 12:4, bracketing the entire section.

Then he elaborates on the point that the body works as one, yet has many members (12:12, 14, 20, 27). He dwells on this point at length; dwelling on a point was an approach that orators used when they wanted to reinforce a matter. Paul takes his body metaphor to grotesquely graphic lengths: we don’t want our eye or foot declaring independence from our body! Today, we might even think of tissues that become harmful to the rest of the body, as in the case of cancers or gangrene (cf. 2 Tim 2:17). God forbid that any of us should become gangrene to the rest of the body of Christ! We should use our gifts to serve the rest of the body, and also recognize that we ourselves need the rest of the body and its gifts.

We don’t routinely amputate members of our body because we think some less important than the others. We don’t tear out some members because we think, “That one’s dispensable! Oh, here, I’ve got two eyeballs, let me get rid of one!” We don’t normally regard any of our members as dispensable, because all of them have functions that contribute to the whole. Indeed, Paul says, we work harder to protect weaker members and to clothe the less public members (12:22-26).

Paul goes on to note gift-roles in 12:28-30. Of these, he ranks only the first three: apostles, prophets, and teachers. The others are unranked, although Paul probably lists tongues last because of its abuse in Corinth (1 Cor 14).


The Way of Love 

1 Corinthians 12 and 1 Corinthians 14 are about spiritual gifts, and it’s no coincidence that chapter 13 lies right between them. (Those of you who are good with math may have already noticed this pattern.) 1 Corinthians 13 is no mere abstract treatise on love, despite Paul’s use of epideictic rhetoric here to praise the character of love. 1 Corinthians 13 is showing why love is central in the proper use of spiritual gifts.

We should note the verses that frame Paul’s elaboration about love: 1 Corinthians 12:31 and 1 Corinthians  14:1. These verses are explicit that we can seek for spiritual gifts; it is not simply a matter of what we are born or born again recognizing, but we can pray for God to give us particular gifts (1 Cor 12:31; 1 Cor 14:1, 39). (God is, of course, sovereign in which ones He gives us, knowing what is best for the body as a whole; 12:7.) But Paul is also clear which gifts we should particularly seek. Love seeks the best gifts—best being defined by love as those gifts that build up the body.

Paul demonstrates that, without love, use of gifts is worthless. Gifts are valuable, but we abuse them if we do not deploy them to serve and love. In 1 Corinthians  13:1-3, Paul declares that love is greater than all God’s gifts to us; in modern terms, love rather than unmerited gifts is a sign of “spirituality.” (Even if love, too, is a fruit of God working within us; Gal 5:22; 1 John 4:19.)

Paul uses hyperbole, or rhetorical overstatement, here to reinforce his point graphically. Even if I spoke in all tongues, communicating in all languages, I would be nothing without love! (Most Anglo Americans speak just one language. Most of my African friends speak three or four. But even if we spoke all languages …) Having all knowledge—a status that not even the world’s greatest scholars dare claim—and all faith so as to move mountains (a hyperbole borrowed from Jesus), would not grant us status before God. Even if we work hard to develop these gifts, these skills are gifts, not merits, and they are worthless without love.

The point, of course, is not that God’s gifts are bad. God’s gifts are by definition good. But if we use them only to honor ourselves and not to build up Christ’s body, if we deploy them selfishly, rather than to serve lovingly, we miss the point for which God gave us the gifts. He gives us gifts so we can participate together as Christ’s body in building one another up, in being agents of God for one another.

In 1 Corinthians  13:4-7, Paul describes what love is like. Sometimes we think that Paul is merely praising love. He is praising love, but he is also implicitly reproving the Corinthians. Love is not jealous (zêloi; 13:4)—but the Corinthians are (3:3). Love is not arrogant (phusioô; 13:4)—but the Corinthians are (4:6, 18-19; 5:2). Love does not seek for oneself (ou zêtei ta heautês; 13:5); in 10:24 Paul exhorts the Corinthians to seek not for oneself, but for others (i.e., not one’s rights, but preventing others from stumbling).

Paul again waxes eloquent with rhetorical patterning in 13:7: four times he begins with panta (“all things”). Love, he declares, puts up with all things (13:7a). This evokes Paul’s earlier example of himself in 9:12: he puts up with all things (using the same term, stegô) to prevent others from stumbling.


The Perfect Forever vs. The Limited Present

Again putting the gifts in context, in 1 Corinthians 13:8-13, Paul emphasizes that the gifts are only for the present time, whereas love is eternal. The gifts are partial, so we will not need them when we enjoy the fulness of God’s presence. I won’t need someone to correct my faults prophetically when I no longer have faults. I won’t need to study for my Bible exams when I know fully as I am known.

Paul offers three key examples of gifts that he elsewhere highlights in this letter: prophecies, tongues, and knowledge (13:8-10). From 1 Corinthians 1:5, we see that the Corinthians highly valued knowledge, along with speech (1:5). Their culture helped make such gifts appealing: the rest of Corinth highly valued philosophy (wisdom) and rhetoric (oratory). But whether in Corinth or for us today, especially for those of us who teach others, loving others matters more than boasting in theological knowledge (8:1-3, 7, 10-11). If we use our knowledge to show students how smart we are, to make them feel inferior, or worst of all, to cause these little ones to stumble, we abuse our gift.

People debate about the meaning of “word of knowledge” in 1 Cor. 12:8. The tradition that has commonly arisen in charismatic circles is that it applies to special knowledge of someone’s sickness, sin, or the like. Certainly God can do that, and that sort of insight appears in many biblical examples. More often, however, the Bible would present that as an expression of prophecy.

“Word of knowledge” in 1 Corinthians  12:8 uses the same Greek words as “speech” and “knowledge” in 1:5, and probably refers to speaking knowledgeably (related to gift of teaching; 12:28-29; 14:6). We dare not boast in this gift, for one day it will pass away. When Jesus returns, I will no longer be a teacher; everyone will know the Lord equally (cf. Jer 31:34). I have the gift now to serve Christ’s body, but it is not my eternal identity. One time when I was worshiping, I felt like God was commending me for my diligent labors for Him. But then I felt something far more beautiful: I will not always be a teacher, or this gift or that gift. But I will always be His son. 


Love is Forever

The gifts pass away at Jesus’ return (13:8, 10, 12) not because they are bad or in the present unnecessary. They pass away because they are surpassed by something infinitely more wonderful. Our knowledge and prophesying are partial (13:9). (Consider, for example, John the Baptist’s uncertainty regarding Jesus’ identity, or people saying to Paul “through the Spirit” that he should not go to Jerusalem.) Partial gifts are no longer needed when we experience full knowledge—when we see our glorious Lord face to face (13:12; cf. Jer. 31:31-34). Gifts are valuable for the present, but they are resources for the greater objective: serving one another in love.

The Corinthians would concede Paul’s point that what is eternal matters more than what is temporary (13:11-12). Greek thinkers rightly valued eternal over temporal. Paul compares our state in the present era to being like a child; someday we will have full maturity in Christ (13:11; cf. Eph 4:13). Then, Paul says, we will see Jesus face to face (1 Cor. 13:12). Now we see dimly as in a mirror. Corinth was famous for its bronze, which was used in the best mirrors. The best mirrors then were not, however, as good as our mirrors today: one would merely see dimly. Paul’s language recalls the Greek translation of Numbers 12:7-8, which contrasts Moses with other prophets: Moses saw God face to face (comparatively speaking), not in riddles.

When Jesus returns, all will be revealed (3:12-15; 4:5; 11:26; 15:22-57; 16:22). Thus, Paul says, you need not lack any spiritual gift while you await Christ’s revealing (1 Cor. 1:7). We share our gifts with others to help prepare Christ’s body to be ready as His bride. But once He appears, He will perfect us fully.


Sample Lists

Paul gives various lists of gifts. They seem to be samples of gifts—the list is not limited, as some teach, to nine gifts. Paul lists the gifts most at issue in Corinth.

In Eph 4:11, where the focus is primarily on Word-gifts, he emphasizes one body (4:4, 12, 16), and lists apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers. In Romans 12:4-8, Paul emphasizes, as in Ephesians  4 and 1 Corinthians 12, that we are one body with many members (Rom 12:4-5). As also in 1 Corinthians 12, in Romans  12:6 he indicates that these gifts are given to us according to grace (charis). The gifts he notes include (for example): prophecy, teaching, giving, leading, and so forth.

In 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, Paul lists such gifts as speaking wisdom and knowledge; miracles; and again (as always in his lists) prophecy. As in Romans 12, this is because we are one body with many members (12:12). Then again in 1 Corinthians  12:28-30, he lists gifts, because, he says in 12:27, we are one body with many members (12:27). Here he lists, for example, apostles, prophets, teachers, miracles. In 1 Corinthians  13:1-2, he lists tongues, prophecy, knowledge, and faith. In 1 Corinthians 13:8-9, he lists prophecies, tongues, and knowledge.

In 1 Corinthians 14:6, he lists as valuable for public use among believers prophecy, teaching, and in context, tongues, if accompanied with interpretation. In 1 Corinthians 14:26, he includes contributing to worship (with psalms), teaching, prophetic revelation, tongues, and interpretation.

We can elaborate here a few specific examples. I have already noted “word of knowledge.” All have some knowledge and some faith, but some have a special enablement. Moving mountains (1 Cor 13:2), for example, suggests an extraordinary gift of faith.

That healings (1 Cor 12:9, 28, 30) serves the body is obvious. Although they may overlap, healings differ from “signs” (dominant in the Gospels and Acts), the primary objective of which is evangelism. Healings can be, but unlike signs need not be, dramatic; if a person recovers gradually or through medical attention, we still thank God for answering our prayer. Some problems inhibited this gift in Corinth. In a congregation divided by social class and arrogance, this gift was blocked by failing to discern Christ’s body (11:29), thus allowing much sickness (11:30).

When we pray for healing, we should pray with confidence in the Lord who delighted to restore people’s health when He was on earth. Nevertheless, many of us are familiar with times that people pray for healing and do not experience it (though usually they receive some sort of blessing). This is not a new experience. The Bible mentions some who were not healed, treating it just in passing because it is the ordinary state of affairs when God does not act in a special way through His people. Paul had some sort of bodily infirmity when he ministered in Galatia (Gal 4:13), and Epaphroditus, though he survived, was sick close to the point of death before he recovered (Phil 2:27). Paul had to leave Trophimus at Miletus because he was too ill to travel (2 Tim 4:20). Elisha died of sickness (2 Kgs 13:14), but was so full of God’s power that when Israelites threw a corpse on top of his bones, the corpse came back to life (13:21).

Jesus used healings as a foretaste of the kingdom (cf. Matt 12:28//Luke 11:20). Thus, when John the Baptist asks whether He is really the expected kingdom-bringer, Jesus replies by appealing to His acts, healings, and preaching good news to the poor as signals of the promised future restoration (Matt 11:5//Luke 7:22; Isa 35:5-6; 61:1). But we don’t yet have the full consummation of the kingdom. Thus, even Jairus’ daughter, Lazarus, or others raised from the dead in the New Testament died again. Healings in this life are by definition temporary, as we await our resurrected bodies. All nineteenth-century people of faith, no matter how often they got healed, are no longer walking among us. But when God heals anyone, it is a blessing to all of us, a reminder of His promise to us of complete healing of ourselves and a new heaven and a new earth, a restoration that Jesus purchased by His own suffering on the cross.

I can also make some comments about tongues, the abuse of which Paul addresses at length in 1 Corinthians 14. Keep in mind, though, that Paul really likes this gift: 14:18 tells us that Paul does it a lot. But he does it privately, rather than interrupting the service loudly with a tongue and no interpretation. Personal prayer in tongues is good, with or without interpretation; Paul says that it edifies oneself (14:4). Edifying oneself is good; that is why we study the Bible devotionally (not just for sermon preparation) or pray personally, as well as in church.

But, of course, Paul’s emphasis in 1 Corinthians 12-14 is what we can do to edify the body; when tongues is addressed to the whole church, it needs to be coupled with interpretation. What matters most in the gathered assembly is edifying others, so prophecy is more important unless tongues is interpreted. The same principle applies to any kind of speech: if I am preaching, I had better make sure I use my time to meet people’s needs and not just to show off. (That is, I would be wise to be prepared and not just waste everybody’s time.)

Paul approaches tongues from a somewhat different angle than Acts (Acts 2:4; 10:46; 19:6). In Acts, Luke shows tongues’ symbolic value as a sign that God has empowered His church to speak for Him cross culturally. Paul, by contrast, explains tongues’ function for a congregation and for private prayer. When Paul prays in tongues, he explains, his spirit prays; his mind is not involved. (Sometimes I pray in tongues while doing something else with my mind.) Tongues communicates on a different level; from the depths of the heart, one’s spirit communicates on the affective (feeling) level, bypassing some of our mental defense mechanisms. I find that it helps resolve some problems I might not even admit that I was really dealing with. But while it communicates to God—God understands it—it does not communicate to others unless it is interpreted. So its function is in private prayer unless interpreted.

Paul urges us to seek gifts (12:31; 14:1, 12). Seeing needs, we can pray for gifts to meet those needs. We can seek prophecy (14:1, 39) because it builds up the body. (At least it should, in churches that make room for hearing from God in this way. The larger the church, though, the more the constraints necessary to keep everything in order during the gathering.) Likewise, we may pray for the gift of healing, out of compassion for others’ needs, just as Jesus healed from compassion.

In the end, the point is that we need to use the gifts to serve one another. Paul’s conclusion to these chapters on spiritual gifts is relevant for us (14:39-40, NRSV):

“So, my friends, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues; but all things should be done decently and in order.” 


(Adapted from Three Crucial Questions About the Holy Spirit, published by Baker Books.)


Dr. Craig S. Keener (PhD, Duke University) is the F.M. and Ada Thompson Professor of the New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is especially known for his work as a New Testament scholar on Bible background (commentaries on the New Testament in its early Jewish and Greco-Roman settings). Dr. Keener is the author of 25 books, including recent works: Galatians (Cambridge, 2018); Mind of the Spirit: Paul’s Approach to Transformed Thinking (Baker Academic, 2016); Spirit Hermeneutics: Reading Scripture in Light of Pentecost (Eerdmans, 2016); and Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011).