“Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed…” (I Corinthians 12:1)
The church at Corinth was richly endowed with spiritual gifts (I Corinthians 1:7) – but were woefully ignorant of their true purpose. They were like children playing with new toys, without bothering to read the instructions; and the results were embarrassing to behold. Paul had to devote a large section of his letter to setting them straight on this matter….
The gifts are not to be used uncritically
Christians don’t have a monopoly of supernatural power; other religions have their prophets and healers, and pagans can have fantastic spiritual experiences. So we need to be careful, for even in a Christian meeting things may not always be what they are claimed to be (I John 4:1-3). Most (probably all) of the gifts can be counterfeited by evil spirits, or even by human beings. This may not be for any malicious reason; some people may feel ‘under pressure’ to speak in tongues, or may mis-interpret their own thoughts and desires as promptings of the Spirit.
For this reason, it is very unwise to make any of the spiritual gifts into a test of Christian faith. As Jesus Himself pointed out, it is possible for people to perform miracles in His name yet show no evidence of obedience to Him in their daily lives (Matthew 7:21-23). The proof of genuine Christianity is not the ability to speak in tongues, but allegiance to Jesus as Lord (I Corinthians 12:3).
They are to glorify Jesus
… not to draw attention to ourselves, or to our church. And they are definitely not ends in themselves – although many Christians pursue them with far more energy than they devote to getting to know Jesus.
They are for everyone
They are given to the whole church – not just to the leaders, to the mature, or to the super-spiritual, but even to the very young and to those new in the faith. They should therefore not be regarded as ‘badges’ of spiritual maturity or divine favour.
They are for ‘the common good’
They are not given to us for our own personal fulfilment or enjoyment, but for the benefit and enrichment of the whole community of believers. Possession of a gift is not a licence to ‘show off’ or to interrupt a meeting at an inappropriate moment (I Corinthians 14:26-33).
They are not natural abilities
Musical talents and other acquired skills are often spoken of as ‘spiritual gifts’, even though there is nothing supernatural about them. This is potentially misleading. However, these ‘natural’ abilities are also originally from God, and He wants to make use of them too!
They are not entitlements
“The Spirit distributes them to each one, just as He determines.” (I Corinthians 12:11) There is no reason why we should not ask for a particular gift – Paul encourages the Corinthians to seek especially the gift of prophecy (I Corinthians 14:1) – but we won’t necessarily get it! For the distribution of the gifts is entirely at the Giver’s discretion.
They are not a permanent possession
Gifts are not to be confused with ministries (although there is obviously some overlap). Gifts are usually given for use on a specific occasion, when they are needed. Some people are given the same gift repeatedly (a Biblical example is Agabus, who was recognised as having a prophetic ministry), but this can never be assumed. A spiritual gift is never our own property; it remains under the ownership of the Spirit, and He is free to give it or to take it away.
They must be used with love
Love is not ‘superior’ to the gifts, nor should it displace them. But without love, they are valueless – and, ultimately, pointless (I Corinthians 13:1,2). This is especially true of tongues and prophecy, which some Christians try to impose on other members of a congregation with a complete lack of sensitivity – thus causing offence rather then edification.
They are not the most important thing
The spiritual gifts, like the sacraments, are for this age only – they will be superfluous in the next one (I Corinthians 13:8-10). They are valuable tools for our Christian service, aids for our spiritual growth, and a foretaste of the coming Kingdom; but for that very reason, they are a reminder that it has not yet arrived. When we reach our destination, we will no longer need a means of transport. When the sun rises, the lights get turned off. And when Christ returns, the gifts (wonderful though they are) will become irrelevant.