The Most Important Spiritual Gift (I Corinthians 12:4-7)
I. “Maximum Fulfillment... Minimum Frustration”
As we look together at God's word today, let me read to you the opening line of one online guide and survey regarding 'spiritual gifts'. This assessment was one that I subsequently found on dozens and dozens of church and ministry websites. Here's that opening line...
“Discovering and exercising your God-given spiritual gifts allows you to experience maximum fulfillment with minimum frustration in your Christian life and ministry.”
Consider the focus of that introduction. Maybe you've heard something similar in regard to this topic. Maybe you've never thought about or have always had questions about this topic of spiritual gifts. Whatever your experience, let's dive into this subject this morning by turning to I Corinthians 12. Our main text this morning will be verses 4-7.
II. The Passage: “To Each is Given” (12:4-7)
Before we look at our main verses this morning, it's important to note that the main topic in this chapter (really, in this section that includes chapters 12-14... the main topic here) is perfectly clear. Look at the very first verse of I Corinthians 12...
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed.
This section is Paul's response to the Corinthian church's questions to him about “spiritual gifts” (notice these are spiritual gifts, not talents, interests, or skills someone's acquired). But as we'll see this morning, Paul will use this subject to guide them back to far more important ideas. But with that topic of “spiritual gifts” in mind, look at what Paul tells them in verses 4-7...
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;  and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord;  and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
So I think our best way into this passage is to explore (in light of the context) three of the phrases we find in the verses we just heard. So first, consider with me the repeated phrase...
1. “There are Varieties”
Paul uses that phrase three times in verses 4-6 (do you see that?)... “there are varieties of gifts... there are varieties of service... there are varieties of activities”. “Gifts... service... activities”. Please notice how all three of those terms are used to give us a fuller picture of ministry in the church. “Gifts... service... activities”. But why this emphasis on the fact that there are varieties (or as some translations render it, “different kinds” of “gifts... service... activities”)?
Well, when you read chapters 12-14, I think an answer becomes clear: apparently there were some in this church who were arguing that one of these gifts, specifically speaking in tongues (i.e., speaking in other languages), was the only true gift, or at least, the only gift that actually mattered. This misguided emphasis is evident from the fact that Paul spends twenty-four out of eighty-four verses in this section correcting their thinking about speaking in tongues. You can find that correction in verses 2-25 of chapter 14.
But even if another gift was in view, it's clear that some specific gift or service or activity is being exalted in this faith family. That seems to be precisely what Paul is arguing against in the opening lines of his famous human body analogy in chapter 12. Look down at 14-19...
For the body does not consist of one member [i.e., one gift, service, or activity] but of many.  If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.  And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?  But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.  If all were a single member, where would the body be?
Why is Paul emphasizing “varieties” in 12:4-6? Because like a human body, the body of Christ, the Church, is composed of a variety of individual parts, with a variety of different functions. These are the different, individual believers and there are different “gifts... service... activities”, just as Paul is describing in our main text. And we find Paul detailing these differences in verses 8-10, and verses 28-30. That's where you'll find the Apostle providing examples of these different gifts and activities and roles (i.e., offices) within the church. But his emphasis on these “varieties” has to be balanced with the next phrase we'll consider from our main passage.
2. “But the Same”
Look again at verses 4-6 of chapter 12. Though “there are varieties” of “gifts... service... [and] activities” within the church, “the same Spirit... the same Lord... the same God” is behind all of it... or as Paul puts in verse 6, it's “the same God who empowers them all in everyone.”. And Paul's emphasis on the unity in this diversity is crystal clear a few verses later in 12:11–13...
All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.  For just as the body [i.e. the human body] is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free [there's more diversity!]—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
Did you notice how many times Paul used the word “one” in that passage? Six times in three verses! Six times Paul wants to drive home the fact that no matter who you are, no matter where you came from, no matter the gift, no matter the service, no matter the activity, we are “one body” in Christ. And maybe more important in this context, it is “the same Spirit” who distributes and empowers the “gifts... service... [and] activities” within the church; in every single believer!
So why is Paul needing to emphasize this? Well, Paul tells us in 14:12 that the Corinthians were “eager for manifestations of the Spirit”, and that some it seems, in light of 14:37, considered themselves to be “spiritual”, most likely in an elitist (in a 'I'm better than you' kind of) way.
So if some were emphasizing “manifestations” of the Spirit, and also thought their spiritual gift was the only gift that mattered, then these individuals must have believed that they alone possessed the Holy Spirit; or that they had more of the Spirit than others.
But Paul offers a wonderful correction to this mindset right at the outset of chapter 12. Look at what Paul tells us at the end of v. 3 about the clearest evidence of the Holy Spirit's presence and power, “...no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.” Who possesses the Spirit and how is he manifested above all? In everyone who confesses Jesus Christ as Lord!
Please keep in mind what we learned last time about what was happening in this local church. The very first issue that Paul addressed with the Corinthian Christians in chapter 1 of this letter was the issue of... divisions within the church; factions... cliques. So as Paul emphasizes these realities of “one body” and “one Spirit”, he is again speaking the truth in love to a fractured or fracturing church. He's clear in 12:24b–26 about the practical application of his emphasis here...
...But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
That beautiful picture leads us to consider a final phrase from our main passage...
3. “For the Common Good”
Look again at 12:7... “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Though many in Corinth were thinking about themselves, about their own 'importance'... or their own 'unimportance', Paul wants them to focus on “the common good”. This emphasis on the well-being of the entire church is apparent all throughout chapter 14. Look there, if you would.
It's clear from the outset that Paul wants them to focus on (v. 3) speaking “to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.” Again, in the very next verse, he wants them to be concerned with that which “builds up the church” (v. 4). The goal is stated again in verse 5... “that the church may be built up.” Following his own example, Paul wants each believer to be asking (v. 6) “how will I benefit you”, and to be concerned when (v. 17) “the other person is not being built up.” This is why Paul, near the end of the chapter, summarizes his instructions like this (v. 26)... “Let all things be done for building up.” In fact, Paul's corrective couldn't be clearer than what we find in 14:12, “So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.”
And what should motivate this focus on the other, on building up, on the common good? That's where chapter 13 figures into the equation. Our motivation in all this should be love. No matter what “gifts... service... activities” I'm engaged in, if I don't have love, (13:2) “I am nothing”. If I don't have love, (13:3) “I gain nothing.”
Speaking of “manifestations of the Spirit”, how will these Corinthians Christians know if they truly have love? Well, Paul provides a kind of barometer in verses 4-7 of chapter 13. He says, “If you are living in love with one another (as God has called you to do), then you will be 'patient and kind' with one another. You will 'not envy or boast', or be 'arrogant or rude'. You will not 'insist on [your] own way'. You will not be 'irritable or resentful', nor will you 'rejoice at wrongdoing'. Instead, when you are living in love, you will '[rejoice] with the truth'. You will '[bear] all things... [believe] all things... [hope] all things... [and][endure] all things' with one another.
III. The 'Why' Over the 'What'
So what have we learned about I Corinthians 12-14? We've learned that misunderstandings about the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts were being used to fuel factionalism in this church.
Some seemed to be looking down on others because they did not possess certain “gifts”, or fulfill a certain kind of “service”, or engage in certain “activities”, all of which were apparently thought to require more of the Spirit (or that some of these “gifts” or “service” or “activities” were sure signs of the Spirit's presence, while others were not). And as result of this misguided mindset, others seemed to be looking down on themselves. Instead of each person, in love, seeking that which would build up their brothers and sisters, the Corinthians seemed focused on their own encouragement and their own status within the church.
But what about us today? What would God have us take from these chapters? I feel confident in saying that God wants us to take from these chapters the very same corrections and encouragements that Paul hoped his first readers would embrace. To put it simply, when it comes to spiritual gifts, service, and activities within the church, God wants us to be less concerned about the 'what', and more concerned about the 'why'.
First, let me share a couple of thoughts about the 'what'. I think there's good reason to believe the lists that we find in this section, along with lists we find in other NT letters, are not exhaustive. Therefore, Paul doesn't provide these examples of “gifts... service... activities” so that the Corinthians can do an assessment and figure out which gift or gifts they have. I think Paul provides these examples simply to remind them of the many different ways the Spirit is at work among God's people. In fact, in many cases, I think different people at different times are used by the Spirit to fulfill different roles. That's why Paul can say on one hand, “not all have this or that gift”, but on the other hand, “seek this or that gift” and “I wish you all would do this”. Is there value in understanding the different examples listed here? Absolutely. But sadly, too many people have gotten stuck on trying to figure out their own 'what' in regard to gifts, or debating about the 'what' of a gift, and in doing so, have minimized the far more important 'why'.
So as we've already seen, the 'why' here is not about “discovering and exercising your God-given spiritual gifts [so you can] experience maximum fulfillment with minimum frustration in your Christian life and ministry.” No, the 'why' here is not about you. It's about the “common good”. The most important thing you'll ever hear about spiritual gifts is this: (14:12) “strive to excel in building up the church”. (2x) Therefore, what is the most important spiritual gift, service, or activity when it comes our shared ministry and our life together? Some might say the “higher gifts” that Paul mentions in 12:31, gifts like prophesy; which Paul goes on to emphasize in chapter 14. But if these spiritual gifts really are manifestations of the Spirit, then the most important gift has to be any gift, service, or activity that builds up my brothers and sisters in love. It's because of that truth that Paul emphasizes prophecy, that is, sharing that word that God gives you for another brother or sister, or for the faith family.
Fellow believers, friends, we need to give thanks for the diverse and amazing ways that the Spirit of God works through fellow believers to strengthen the church. Amen? Just think about the variety of people God has used in your own life, in a variety of ways. Let's also guard our hearts in light of temptations to pigeonhole the Spirit and wrongly elevate ourselves or others. And most important, let us “strive” every Sunday and throughout the week to be servants of Jesus who, in love, are always focused on (14:3) “upbuilding and encouragement and consolation”. What should that look like in your life? Chapter 12-14 are a good place to start when it comes to fleshing that out. And as we “desire” (12:31) and “pursue” (14:1) and “strive” (14:12), let us do so with the same recognition Paul mentions in 15:10, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” Praise God for the gospel of grace, that not only brings us to Jesus, and puts us in Jesus, but that also makes us his body... even empowering to love one another (and others!) with that same excellent love.
More in Our Bible Reading Plan (2021-2022)
October 2, 2022Visions of Jesus (Revelation 19:9-10)
September 25, 2022Why Justice is Worth Singing About (Revelation 15)
September 18, 2022How to Conquer the Dragon (Revelation 12:11)