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1 Corinthians 12: A simple explanation on Spiritual gifts, love, tongues, and unity.

A brief Guide to understanding 1 Corinthians 12 and the Gifts of the Spirit.


1 Corinthians 12 is one of the most important texts in understanding how we move and act as the Church. It is an important one to understand so I want to try to explain in here as simply and as straightforwardly as I can.


Context and what is Paul talking about:


When Paul writes in his letters he is addressing specific issues in the Churches he is writing to. The Church in Corinth had many issues. The issue that Paul had with Corinth (well, one of the issues) is found a few paragraphs before the start of 1 Corinthians 12. Paul writes in chapter 11 that when the Church gathers for communion, they have divisions among them and they don’t eat together, some get more, and some get less. He even alludes to how some think of themselves as more approved by God and more deserving. Others divided themselves along the lines of wealth and status. It is in that context that Paul writes 1 Corinthians 12. He begins it by saying, “There are different kind of gifts, but the same spirit.” And he ends the chapter by saying “ All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines”


Paul is addressing the issue (which he addresses often in his letters) that some think of themselves as more worthy, more spiritual, and religiously superior to others because of things that they have done or positions that they have earned or worked for. Paul is countering this by saying that there is no difference, that it is God who determines and God who gifts.


In verse 12 he says this “12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptised by[c] one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” He says this because, he is constantly dealing with a religious group of people, mainly those who come from the pharisees, who still seem to think that they are more spiritual than the gentile believers, because they have obeyed the laws of circumcision and the temple laws. Paul is saying something very important, by saying “We were ALL baptised by one spirit as to form one body”. All believers have the Holy Spirit and have the Gifting of the Holy Spirit, this is plain. And this is to counter the notion that some, because of things they have done, because of their own religiousness, have earned more spirit than others. This is exactly what Paul is speaking against.


The source of Spiritual gifts is made very clear and this is for the cause of humility and unity.


So because there were some that thought of themselves as more spiritual than others, Paul used the example of Spiritual gifts to humble them and to create unity.  He did this by saying that Spiritual gifts have a source and that source is not you or your religiousity.  Paul says, six different times that the Gifts of the Spirit are distributed via the Holy spirit or the will of God. He makes it very clear, as in his statement “But God has put the body together, giving greater honour to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.” And he also says “18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.”


So what we get out of this, is that Paul is saying no one should be able to say “because I have this spiritual gift or that spiritual gift, I have a greater place or a greater spirituality. What Paul writes shows us that no one can say “I have this spiritual gift because I earned it” and no one can say “I’ve earned more spiritual gifts”, but the only thing we can say is that Spiritual gifts are just that, they are gifts, given to us as God has determined, not as we have earned.


This brings us to unity, because, as Paul says, we are all gifted by the same spirit, having one lord, with one baptism and receiving the same Spirit. If someone says, my giftings are better than your giftings or my giftings show that I am spiritually superior than the other giftings that is to completely ignore everything that Paul  says verse 12-26 where he explains that all gifts and parts of the body are equally important.


What about the greater gifts?


Paul says eagerly desire the greater gifts. And that is really all he says about it here He does not tell us what the greater gifts are. But one thing we do know is who he is talking to. Paul is talking to the Church, and after spending the last whole chapter explaining how the Church is one body made up of many, but that we are ultimately one, we can see that Paul is not talking to individuals here. In fact, he made it abundantly clear that we are one body, so Paul is not talking about desiring the greater gifts for yourself, but rather that we should desire the greater gifts for the body, for the common good and for the upbuilding of the body. So Paul is saying that we should desire to have, within the body, and within the congregation people who have been gifted in those areas. He is not saying that we should try to earn or desire our way to have better gifts than others, that is clearly against what he has been speaking about through the rest of the chapter.  If that were the case than people could boast and say “I have greater gifts because I have a greater desire.”. But remember, that Paul says we get gifts of the Spirit because God has determined what gifts we need.


But what are the greater gifts. Paul doesn’t really explain this, however, he does explain the principle behind the idea of greater gifts in 1 Corinthians 13 and 14. He also sets aside two gifts, one being the greatest and one being the least. At the end of this chapter (chapter 12) he says let me show you the greater way. Then in Chapter 13 he explains love. He talks about how we can have all the gifts of the Spirit but if we don’t have love it’s not going to matter. So the principle behind the greatest gifts is love. Remember back to the beginning of 1 Corinthians 12 when we read that the gifts are given for the common good, they are given to support one another in the Church and to build one another up.


In chapter 14 he is talking about a specific kind of tongues, in this case he is talking about the unintelligible prayer language. Now Paul doesn’t deny that this exists and he doesn’t deny that it has it’s benefits, but it is a gift that is not edifying to the body. Therefore he says that it would be better for people to have the gift of prophesy or knowledge or instruction, than to have the gift of tongues. He does not say, however, that the gift on tongues is a bad thing, and in fact in verse 39 he says that we should not forbid it (Although it says that it should be done in order, with only one tongue speaker at a time, with only two or three people at the most per worship gather, and it must be interpreted and if not interpreted those speaking in tongues must keep silent [verse 27 and 28]).


The point of all of this is to say, that the greater gifts are those that are used for the others to help them and to build them up.


Does everyone get every gift?


Paul asks these questions, they are rhetorical questions which means they don’t need an answer, the answer to these questions, if you read all the rest of the chapter is “no”. He asks “29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues[d]? Do all interpret?”. This clearly says that everyone will have different gifts. In fact, Paul says “If the whole body were an eye where would the sense of hearing be. If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?”.


This becomes and issue when some claim that only true Christians will be prophets, or only real Christians will speak in tongues. This cannot be the case according to 1 Corinthians 12 as we are all gifted differently. The call here is to value those gifts equally and to focus not on the one who is gifted but the one who does the gifting. That is where unity is found. That is what Paul is calling us to do in this text in 1 Corinthians.



About the author

Erik Liljegren

Erik Liljegren

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