1 Corinthians 12:1-11


Every student of the Bible is acquainted with the paradoxical nature of the Corinthian congregation: so highly blessed but so burdened with problems.  This study is not an exhaustive treatise on that paradox, but we mention just one phase of it:  In 1:4-9 we read of the rich diet of the Gospel with which they had been served.  And in our pericope we read of the special spiritual gifts which had been bestowed on them.  We would have expected this combination of charismata to have made the Corinthians humble.  But quite the opposite is the case. In his book A Theology of the Holy Spirit, F. D. Bruner writes:  "In the next three chapters (12-14) we are face to face with the spiritual problem par excellence in Corinth."  The context makes it plain that the Corinthians were on an ego trip.  Under these circumstances Paul's self-restraint is remarkable.  And that's what makes chapter 13, the better way of love, so impressive.

This textual study will not parade all the theories which have been suggested for the contents of chapters 12 and 14 nor is the writer of these notes acquainted with all of them. We agree with Lenski who writes, with reference to verse 10:  "So much has been written about the gift of tongues that the result is a confusion, an actual Babel of tongues. In good part this is due to the extraneous material that is introduced."  Correct.

The Holy Spirit is the God of order and intelligence, not a god of confusion and nonsense. Commentators who read items into this pericope actually do God a disservice, picturing the Holy Spirit as a producer of ecstasy and confusion. That is not the picture which Jesus gives us of the Holy Spirit in John 14:16, nor that of Luke which we have in the Pentecost account, Acts 2. There we read of how the Holy Spirit came to honor Christ and to inform mankind about Him. If we keep this in mind at all times we shall guard ourselves from introducing extraneous materials into this text.

1 Corinthians 12:1 Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant.

Look at 7:1 and 8:1. In those two references and here at 12:1 Paul mentions items concerning which the Corinthians had asked questions. Note that although the Corinthians were having serious spiritual problems, Paul calls them  "brothers."  He considers this an important item.

1 Corinthians 12:2 You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols.

In this context  "pagans" means  "unbelievers."

It must be admitted that the grammar of the last part of the verse is not easy. Some of the translations differ among themselves. To understand this difficulty as an example that the Corinthians used ecstatic speech is to introduce extraneous material. And, even if this is the case, it does not prove that the Corinthians had received the gift of ecstatic speech. Paul is simply saying that while they were pagans the Corinthians were deluded. They were led away to gods who could not even speak. Some gods!!

1 Corinthians 12:3 Therefore I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says,  "Jesus be cursed,"  and no one can say,  "Jesus is Lord,"  except by the Holy Spirit.

Even among conservative Lutheran commentators there is a difference of opinion as the meaning of the first part of this verse.

Kretzmann: What he here calls 'cursing Jesus' is not only this, that a man publicly blasphemes and curses the name or person of Christ . . . but (this is done also) when any one among the Christians praises the Holy Ghost, and yet does not preach Christ correctly as the Foundation of salvation.
Lenski: The only answer that we can give is derived from the fact that when Jesus is strongly urged upon a man by the Spirit of God through the Gospel, and that man scorns to accept him as Lord, he is very apt to voice his scorn in strong language.

So much for Lutheran commentators. Morris says:  "It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that some excitable and imperfectly instructed Corinthians had distorted the thought (of Jesus being made a curse for us, Gal. 3:13) in an ecstatic utterance."  But that is extraneous to the text.

The Holy Spirit is made very prominent. First Paul tells us what the Spirit would never cause a person to do and then what the Spirit always causes believers to do. The point we are making is that

  1. the Holy Spirit is occupied entirely with telling us about Jesus Christ,

  2. bringing everything which he said to our remembrance.

The contrast between cursing and confessing Jesus tells us emphatically that the Holy Spirit and Jesus are wholly concerned about blessing, not cursing.

The blessings of the Gospel are not ecstatic confusion but orderly, simple, intelligible truths.

1 Corinthians 12:4 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit.

Verses 1-3 were introductory and laid down the principle that the Holy Spirit is completely occupied with causing people to confess that Jesus is Lord. Verses 4-11 can be divided into 4-7 and 8-11.

The word  "different kinds"  found in verses 4, 5 and 6 occurs only here in the New Testament. It is variously rendered as  "diversities,"  "differences,"  and  "varieties."  In each case the variety is contrasted with the unity. Paul is very likely not speaking about three different varieties, but uses words which treat the three from different aspects.

With the first one Paul reminds the Corinthians that they are gifts. The last four words mean:  "but the same Spirit."  Perhaps (but we cannot be dogmatic) the Corinthians were mistakenly maintaining that some of these gifts indicated more of the Holy Spirit than other gifts. In any case, Paul speaks first of the third person of the Trinity.

1 Corinthians 12:5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord.

This time Paul speaks of varieties of services. They are gifts which are to be used for service not for self-aggrandizement. And this time it is  "the same Lord."  No distinction is to be made in these varieties of services. The same Lord is behind all of them. And surely  "Lord"  means the same here as in verse 3: Jesus Christ.

Evidently the Corinthians were separating the Holy Spirit from the Lord Jesus. That is likely the reason why Paul varies the authors of these varieties among the persons of the Trinity.

Kretzmann: All the eminent endowments . . . are bestowed by the Holy Ghost, of the one Spirit . . . but always under the direction of the one Lord, Jesus Christ . . . It is in His interest that the Christians should use their gifts.
Brunner: Paul will not have deity severed as though the Spirit of the Lord went beyond the Lord himself! What the Spirit does is exactly what the Lord does; the Spirit's work is not an additional or special work beyond the Lord's ; the Spirit IS the Lord at work. . . . Paul used every means possible to preserve the living inner relationship of the Spirit to and for Christ, of the spiritual to and for grace, and of individual endowment to and for the church.

1 Corinthians 12:6 There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.

Here we have varieties of energies, operations or performances but behind them is the same God.

Lenski: All three of the persons are involved in all three of the relations. This is formulated dogmatically 'The outer workings of the Trinity are undivided and common to all three.'

Here outer working are opposed to the inner relationship of the members of the Trinity to each other. Note again, the same Spirit, the same Lord, the same God. The three persons of the Trinity work the same varieties of gifts, of services and of operations.

Morris: The Corinthians had apparently used the gifts as a means of fomenting division. They regarded the possession of such gifts as a matter of pride, and set up one against another on the basis of the possession or otherwise of this or that gift. Paul insists that this is the wrong attitude. Though he recognizes that there is diversity in the endowments conferred by the Spirit, yet it is the same Spirit. The Spirit does not fight against Himself. The gifts He gives to one are to set forward the same divine purpose as the different gifts He gives to another.

And the Lord and the Father do not fight among themselves. One is not more spiritual than another. In the same way, some of the people cannot insist that they have more power or more spirituality than others have.

1 Corinthians 12:7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.

Paul is evidently implying that the gifts were being used for self-aggrandizement instead of for the common good of all. Also, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit manifest themselves to each one for the common good.

1 Corinthians 12:8 To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit,

What has been stated briefly in verses 4-6 is now expanded, with the mention of a number of gifts which the Spirit gives.

What do  "utterance of wisdom"  and  "utterance of knowledge"  mean? The Nestle Greek text has a reference to 2:6ff:  "Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away; but we speak God's wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom, which God predestined before the ages to our glory; the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for if they had understood it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory."

The utterance of wisdom and the utterance of knowledge evidently refer to the Gospel and its application.  That is the Spirit's highest gift to men.  When Jesus ascended He prayed the Father to send the Spirit to the world to teach men about Christ and salvation.

Kretzmann: Word of wisdom: he had an exceptionally thorough knowledge of the great truths of Scripture, of the mystery of the Gospel. Work of understanding: he had the gift of applying the Word of God to individual cases in life, to throw light upon them in a proper way.
Lenski:  We have in 1:30 defined 'wisdom' as consisting of all the gracious, heavenly, and efficacious thoughts of God embodied in Christ Jesus, for the enlightenment of our souls.  As this wisdom is embodied in Christ Jesus, so likewise it consists in the Gospel.

1 Corinthians 12:9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit,

Note that the first time He is called  "the same Spirit"  and the second time  "the one Spirit."

Everyone is agreed that  "faith"  here denotes not saving faith but heroic faith. Morris remarks:  "Probably he has in mind a special faith which is associated with miraculous operations (13:2)."

Lenski From Matthew 7:22 it appears that this wonder-working faith may be found also in nominal Christians who are devoid of saving faith . . . We must not think that healing and miracles were worked at will by the person concerned. In each instance a specific intimation came to them from the Spirit. . . . Peter and John healed the lame man at the Gate Beautiful in Acts 3:1. The case of the damsel that cried after Paul in Philippi is equally plain, Acts 16:16. A third plain case is that of Peter at Joppa, Acts 9:36. In each instance the gift of the energy is bestowed for that case alone by a communication from above. Lacking such communication, even the apostles made no attempt to perform a miracle.

1 Corinthians 12:10 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.

This verse speak of five gifts or energies. The first is  "working of powerful deeds."  This word is often used of Jesus' miracles in the Gospels. The miracles of Jesus proved that He was the Son of God. The signs, wonders and miracles in the apostolic age corroborated the truth of the Gospel message, see Hebrews 2:4.

Next we have  "prophecy."  In the Scriptures this word can denote either the God-given ability to foretell the future or the God-given ability to forthtell the Word of God.

Morris: The emphasis is not on prediction, but on setting forth what God has said. His point is that the Spirit gives to some the ability to utter inspired words, which convey the message of God to the hearers.

Next we have  "distinguishing between spirits."  This gift causes one to distinguish between false and true teachers. All Christians are told to do so in 1 John 4:1.

Morris: But there must have been occasions in the early Church when it was very difficult to know the origin of spirits, and from this verse we find that some had a special gift of discernment in this matter.
At that time the Christians did not have the benefit of the many years of theological thought and literature which we now enjoy. They needed special assistance from God.

Next we have  "kinds of languages."  The topic of languages in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 has caused endless discussion and literature. Space does not allow us to quote Lenski's pertinent observations. On Pentecost Day the Holy Spirit gave the apostles the ability to speak in other known languages. Why? To preach the Gospel.

And finally we have the gift of the interpretation of languages.

Lenski: Interpretation is the last and thus the lowest of all the gifts. It utilizes a natural ability by sanctifying it and employing it for spiritual ends.
Kretzmann: The ability to translate the unknown language for the benefit of the congregations, for the edification of the hearers.

1 Corinthians 12:11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.

"All these"  refers to the nine items listed in verses 8-10.  "Work of"  emphasizes the fact that though the gift is worked through a person, only the Holy Spirit can cause, can energize the individual.  "The one and the same"  likewise eliminates any possibility of the gift arising out of the person himself.  "Just as He wills"  is important.

Rienecker: He gives not according to the merit or wishes of men, but according to his own will.

There are those who claim today that they can acquire certain of these gifts by persistent prayer. One has the lingering suspicion that they are trying to foist their own will on the Holy Spirit. Verse 11 is an amazing statement. it shuts out every possibility of mere men misinterpreting what God says here through the Apostle Paul.

Kretzmann quoting Walther: Of the gifts here mentioned by the apostle 'four have disappeared entirely out of the Christian Church, the other five are still to be found, though in a smaller measure. The gift to heal without the application of medicines, the gift to perform other miracles, the gift to speak strange languages without previous study and use, and finally the gift to interpret such languages as one has never learned, have disappeared entirely.'

In Hebrews 2:1-4 we are told that the Gospel which was first spoken by Jesus and affirmed by those who heard it was corroborated by the signs, wonders, miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit. God deemed this necessary in a day when the church did not yet have the New Testament in the form in which we now have it.


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series C Epistle Texts, Festival Season Sundays, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1985, pp. 29-33. Used with permission.

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