(A) Introduction. (Read the reference)

(1) 'Gift' is a word that carries two meanings. It can refer to a present to be enjoyed like a diamond necklace or salvation; alternatively, it can signify an ability to be used like a fine singing voice or a facility with words. In the context of our passage 'gift' carries the latter meaning.

(2) I have to expound this scripture as one with no supernatural spiritual gifts. I have absolutely no ability that the Holy Spirit gave me miraculously following conversion. This experience, one I share with so many other Christians, is obviously going to colour my interpretation of this part of Paul's letter.

(3) Thirdly, it is important to realise that Paul's teaching about spiritual abilities was prompted by a question in the letter he received from the Corinthians. I am indebted to Jerome Murphy-O'Connor for suggestions about what that question might have been.

(4) I believe Paul's reply to the question is relevant to all Christians irrespective of how they came by their abilities because it deals with the misuse of spiritual gifts.

(B) The problem Paul was addressing.

(1) Christians in Corinth participated in the life of the church, particularly the worship, without discipline. It is clear from 1Cor14v26to38 that some people were carrying on for too long, others were butting in and still others were making wild, outlandish statement about Jesus of which, "Jesus is cursed", may have been a specimen. It is highly likely that those making the more extreme, provocative announcements were trying to draw attention to themselves as radical preachers.

(2) Paul reminded the wayward Corinthians that extreme, uncontrolled, bizarre behaviour was a feature of paganism. You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. v2. When pagans met for worship on special occasions it was quite usual for fervour to be whipped up and something like mass hysteria to occur. People would fall into a trance and make wild, incoherent cries a bit like the prophets of Baal in the time of Elijah. All this had nothing to do with the Holy Spirit; it was function of the human spirit and possibly spirits more malign.

(3) It was necessary for the spiritual leaders in Corinth to distinguish between folk who were genuinely moved by the Spirit and those who either worked themselves up or were worked up by others. This remains a problem today in very charismatic churches. Speaking in tongues can be the result of a Holy Spirit induced ecstasy or it can be the outcome of an emotional high worked up during repetitive singing by a large, excitable congregation. Worse still it can be simulated to impress others!

(4) Paul gave one test that could be used to discern what was of the Holy Spirit and what was not. Therefore I tell you that no-one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, "Jesus is cursed," and no-one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit. v3.

Nobody can say or do anything by the Spirit that shows disrespect for Jesus; that contradicts his teaching or dishonours his saving work. It is very wrong, for example, to use our ability, however acquired, to promote ourselves or enhance our reputations. Jesus taught emphatically that God was not pleased when we did things to impress other people.

Christians speak and act by the Spirit whenever they proclaim, "Jesus is Lord." We manifest Jesus is Lord when our words and deeds conform to his will and purpose. Or gifts must never be used for our own gratification but to please him. The gospels are an unequivocal guide to conduct which glorifies Jesus; any departure from it is not of the Spirit.

(C) Unity in diversity.

(1) Christians have different gifts(abilities). There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit.

It is a great pity that Paul didn't recognise that spiritual abilities can be obtained in three ways:

    (a) By a supernatural operation of the Holy Spirit. The ability to speak in tongues on the Day of Pentecost and Paul's capacity to heal were wholly supernatural in origin.

    (b) From birth. Some gifts are imparted by nature like physical co-ordination and an eye for a ball. So a man may be born with the potential to become a great cricketer. However natural ability can be developed by coaching and practice.

    In the same way a woman might be born with an aptitude for music; with a good ear and a fine voice. The Holy Spirit can take this gift and use it for the glory of God.

    (c) By diligence and dedication. Some proficient cricketers are almost entirely manufactured. They have no great natural talent but by practicing assiduously acquire a better than average proficiency.

    So Christians can acquire wisdom through experience and the Holy Spirit's assistance. It is probable that Solomon was able to settle the dispute between two prostitutes about the parentage of a baby because he asked for wisdom and God endowed it supernaturally. See Kings3v16to28. Joseph, on the other hand, acquired wisdom in the hard school of life with God's help.

The ability to prophecy or preach can be acquired in exactly the same ways:

    (a) Supernaturally. A man's ability to preach might be completely of the Spirit. Perhaps this was true of Peter's first sermon on the Day of Pentecost. It is likely that the converts from London's East End that William Booth used as evangelists depended very considerably upon the Spirit for their effectiveness.

    (b) Naturally. Many preachers were competent public speakers before they were converted. There is no doubt that a pulpit orator like Charles Spurgeon had huge natural ability - a striking personality, a warmth and way with words that the Holy Spirit imparted with peculiar power and appeal. It is likely that Apollos was a preacher of the same stamp. Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit as the Advocate - the one who comes along side to help. The most naturally gifted of speakers can only benefit from the Spirit's support.

    (c) By training and hard work. It is quite possible for individuals with few natural gifts to become able preachers with advice and practice. Gradually, with help from the Spirit, delivery improves, confidence grows and effectiveness increases.

The Holy Spirit is involved in each of the three cases. I think it is very foolish to think that there is any best way! The Holy Spirit knows what he is doing! Sometimes, in unusual circumstances, it may be necessary for the Spirit to impart an ability supernaturally. I think it is more usual for him to work with us so inconspicuously that we can hardly tell his input from our own. See exposition on the Ephesus Twelve.

(2) There are many ways to serve. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. v5.

There is a huge variety of tasks we can do for Jesus. How we serve does not depend upon our ability alone. It depends, too, upon our opportunities, the needs of others and our dedication. But, the one common denominator for all effective service is its motivation; it must be for the Lord.

We should not use our ability, as did some of the Corinthians, to please ourselves - but to please Jesus. Everything we do in the church should be done in his spirit - selflessly, sacrificially and with compassion and mercy. The Lord is as satisfied with me when I teach for his sake a house group of five as he is with a popular preacher addressing thousands at a convention. Some of the Master's best teaching was done to tiny groups!

The wide variety of contributions acceptable to Jesus means that there is something everyone can do. We do not have to wait for a Pentecostal visitation from the Holy Spirit to start.

(3) There are many different outcomes. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. v6.

It is not too clear what Paul meant by this! Commentators hold different views. I suppose this could refer to the different ways the same kind of service is done. No two preachers is alike. Each has a distinct method - a unique personality, energy and outlook. However, I prefer to believe that Paul is referring to the outworking and outcome of service. Christians engaged in the same tasks experience very different results. A woman may use her ability in Christian work with success, another with less success and yet another with no success at all. Perhaps, Paul is saying that whether we serve with much, or little, success God is responsible for the outcome. As Paul later put it: So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. 1Cor3v7.

The outcome of our service should be neither cause for boasting or despair. In Christ's parable the man who gained two talents received the same reward as the man who gained five. In the final analysis it is God who gives the increase.

(D) Our abilities should be used for the benefit of everyone in the church.

(1) A great deal of fuss is made over how the gifts Paul lists are acquired. Does it matter if our ability owes more or less to the Holy Spirit? Joseph had the ability to interpret dreams - something almost entirely the gift of the Holy Spirit. He was also an incredibly able administrator - a talent he acquired in Potiphar's household and an Egyptian prison. God employed testing circumstances to develop this ability in Joseph. It is futile to argue about what was the most valuable gift - both were essential if Joseph was to carry out God's purpose.

(2) Such abilities as we possess have not been granted to us for our own benefit. Joseph employed his gifts to save his people. Paul wrote: Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. v7.

The Corinthians were flaunting their abilities to gain a reputation, win applause and feed their egos. Instead of benefiting the church the undisciplined use spiritual gifts was causing jealousy, discord and disorder.

There remains a tendency, however we believe our abilities to have been acquired, to use them for self-aggrandizement. All attempts at spiritual one upmanship or super-spirituality make me nauseous.

(3) God must take most of the credit for whatever gifts we possess for Christian service. Paul asserted: All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines. v11. I suppose Paul is thinking in the main about supernatural abilities and this means he fails to acknowledge the part played by a believer in acquiring, using and developing a capacity to serve.

Nevertheless Paul's teaching is helpful in two ways. We shouldn't fret if we lack the more creative and glamorous talents. We can be sure of having some ability with which to serve Christ and his church.

Tom Wright drew an analogy between the church and an orchestra to illustrate how the church is poorer without a contribution from every Christian. The strings are very important to the orchestra and of these the violins play a leading part. The woodwind has instruments capable of clear liquid notes and the brass with trumpets to the fore stirs the blood. There are some little regarded members of the orchestra - the tuba, triangle and timpani. However, the work of a great composer could be incomplete without an imput from the triangle.

In the same way God's great, ongoing work of redemption will be incomplete without your small but valued offering.

ANY COMMENTS FOR JOHN REED: E-mail jfmreed@talktalk.net