Gifts of the Spirit

Given all the gifts Paul named as active, the Corinthian church certainly raised a ruckus.

May 15, 2016

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Commentary on Acts 2:1-4

Given all the gifts Paul named as active, the Corinthian church certainly raised a ruckus.

It must have been a noisy place full of different sounds, moving bodies, shifting actions. After all, in 1 Corinthians 12 Paul distinguishes classes and forms of God’s active work in the community, calling it gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4), services (1 Corinthians 12:5), and activities (1 Corinthians 12:6). All are active in tandem among the membership and Paul calls the collective, “one body” (1 Corinthians 12:12, 13).

One productive way of interpreting 1 Corinthians 12:4-6 is to view it as prescribing divisions of labor or duty rather than cataloguing a diversity of spiritual possibilities. The word, diairesis, appears only in this passage and nowhere else in the New Testament (NT). In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Septuagint (LXX), its occurrences are limited to 33 references. In most of those occurrences, it connotes distinct groupings based on military (Judges 5:15), family (Joshua 19:51; 1 Chronicles 24:1), religious function (2 Chronicles 8:14; 35:10; Ezra 6:18), or ethnic (Judith 9:4) locations. Consistently, the New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS) translates the word as “divisions” (1 Chronicles 27:1-15). In the NT, Paul states that these divisions of labor and location are the work of God (energon, 1 Corinthians 12:6).

Indeed, it appears that much diversity and division characterize the Corinthian membership. While diversity is commendable and even required in Paul’s view, the social ruptures created are not. Up to this point in the letter, Paul commented on factions, denouncing it as a force that destroys, rather than unifies and strengthens, the community (1 Corinthians 1:10; 11:18). Unfortunately, the NRSV is a bit misleading on this point, translating the Greek term schismata as “division,” rather than “schism,” which is a better rendering. By the time readers arrive at 1 Corinthians 12, Paul seems adverse to schisms and factions that sort the membership into antagonistic groups.

Yet, for Paul, not all divisions are bad and destructive. The divisions instituted by God and the Spirit within the community, particularly in service to its worship and fellowship life, have merit. From verses 8-10, Paul lists the different ways God’s one Spirit works within the community. Always at the forefront of readers’ mind should be the reality that there is one Spirit of God at work in many forms. Diversity in serving (diakonia, 1 Corinthians 12:5), gifts (charismata, 1 Corinthians 12:4), and workings (energetmata, 1 Corinthians 12:6) does not detract from the simple fact that God is the source of it all. God and God’s Spirit are the ultimate equalizers in a community prone to competition and sorting itself according to power and social hierarchies.

In terms of the gifts, Paul lists nine ways the Spirit of God works in their midst. Like a seasoned persuasive communicator, Paul names first the gifts most cherished and palatable to his Corinthian audience, wise speech (logos sophia), and knowledge (gnosis, 1 Corinthians 12:8). In fact, these two elements are so strong in the community that Paul opens the Corinthian letter affirming both as mainstays. His opening thanksgiving prayer affirms the presence and workings of speech and knowledge in the community in 1 Corinthians 1:5 (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:30: 2:1, 4-7, 13).

In addition to speech and knowledge, in 1 Corinthians 12:9-10 Paul lists the following as additional manifestations of the Spirit that are in service to the common good of all: faith, gifts of healings, workings of miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, kinds of tongues, and interpretation of tongues (1 Corinthians 12:9-10).1

Paul ends the list discussing kinds of tongues and its interpretation, which foreshadows chapter 14 where Paul discusses the confusion surrounding it in the Corinthian church. Apparently, some privilege it above all other workings of the spirit and Paul must once again establish order and protocol in the Corinthian community.

Most striking, as we prepare for Pentecost, following his reference to the kinds of tongues and interpretation, Paul immediately establishes its source and in turn, its purpose (1 Corinthians 12:11-13). The source of all nine gifts, services, and manifestations is God’s Spirit. The one Spirit of God, however, is not just the source of the diversity inside the community. This spirit is also the common denominator among each member. It is not the manifestations of the spirit that is the priority, in Paul’s estimation. The most important feature is what those manifestations are to accomplish — namely oneness in the community.

The manifestation of the Spirit in their midst is to demonstrate the power of God to unify people in the midst of diversity. That diverse unity is what draws the world. Indeed, we are reminded of the Acts account of Pentecost when all the followers of Jesus are said to have been filled with the Holy Spirit and speaking as they are given the ability (Acts 2:4). What was the purpose of that selective utterance? Was it so the community could just boast about its spiritual abilities or was it something else (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:7)?

The story of Pentecost in the Book of Acts shines a light on what Paul is telling the Corinthians. The powerful proclamation of Acts 2 was public and disruptive. It moved people outside the community to pay attention and drew their unsuspecting gazes, curiosity, and astonishment (Acts 2:5-8, 12). Some of those onlookers criticized (Acts 2:13), but others welcomed the message (Acts 2:41-42) and joined in the community’s shared life of communion, fellowship, worship, belief, and action (Acts 2:43-47).

Most importantly, the Pentecost account in Acts 2 portrayed how the manifestation of the Spirit transformed the proclaimers from a motley band of spineless disciples (Luke 22:61-62; 24:5-12; 36-42) to a diverse and powerful people who grab the attention of everyone in their proximity. The manifestations of the Spirit transform members and their communities into spaces that ignite conviction and change people’s life directions. Its purpose is to embolden a community to realize it is not about the preservation or prestige of the community or its individual members that is of significance. Rather, the importance is on how effective the change on the inside of the community — with its embrace of a diverse and heterogeneous membership that is empowered by God to do great things — impacts and infects the world outside of it.

The Corinthians passage invites us into the process of imagining our communities as something different than current realities of competition, factions, and fractures. Instead of reading the story of the Corinthian Church as a message to strive for our own spiritual encounters in which each of us masters our own working of the Spirit, we should read it as a communal commitment to serve God mightily in this world. First Corinthians 12 combined with Acts 2 challenges us to shift from our personal ambitions to the vision of God’s collective. Empowered by God’s Spirit, we are called to be committed, as communities of faith, to mastering our diverse showings so that the world encounters God’s many sounds, colors, activities, services, and gifts and knows that God loves and accepts them as creations of God.


1 Robert Scott Nash, 1 Corinthians, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2009), 359-60.

Spirit of fire, your holy presence burns bright within this world. Spread your spirit throughout our communities, so that our hearts may burn with love and hope. Amen.

Like the murmur of the dove’s song   ELW 403, H82 513, UMH 544, NCH 270
Spirit of God, descend upon my heart   ELW 800, UMH 500, NCH 290
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me   UMH 393, NCH 283

Go out with joy, Hank Beebe