Miraculous Gifts - I Corinthians 12
Jon Gary Williams
Chapters 12-14 of I Corinthians have to do with properly understanding the purpose of miraculous gifts. Chapter 12 lists these gifts, chapter 13 tells of their duration, and chapter 14 tells how not to abuse them, with emphasis given to misusing the gift of speaking in foreign languages.
The spirit of divisiveness which permeates Paul's first letter to the Corinthian church can be clearly seen in chapter 12. Among the members there was envy over the relative importance of the miraculous gifts. Paul exposes the erroneous idea that some gifts were more important that others. Pride over possessing certain gifts had created contention and was harming the unity of the spiritual body of Christ.
No doubt, the purpose of these spiritual gifts was being overlooked. Some were making the claim that their gifts were more important. The apostle's message was for them to put away such nonsense. All of these gifts were important, no matter how less essential some may have appeared to be. Paul reminds them that though the gifts were diversified they all had a place to fill, having come by means of the same Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 12:5,6,11).
It should be understood that these miraculous gifts no longer exist, as well as the baptismal measure of the Holy Spirit given to the apostles. All such miraculous powers ceased with the passing of the apostles and the arrival of what Paul called "that which is perfect" (I Corinthians 13: 8-10). The "perfect" thing was God's final word to man, the "perfect law of liberty" (James 1:25; 2:12).
What Were These Gifts?
In the first century church there was a need for the use of special powers. From the very beginning the apostles exercised miraculous "signs" which helped in "confirming the word" they were proclaiming (Mark 16:20; Hebrews 2:3,4).
After the church was established, the ability to perform such miraculous powers was passed on to others by the laying on of the apostles' hands. In Acts 6 the apostles laid their hands on seven men, among whom were Stephen and Philip. We then read that Stephen "...did great wonders and miracles among the people" (Acts 6:8). Later we also see Philip performing miracles. "And the people with one accord gave heed unto those things which Philip spake, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did" (Acts 8:6). After Paul had laid his hands on twelve new converts, "they spake with tongues and prophesied" (Acts 19:6). We also see how Simon was convinced that only through the laying on of the apostles' hands could the Holy Spirit be given (Acts 8:18,19). These gifts were, of course, given to a limited number of members of the church.
Paul's list of miraculous gifts is found in three short verses (I Corinthians 12:8-10). Following is a brief overview of each of these gifts.
Word of Wisdom
Notice this was not merely "wisdom," but "word of wisdom." A preferred rendering would be, "a spoken utterance" of wisdom, which came by the direct influence of the Holy Spirit. One possessing this gift could reveal and speak new inspired truths. And it is likely that this wisdom played a role in the composing of the writings of the New Testament. Peter speaks to this by saying that the inspired writings of Paul were the result of, "the wisdom given unto him" (I Peter 3:15,16). In Jerusalem Jewish antagonists disputed Stephen's preaching. Luke records, "...they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake" (Acts 6:10).
Word of Knowledge
As previously noted, this is not merely "knowledge," but "word of knowledge." Again, a preferred rendering would be, "a spoken utterance" of knowledge, coming by the direct influence of the Holy Spirit. This was the ability to know (perceive) inspired truths and to explain those truths. This could include the ability to explain messages of the Old Testament, and also the ability to identify and verify the inspired writings of the New Testament as they were being written and received.
Obviously, this was more than the faith of the Christian's daily walk. Rather it was faith that showed special and visible results. Paul spoke of such faith, in this instance a faith that could move mountains (I Corinthians 13:2; Matthew 21:21). This miraculous faith would be seen as a wonder-working belief, a belief so strong that observers would find the results difficult to comprehend. It appears to demonstrate a special endowment of confidence in God. Compare also Mark 9:23.
Gifts of Healing
Notice that the word "gifts" is plural, involving a wide range of the miraculous healing of diseases and injuries. The book of Acts records several such cases of healing, in these instances by the apostles. In Jerusalem Peter and John healed a man lame from birth (Acts 3:2-11), and on the isle of Malta Paul healed a man of dysentery (Acts 28:8).
Working of Miracles
Reaching into a broader area, it seems that "miracles" included much more than the gift of healing. Stephen is said to have performed "great wonders and miracles" (Acts 6:8). This, no doubt, would include raising the dead. Paul restored life to the young man Eutychus (Acts 20:9,10) and Peter restored life to Tabitha (Acts 20:36- 40). This gift could also include special miracles, such as items taken from Paul's body to remove diseases and cast out demons (Acts 19:11,12), not being harmed by deadly serpents (Acts 28:3-6) or the blinding of Elymas the sorcerer (Acts 13:8-11).
This category of prophecy is not the same as the work of the prophets associated with the apostles as part of the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:29). Agabus is such an example (Acts 11:28; 21:10,11). Though the gift of prophecy was not as eminent as the prophesying of the prophets, it endowed its receivers with the power to foretell future events. The purpose of this gift was to encourage believers and to convince unbelievers of the Christian faith. Such prophesying was foretold by Peter on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:17,18). Stephen the evangelist had four daughters who possessed this gift (Act 21:9). At Corinth, those who possessed this gift were admonished to be orderly when speaking in their assemblies (I Corinthians 14:29-33).
Discerning of Spirits
This was the gift by which one could discern false claims of miracles and expose those who used such "miracles" to promote false doctrines. With this gift one could determine whether a doctrine was genuine or counterfeit. The apostle John addressed the issue of exposing such false prophets (I John 4:1). This reminds us of Old Testament passages showing how to deal with corrupt prophets (Deuteronomy 18:22; Jeremiah 23:16).
The gift of tongues was foretold in the Old Testament (Isaiah 18:11; I Corinthians 14:21). The word "tongues" simply means languages. Those with this gift could fluently speak in languages in which they had not been educated. Such an ability would, of course, astound those who knew they could not do so. This was evident on the day of Pentecost when the apostles spoke in the languages of more than a dozen nations (Acts 2:4-8). Apparently, at times, in their assemblies, one with this gift would begin speaking in a foreign language. When this occurred it was needful for one with the gift of interpretation to interpret those words. But if no one was present with the gift of interpretation, it would be confusing, and especially so if non-believers were present.
In view of this, Paul cautioned the Corinthians about proper use of speaking in tongues. He explained to them that tongue speaking was not for their own benefit, but was primarily for helping to convert the unbeliever. Rather, it was prophesying (preaching) which was most beneficial in their assemblies (I Corinthians 14:22,23). Paul also reminded them that those who spoke in tongues should do so in an orderly manner. He stressed that if there was no one present to interpret these words that they should remain silent (I Corinthians 14:27,28).
Interpretation of Tongues
There were probably many instances when, in the assemblies, one with the gift of "tongues" would speak in a language some could not understand. This made it necessary for one who had the gift of interpreting tongues to immediately interpret what was spoken. This would remove unnecessary confusion. This gift of interpreting was also a valuable tool in helping spread the gospel to different nations.
As mentioned, the apostles possessed all these gifts. Paul, for example, said he had the gift of speaking in tongues, the gift of prophecy, the gift of knowledge, and the gift of faith (I Corinthians 13:1,2). No doubt, having received the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the power the apostles possessed far exceeded that of others (Acts 1:5; 2:4).