Well now if you would please take your Bibles and turn with me to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 12; page 959 if you’re using one of our church Bibles. 1 Corinthians chapter 12. One of the recurring themes Paul has dealt with over and again in 1 Corinthians is the theme of division. It has really been troubling the Corinthian congregations, so back in chapter 1 and again in chapter 3, you will remember the Corinthians were dividing over their favorite preachers. There were different groups claiming their different favorite. “I follow Paul.” “I follow Apollos.” “I follow Cephas.” Even, “I follow Christ,” they were saying. Then in chapter 6, we saw them dividing over business practices and there were malicious lawsuits among believers tearing the fellowship apart at Corinth. And then last time we were in 1 Corinthians, in chapter 11, we saw socioeconomic and social status becoming the reason for division, ultimately undermining their ability to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in a manner that was pleasing to God and good for them. And so division has been a real issue at Corinth.
And in chapter 12, really running all the way through chapter 14, as Paul takes up the subject of spiritual gifts and their use in the life of the church, Paul has in the background another issue that has caused division and tensions in their fellowship. You see, some of the Corinthians were claiming to be spiritual elites. They are the “spiritual ones.” You’ll see in verse 1, Paul begins, “Now concerning spiritual gifts.” Whenever he says, “Now concerning,” that phrase in 1 Corinthians appears several times, it indicates that he is picking up on a matter about which the Corinthians had themselves already written to him seeking his input, and so this is the issue he’s picking up. “Now concerning spiritual gifts,” that’s a possible translation. What he says literally is, “Now concerning spirituals.” It might mean spiritual gifts; it might mean spiritual matters. Most likely, it means, “Now concerning spiritual people.” Who are the really spiritual people?
You see, there were some at Corinth claiming extraordinary and spectacular spiritual gifts and they were taking the name, or were being given the name, “pneumaticos.” They are the spiritual ones and everyone else was a second class of Christian. They were the super-spiritual Christians we might say. And so Paul, here, is writing to address that phenomenon at Corinth and to show us the nature of true spirituality. What does it mean to be spiritually minded, to be a spiritual person with authentic Christian spirituality? That is his focus.
In verses 1 to 3, if you’ll look at it briefly, I’ll give you the outline of where we are going. In verses 1 to 3, Paul gives us the marks of true spirituality. And then he’s going to tell us the truly spiritual person is Christ-centered, not gift-centered. Christocentric, not charismatic. They’re all about Jesus, not about their great gifts. That’s the marks of true spirituality. Then in verses 4 through 11, he’ll tell us about the ministry of a truly spiritual person. So the marks of true spirituality; the ministry of the truly spiritual person. If the marks of true spirituality is Christ-centeredness rather than self-centeredness and gift-focused, then the rest of that when ministry starts to happen through you and in your life, in the church, will be a focus on edifying, serving others, not promoting self. So the marks of true spirituality – Christocentric, not charismatic. The ministry of a truly spiritual person – edification, not self-promotion. That’s the teaching of the apostle in these first eleven verses of the chapter.
You’ll see toward the end of this section Paul gives us one of about three or four, depending on how you divide it up, lists of spiritual gifts. And there’s a lot of fascination with some of those gifts. Let me put you out of your misery now and tell you, I’m not going to work through all of those gifts and spend time talking about speaking in tongues and all of that. We will do some of that later on in the chapter and especially when we get into chapter 14; we'll work through all of that. That is not going to be our focus here because actually, that's not Paul’s focus either. His focus is not on the gifts, but on the way gifts function in the life of the church and how that reflects true spirituality and a concern for the glory of Jesus.
Before we get into all of that, however, I want to pause briefly to pray, then we’ll read the text and consider its message. Let’s bow our heads as we pray together.
God our Father, before us is Your Word. We pray for the ministry of the Holy Spirit that is so much the emphasis of the passage in front of us. And so we ask You, our Father, that You would pour Him out anew upon us, that He might give light, O Lord, in our darkened understanding. That we might be instructed and transformed by the renewing of our mind into the moral and character likeness of the Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.
1 Corinthians chapter 12 at verse 1. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.”
Amen, and we praise God for His holy and authoritative Word.
Marks of True Spirituality
When I served in Columbus, Mississippi as the pastor of the PCA church there, there’s an air force base in town. We had a large number of young airmen and women in the congregation, training to be pilots. And they quickly discovered that the air force is a meritocracy. And so when it came time for track selection, for example – who gets to fly what – a C17 or a fighter jet or a special ops plane or something of that order – the most gifted pilots were given preferment when it came to the most coveted options of the type of planes and the type of missions they would fly.
Now something of that spirit has crept into the Corinthian congregations and perhaps into our thinking as Christians as well where we may use the vocabulary of "gifts" but we then pay attention to the gifted one as though the church and the Christian life was a meritocracy and gifted people are to be admired and rewarded and given prominence. And so at Corinth, there were certain individuals who were taking pride of place in a sort of ranked hierarchical structure within the life of the Corinthian congregation and it was divisive and unseemly and ultimately sinful and ungodly. And Paul is writing to address it. You see, the word for “gifted” is used here in Greek, as you may know, as the word “charismata.” It has the root from which we get the word translated “grace” – “charis.” In other words, in the New Testament, spiritual gifts are not innate abilities of an individual for which the individual ought to be admired. Rather, they are donations of free, sovereign grace. The result of which and the goal of which, the purpose behind the giving of which, is not that the gifted one might be made much of, but that the gift-giver might be made much of – the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. The function of spiritual gifts is that the name of Jesus might be exalted.
And that is precisely Paul’s point in verses 1to 3 of 1 Corinthians chapter 12 when he speaks to us about the marks of true spirituality. What is it that really identifies a spiritual person? Paul reminds the Corinthians in verse 2, if you’ll look there, of how easily they had been led astray, however they were led, back in their pagan days. The mystery religions and the pagan cults of the Greco-Roman world were marked and characterized by a spirituality filled with ecstasies and strange phenomena and displays of power and spiritual pyrotechnics. And we’ve seen the Corinthians do this over and again in this letter. They bring with them into their new Christian experience some of their baggage from their old paganism. And so as they think about what it means to be spiritual, they obviously seem to think that in the Christian life, much like in the pagan life, spirituality is demonstrated by displays of spiritual pyrotechnics, by phenomena, by ecstasy. “We want shock and awe!” they were saying. “We want phenomena! We want it to be eerie and inexplicable and breathtaking! That’s how you know it’s real!”
Engaging our Brains
And Paul, here, actually challenges that rather directly. You see what he says? Verse 2, “You know when you were pagans you were led astray. Therefore,” verse 3, “I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus is accursed!'" and so on. He's using knowing words rather than feeling words as he speaks about true spirituality. His word to them is, "Authentic spirituality engages brain. Engage brain if you want to grow in spirituality, if you want to be a truly spiritual Christian." It is not irrational or anti-intellectual. Rather, Romans 12:2, we are to be "transformed by the renewing of" – what? This happened in the early service as well. I wonder if you're awake! I'm really asking you! "Be transformed by the renewing of your" – "minds!" You are awake! That's marvelous! Even Presbyterians will respond with enough provocation! "Be transformed by the renewing of your minds." Right? So authentic spirituality is not irrational or anti-intellectual but is rather the engagement of our brains, constrained and directed by the teaching of the Word of God, illuminated by the Spirit of Jesus Christ.
Christ is the Center
And when that begins to happen in your life, Paul says you will see that at the center of authentic Christian spirituality is not self. It’s not your feelings, your experiences, the phenomena that may attend your Christian life. The center of authentic spirituality, verse 3, is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. The Lord Jesus. “No one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says, ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.” He’s reminding them, yet again, of how it was when they were pagans. The world is in opposition to Jesus. When non-Christians discover just how far-reaching and absolute and exclusive the claims of the Lordship of Jesus Christ really are, their reaction is always negative. “We will not have you to rule over us.” If not with their words, certainly with their hearts. The reaction of a rebellious world to Jesus Christ is, “Let Him be anathema.” That’s the word Paul uses, translated here “accursed.” The world rejects Jesus.
But when the Holy Spirit invades the human heart and makes us new creatures in Christ, what was once a word of rejection and rebellion becomes now a word of adoration and glad-hearted submission; a word of rejoicing. A pledge of allegiance. This is the earliest Christian creed. Jesus Christ is Lord. No one can say – Paul doesn’t mean no one can mouth the words unless the Holy Spirit enables them. What he means is that no one can say from the heart, with the joyful surrender and submission of their lives, no one can bend the knee to, no one can truly pledge allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ unless the Holy Spirit has erupted into their lives and made them new. The mark of true spirituality, do you see, is not giftedness, but rather Christ-centeredness. The truly spiritual among us are besotted not with their own reflection, but with the glory of God shining in the face of Jesus Christ. We are Christ-centered. That’s the mark of true spirituality – self-forgetful and Christ-absorbed. That is the fundamental ministry of the Holy Spirit who shines never on Himself, certainly not upon ourselves, but always upon Christ.
To the Praise and Service of Jesus
Actually, in the original, the structure of verse 3 is helpful here. If I were to translate verse 3 or provide it for you in a wooden reading – look at verse 3. Here’s how it reads woodenly. You’ll notice that at the beginning and at the very end of the verse Paul mentions the Holy Spirit, and at the very center is the Lord Jesus. Here’s a wooden reading. “No one in the Spirit of God can say, ‘Jesus is cursed!’ and no one is able to say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except in the Holy Spirit.” So the beginning of the verse and the end of the verse Paul talks about the Spirit; in the center is the Lord Jesus Christ. That is actually to be the structure of the true spiritual person; the spiritually alive person. Authentic spirituality follows that structure. The Holy Spirit directs our attention always to Jesus, to His praise, and to His service.
Jim Packer writes precisely about this ministry of the Spirit pointing us to Jesus and says, “The truth of the matter is this: the distinctive, constant, basic ministry of the Holy Spirit under the new covenant is so to mediate Christ’s presence to believers, that is, to give them such knowledge of His presence with them as their Savior, Lord, and God, that three things keep happening.” So when the Holy Spirit invades your life, He begins to turn your gaze away from self to the Savior. He makes you focused on Jesus, and He does that in three ways, says Packer. “First, there is personal fellowship with Jesus. That is, the to and fro of discipleship with devotion.” There is communion with Christ in authentic spirituality. The truly spiritual person is about knowing Jesus and having fellowship with Him. “Secondly,” Packer says, “personal transformation of character into Jesus’ likeness.” So that the truly spiritual person is about more than simply having a wonderful quiet time with Jesus; they’re about being like Jesus, reflecting His character to the world. And then thirdly, he says, “The Spirit-given certainty of being loved, redeemed, and adopted through Christ into the Father’s family, blossom in believers’ hearts.” You begin to understand and know and find a well-grounded assurance in the wonder of the love of Jesus for you who gave Himself up to the cross to reconcile you to God and bring you into the Father’s family. That’s the hallmark of true spirituality – that yours is a life now centered on Jesus Christ.
Do you know anything about that? Does that describe your life? Does that describe the aspiration and longing of your heart, that you should be more and more centered upon Jesus, that He might be the sun in the solar system of your life around which everything else orbits? That Christ may be all. That you might say gladly and joyfully, “Jesus Christ is Lord!” The marks of true spirituality. You know, spiritual giants are tiny, little people who are devoted to making much of Jesus Christ. Spiritual giants are tiny, little people who live to display how great Jesus is. That’s Paul’s message for the Corinthians. It’s his message for us.
Ministry of a Truly Spiritual Person
Well, what will a truly spiritual person do? How will they serve? How does this work itself out in the life of a congregation? That's the second thing I want you to notice. The ministry. First, the marks of true spirituality. Now, the ministry of a truly spiritual person. And Paul says here that the ministry of a truly spiritual person, because they are Christ-centered not self-centered, is like Christ's ministry before them – focused on service, not self-promotion; on edification, not self-aggrandizement. That is Paul’s point exactly in verse 7. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Why are gifts given? That I might be a blessing to you. That you might be a blessing to me. That we might bless one another, encourage one another, serve one another. Gifts are about one another. We’ll have to address this and unpack this more as we get on into chapters 12 and 13 and 14 in the New Year, but let me say it here very clearly. There are no spiritual gifts, none, that are all about you on your own; that are just for you. Spiritual gifts aren’t about you; they’re not about me! They are about others. The purpose of spiritual gifts is that we might be a blessing in service to the body.
Unity in Diversity and Diversity in Unity
And that is very much Paul’s concern in verses 4 to 11. He will use, you’ll know, in the second half of this chapter, the famous metaphor of the body. The body having different parts – hands and eyes and ears and so on. And yet, is one. And so we are diverse with different gifts and functions and ministries and roles in the church, and yet we are to be one. And we are one in Christ. And that is the same message he is going to teach us in verses 4 to 11, although he will use a different image to teach it. In verses 4 to 6, he will point us instead not to the unity and the diversity of a body, but to the unity in diversity and the diversity in unity of the Triune God. Do you see that in verses 4 to 6? “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.” Different gifts, different service or ministries, different activities we are all to be engaged in, and they are sourced, Paul tells us, in the Spirit, in the Lord Jesus Christ, and in God the Father Almighty. And so here is the blessed Three in One, the Triune God of holy Scripture, who acts unitedly in the giving of gifts to the whole church.
Now keep that in mind, and then look down at verses 7 through 11 and notice that in almost every single verse, as Paul goes through this list of spiritual gifts, he says the gifts are sourced. They come from, not this time the Triune God – all three persons – but from the Spirit. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit.” Verse 8, “To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom or the utterance of knowledge through the same Spirit. To another, faith by the same Spirit. To another, gifts of healing by one Spirit. To another, working of miracles.” And so on. “All these,” verse 11, “are empowered by one and the same Spirit.” So in verses 4 to 6, Paul says the Triune God, all three persons, bestows spiritual gifts upon the church.
And in verses 7 to 11, he says the One who gives the gifts is the Holy Spirit. Is Paul confused? Is he contradicting himself? He’s actually teaching us something really important about the doctrine of God. I want you to hang in there with me for a minute and a half while I talk about this, and then I want to show you why this really matters. You see, there’s a temptation to think that certain points of Christian truth, particularly the doctrine of the Trinity, is fundamentally irrelevant. You know, “We believe it because we’re supposed to believe it, but who knows what it’s about!” So, “Yes, the Trinity,” and then we sort of shrug and move on to things that we care more about. Paul wants us to understand that of all the points of truth in the encyclopedia of Christian doctrine, the doctrine of the Trinity is the most practical and the most relevant, not the least practical or the least relevant.
Let me show you why. So in verses 4 to 6, he says all three persons of the Godhead bestow gifts upon the church. In verses 7 to 11, he says it is the Spirit particularly who gives gifts to the church. Paul is not contradicting himself; he is teaching a principle that all the operations of a Triune God toward the church and toward His creatures are indivisible so that any work performed in Scripture by one person is simultaneously the work of all three. And sometimes, the work of all three persons is assigned to one particularly. But we are not to understand when one is mentioned that the others are excluded. All the works of God are done by all that God is, all the time. And so sometimes we speak about God the Father as the One who creates and God the Son as the Redeemer and God the Holy Spirit as our Sanctifier. And that’s perfectly Biblical language and useful language so long as we understand that whenever we say that we are not denying that God the Son is a Creator and a Sanctifier. The Spirit is the Creator and Sanctifier. The Father is the Redeemer and the Sanctifier. All the works of God are performed by all the persons of God indivisibly, and yet in such a way that the distinctness of each person is preserved and upheld in a beautiful, profound mystery of the unity of the One in the Three and the Three in the One.
Church as Mirror of Trinity
Now, here’s why that matters. Are you still with me? You haven’t fallen asleep? Good! You say, “Well, I’m not really interested in abstractions. You know, you keep the doctrine, preacher, and give me the practicalities. Why does this great doctrine, this mysterious, hard-to-wrap-my-head-around truth, really matter?” Well here’s one place where it really matters. Paul is teaching us, if the God who gives gifts for Christian service is diverse and yet one, there are three distinct persons in one Being forever, wonderfully Three, gloriously One, that there is in God both unity and harmony, well then, you see, Paul is teaching us – How can we possibly, how can we who have been given gifts by this God use those gifts for self and self-promotion and self-glory, to make much of self to the exclusion of others? Surely, if the church is to be the mirror and the echo of the unity and diversity of the God who has redeemed us, then the way in which we use our gifts for service will promote unity in our diversity. It will bring us together rather than single individuals out for particular attention and praise. It will cement our relationships as we serve each other according to the pattern of the Lord Jesus who came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.
You see, the doctrine of the Trinity is not archain or irrelevant, but profoundly practical. The God who has redeemed us is One in Three. He is profoundly united in all His works and in Himself He is One. And yet, He is gloriously Three, marvelously diverse. And the church is to bear the imprint and the mirror of that unity and diversity of the God who has saved us. And so, if you want to learn humility rather than promote yourself, then Paul invites us to come to the edge of the chasm and to peer into the mystery, the unfathomable depths of the doctrine of God, to learn again how small we really are and then to bow down in worship and to rise up and go serve for the glory of His great name.
“How Can I Help?”
The marks of true spirituality – a Christ-centered life. And the ministry of a truly spiritual person who is Christ-centered – they pour themselves out in the service of others. Here’s a couple of things that means for us and then we’re done. First, because Christ-centered people are not gift-obsessed people, you will not usually find them off in a corner somewhere with one of those dreadful spiritual gift inventories or questionnaires. Have you ever done one of those? Like something out of the back of a teen magazine! You know, you tick the boxes as you determine what gifts you think you have. I think that is lightyears away from the spirit of the apostle Paul. No, people who are Christ-centered are service-minded. And so they don’t sit around saying, “Well, you know I see that need over there but that’s not my gift.” They say, “I see that need over there and I don’t know if I can make a difference, but I’m willing to serve. How can I help?” And as they throw themselves at opportunities, at needs, and seek to serve, their gifts become clear, they are discerned and sharpened and honed. That’s the first thing.
Triune God Bestows Gifts to Everyone
The second thing is that since the Holy Spirit gives gifts, the Triune God bestows gifts to everyone – you see that throughout the passage, don’t you? Verse 7, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit.” Verse 11, “All these are empowered by one in the same Spirit who apportions to each one individually as He wills.” So every Christian is the recipient of a spiritual gift or spiritual gifts. Since that is true, then every one of us is called into ministry. We have a wonderful vision statement that we came up with recently. "First Presbyterian Church Jackson exists to glorify God by making disciples on the North State Street corridor, in the greater Jackson area, and around the world.” That’s lovely. We never will get it done if we think that ministry is the business of the professionals. And we never will get it done if we think we’re doing ministry in a meeting. Meetings are not ministry. Meetings may be vitally important and necessary, but you’re not doing ministry by voting “I.” Ministry is what happens when you sit in all of your mess, clinging to Jesus, with someone else in all of their mess, and you point them to Jesus. That’s ministry.
And so let me ask you, not, “Where do you serve?” because when I ask that question people will tell me about a committee that they sit on. Let me ask you, “Who are you serving? Whose life are you speaking into? With whom are you walking day after day that you are pointing to Jesus, that you are opening the Scriptures, that you are saying, ‘You know, I’m struggling too. Let me show you where I found help – here in the Gospel.’” Ministry is about people. It is about service. It’s not about busyness. Some of us, if we are too busy for ministry because of all the meetings, have to repent of our busyness because we are simply too busy, period.
So there is a call here, isn’t there, there’s a call here to spiritual-mindedness that is focused on Jesus and not on self. And there’s a call here to ministry that is the effect of spiritual-mindedness as we serve one another. And as we do, I think we have reason to expect the Lord to do great things among us for His glory. Let’s pray together.
God our Father, we bow before You acknowledging that – let me start again. I confess my own proclivity for busy work, for meetings rather than ministry. And I’m crying to You for myself that You would give me grace that I might be more about ministry, serving others and pointing them to Jesus, bringing them with me as I go to the One I desperately need. And I pray, we pray together, for one another. O Lord, won’t You help us and enable us to repent to of our needless, busy work and train our sights on the glory of the name of Jesus, such that, in our Christ-centeredness, we become committed servants in ministry to one another. For we ask it that Jesus might be exalted and lives may be transformed. And so we pray it all in His name, amen.