Seek the Higher Gifts
August 28, 2022 Preacher: Kevin Godin Series: Growing in Grace
Topic: Spiritual Gifts Scripture: 1 Corinthians 12:28-31
Today, we continue our series Growing in Grace, working our way passage by passage through the book of 1 Corinthians. This is the inerrant, holy, inspired, word of God. We pray therefore as we work our way through this book that the Holy Spirit would plant its truths deep in our hearts. Let’s pray for the renewing of our minds as we meditate upon what God has to say to us. Our desire is that we leave here not only instructed but inflamed by a desire to glorify God in our lives.
Lord willing, this morning we will finish chapter 12. Paul has been talking about the distribution of spiritual gifts and how God has sovereignly planned and arranged the composition of the church. Paul has been correcting the Corinthian error of assuming that dramatic gifts such as speaking in tongues implied any sort of spiritual superiority. In our passage today, he is going to clarify which gifts really are most valuable and point them to something even better.
His main point is that the greatest gifts are those that most build up others in Christ. Let me say that again. The greatest gifts are those that most build up others in Christ.
If you have your bible, please turn with me to 1 Corinthians 12:28. If you are using the blue bible we provide, it is on page 1197. If you do not own a Bible or have need of one, please take that one as you leave as our gift to you. Paul begins in verse 28,
28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues.
Paul starts with the observation that it was God who has appointed and distributed these gifts. This is the sixth time in the chapter that he has highlighted the sovereign action of God in arranging the distribution of gifts and the organization of the church. He wants it to be clear that any competition or arrogance among believers because of gifts or calling makes no sense. It is God who has assigned and empowered each one.
To boast about spiritual gifts is illogical. As we have seen, the purpose of those gifts is to build up others so boasting about them contradicts the very purpose for which they are given. It also makes no sense to boast about receiving a gift as if they depended upon us. That would be like bragging about getting free sauce packets at Taco Bell or a summons for jury duty. Those things don’t happen because of how uniquely awesome you are.
The Corinthians assumed a hierarchy of gifts that conveyed special status upon those who practiced certain gifts and placed the more dramatic gifts such as speaking in tongues at the top. Paul says this is wrong and explains that the real ranking of gifts is connected to their function in building up others in Christ. As a result, highly visible gifts like speaking in tongues that appear to be so powerful, are more limited than a gift like teaching for building up others and are therefore really among the least of the gifts.
Notice, Paul specifically ranks three gifts at the head of the list, and then lists everything else with tongues mentioned last.
8 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues.
Like before, this is not a complete list but is enough to make his point. These may be the gifts that were most relevant to them. Paul lists gifts related to the revelation and proclamation of God’s word at the head of the list. Apostles, prophets, and teachers each have a foundational function that sets them apart from the other gifts that follow.
The priority is not derived from their individual power, but from their broad function in the building up of others. These gifts are indispensable in that they lay the groundwork for the exercise of all the others. They are gifts necessary to the establishment of gospel ministry and gospel community. Unlike the Corinthians, Paul isn’t thinking in terms of individual status. Every believer has the same status as members of the Body of Christ, but some gifts are more useful to the common good.
I have a toolbox in my garage this is filled with tools. Each one has the same status they are all tools, and all have a purpose. None are inherently better than another. I cannot say that a hammer is a better tool than a screwdriver, it just depends on what I am trying to do. But it is still true that out of all those tools there are probably 5 or 6 that are more useful in that they are useful in far more contexts. In fact, those basic tools are often used in conjunction with the more specialized tools. The gifts are a bit like that.
At the top of the list are Apostles. The word means one who is sent with a message and is used two different ways in the New Testament. It is sometimes used generally, for example, in 2 Corinthians 8:23 Paul says “and as for our brothers, they are messengers of the churches…” the word messengers there is the word ἀπόστολοi or apostles.
There are a few examples like that but usually the word is used in a technical sense and refers to a limited number of men such as the 12 apostles of Jesus as well as Paul and Matthias who replaced Judas. That is how Paul uses the term here. Apostles in this sense are limited to the first generation of the church because they had to be eyewitnesses to the teaching of Jesus and in 1 Corinthians 15:8-9 Paul says he was the last of these kinds of apostles.
Some churches teach that this office was handed down through the years, but there is no support for that in the Bible. For example, we know that Paul considered Timothy his successor, but Timothy is never called an apostle. Neither is anyone named an apostolic successor to Peter or any of the other apostles.
If you come across someone claiming to be an apostle in that sense my advice is stay away from them. The apostles were a unique gift provided for the foundation of the church and their contribution was once for all time. The New Testament is the completed apostolic revelation that was given to the church. The proclamation and doctrine of the church is the apostolic revelation.
Second, Paul mentions prophets. There is a lot of controversy now about prophecy. Some believe this is an ongoing gift in the church and others say it has ceased. Your view on this will depend in part on what exactly you think it is. Some argue it is the same as Old Testament prophecy and others think it is somewhat different gift. We will look at this more in chapter 14, but I am not convinced there is any reason to think it is a different gift or that it is in operation in the church today.
Prophecy is mentioned over 100 times in the New Testament and the original recipients of this letter certainly knew what he was talking about. Although it is frequently mentioned, there are not very many detailed discussions about it and so we must pull together a wide range of observations to understand what it looked like.
Having said all of that, I believe we can make several conclusions, even if they are controversial in some circles. First, it is a revelatory gift. It is a disclosure of knowledge or wisdom that would have been inaccessible to people, at least in part, without God revealing it. It involves sharing unknown knowledge or wisdom. It is not just what we call preaching. Although insight into previous revelation may have been part of what prophets shared, there is more to it.
The gift did not work through uncontrolled ecstatic utterances. Paul says in chapter 14, verse 32 Paul says, “the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.”. It was an orderly and rational gift unlike many of the trancelike proclamations in pagan temples.
Prophecies were also not random personal revelations. They pertained to issues and events of relevance to the church. Remember that all the gifts are given for the building up of the common good. Like the others, prophecy is a communal gift. In Ephesians 4:11-12 Paul says, 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”
Finally, the activity of prophets is often mentioned alongside that of the apostles. They share in the foundational ministry of the church. The apostles laid the doctrinal foundations as the church was being founded and the prophets pronounced divine wisdom connected with that founding activity. Paul says in Ephesians 2:19-21,
19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.
No building has a foundation all the way up to the roof. Once the foundation is laid we don’t lay it again. No contractor ever puts a basement on the third floor. There are aspects of prophetic ministry that flow into other gifts, but the fundamental and distinguishing element of the gift is that they provided revelation to the church. The words of the prophets were the words of God and the church received them as such. Prophets were agents of direct revelation. In the same way we do not have apostles today, we do not have prophets today. Both are foundational gifts.
We will say more about this later but before we move on, I want to address the fact that many believers do claim to have this gift. Let me first say that I don’t think we should quickly dismiss the experiences of godly brothers and sisters. I do not doubt that Holy Spirit gives insights and promptings that are from God and useful to the church. For several reasons, however, I think these experiences are best described as the gifts of wisdom and discernment rather than prophecy. They are the result of the Spirit’s work of illumination rather than direct revelation.
The third and final numbered gift Paul mentions is teaching. While the prophetic and apostolic gifts involved sharing new revelation, the gift of teaching is passing on received revelation. Teaching, which is a broad category of gifts that would include preaching and evangelism, explaining and proclaiming what Jude calls “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” This is what Paul is talking about when he says to Timothy in 2 Timothy 1:13–14
13 Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14 By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.
The teachers are the guardians of the doctrine of the church. Not dry academic doctrine, but the living word of God. The apostles and prophets laid the foundation, and teachers are like those who anchor the beams and load-bearing walls to that foundation by passing those truths down generation after generation. Unlike apostles and prophets, they do not add new information but are foundational in the sense that it is through teaching ministries that we are connected to the foundation. Teachers are caretakers of a sacred deposit.
Here in Detroit, we have a lot of hockey fans. If you are a hockey fan you know about Lord Stanley’s Cup. It is the top trophy of the NHL and professional hockey players have competed for that cup since the earliest years of hockey as a sport. It is more than just a trophy, it is an irreplaceable symbol of the sport.
So there is actually a special job called the keeper of the cup. Wherever the cup goes, the keepers go. They are custodians of the cup. The keeper is devoted to the cup, never allowed to be far away from it. They wear white gloves so they do not tarnish it, and they and keep it polished so it is ready at all times to be displayed in its full majesty.
But despite an entire career of having that cup in their possession, it doesn’t belong to them. Keepers come and go, leaving no fingerprints. Their whole function is to ensure it is displayed now and in future generations. That’s the way it is with teachers.
Because they communicate the wisdom delivered through the apostles and prophets, teachers are partakers in the foundational ministry of the apostles and prophets, but only as custodians. Pastors, for example, have a prophetic ministry but it comes through our role as teachers. Church planters are sent with an apostolic mission, but through their role as teachers.
It is interesting when we look at the list of qualifications for elders in the Bible really the only gift that stands out as being different from the kinds of things that would be expected of any mature believer, is that they are able to teach. It is through sound teaching that we build upon the foundation laid by the apostles and prophets.
That is why Paul lists these three, and in this order, as the higher gifts. They are higher because they come first. These establish and equip the church for the exercise of the other gifts. After listing those three, he stops counting them off groups the remaining gifts together saying,
then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues…
In verse 31 he says, 31 But earnestly desire the higher gifts. The higher gifts are those that most benefit others. All the gifts are valuable and needed but these first three are the gifts that are most broadly applied to the common good. The other gifts, like those specialty tools, are not less important but are less broad in their use. They are necessary for specific situations and circumstances.
Miracles and healing are associated with deliverance, illness, and injury. The gift of helps is focused primarily on ministry to the week and poor. The word translated administration is the actually the word for steering a ship and has to do with wisdom and insight for effective leadership. Finally, he mentions tongues, which is the ability to speak in unlearned languages. The Corinthians elevated this to first importance but Paul places it last because of its limited use which he will explore more in chapter 14.
Paul’s point is that the Corinthian’s attraction to outward appearances has led them to a wrong assessment of these gifts. He isn’t concerned with rankings, but he is showing them that if we were going to rank them using God’s logic, it would look very different from the ranking they came up with. This reminds us again that God is the one who has distributed the gifts according to his own wisdom. They are gifts, not rewards, and it is foolish to use them as comparisons. We cannot know the value of a specific gift without know what job God intends to do.
Paul continues in Verse 29,
29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?
The grammar here requires a negative answer. Paul is telling us that no, not everyone has all these gifts. Each believer has a unique contribution to make, and we are each uniquely equipped to do it. This points us away from ourselves and to God who is working in his people to be a display of his glory. Having or not having any certain gift does not have anything to do with our spiritual maturity. It is simply an indication of the ministry God has called us to do.
It is not necessary to speak in tongues to have assurance of God’s favor upon us as some teach. If you have Jesus Christ as your lord and savior, you lack nothing that is spiritually necessary because through faith, we are “in” Christ and lack nothing. Someone speaking in tongues should not confer upon them any authority or status. Similarly, it is good to desire gifts in order that we may serve well, but we go wrong if we make gifts a requirement or an indicator of our relationship with Jesus.
The truth is none of us deserve any of these gifts. Whatever we have we have because God is gracious, not because we are good. If it were not for the goodness of God we would not only be lacking in spiritual powers of service, but of any spiritual life at all. Every one of us was born into a life of sin. There was nothing good in us. The fruit of our spirit was to seek our own pleasure and our own glory. Like pigs rolling in muck, we wallowed in sin, and we loved it.
We loved it so much that we didn’t care about God’s glory or his laws. We viewed his creation and the people and things in it as simply objects for our own use. Of course, our pride led us to do our best to make things look good on the outside, but the truth is we wanted the things God provided but we didn’t want him, because we wanted to be our own God. We wanted the pleasures and praises for ourselves.
This is true of every sinner. We are not sinners because we sin, we sin because we are sinners. That is why we will never find a solution to sin in us or in other sinners. It is obvious that before we can clean anything we must first have clean hands otherwise the filth on our hands will just add to the problem. Spiritually speaking our hands are filthy. Its like they are covered with black sticky tar so that we leave a blemish on everything we touch, no matter how lightly and we have no way of getting rid of it.
We spread sin wherever we go, and a day will come when we will all stand in judgment before a holy God, and we will be found guilty. Not guilty of making mistakes or technicalities. Guilty of treason against the king of the universe. Guilty of ignoring his laws and making our own. Guilty of seeking the overthrow of him as king so that we can pursue a kingdom of our own to satisfy our own rebellious heart.
But God offers a pardon. It is the greatest plea deal that has ever been offered. If we admit we are guilty of treason and that there is no explanation, no goodness in us, that warrants mercy, and that our only hope is his grace, he promises to forgive us. More than that, he promises to clean our filthy hands, adopt us as his children, give us gifts, and make us heirs and ambassadors in his kingdom.
How is it possible for a God who is perfectly holy to make such an offer? It is outrageous. How can a righteous king overlook treason and then adopt the perpetrators, giving them gifts and making them representatives of his kingdom? It is possible because God dealt with that sin through the sacrifice of his son Jesus.
God sent his Son, Jesus as a substitute for all who will put their faith in him. He came and lived a perfect life, having no sin of his own. Being fully human and since he was under no penalty, he could offer his life in our place as a sacrifice under the law. He was crucified on the cross in our place so that we can inherit the amazing blessings he earned.
Then three days later, he walked out of the tomb. The price was paid, God’s justice was satisfied. The case is closed, the records are sealed. If we have faith in Jesus as our savior, we are free and have peace with God. On that day when we stand before God in judgment, it will be a time of joy and celebration rather than dread and punishment. Friends, if you have not yet trusted in Jesus alone as your righteousness before God, please think carefully about what I am saying.
No amount of good works and no amount of religion can wash away your sins. No earthly priest can wipe them away or forgive them. God is a righteous king, and he doesn’t negotiate with spiritual criminals, but he is also loving and is calling you even now to faith and repentance. The offer is made, I urge you to come before his patience is exhausted. If you are hearing this message and want to learn more, please reach out. I want to help you understand this clearly.
For those who are trusting in Jesus, understand that whatever gifts we have been given are graces intended to equip us to make Christ visible. These gifts or graces intended to equip us for service are not a reflection on our spiritual status. They are icing on the cake. Tools God provides for us to do the work he has planned for us. They are designed to bring us closer rather than a source of pride or competition.
Then in verse 31, Paul says,
31 But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.
Again, the higher or greatest gifts are not those that build up our egos or status, but those that build up our brothers and sisters. Paul isn’t contradicting himself here by encouraging them to do this. To desire the “higher” gifts is just another way of restating what he has been saying all along, namely, that all things should be done for the building up of the whole. Remember our main point? The greatest gifts are those that most build up others in Christ.
Every member of the body should seek what is best for the others. The motivation for desiring greater gifts is love for God and love for others. While we no longer have apostles and prophets, it is a good thing to desire to be a teacher or elder or preacher so long as the motivation is right. Rather than seeking the ability to speak in tongues or even perform miracles, we should want to be stewards of God’s word. That is an excellent gift.
Of course, not every believer will receive the gift of teaching that would equip them to be a missionary, pastor, preacher, and so forth. That’s ok because Paul says there is something even better than these higher gifts. There is something even more to be desired. That is why Paul says, I will show you a still more excellent way. Lord willing, we will look at that next time.
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