Understanding and Desiring Spiritual Gifts (1 Pt 4:10-11)
Updated: Feb 5, 2022
Understanding and Desiring Spiritual Gifts
Just as each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of the varied grace of God. Whoever speaks, let it be with God’s words. Whoever serves, do so with the strength that God supplies, so that in everything God will be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen.
1 Peter 4:10-11 (NET)
What are spiritual gifts? There is a lot of confusion and controversy over gifts. Some people are fanatical about them which makes others afraid of them. However, spiritual gifts are God’s good gifts to his people to use for his kingdom. We should be thankful for them and excited about them. However, since they can be abused, as other good things can, we must be informed and wise with our use of them (cf. 1 Cor 12:1).
The apostle Peter said spiritual gifts are channels by which God’s “grace” comes to the church. In 1 Peter 4:10, he said, “Just as each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of the varied grace of God.” The “one another” refers to believers in the church. When a person is using their spiritual gift, God’s grace comes through them to bless his people. It’s not that spiritual gifts don’t bless unbelievers—they do, especially the gift of evangelism. However, they seem to be primarily given by God to build up the church. For example, in 1 Corinthians 14:12, and 12:4-7, Paul explains that “manifestations of the Spirit” are given for “building up the church” and for the “common good”:
So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.”
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.
Later, in 1 Corinthians 12:11-16 (ESV), Paul says the Holy Spirit distributes gifts to believers, and because of this, the church is like a body—one person is the eye, another the hands, and another the feet. It says:
It is one and the same Spirit, distributing as he decides to each person, who produces all these things. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.
When do we receive spiritual gifts? It is clear from 1 Corinthians 12:13 that each person receives at least one gift at the baptism in the Spirit. Though a controversial doctrine, this refers to the moment when believers are made part of the body of Christ, which happens at salvation. At salvation, each person is made a part of Christ’s body, the church, and given a spiritual gift or gifts to serve Christ and his church (cf. 1 Cor 12:13-16).
With that said, there is evidence that God may also give spiritual gifts later on in life. For example, in 1 Timothy 4:14, Paul talks about his disciple, Timothy, receiving a gift through the elders laying hands on him: “Do not neglect the spiritual gift you have, given to you and confirmed by prophetic words when the elders laid hands on you.” This may be referring to Timothy’s ordination by elders into pastoral ministry. Apparently, he received some type of gift during that prophetic ministry.
In addition, we have various Old Testament examples of people receiving gifts later in life. Moses received the gift of miracles at his calling to lead Israel (Ex 3). Elisha received a double portion of Elijah’s gifts when he replaced Elijah as the chief prophet to Israel (2 Kgs 2). Also, the language used in 1 Corinthians about spiritual gifts implies that believers can still receive them after salvation. In 1 Corinthians 12:31, the church was called to “be eager for the greater gifts.” And, in 1 Corinthians 14:1, they are also called to “be eager for the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.” The fact that believers are called to desire them (and probably pray for them) implies that God may still impart them at strategic times after one’s salvation to meet the needs of a church, community, or nation. Furthermore, in 1 Corinthians 14:13, we read that the person with the gift of tongues is told to pray for the ability to interpret—asking the Lord for a complementary gift which, at that time, he did not have. It says, “So then, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret.” We should also desire greater gifts and seek them through prayer, not to honor ourselves, but so that we can more effectively help others and build God’s church.
Lists of Gifts
What are the spiritual gifts? There are four major lists recorded in three different New Testament books: 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, 28-30, Romans 12:6-8, and Ephesians 4:11. Collectively, they are:
Administration/Ruling Giving Miracles
Apostleship Healing Pastor/Teacher
Discernment of Spirits Helps/Serving Prophecy
Evangelism Interpretation of Tongues Teaching
Exhortation Knowledge Tongues
Faith Mercy Wisdom
However, it should be noted that these lists are not meant to be exhaustive. For instance, Paul mentions celibacy, the ability to stay single, and, by implication, marriage as gifts in 1 Corinthians 7:7. He says, “I wish that everyone was as I am. But each has his own gift from God, one this way, another that.” Also, Daniel and Joseph had the ability to interpret dreams (Dan 2, Gen 41). Bezalel had ability, by the Holy Spirit, to be an expert craftsmen and work on the artistic crafts for the tabernacle (Ex 35). Therefore, it is clear that Paul and Peter weren’t trying to be exhaustive in the four major lists. It is probable that there are many other gifts, such as: intercession (the ability to be burdened and pray for long periods until God answers), casting out demons, leading worship, and many more.
Descriptions of Major Gifts
What exactly are the major giftings? Though most are clear, with a few, there is considerable debate over what exactly the gift is and how it manifests.
• Administration/ruling is the ability to oversee and administrate in the church (and outside of it) including event planning, overseeing budget and people, developing strategic ministries, etc.
• Apostleship probably refers to the ability to build and oversee effective ministries for the kingdom (cf. 1 Cor 3:10, Eph 2:20). People with this gift typically serve as missionaries, church planters, and leaders of large ministries or denominations. They are often entrepreneurial by nature, multi-gifted, and shepherds of leaders. With that said, the gift of apostleship is different from the office of apostle, which was held by a limited number of people in the early church (Mk 3:13-19, 1 Cor 15:7-9, Rev 21:14). The original apostles established the foundation of the church through their teaching, mission work, leadership, and writing of Scripture (Eph 2:20). To become an apostle, (1) they had to have seen the resurrected Christ (Acts 1:21–25, 10:39–41, 1 Cor 9:1, 15:7–8), (2) been chosen by him for apostleship (Mk 3:14, Lk 6:13, Acts 1:2, 24, Gal 1:1), and (3) worked miracles as a proof (2 Cor 12:12, Matt 10:1–2). Now that the foundation of the church has been established, it seems that the office of apostle has ceased (cf. 1 Cor 15:7-9)—though the gift of apostleship continues. The word “apostle” in the Greek (apostolos) simply means “sent one.” Therefore, those who are called, commissioned, and sent by a church or ministry organization to reach people in local or foreign lands may have the gift of apostleship. In addition, though a pastor is gifted to care for a local church, a person with the gift of apostleship may be especially gifted to care for and minister to churches in a region or even the universal church. Certainly, many gifted leaders, since the original apostles, have especially blessed, corrected, and protected the broader church through their teachings, writings, mission work, and leadership—people like Augustine, John Calvin, Martin Luther, John Wesley, William Carey, and Hudson Taylor, among others.
• Discernment refers to the ability to discern spirits that are not of God by weighing their fruit against Scripture. Those with this gift have often been called the “watch dogs” of the church. When members are in danger of accepting hazardous teachings or activities in the church, the “watch dogs” identify the false spirits/doctrines and sound the alarm.
• Giving refers to the ability to live sacrificially and therefore give generously to those in need and to help make disciples in the local church and abroad.
• Knowledge probably refers to the ability to discern previously unknown information about a person (or situation) in order to speak God’s word to him or her. An example of this can be seen in how Peter prophetically rebuked Simon in Acts. He said to him, “For I see that you are bitterly envious and in bondage to sin” (8:23). This may be a picture of the “word of knowledge.” Others believe “knowledge” may refer to the original ability of the prophets and apostles to write Scripture. If this is true, this gift would no longer be in operation, since the Canon is complete.
• Wisdom simply refers to the ability to give intelligent, enlightened counsel. In Scripture, people like Joseph, Solomon, and Daniel clearly had this gift, as they wisely counseled and guided people and organizations.
• Mercy refers to the ability to feel and show compassion to those who are suffering or in need. In Acts, Dorcas is an example of someone with this gift; she was known for doing good and helping the poor (9:36).
• Exhortation refers to the ability to encourage and challenge people in their relationship with God. Some people will not grow without being pushed by others. When Paul called the Corinthians spiritual “infants,” he was using his gift of exhortation, as he challenged and rebuked them for being worldly (1 Cor 3:1-4).
• Prophecy refers to the ability to give a relevant and direct word from God. In the Old Testament prophetic books, most prophecy is “forthtelling” instead of “foretelling.” Forthtelling is properly diagnosing a person or situation and proclaiming an authoritative word from God that instructs or exhorts, based on Scripture. Foretelling refers to revealing previously unknown information about an individual, people, place, or event. In Acts 11:28, a prophet named Agabus prophesied about a severe famine that would afflict the land.
• Teaching refers to the ability to understand and explain Scripture in a way that people understand it. Often, those with this gift can make complicated topics more simple an easy to understand.
• Helps/service refers to the ability to discern needs and the willingness to help in various situations. People with this gift are exceptional servants.
• Pastor refers to the ability to spiritually care for and shepherd God’s people. These people often have some measure of the gift of teaching, which is one of the primary ways they care for people.
• Evangelism refers to the ability to share the gospel and win people to Christ. These people often feel very comfortable around the lost and really enjoy being around them. Christ was called a “friend of sinners,” as he commonly ate and drank with them (Matt 9:11, 11:19).
• Singleness refers to the desire and ability to remain single in order to give a greater devotion to serving God and others. People with this gift typically feel very content being single and also have a greater control of their sexual desires (cf. 1 Cor 7:8-9).
• Marriage refers to the desire and ability to commit to someone of the opposite sex in an exclusive union to honor God (cf. 1 Cor 7:7). Those with the gift of marriage will be more effective in building God’s kingdom in the marriage union than in singleness. It provides both protection from sexual temptation as well as a partner to serve God with.
• Tongues refers to the ability to speak a previously unknown language as a form of worship and prayer to God. First Corinthians 14:2 says, “For the one speaking in a tongue does not speak to people but to God, for no one understands; he is speaking mysteries by the Spirit.” There is much debate over how this gift manifests. Some only believe it is demonstrated in human languages as seen in Acts 2:6-11, when the apostles spoke in unknown yet human languages as they praised God before unbelievers. Others believe tongues refers to a heavenly or angelic language, which can only be understood by one with the gift of interpretation (1 Cor 14:5, 13, 27). Some see both of these possibilities as true manifestations of tongues. In 1 Corinthians 13:1, when Paul talked about the tongues of men and angels, he was probably referring to these two manifestations of tongues. As with how the gift manifests, there is controversy over how it should be used. Apparently, the gift was being used publicly in Corinth without any interpretation. Therefore, Paul rebukes them in 1 Corinthians 14 and tells them the gift is ineffective for evangelism, as unbelievers who hear the gift will think those speaking are crazy (v. 23), and the gift is ineffective for edifying believers (v. 16-17), as they don’t know what’s being said. Therefore, he tells them to practice this gift silently in church or with interpretation (v. 27-28). For this reason, this gift seems to be primarily a private prayer language.
• Interpretation refers to the ability to interpret the gift of tongues (1 Cor 14:13, 27).
• Miracles refers to the ability to do supernatural works. When Moses parted the Red Sea and brought water out of a rock, these acts were manifestations of the gift of miracles. Likewise, when Paul blinded Elymas the sorcerer to stop him from hindering God’s message, that was a miracle (Acts 13:8-11).
• Healing refers to a special ability to be used by God to heal those who are sick. When Peter and Paul healed people in Acts, these were manifestations of the gift of healing (3:6, 28:8). Although they had this gift, they could not always heal people (i.e. Timothy and Trophimus; cf. 1 Tim 5:23, 2 Tim 4:20). Healing is always based on the will of God.
• Faith refers to the ability to believe God for his promises. Sometimes people with this gift become pioneers—starting churches, schools, mission organizations, and other ventures to reach people for God’s kingdom.
Gifts and Commands
It should be noted that many of these gifts are ministries every believer is called to do. All believers are called to evangelize, be merciful, serve, and teach others. People with these specific gifts help other believers in the body achieve what they are called to do. By being around evangelists, we are challenged to grow in evangelism. By listening to a teacher, it helps us understand and teach Scripture as well. When being around those who are merciful, we learn to care for those who are hurting and in need. Therefore, when we use our spiritual gifts, we build up the body in many ways, including helping others obey God in those particular areas. Conversely, when we don’t use our gifts to serve the body, by default, we weaken the church.
Finding Our Gifts
How do we find our spiritual gifts? We find our spiritual gifts, in part, by understanding why God gives them. (1) They are given to edify and serve others. First Corinthians 12:7 says, “To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all.” (2) They are also given for our personal benefit, as seen with the gift of tongues. In 1 Corinthians 14:4, Paul says, “The one who speaks in a tongue builds himself up, but the one who prophesies builds up the church.” Likewise, when people use their gifts of teaching to study and present God’s Word, they are edified. Also, when they serve others, those with the gift of mercy are often edified, as well. The fact that we are edified by serving in a specific capacity is one of the indicators that it might be our gift.
Although our spiritual gifts typically edify both others and ourselves, an exception to that is the gift of tongues. It seems that this gift only edifies the person using it, unless it is interpreted which is why Paul cautions against using it in a corporate gathering without an interpreter (1 Cor 14:23, 27-28). The fact that tongues only edifies the person speaking them is probably why Paul placed it last on his list of gifts (1 Cor 12:27-30). In 1 Corinthians 14, his primary argument is that the church should seek prophecy over tongues because it edifies others and not just oneself. That seems to also be true when comparing tongues with every other gift.
Therefore, to discern giftings, people should try serving in various ways—youth ministry, children’s ministry, administration, evangelism, and leading. While serving, people will find out what edifies others. If they teach and everybody falls asleep, then that may not be their gift. Also, while serving, people will discover what edifies them—what they enjoy and don’t enjoy.
It is good to remember that, as we are faithful with using our gifts, often God will expand our ministry, including giving us more gifts to use for his glory. In the Parable of the Talents, the man who invested his five talents and made ten, Christ gave him one more talent because of his faithfulness (Matt 25:28-29). Another great example of this principle is Philip, the evangelist. In Acts 6, because of his character, Philip was initially enlisted to provide food for hungry widows—doing a serving ministry. However, in Acts 8, it is clear that Philip became a miracle worker and an evangelist. Most likely, as he was faithful with the little God gave him—feeding widows—God expanded his ministry. God will often do the same with us.
Time Frame of Gifts
There is some argument amongst believers about whether some gifts have ceased. Cessationism is the belief that the sign gifts such as tongues, prophecy, miracles, and healing are no longer valid today. They are called sign gifts because they were often used to authenticate the ministry of a prophet or apostle. Moses did miracles to authenticate his ministry, as did other prophets, Jesus, and the apostles. (1) Cessationists would argue that these gifts ceased when the apostolic age ended (when the last apostle died in the first century) and the Bible was complete. Now there is no need for these gifts. (2) Also, they point to how prophecy, tongues, and miracles seemed to disappear soon after the first century. (3) In addition, they commonly point to how these “gifts” are often counterfeited and abused today, including how they routinely appear in pagan religions.
Continuationism is the belief that all spiritual gifts will continue, in some form or other, until Christ returns, or the eternal state comes. It is estimated that about eighty percent of Protestant Christians are continuationists. (1) One of their primary arguments is the lack of a clear biblical text that says the sign gifts were temporary and not meant for the church throughout history. (2) Further support for continuationism is found in verses that seem to demonstrate the continuation of spiritual gifts throughout the church age and beyond (cf. 1 Thess 5:19-20, 1 Cor 14, Rev 11:1-14). For example, 1 Corinthians 1:7 and 13:8-12 say:
so that you do not lack any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Love never ends. But if there are prophecies, they will be set aside; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be set aside. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part, but when what is perfect comes, the partial will be set aside. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But when I became an adult, I set aside childish ways. For now we see in a mirror indirectly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known.
First Corinthians 1:7 implies that spiritual gifts will continue at least until Christ comes. Certainly, this is pictured in the Parable of the Talents where the Lord returns and rewards or judges believers based on what they did with his gifts, including spiritual gifts (Matt 25:14-30, cf. Lk 19:11-27). With that said, 1 Corinthians 1:7 does not directly say that gifts will end when Christ comes. In fact, in the Parable of the Talents, Christ took the talent away from the unfaithful servant and gave it to the faithful one, to use in the master’s service (Matt 25:28). This implies that our gifts will still be used, at least initially, as we rule with Christ in the millennial kingdom (Is 11:9, 29:18, Jer 23:4, Rev 20).
First Corinthians 13:10 directly declares when spiritual gifts, and specifically sign gifts, will cease. They will end “when what is perfect comes, the partial [such as knowledge, prophecy, and tongues] will be set aside” or “come to an end” (HCSB). Since the word “perfect” is neutral and not masculine, instead of referring to the second coming of Christ, most likely it refers to the eternal state , when God brings the new heaven and earth (Rev 21-22). There we will see God “face to face,” have full knowledge of him and his will, and gifts will no longer be needed (1 Cor 13:12; cf. Rev 21:4, Matt 5:8, Ps 17:15). Spiritual gifts are currently just a foretaste of the coming perfect kingdom where we will experience perfect knowledge, health, faith, and mercy, among other blessings, as we worship and serve our King.
Unfortunately, the way believers have often handled their differences on the issue of the continuity or discontinuity of sign gifts has been unhelpful and divisive. Daryl Aaron gives some prudent advice for believers who hold different views on the subject, as well as other secondary doctrines:
Ironically, the manner in which this controversy about the miraculous spiritual gifts has been handled—by both sides—has often been divisive, contrary to the Spirit’s own work to bring unity to the church (Ephesians 4:3). Everyone needs to (and most do) acknowledge that this issue is of secondary importance. For the sake of unity, we are to be gracious in holding our convictions while accepting and loving anyone with whom we may disagree.
Application Question: How should we apply the reality of spiritual gifts?
1. We must find our spiritual gifts.
As mentioned, spiritual gifts are given to serve and edify the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:7); therefore, we commonly discover these gifts in the midst of serving. We must get involved in various ministries to discover these gifts. Typically, our spiritual gift will both edify ourselves and others (cf. 1 Cor 14:3-4). Because of this, the affirmation of others is important in the discernment process.
2. We must continually develop our spiritual gifts.
In 2 Timothy 1:6, Paul said this to Timothy: “Because of this I remind you to rekindle God’s gift that you possess through the laying on of my hands.” “To rekindle” can be translated to “fan into flame” (ESV). In keeping with the analogy of a fire getting stronger as one adds oxygen and wood, we must continually make our spiritual gifts stronger. We do this by continually using them. As we faithfully use them, they naturally get stronger. Also, we strengthen them by being trained and coached by mature believers. As they instruct and at times correct us, our gifts become stronger—they are fanned into flame.
We should think of spiritual gifts like raw, untapped potential in an athlete. A gifted athlete still must train hard and be coached to become a professional athlete. We must do the same with our spiritual gifts.
3. We must desire spiritual gifts and therefore pray for them.
As mentioned, though we receive gifts at spiritual birth, God at times gives them later in life (cf. 2 Tim 1:6); therefore, we are encouraged to desire them and pray for them. In 1 Corinthians 12:31, Paul said, “But you should be eager [or “earnestly desire” (ESV)] for the greater gifts.” In 1 Corinthians 14:13, the one with the gift of tongues is called to pray for interpretation. Likewise, in Luke 11:13, Christ said, “If you then, although you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Since in the original language there is no “the” before “the Holy Spirit,” many commentators believe this refers to the ministries of the Holy Spirit. God delights to give us grace through his Spirit. Do you desire to bless the next generation in your church? Pray for the gift of teaching to better equip them. Do you feel like your church lacks organization? Pray for the gift of leadership and administration to better organize and direct people. Does your heart break for marginalized people in your community, like orphans, single mothers, or widows? Pray for the gift of mercy, so you can better help them and relieve their pain. Does your heart burn for the lost? Pray for the gift of evangelism to better reach them. God delights to give his children good gifts. James 4:2 says that we often don’t have because we don’t ask. God may say, “No,” because he has perfect plans for his body and our role in it; but desiring to serve and be equipped to serve is good. God commonly answers those prayers positively, even if it means allowing us to partner with others who excel in those ministries.
4. We must desire for others to have spiritual gifts and pray for God to generously give them.
Again, apparently, Timothy received one of his spiritual gifts through the ministry of Paul (and other elders; cf. 1 Tim 1:14). In 2 Timothy 1:6, he said, “Because of this I remind you to rekindle God’s gift that you possess through the laying on of my hands.” The laying on of hands was commonly accompanied by prayer. As Paul prayed for God to use Timothy and give him a specific spiritual gift, God answered positively. Certainly, parents should commonly pray for God to use their children, to give them various gifts and opportunities to reach people for the kingdom. We should pray for those in our small groups and churches, for God to be gracious to them and empower them for great works. We should pray for spiritual gifts for others. Certainly, this pleases God.
5. We must be careful to not be discouraged about how God has gifted us and envy others, and we must not become prideful of our gifts and look down on others.
This seems to have been happening in the Corinthian church. In 1 Corinthians 12:15, Paul rebuked some members who were despising their gift and role in the church. He said, “If the foot says, ‘Since I am not a hand, I am not part of the body,’ it does not lose its membership in the body because of that.” Also, in 1 Corinthians 12:21-22, Paul says, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you,’ nor in turn can the head say to the foot, ‘I do not need you.’ On the contrary, those members that seem to be weaker are essential.” This person was prideful for how God was using him and therefore despised others. We must be careful of both of these wrong attitudes in regard to our gifts and roles in the church. God selects and gives each person a role in the body of Christ, so it functions properly. First Corinthians 12:18 says, “But as a matter of fact, God has placed each of the members in the body just as he decided.” To despise our gifts or become prideful about them is to dishonor God who is the Creator and Distributor of gifts.
6. We must learn how to rely on others in the body.
Again, in 1 Corinthians 12:21-22, Paul says, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you,’ nor in turn can the head say to the foot, ‘I do not need you.’ We don’t need to be insecure about not having all the gifts or being able to do everything. Often God’s will is not to give us specific gifts but to give us specific people who can help us accomplish what he wants to do in the church and the world. Sometimes, we need to pray for God to bring the right people to serve the children, to administrate, and to lead. Apparently, Paul was sent to Macedonia because of the prayers of a single man. In a vision, Paul saw a man urging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” (Acts 16:9). Certainly, we must recognize our weaknesses and others’ strengths and rely on them in those areas. At times, we should also pray for God to bring in people to serve in the weak areas of our church.
• Thank God for the gifts he has given us, even if we are unaware of them. If we are unaware of our gifts, pray for God to make them known through our passions, abilities, opportunities to serve, and the affirmation of others.
• Pray for God to give us specific gifts, so we can better serve the church and reach the world. Ask for gifts of leadership, mercy, helps, teaching, writing, worship leading, building ministries, and other gifts, as you feel led.
• Pray for God to pour out gifts abundantly on our church members and that we would wisely and faithfully use them to build his church for the glory of God.
• Pray for God to continually bring in gifted people to faithfully serve and edify the church.
1. What stood out most in the reading and why?
2. What are spiritual gifts? How are they received? Why are they given?
3. How many spiritual gifts are there?
4. How do we discern our spiritual gifts?
5. Have some of the spiritual gifts ceased? Why or why not?
6. What are your spiritual gifts, and how has God called you to use them?
7. What other questions or applications did you take from the reading?