Understanding Spiritual Gifts

“Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be unaware.” I Corinthians 12:1

     Although spiritual gifts are obsolete today, they played an important role in the early church. Disciples need to understand what God’s Word says about spiritual gifts. We are surrounded by false teaching and simply incorrect personal beliefs about spiritual gifts. Our faith needs to be grounded in truth, and it is our job to share this truth with others as well. 

     Spiritual gifts are supernatural abilities given to people through the Holy Spirit. They are listed for us in I Corinthians 12:8-10:

“For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues.” 

     Some of these gifts are more obviously supernatural, (for example, “gifts of healing” and “the effecting of miracles”), but others don’t sound supernatural at all. Wisdom? Knowledge? Faith? Since these things are identified here as coming “through the Spirit,” then this is not talking about the wisdom, knowledge, and faith that we can all have. This would be a supernatural, God-given wisdom, knowledge, or faith. How does that work? Honestly, we are just not told exactly. We are given some more information regarding a few of the “spiritual gifts” listed for us: the ability to prophesy, and to speak in tongues. 

      Prophecy is when a person spoke God’s word, not his own. As II Peter 1:21 explains, “no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” Some people still claim to prophesy today, yet their words always prove to be false. Back in Deuteronomy 18:21-22, God gave the following commands concerning prophets, “And if you say in your heart, ‘How will we recognize the word which the Lord has not spoken?’ 22 When the prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, and the thing does not happen or come true, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you are not to be afraid of him.”

     “Various kinds of tongues” simply means people had the ability to supernaturally speak in other languages. The New Living Translation provides possibly the best translation of I Corinthians 12:10, “Still another person is given the ability to speak in unknown languages, while another is given the ability to interpret what is being said.” You read about this taking place in Acts 2:4-6 on the Day of Pentecost when the apostles began speaking in the various languages that were spoken by people in Jerusalem who came from various other nations. The ability to speak in other languages was a very practical way for God to break through any language barriers in order for His word to spread. 

     Spiritual gifts were given to others through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, (Acts 8:17-18). Paul further demonstrates this in two of his letters. In Romans 1:11, he writes, “For I long to see you so that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established…” The apostle Paul indicates the need for him to be physically present in order for them to receive a spiritual gift. In II Timothy 1:6, Paul writes to Timothy, “For this reason I remind you to kindle afresh the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands.” This is consistent with everything else the New Testament teaches regarding the distribution of spiritual gifts - such gifts were received through the laying on of the apostles’ hands. If that is the mode of distribution, then we understand that once the apostles all passed away, the ability to distribute spiritual gifts passed away as well. This, too, is consistent with what we read in I Corinthians 13:8-10, “Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away with; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away with. 9 For we know in part and prophesy in part; 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away with.”

     Much more could certainly be written about this issue, but hopefully this article provides clarity regarding some of the most common misunderstandings. While spiritual gifts are a fascinating subject, we only know what God has revealed to us through His word. We do not know everything, but we do not need to know everything about spiritual gifts, so we must be careful not to let our imaginations get the best of us. All we have to do is simply let the Scriptures shape our understanding of spiritual gifts.