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A Biblical and Practical Explanation of Spiritual Gifts - 1 Corinthians 12

Today we will explore a fascinating chapter in the Bible that deal with the Holy Spirit. We will look at what the Spirit does, the manner in which He does it, and the intersection between the Spirit’s activity and worship gatherings. Let’s begin.

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

Spiritual gifts are important. Paul wants to draw our attention specifically to this topic, and he spends a good chunk of this book talking about it because they should not be overlooked.

There are roughly four camps among Christians today in approaching spiritual gifts:

First, the Reformed camp teaches cessationism, the false belief that the miraculous spiritual gifts no longer exist. This is unbiblical. They are teaching a false teaching.

Second, the “we don’t know why” camp sees missionary miracles but doesn’t see any in America and wonders why miracles don’t happen here. The Bible says they should happen, but they don’t, and we don’t know why. There are many churches in this position, who wish they experienced such things but don’t. In fact, many of them do experience some of the gifts, but they don’t realize they do because there is a lack of teaching about them.

These first two groups have written nearly all of the spiritual gifts inventories out there. Spiritual gifts inventories are supposed to help you figure out which gift you have. Because they are written by people who either disbelieve in or have not knowingly experienced spiritual gifts, they often reinterpret the gifts to be mundane, non-supernatural things, in hopes of explaining something they do not understand. Consequently, spiritual gifts inventories are mostly useless except to help you figure out your general tendencies in ministry; they have little to do with real spiritual gifts, more with interests and character.

Third, the “miracles still happen today” camp believes that all of these miraculous signs and wonders are still available today. The only reason we don’t see more is because we don’t ask. “You do not have because you do not ask” (James 4:2). These people do ask, and they frequently experience the gifts.

Fourth, the “it’s all about miracles” camp thinks that miraculous signs and wonders are the whole point of Christianity, and everything else in the Bible is secondary. They lead people astray into experience-seeking emotionalism.

2 You know that when you were pagans, you were led astray to the mute idols, however you were led.

We worship the only God who is real. Idols are fake. Other religions are fake. There are some who experience a measure of demonic power, but Christianity promises that God Himself will be active in our midst. We should expect our Christian lives to be filled with miracles.

3 Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus is accursed”; and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.

I’ve often found this verse confusing. Is it really true that a non-believer cannot utter the words, “Jesus is Lord”? I think this is less about saying words and more about declaring truth. If a person is speaking under the influence of the Holy Spirit, he or she will never curse Jesus, blaspheme Jesus, or say anything else bad about Jesus, or speak against the words of Jesus or advocate for sin. This is one way to tell if someone is not speaking through the Holy Spirit, if they say such things.

Similarly, only people who have the Holy Spirit working in them can genuinely, heartily declare allegiance to Jesus, that Jesus is Lord. This is no mere mental acknowledgment but was very serious to Christians in the Roman Empire for whom saying “Jesus is Lord” was placing Christ above Caesar, which could have been considered treason. If you are wondering whether somebody is following the Holy Spirit, and that person clearly praises Jesus, making it obvious that he or she actually follows Jesus, then that person is, in fact, seeking to follow the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that he is correct in everything he is saying or doing. This also does not mean that someone who claims to be a Christian, says he or she goes to church, affiliates with a denomination, etc., is actually a Christian.

This topic comes up frequently when dealing with famous people who we don’t know. There are people out there who claim to be prophets or apostles or work miracles but who are not Christians. Jesus says in Matthew 7:21, “‘Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.’” Likewise, there are many politicians who publicly say they are Christians in order to get elected, but it is clear by their political stances that they have little interest in obeying Jesus.

Let me give a few examples.

Many politicians, like Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Hillary Clinton, claim some variety of Christianity, but they never praise Jesus or spread the gospel publicly, instead opposing Him in their words and political stances. Donald Trump even stated in an interview that he had never asked for forgiveness and saw no reason to do so. He was clearly not a Christian, and certainly not working through the Holy Spirit, even though some of his actions did promote Christian causes.

Similarly, radio host Alex Jones tried to rile up the crowd, yelling, “Christ is King,” at a Trump rally. In that hyped-up, political context, and because Alex Jones peddles in conspiracy theories and gives little indication that he is actually promoting Jesus rather than his agenda, it is exceedingly unlikely that he was speaking through the Holy Spirit.

On the other hand, at a rally in 2016, Autumn and I heard Marco Rubio publicly preach the gospel. Yes, it was a political event, but he did not merely claim to be a Christian. Instead, he spent a notable amount of time explaining the gospel and glorifying God. It was abundantly clear that Marco Rubio is a Christian first, and for him, Jesus is Lord and more important than his political career.

Evangelist Todd White frequently speaks about the power of the Holy Spirit and sees miraculous healings by the Holy Spirit. Autumn and I saw him speak, and everything he said, even about Holy Spirit miracles, was about Jesus.

Kris Vallotton, from Bethel Church, publicly prophesied that Donald Trump would win the election against Joe Biden. This obviously did not happen. Kris later apologized for his incorrect prophecy. From looking at Kris’s life, however, and the Christ-centered context of his prophecy, it is clear that he is a Christian, and that he is probably very attentive to the Holy Spirit, even though he was incorrect. This is further shown by how he took initiative to apologize publicly in humility for his mistake.

I give you these examples to help you identify who is a real Christian, and who is not, and who may be speaking by the Holy Spirit, and who is not. When I first started learning about spiritual gifts, how they really work, this was difficult for me, which is why I am emphasizing it now. You need to be able to warn others about false Christians and to defend others against false accusations. There are lots of wacky people out there, and we need to know who is good and who is not.

I also give you this last example to show you that the use of spiritual gifts has room for error. These gifts come by listening to the Holy Spirit. We are not perfect at listening, and so we will make mistakes. It is ok to be wrong; when you are, humbly admit your mistake. The more you practice listening, the better you will get at understanding Him, and the fewer mistakes you will make.

4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons.

All gifts, all ministries, all effects all come from the same God. There is only one Holy Spirit, and He is the one who does all these things. He can do anything He wishes, miraculous or otherwise, through any person at any time.

5 But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

The purpose of the manifestations of the Spirit, gifts, ministries, and effects, is for the common good. Ultimately, it is the Holy Spirit who has the gifts, not you, but He chooses to work through you. Asking “Which gift do you have?” or “What is my spiritual gift?” is unhelpful. He wants to work through every single one of you in a variety of ways. When the Holy Spirit gives you something to do or speak or share, please do, speak, or share it. If you do not, someone else will be deprived of the blessing God intended for him or her through you. What you have received is not for you alone but for the common good.

Let’s look at the specific gifts.

For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 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. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.

There are nine gifts listed in this passage. There are other gifts not listed here, including those not listed anywhere in the Bible. For example, I once knew a man who was given the spiritual gift of brick laying. A spiritual gift is any working of the Holy Spirit through a person in a supernatural way. The spiritual gifts are limited only by the Holy Spirit who gives them, which is to say, there is no limit.

These are the nine gifts:

1. Wisdom:

1 Kings 3:23-28

Two women came before King Solomon with one living baby, each claiming to be the mother of the baby.

23 Then the king said, “The one says, ‘This is my son who is living, and your son is the dead one’; and the other says, ‘No! For your son is the dead one, and my son is the living one.’” 24 And the king said, “Get me a sword.” So they brought a sword before the king. 25 And the king said, “Cut the living child in two, and give half to the one and half to the other.” 26 But the woman whose child was the living one spoke to the king, for she was deeply stirred over her son, and she said, “Pardon me, my lord! Give her the living child, and by no means kill him!” But the other woman was saying, “He shall be neither mine nor yours; cut him!” 27 Then the king replied, “Give the first woman the living child, and by no means kill him. She is his mother.” 28 When all Israel heard about the judgment which the king had handed down, they feared the king, because they saw that the wisdom of God was in him to administer justice.

You experience the gift of wisdom when the Holy Spirit gives you insight into what to do or say in a given situation. This insight is supernatural: it is not something that you would have ordinarily thought of, or it is something that God has placed on your heart which suddenly becomes relevant in an unexpected way. Wisdom can apply to “Aha!” moments in studying the Bible, and can be very useful for teaching. Wisdom can apply in a work situation, at home, with family or friends, with adversaries, and even with people you have never met. A friend of ours once shared a story about a certain church leader he did not know who immediately looked at him and told him that she felt God was saying for him to go east. That was a word of wisdom.

2. Knowledge:

1 Samuel 9:3-4, 14-20:

3 Now the donkeys of Kish, Saul’s father, had wandered off. So Kish said to his son Saul, “Now take with you one of the servants and arise, go search for the donkeys.” [They searched far and wide, but could not find them] . . .

. . .

14 So they went up to the city [of Zuph]. As they came into the city, behold, Samuel was coming out toward them to go up to the high place.

. . . 19 And Samuel answered Saul and said, “. . . 20 . . . as for your donkeys that wandered off three days ago, do not be concerned about them, for they have been found.”

You experience the gift of knowledge when the Holy Spirit tells you a piece of information that you would not have known otherwise. Sometimes you know immediately what the information is for, other times it becomes apparent later, such as when you meet someone and realize it is a message for that person. In evangelism, a word of knowledge can cut through disbelief when the hearer is shocked that you know some secret, and therefore that God is real. I once was praying for people when the word “teeth” came to me. Upon hearing it, they burst out laughing, because they had in fact been talking together at length about teeth in that exact same spot the previous day. That was a word of knowledge.

3. Faith:

Matthew 1:18-25

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, since he was a righteous man and did not want to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. 20 But when he had thought this over, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; . . . 21 She will give birth to a Son; and you shall name Him Jesus,” . . . 24 And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, 25 but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he named Him Jesus.

Matthew 2:13-14

13 Now when they had gone, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up! Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to kill Him.” 14 So Joseph got up and took the Child and His mother while it was still night, and left for Egypt.

Matthew 2:19-21

19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, and said, 20 “Get up, take the Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel; for those who sought the Child’s life are dead.” 21 So Joseph got up, took the Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel.

You experience the gift of faith when you receive the uncanny ability to take a risk for Jesus. To be a Christian, you must have faith in Jesus, and a faithful Christian will live a life characterized by faith. But sometimes, for a specific occasion, the Holy Spirit will give you a stunning burst of faith to take a risk or do something unexpected, faith that notably surpasses your normal level of faith. In Joseph’s case, he had three dreams in which he received an instruction, and each time, rather than wondering, “Was that just a dream?”, he immediately acted upon it, completely upending his life, even in the middle of the night. That was the gift of faith.

4. Healing:

Acts 9:32-35:

32 Now as Peter was traveling through all those regions, he also came down to the saints who lived at Lydda. 33 There he found a man named Aeneas who had been bedridden for eight years, because he was paralyzed. 34 Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; get up and make your own bed.” Immediately he got up. 35 And all who lived at Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord.

You experience the gift of healing when the Holy Spirit miraculously corrects a physical, mental, or emotional ailment upon your prayer or command. God has blessed humans with the incredible ability to explore and discover and invent such that we can cure many sicknesses and diseases. This is not the gift of healing. The gift of healing cures instantly or remarkably quickly. This gift can cure anything, from paper cuts to cancer to mental illness, curable and incurable. When our church in South Africa prayed for one of its elders, he was on the brink of death; there was no hope for him. Then we prayed, and suddenly he was completely cured. Another time, Autumn walked up to a man in a grocery store who had a bandaged hand. She prayed for his healing, and immediately his hand felt better. That was the gift of healing.

5. Miracles

2 Kings 6:1-7

Now the sons of the prophets said to Elisha, “Behold now, the place before you where we are living is too cramped for us. 2 Please let us go to the Jordan, and let us each take from there a beam, and let us construct a place there for ourselves, to live there.” So he said, “Go.” 3 Then one of them said, “Please agree and go with your servants.” And he said, “I will go.” 4 So he went with them; and when they came to the Jordan, they cut down trees. 5 But it happened that as one of them was cutting down a beam, the axe head fell into the water; and he cried out and said, “Oh, my master! It was borrowed!” 6 Then the man of God said, “Where did it fall?” And when he showed him the place, he cut off a stick and threw it in there, and made the iron float. 7 Then he said, “Pick it up for yourself.” So he reached out his hand and took it.

You experience the gift of the effecting of miracles when the Holy Spirit violates the laws of nature at your request. This can be anything from making an ax head float to walking on water to raising the dead to teleporting across the world. I know someone who experienced the gift of miracles when he was around four or five years old. One day, he was in the car with his dad and asked to go to the park. His dad said, “I’m sorry, but we can’t go to the park because it is raining.” He then prayed, “God, please make it stop raining so that we can go to the park.” Immediately, the rain stopped, and off to the park they went! That was the gift of effecting of miracles.

6. Prophecy:

Acts 11:28-30

28 [Agabus] stood up and indicated by the Spirit that there would definitely be a severe famine all over the world. . . . 29 And to the extent that any of the disciples had means, each of them determined to send a contribution for the relief of the brothers and sisters living in Judea.

Acts 21:10-14

10 [Agabus] came down from Judea. 11 And he came to us and took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands, and said, “This is what the Holy Spirit says: ‘In this way the Jews in Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and hand him over to the Gentiles.’” 12 When we had heard this, we as well as the local residents began begging him not to go up to Jerusalem. 13 Then Paul replied, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be bound, but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” 14 And since he would not be persuaded, we became quiet, remarking, “The will of the Lord be done!”

You experience the gift of prophecy when the Holy Spirit tells you, or speaks through you, something that is going to happen in the future. Sometimes such a thing will definitely happen, other times it will happen unless the recipient of the prophecy drastically changes course, such as when Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah and was spared from destruction. In the case of Agabus, he correctly foretold a famine, and the Church acted on his prophecy. The second time, he correctly foretold that Paul would be arrested, but it is unclear that the exact manner of his binding was accurate. In both cases, however, that was the gift of prophecy.

7. Distinguishing of spirits:

Acts 4:34-5:6

34 [All] who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales 35 and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each to the extent that any had need. . . .

5 But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, 2 and kept back some of the proceeds for himself, with his wife’s full knowledge, and bringing a portion of it, he laid it at the apostles’ feet. 3 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back some of the proceeds of the land? . . .” 5 And as he heard these words, Ananias collapsed and died; and great fear came over all who heard about it.

You experience the gift of distinguishing of spirits when the Holy Spirit gives you insight into the spiritual source of something or someone, whether from God or Satan. The Holy Spirit showed Peter that Ananias was being deceitful, influenced by Satan. The gift of distinguishing of spirits enables you, through the Holy Spirit, to discern a person’s true motives and to notice when evil spirits are at work. Autumn and I once attended a church where the pastor was hyping up everything, claiming the Holy Spirit was going to be doing lots of miracles, but we were both unsettled. Later, we saw one of the people, who the pastor claimed to heal, clearly in the same state in which she had come: it was all a show. When we felt unsettled about the church service, that was the gift of distinguishing of spirits.

8. Tongues:

Acts 2:1-4:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly a noise like a violent rushing wind came from heaven, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 And tongues that looked like fire appeared to them, distributing themselves, and a tongue rested on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with different tongues, as the Spirit was giving them the ability to speak out.

You experience the gift of various kinds of tongues when the Holy Spirit enables you to speak a language you do not know. This language can be a human language that exists on earth today, as was the case for these believers who later were understood by the crowd, or another language unknown by anyone, as is referenced in 1 Corinthians 14 where Paul says someone, “speaks mysteries.” Many people use tongues in personal prayer to help them connect with the Holy Spirit. Other times, tongues are intended to be understood by someone or translated by someone. Chuck Smith, founder of Calvary Chapel, once asked his wife to speak in tongues publicly at church. Afterward, a visitor came up to him and asked, “Why did that woman stand up and speak in French?” Chuck responded, “That woman is my wife, and she doesn’t speak French; she was speaking in tongues through the Holy Spirit.” The visitor exclaimed, “I am from Algeria, and I speak both English and French. She spoke in perfect French.” Then, the visitor gave her life to Christ, awed by the display of God’s power. That was the gift of various kind of tongues.

9. Interpretation of tongues:

The gift of interpretation of tongues is when the Holy Spirit enables you to understand a language you do not know. Unfortunately, I know of no examples of this in the Bible. There are two varieties of this. One is the ability to understand a regular language you do not know. A friend of mine once preached the gospel in English through an interpreter to a Russian audience. Caught up in the passion of the message, he spoke at length and then noticed that the interpreter had stopped interpreting and was gazing at him. He said, “I’m sorry for talking so much, you can go ahead and interpret.” “I don’t need to,” the interpreter responded, “You were talking in perfect Russian.” That was the gift of interpretation of tongues, given to the audience.

The other aspect of interpretation is when someone speaks in tongues, not knowing what he is saying, and the Holy Spirit enables you to understand or gives you an interpretation to share. Most of the time, the interpretation will be of similar length to the tongue spoken; after all, it is a language you are translating. This is one clue as to whether the interpretation is accurate. I once heard Jackie Pullinger, a missionary to Hong Kong, teach about the gifts of the Spirit, and she shared a tongue she had heard from the Holy Spirit in preparation. She then asked for someone to interpret it. The first interpreter spoke in flowery language much longer than Jackie had. Then Jackie asked for someone else to try to interpret. The second person shared a much clearer and shorter interpretation. It sounded more like a real interpretation, and in fact, Jackie, who knew the correct interpretation, confirmed that it was the right one. That was the gift of interpretation of tongues.

So in review, these are the nine spiritual gifts referenced here in 1 Corinthians 12:

These spiritual gifts are available to all believers at all times through the one and only Holy Spirit. Each of us will experience one or more of these gifts as we listen to Holy Spirit and go about the business of the Kingdom, fulfilling Jesus’ command, “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with leprosy, cast out demons. Freely you received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8). Some of these gifts will be more prevalent in your life than others. Consider the multitude of stories in the Old Testament. Did any miracle that one person experienced happen again, and in the exact same way, for another person? So each of us will have a unique experience.

Many of these gifts can be practiced; just as bodily exercise strengthens the body over time, so trying out these gifts will strengthen your ability to use them over time. You will not always succeed, and you will make mistakes, but it is ok to be wrong. What matters is that you try. When you try, do not communicate it as “Thus says the Lord” as if you know with certainty, for then you risk sin; rather, say, “I believe God wants…” or “I feel like God might be saying…” or something similar. Then, if you are wrong, it is your feeling that was mistaken, and you have not sinned by blaming God.

I want to briefly jump to the end of 1 Corinthians 12 for clarity.

28 And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, and various kinds of tongues. 29 All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they? 30 All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they? 31 But earnestly desire the greater gifts.

Remember that in verse 4, Paul listed not only gifts but also ministries and effects. Also remember that the broader section of the book is about the proper functioning of a church service. Here, Paul combines these things. He numbers apostles, prophets, and teachers. These are ministries, not gifts, and are mentioned in Ephesians 4:11 for the purpose of equipping the saints. That is why they are numbered. These ministry roles have precedence in the church and may be thus listed as an order of worship: first the apostles should speak, next the prophets, and third the teachers, before the many variety of others shall act, some gifts, some ministries, some effects. Note that the ministry role of a prophet is not identical to one who is experiencing the gift of prophecy.

Finally, Paul makes it clear that we will not all experience all ministries, gifts, and effects, and especially in the context of church. Not all people speak in tongues, and even if they did, they would not all speak in tongues during church. Nevertheless, Paul encourages us to all desire the greater gifts, and in chapter 14, he wants us all to desire to prophesy. You must not envy another’s gifts, but you should ask the Holy Spirit for all of the best gifts and seek after them.

In conclusion, the Holy Spirit wants you to know about these spiritual gifts, and He wants you to desire them. I urge you to begin asking Him now for each one of these gifts, and start practicing listening for Holy Spirit’s voice. Start in church, praying for each other and looking for the Holy Spirit to manifest Himself to you. Then go out into the world, praying for others and looking for all the opportunities the Holy Spirit has laid out for you. Spiritual gifts are fun. Go out, and have fun with Jesus! May the Holy Spirit bless you with an abundance of His works. Amen.