I’m preaching on spiritual gifts tomorrow, which is one of my favorite topics in Scripture. I also think it is one of the most misunderstood topics in Scripture, which is one reason preaching on it generally is so important.
For instance, people I’ve talked to throughout my ministry have often thought of spiritual gifts as relatively rare. These people tend to think of spiritual gifts as always being charismatic in nature. And the chief example is always speaking in tongues. In that sense, the main image people tend to associate with spiritual gifts is the Pentecost in Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples in dramatic fashion.
What is remarkable to me is that this is not the way the New Testament really presents spiritual gifts. We find teaching on spiritual gifts in three main places — 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4, and Romans 12. These are all letters written by the Apostle Paul, who knew quite a bit about spiritual gifts and had seen them manifested in different places over the course of his missionary journeys. While Paul spends some time on the charismatic gift of speaking in tongues (particularly in 1 Corinthians 14), he does not distinguish it from the other spiritual gifts in the places where he is teaching on spiritual gifts generally. (And it seems clear that he is only highlighting tongues later in 1 Corinthians because it is a gift that has been abused.) Instead, he simply includes it in lists of spiritual gifts that include some specific abilities and other more general characteristics. Some of the specific abilities include teaching, evangelism, prophecy, and administration. Some of the more general characteristics include faith, compassion, helping, giving, and serving.
In fact, for Paul the main image associated with spiritual gifts is not the Pentecost at all. It is baptism. Baptism is cited by Paul each time he discusses spiritual gifts. As Paul teaches, it is by baptism that the Holy Spirit knits us into the body of Christ. And through the baptismal covenant established by Jesus Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are blessed with spiritual gifts for the building up of the church. The reason the Holy Spirit would give us gifts at our baptism is exactly so that we might use those gifts “for the common good” in the body of Christ (as Paul says).
There are a couple of things we should really pay attention to in all of this. The first is that it seems clear that the Scripture is suggesting that spiritual gifts are given to all the baptized. They are not just the preserve of those who are leaders in the church (such as pastors) or those who exhibit certain charisms (like speaking in tongues). They are for all men and women, which is why Paul is at such pains to explain in 1 Corinthians that no part of the body of Christ is less valued or important than any other part. The Holy Spirit gives gifts to Christians by virtue of their baptisms; if they are members of the body, then they have gifts to offer the body so that it might be strengthened and made whole.
The second point, which follows from the first, is that we in the church really need to be making an effort to teach on spiritual gifts in the present. We need to emphasize that gifts are given to all, and that they are given so that members of the church might use them in ministry. All believers are priests in the Christian church; there is no sense in which some can simply be “audience” while others do the work. We need to help all members of the church identify what gifts God has given them, and then help them see how those gifts can be shared for the common good of building up the body.
After all, Christians don’t have to experience a Pentecost on the order of Acts 2 in order to receive a spiritual gift. All they need experience is baptism. And if they are baptized, then they have been gifted by the Holy Spirit for ministry in Christ’s church.