Index by Subject

Gifts of the Spirit

Much skepticism surrounds those men and women today who claim the ability to see into the future or work other miracles by the power of God or some other source.

Rightly so, for their gifts are usually proven quite fallible and natural, and sometimes even very self-serving and duplicitous. At the same time, however, the word “miracle” is tossed about in our world quite freely, characterizing everything from the birth of a baby to an upset in the Super Bowl. Somewhere between the charlatans and the exaggeration is the truth about Bible miracles and that truth is surely found in the New Testament.

The objective of the Holy Spirit in dispensing miraculous abilities was not to enable some spectacular show or even to cause widespread healing from physical disease. Paul wrote,

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:1-3, ESV)

The purpose was to bring men and women to a knowledge of Christ Jesus, that they might know enough to trust him and confess him and follow him. No one has confessed the lordship of Jesus Christ without the participation of the Holy Spirit, for faith comes by hearing God’s word and that New Testament gospel record came through the work of the Holy Spirit (see Ephesians 6:17, 2 Peter 1:19-21, 2 Timothy 3:16-4:5). Although we hear the word “miracle” attached to very natural events, a miracle is by definition a supernatural occurrence.

Paul went on to enumerate some supernatural gifts of the Spirit in his missive to the Corinthian 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. (1 Corinthians 12:4-7, ESV)

Commentator Albert Barnes describes the “utterance of wisdom” in verse eight as “a comprehensive view of the scheme of redemption with the faculty of clearly explaining it to the apprehension of others” (Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament, Vol. 5, pg. 230). The word of wisdom gift was the ability to impart practical information about the gospel in a persuasive way, as Peter and Paul became talented at crafting their messages for Jewish audiences from the prophets and for Gentile audiences from dissatisfaction with idols.

The “utterance of knowledge” mentioned in verse eight reminds the reader that while we live with completed New Testaments all around us every day, and with centuries of scholarship and instruction concerning them, the original generation that received the scriptures obtained them incrementally and so a gift of more thorough knowledge was deemed necessary in the interim. Even on Pentecost, Peter was able to communicate the deeper matters of his faith than the Spirit had yet had time to reveal.

In some sense, faith is also listed as a gift in this context (verse nine). Faith here is obviously of a different kind than the like, precious faith that all believers share, for this faith was not possessed by all Christians, or even all supernaturally gifted ones. This is the faith to move mountains that Jesus predicted and Paul possessed (see Matthew 17:20, First Corinthians 13:2); it is a trust in the gifted person that his abilities are real and effective.

Gifts of healing were among the most prominent in the first century and remain among the most sought today (verse nine). Some early Christians could cure diseases and disabilities, even as Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law and blind and lame people. This desirable gift was not bestowed that the church might exist free of all disease, however, for Paul did not heal Timothy’s stomach ailment, for instance (see First Timothy 5:23). Moreover,  this healing was not promised on some stage without verification; rather the lame and blind were healed before people’s eyes so that there could remain no doubt (see Acts 3:1-10, 4:15-16).

Somehow distinct from the others, the “working of miracles” (verse ten) originates in the root of the word “miracle,” which means literally “wonders.” Here it likely has reference to effecting magnificent works like the exorcism of demons like Legion, infliction of divine judgment upon Ananias and Sapphira or raising the dead like Lazarus and Dorcas.

Prophecy was a valued and valuable ability throughout Bible history (verse ten). Because the early Christians and even unbelievers did not have complete copies of the New Testament, the gift of prophecy was necessary to impart divine revelation to them. Prophecy is commonly misunderstood to be only foretelling the future, but prophecy also includes miraculous insight and instruction on matters of morality and the present condition. Agabus foretold a great famine by prophecy (see Acts 11:28-30) but Paul revealed God’s will on the Lord’s Supper by the same divine gift of insight and instruction (see 1 Corinthians 11:23-34). The world is filled with latter-day “prophets” whose alleged visions often violate the word already revealed or are proven unfulfilled in time (see Deuteronomy 18:20).

The “ability to distinguish between spirits” reveals that, without copies of the New Testament, it would be difficult to discern when a preacher was bringing truth or error on many matters (verse 10; see also 1 John 4:1-6, 2 John 7-11). Some could discern the character of spirits miraculously, to rebuke error and accept truth.

The most eagerly pursued gift, “various kinds of tongues,” or glossolalia, refers to the ability to speak in actual human languages which the speaker had not studied or known (verse ten). On Pentecost, the apostles “began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” and “each one was hearing them speak in his own language” (Acts 2:4-6). Speaking in tongues allowed the gospel to be proclaimed to everyone on Earth in his own language so it would be evident God was behind the message and it was understandable. These “tongues” were not gibberish or even employed without an audience to interpret them.

Because not all hearers in an audience could understand a single glossolalia speaker, some were able to interpret languages they had not studied for the rest of the audience (verse 10). Paul cautioned,

If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. (1 Corinthians 14:27-33, ESV)

The Holy Spirit was responsible for this part of the gospel process, as the Father and Son had their own roles as well. This is the Holy Spirit who participated in creation and is introduced to the apostles and New Testament readers as the Helper (John 14:15-18, 25-26). Before his ascension, Christ instructed his apostles to wait in Jerusalem until they were endowed with power from on high, which came as God poured out his Spirit on them on the first Pentecost afterward (see Luke 24:49 and Acts 2).

The Great Commission included a provision of supernatural abilities to the apostles (see Mark 16:14-20). By them, God bore “witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit” (Hebrews 2:4). The purpose was not the spectacle or to make the world free of disease or to reverse permanently the effects of Babel, but to confirm the divine origin of the word that was being preached by God’s ambassadors of reconciliation (John 20:31-31).

Some gifts were evidently given simply by the word of Christ to that end (see Luke 10:1, 17-20). The limited commission also included abilities of exorcism and healing , but evidently this power was temporary, for Jesus told them to wait in Jerusalem to be endowed with power after his ascension (see Matthew 10:1-15).

The first occurrence of what is called Holy Spirit baptism was on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). It is the first half of the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy as representatives of the Jewish segment of all flesh received such gifts. The evidence of Holy Spirit baptism was the ability to speak in unstudied languages.

The second occurrence of Holy Spirit baptism is at the household of Cornelius the centurion (Acts 10:44-48). It is the second half of the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy as representatives of the Gentile segment of all flesh are so blessed. Again, Peter remarked that the evidence was the ability to speak in unstudied tongues. This occurrence precedes water baptism because Peter and his Hebrew cohort needed to be convinced that God approved of their addition to the kingdom. There are no other examples of Holy Spirit baptism in the Scripture because both Jews and Gentiles had now been introduced to the kingdom.

In other cases, the ability to work miracles was transmitted solely by the hands of the apostles. Philip the evangelist, not the apostle, could work miracles while he preached in Samaria, but could not pass that ability along to others (Acts 8:5-19). What Philip could not do, the apostles Peter and John could and their journey to Samaria marked an important expansion of the gospel’s scope that the prevalence of supernatural gifts. Since there was no apostolic succession outside of the office of Iscariot, however, the ability to pass along such abilities died with the last of the apostles.

Because the purpose of miracles was to confirm the divine origin of God’s word, miracles would only endure as long as it took to accomplish this task, that is, throughout the first century. This is how Paul tried to show the Corinthians that love was a greater gift than miracles, for it would outlast them (1 Corinthians 13:8-12). They were to cease when incomplete knowledge was replaced by a perfect – completed – New Testament revelation. The church would then emerge from infancy to maturity. We now have the faith once for all delivered, a perfect law of liberty (see Jude 3, James 1:25).