How Does Paul Describe the Spiritual Gifts in 1 Corinthians 12? Part 1

I get many questions about the spiritual gifts, speaking in tongues, interpretation, and other facets of spirit-filled service. One of the best ways to approach so many questions is to go through Paul’s flow of thought from 1 Corinthians 12-14.

As I go through it, I will highlight as many questions and issues as I can to help you grow in your ability to use your gifts for God’s glory. Everybody wants to use their gifts to help others but not everyone understands the entirety of this passage.

My hope is that this will clear up some of the misunderstandings, questions, and curiosities you have about the spiritual gifts. Throughout these consecutive blog posts, I will outline and fill in information about 1 Corinthians 12-14..


Before Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, they sent him a letter with questions that they wanted Paul to answer. They asked him about a young man living in morally with his mother-in-law, marriage, worship, the resurrection, divisions among them, meat sacrificed to idols, and so forth.

Every time you read a new chapter of 1 Corinthians, you may see Paul say something like, “Now about…” That is the beginning of a new section, another answer to another question. Chapters are not always broken up the way they should be.

To get the best flow, I would take away all the chapter divisions and verse numbers. We tend to change our understanding of a passage based on these divisions. But they weren’t there originally.

First Corinthians 11 has two sections concerning worship. One talks about head coverings while another talks about taking communion together. The discussion on spiritual gifts is a third subsection of Paul’s answers to their questions about worship.

Spiritual gifts fall under the larger subject of worship. We worship God by using our gifts properly. But God doesn’t just give us gifts and leave us to our own devices.

He has provided teaching in his Word on how to understand our gifts and use them. That’s what these three chapters are all about. So let’s dive in and look around at everything Paul has to teach us about our gifts.

Nine Spiritual Gifts

Paul opens the discussion of spiritual gifts by talking about how they are different from pagan religions the Corinthians were familiar with before they knew Christ. And he outlines the nine gifts and lays down some principles for understanding their origin in the Spirit.

Not Your Father’s Religion (1 Corinthians 12:1-3)

“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)

Paul does not call these “spiritual gifts.” We add the word “gifts.” He just calls them “the spirituals.” These are spiritual gifts used during meetings of Christ’s body. Other lists of gifts include service gifts (Romans 12:6-8; 1 Peter 4:9-11) and ministry gifts (Ephesians 4:11).

Before the Corinthians met Jesus, they were involved in all kinds of occult practices and idol worship. There was no shortage of religious rituals in the city of Corinth. They worshiped everything from the Roman Emperor to the Greek gods with Roman names. Pagan temples littered the city.

Today we still have idols but we try to keep them hidden in our society. We worship everything from money to violence. Some of the worship of these ancient idols also required ecstatic speech that seemingly took over the speaker. It was almost like a psychedelic experience.

That’s why Paul makes it a point to mention their mute idols and the differences between speaking in the spirit and speaking for idols. An idol, a carved image, cannot speak. It can’t give us direction for our lives or tell us what it expects.

Paul did not want them to mix the practice of ecstatic speaking my idols and the demons behind those idols with the power of the Holy Spirit to speak through Christians. They are completely different things.

When the Holy Spirit speaks through us using these gifts, the power and authority of God is behind it. It must be taken seriously. We don’t speak on our own or by any power other than the Holy Spirit’s power.

Similar to this opening point, Paul also teaches us that we do not speak cursing upon Jesus when the Holy Spirit is using us. I’ve always told people that the words we are given by the Spirit will agree with Scripture and worship Jesus. The Spirit only speaks about Jesus.

Serving Christ’s Body (1 Corinthians 12:4-11)

“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)

Paul lays out a principle about the spiritual gifts before he begins to list them (1 Corinthians 12:4-7). The Spirit uses different approaches to meet his goals. Even though there are nine gifts, there’s only one Spirit who gives them to us and uses them in us.

Whether they are gifts to empower the church, services we offer to one another by God’s power, or activities that we do for his glory, these different ministries are given by the same Spirit. Only the Holy Spirit operates in the service. There is no room for demons or other principalities of any kind.

Another principle he proclaims in verse 7 is that the Holy Spirit uses us in the gift but it’s not for our benefit. It benefits the entire body of Christ. It doesn’t make us look good spiritually. We serve the church when this Spirit uses us.

Giving the Gifts (1 Corinthians 12:8-11)

“For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.” (1 Corinthians 12:8–11, ESV)

Next Paul lists nine spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:8-10). No list Paul or anyone else in the New Testament gives is complete. The gifts have an Old Testament background. These are the ones you will see most of the time. These gifts can be split up into three categories:

  1. Gifts of Revelation – Word of Wisdom, Word of Knowledge, Discernment of Spirits
  2. Gifts of Power – Healings, Faith, Miracles
  3. Gifts of Utterance – Prophecy, Speaking in Tongues, Interpretation of Tongues

The gifts of revelation focus on revealing something about people or the congregation.

  • A word of wisdom is supernatural insight into a situation that provides godly wisdom, answers, and a course of action. It brings clarity from God to a decision. The word of wisdom gives direction.
  • A word of knowledge is supernatural information given by God for a specific situation that a person would not know on their own or gain by their own means. It is not gained through education but only from God’s mind.
  • The discernment of spirits is the ability to know what’s happening in the spiritual realm, the plans and operation of spirits. A person without this gift may not pick up on the spiritual overtones around them.

The gifts of power minister a mighty infusion of God’s power in peoples’ situations. They glorify God and show his ability to do mighty works that increase faith in others.

  • The gift of healings is a regular and supernatural ability to be used by the Holy Spirit to heal people with sicknesses, disorders and even demonic issues. The word in the New Testament for salvation includes healing and deliverance.
  • The gift of faith is a supernatural ability to trust God beyond incredible circumstances and believe him without any doubt that God will do mighty things and move in mighty ways. It goes against unbelief of any kind.
  • The gift of miracles is the supernatural suspension of the natural order or to go beyond the natural order of things. It shows God’s power over nature and regular order.

The gifts of utterance are used by the Holy Spirit to encourage, edify, and exhort the body of Christ. The Spirit provides instruction and direction to his body.

  • The gift of prophecy is used much like the Old Testament prophets to speak God’s words to his people for a specific moment in time. It is a Spirit-inspired word that encourages, comforts, edifies, and exhorts Christ’s body. It is in the native language of the speaker and the congregation. Prophecy usually requires a response from its hearers.
  • The gift of speaking in tongues is the ability to give a message from God in an unlearned language that is not native to the gathering. It must be interpreted in a public setting.
  • The gift of interpretation of tongues is the ability to interpret tongues into the native language of the speaker and gathering. It is a companion gift to the gift of speaking in tongues. Interpretation is not the same as a translation. A translation is word for word while an interpretation may be word for word, a paraphrase, or concept for concept.

He finishes the list reiterating the principle that the same Holy Spirit gives all of these gifts and empowers us to use them (1 Corinthians 12:11). The Holy Spirit gives the individual gifts to those whom he wills.

Principles for Practice

  • Speaking by the power of God’s Holy Spirit is not the act of demon possession. It is the child of God being used by his Spirit to minister to others.
  • Gifts from the Holy Spirit glorify Jesus and agree with Scripture.
  • The gifts are different and have different purposes but are given and used by the same Spirit.
  • The Holy Spirit gives at least one gift to every believer to be used at his leading.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

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