Gifts for the Common Good (Sermon)
Updated: Apr 25, 2020
1 Corinthians 12:4-11
Introduction: Making Independence Our Primary Project
We Americans tend to make independence our primary project, despite the fact that the normal human biography begins and end with dependence. However, the American dream simply doesn’t include reliance on other people. We’d rather invest in and promote our own interest than that of others. Our beliefs are more valid, our chosen clothing fashion is more “normal” than anybody else’s. Religious affiliation is on the decline as personal freedom is on the rise. People would rather have a belief system that is highly individualized, a “make-your-own-religion.” Individualism is our national anthem.
About two years ago, the folks at Google released a database of 5.2 million books published between 1500 and 2008. You can type a search word into the database and find out how frequently different words were used at different eras.
The database doesn’t tell you how the words were used; it just tells you how frequently they were used. Still, results can reveal interesting cultural shifts. For example, somebody typed the word “cocaine” into the search engine and found that the word was surprisingly common in the Victorian era. Then it gradually declined during the 20th century until around 1970, when usage skyrocketed.
A study by Jean M. Twenge (author of Generation Me), W. Keith Campbell and Brittany Gentile found that between 1960 and 2008 individualistic words and phrases increasingly overshadowed communal words and phrases.
That is to say, over those 48 years, words and phrases like “personalized,” “self,” “standout,” “unique,” “I come first” and “I can do it myself” were used more frequently. Communal words and phrases like “community,” “collective,” “tribe,” “share,” “united,” “band together” and “common good” receded. It would be interesting to do a similar study on Christian worship music.
New York Times columnist David Brooks notes, “These gradual shifts in language reflect tectonic shifts in culture.” We’re drenched with individualism.
Individualism is a cancer to the church. While its true, Christians come to Christ one by one, as individuals, God saves people one at a time. Still, the imagery in the New Testament for what we the church are, the imagery is solidarity. We are one body. We are God’s house. And the cultural influence of individualism corrupts the instruction Paul gives for the church in 1 Corinthians 12.
1 Cor 12, verse 1 sets up the topic of the chapter. Paul says, “Now concerning spiritual gifts...” The people at the church in Corinth had a lot of questions that they had sent in a letter to Paul. One of those questions was about spiritual gifts. Are spiritual gifts really an evidence of spiritual people? So in response to their question, verse 1, Paul says, “now concerning spiritual gifts,” to indicate to them that he is about to answer their question. He uses their term to address this topic. And then goes on to address how members of the body should function as part of the body for the common good and not merely individual fulfillment. Read with me beginning in verse 4.
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. 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.
We’ll take note of three points of emphasis on this passage. The first is that God gives gifts. So number one, God gives gifts.
[added note (Feb 28, 2016): “The famous [medieval] formula captures the idea of societal complementarity: the clergy pray for all, the lords defend all, the peasants labour for all, encapsulates the idea that society is organized in complementary functions, which nevertheless are of unequal dignity.”]
1. God gives gifts
The weight in this passage falls on the Giver. Notice that beginning in verse four, Paul says there are gifts, services, and activities. But the gifts are from the same Spirit, the services from the same Lord, and the activities from the same God. In other words, the points is that these gifts are from God, the Trinity is involved. The Spirit, the Lord (Jesus) and God (the Father).
And even before that, in verse one, Paul begins the discussion, “Now concerning spiritual gifts…” and then addresses the matter of a person’s confession. If a person confesses that Jesus is Lord, if a person thinks of Jesus, and claims him as master, then that person should be considered a Christian. That’s what a Christian is. But if a person denies Jesus, that’s not a legitimate confession: they are not a part of the church.
In other words, the whole discussion about spiritual gifts, which takes up this entire chapter and a couple chapters to follow—that discussion has to begin with Jesus as Master. He is the head of the church. So we begin by calling him Lord. And then we acknowledge that whatever gifts the church benefits they come from God through people who call Jesus Lord.
And then look at verse seven, it says, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit.” What does that mean? Two things – it means that Spirit gives these manifestations, they are “of Him.” The Spirit is the author. But it also means that these “manifestations” reveal the Spirit. The character of God is seen through these gifts. “The Spirit reveals himself in the gifts (charismata).”
So the emphasis of this passage from the beginning is on the One who gives the gifts.
Okay so this has some bearing for how we as a church begin conversations about spiritual gifts. One of the core principles of this church is that we would be God-centered. And that’s not just something that seems like a good idea. We want to be God-centered in all we do because the Bible begins with God and always points back to him. Romans 11:36 says, “For from him and through him and to him are all things.” And that’s what 1 Corinthians 12 is saying. Gifts and services and activities in the church are from him, through him, and to him.
What does this mean for our conversations about spiritual gifts? And by the way if you haven’t heard many conversations about spiritual gifts, then let me catch you up to speed on how these conversations usually go. They usually begin with a question. And the questions is usually, “What is my spiritual gift?” Someone has been told they need to know their spiritual gift. Maybe they’ve been told that the Bible lists 18 different gifts in four different passages, and they need to know which gifts they have so they can use those gifts in the church. And then the next step is, you need to take a spiritual gifts inventory. Which is like a personality test – self assessment of what you like to do. You figure out what suits you best, where you feel most fulfilled, and then plug in to that aspect of life in a church.
In a way, it just ends up being a means getting the programs of the church staffed with volunteers who like doing what they’re doing. One pastor wrote, “A spiritual gifts inventory is an essential tool in awakening the ministry potential of [the] congregation.”
It’s ironic and sad, that we like the Corinthians tend to take spiritual gifts which are just supposed to be us serving the body of Christ, and we turn it into a story about me! What is my spiritual gift? What am I most passionate about? Where do I feel fulfilled? Now those questions can actually help us articulate the things we’re wired by God to do. But do you see how those questions can shift the tone?
What’s missing from that conversation? God is. When we talk about spiritual gifts, we should begin with giving thanks that God draws people into his plan for revealing his glory through the church.
In another passage (Eph 3) Paul says this, “I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according ot his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Now that’s putting God first. Paul says, “God made me to look at Jesus and call him my master. And then God gave me a role to play. I wasn’t good at speaking, but God told me to preach to the Gentiles. And that’s how God displays his wisdom and glory through the church.”
To put God at the beginning of the discussion means that we consider how his greatness is being displayed through his gifts. How have you seen God use others for the benefit of this church? How has God revealed his character and kindness to you through others in this body? Have you seen his faithfulness through others?
David, our children's ministry director, has been leading the charge with children’s ministry for several years. It wasn’t his favorite thing to do, he’s not much for administrative stuff. But he loved the kids and he wanted to serve this body by filling a much-needed role. And God’s grace was evident in the way he served. He was joyful, he was thoughtful in his prayers and the lessons he taught, humble in his attitude towards others. Just this past month he handed over the leadership of children’s ministry to Josh. But David’s work in this church has been God’s gift to you. He has built up and discipled children. God has used him for the good of this church.
That’s just one example of how we might make God the starting point in the same way this passage does. Not by asking, “What is my spiritual gift?” But by observing how God is blessing this church through the service of others. And then giving thanks with hearts full of joy. One way for you to apply this passage: be on the lookout today for people who function for the good of this body, thank them and thank God that he is using them to display through the church.
2. God gives a variety of gifts
There’s another major emphasis in this passage, that is the variety of gifts. So number one was God gives gifts. Number two is God gives a variety of gifts. So there is one Giver, but there are many gifts. There is one Lord, one Jesus that all should call master. But there are many ways for his servants to serve.
God loves variety. As someone noted, when God sends a blizzard, he makes each snowflake different. We make ice cubes. Doubtless the church is in some sense like a mighty army, but that does not mean we should think of ourselves as undifferentiated khaki uniforms. We should be more like an orchestra: each part making its own unique contribution to the harmony.
So in verses 4-6, there are varieties of gifts, varieties of service, and varieties of activities. And then what follows is a list that demonstrates the variety of ways that God shows his kindness through people. To one is given the utterance of wisdom, to another the utterance of knowledge, to another faith, gifts of healing, working of miracles, prophecy, ability to distinguish between spirits, various kinds of tongues, the interpretation of tongues.
Now my goal this morning is to explain this passage to you, but what I’m leaving out is detailed attempt to explain each of these gifts. So there is much discussion about whether tongues and miracles are still functioning in the church, and what exactly is the nature of prophecy or the utterance of wisdom? Legitimate questions we won’t deal with today, because I think at this point in the paragraph, Paul is attempting not to explain in detail each of these gifts, but rather to emphasize generally that there are a great variety of evidences of God’s grace should be manifest in the life of the church. This list is inclusive, its just a sampling. Not exhaustive.
This might be a good point to hit the pause button and ask, “What is a spiritual gift?” You might feel very confident about the answer to that question. But actually the we way use the word “gift” in English tends to obscure the meaning of the word that Paul uses which in the Greek is, charisma, which would be “grace-gift” or “that which results from grace.”
We use the word gift to talk about particular abilities that people have. Someone on the music team this morning – we say they are gifted musically. A really smart student gets into the classes for gifted students. We use the word gift to mean special abilities.
But that doesn’t seem to be how Paul uses the word. So in the letters Paul wrote to the churches, there are four places where he lists some charisma, some results of God’s grace coming to the church. And in each of those lists he talks about how God has given to the church people who serve in various functions.
Romans 12:6-8: one who leads, one who teaches, one who shows mercy, one who contributes (money), etc.
1 Corinthians 12:8-10: prophecy, word of wisdom, word of knowledge, etc.
1 Corinthians 12:28-30: apostles, prophets, teachers, etc.
Ephesians 4:11: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors-teachers
1 Peter 4:8-11: the one who speaks, the one who serves
So the best way to think of charisma (spiritual gift) is not “special abilities” that someone has. These aren’t Christian superpowers, “Hey, what’s yours?” Rather the charisma are concrete expressions of God’s grace to the church. When Paul in those lists talks about the charisma, he mentions people: evangelists, servants, prophets. So those are functions – roles people serve in for the good of the body.
The charisma granted to each is not so much a supernatural gift as the call of the Spirit to serve the church.  A spiritual gift is a concrete expression of God’s grace to the church. And those concrete expression of God’s grace may come in an endless variety of ways. And the emphasis in 1 Corinthians, and really in all these similar passages, is that there is a colorful variety of ways God’s grace may be displayed through the way members function.
Well I can imagine that many of you are still sitting there thinking, okay, but what is my spiritual gift? Where am I supposed to serve? How am I supposed to be a concrete expression of God’s grace to Christ Covenant?
Let’s begin with a couple broad categories. 1 Peter 4, where Peter talks about the gifts, he lists similar roles in the church—the one who speaks, the one who serves,—and says we should do these things as “good stewards of God’s varied grace” (v. 10). Peter dispenses with the long list of gifts, he just summarizes everything under these two headings: speaking and serving. So if you were to think of the gifts in the church functioning roughly in these two categories: the speaking gifts would include teaching, wisdom, discernment, and things like this that tend to focus on the head, the mind, and speaking.
Then there are the serving gifts, administrative, hospitality, showing mercy, helping with church logistics like the deacons in Acts 6, and even contributing money. These gifts tend to focus on activity of the hands.
So you have gifts of the head, gifts of the hands, and yet in any gift, we must exercise the heart in love and humility. So you have some categories for service. But again, with all this variety, how would you determine the best place for you to contribute?
If you want to exercise some ministry of grace that functions as a gift to this body, maybe the best place to start is not by asking, “What is my spiritual gift?” but rather by asking “Where are there needs in the body?” Where are there needs in the body? Gifts are intended by God to meet needs. There are a variety of gifts because there are a variety of needs. And gifts are intended by God to meet needs. Variety of gifts then arises out of the assortment of needs. We all tend to see different needs.
This is why when it comes to some event in the life of the church, some people end up serving by coordinating all the logistics of a particular event (hands), others may serve by casting the vision for the event itself (head), others may serve by seeing those at the event in need of encouragement (heart). Why is the event a success? Because a variety of needs were met by a variety a gifts.
Now we all tend to see different aspects of the event. Some of us are prone to see the logistical needs. Others see need for instruction. Others see relational needs. The answer to that question—“where are the needs”—is going look different from each person’s perspective. But the best way to come to an answer is by having good relationships in this body.
And knowing where people need encouragement, and need the roof repaired, and need help with their new baby, or money to buy groceries. When you are engaged enough with the lives of people in this body to know those kinds of needs, then you’ll be in a perfect position to start wielding some spiritual gifts.
While its true we need people more people to children’s ministry, and in the nursery, and in the Karen ministry. Those places are understaffed. They need people who will be concrete expressions of God’s grace—charisma—in each of those places. So that’s true, and those are easy entry points. But beyond that, it’s critical for the health of this church that there would be strong relationships that result in a kind of needs awareness. Who needs the Word of God spoken to them? Who needs some truth in love?
We will all see different needs. And this will give birth to a variety of gifts operating to meet those needs. Importantly, Paul notes that “to each is given.” Meaning every person needs to be in operating mode. There are no drones in the body of Christ. We may all be useful in the grand vision that God has in view for his body. This is how unity is achieved, each member functioning fluidly together.
Like a tennis player serving the ball. He tosses it up, his eyes align the perfect swing, and he sets his whole body in motion, legs jumping, arm swinging, torso twisting—he is bringing all the members of his body into operation for a single fluid motion.
To know precisely where you would best fit into the fluid motion of the church, if that is not clear to you, just as a practical point, might warrant individual follow-up. You have to go to somebody and ask. The best way to come to a distinct role of service, is probably not going to be by taking one of those inventory test, but by connecting through relationships to the needs in the body.
3. God gives a variety of gifts for the common good
God gives gifts, and he gives a variety of them; and third, God gives a variety of gifts for the common good. Verse 7 again, “To each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (Or “with a view toward profiting.”)
The phrase “the common good”—for the benefit of the body as a whole—fits well the context of this chapter. The imagery in the rest of the chapter is that each part of the human body works together. When the foot, the eye, the hand are all healthy, fulfilling their role as designed to do, then the whole body is healthy and profits from each individual function.
Now he doesn’t make it clear at this point what he means by “the common good.” So how are we to find his intent? We don’t want to imply our own meaning to this phrase. We don’t want to imagine what the common good might be and then read that in here. So turn back a few pages to 1 Corinthians 1:4-9.
“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and in all knowledge—even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
As Paul thinks of the Corinthian church, he gives thanks that God has given them grace, specifically, that God has given them every gift that they need in order to be sustained to the end. They aren’t lacking a single gift in regards to the goal of perseverance. Paul addresses “the common good” in much the same way in Ephesians 4:15-16:
“Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”
Gifts are given to achieve the common good, which is that the whole body would be functioning with mature love, internally preparing for the day of Christ. An internal bodily process. Collective progress toward holiness. We are dependent on one another for this to happen. Rather than independence, we strive for interdependence.
Interdependence is a mutual reliance on one another, which is precisely the vision of 1 Corinthians 12. Consider verses 25-26:
[God has apportioned gifts] ... so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
What happens when one member of Christ Covenant suffers? Do you suffer with them? What happens when one member here is honored? Do you rejoice? Do you want to exercise a spiritual gift – then find someone to suffer with. Find someone to rejoice with.
Put off your independent spirit and take on an attitude of interdependence. One author wrote this paragraph:
It is the order of grace that Christians are instrumentally dependent upon each other; as we grow they grow; and as they grow we grow. Whatever we do for their benefit is for our own; whatever they do for our benefit is for their own. Thus it is not only our duty, but our best interest, to impart freely of all God’s gifts to us for the benefit of our fellow-Christians. There must be a communion of prayer and acts and gifts, as there is a communion of grace. If we refuse this closeness of union to our fellow-Christians, we shall suffer doubly; for the Holy Spirit will not use us as the channels of his grace to them, nor can the effectual working through them reach us. Nothing but weakness and death can result from such selfish isolation.
Don’t isolate yourself. You can come here every Sunday and still be isolated. I’ve talked to people who have chosen a particular church for the sake of anonymity. Even in a smaller church like ours its possible to find an anonymous niche. Slip in, slip out. This passage calls us to avoid such self-islanding.
In regards to our efforts to live like Jesus, the progress of each individual in this room is many ways bound up in the progress of us all. You may feel like you are more spiritually efficient without a bunch of churchy relationship to weigh you down, but if that’s the case your feelings have likely deceived you. Because it is in the context of Christian communion that God has designed for you to flourish. Your spiritual muscles will be strongest when you are flexing them to exercise some spiritual gifts in the church.
In other words, its not like the Spirit has given people special abilities, but because you haven’t been able to figure yours out yet, it’s going unused. Simply stated, something that you’re not doing, is not a spiritual gift. Because the gifts that Paul is talking about are roles of service that are benefitting the body, building it up toward maturity and love. Some ability you have that you don’t use for the good of the church is not a spiritual gift. There are no latent spiritual gifts. Now maybe you should those abilities to benefit the church.
One final note, look at verse 11, “All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.” As you consider serving as a concrete expression of God’s grace in this body, turn immediately to dependence on the Spirit. Begin your work on your knees and carry it out in the same posture.
Early in his journey, the man named Christian in John Bunyan’s timeless allegory Pilgrim’s Progress stumbles into a swamp of despair. He is deserted by his companion—a man named Pliable, suitably enough—and struggles to continue his journey forward through the quicksand of discouragement. The only way he is able finally to gain a footing on solid ground is through the uplifting hand of a newfound friend named Help. Bunyan uses this picture to teach us that we need (and will find) help along our pilgrimage of faith. But there is another lesson from this incident: the help may come from us, and the pilgrim may turn out to be another believer who needs our assistance.
We must not make independence our primary project. But rather interdependence, we must extend help and encouragement to those in need, and must be ready to receive it when we ourselves are in need.
 David Brooks, “What Our Words Tell Us,” The New York Times, March 20, 2013.  D. A. Carson suggests this is the essence of the question that was posed to Paul (Showing the Spirit, 22).  Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, 45.  Dunn, quoted in David Garland, 1 Corinthians, page 578.  Heidi Rolland Unruh and Philip N. Olson. “Getting There from Here: Starting Compassion Ministry in Your Congregation” Enrichment Journal (Spring 2004). Quoted in “The Assumption Behind Spiritual Gifts Inventories” by Sydney Page in Didaskalia, (Fall 2011). Also found in “Catch God’s Vision for Your City” by Ronald Sider, accessed http://ministrytodaymag.com/index.php/ministry-today-archives/66-unorganized/7774-catch-gods-vision-for-your-city  Carson, Showing the Spirit, 32.  George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, 580  Ken Bearding, What Are Spiritual Gifts?  D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit, 35.  George Bethune, Expository Lectures on the Heidelberg Catechism, 76.  Philip Graham Ryken, The Communion of Saints, 97-98.