Church of Christ Deism: Spiritual Gifts in the New Testament

i_dont_believe_in_miracles_i_rely_on_them_tshirt-p235921785579041865yk07_400Sometimes we get so caught up in the details that we don’t step back to look at the big picture. Let’s take a moment to consider the New Testament’s big picture of spiritual gifts.

We begin with the Gospels, of course. We see that God, through the Spirit, inspired many people to prophesy around the time of Jesus’ birth: Elizabeth, Mary, Anna, and many others.

John the Baptist was a prophet, did no miracles, but spoke in a way that somehow persuaded the people that he’d received the gift of the Spirit. Jesus, of course, did many miracles and the people considered him a prophet well before they considered him the Messiah. Jesus gave the apostles and those he sent out as missionaries the power to cast out demons and do other miracles.

At Pentecost, the 12 (or the original disciples) were baptized in the Spirit and spoke in tongues. In Acts we see the apostles performing miracles of healing and speaking as God inspired them. Paul raised a boy from the dead, spoke in tongues, and somehow was able to demonstrate his possession of the Spirit with power at different churches.

When the first converts in Jerusalem were saved, they were promised the Spirit (Acts 2:38), but there is no record that they received tongues or other spectacular manifestations of the Spirit. In fact, the record strongly suggests that they did not, as they were amazed at the apostles’ miracle working, not their own (Acts 2:43).

When the Samaritans were converted, they did not receive the Spirit until the apostles came from Jerusalem, and then the receipt of the Spirit was evidenced by tongues. When Cornelius and his household were converted, they received the Spirit in advance of baptism, and it’s presence was evidenced by tongues. When the Ephesians were baptized, they spoke in tongues.

1 Corinthians may well be the earliest of all the New Testament books, and there we have a record of many spiritual gifts:

(1 Cor 12:28)  And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues.

Paul also mentions the “message of wisdom,” the “message of knowledge,” interpretation, revelation, and “word of instruction” as spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12:8, 30; 14:6).  In 14:26 he mentions that “everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.” Every item in the list had earlier been listed as a spiritual gift, making having a “hymn” a likely additional spiritual gift. In fact, “hymn” interprets psalmos, and composing psalms is mentioned as a spiritual gift in the Old Testament (1 Chr 25:1).

Romans has its own list of spiritual gifts, in language distinctively reminiscent of 1 Cor 12 —

(Rom 12:4-8)  Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. 6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. 7 If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; 8 if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.

However, the list has a less “miraculous” flavor. In fact, many of the gifts seem downright pedestrian. It’s hard to see contributing to the needs of others as miraculous in the same sense that healing is. But, then, back in 1 Cor 13, Paul speaks of the gifts of giving all we have to the poor and surrendering our bodies to the flames — so it seems that generosity and martyrdom are gifts, too.

We then find another list in Ephesians —

(Eph 4:11)  It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers,

We don’t normally see being a pastor (shepherd/elder) as a spiritual gift in the same way that tongues are a gift.

Peter has his own list —

(1 Pet 4:8-11)  Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. 9 Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. 10 Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. 11 If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.

Love, hospitality, speaking, serving. It sounds much like the list in Romans 12.

Paul tells Timothy he received certain gifts —

(2 Tim 1:6-7)  For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. 7 For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.

Power, love, and self-discipline. “Power” is often associated with the miraculous or Spirit-given.

Now, we can draw a few tentative conclusions at this point —

* When Peter and Paul speak of “spiritual gifts” they make no distinction between the spectacular and the mundane. Giving generously is mentioned beside prophecy; love next to power; and serving others alongside apostleship. They are all spiritual gifts.

* The lists of gifts become less spectacular and more mundane over time. 1 Cor is likely the earliest of the New Testament books and references the most spectacular gifts by far. By the time of 1 Pet, the gifts are love, hospitality, speaking, and serving. Even prophecy isn’t mentioned. 1 Pet appears to be a late book, AD 63 or 64, and likely after Paul’s death. Alan M. Stibbs, The First Epistle of Peter, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Tongues is mentioned in 1 Cor, likely the earliest of all the New Testament books, and is not mentioned in any of the other, later epistles.

* Some want to say that “spiritual gifts” were only given before the New Testament was complete. Others argue that only the apostles could give spiritual gifts. But if that’s so, then what of hospitality, generosity, leadership, self-discipline, service, martyrdom, mercy, hymn-writing, and shepherding? Did those die, too?

* Others would draw a line between those gifts that allow someone to violate the laws of nature (healing) and those that do not (love). But this is a distinction foreign to the New Testament. All the gifts, spectacular and mundane, are credited to the Spirit — not nature. If nothing supernatural is going on with the gift of service, how is it a gift?

* As the church matured, certain gifts became less prominent — and even disappeared. Some gifts remain with us forever. Some may have died in the First Century. Or perhaps they just went away until they were needed again. Or perhaps we just don’t see them here in the West where the church is well-established.

When we become concerned over whether a gift is miraculous or violates natural law, I believe we are incorporating a modernistic mindset entirely foreign to scripture. The point of these passages is that the Spirit gives gifts and should be credited for his work in each of us. The apostles seem to intentionally mix up the spectacular with the mundane so we’ll learn to appreciate the mundane as coming from God, too — and for a purpose.

The lesson isn’t that laws of nature are violated but rather the lesson is that God gives gift to equip us for mission. And when we deny the equipping work of the Spirit, we take a step toward denying the mission — as well evidenced by the fact that the churches that are the most unwilling to give credit to the Spirit are often the least effective missionally. You see, when we think we have to do it entirely on our own, it seems too hard. Worse yet, when we try to do God’s mission without God’s help, I think God lets us do just that — work without his help. And the results speak for themselves.

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  1. Though perhaps tangential to your summary, I think I'd still include a mention of Agabus, who – through the Spirit – predicted a famine (Acts 11:28) and Paul's arrest in Jerusalem (Acts 21:10-14); of Philip, whom the Spirit whisked away from the Ethiopian (Acts 8:39); of the sending of Barnabas and Saul by the Spirit (Acts 13:2-4) … yeah; there's so many more that the book should have been titled "The Acts of the Holy Spirit," I know. But that's the point; I think all along there were subtle as well as spectacular manifestations of the Spirit's power.

    Do we still believe the Spirit can/will send us where He wants us to go – or prevent us from going where He doesn't – or warn us of the consequences whether we go or stay?

    If not, for what are we praying when we ask for God's guidance?

  2. Interesting.

    Ironically, I have thought for years that the blending of the 'spectacular and mundane' gifts is a major fault of the ultra conservative cofC. They believe that the scriptures that indicate an ending of the spectacular also indicate an ending of the mundane. Thus, they believe the Holy Spirit stopped His work once the NT was completed.

  3. The modern non-Pentacostal Christian is sort of a witch at Endor. We claim to accept HS gifts, especially the normal ones like administration generousity, encouraging serving, or teaching, but are shocked if any supernatural ones pop up!