Giving Spiritual Gifts is All About Receiving
1) What: Faith in Christ
2) How: By the work of “the same Spirit”
In the name of the One whom we receive, dear fellow redeemed:
Do you ever have a hard time giving gifts? I’m not talking about a reluctance to give something, I’m talking about having a hard time finding a gift. Some people are tough to shop for. What makes this even harder at times is that gifts often mean more than what they are. The amount of time and thought put into a gift is a reflection of how important that person is to you. You may want to spend more time and money on some people and less on others. That’s what makes giving difficult. How can you find the right gift for someone who means a lot to you?
What about giving gifts to God? He deserves them more than anyone else. He should be at the top of our giving lists. And He should receive the best and most thought out gift. Talk about someone who’s difficult to shop for! Where do we even begin? What store or shop offers a pleasing gift to the Almighty Creator of heaven and earth? What can we possibly return to the One who has given us so much? In our sermon text for today, the Apostle Paul seeks to offer some advice. The fledgling and immature Corinthian congregation was having a difficult time with this too. They didn’t know how to properly give gifts in service and honor to God’s name. They were getting caught up in the sinful activity of using their time and talents for themselves, not for God. But through Paul’s pen, God Himself spoke to these young Christians and told them exactly what He found pleasing. What Paul told them is like many of the truths of God, what we learn is often different than what we expect. The Lord tells us that giving spiritual gifts is all about receiving. And the answer lies in what we receive: faith in Christ, and how we receive it: through the work of the Holy Spirit. We ask that God would come to us again as we read this portion of Scripture from 1 Corinthians 12:1-11:
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be ignorant: 2 You know that you were Gentiles, carried away to these dumb idols, however you were led.3 Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed, and no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit. 4 There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. 6 And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all. 7 But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: 8 for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills.
The beginning of chapter 12 marks a sharp transition point. Paul makes is clear that he is moving to a new discussion. But as he begins talking about spiritual gifts, he seems to deviate for a few verses. Instead of jumping right into the topic of gifts, he speaks briefly about idol worship and confessing Jesus as Lord. To the casual observer, verses 2 and 3 seem misplaced, as if they don’t really fit the context. But to the believer, these verses make complete sense, in fact, they must be included in this context if one hopes to learn how to give spiritual gifts.
What a punch Paul packs into these first three verses! Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be ignorant: 2 You know that you were Gentiles, carried away to these dumb idols, however you were led.3 Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed, and no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit. The Corinthian congregation would have been composed mainly of Gentiles who were more familiar with Roman culture rather than Jewish culture. Whereas the Jews stressed belief in one, universal God, the Romans were polytheists, meaning that they worshipped a variety of gods. At the time of the early church, the flavor of day for Roman gods was emperor worship. This is why persecution was so rampant among the early church. For those living in Roman provinces, which composed much of the Christian world at that time, Christians were not just disobeying the religious customs of Roman culture, they were openly defying the Roman emperor, who had ignorantly exalted himself as a deity.
Paul did not want this congregation to stay in this ignorance, and so he reviews for them what it means to be a Christian and how they got to where they’re at now. When Paul applies idol worship to the reader’s life, it’s a strong indicator that many of the Corinthians had once practiced idol worship, a tradition that Paul does not want them to fall back into. The first thing that Paul seeks to remind them about their conversion is what they received: faith in Christ. That’s essentially what it means to call Jesus “Lord.” No unbeliever is going to genuinely give Him such a title. Only by faith can someone make this confession. But the opposite holds true as well. Those who reject Jesus as Lord choose to call Him something else: “accursed.” (Matthew 7:21 "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord! ' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of My Father in heaven.)
This word “accursed” dates all the way back to the Hebrew language in the Old Testament. What it originally meant was an offering that was delivered up for divine wrath. The accursed one or thing was viewed as receiving God’s punishment for sin. Those who gave the offering gave it with the intent that it would be destroyed. This was a spiritual gift that was pleasing in God’s eyes because it took sin away, but who among us can make such a sacrifice today? What we see here in this verse is quite amazing, and it ties together this entire section. Today we certainly would not want to call Jesus “accursed” just as Paul exhorts the Corinthians. But the ironic twist is that Jesus once became this very thing. He was cursed on the tree of destruction as an offering before His Father. He became the greatest of all gifts, the most worthy of all spiritual sacrifices, in our place for our sins, just as Paul once wrote to the Galatians: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree"—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith (Galatians 3:13-14).
As Christians, there is a part of us that takes great pride in calling Jesus our “accursed one.” But after His victory, after His resurrection, He is glorified alone, He is no longer cursed. Those who reject what He did continue to call Him this, because they ignore His victory, but they are wrong.
When it comes to offering spiritual gifts to one another and to God, this point is so vital. The key to offering a proper gift is found alone in receiving the merits of Christ by faith. No one can please God and call Jesus “accursed” at the same time. Denying Christ’s victory over the grave is paramount to denying one’s own faith. The two cannot exist together. Hear how Paul explains this to the same readers of our text, just three chapters later: Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. (1 Corinthians 15:12-17)
Every deviation from the work of Christ is a denial of what He came to do. Therefore as Paul says, worshipping idols is no different in essence than openly cursing Jesus. The two lead to the same path, to hell and destruction. Certainly on such a path there is no way to offer acceptable gifts before God.
We would do well to examine the various idols that we face in our lives. Ask yourselves what things in life have come before God? We all have weaknesses where we are tempted to serve our own wants above all else, even when they are in direct contention to God’s will. With our wealthy and comfortable lives comes the desire to be lazy in our work for the Lord’s kingdom. Add into this the busyness of our society and we scarcely find time to include God on day to day activities. An idol doesn’t have to be a little statue carved out of wood or stone, nor does it have to be an ignorant emperor who exalts himself above all else. The idols we often come into contact with are not the same as those. An idol is anything that we submit time and energy to in such a way that it blocks out God. An idol is anything that sucks up our time so much that there’s no time for God’s Word. In our day, idol worship is not so much about intentions, but about time management and priorities. You can have the greatest intentions and still be an idol worshipper. As Jesus said, Not everyone who calls Him “Lord” (has the right intention) does His will (has the right priority and belief).
With this short reminder about sin and grace, the Holy Spirit refocuses us on sin and grace. Because grace is fundamental to following up God’s forgiveness with the proper gifts. He tells us that we need to get in the right frame of mind before we can attempt to serve God. In other words, we needed to receive before we could give. Receive what? Faith in Christ, by the working of the Holy Spirit.
Later in the service we will have the opportunity to share in the Lord’s Supper. Thanks to the faithful preaching and study of Martin Luther, we have the benefit of a Godly understanding of this teaching. In one famous debate, Luther fought for the truth against a man named Ulrich Zwingli. Zwingli contended that the Lord’s Supper was merely symbolic and held no power to forgive sins. It was not a sacrament for him. After much vigorous debate, both Luther and Zwingli realized that they were simply going to have to disagree. In the end, Luther famously told Zwingli, “you are simply of a different spirit than I am.” Zwingli was of the spirit that needed to bring God’s Word into captivity to human reason. He believed that God would not command him to do something that he could not understand. Luther, on the other hand, brought every thought into captivity to the Word of God. He believed that God expected him to trust by faith even when he could not understand how. This is not to say that Zwingli was not a Christian, or that he did not have the faith. Luther was simply saying that he was allowing a human spirit to motivate him in this matter.
This is the same danger you encounter when you’re tempted to rely on yourself when it comes to spiritual gifts. Focusing too much on your own human spirit can lead to and result in a denial of the one Holy Spirit. This is precisely what the sacraments are all about. Many look at Baptism and Communion as actions that we perform to return thanks and praise to God. In other words, as gifts to God. This is true, but it’s not the primary emphasis that God intended. The Sacraments are primarily about what we receive from God, namely the forgiveness of sins and promise of eternal life. What you give back to God in thanks, praise, and service through gifts of the Holy Spirit is a result of this mighty work of God. You see how you can only properly give by receiving. And the blessing that we receive is worked by the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit of God that Paul emphasizes in this text is not the selfish and prideful human spirit. It is the Spirit that comes to you through the calm of God’s Word, the third member of the Trinity, the Spirit who is God Himself. The term Paul uses is “the same Spirit.” This simple clause, used 5 times in our section, illustrates the God-head of the Trinity. Just as there are not a variety of gods in the world so there are not a variety of spirits in the world. The only true Spirit who can lead us is the Holy Spirit who is God. This is the Spirit who offers varieties of gifts to the Church. Notice how Paul goes on to write: There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. 6 And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all. This same Spirit is connected to these similar phrases: the same God and the same Lord, the One who works all things. This is speaking of the one and only Holy Spirit, the creator and author of faith, the one who establishes what we receive that allows us to offer spiritual gifts.
When it comes to giving gifts to God, the procedure is not what we would often expect. You must first receive before you can give. Your faith is a receiving faith. Your faith is often weak at times and not strong enough to reach out and grasp salvation for yourself. Instead you simply receive what the Holy Spirit seeks to offer to you again and again through the Word of God. Even though we often try to get in the way of God’s powerful Word, the same Spirit, the one who is God and Lord, patiently works on our hearts. Because of the persistence of God’s Spirit, your faith has received the merits of your Savior.
May we, like the Corinthians, not go beyond what God has written for our learning. We already have everything we need, everything we want. We have become rich in the name of Jesus. What God wants us to give to Him is only found first in what He has given to us and how He has given it. That greatest of all gifts is faith in His Son, the eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-encompassing Savior of the world. But God’s gift also extends into how we receive it. The Holy Spirit takes care of doing the work, of securing the treasure of eternal life on our behalf, without our help. These acts are sure, certain, and complete. And with them in place and with their assurance in our heart by faith, we can offer acceptable gifts to God. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, Amen.