Last Sunday we looked at the incredible topic of spiritual gifts—manifestations of the Holy Spirit given to each follower of Jesus. We are empowered by God’s Spirit to do things that reveal the presence of God among us, whether these are speaking gifts or serving gifts. Those who speak are to do so as if they were declaring the oracles of God and those who serve are to do so in the strength God himself supplies. In short, whether we speak or we do, we are to serve one another in the ways in which God himself would if he were physically present.
Paul wrote this to the Corinthians, and it provides us with a working definition of a spiritual gift:
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
A spiritual gift is the manifestation of the Spirit of God through us for the common good. One question that often comes to mind is this: how many gifts are there? As we saw last Sunday, Peter groups spiritual gifts into two broad categories: speaking gifts and serving gifts. One either serves the body of Christ with words or one serves the body of Christ with actions (see 1 Peter 4:10–11). Paul lists spiritual gifts in a number of places and it’s fairly clear that he wasn’t trying to provide an exhaustive list.
- 1 Corinthians 12:8–10
- distinguishing spirits
- interpretation of tongues
- 1 Corinthians 12:28
- Ephesians 4:11
- Romans 12:6–8
There is clearly some overlap in these lists of gifts, but it’s also clear that Paul is not trying to list every possible spiritual gift in any of these places. In 1 Corinthians he even names two unexpected gifts!
I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.1 Corinthians 7:7 ESV
The context of this verse is marriage and celibacy, and Paul refers to these as gifts from God! A spiritual gift is any manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. If one’s marriage is used for the common good it is a gift from God for the whole church. If one’s celibacy is used for the common good it is a gift from God for the whole church. How a particular gift works itself out will vary from person to person. A 90-lb woman, for example, may well have the gift of service but this doesn’t mean the Spirit will manifest his presence through her helping people move heavy furniture, while a 190-lb man with the gift of service may manifest the Spirit through lifting heavy things for others. The gift of service may come through cooking meals for others or by providing childcare or transportation to and from doctors’ appointments or by helping with home repairs. The gift of service is the manifestation of the Spirit through serving others for the common good. One person with the gift of hospitality may manifest the Spirit by visiting with a shut-in while another with the gift of hospitality may manifest the Spirit by sharing a meal with a house filled with guests.
Just as Paul refers to marriage and celibacy as gifts from the Lord, the Old Testament mentions another unexpected gift:
Then Moses said to the people of Israel, “See, the LORD has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft. And he has inspired him to teach, both him and Oholiab the son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan. He has filled them with skill to do every sort of work done by an engraver or by a designer or by an embroiderer in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, or by a weaver—by any sort of workman or skilled designer.Exodus 35:30–36:1 ESV
“Bezalel and Oholiab and every craftsman in whom the LORD has put skill and intelligence to know how to do any work in the construction of the sanctuary shall work in accordance with all that the LORD has commanded.”
God had given Moses very detailed instructions for building the tabernacle with its furniture, along with the priestly garments and utensils. It is incredible to think that the Spirit of God filled Bezalel, so that he might be a skilled craftsman for the common good of the people of Israel. I am reminded of my father-in-law who could take a pile of wood and make anything you wanted with it. (Compare that to me: I can take a pile of wood and put it anywhere you wanted it.) He faithfully used his skill and craftsmanship to serve a variety of Christian camps by building and repairing whatever those camps needed, and thus manifested the Spirit of God for the common good.
Quite simply, a spiritual gift is any ability you have to serve others for the common good. If you do this according to Peter’s instructions, you are serving the church with your spiritual gift. If you serve with words, you must do so as if you were speaking the very words of God. If you serve with actions, you must do so in the strength God supplies. By serving one another, we build up the body of Christ and we provide the world around us a glimpse of the future. The apostle Paul says the Spirit of God is a down payment on the future:
In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.Ephesians 1:13–14 ESV
The power of the Spirit we experience in this present life is a glimpse of what is to come. One day our unity will be perfect, for the body of Christ will have been completely built. Until then, we build up the body by serving one another as the Spirit of God manifests himself through each one of us.
This brings us back to the original question: how many spiritual gifts are there? The answer is to understand what a gift really is—it is the person filled with the Spirit. The gift is the person given to the church. There are as many spiritual gifts as there are followers of Jesus. Don’t leave your gift wrapped and stuck in the closet. Let the church unwrap it. Let’s build up the body of Christ together.