What are spiritual gifts?—(1 Corinthians 12:1-7)

From the outset of 1 Corinthians 12, the primary text on spiritual gifts, Paul does not actually use the word gifts. In v1, gifts is implied as the noun possibly being described by the adjective spiritual, as if Paul were saying “I don’t want you to be ignorant about those things or realities that take shape deep in our spirits”.

In vv2-3, Paul continues that, as former pagans, idolatrous influences were what had taken shape in their spirits. But since those idols were simply stone or wood, their spirits had just been responding to what was not actually calling or leading. It was incongruent, off-balanced living. In Christ, however, God’s living Spirit was now taking shape in theirs. In God’s Spirit, they had stepped into a life of congruence between who God was or what God was doing, and who they were now becoming. It is in the consistency of this congruent reality that special spiritual things, like cream rising to the top, begin to emerge.

When Paul eventually uses the word gifts in v4, its built on the root word for grace (charis) and the suffix used to indicate an end result (-ma); thus we have the word charisma, which here means an end result or expression of grace, or as sometimes interpreted, a grace-gift. One might even call these gifts “graces”. Given how our consumer culture conditions us to think of gifts as something we’re entitled to (Christmas/birthday lists) or as something we’re free to do with whatever we want, this aspect of grace helps keep our perception of giftings properly framed. This could shape our view of the gifts in at least two ways.

One, it clarifies these gifts are not ours to own. In vv4-7, Paul emphasizes four times that whatever the gift, the activity it enables, or function it serves, these gifts are rooted in, activated through, and governed by the Spirit. These gifts have their essence and being in and of the Spirit. They are His specialty, fashioned and given purpose in the depths of God’s personhood. They are functionary reflections of God’s Spirit. These graces of wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing abilities, miracle working, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, and interpretations we receive are inherent and natural to God’s Spirit. While our spirits are specially enabled, they remain as expressions of the Spirit’s essence.

Two, by receiving in part what is the Spirit’s entirely, these grace-gifts are essentially loans. Since God’s freely given Grace possesses a nature that necessarily correlates with God’s holy nature, our receipt of this Grace comes with the condition that we preserve its holy nature in the way we maintain it. His Grace-in-us is thus partially expressed as loans, or giftings, we have been entrusted with so that, as with Jesus’ parable of the talents (Mt25), when it comes time to settle accounts with God, we will have shown ourselves faithful and fruitful trustees of His Grace.

The spiritual gifts, therefore, are the resulting expressions of the Grace God’s Spirit is enabling into our spirits. It is how we choose to physically express these expressions of God’s Spirit that will determine if they are be a gift that keeps on giving God’s Grace.


Avoiding the sin of David’s census in the Church

During a recent discipling session, I was asked why King David’s census was a sin. Dissatisfied with the answer I gave, I chose to reexamine the passage for deeper clarity.

Before reading 2 Samuel 24, the text regarding David’s census, I suggest reading Exodus 19:3-6, Deuteronomy 17:14-20, and 1 Samuel 8, which I briefly summarize below.

Ex 19:3-6—The people of Israel were to be a kingdom of priests, a nation whose entire existence was to embody and exemplify the harmony of holiness that flowed from active allegiance to God’s rule.

Dt 17:14-20—Were Israel ever to have a king, Moses clarifies his duty would be that of a lawful steward who practiced God’s law first as an example for all the people.

1 Samuel 8—Israel demanded a king who would rule them like other nations. While permitting this displeasing request, God also had the prophet Samuel warn them what they were in for.

The text of 2 Samuel 24 begins with God being angry, again, with Israel. The text doesn’t say why. Whatever the reason, it’s David’s response that exacerbates the situation and becomes the story being told here. The last time God was angry with Israel, David’s response was to seek his presence and make amends. This time David’s response is to take a census of the people. Based on the results in 2 Samuel 24:9, it appears its purpose was to raise a national army. David, however, soon realizes he has sinned greatly. But how so? Censuses were taken in the past. Why was this one different?

Ever since the incident with Bathsheba, David’s reign had grown to resemble the kind of kingships Moses and Samuel had warned the people about, which God had never wanted Israel to have. By raising a standing national army, the census would be another step toward Israel becoming the kind of kingdom they were never called to be. In the past, Israel’s sanctioned wars with other nations only occurred when God used them to purge the Canaanite nations whose culture and way of life God had marked for judgment. Once these God-sanctioned wars were complete, the God-sanctioned army of Israel disbanded and went to live in their tribal-allotted lands. Throughout David’s rule, the soldiers following and fighting for him were of his own tribe or kin (2 Samuel 23), a growing point of contention amongst other tribes of Israel (2 Samuel 19:41-43). The raising of a standing national army would push Israel further towards their demanded desire to be “like other nations” rather than God’s priestly people. David’s census, therefore, augmented Israel’s rejection of God as their King.

What possibly compounds the sinfulness of David’s decision, however, is the motive. Reacting to God’s anger, David’s decision is a preventative measure against the possibility of an invading army. But if that army were being brought against him as part of God’s judgment, then David’s use of Israel’s national army would be tantamount to opposing God. The census is the contemplation of raising an army from amongst God’s people to defend God’s king against the LORD their God who saved and called them to be his purposeful people. David is here being the kind of king God never wanted Israel to have. This contemplation by the “man after God’s own heart” to undermine God’s covenant with such an initiative verifies why nationalization posed such a danger to Israel’s identity as a people whose purpose was to bless all the families of the world. Adulterating their God-shaped uniqueness, nationalization would indeed make them like all the nations. Israel’s united kingdom only lasted three kings before it split. David’s son, Solomon, would give Israel the final fragmenting push. Israel wanted a kingdom like all the nations; they got one.

By contrast, David’s decision also underlines why, if Israel was ever to fully become the kingdom of priests through whom God would bless the world, they would need a King fully endowed with God’s holy character to show them how. A king, not like that of the nations, but of heaven, who would enact God’s will on earth.

Jesus’ tenet to “Seek first the kingdom of God” would correct this tendency of God’s people to prioritize policies that compete with God’s rule, whether it was the first century Jewish commonwealth or the current “America First” policy, or simply the usual “Me First” philosophy. By seeking Jesus’ “kingdom first” policy, we order our lives around, not the sameness of nations, but the uniqueness of Jesus’ reign by which God is restoring humanity to the harmony born of God’s holiness.