Paul has been talking to the Corinthians about several different topics that arose because of their letter to him, and the visit that he had with some members of the church. It is unclear whether or not the Corinthians had questions about what is in this next section (roughly, chapters 12 – 14) but in any case Paul begins by saying: “About spiritual things brothers, I do not want you to be unknowing.” Whether or not they asked, these things are important for them to know, if they want to be disciples of Jesus.
Paul begins alleviating their ignorance with this interesting statement:
No one speaking by the Spirit of God says “Jesus is cursed,” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. (v 3)
I don’t think Paul means that no one can physically utter the phrase “Jesus is Lord” without the Holy Spirit. He means, rather, that no one can truly affirm in his/her heart and believe in the Lordship of Jesus unless he/she has the Holy Spirit. There is a practical side of this. If someone claims to be a prophet and speaks a prophecy that has the ultimate result of making people more independent from God and the Lordship of Jesus, then that prophecy did not come from the Holy Spirit. If someone claims to have a new revelation from God that rejects what the Bible teaches about Jesus, and rejects Jesus as true God and true man, then that revelation did not come from the Lord. In case you are wondering how that is applicable, bear in mind that the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons have done exactly that. We can tell they are false teachings because they reject the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Their “prophetic utterances” are not from God, because they do not affirm that Jesus is Lord. Even more recently, Gwen Shamblin, founder of the Weigh Down Workshops has started a cult, rejecting the Lordship of Jesus. So if anyone is claiming to be an instrument of the Holy Spirit the end result should be that Jesus is lifted up as Lord.
Even on a more personal level, we should apply this test to people who claim to be speaking or working for God. I knew a lady once who claimed to be a prophetess. But much of her speaking seemed to glorify herself. She also claimed to have the gift of healing. One time, she retold the story of the woman who was healed when she pressed through the crowds to touch the edge of Jesus’ cloak. She then invited all the listeners to crowd around her, and touch her own clothing and be healed. The effect was that the focus was all on her. She was glorifying herself, not Jesus.
If my own preaching and teaching seems primarily to glorify myself; particularly if it seems to draw more attention to me than to Jesus, then what I say is probably not by Holy Spirit. If my preaching or teaching seems to lift up or draw attention to another human being or human institution, rather than Jesus Christ, then I may not be speaking by the Spirit of God.
You might find a church or a religious group that does not glorify a person or institution, but their teaching ends up somehow minimizing Jesus. I attended a group meeting once where three preachers spoke. Each one urged us to make ourselves better by our own efforts. Each one told us that we had the power and responsibility to make ourselves holy – on our own. They did not lift up what Jesus did for us on the cross. They did not publicly proclaim that our holiness comes only through Jesus. The Lordship of Jesus was minimized – our own efforts and good works were the main things that were lifted up. I think they were not speaking by the Spirit of God.
On the other side of things, when Jesus Christ is glorified and lifted up, we have good reason to trust the source. When credit is given to the Lord, and the human beings involved are viewed as lowly unworthy instruments who happened to be used by Him, then we can remember that Paul says, no one can truly believe and truly express the Lordship of Jesus unless the Spirit of God is in that person.
Paul adds another thought about “spiritual things:”
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.
Paul lists three categories of things here. The first is gifts. Literally, the word used is “graces.” Many Christians call these “spiritual gifts” but because of the Greek, I prefer the term “grace-gifts.” We don’t know for sure what Paul means by “graces,” but he does use this exact word referring to healing both in verse 9 and in verse 27. The second category of “spiritual things” is service. The word used here is actually plural, and it could also be translated “ministries.” I think this is a broad category suggesting that the Holy Spirit works through those who serve the church in various capacities. Don’t be fooled by the term “ministry.” It mean service. If you serve God or others in some way, the bible calls it a “ministry.” Paul says that all these different kinds of ministries come from the Holy Spirit. The third category Paul mentions is “activities.” A more literal translation might be “energies” or “empowerments.” The word is all about supernatural power. Linguistically, this has a clear connection to obvious miracles and to exorcism (the driving out of demons).
In the following verses, Paul does not say which particular things are grace-gifts, which are ministries, and which are empowerments. The main point is, they all come from the Holy Spirit.
Now, these “spiritual things” or “things of the Spirit” have been somewhat controversial in Christian history. Some Christians claim that God doesn’t do anything miraculous anymore (although most of those folks would still agree that God sometimes heals miraculously). So to them, the entire passage that follows is basically irrelevant. But one of the reasons people came to feel that way is because other Christians have sometimes ignored the important points Paul makes here about things of the Spirit, and the result is that they fake spiritual gifts, or try to manipulate them, or take them as a sign of some special Christian status. But Paul says that the point of all these “things of the spirit” is that they glorify Jesus, and they work for the common good of those who trust him.
“Spiritual gifts” as they are often called, are not a sign of maturity. Since Paul writes about these things, it is a pretty good bet that the Corinthian Christians had these “things of the spirit.” And yet we know from the rest of the letter that in many ways they were spiritually immature, and even wrong in both their theology and practice. So we won’t make the mistake of thinking that because someone has the gift of prophecy, or tongues or healing, that it automatically means that such a person is mature in following Jesus. We will also, as we examine the next few chapters of 1 Corinthians, pay attention to what Paul says about these things and how to put them into practice. We won’t fake theses things of spirit. We won’t try to manipulate them.
On the other hand, according to the bible these things do actually exist, and when they are used according to the direction given by the Spirit through the bible (as in this passage), they bring great benefit to the whole Church. So we won’t throw out the baby with the bath water. We will seek these things of the spirit, as Paul tells us to in 12:31. And as we do, we will glorify Jesus.
As usual, Eugene Petersen, in the Message, has a pretty good handle on the meaning of these verses:
God’s various gifts are handed out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various ministries are carried out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit. God’s various expressions of power are in action everywhere; but God himself is behind it all. Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people!