The Bible describes these varieties of gifts in Romans 12, Ephesians 4, and 1 Corinthians 12-14. Ordinarily, when you get gifts, you rip off the paper and discard it.
With God’s gifts, the gift wrapping is as valuable as the gifts themselves, except you don’t have to rip it up to get to what’s inside.
The first time I taught a class on gifts, I pointed out three subjects that also appear prominently in all of these chapters. The class promptly found about half a dozen more topics that always or nearly always occur in the context of gifts. I noticed something else while preparing to write this post.
God has special gifts for you and me, and high expectations, too.
The Body of Christ
As Rick Warren famously wrote as the first sentence of The Purpose Driven Life, it’s not about you. It’s not about me, either. It’s not about any one person in isolation, even though so much modern teaching focuses attention on applications for individuals to take to heart. We’re all in tbis spiritual jouney together as the body of Christ.
So each of these chapters uses the human body as a metaphor for the church.
The body metaphor
What, then, is the point in feeling left out for not being some other part of the body? Or rejecting any other part of the body? Christ is the head of the body, and the head can’t say to the foot (or any other body part), “I don’t need you.”
If Christ, the head, can’t say that he doesn’t need some part of his body, how dare we shun each other through observing any kind of social division?
That social class, ethnic group, other denomination, or any people you just don’t like are indispensible parts of the body of Christ. And so are you. Don’t despise yourself.
Paul enumerates only major, visible body parts, but let’s not forget internal organs, glands, blood, or bones. The whole body is knit together, and every joint—every point of relationship—supplies something to its working.
In fact, the entire point of Christ’s gifts to the church, the ministry offices in Ephesians 4, is to edify the body and equip its members. Or, to use the same word Paul does, the saints. That word includes you, by the way. The church calendar includes an All Saint’s Day. “All the saints” includes you and every other believer in any church you have ever attended.
Apparently Paul did not consider the body metaphor sufficient to stress the importance of unity in the church. He tells us to be of the same mind and not have a superiority complex. He points out the diversity of gifts, ministries, and actions, but the unity not only of the body, but of the triune God himself.
The church finds its unity in the Holy Spirit, the bond of peace, and in the unity of faith and knowledge.
Think of the music at church, be it hymns, anthems from the choir, or praise choruses. Especially when you consider the instruments, not everyone sings or plays the same thing at the same time. Except for ancient chants, our music may have multiple melodies sounding at once. At least it will have chords. And except for most (but not all) hymns, the rhythm will not be the same as the principle melody in all of the other parts.
The unity of the church is not the same as unison. Unity is found in harmony, in the God-ordained diversity of the people he created and knit together to make the church.
Members of the body exercising gifts
God expects certain behaviors from all the saints. Four of the characteristics he demands appear in all three chapters. Three of them appear in two chapters.
When you think of love, do you think first of the great love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13? Paul isn’t changing the subject from gifts to love. Remember that he did not divide any of his letters into chapters. Chapter numbers came centuries afterward.
The last verse of chaper 12 exhorts us to desire the greater gifts, but introduces love as something greater. Paul mentions three gifts to point out that without love, they amount to nothing. Then chapter 14 says to follow the way of love and eagerly desire the spiritual gifts.
Paul simply could not talk about gifts without talking about love. The body both builds itself up and suffers together in love, and love must be without hypocracy. Several verses in Romans 12 spell out what that means. Ephesians 4 ties love to both humility and truth.
We don’t come together just to have our needs met, but also to help meet others’ needs. We come together not just to receive, but to give.
Paul does not give major emphasis to patience in these passages, but he mentions it explicitly or implicitly in all of them. We must be patient in tribulation and patient in exercising our gifts in worship. All the behaviors that grieve the Holy Spirit arise at least in part from lack of patience.
Humility is prerequisite to walking in a manner worthy of our calling. We must not consider ourselves superior to anyone else. We must not think too highly of ourselves—including thinking too highly of our low self-esteem. Thinking too much about that keeps us from taking adequate notice of the people around us.
Don’t give in to the temptation to look down on anyone else in the church for any reason. No one is any weaker than you are. No one is any less honorable than you are. If you’re tempted to think otherwise, associate with those people anyway.
Now there’s a word no one likes. Paul had the nerve to tell us to be a living sacrifice in Romans 12:1. And what’s that? In one way or another, every verse for the rest of the entire book either describes or illustrates being a living sacrifice–beginning with the exhortation to use the unique gifting the Father built into each of us.
Becoming a Christian involves some kind of death. Paul talks about the old carnal man that we must crucify, and the new man.
What do you do if you really like what your old self was up to? Put it off. Put off falsehood, anger, stealing, or whatever else you formerly enjoyed.
When we come together, perhaps one person’s father has died suddenly and another arrives elated about some experience with his own father.
Two people, two fathers, two very different emotional states. The elated one must partake of the suffering of the grieving one without allowing his own joy to diminish. The grieving one must partake of the joy of the other without obligation to devalue his own grief.
Somehow, in other words, we must all feel and experience what we feel and experience and at the same time participate in loving relationship to very contrary feelings and experiences of others. In that way we regard others’ feelings and experience as holy, which is the root meaning of sacrifice.
Grace is a central theme throughout Paul’s writings, so it’s no surprise to find it in connection with gifts. Paul speaks through the grace given him to instruct us to use our gifts according to the grace given us according to the measure of Christ, which is without limit.
The word “grace” does not appear in any of the three chapters about gifts, but the idea of living out grace permeates the entire discussion. The Greek word for grace, charis, is closely related to the word Paul uses here for gift (charisma, or in plural charismata).
Becoming a living sacrifice, and exercising our gifts accordingly, means being transformed by the renewal of our mind. The very experience of justification means that a new self replaces the old one.
Again, 1 Corinthinans does not refer explicitly to the concept of renewal, but the exercise of spiritual gifts was a heady experience for the Corinthian Christians. Paul had to devote three chapters to explaining gifts of the Spirit and how to exercise them properly, simply because many in the church there sought the most spectacular gifts to build up their own reputation for spirituality.
Every instruction Paul had for them demanded transformation by the renewal of their minds.
Putting on the new man with the new attitudes that entails requires maturity. Paul uses the word once each in 1 Corinthians 14 and Ephesians 4. Becoming a living sacrifice and becoming subject to transformation requires maturity. Paul told the Corinthians to put off childish ways and childish understanding.
Jesus commended little children for their innocence and quickness to believe, not for their immaturity.
Proper clothing for the body
I have referred to putting on the new man. It’s a metaphor for getting dressed in something different and more respectable. And it’s not a metaphor just to describe what we should do in our personal lives. The church itself keeps accumulating a carnal old man that gets awfully shabby looking and has to be put off from time to time. The church in America is past due for revival.
In preparing to write this post, I decided to look at a new and relatively unfamilar translation, the Holman Christian Standard Bible. It renders 1 Corinthians 12:23-25 differently from any other translation I have found, but very beautifully.
And those parts of the body that we think to be less honorable, we clothe these with greater honor, and our unpresentable parts have a better presentation. But our presentable parts have no need of clothing. Instead, God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the less honorable, so that there would be no division in the body, but that the members would have the same concern for each other.
We do not appear naked in church. Neither do we wear burqas. But we don’t, or shouldn’t, cover any part of our body because we’re ashamed of it or because we think it is somehow less worthy than any other part. The parts we show publicly are no more important to the functioning of our body than the parts we cover.
We might think some parts of our body are more presentable than others, but God made them all and considers all equally honorable. So it is in the body of Christ, We don’t have any business covering up any part of his body, but we have an obligation to cloth ourselves as the body of Christ displaying equal and proper concern for each other.
I have summarized all the scriptures that describe these topics in a table. If you want to use it for your own study, click here.
Gift wrapping. Some rights reserved by torbakhopper [link to Flickr no longer works]
Body parts worksheet. Source unknown.
Exercise with trainer. Pubic domain from Wikimedia Commons.
Sacrifice of Isaac. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.