Back in 1906, in a small church located on Bonnie Brae Street in Los Angeles, California, something strange happened. While the preacher was giving his sermon, seven men began speaking, but they were not speaking English. The assumption was that this was the work of the Holy Spirit and a modern Pentecost miracle. They believed they had received the gift of “tongues.” Soon the word spread around LA and the tiny church experienced a tremendous growth spurt. So many joined that little church that they had to move to a larger site on Azusa Street, where the revival continued for three years. Many other people also began to speak unrecognizable syllables. Originally, efforts were made to discover what languages were being spoken. These efforts proved fruitless. It was clear that, whatever was being spoken, it wasn’t human languages like Russian, Cantonese, Spanish, French, or whatever. So, people came to believe that the language being spoken was the language of heaven, the language of the angels. Nowadays, this idea has been superseded with the idea that the sounds are a personal prayer language, a language of ecstasy.
It is worth noting that these assumptions were not built on clear biblical passages. While we are promised the Holy Spirit, we are not promised the gift of speaking in heavenly languages. To be frank, these manifestations seem to have more in common with non-Christian religions than with the Christian experience from the first Pentecost. Jesus associated this type of babbling with pagan (or Gentile) practices (Matthew 6:7). George Cutton states that it continues in such circles to this day, writing “Glossolalia,” that is, speaking in tongues, “is practiced among non-Christian religions: the Peyote cult among the North American Indians, the Haida Indians of the Pacific Northwest, Shamans in the Sudan, the Shango cult of the West Coast of Africa, the Shago cult in Trinidad, the Voodoo cult in Haiti, the Aborigines of South America and Australia, the Eskimos of the subarctic regions of North America and Asia, the Shamans in Greenland, the Dyaks of Borneo, the Zor cult of Ethiopia, the Siberian shamans, the Chaco Indians of South America, the Curanderos of the Andes, the Kinka in the African Sudan, the Thonga shamans of Africa, and the Tibetan monks.” (https://www.patheos.com/blogs/matauryn/2017/12/11/glossolalia-paganism/)
Claiming such languages to be a gift of the Holy Spirit, or for that matter, falling to the ground, or rolling around on the ground, or predictions that fail to materialize, or predictions that have nothing to do with salvation, or uncontrollable laughter, and so on, has no foundation in the Bible. Our best defense against such false claims is to be well informed about what the Bible does say about Spiritual gifts. So, Paul says he does not want us to be uninformed. Today we will look at some of what the Bible does tell us about Spiritual gifts.
Paul begins with the number one gift of the Holy Spirit, saving faith in Jesus. So he wrote, “I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.” With the rise of Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movements in Christendom has come the question, “Have you been baptized by the Holy Spirit?” I want you to know that there is no Christian baptism apart from the Holy Spirit (John 3:5; Ephesians 5:26). If you have been baptized with water in the name of the Triune God, you have been baptized with the Holy Spirit. The mark of this, aside from the actual event of being baptized with water and the word, is your faith in Jesus. The Holy Spirit has granted you faith and enables you to confess Jesus as your Lord and Savior.
After this primary gift, the Spirit grants other gifts. The purpose of such gifts, Paul says, is for the “common good.” Paul provides what one might call a gift list. That the Holy Spirit provides different gifts for different people is well attested in the Bible. In Romans Paul wrote, Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. (Romans 12:6-8) It is worth observing how this list of gifts from the Holy Spirit differs significantly from the list 1 Corinthians list.
This variety of gifts can also be seen in the Old Testament. For example, we read in Judges,Then Samson went down with his father and mother to Timnah, and they came to the vineyards of Timnah. And behold, a young lion came toward him roaring. Then the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him, and although he had nothing in his hand, he tore the lion in pieces as one tears a young goat. But he did not tell his father or his mother what he had done.” (Judges 14:5-6) The Scriptures clearly indicate that the great strength of Samson’s was a gift from the Holy Spirit.
When the Israelites were making the Tabernacle in the wilderness, we discover two men blessed with spiritual gifts to help in the construction. Exodus 31 begins: The Lord said to Moses, “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft. And behold, I have appointed with him Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. And I have given to all able men ability, that they may make all that I have commanded you: the tent of meeting, and the ark of the testimony, and the mercy seat that is on it, and all the furnishings of the tent, the table and its utensils, and the pure lampstand with all its utensils, and the altar of incense, and the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils, and the basin and its stand, and the finely worked garments, the holy garments for Aaron the priest and the garments of his sons, for their service as priests, and the anointing oil and the fragrant incense for the Holy Place. According to all that I have commanded you, they shall do. (Exodus 31:1-11) Artistic ability (sewing, and so forth) can also be a spiritual gift.
In Zephaniah we read, “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (Zephaniah 3:17). While this passage speaks of God as the singer, we realize that God has placed an entire hymnal in the Old Testament with the book of Psalms. Song, and musical ability in general, can also be a spiritual gift.
The gifts of the Holy Spirit are not limited to this or that list in the Bible. He gives his gifts for the common good. At one point in time, that common good included a strong man, like Samson. At other times, it included the need for music. Sometimes, the gift of working with material is needed for the common good, whether that be for making banners for the congregation or sleeping bags for the homeless. At still other times, it included men who could tell people about the coming Messiah. At one time, the first Pentecost, it included the gift of human languages. We are even given a list of the languages the Apostles spoke that day: the language of the Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and other residents of Mesopotamia, the languages used in Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, the Roman province of Asia, also the languages used in Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Arabia and Latin, the language of Rome (Acts 2:9-11). In each of these languages the people heard about the “mighty works of God,” that is, the story of Jesus (Acts 2:11).
It is instructive to observe that not all the listed languages would have been unknown to the Apostles. In the list of languages Luke gives, he includes the languages used in Judea and Rome While some of the languages spoken here were probably unlearned, others were not. In all cases, the message delivered was for the common good. In each case, the gift of language was used to spread the Gospel.
The gifts of the Holy Spirit are intended to build up the body of Christ, to strengthen the Church as we bring the saving word of God into the world. We each have our gifts. These are abilities the Lord has given us to use in his service. They do not need to be spectacular in the eyes of humanity. For example, just a few verses beyond the end of our epistle lesson, Paul lists “administration” as a gift from the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:28). For many of us, being an administrator does not immediately strike us as a “spiritual” calling, but Paul clearly thinks so. Perhaps this is so because it is easy to understand how a good administrator can be seen as a job for the common good.
James reminds us that “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). That includes your talent with foreign languages, or your talent in sewing; it includes your athletic ability like Samson, or your administrative skill; it includes your skill in music or your skill in medicine, but we should not limit it to skills available during the days of the Bible. All skills that are used for the common good, like computer knowledge, science, accounting, and so on, can, and should, be used by us for the common good. Such aptitudes are gifts from the Holy Spirit; they are spiritual gifts.
Paul wrote to the Romans, “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). That is, all these various gifts work for our common good. Paul goes on to indicate the greatest common good: the salvation of souls. That is what the Spirit is seeking to do through his gifts. It doesn’t mean everyone needs to be a preacher, but it does mean we have been gifted by the Holy Spirit to serve others in his name. It also means that, if someone asks why we serve, we are ready to tell them about what Jesus has done for us (1 Peter 3:15). That is where knowing the Creeds of the Church can be so helpful.
Because we have been baptized into faith in Jesus, we can be sure that we have received the gift of the Holy Spirit; not only the gift of faith, but other gifts as well. We are called to put our gifts into the service of our Lord by serving others. That service does not have to include reading the sermon when pastor is out of town. There are many ways we can serve the common good. May the Lord guide each and every one of us in using the gifts the Spirit has granted us in his service. Amen.
Rev. Dr. John Rickert, Pastor