The Better Gifts and the More Excellent Way
But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.—1 Corinthians 12:31
The gifts of the spirit is a large topic. There were a great variety of gifts that were given to establish the Christian church. These included spectacular gifts such as the ability to perform healings and the speaking in foreign tongues as well as such practical gifts as organizational ability and even the individuals who would provide leadership in the fledgling church.
Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. . . . And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.—Ephesians 4:8, 11, 12
Timothy’s Two Gifts
An example of this diversity of the usage of the word “gifts” is seen in the case of Timothy.
“Wherefore I put thee in remembrance that thou stir up the gift of God, which is in thee by the putting on of my hands.”—2 Timothy 1:6
“Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the council of elders laid their hands upon you.”.— 1 Timothy 4:14 RSV
In the first text cited Timothy’s gift came directly from Paul. In the second scripture, it was given when the council of elders laid their hands upon Timothy.
It would appear that the first gift was a miraculous one, perhaps that of public utterance or that of a miraculous depthful insight into the word of God (the gift of faith, knowledge or wisdom—1 Cor. 12:8); while the second was probably that of a special office he was to fulfil which the council of elders perceived through a prophecy concerning Timothy.
The Problem with Spiritual Gifts
The exercising of these spiritual gifts, while fulfilling a very useful function in the early church, also gave rise to certain problems, particularly in the church at Corinth. For this reason Paul devotes three chapters (twelve through fourteen) to discussing the use of these gifts.
There was an apparent tendency on the part of those who were given miraculous abilities toward pride and to showing off their gifts. This was especially true in Corinth with the gift of tongues. Being a university center and a cosmopolitan city, a steady stream of foreigners passed through the town. The gift of tongues was therefore particularly useful in spreading the gospel to these strangers. But the recipients of these gifts were speaking out of order in these tongues within the church, disrupting the services.
Those who spoke in tongues usually could not interpret their own words, and thus there was a companion gift of the interpretation of tongues. The use of the one gift where the language was not understood without the second was without profit. See 1 Cor. 14:2-18 with its summary in verse 19:
Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.
Good and Better Gifts
And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues. . . . But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.—1 Corinthians 12:28, 31
The term best gifts is suggestive of categories of gifts, some better than other. This is the precise point Paul is seeking to make. By numbering the first three gifts in this passage the apostle distinguishes them from the others listed. He further highlights this distinction by introducing the second set with the word after, having the significance her as being of lesser importance.
The best gifts, then, were apostles, prophets and teachers.
APOSTLES: While referring first of all to the twelve apostles of the Lamb (Rev. 21:14) as the primary teachers of the church, the only inspired teachers of the gospel, the term apostle does have a broader sense. Barnabas, for instance, is called an apostle in Acts 14:14. The term simply means a sent one and can refer to anyone sent by another individual or group as their representative or messenger. Note the usage of this word in 2 Cor. 8:23.
Whether any do inquire of Titus, he is my partner and fellow-helper concerning you: or our brethren be inquired of, they are the messengers [apostles] of the churches, and the glory of Christ.
In this sense, Apollos could be called the apostle of Alexandria, and pilgrims or itinerant preachers could be called the apostles of those who authorized their activities. These apostles have been of tremendous to the spiritual growth of the church of Christ.
PROPHETS: Although these may include the Old Testament prophets, the stress here is on the office of prophecy in the New Testament church.
Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words has this to say on the word here translated prophets: “the `prophesying’ of the NT `prophets’ was both a preaching of the divine counsels of grace already accomplished and the foretelling of the purposes of God in the future.”
As with the apostles, there is here a two-fold sense of this gift—both to those miraculously furnished to the early church and to the continuance of a similar function throughout the history of the church.
TEACHERS: Not only was the church to learn from able expounders of truth, whether they be apostles or prophets, but also from personal study of the word of God. For this they would have need of teachers, those adept at provoking their minds to think through stimulating discussions.
An example of the relationship between these three functions in an Old Testament setting can be found in the reading of the Law to the Jews in the post-exilic city of Jerusalem.
So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.—Nehemiah 8:8
Ezra was God’s sent one, or apostle, to read the law to the people. However, since the law was in Hebrew and the people had lost their proficiency in the language through seventy years of captivity, he would pause so that other expounders, prophets, would give the sense. Then groups of Levites, teachers, were scattered throughout the crowd and they would discuss these principles with the people so that they would really understand the reading.
Having enumerated the three best gifts Paul groups other gifts, introducing them with the term after, implying their secondary nature. Here he lists just five gifts as representative of many others. Three—miracles, healings and tongues—are of a spectacular nature and two—helps and governments—are of a practical value.
WORKING OF MIRACLES: The Greek word dunamis translated miracles in this passage refers, according to Vine’s, to “inherent ability” and “is used of works of a supernatural origin and character, such as could not be produced by natural agents and means.”
It’s function was to attest to the authority of the early church and was therefore limited in time to the establishment of the Christian community. (See Acts 2:22; 19:11; Gal. 3:5 and Heb. 2:4.)
HEALINGS: When compared with the healing ministry of Jesus, that performed by the apostles and others with this gift in the early church was relatively minor in scale. However it did show an identification of the work of Jesus with that of his followers and therefore was a further attestation to the authenticity of the Christian church.
Healings, however, need not be confined to physical infirmities, but also is of broad enough definition to apply to emotional stress and mental impediments. We read of the sick going to the elders for healing in James 5:14, 15.
Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.
The Greek word translated sick in verse 15, kamno, means to toil, to be weary and is so translated in Heb. 12:3.
For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds.
This kind of healing—counseling by the elders for spiritual depressions and weariness—continues today, though the miraculous healings which Paul was probably stressing in the Corinthian’s text have long since ceased. HELPS: The thought of the word help here seems to refer primarily to financial aid. Notice its use in Acts 20:35—
In all things I have shown you that by so toiling one must help the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, `It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (RSV)
The gift of giving is one of the gifts of the spirit to which Paul alludes in another dissertation on the subject.
Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; Or ministry, let us wait on our ministering: or he that teacheth, on teaching; Or he that exhorteth, on exhortation: he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that sheweth mercy, with cheerfulness.—Romans 12:6-8
The Lord has always raised up sufficient Christians with a financial talent to support his work. Even the ministry of Jesus was possible because of the financial support of a number of women.
And certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils, And Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unto him of their substance.—Luke 8:2, 3
GOVERNMENTS: The thought behind this word is that of a pilot steering his boat. In other words, some were given the gift of providing leadership to the newly developing Christian church. How necessary this must have been in the chaotic days following Pentecost when as many as 3,000 accepted their message in a single day.
An example of the use of this gift is shown in the sixth chapter of Acts where the establishment of the order of deacons is recorded to fill the role of serving the temporal needs of the church (Act 6:1-7).
DIVERSITIES OF TONGUES: In accord with his theme in these three chapters, Paul de-emphasizes the gift of tongues by placing it last in his listing, even as he also did in verses 8-10. While it served a very valuable purpose in providing immediate communication skills with a widely diversified population, it was of more value mechanically than it was spiritually. This is the argument that Paul traces in considerable detail in the fourteenth chapter.
Good Gifts and Best Gifts
In summary, then, we see the Apostle Paul differentiating between the temporary and spectacular gifts which were largely used to show the authenticity of the early church to unbelievers (1 Cor. 14:22), and the enduring and spiritual gifts of apostles, prophets and teachers.
A More Excellent Way
However, even such precious spiritual gifts as apostles, prophets and teachers pale in the sight of Paul’s more excellent way—the way of love—which he outlines in chapter 13.
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.—1 Corinthians 13:1-3
Here Paul picks gifts from both lists—the good and the best—and shows the superiority of the Christian grace of love.
In verse 1 he contrasts the gifts of tongues with that of acquired love. In this list he uses tongues first, in order to first of all establish its limitations and inadequacies. Verse 2 contrasts love with the best gifts of prophecy, knowledge and faith (12:8, 9). Verse 3 completes his list of contrast by showing that even the compassionate gift of helps, the gift of giving, is incomplete without love.
It is this last contrast of verse 3 which shows the inadequacy of the King James’ translation in using charity as the more excellent way. It is precisely the acts of what we commonly know as charity—the bestowal of all our goods to feed the poor—which he contrasts with the more excellent way.
The Greek word used here, agape, describes the most altruistic type of love, the very kind of disinterested love which God himself exhibits—to love for the sake of loving alone.
If charity were indeed the intended thought, Paul would have used another Greek word which we have picked up in the English language as a synonym for charity—philanthropia, from which we derive the word philanthropy.
The Gifts Today
While the evidence is strong that the miraculous gifts of the spirit ceased with the apostles’ deaths for they were the ones to pass them on by the laying on of hands, it does not mean that the principle of these gifts cannot have an application in our day.
We even use the expression of a talented person that he has a gift for this or that form of endeavor. We mean that he has a natural talent in one direction or another. If we find that this is true in our lives, we do well to view these as gifts from God and to put them to use in his service.
It is along this line that Paul uses these gifts or administrations of the spirit in his theses about Christian consecration and dedication.
Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; Or ministry, let us wait on our ministering: or he that teacheth, on teaching; Or he that exhorteth, on exhortation: he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that sheweth mercy, with cheerfulness. Let love [the more excellent way] be without dissimulation. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good.—Romans 12:6-9
May the words of David to his son Solomon reflect our attitude in the use of whatever talents we may have in the service of our God.
And David said to Solomon his son, Be strong and of good courage, and do it: fear not, nor be dismayed: for the LORD God, even my God, will be with thee; he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee, until thou hast finished all the work for the service of the house of the LORD.—1 Chronicles 28:20