This passage probably brings up more interpretive questions than it answers, but its main point is perfectly clear.
Paul is continuing his discussion of worship. How could new believers tell if someone is speaking the truth? It all goes back to Jesus and what they say about Him. Since ecstatic speech was a part of the pagan culture, it would be particularly important to note that a good Christian testimony needed to accompany such speech, and that it would be prompted by the Holy Spirit (12:3). That same Spirit distributed gifts to the congregation as a whole. So, speaking of that, let’s get to some of the questions that are brought up by the passage:
- Are the lists of gifts descriptive (describing what was going on at the time), or prescriptive (describing what should go on at all times)? Or a combination of both?
- Are the lists of gifts in the New Testament all inclusive (only those gifts mentioned are truly gifts), or representative (there may be other gifts not mentioned)?
- Why does Paul’s list in 12:28 start with positions and seem to move on to gifts? Are they in order of importance? Historical precedence? Or something else?
- What does “tongues” imply? The Greek word literally means “language.” If it’s not a human language, what is it? Is it ecstatic speech?
- Why is “tongues” the gift du jour in our age? If it’s that common, what about gifts of healing? Most of those who claim to do healings today are simply charlatans. Why would one be so common, but not another?
There is so much here, so I’m not even going to try to get into it all. We just need to realize that there is a lot of interpretation that goes into understanding everything that is said here, but the main meaning is perfectly clear:
- The Holy Trinity empowers us for ministry (12:4-6).
- The Holy Spirit gives each of us gifts to use for ministry (12:7).
- Everyone has different gifts as decided by God (12:18).
- All believers, regardless of ethnicity or nationality, are gifted (12:23).
- The gifts are for the benefit of all (12:7).
- That’s why we need to work together (12:25).
- Just because some gifts are more celebrated, doesn’t make the other gifts unnecessary (12:22).
- Those who are uncelebrated now will receive greater honor later (12:24).
- We should all desire the gifts that do the most to build up the church (12:31).
We should also remember that Paul is writing much of his letter as an antidote for those who believe that they have a superior spirituality. The way this passage and the next are written, “tongues” seems to be one of those areas that people feel makes them more spiritual. Paul is about to show them (and us) a better way.