© Rosemary Bardsley 2007



The exact term ‘spiritual gifts’ does not occur in the Greek New Testament. Where it occurs in English translations [only in 1 Corinthians 12:1; 14:1; 14:12 ] it is an interpretation of two different words: the plural adjective ‘spiritual’, without the noun ‘gifts’, [12:1; 14:1], and, strangely, the noun ‘spirits’ without the word gifts [ 14:12 ]. In fact, where the English text has ‘gifts’ twice in both 14:1 and 14:12 this word does not occur at all in the Greek text. It could be argued with some validity that in these references, and particularly in 1 Corinthians 12:1, Paul did not intend us to understand ‘spiritual gifts’, but ‘spiritual things’ or ‘spiritual matters’. But even if we do understand these references to rightly be rendered ‘spiritual gifts, we must acknowledge that apart from these three references, the gifts are referred to in the New Testament simply as ‘gifts’ [without the adjective ‘spiritual’].

The term ‘spiritual gift’ occurs once [Romans 1:11], but in context is not referring to what the church commonly calls ‘spiritual gifts’ but to some spiritual benefit which Paul wants to bring to the Christians in Rome.

From this evidence we must conclude that what contemporary Christianity commonly calls ‘spiritual gifts’ are, in the Scripture, most commonly simply called ‘gifts’ which God [Father, Son and Spirit] gives to his people in his church.



The table below contains the gift lists from the New Testament.

1 Corinthians 12:8-12, 27-29

Romans 12:6-8

Ephesians 4:11

1 Peter 4:8-10

Teaching gifts





Teachers, knowledge










Sign gifts


Gifts of healings

Workings of miracles

Distinguishing between spirits

Diversity of languages

Interpretation of languages

Service gifts



Those able to help others

Showing mercy






Date: cAD55

Date: cAD56-57

Date: cAD60

Date: cAD63-64

A glance at these lists clearly indicates four facts:

[1] that there is no fixed list of gifts.

[2] that only the earliest list [Corinthians] contains the ‘sign’ gifts.

[3] that the teaching gifts are given most attention

[4] that many of the gifts involve activities or attitudes that are elsewhere the focus of biblical commands and the biblical commission, either to the church generally, or to people or groups with certain roles and responsibilities within the church.

This variation in the lists indicates that the gifts are not limited to those actually mentioned in these lists, but to any God-empowered use of God-given abilities in the ministry of his Kingdom. For instance, in the Old Testament artistic ability and craftsmanship were referred to as the coming from the Spirit of God [Exodus 31:1-5] and instructions were given for the employment of those gifts in the construction of the Tabernacle and its furnishings.



[Please read: Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12 – 14; Ephesians 4:7-16; 1 Peter 4:8-10]

When we read these passages discussing the gifts we learn:

[1] About their source:

      • God [Father, Son and Spirit] is the giver of the gifts [1 Corinthians 12:4-11; Ephesians 4:7-8,11]

[2] About their distribution:

      • God decides their distribution and appointment [Romans 12:6; 1 Corinthians 12:11 ,28; Ephesians 4:7,11]
      • Every individual has his/her allotted proportion or endowment [1 Corinthians 12:7; Ephesians 4:7]
      • Some people may have more than one gift [Romans 12:6; 1 Corinthians 14:13 ]
      • In any local church it is possible that there will be several people with the same gift [Ephesians 4:11 ]
      • It is possible to receive gifts in addition to those one has [1 Corinthians 14:13 ].
      • No individual is so multi-gifted as to live independently of other believers [1 Corinthians 12:12 -26; Romans 12:3-6].

[3] About their role and purpose:

Although they are obviously given to individuals, their purpose is not focused on the individuals to whom they are given but on the body of which the individuals are part, that is, the church.

      • They are appointed by God ‘in the church’ [1 Corinthians 12:28 ] – their role is not personal, but ecclesiastical.
      • They are other-directed; specifically, they are to be used for the good of others in the church – the instruction, encouragement and strengthening of other believers [1 Corinthians 12:7; 14:31 ; Ephesians 4:11 -16].
      • They are not intended for individual personal use [1 Corinthians 12:14 -26; 14:16 -17]. In fact, they are meaningless if they are not exercised towards others; they are meaningless exercised in isolation apart from the body context. The speaking gifts imply an audience; the sign gifts imply that there are observers; the service gifts imply that there are people being served. The gifts simply have no point in isolation. Hence Paul’s condemnation of the Corinthian use of languages in a way that had no possibility of impacting the body. The gifts are for the body, the church, not the individual.

[4] About their use:

      • They are to be used with diligence, cheerfulness and faithfulness [Romans 12:6-8; 1 Peter 4:10 -11].
      • They are to be used in an orderly and fitting way [1 Corinthians 14:26 -33,40].
      • Although given by God, how and when they are used is under the direction and control of the individual who is accountable to God for his/her use of their gifts [1 Corinthians 14:26 -33,40]. This personal responsibility/control factor is in contrast to the ecstatic spirituality of the Corinthians prior to their conversion [1 Corinthians 12:2].
      • The verbal content expressed in their use will express genuine acknowledgement the deity of Christ [1 Corinthians 12:3].
      • They are to be used for the good of the church [1 Corinthians 14:5b, 1 Peter 4:10].
      • The possession of a specific gift should never be a cause of personal pride, boasting, individualism or isolationism [Romans 12:3; 1 Corinthians 12:14 -26].
      • The possession of a gift does not provide an excuse for disobeying God’s commands [1 Corinthians 13:1-8a; 1 Peter 4:7-11]

[From this it is clear that the possession of a gift does not automatically mean that gift will be used, or that that gift will be used appropriately in line with its God-given purpose and role. Indeed, it is obvious in the Corinthian passage that these gifts were capable of being used in a way that was far from the Giver’s intention. It is also clear from the Corinthian passage that there were counterfeit gifts [1 Corinthians 12:1-3].]

[5] About their nature:

The gifts can be categorized into three groups, which we will look at directly:

      • the teaching gifts
      • the service gifts
      • the ‘sign’ gifts.

We should keep these facts in our minds when thinking about the gifts as they apply to us personally. Some sections of the church lay great stress on ‘finding your spiritual gift’, but this attitude is not found in Scripture. The fact that the lists are variable should give us liberty to recognize as God-given gifts abilities that are not mentioned in these lists. In addition, the Biblical focus is not about me and my gift(s), but about the edification, encouragement and instruction of the church by appropriate use of my gift(s) in serving the church.



Speaking gifts, in some form, are included in every list. These gifts and their meanings are: 


[The word ‘apostle’ means ‘one who is sent’; Greek: apostello – I send.]

There are two distinct uses of this word in the New Testament:

First use:

The 11 faithful disciples, plus Matthais [Acts 1] and Paul [Acts 9] are called ‘apostles’. They were commissioned by Christ to be the custodians of the truth and the foundation of the church. These men were witnesses of the resurrected Jesus. They were sent by Christ, and their apostleship was confirmed by God with the marks of an apostle [Romans 15:17-19; 2 Corinthians 12:12; Hebrews 2:1-4]. This use of the word ‘apostle’ is reserved only for these men. Their role of establishing the church and establishing the truth of the Gospel is unrepeatable. Their message is placed alongside of the message of the Old Testament prophets as the ‘foundation’ upon which the church is built [Ephesians 2:20; 1 Timothy 2:7; 2 Peter 3:2; Revelation 21:14]. This foundational gift of apostleship by which the church and the truth was established clearly applies only to these specific men. It is as unrepeatable as the incarnation of Christ.

[For further study on the once-for-all foundational nature of these apostles and their message please go to the study ‘Know the fundamental Difference’ in the ‘How to Deal with False Teaching’ study series.]

Second use:

There are others who are called ‘apostle’ in the New Testament who do not belong in the above category: Jesus’ brother James [Galatians 1:19 – some include him in the above category], Barnabas [Acts 14:4,14], and Andronicus and Junias [Romans 16:7], who are described as ‘outstanding among the apostles’, which infers there were others in addition to them in this category. The Ephesians 4 passage also indicates that apostles have been given to the church as a continuum; their role in the church, along with the other gifts mentioned, is not a one-off foundational role, like that of the 12 plus Paul, but an on-going role. This gift continues to be given in the church today. Christ continues to send people to preach his word and to build and stabilize his church. For example, in modern terminology the word ‘missionary’ actually means ‘one who has been sent’ [Latin: mitto- missum – to send].


[From the Greek: euangellion – good news]

Specifically, this is a gift of preaching the gospel. While all believers are witnesses of Jesus Christ, and while apostles, pastors, prophets and teachers all engage in proclaiming or teaching and expounding the good news, the listing of this gift indicates that there are some Christians who are gifted by God and used by God in evangelism in a way that is over and above the norm.


[Latin: pastoris – shepherd]

Specifically, looking after God’s people as a shepherd looks after his sheep. This care for the sheep of necessity involves nourishing them spiritually [from the Word of God], helping them when they are weak and suffering [with Christian love and biblical truth] and protecting them from spiritual dangers [by defining God’s truth and warning of error]. This gift is mentioned only in the Ephesians list; however 1 Corinthians 12:8 refers to those who have a ‘message of wisdom’ and the Romans list mentions ‘encouraging’, both which are involved in pastor’s role of shepherding God’s flock.


[Greek: prophetes – one who speaks forth the word of God: pro – forth, phemi – to speak.]

The Old Testament prophets proclaimed the word of God to their generation. Directed by God, they referred to God’s self-revelation in the past, they referred to the people’s present sin or present predicament, and affirmed God’s truth as applicable to that situation. Commonly this was by way of warning of God’s judgment and calls to repentance. Only a small element of their messages was predictive. [This is not to deny the broader truth that all of the Old Testament is prophetic of Christ, and that ‘the law and the prophets’ and ‘all the scriptures’ laid down foundational truths with anticipated and were fulfilled in and by Christ.]

Similarly, those with the gift of prophecy in the New Testament proclaim and apply God’s eternal truth to the contemporary situation.

Does the New Testament ‘gift of prophecy’ mean predicting the future?

In the New Testament we find only two people actually predicting future events: Jesus, who predicted his own death and resurrection, and Agabus, who predicted a famine and Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem .

We cannot, therefore, understand the New Testament gift of prophecy to refer to prediction of future events; we can only understand the gift of prophecy to mean proclaiming the word of God. Thus in Corinthians prophecy is exalted above speaking in languages because the messages of the prophets build up the church by teaching and encouraging. The prophets take the already revealed and established word of God and apply that truth and its commands to the contemporary generation.

[In the Gospels and New Testament letters there is of necessity a predictive element in the teaching of both Jesus and the apostles when the subject of their teaching is the last things.]

Does the New Testament gift of prophecy refer to communicating new truth revealed directly to the prophet by God?

Although some sections of contemporary Christianity believe that this is the case, there is no indication in the New Testament that the gift of prophecy meant receiving a message containing new truth directly from the Lord to pass on to others. In fact there are clear indications that such a concept is out of order:

[1] The apostolic letters repeatedly and consistently encourage their readers to hold on to or go back to the original gospel they had received when they first believed, which was announced to them by the apostles [the 12 plus Paul]. They consistently condemn and outlaw anything that is additional, new or different [e.g. Galatians 1:6-9].

[2] Only the foundational apostles and their messages, which were proclaiming the ‘new’ message of Christ and the gospel, were validated by God by the ‘sign’ gifts. If the prophetic messages were bringing new truth, then they and their messages would also have required validation by the ‘sign gifts’. There is simply no such requirement or validation recorded in relation to those who prophesied. They did not require validation because they were not proclaiming newly revealed truth, but putting before the people, and applying to the contemporary situation, truth that had already been revealed and confirmed.

[3] Thus the messages spoken by those with the gift of prophecy were subject to assessment and criticism by those who heard them [1 Corinthians 14:29 -30]. Clearly then, the gift of prophecy did not automatically ensure accuracy of what they said; what they said had to be weighed carefully, and if anyone else saw a clearer meaning, he should speak, and the other speaker sit down. Such a provision did not apply to the apostles, who had received their message directly from the Lord Jesus Christ. While the teaching of the foundational apostles was beyond question, and was indeed the benchmark by which all other messages were to be assessed, the teaching of the prophets was not. This rules out the possibility that the teaching of the prophets came directly through them from God.

[A note about contemporary apostles and prophets: There is a movement that identifies itself as ‘The New Apostolic Movement’. This movement claims that there are today prophets and apostles through whom God is speaking (directly) to the present generation in the same way he spoke through the biblical prophets and apostles in the past. It is claimed that these contemporary prophets and apostles have such power and authority that those biblical apostles and prophets will stand in awe of them. It is claimed that the Bible is not enough for twenty-first century man, and that God is now, in addition to and distinct from the scripture, speaking directly through these contemporary apostles and prophets. This is a highly dangerous movement. It undermines the absoluteness, finality and completeness of God’s self-revelation in the scriptures [the ‘prophets’ – Old Testament, and the ‘apostles’ – New Testament]. It completely ignores the biblical affirmation that Christ is the truth, that in him God’s self-revelation is complete, that in him all of God’s mystery has been revealed, that in him all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are found. It leaves the church with an open-ended, relativistic concept of truth that is dangerously contrary to the biblical mindset.]


Again we see here an overlap of the gifts. Evangelists teach. Apostles teach. Prophets teach. Pastors teach. But there are also those who are specifically gifted as teachers. They have a God-given ability to understand and explain the meaning of the Word of God. Thus while Paul mentions ‘knowledge’ in his list in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, he doesn’t mention ‘teaching’; and while he mentions ‘teaching’ in his lists in 1 Corinthians 12:28-30, he doesn’t mention knowledge. Knowledge and teaching, we can assume, are the same gift. Teachers have been enabled by the Spirit of God to understand his Word and to communicate that knowledge to his church.

The use and impact of the teaching gifts:

While in Corinthians Paul summarizes the impact of these teaching gifts with the one word ‘edify’, in Ephesians he more fully explains the role and significance of these gifts [apostles (of both kinds, but beyond the apostolic age, only the non-foundational kind), prophets, pastors, evangelists, teachers] in the church:

The exercise of the teaching gifts in the church has a flow-on of purpose and impact:

      • The preparation [Greek = complete qualification] of the church for works of service [verse 12].
      • The edification [literally = the building; spiritually = the spiritual advancement] of the body of Christ [verse 12]
      • The attainment [‘until we all reach’] of unity in the church. The focus of this unity is defined: in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God [verse 13]. Note that teaching the true truth unites the body of Christ; it is teaching of error that divides the body of Christ. [Note: but when any error becomes predominant and is accepted by the majority, it appears to anyone looking on that it is the truth that is divisive.]
      • The attainment of maturity [Greek = complete man – one who has attained the goal or end for which he was created.] This maturity, this ‘complete man’, is further defined by Paul as ‘attaining the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.’ Thus the teaching gifts have this purpose in the church: to build up each member of the body so that each member both knows the whole truth about Christ and expresses the reality of that knowledge in his/her faith and life, in such a way that the church as a whole, is also a living witness to the full truth and reality of Jesus Christ [verse 13].
      • Stability in the presence of false teachers and their teaching [verse 14]. Note that this is the purpose and result of the exercise of the teaching gifts in the church.
      • Instead of the church falling prey to false teaching, the loving and continuing affirmation and maintenance of the truth [aletheuo = to speak or maintain the truth] results in the church and its individual members looking not to themselves but increasingly and constantly to Christ, their Head, for all things [verse 15,16]. False teaching, on the other hand, makes us look to ourselves, or to some other head, for salvation, for the knowledge of God, and for spiritual growth and maturity.
      • This unity and stability in Christ depends on each member of the church, in concern for the well being of the other, exercising their God-given gifts and fulfilling their God-given role [verse 16].



There is disagreement in the church concerning the ‘sign’ gifts. Some maintain they are meant to continue throughout the church age; others maintain that they were intended only for the apostolic age.

This latter view that the sign gifts were always meant to be temporary is supported by:

[1] Acts 10, 11, and 15, where the sign gift of speaking in languages convinced the Jewish Christians that God’s message of salvation was salvation through Christ alone without adherence to Jewish ritual law, and was meant not only for Jews, but also for Gentiles who neither possessed nor kept Jewish ritual law [see Acts 10:44-48; 11:15-18; 15:6-11].

[2] Hebrews 2:1-4, where ‘gifts of the Holy Spirit’ are included along with ‘signs, wonders and miracles’ as God confirming the apostolic message.

[3] Romans 15:17-19, where ‘signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit’ accompanied Paul’s proclamation of the Gospel.

[4] 1 Corinthians 13:8-12, which indicates that, while the teaching gifts [for example, prophecy and knowledge] will be brought to an end [passive voice in the Greek text] by the perfection of knowledge that comes at the final coming of Christ, the sign gift of languages will cease in and of itself [middle voice in the Greek text]. [For a detailed discussion of these verses, see the Analytical Study on Corinthians.] [Note that the NIV translation swaps the middle and passive verbs, making the two that are passive in the Greek, middle in its translation, and the one that is middle in the Greek, passive in its translation. See Analytical Study on Corinthians.]

[5] 2 Corinthians 12:12 where ‘signs, wonders and miracles’ are described as ‘the things that mark an apostle’.

[6] The fact that, apart from the apostles, only Philip, Stephen, Ananias and Barnabas [all close associates of the apostles], are reported to have performed miracles.

[7] The fact that miracles done by false teachers have the power to deceive [Matthew 24:24; 2 Corinthians 11:13-15]. If miracles were commonplace, and not specifically given by God to identify an apostle and confirm the apostolic message, then the false teachers’ miracles would have no power to deceive people into thinking they were genuine apostles, or that their messages were affirmed by their miracles.

It would seem obvious from these scriptures that God’s purpose in giving the ‘sign gifts’ was limited to the confirmation of the original apostles and of their message. Such confirmation was necessary because of the revolutionary nature of that message, which, as Paul stated, was foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews [1 Corinthians 1:23 ].

This confirmation applies at three levels:

      • Confirmation of the apostles themselves as authentic apostles commissioned by Christ [the 11, plus Matthais, plus Paul].
      • Confirmation of the apostolic message preached either by the apostles, or by their close associates.
      • Confirmation of the validity of the message by the presence of the miraculous in the churches founded by the apostles. This is mentioned in reference to the churches in Galatia [Galatians 3:1-5]; it is evident in the church in Corinth [1 Corinthians 12-14]; and is stated generally in reference to the apostolic ministry [Hebrews 2:4]. This Hebrews reference is unique in that it mentions ‘gifts of the Holy Spirit’ as God’s affirmation of the validity of the message.

[For further study on the once-for-all foundational nature of the apostles and their message please go to the study ‘Know the fundamental Difference’ in the ‘How to Deal with False Teaching’ study series.]

Note: This understanding of the sign gifts as temporary does not mean that God does not continue to do miraculous things from the end of the apostolic age right through to the present and beyond. God can and does still intervene in human lives in miraculous ways. The presence of the sign gifts and the ability of God to perform miracles are two distinct things. While the sign gifts were of necessity dependent on the ability of God to work miracles through human agents, the ability of God to miraculously intervene in our lives and in our ministry does not necessitate or depend on the presence of the sign gifts.

The sign gifts are listed in Corinthians as:

[1] Faith . By this we must understand something distinct from that faith with which we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and are saved, and distinct from that trust in the sovereign rule of God that sustains us through the changing conditions of our lives. It was most likely concurrent with the gift of healing and miracle-working – the faith which enabled Peter to take the hand of the crippled man and tell him to get up and walk, and to say to the dead Dorcas ‘Get up.’

[Note the difference between this faith and the ‘word faith’ taught and expressed in some circles today. Peter, trusting in God, addressed the person, calling the person to respond. Word faith, trusting in its own power, addresses the non-person – the situation, the diseased body parts, the financial situation – believing not in the God towards whom faith is directed but in a supposed creative power inherent in faith itself. Biblical faith is never faith in faith, or faith in the power of faith; it is always faith in God.]

[2] Gifts of healings. Note that the Greek text reads ‘gifts of healings’, not ‘the gift of healing’ or ‘gifts of healing’. It would seem that it is the actual healings that are the gifts, rather than the ability to miraculously heal. Thus God gave the apostles ‘healings’ [that is, God healed people through them] as confirmations of their commission and their message. The number of healings reported is very, very small. The number of people involved is also very small. [See Topical Study on Miracles].

In addition, attention must be drawn to the following facts from Acts and the New Testament letters that raise questions about contemporary practice and expectation:

          • Nowhere is an individual called ‘a healer’ or a ‘faith healer’.
          • Nowhere is an individual reported to have ‘the gift of healing’.
          • Nowhere is there any report of healing meetings being held. Healings were never the focus or the purpose of the apostolic ministry; they were always unplanned, incidental and unexpected.
          • Nowhere is there an instance of a ‘healer’ identifying the specific illnesses of those in the crowd.
          • Nowhere are there failed attempted healings.
          • Nowhere are there temporary healings.
          • Nowhere do the apostolic healings depend on the faith or the sinlessness of the victim. Indeed many of those healed were not believers in Christ at the time.
          • Paul, whose apostleship and message were confirmed by miraculous healings, dealt with the illnesses of his associates in very ordinary ways – he left one behind sick, he was fearful one would die, he gave therapeutic advice to another, and he himself did not gain healing for his own condition, even though he prayed for it. These non-healing events are further testimony to the fact that the sign gifts have a specific purpose – the affirmation of the apostles and their message. The sign-gift of healings was not there specifically to heal people; it was there to confirm the apostles and the message.
          • James, rather than advising his readers to seek miraculous healing by means of someone with this gift, advises them to call the elders to come and pray for them when they are sick, not because he assumed the elders would have the gift of healing, but because ‘the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective’ [James 5:16]. If healing was granted it would be God’s miraculous answer to prayers of the group, not the exercise of the sign gift of healing by an individual.

[3] Workings of miracles . [See also Topical Study on Miracles]. Note the Greek: ‘workings of miracles’ [1 Corinthians 12:10 ], and simply ‘miracles’ [ 12:29 ,30]. Again, as with healings, it would seem that the miracles themselves, are the gift, not the personal ability to work miracles. Exactly what is included in ‘workings of miracles’ or ‘miraculous powers’ is nowhere defined. Given that the word for ‘miracle’ is the normal word for ‘power’, this ‘workings of miracles’, must at the very least be understood to be manifestations of God’s power specifically in and through human agents. From the Acts we could include the two instances of the dead being revived [Peter – Dorcas, Acts 9; Paul – Eutychus, Acts 20]; Paul’s survival from the storm [Acts 27] and the snake bite [Acts 28]; Peter’s infliction of blindness on Elymas [Acts 13].

Whether or not we should include here curing people of demon possession is not clear. It is not included in any of the gift lists. It is, however, included in Luke’s description of the ‘extraordinary miracles’ which God did through Paul [Acts 19:11 -12]. It was Paul’s ability to do this, contrasted with the sons of Sceva’s failure, that confirmed his message and led to the name of Christ being held in high honour in Ephesus [Acts 19:13-20], even moving many to openly renounce their involvement in the occult.

If curing people of demon possession is in fact a ‘sign gift’ given to confirm the apostolic message, then serious questions are raised about contemporary deliverance ministries and practices.

[4] Distinguishing between spirits .

This gift is mentioned only in 1 Corinthians 12:10 , and then without explanation or description. The only other place in the scripture with any similarity is 1 John 4:1 where we are all commanded to ‘test the spirits’. John is clearly commanding all of his readers to ‘test’ the spirit that is behind any teaching – is it teaching that comes from the Holy Spirit, or is it teaching that comes from the antichrist? And he indicates that any teaching that does not acknowledge Christ, is actually expressing the spirit of the antichrist. This is a command that remains relevant in every age of the church, and to every believer. [1 John 4:1 does not, in context, refer to challenging demon spirits, assumed to be in a person, to identify themselves. Such an interpretation is imported into the text from a person’s presuppositions about demon possession.]

We might consider also 1 Corinthians 2:14-16, where Paul teaches that because ‘the things that come from the Spirit of God’ are ‘spiritually discerned’ only true believers can actually understand them. This is neither a command, as in 1 John 4:1, nor a specific gift given to individuals, but God’s endowment of spiritual understanding given to all believers. This is not therefore what 1 Corinthians 12:10 is referring to.

Some people understand this gift to refer to the ability to identify the presence, or even the identity, of a demonic spirit possessing a person. This interpretation is hard to maintain on the basis of the biblical evidence, because in every case in which demon possession is reported it was actually quite obvious, even common knowledge in some cases, needing no special gift of discernment in order to recognize it. There is not a single report of anyone wondering whether or not a person might be possessed by a spirit and asking Jesus or the apostles to find out whether or not he/she was possessed. They knew. And that was why they brought them for healing.

What then, is this ‘distinguishing between spirits’ in 1 Corinthians 12? It is a ‘sign gift’ - a unique ability to discern given to the apostles as yet one more authentication of their apostleship and their message. Hence we find that Peter demonstrates this miraculous ability to discern in Acts 5:3-4 in relation to Ananias and Sapphira; and in Acts 8:18-23 in relation to Simon the sorcerer. Paul exercised this gift in Acts 13:6-10, when he confronted Elymas. Note that he did not identify or cast out a demonic spirit, but identified Elymas as ‘a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right … full of all kinds of deceit and trickery’.

[5] Diversity of languages

Go to the separate study on Speaking in Languages.

[6] Interpretation of languages

The gift of interpreting languages is mentioned only in 1 Corinthians 12 – 14. Obviously its presence is meaningless without the presence of the gift of speaking in languages. From Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 14 we understand that a message spoken in a language is also useless unless that message is interpreted. When it is interpreted it then has the ability to edify the church.

From his teaching we understand:

      • The gift of interpretation of languages was an essential prerequisite for the use of the gift of languages.
      • The messages spoken in languages were rational and meaningful messages.
      • The messages spoken in languages were for the edification of the church.
      • When interpreted, they had the same impact on the church as the teaching gifts.



The service gifts are less spectacular and generally less public than either the teaching gifts or the sign gifts. They are not the kind of gifts that people automatically want to have.

They are like the teaching gifts, and unlike the sign gifts, in that they involve hard work and self discipline, time and effort.

Their description is the most simple of all the gifts. The examples of the service gifts mentioned in the New Testament are:


This is a special endowment for leadership and governance within the church.


This is a special endowment of giving – of money, of goods, of time, of service – for the benefit of God’s people in need and the extension of Christ’s kingdom.


This is a special endowment of that kindness and generosity of heart, along with compassion, by which a person has a special gift of helping those with a great range of needs within the body of Christ.


This is a special endowment of hospitality the loves to open and share the home to all and sundry, especially, but not limited to, those within the body of Christ.


This is a special endowment of a loving, compassionate, merciful spirit that expresses love and mercy beyond the norm, especially within the body of Christ.


Possibly very similar to ‘helps’, and often present with a range of other gifts, this is the endowment of a heart that loves to serve the body of Christ.

Note : Each of the descriptions above specifies the application and use of these gifts ‘in the church’, or towards ‘the body of Christ’. This is because Paul clearly states that the spiritual gifts are given ‘for the common good’ and Peter exhorts his readers to exercise these service gifts towards ‘one another’. The use of these service gifts within the body of Christ thus contributes to the overall well-being of the body. To fail to use these gifts in the context of the body is to deprive the body of the benefit God intended through the exercise of these gifts.

This does not exclude the use of these gifts in the wider community, but the God-given purpose of these gifts is the health of his church.



We might ask: Why are they designated gifts?

The simple answer is ‘Because God gives them to the church’. This could be extended to read: ‘Because God gives them to individuals in the church for the benefit of his church.’

But under this question there are a number of sub-questions:

[1] In what way do the gifts differ from a God-given calling or a commission? Paul’s letters clearly reveal that he viewed his apostleship [the commission he received from Jesus Christ] as a gift, even terming this commission a ‘grace’. There is obviously a merging here in which that which is God’s appointment or calling is also God’s gift, and that which is God’s gift is, or, at the very least, may well be, also his appointment or his calling.

[2] In what way do the gifts differ from God’s command? When we look at the table below we find that many of the ‘gifts’ – teaching, evangelizing, encouraging, speaking, loving, helping, showing mercy, etc – are also things that God commands all believers to do. Again there is a merging of meaning: that which God gives is also that which God commands; that which he commands may also be that which he gives to an individual as a specific ability and responsibility.

[3] In what way do they relate to the fruit of the Spirit? When we look at the ‘service gifts’ listed we see that these, for the most part, seem to require the presence of at least some of the fruits of the Spirit – love, kindness, patience, goodness, for example. However, as Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, it is possible to exercise gifts from any of the three gift categories and yet to exercise them without love, without this fruit of the Spirit which to a large extent embraces all the fruit of the Spirit. Such an occurrence renders the use of the gifts of no personal spiritual significance at all, irrespective of how much was physically done or achieved.

[4] In what way do they differ from God-given natural talents or from learned abilities? Or is there no difference at all? Does, for example, a person who has a natural talent for teaching, and has learned the methodologies of teaching, also need the gift of teaching to be an effective teacher in the church? Or, do the first two somehow become ‘spiritualized’ or sanctified by God for his use when that person is regenerated by the Holy Spirit? Or, was God already working in this person, right from the womb, as he was with Jeremiah and Paul, in anticipation of his/her conversion and ministry in the church? If this is the case, and given God’s sovereignty it most probably is, then every natural talent and learned ability is holy or potentially holy, and can, through the operation of the Spirit of God, be transformed into a ‘spiritual gift’. [Example: Paul, who excelled in Judaism pre-conversion, and post-conversion was a spiritually gifted apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher of the Christian faith.] Note: the above statement does not infer that a person’s spiritual gifts are limited to, or will always coincide with, their natural or learned abilities.

We might also ask: why are they called spiritual? [Although, as we have seen above, the Greek text does not contain the exact term ‘spiritual gifts’.]

The answer is not immediately clear, because we can readily observe most of the activities involved in the gift lists being done, outside of Christianity, by people who are not Christian believers. Pagans speak in tongues. Clairvoyants accurately predict the future. New Agers by means of creative visualization exercise great faith. False teachers perform great miracles. Atheists have great gifts in teaching, encouraging, speaking, leading, administrating, giving, and so on. It is clearly not the actual ability that is in itself ‘spiritual’.

Is the only difference between the biblical ‘gifts’ and the gifts observed in non-believers a difference in their source? [But this answer, while valid in relation to, for instance, the supernatural ability to work miracles, would deny that God is the source, for example, of a ‘natural’ ability of teaching, or a ‘natural’ generosity of heart, in an unbeliever. God is actually the giver of every good gift. Every human being is the work of his hands, the product of his creative oversight within the womb – Psalm 139.]

Or, is the ‘spiritual’ factor in the purpose for which the gifts are exercised? That, when God gives these gifts to believers he has a specific spiritual purpose in mind – the edification of his church? or, in the case with the sign gifts, the confirmation of the apostolic message?

Or, is the ‘spiritual’ factor in the content or truth expressed by the gifts? That these gifts exercised by these people of God are being used to express in word, action and attitude the deep and powerful spiritual truths contained in Christ and his gospel?

Or, is the ‘spiritual’ factor in the commission to serve that employs these gifts in the service of God and his people and his kingdom – a spiritual service, not a secular service, even when the gift itself, such as the gift of administration, might sound seriously secular?

Or, does the ‘spiritual’ factor reside in the fact that the Spirit of God is at work in and through believers when they exercise their gifts for his purpose and within his boundaries?

All of these above questions are posed to help us to move beyond popular perceptions and to come to a Biblical understanding in this whole area ‘spiritual gifts’. It is, for the most part, popular church tradition, not the Bible, that makes us refer to them ‘spiritual gifts’, with the emphasis on the ‘spiritual’. They are specifically ‘spiritual’ only because of their spiritual function and purpose in the church, by which the Holy Spirit edifies, instructs and encourages the church, but they are not inherently spiritual in and of themselves. Perhaps the church has done itself a disservice in focusing on the word ‘spiritual’ rather than on the word ‘gifts’.