Spiritual Gifts

The subject will be treated under the following headings:

Spiritual gifts in the OT.

To sum up, then, in the OT, all “gifts” are thought of as spiritual gifts. It is not that in the OT “spiritual gifts” are without moral significance; rather, the doctrine of spiritual gifts is all-comprehensive. Yet it is not unfair to say that, as God’s revelation moves forward to its NT climax, there is more stress on those gifts of a moral and spiritual nature, and thus a closer approximation to the NT understanding. Prophecies, such as that of Joel, in addition, contain a clear looking forward to the coming “generalization” of spiritual gifts, no longer to be restricted to a few.

Spiritual gifts in the gospels.

There is as yet no systematic treatment, perhaps impossible before Pentecost. Yet there is an advance on the OT position, for such spiritual gifts as are mentioned are more closely associated with a “personalized” Spirit. This is more true of John, with his developed teaching about “the Counselor,” than of the synoptic gospels; but in both alike, the Spirit and His gifts are associated directly with the Messiah. This is equally true from the beginning of the ministry of Christ, to the teaching of the final week (cf. Matt 3:11 with John 16:14). While there may be no systematic lists, various spiritual gifts are just as evident in the gospels as after Pentecost, not only in the person of the Messiah, but also in the life of His disciples. The Messianic age has dawned and these are the signs and wonders associated with its coming, in which the humblest member of the kingdom may participate. Contrast Matthew 11:11 with John 10:41; not even mighty John the Baptist could compare with these humble disciples (unless, as some modern scholars think, the contrast is between John the Baptist and Christ Himself). The picture drawn rests more upon the evidence of the spectacular spiritual gifts (healing, miracles, exorcism, etc.) and not on the more prosaic gifts. This is not as serious a charge as it appears at first sight. First, both types of gifts come from one and the same Spirit, as Paul makes clear (1 Cor 12:4); therefore the presence of either should be proof of His presence and activity. Secondly, it is far easier, in the cursory narrative of the gospels, to detect the former than it is to detect the latter, although doubtless both were equally present.

The presence of spiritual gifts before Pentecost can be shown by pointing to the OT, or to John the Baptist; the Spirit was at work long before Pentecost. To judge from passages like Joel 2:28 and John 1:33, the real change to be expected at Pentecost was that the gifts of the Spirit would be generalized and permanent, not that the Spirit would only then commence His work.

In the gospels, as later in the NT, the Spirit Himself is the greatest “spiritual gift,” whether in the synoptics (Luke 11:13) or the fourth gospel (John 20:22). Within this general framework, not only does the Messiah Himself exhibit the gifts of the Spirit in His own life, but He also delegates these powers to His followers. The work of the seventy disciples sent out by Christ is a good instance of healing and exorcism done by the disciples (Luke 10:9, 17). Luke 10:19 may be a further reference to outward signs, although perhaps in the context it should be interpreted only in the spiritual sense.

That sometimes the disciples failed in their attempt to exercise these powers, does not show that they did not possess them, but simply that they were lacking in faith (Matt 17:20). The gospels, however, make clear that the ability to do such signs does not, per se, conclusively prove a right relationship to God (Matt 7:22).

Compare the fact that orthodox Jewish rabbis exorcised demons just as much as the followers of Christ did (Luke 11:19; cf. Acts 19:13, 14).

The Lord’s promise to His disciples was not only that they would receive the Spirit (John 16:7), but also that, after the Spirit’s coming, they would do even “greater works” than the Messiah Himself (14:12). This is sufficiently clear anticipation of the post-Pentecostal period, when taken with other scattered references, even if Mark 16:17, 18 be rejected as not forming part of the original text of the gospel.

Spiritual gifts in Acts.

Pentecost is primarily an age of new spiritual experience, not an age of theological reflection and analysis. Therefore Acts contains an account of manifestations of spiritual gifts, rather than carefully constructed lists. Again it is easier to trace the presence of spiritual gifts by concentrating mainly on the more spectacular manifestations. However, not all these outward manifestations may find their source in the Holy Spirit, as Acts itself makes clear (8:9; 19:13).

For the Day of Pentecost (ch. 2), see Gift of Tongues. It is very well possible that the new gift of “interpretation” also appeared on that day, for Peter’s sermon is an “interpretation” in general terms.

In addition to tongues and interpretation, Acts 3:1-10 shows the exercise of the power of healing. The gift of “discernment of spirits” was exercised by Peter (5:3). Philip expelled demons (8:7); Peter raised the dead (9:40).

In addition to these specific instances, there are several “blanket” references to “signs and wonders” done by the apostles either individually or collectively; e.g. 5:12-16, by the whole body, and 6:8, by Stephen.

Most of these spiritual manifestations can be matched in the life of Paul, in the second half of Acts. Although he is not actually recorded as having spoken with tongues (a gift which he certainly had, see 1 Cor 14:18), Paul raised the dead (20:9-12); cast out demons (16:18); had the power of healing (14:10); and was bitten by a snake and suffered no ill effects (28:5). Paul also showed discernment of spirits (13:9, 10).

Spiritual gifts in the Pauline epistles.

In the epistles of Paul the reader at once feels himself on familiar ground; the world of Paul was like the world of today in many respects. Yet these epistles are not chronologically later than the latter half of Acts, which follows closely the Jewish-Christian world of the first twelve chapters. Even the various phenomena do not seem to have been very different in themselves: the difference is that they are now seen through the eyes of Paul rather than through the eyes of the Jerusalem church.

Luke seems here, as usual, to have consciously adopted the viewpoint of his Jerusalem sources and informants. In the Pauline epistles there is an analysis of the various phenomena by a keen, if sympathetic, theological observer. It is clear e.g., that a list of spiritual gifts—indeed a virtual classification and evaluation—like that of 1 Corinthians 12:4-11 is not only the result of revelation, but also the fruit of long and careful reflection.

Paul began by emphasizing the essential unity of all spiritual gifts, in the will and purpose of the Triune God (1 Cor 12:4-6). There is a unity of source and origin, but also a unity of goal; i.e., although the gifts are individual, the purpose is collective (i.e. all are “for the common good,” v. 7).

Paul added a higher bond of unity, for all such gifts are to be used in love (ch. 13). This would at once remove all pride, all self-advertisement, all rivalry, and all selfishness, in the use of spiritual gifts.

Once the principle of basic unity of testimony and goal was established, Paul stressed the diversity of the gifts of the Spirit. “Utterance,” which he placed first, quite clearly refers to some type of preaching or teaching, presumably within the Church, if this gift is “for the common good.” Perhaps the same charisma is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 14:19. If so, the gift would correspond to “teachers” in the parallel list in 12:28; cf. Barnabas, “Son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36).

The next gift is faith (1 Cor 12:9), perhaps evidenced in answered prayer, or even by signs or wonders performed (Matt 21:18-22). Next come gifts of healing and working of miracles; Paul could not have appealed to them so confidently, had such miracles not been common in Corinth.

Prophecy is a gift that may well have two meanings in Paul; the predictive element undoubtedly existed in the primitive Church (see under section 3) but there is no reference to it in the extant Pauline epistles.

It seems, therefore, as though Paul refers to prophecy as the ability to bring the “word of the Lord” in any given situation. Perhaps this corresponds with forceful Spirit-filled preaching, as distinct from teaching, a different gift of the same Spirit. “Prophets” are clearly distinct from “teachers” (1 Cor 12:29); but they are frequently associated in terms which suggest that the difference is not great (at Antioch, Acts 13:1, the same group seems to combine both functions). Prophecy builds up the Church (14:4). Unlike the gift of tongues, it is immediately understandable by all (14:24), even by the non-Christian. Perhaps this is why Paul gave “prophecy” such a high priority among spiritual gifts (14:1). The ability to “distinguish between spirits” was doubtless all the more necessary in a charismatic age, when forms of worship and ministry were still fluid, and creeds or other tests of orthodoxy still embryonic. It was essential that men should be able to tell whether the claimed “inspiration” was from God, or from a Satanic source. Paul laid down the simple yardstick of the testimony born to Christ (12:1-3).

For other lists of gifts, see 1 Corinthians 12:28-31; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11, 12. Some of these are more concerned with possessors of the gifts than with the gifts themselves; nevertheless, the general pattern is recognizably the same. See Ministry.


H. A. Guy, NT Prophecy (1947); G. S. Hendry, The Holy Spirit in Christian Theology (1957); C. K. Barrett, The Holy Spirit and the Gospel Tradition (1958); J. L. Sherrill, They Speak with Other Tongues (1964). Also see standard commentaries on Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Ephesians.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


1. Gifts Connected with the Ministry of the Word

(1) Apostleship

(2) Prophecy

(3) Discernings of spirits

(4) Teaching

(5) The Word of Knowledge

(6) The Word of Wisdom

(7) Kinds of Tongues

(8) Interpretation of Tongues

2. Gifts Connected with the Ministry of Practical Service

(1) Workings of Miracles

(2) Gifts of Healings

(3) Ruling, Governments

(4) Helps


1. Gifts Connected with the Ministry of the Word:

(1) Apostleship

See Apostle.

(2) Prophecy

It is evident that the functions of the prophet must sometimes have crossed those of the apostle, and so we find Paul himself described as a prophet long after he had been called to the apostleship (Ac 13:1). And yet there was a fundamental distinction. While the apostle, as we have seen, was one "sent forth" to the unbelieving world, the prophet was a minister to the believing church (1Co 14:4,22). Ordinarily his message was one of "edification, and exhortation, and consolation" (1Co 14:3). Occasionally he was empowered to make an authoritative announcement of the divine will in a particular case (Ac 13:1 ). In rare instances we find him uttering a prediction of a future event (Ac 11:28; 21:10 f).

(3) Discernings of Spirits

See Discernings of Spirits.

(4) Teaching

(Ro 12:7; 1Co 12:28 f).--As distinguished from the prophet, who had the gift of uttering fresh truths that came to him by way of vision and revelation, the teacher was one who explained and applied established Christian doctrine--the rudiments and first principles of the oracles of God (Heb 5:12).

(5) The Word of Knowledge

Possibly the word of knowledge (gnosis).

(6) The Word of Wisdom

The word of wisdom (sophia) (1Co 12:8) are to be distinguished, the first as the utterance of a prophetic and ecstatic intuition, the second as the product of study and reflective thought; and so are to be related respectively to the functions of the prophet and the teacher.

See Teacher, Teaching.

(7) Kinds of Tongues

(1Co 12:10,28,30).--What Paul means by this he explains fully in 1 Corinthians 14. The gift was not a faculty of speaking in unknown foreign languages, for the tongues (glossai) are differentiated from the "voices" or languages (phonai) by which men of one nation are distinguished from those of another (14:10,11). And when the apostle says that the speaker in an unknown tongue addressed himself to God and not to men (14:2,14) and was not understood by those who heard him (14:2), that he edified himself (14:4) and yet lost the power of conscious thought while praying with the spirit (14:14 f), it would appear that the "tongues" must have been of the nature of devout ejaculations and broken and disjointed words, uttered almost unconsciously under the stress of high ecstatic feeling.

(8) Interpretation of Tongues

Parallel to this gift was that of the interpretation of tongues (1Co 12:10,30). If the gift of tongues had been a power of speaking unknown foreign languages, the interpretation of tongues would necessarily have meant the faculty of interpreting a language unknown to the interpreter; for translation from a familiar language could hardly be described as a charisma. But the principle of economy makes it improbable that the edification of the church was accomplished in this round-about way by means of a double miracle--a miracle of foreign speech followed by a miracle of interpretation. If, on the other hand, the gift of tongues was such as has been described, the gift of interpretation would consist in turning what seemed a meaningless utterance into words easy to be understood (1Co 12:9). The interpretation might be given by the speaker in tongues himself (1Co 12:5,13) after his mood of ecstasy was over, as he translated his exalted experiences and broken cries into plain intelligible language. Or, if he lacked the power of self-interpretation, the task might be undertaken by another possessed of this special gift (1Co 12:27,28). The ability of a critic gifted with sympathy and insight to interpret the meaning of a picture or a piece of music, as the genius who produced it might be quite unable to do (e.g. Ruskin and Turner), will help us to understand how the ecstatic half-conscious utterances of one who had the gift of tongues might be put into clear and edifying form by another who had the gift of interpretation.

See Gift of Tongues.

2. Gifts Connected with the Ministry of Practical Service:

(1) Workings of Miracles

(1Co 12:10,28,29).--The word used for miracles in this chapter (dunameis, literally, "powers") is employed in Ac (8:7,13; 19:11,12) so as to cover those cases of exorcism and the cure of disease which in Paul’s list are placed under the separate category of "gifts of healing." As distinguished from the ordinary healing gift, which might be possessed by persons not otherwise remarkable, the "powers" point to a higher faculty more properly to be described as miraculous, and bestowed only upon certain leading men in the church. In 2Co 12:12 Paul speaks of the "powers" he wrought in Corinth as among "the signs of an apostle." In Heb 2:4 the writer mentions the "manifold powers" of the apostolic circle as part of the divine confirmation of their testimony. In Ro 15:18 ff Paul refers to his miraculous gifts as an instrument which Christ used for the furtherance of the gospel and the bringing of the Gentiles to obedience. The working of "powers," accordingly, was a gift which linked itself to the ministry of the word in respect of its bearing upon the truth of the gospel and the mission of the apostle to declare it. And yet, like the wider and lower gift of healing, it must be regarded primarily as a gift of practical beneficence, and only secondarily as a means of confirming the truth and authenticating its messenger by way of a sign. The Book of Ac gives several examples of "powers" that are different from ordinary healings. The raising of Dorcas (9:36 ff) and of Eutychus (20:9 ff) clearly belong to this higher class, and also, perhaps, such remarkable cures as those of the life-long cripple at the Temple gate (3:1 ff) and Aeneas of Lydda (9:32 ff).

(2) Gifts of Healings

(1Co 12:9,28,30).

See Gifts of Healing.

(3) Ruling, Governments

(Ro 12:8, 1Co 12:28).--These were gifts of wise counsel and direction in the practical affairs of the church, such as by and by came to be formally entrusted to presbyters or bishops. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, the ministry of office had not yet supplanted the ministry of inspiration, and Christian communities were guided and governed by those of their members whose wisdom in counsel proved that God through His Spirit had bestowed upon them the gift of ruling.

(4) Helps

(1Co 12:28).--This has sometimes been understood to denote the lowliest Christian function of all in Paul’s list, the function of those who have no pronounced gifts of their own and can only employ themselves in services of a subordinate kind. But the usage of the Greek word (antilempsis) in the papyri as well as the Septuagint points to succor rendered to the weak by the strong; and this is confirmed for the New Testament when the same Greek word in its verbal form (antilambano) is used in Ac 20:35, when Paul exhorts the elders of the Ephesian church to follow his example in helping the weak. Thus, as the gift of government foreshadowed the official powers of the presbyter or bishop, the gift of helps appears to furnish the germ of the gracious office of the deacon--the "minister" paragraph excellence, as the name diakonos denotes--which we find in existence at a later date in Philippi and Ephesus (Php 1:1; 1Ti 3:1-13), and which was probably created, on the analogy of the diakonia of the Seven in Jerusalem (Ac 6:1 ), as a ministry, in the first place, to the poor.

See, further, HELPS.

LITERATURE. Hort, Christian Ecclesia, Lect X; Neander, Hist of the Planting of the Christian Church, I, 131 ff; Weizsacker, Apostolic Age, II, 255-75; Lindsay, Church and Ministry, passim; EB, IV, article "Spiritual Gifts"; ERE, III, article "Charismata"; PRE, VI, article "Geistesgaben."