The book you've been waiting for!  Click here to order a copy!

Site search Web search

powered by FreeFind

navbar OAIM Home Page

Navigation Bar

A Biblical Study on Spiritual Gifts

©2002 by OAIM

Take Up the Challenge. 1

ALL Christians Have a Spiritual Gift 2

Love, the Most Excellent Way. 2

The “Greater” gifts. 3

Prophecy. 3

Prophecy Is Preferred Over Tongues. 4

What Is the Biblical Definition of Tongues?. 6

The Purpose of Tongues. 6

Limits on Tongues and Prophecy. 7


Take Up the Challenge


I'd like to challenge you right now to set aside ALL you have heard from any person about the gift of discernment or any other gift and even what you think you know from your own experience, and come with me on a study through the Bible to see what God has to say about this gift as well as others.


When studying something in the Bible, the first place to start is to find out where the Bible talks about it. You can do this by using a concordance (if your Bible has one in the back or you can use one online, such as the one at ).


There are three major passages that are referred to when dealing with the subject of spiritual gifts, Ephesians 4:11-13, Romans 12:3-8, and 1 Corinthians 12-14. These three passages have listings of specific examples of gifts that are given to us. Let’s start with the passage in 1 Corinthians 12…this is a long passage so I will not cut and paste it all, but I ask the reader to please read it for yourself so you will know exactly what it is saying.


ALL Christians Have a Spiritual Gift


In 1 Cor. 12:4-6, we read: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.” From this we can see that the types of gifts people get can vary from person to person, but they all come from the same God. In the next verse, we see that ALL Christians are given at least one spiritual gift and we see the reason why we are given gifts. “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” Then we see a listing of some of the gifts the Spirit gives.


If we go down to verse 11, we see that these gifts do not come out of our own choosing, but only out of God’s sovereignty. He chooses which gifts to give and to whom. “All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.”


After this verse, Paul launches into a great analogy of how believers are like a body, with all parts having various functions, but all are equally necessary for the body to function correctly. Again, Paul gives a list of some spiritual gifts and then asks if everyone was meant to have these gifts: “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?” From the context, we can see that he assumes the answer to these questions will all be no. We were not created to all serve the same function in the body of Christ. If we were all called to teach, who would the teachers teach? The whole body cannot be an eye or how could the body survive?

Love, the Most Excellent Way


I think in dealing with spiritual gifts, the last verse of 1 Cor. 12 is almost always overlooked -- and yet, it is of vital importance. “But eagerly desire the greater gifts. And now I will show you the most excellent way.” Then Paul launches into one of the most quoted chapters of the Bible, the love chapter. It is not by chance that Paul includes this chapter in the middle of his discourse to the Corinthians about spiritual gifts. The Corinthian church was one that had many problems in it. The culture of that city was very corrupt and, as young Christians, that church made many mistakes. The purpose Paul had in writing this letter was to help to correct some of the misunderstandings the Corinthians had…and obviously, spiritual gifts caused great confusion for that body of believers.


In 1 Cor. 13:1, we read: If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” As we read the entire book of 1 Corinthians, we can see that one problem they had in the Corinthian church was that the speaking in tongues was very much out of hand. People were not practicing the gifts as they were meant to be done and this was causing chaos during their meetings. If you read the entire book, you can see that chapter 13 was the heart of the message Paul was trying to get across to this church. He wanted the people there to see that spiritual gifts mean absolutely nothing if they were not done out of pure love for others. Just to speak in tongues so you could feel as if you were on a higher spiritual plane than others was what Paul was condemning. He wanted the believers to have other people’s best interests in front of them, i.e., love. Spiritual gifts gain nothing if they are not for the good of others. Gifts are not for ourselves, but for others, and of course, for the ultimate purpose of bringing glory to God.


Paul reminds the Corinthians of their priorities: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Spiritual gifts are very temporary, for this earthly life only, but our faith in God, our hope for His return and our love for Him because of how He has loved us, those will always be with us. In other words, spiritual gifts are nice, but the real deal is to have faith, hope and love. These are the things God wants us to focus on and grow strong in…and the best one to have is love.


The “Greater” gifts


Now Paul begins a discourse about which of the gifts are “greater” gifts. In 1 Cor. 14:1, we read: “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy. For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit. But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort. He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified.”



The gift that Paul esteems as one to eagerly desire is the gift of prophecy. Please understand that the word “prophecy” has two basic meanings. The first is a “fore-telling” of the future events. (You can find this yourself by going to ) This was how God spoke to His people before Jesus came into the world. After that, however, Hebrews 1 tells us that God no longer needed that kind of prophet because Jesus (and the apostles writing on His authority) have already given us all the information we need. That is why we must reject those who come to us claiming to have some “new” revelation knowledge from God. This is contradictory to Hebrews 1. God says that He has spoken. Period. He has given us all we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). To think He has to add more “special revelation” now is to question part of God’s character: 1. He must not have been able to foresee all that we would have needed, 2. He must need our help to finish up what He is evidently incompetent to do without us humans helping Him, or 3. He has changed His mind about being finished with that kind of revelation. One of the marks of a cult is where they add special “new” revelation to what the Bible already says.


The second meaning of the word “prophecy” means a “forth-telling” of God’s truth. This is what a good preacher will do as he unfolds the words of God so people hear God’s truth. This does not mean the person has “special” knowledge of “hidden” things, however. This means that God inspires them to show people in the Bible what God has already said to us. A prophet of this kind has the ability to move people into spiritual action by speaking out boldly about the Bible and the truth it contains. This is how the gift of prophecy is to be used today, according to the Bible. And this is exactly why Paul considers this one of the best gifts to desire. What better thing than to show people the truth about God and to move them closer to a relationship with Him through what you say?

Prophecy Is Preferred Over Tongues


Paul goes on in 1 Corinthians 14:2-5 to compare the gift of prophecy and the gift of tongues and he gives the reasoning as to why he believes that prophecy is superior to tongues. “For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit. But everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort. He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. He who prophesies is greater than one who speaks in tongues, unless he interprets, so that the church may be edified.” Here we see Paul saying that speaking in tongues without someone to interpret it is a rather selfish use of a spiritual gift. As we have said above in 1 Corinthians 12:7, the purpose of spiritual gifts is for the common good of all.


I have heard many say that because speaking in tongues helps to build them up, it therefore helps build up the body of Christ, but I don’t think this way of thinking is consistent with how spiritual gifts are described throughout these passages. There are no other gifts that are focused inward for our own edification. Instead, they are all focused outward, to build up the body by building up each other. To say you are going to exercise your spiritual gift for the purpose of building only yourself up is, well, just plain selfish. That is not the purpose behind them. Also, we must understand that Paul was writing this letter to correct some problems in the Corinthian church, and Paul’s major focus was to tell them to love each other, not to love themselves. Our focus when we use our gifts should be for the sake of others, not for our own sakes. If everyone builds everyone else up, then your needs will be met by others in the body of Christ as you concern yourself with building up others.


Paul continues on here in 1 Corinthians 14:6-12 to again show what role tongues should play in our churches. “Now, brothers, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the flute or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me. So it is with you. Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church.”


In this passage we see that tongues are of no use unless they are interpreted. Unintelligible words do no one any favors. If I spoke to you in French but you did not understand French, how would that be beneficial to you? I could be telling you the most wonderful things in the universe, but if you had no understanding of what I was saying, I might as well be telling you a list of my dirty laundry. “Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air.” This brings us to a question: What exactly is meant biblically by “speaking in tongues”?

What Is the Biblical Definition of Tongues?


For this, we must again go to our lexicon to study both what the meaning is of the word “tongues” and also what other locations in the Bible use this same word. We can find the lexicon entry for the Greek word “tongues” at . Here we see that this word is used a total of 47 times in the New Testament (remember, the Old Testament was not written in Greek) and as we look, we see that it is the same usage as in Acts 2 where the gift was first given to the Christians.


As you read through this passage in Acts 2, take a very close look at it. Here is a detailed example of exactly what the gift of tongues is. The Christians all spoke in what they thought was their own language, but it came across to anyone who heard it in that person’s own language. This would be like me speaking in English, but a French person hearing it in French and a Spanish person hearing it in Spanish and a German person hearing it in German, all at the same time! As you can see from this context, the tongues they were speaking in might have been unknown to the actual people speaking them, but they were all real, actual languages. And the purpose of this phenomenon was to tell people of the risen Christ and for that purpose only.

The Purpose of Tongues


If we go back to 1 Corinthians 14:22, we see what Paul says is the purpose of tongues: Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers.” Why would they serve as a sign to unbelievers if the unbeliever couldn’t understand what the person was saying? Wouldn’t it be more of a sign to an unbeliever if, let’s say someone who spoke only Russian happened upon a church service in English, among people who did not at all speak Russian, and yet, when the unbeliever entered, people began to tell him about Jesus in his own tongue, Russian? I have witnessed the reactions of unbelievers when they see Christians speaking in the type of tongues that are not real, actual languages on earth. Their reactions were to be pushed further away from God instead of drawn into a closer relationship with Him.


Again, Paul must have witnessed a similar thing going on in the Corinthian church because once again, we see him speaking words of correction to them. “So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!’” 1 Corinthians 14:23-25 The confusion we often see on TV or in some churches today where tongues are being spoken and no one understands them is not the thing to impress unbelievers. Instead, Paul says here that the thing to REALLY impress them is to talk to them about God’s truth, to tell forth what God has said in the Bible, that is when the person will come under conviction in their hearts and fall on their knees to worship God.


At this point, Paul gives some very specific guidelines that are to be followed if you exercise the gift of tongues. 1 Corinthians 14:26-33 says, “What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church. If anyone speaks in a tongue, two--or at the most three--should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God. Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.” Here Paul reiterates the purpose for our spiritual gifts: “for the strengthening of the church.”

Limits on Tongues and Prophecy


Notice here that Paul sets limits on how many can speak in a tongue. He says that no more than three should speak during that time of worship. And if there is no interpreter, they are to remain quiet and not speak in tongues. Many churches today teach that all should speak in tongues, but, as we have already seen in 1 Corinthians 12:29-30, not all are expected to speak in tongues, just like not all are expected to be teachers. Here we see that this gift has limits on what is to be shared with the rest of the body of Christ.


I have also heard some say that they have no control over when they speak in tongues or prophesy. This passage contradicts that thought. Paul clearly limits how many can speak in tongues. If he could do that, then either God is subject to what Paul ordered here (not!) or people can indeed control when they speak in tongues and when they don’t. Also, in regards to prophets, once again, we see Paul giving a clear indication that prophets can control their prophecies. “The spirits of the prophets are subject to the control of prophets.” They can indeed control themselves.


Why does Paul give these limitations on these two gifts? I think we can logically conclude that it was because the Corinthian church, as several churches today, was abusing these gifts and not using them in the correct fashion. These gifts, as do all spiritual gifts, have their place in the body of Christ, but we must always remember, “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace.” When any church service or meeting becomes chaotic, you can be certain that God is no longer in charge. If you are searching for a home church, keep this point in mind. If the service seems to be normally chaotic (and remember, disorder here is used in the same vein as chaotic), avoid that church. God is a God of peace.


“Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.” 1 Corinthians 14:39-40 Here yet again, Paul calls the Corinthians back to order in the way they worship. The major focus is still maintaining a fitting, orderly, peaceful time of worship.


This is the end of part one of this article. Part two will continue on with learning about other specific gifts.



©1998-2008 by OAIM
No portion of this site may be reproduced except for personal purposes without written permission from OAIM.






OAIM Main Page The history of OAIM Doctrinal Statement Site Map Staff