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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Introduction to the Gifts of the Holy Spirit

Don Stewart :: Does the Bible Tell Believers to Desire the Best Gifts?

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Does the Bible Tell Believers to Desire the Best Gifts? (1 Corinthians 12:31)

Introduction to the Gifts of the Holy Spirit – Question 14

The gifts of the Holy Spirit are given by the will of God alone. Paul made this clear when he wrote to the Corinthians.

All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses (1 Corinthians 12:11 NRSV).

God alone gives the gifts as He wills.

Does Paul Contradict Himself?

There are two statements that Paul makes that seem to contradict the idea that the Holy Spirit gives the gifts as He desires. He wrote.

Now eagerly desire the greater gifts. And yet I will show you the most excellent way (1 Corinthians 12:31 TNIV).

Here he tells the Corinthians to earnestly desire the greater gifts.

Paul also wrote these words.

Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy (1 Corinthians 14:1 TNIV).

Again, he seems to indicate that belief

If there is no warrant for praying to receive a spiritual gift, then why did Paul make these statements? If the Holy Spirit gives the gifts as He wills, then why should believers in Christ be encouraged to earnestly desire the best gifts? Is this not a contradiction?

Is It a Command or a Statement?

There are a couple of ways of understanding Paul without assuming any contradiction. In the case of 1 Corinthians 12:31, the answer may be found in how the verse is translated.

The verb form in the original Greek can be translated as either a simple statement or command. The context must determine how it is understood.

Therefore it is possible to translate this as a simple statement rather than a command. Consequently the verse would read something like this.

You are desiring the best gifts.

If this is how it is to be understood, then Paul is not telling the believers to desire the best gifts. To the contrary, he is making the statement that the believers in Corinth were themselves desiring the greater gifts. Yet he was going to show them a greater way – the way of love. If this is the proper understanding of what he is saying, then there is no contradiction.

We Should Desire to Use the Best Gifts

There is also another way of looking at this. When Paul tells the believers to earnestly desire the best gifts he does not mean they are to desire to have them; but rather they are to desire to use them. He assumes they already have them. Thus, he is now encouraging the people in the church to properly use them. Therefore, the emphasis is not on acquiring new gifts, but rather using the ones available. If this is what he meant then we do not have a contradiction.

Paul Is Writing to the Entire Church Not Addressing Individuals

It should also be noted that Paul is not writing to individual believers. The word translated “you” in First Corinthians 12:31 is the second person plural. He is writing to the entire church regarding this matter. The church, the body of believers, should desire to use the greater gifts such as prophecy. They should not desire to use, or emphasize, the lesser gifts. This is what the Apostle Paul is stressing.

There Is Silence in Other Letters about Seeking Spiritual Gifts

We should note something else. Only in this letter to the Corinthians does Paul advocate desiring the greater gifts. Nowhere else in the New Testament are believers told to seek spiritual gifts. This seems to tell us that it was not something that he emphasized with every congregation. In other words, the problems in Corinth were not problems elsewhere.

Summary – Question 14
Does the Bible Tell Believers to Desire the Best Gifts? (1 Corinthians 12:31)

Scripture makes it clear that God alone give spiritual gifts to believers. We can neither earn them nor can we demand to have certain gifts. God gives them as He alone wills.

Yet there is the possibility that Paul commanded the church at Corinth to desire the best gifts. How can this be the case if God alone decides who gets certain gifts and who does not? Is this not a clear contradiction? The answer is no. Indeed, there are a couple of ways of understanding his words without seeing them as contradictory.

One possible solution concerns the way Paul’s words are translated. Instead of commanding them to desire the best gifts he is acknowledging that they are already seeking the greater gifts. Thus, he is making a statement as to what they were doing; desiring the greater gifts. The Greek text can be read either way. Therefore it is not necessary to assume that Paul was commanding them to seek, or desire, the best gifts.

There is another way of looking at this. If he was encouraging the people to seek the best gifts, it is possible he meant this in the sense to seek to use the gifts, rather than to seek to have the gifts. Since Paul has made it clear that God gives the gifts solely as He desires, this view fits with the overall teaching on the subject.

Thus, while all the gifts were available for use Paul emphasized to the church at Corinth that they should seek to use the greater gifts for the building up of the church.

Either solution is possible. There is no contradiction here in what Paul is teaching.

Do People Receive Either the Holy Spirit, or Spiritual Gifts, by the Laying on of Hands? ← Prior Section
What Abilities Has God Given to Believers? (Introduction) Next Section →
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