First Corinthians 12--Priorities
Jun 29, 2017
Paul concludes this chapter with a statement about diversity and priority. 1 Corinthians 12:28 says,
28 And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues.
By listing these in order as first, second, and third, Paul makes it clear that there are many callings and gifts, but some are greater than others, even though all are important to the wellbeing of the church. This is not a complete list, of course, because Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:11,
11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers.
This “five-fold ministry” is the most complete list that Paul sets forth, but in 1 Corinthians 12:28, he lists only three. The order is the same, but evangelists and pastors are left out of the list. As a teacher, I might be tempted to insist that the teaching ministry is the third most important calling, since Paul says it is “third.” However, I do not think that is what Paul intended to say. It was merely the third on his shortened list, subordinate to the apostle and prophet.
Yet a prophetic friend pointed out years ago that the little finger of the five-fold ministry is what anchors the apostle (thumb), confirming the apostolic calling and making it truly effective. A thumb without a little finger is weakened. The apostle depends upon the little finger more than any other except the prophetic calling, which is the second finger. At any rate, if anyone is interested, I am a little finger on the hand of the body of Christ.
Miracles and Healing
Paul seems to integrate callings with gifts in this verse, for the fourth in the list is “miracles,” and the fifth is “gifts of healings.” But Paul was actually speaking of those who were gifted, not the gift itself. The word translated “miracles” is dunamis, “powers,” which speaks of various manifestations of supernatural power. We might paraphrase Paul’s list to mean, “fourth, miracle-workers, then healers,” etc. What is perhaps most significant is that these are so far down on the list—even below the lowly “teachers.” Yet today, in the minds of most people, miracle-workers and healers are far higher on the list.
Perhaps this is because today, because of the abundance of harmful chemicals and food that is low on nutritional value, sickness has become a normal condition. Artificial drugs are used to treat symptoms, as all of the advertisements tell us, and it is illegal to cure anyone. Disease management forever is now an accepted way of life. People need healing more than ever under such conditions.
Priorities are set according the most urgent need. While the church as a whole needs apostles, prophets, and teachers before miracle-workers and healers, the need of each individual may vary according to his or her situation. A man who is dying of thirst, for example, should be given water before teaching him the gospel of Matthew. Miracles, such as walking on water is always impressive and glamorous, and it may be urgent for those in danger on a stormy lake, but in the big picture, the church has a greater need for revelation from a prophet and truth from a teacher.
Helpers or Assistants
Another less glamorous gift is “helps” (NASB), or “assistants” (The Emphatic Diaglott). There are relatively few who claim the calling of an assistant, but those who have this calling are indispensable to those that they assist. In fact, the gift of “helps” is perhaps the most common of the gifts. Many believers, who think that they have no gift at all, actually have the gift of “helps,” for they are called to assist others in their gifts. In doing this, they receive the same reward (from God) as the one they assist, even though they seldom receive recognition from men on earth.
It is the cup of cold water principle that Jesus mentioned in Matthew 10:40-42,
40 He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me. 41 He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward; and he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. 42 And whoever in the name of a disciple gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water to drink, truly I say to you he shall not lose his reward.
Anyone, then, can receive the reward of a prophet, a righteous man, or a disciple. This is based on the principle of unity, and in such cases, assistance is evidence of unity.
When Jacob distributed various callings to his sons, it did not mean that those sons were the only ones to be blessed by those callings. All who were in unity with Judah were blessed by his Dominion Mandate when David became king. All who were in unity with Levi were blessed by his priesthood. All who were in unity with Ephraim partook in the blessings of the birthright. It was only when the kingdom was divided, or when they fell into sin and rebellion, that the people began to find themselves cut off from the blessings given to others.
So the gift of “helps” is a good gift that derives blessings from the one who is helped. An assistant receives the same reward as the assisted one, if help is offered in the spirit of unity. It has been said that God must love the poor, because He created so many of them. It is perhaps more accurate to note that God considers helpers to be extremely important, because He made so many of them. Unfortunately, the carnality of soulish men tends to downgrade the importance of this calling, mostly because men tend to think more highly of themselves than they ought to think (Romans 12:3).
This is from a Latin word that was adopted into the Greek language. It is kybernesis, “to steer,” and it appears just once in the New Testament. The Emphatic Diaglott renders it “directors.” One might think that this is an apostolic function, but Paul distinguishes these “directors” from apostles. One might view an apostle as the captain of a ship who decides where to go, while the one who actually steers the ship is the director or administrator.
We do not often think of administrators as having a spiritual gift. We usually think of such people in terms of their natural abilities or talents for administration. No doubt there are many with natural, or soulish, talent. However, Paul was speaking of a divine calling enabled by a spiritual gift of administration. In other words, such administrators hear God’s voice and are led by the Spirit as much as any apostle or prophet. The main difference is that God leads them in ways that are specific to their calling.
Various Kinds of Tongues
It is self-evident that there are many human languages on the earth today. These are included in Paul’s listing of “various kinds of tongues,” but a few verses later he also mentions another kind of tongue. 1 Corinthians 13:1 says, “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels…” The tongues of men are the thousands of languages used among the nations of men. But what about angelic tongues?
Whenever angels appeared to men and women in Scripture, they spoke in the languages of men in order to be understood. There are no clear examples of angelic tongues in the Old Testament. Even the first example of “tongues” shows Balaam’s donkey speaking to Balaam, not in the tongue of donkeys, but in the language that Balaam understood (Numbers 22:28-30). We are not told if the angel spoke to the donkey or not. If so, we know not his language.
Nonetheless, in 1 Corinthians 14 Paul seems to identify “unknown” or unintelligible tongues as that of angels. 1 Corinthians 14:13, 14 says,
13 Therefore let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret. 14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.
Because Paul saw a need to pray in order to be able to interpret, it is plain that interpretation was not something to be studied in school (as a translator), but a supernatural gift of interpretation. Secondly, when Paul prayed “in a tongue,” his soulish mind did not understand it. This is what he means by “my mind is unfruitful.” What sort of language did Paul’s spirit use when it prayed? He may have prayed in a language of men, which, theoretically, might be understood by another; however, under “normal” circumstances, this tongue, unknown even to Paul himself as his spirit prayed, was an angelic tongue.
Do All Have the Same Calling or Gift?
1 Corinthians 12:29, 30 says,
29 All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they? 30 All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they?
This re-establishes the point that Paul has been making since the beginning. There are diverse gifts and callings, and God has made us all co-dependent. By the principle of unity, we are to share in the gifts and callings of others. This reinforces the solution to the earlier dispute that Paul brought up in regard to our unity in Christ.
Few today would say that all must be apostles or prophets or even healers. No doubt some gifts are more readily available than others, and often gifts of healing are evident even in one who does not have that particular calling. God considers the need at the moment. I do not have the gift of healing, but yet over the years I have seen a few healed when I prayed for them.
Some also insist that the gift of tongues is for everyone. Such a question is theoretical, of course, because the fact is that not all speak in tongues, as even the apostle tells us. I am more interested in practical reality than in theoretical debate.
Paul ends by saying in 1 Corinthians 12:31,
31 But earnestly desire the greater [or “better”] gifts. And I show you a still more excellent way.
Hence, some gifts are greater than others. Paul explains this further in chapter 14 after showing us the “still more excellent way.” As we will see, prophecy is better than tongues, so Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:5, “greater is one who prophesies than one who speaks in tongues.” The reason for this will be more evident when we study those verses and are able to look up the Old Testament references that Paul cites to prove his statements.
This is part 68 of a series titled "Studies in First Corinthians." To view all parts, click the link below.