There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. (12:4-6)
It may strike us as interesting that Paul gets started discussing misunderstandings about spiritual gifts the way he does in these verses. Keeping in mind the context of the letter as a whole, we will quickly discern that these comments refer back to the fragmentation and disunity that has plagued the congregation in Corinth. We know from what we have read already that they were divided along social and class lines, and that different groups within the church had identified with different leaders; Apollos and Paul were mentioned, for example. We might infer from this passage that people were in danger of fragmenting along the lines of spiritual gifts as well. As we would expect, Paul will have none of that, and tells them three different ways that there is one God, one Lord, and one purpose for spiritual gifts.
This theme continues in the next paragraph, and to see it clearly, let’s look at it in a slightly different way than we usually do:
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good… All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines. (12:7, 11)
I’ve broken the first and last sentences out of the paragraph (12:7-11) because they are unity statements. Manifestations of the Spirit are given to individuals not for their own amusement, pleasure or enrichment, but for the common good of the entire Body of believers. These are manifestations of the Holy Spirit within each person, and while the Spirit may choose to manifest Himself differently in different people, He is still one Spirit within all of them, and he distributes His various manifestations according to His sole discretion and purpose.
At this point, it is essential that we recognize that what we commonly call “spiritual gifts” are actually “manifestations” of the Holy Spirit within us, and through us to those around us, to enrich and build the Body of Christ. Technically speaking, the actual “gift” is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in each of us.
In verses 8-10 Paul mentions 8 manifestations of the Spirit: Wisdom and knowledge in 12:8, faith and healing in 12:9, and miracles, prophecy, discernment and tongues (languages) in 12:10. In mentioning these, Paul said that they were by the “same Spirit” three more times making obvious his concern that this subject would be a potentially divisive one.
We should not be surprised that Paul would be concerned about division surrounding the whole subject of spiritual gifts, since it has caused divisions within the Body of Christ for centuries, and still do so today. Yet ironically, the gifts or manifestations themselves are not at all divisive− they should actually unite us all together. Here’s what I mean:
If you take an honest look at the larger Body of Christ, which is to say at groups you don’t worship with, you will see manifestations of the Spirit in the Methodist church, and in the Southern Baptist church, and in the Pentecostal church and in the Church of Christ and in the Missionary Baptist church and in the Lutheran church and in the Catholic church… We may not always agree on teaching or customs or traditions, but where the Spirit is present, so are our brothers and sisters in Christ, for we all have the same indwelling Holy Spirit.
Not surprisingly, Paul will continue this theme in the rest of this section.