The Gifts of the Spirit - What are they exactly?

Bible Issues

This article attempts to identify the 9 gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12. There are some Christians who believe that these gifts are no longer for the church today. I call them cessationists because they believe the gifts have ceased. Charismatics, on the other hand, believe that the gifts are still for the church today. In another article, I explain why I believe these gifts are still available for the church today. 

Generally you will find that charismatic writers tend to write a lot about their experiences. Cessationists on the other hands are heavy on theology. As a result, most of the writings on spiritual gifts were done by charismatics, and as such do not really adequately study the scriptures in defining the gifts. Cessationists on the other hand don’t really bother to study the gifts because there is no point – the gifts have ceased. It is not a priority for them. As a result they have a very shallow understanding of the gifts.

For example, it is not uncommon to hear cessationists say that prophesy and tongues are no longer for the church today. What is their argument? They say that 1 Corinthians was written before Romans which was written before Ephesians. 1 Corinthians 12 list tongues and prophesy as two of the gifts. Romans 12 lists prophesy but not tongues. Ephesians 4 do not list prophesy or tongues. So they conclude that tongues had ceased by the time Romans was written, and both tongues and prophesy had ceased by the time Ephesians was written.

As hilarious as that interpretation of the bible sounds, I am not making this up. This is actually what they believe. This is how shallow their understanding of spiritual gifts is. Even a child can figure out that those 3 passages of scripture are talking about 3 different types of gifts. Their contexts are vastly different.

Thus we are left in a state where some bible teachers don’t bother to teach us about the gifts, and the only people who teach about the gifts are those who have not sufficiently studied it from a scriptural point of view but instead base their teachings on their experiences. My goal is to provide some scriptural teachings on these gifts.

Different types of gifts

1 Corinthians 12 speak of manifestation gifts (verse 7). These are gifts that manifest from time to time (they come and go as God chooses). No one possesses any of these gifts. It is God who gives them occasionally as He wills. This is why Paul could heal the sick sometimes, but not at other times (2 Timothy 4:20).

Romans 12 speaks of ministry gifts. Why? Because the context is our reasonable service, whereas in 1 Corinthians 12, the context was congregational worship. The Romans 12 gifts are ours to keep. They are strongly tied to our personality and status in life. For example the gift of giving refers to eagerness to help others in financial needs. It may also imply that those with the gift of giving would be financially prosperous. The gift of prophesy in Romans 12:6 is therefore different from the gift of prophesy in 1 Corinthians 12:10. Romans 12 prophesy refers to preaching, while 1 Corinthians 12 prophesy refers to an inspired message delivered to the church under the inspiration of the Spirit. Although it’s the same word that is translated prophesy, it is in an entirely different context.

Ephesians 4 is also very different from the other 2 passages. In Ephesians 4, it is individuals in the church who are gifts – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. So again, it is speaking of a different type of gifts. Sure there may be a relationship between the different types. A teacher, I suppose would have the gift of teaching. A pastor may have the gift of exhortation and prophesy (Romans 12).

The Romans 12 gifts are not that difficult to understand. Your ministry gifts can be easily identified by asking yourself, “What burden do I feel as a Christian?” It is God who works in us both to will and do of his good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). If you have a desire to teach the word, chances are that you have a gift of teaching. If you desire to help the poor, chances are you have the gift of giving. If you desire to help out in the physical running of the church – the gift of helps. Do you like administrative responsibility? – the gift of leadership. People can have more than one. Essentially they are spiritual gifts that enable you to effectively minister on a regular basis and do the work that God called you to.

My focus in this article will be on the 1 Corinthians 12 gifts – the manifestation gifts.

Manifestation Gifts (1 Corinthians 12)

Before I identify each of the manifestation gifts, it is important to take note of a few points. Verse 7 and 11 say “But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all … but one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills.” I emphasized 3 phrases in these 2 verses which are critical. First of all these gifts are manifestations. No one has a gift of healing. God manifests the gifts from time to time … as He wills. Why God chooses not to heal sometimes is information privy to God alone. Also the purpose of these gifts is to profit all. It is to benefit the body of Christ. Cessationists often challenge faith healers to perform their miracles openly so everyone can see. This is rubbish. They have no control over when these gifts will manifest. Only God does. Having said that, I am not a fan of many of these faith healers. I consider many of them to be fake. However, in this article my main focus is on identifying the manifestation gifts.

Healing and Miracles

These two are self explanatory. They refer to God working through us to heal others and to perform supernatural miracles. Peter and Paul healing the sick were examples of the gifts of healing. Peter walking on water is an example of a working of miracles. Could anyone say that Peter possessed the gift of walking on water? No! God manifested that ONCE in Peter’s life. Now there may be overlap between the two. Someone may argue that all healings are miracles. That is fine. Paul did not intend to give us mutually exclusive categories. His main point was to let us know that there are diversities of gifts, but one Spirit. So there may be overlap. We are not to confuse ourselves trying to figure out in which category a manifestation belongs. Instead, we are to recognize whether or not the manifestation is of God, and use it to build up the body of Christ.

Prophesy, Tongues and Interpretation of Tongues

 1 Corinthians 12-14 tell us a lot about these three gifts. Essentially the gift of tongues is a message given by God to the church through a particular believer in an unknown language. The bible does not tell us whether or not this has to be a language spoken somewhere on earth. There was one example in Acts 2 where the disciples spoke in tongues in languages that foreigners could understand. But I’ll explain later why this was not the GIFT of tongues.

With the gift of tongues, the setting is a congregational meeting. Someone speaks a message in a funny sounding language. By itself, this is completely useless because no one can understand it. This is why Paul says they should pray to interpret (1 Cor 14:13). An interpretation is required (by the same person speaking in tongues or someone else) that gives the equivalent message in English (or whatever the spoken language is). Note that interpretation of tongues is not a translation. A translation does not require the Holy Spirit. If I can speak Spanish and English, and someone says something in Spanish, I can easily translate that into English without the Holy Spirit’s help. This is a natural ability. This is NOT the gift of interpretation of tongues. The interpretation is divinely given to someone to speak the message in English.

Prophesy is a message given by God through someone in the known language. So there is a great deal of similarity between prophesy and the combination of tongues/interpretation. In fact, the only difference seems to be that tongues/interpretation is to minister to unbelievers, while prophesy ministers to believers (1 Cor 14:22-25). Other than this, there seems to be no discernable difference.

It should also be pointed out that the message delivered from God via prophesy and tongues/interpretation is not necessarily a doctrinal message but rather a practical message. If someone prophesies, “Thus says the Lord, Jesus is the only way the truth and the life”, this is not really a prophecy because there is no need for God to reveal this directly to someone. This is already clearly taught in scriptures. So the person is perhaps just reciting a scripture, not necessarily giving a prophesy. Of course there is nothing wrong with this, but this is not a supernatural gift. In 1 Cor 14:22-25, the bible gives us an example of what to expect when a prophesy or tongues/interpretation message is given. An unbeliever walks into the church, a supernatural message is given by God, and the secrets of that person’s heart are exposed causing him to fall down and worship God. Messages given via prophecy or tongues/interpretation address issues not in the bible, i.e. not doctrinal matters. It addresses practical matters, e.g. “Thus sayeth the Lord, you are committing secret sin. Repent and serve the Lord.” Doctrine is not based on prophesy but on scripture.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul did not discuss prophesy in relation to future predictions. As a result some bible teachers claim that New Testament prophesy is not predictive in nature. Instead, they say that the word of wisdom refers to future predictions. I totally disagree with that, and I’ll explain more in the next section. There are two examples of prophecy in the book of Acts and both refer to future predictions. The prophet Agabus predicted that there would be a famine (Acts 11:28), and at a later time, that Paul would be bound in Jerusalem (Acts 21:11). Both were predictions. Now although the bible did not specifically call them prophecies, it did refer to Agabus as a prophet. It makes sense that a prophet prophesies. Besides, in 1 Cor 14, Paul did refer to those who were prophesying as prophets (verses 29-32). So in these scriptures, there are two examples of prophecies predicting future events.

My conclusion on this is that prophecy is two-fold. There is a futuristic element and a non-futuristic element. Sometimes, a prophesy may be just a divine word of encouragement or warning intended to minister to the body of Christ. Sometimes, it may be a prediction of some future event. Even in the Old Testament, not all prophesy was predictive. In 1 Samuel 10:5-11, we see King Saul prophesying. He met a group of prophets, the Spirit of the Lord came on him, and he prophesied among them. The people reacted “Is Saul also among the prophets?” It is highly unlikely that Saul was predicting the future. The bible certainly did not record what he prophesied, and the people did not react to his message but only to the fact that he was prophesying. More likely, Saul was just speaking in an inspired manner. Some prophesy is just an inspired message that does not predict any future event, and some prophesy is predictive. Neither is meant to establish doctrine. They are just for practical exhortation and edification.

Similarly, there also appears to be a two-fold nature of tongues. The gift of tongues is a message given to the church, which must be interpreted to have any significance. But this is not what happened on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. No one interpreted anything. There are also references in the book of Acts to people speaking in tongues when the Holy Spirit came on them, with no indication of anyone interpreting (Acts 10:45,46; 19:6). Even in 1 Cor 14:28, Paul says if there is no interpreter, then the person speaking in tongues should keep silent in church but rather speak to himself and God. This tells me that there is a place for tongues in our private devotion with God – call it devotional tongues (which is distinct from the gift of tongues). Since this is entirely between us and God, there is no need for any interpretation. God understands what we say when we speak in devotional tongues, although we don’t understand it (1 Cor 14:14-15). Paul indicated that although he would hesitate to speak in tongues too much in church, he did speak in tongues a lot privately (1 Cor 14:18-19). So there is a devotional tongues that we can use anytime between us and God. The GIFT of tongues works only in a congregational setting and is only effective if there is an interpretation.

Word of Wisdom

 Earlier, I mentioned that there are those who teach that the word of wisdom refers to future predictions. Thus they claim that prophets don’t really prophesy, but rather speak the word of wisdom. There are two problems with this. One, it is false. Two, it makes no sense. 1 Cor 14:29-32 clearly identifies those prophesying as prophets. It is also completely arbitrary to just start calling future predictions words of wisdom rather than prophesies. I honestly believe that Kenneth Hagin dreamed this one day, and then all his followers just started preaching it. It has no basis in scripture. Nowhere, does the bible call future predictions words of wisdom.

So what exactly is the word of wisdom? Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 13. The first 2 verses contrast the temporal nature of the gifts with the eternal nature of love. The structure goes like this: “If I have such and such a gift but not love, I am nothing.” He mentions gifts like tongues, prophesy, understanding mysteries, knowledge, faith. All of these are gifts mentioned in the previous chapter. But right in the middle, there is a reference to understanding mysteries. Where did this come from? Well, by the process of elimination, we can equate that with the word of wisdom. After all, the bible does teach a correlation between wisdom and understanding. This scripture implies that the word of wisdom is a supernatural ability to understand mysteries. Daniel exhibited this gift (Daniel 1:17-20) when he interpreted dreams. Paul demonstrated this gift in the New Testament. In various places, he referred to the mystery that was given to him, that God offered the same salvation to the Gentiles as he did to the Jews (Romans 16:25; Ephesians 3:3-10). This was a word of wisdom, where God enabled Paul to understand a mystery that was hidden from everyone else. Then Paul wrote it in the scriptures and it became doctrine. This was not a future prediction, but a mystery that was coming to pass at the present time. Essentially the word of wisdom is a divine understanding of a mystery involving God’s will.

Word of Knowledge

When God reveals an item of knowledge that you could not have possibly known otherwise, this is called the word of knowledge. A classic example was Peter recognizing right away that Ananias and Sapphira had lied about their offering (Acts 5). Peter could not have known this otherwise. If he had read their body language, then this would not have been a spiritual gift. Instead it was God who revealed it to him. Remember, God must manifest it and it must be to profit all. God will not reveal things to people that do not profit the body of Christ in some way. For example, “God told me it is his will for me to marry you” is not a word of knowledge. It is a word of selfish ambition.

Discerning of spirits

There is a distinction between discerning of spirits and discernment. General discernment need not be a spiritual gift. It can be an ability to perceive. It is generally said that women are more perceptive than men. They are generally more discerning. However, the gift of discerning of spirits is different. This gifts enables someone to identify the spirit behind some action or message. We see this in Acts 17:18. A demon possessed girl was following Paul around and exclaiming “These men are the servants of the most high God.” Those were the right words. However, it was a demon spirit motivating her to say those things, perhaps to cause trouble for Paul. Paul, by the Spirit, sensed this and cast the demon out of her. He first discerned the spirit that was motivating her, and then exercised the gift of miracles to cast the demon out of her.

There is also a reference to discerning of spirits in 1 Corinthians 14:29,30. When people are prophesying, others are to judge. If someone prophesies, and “anything is revealed to another”, then the person prophesying should keep silent. Some people say the prophecy should be judged for doctrinal accuracy. But this does not require a gift of the Spirit. You don’t need anything to be revealed to you (verse 30) in order to determine whether a message is doctrinally correct or not. Knowledge of the bible is sufficient for that. Therefore it cannot be referring to judging doctrinal content. After all, prophesy is not for doctrine. The judging is to be done via the gift of discerning of spirits. If God reveals that he did not give that particular prophecy, then the “judge” is supposed to stand up and say “That did not come from God.” For example, the person prophesying says, “It is God’s will for Tom to marry Jane.” Then the judge/discerner of spirits says, “Nope! Not from God. That prophecy came from your flesh.”


 In 1 Corinthians 13:2, Paul alluded to faith that can move mountains. Most likely this refers to a supernatural endowment of faith such that one can remain firm in spite of any opposition. I think a good example of this is in Acts 27:21-25. Paul was in a ship sailing to Italy. He had warned the centurion about the inclement weather but to no avail. Then the ship got into difficulty to the point where the crew had resigned themselves that they would die. But God had sent an angel to Paul assuring him that he had to appear before Caesar. This gave Paul a supernatural infusion of faith such that he was not even afraid of the tempest when everyone else had given up hope of surviving.


The 1 Corinthians 12 gifts of the Spirit are manifestations that God gives from time to time as He wills. No one has control or ownership of these gifts. Their purpose is to minister to the body of Christ. They are discussed in detail in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. Right in the middle of these two chapters is the famous 1 Corinthians 13 passage. All the gifts of the Spirit are great and have their place. However, they are useless without love. Love is what drives us to serve others, often at the expense of self. This must be the driving force behind the exercise of these gifts. Christianity today is replete with false prophets and apostles who appear to exercise these gifts out of selfish motives – for fame and fortune. The bible clearly warns against this. I urge the reader to pursue love and let the true agape love of God be the driving force behind all ministry endeavors. It is only in this context that the gifts will have any true significance.

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