God rules and God’s rules. I know that seems like a strange opening sentence. But God rules the universe and God has rules. God doesn’t have rules in the humanly legalistic sense, but He has specifications for how the world operates. Think of it. The Sun rises and sets “on time.” We fall down but we never “fall up.” He’s got the law of gravity. He is a God of order, the God of order.
In Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 we find “10 rules for life.’ It is around these principles all relationships and societies are built and regulated. We know them as “The Ten Commandments.” God also provides us specifications for marriage. After all, God invented marriage. “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the Church… wives submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” He gives specifications for healthy family relationships, “Children obey your parents… for this is right.” God’s reveals such things to us through His operating manual, the Bible: “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.” Call these principles and practices “Designer Specifications.” God is the Designer. He knows why things are, how things work, and how to best maintain them. He understands our strengths, our weakness, and our tolerances. So, he wants what’s best for us.
God is very particular about how things are done. As the One who made everything, He knows best. He knows what His purposes were in the creation of all things. That’s why there is a right way and a wrong way to do all things (according to specifications). Violate His prescriptions at your own peril. That’s why He tells us in Romans 6:23, “the wages of sin is death…”
God has a purpose and prescription for every gift and everything He has given us. He’s the Great Physician who prescribes. We should be like obedient pharmacists who fill His prescription. As His patients, patients of the Great Physician,” we should take what He prescribes as directed. We do well to follow His directions. He is, after all, God. This applies to spiritual gifts, the gifts of the Spirit.
God has specified (in His Bible) how His gifts are to be used. You might say He has designer specifications for the use and display of spiritual gifts. These specifications for the use of spiritual gifts from the Holy Spirit. He inspired the text. How we handle our gifts—how we live—is worship. Think about it. We worship God through all we say, think, and do (Romans 12:1-2). Worship, after all, is conforming our will, ways, and practices to His will.
Some people like to worship God according to their specifications rather than His. People often prefer to worship God according to the ‘dictates of their conscience.’ Two examples in the Bible that stand out are found in the Old Testament. Nadab and Abihu decided to worship God in a way that was outside of His Designer specifications. These days we’d say they “made a little mistake.” We might say, “Hey, everybody messes up now and then...” What was God’s response?
Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them. 2 And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. 3 Then Moses said to Aaron, "This is what the LORD has said, 'Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.'" And Aaron held his peace. (Leviticus 10:1-3)
God burned them alive. Do specifications matter to God? When Moses tarried on the Mountain with the LORD, as he received the Ten Commands, the people panicked. They thought Moses was dead, or long gone. So, they approached Aaron about fashioning a statue of God so that they could worship God in a way that made them comfortable. Now they would worship God as if He were the gods of Egypt, or at least like them. Aaron, wanting to please the crowd, gave into their request. Thus, they worshipped God in their own way. What happened next is educational.
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, "Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him." 2 So Aaron said to them, "Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me." 3 So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. 4 And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!" (Exodus 32:1-4 ESV)
God’s response is telling:
26 then Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said, "Who is on the LORD's side? Come to me." And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. 27 And he said to them, "Thus says the LORD God of Israel, 'Put your sword on your side each of you, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor.'" 28 And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And that day about three thousand men of the people fell. (Exodus 32:26-28)
God hates sin. Sin is what we do outside of His revealed will—His designer specifications. That’s why Jesus said that His Father seeks those who will worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). He gave us His Word, so that we could worship Him the way He wants to be worshipped. That includes how we employ our gifts. In reality, they are His gifts on loan to us for His glory as well as the good of others.
Are there clear-cut specifications for the use of our spiritual gifts? There are: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good (1Corinthians 12:7).” Whatever gifts and abilities we are given are given for the common good. If we love God then we will keep His commands because they are not burdensome (John 14:15, 1 John 5:3).
But aren’t they are gifts to use as we feel led to use them? Our gifts are given as the Spirit of God wills and as He chooses (1 Corinthians 12:11; 18). While our feelings may deceive us, God’s word never does. It follows that we are to use these gifts as He wills—as specified in His Word. This was a problem for many in Paul’s day. It’s a problem today for many who profess to be Christians. We have to remember that Paul wrote to the unruly church at Corinth about their prideful and sinful conduct. They acted like they were special due to their intelligence, due to their wealth, and due to their God-given (not earned) spiritual gifts. Paul warns them: “For who regards you as superior? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it (1Corinthians 4:7)?” The unruly Church of Corinth acted as if they had earned their salvation. They often acted as if they deserved the gifts He bestowed. They acted as if their gifts made them special—when the gifts weren’t deserved or earned but granted for the glory of God and the common good.
What are God’s designer specifications for spiritual gifts? Let’s start with the basics and build from there. All spiritual gifts, whether the sign gifts or the ministerial gifts, are to be used for the common good.
4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good (1Corinthians 12:4-7 ESV).
This means that all believers with a spiritual gift receive them all from the same Source, namely God the Holy Spirit. They are not given for private consumption or exploitation. They are given for the common good. The common good means for the benefit of the whole church, not personal gain or notoriety. People get different gifts as He chooses according to His will for use in the Church, for a particular role or reason. That’s why the Church is described as one body with different parts fitted together and we see all the body part metaphors, or word pictures (eye, foot, hand; ear) as we see in 1 Corinthians 12:17-21. No part or person can go their own way. Our interdependence and obedience are part of God’s design.
Every gift and gifted person is interdependent. The Holy Spirit’s mission and ministry is to ‘operate in the background’ as part of the Godhead (i.e. Trinity). Similarly, those to whom He distributes gifts are to remain in the background, bringing glory to Christ. They are to put Christ in the foreground, so to speak, for the common good. In doing this the Spirit gives certain people a certain gift. No two people in a given church necessarily receive the same gifting of gift set. Not everyone gets the same gift or all gifts.
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way. (1Corinthians 12:27-31)
Some of the least important gifts, as we see, are the most unusual ones (v. 31). Their novelty attracts many. The greater gifts are the teaching gifts, or gifts of proclamation. That only makes sense because they are vital to the Spirit’s ministry of bringing to mind what Christ taught. Sometimes He does this through sermons. Sometimes He does this through Bible studies. He won’t bring to mind what we haven’t taken the time or bothered to listen to or learn for ourselves. That’s why we read and study His Word or listen to sermons along with other forms of teaching.
How does God command us to use His gifts? Rather than talk about all the gifts, let’s talk about Designer specifications for a greater (ministry) gift and a lesser (sign) gift as our examples.
27 If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. 28 But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. 29 Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. 30 If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. 31 For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, 32 and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. 33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints… (1 Corinthians 14:27-33)
How are gifts to be used? How are they to be manifested? God the Holy Spirit has very specific specifications. Just like there is an appropriate way to maintain your car (according to manufacturer’s specifications) and maintain your computer (according to specifications) and take medicine (according to prescription) there is a right way and a wrong way to manifest God’s gifts loaned to you. This ‘right way’ is spelled out for you in His commands. The Holy Spirit commanded:
If anyone at Corinth had the gift of tongues such speakers were to speak one at a time and the number of speakers was limited to no more than three per worship gathering. They were only to speak if they knew an interpreter to be present (vv. 27-28).
If anyone at Corinth was a prophet or had a prophecy (or teaching) then such individuals were to speak one at a time and not more than three were to speak at a worship gathering. Their prophecy or teaching was to be heavily scrutinized by equally gifted people. They were to speak with restraint (not uncontrollably) because the spirit of prophecy was under control by the prophet (vv. 29-32).
The rationale for such commandments was God’s character: “33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.” (v 33).
These commands applied universally to all believing churches (v 33b).
These specifications seem pretty clear and straightforward. Nevertheless, one can only imagine how some at the unruly Church at Corinth, like many unruly churches today, responded to such prescriptions and specifications. We know from reading 1 & 2 Corinthians that there were people who disputed Paul’s Apostleship, implying that Paul’s writings were authoritative (i.e. Scripture). Also, people must have said similar things about Paul to the Apostle Peter, who answered them accordingly:
15 And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. (2 Peter 3:15-16)
As far as the use of the gifts, the Apostle Paul speaks for God. The Holy Spirit speaks to Corinth (and even to us) through the pen of Paul. Paul understood this. We, like Corinth, need to embrace this understanding as well. Paul made certain that his readers understood he was not merely giving his opinion:
37 If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. 38 If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized. 39 So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. 40 But all things should be done decently and in order. (1 Corinthians 14:37-40)
Paul anticipated resistance. So-called gifted people and prophets would challenge these designer specifications or ignore them altogether as some do today. But Paul emphatically tells us that this is a command of the Lord. We know that God insisted upon such an order in His Church. He commands regarding gifts applied/applies to universally to all churches: “all the churches of the saints... (1Corinthians 14:33).”
These Designer specifications are universal. These commands weren’t timestamped or localized. God’s character is unchanging, and the Scriptures cannot be broken. The Holy Spirit says emphatically that if anyone refuses to recognize these limitations as legitimate such people are not to be considered legitimate in their use of so-called gifts: “the things which I write to you are the Lord's commandment. 38 But if anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized (1 Corinthians 14:38).” What’s the big idea? It should be clear. There’s a right way and a wrong way to use one’s God-given gifts—God’s way. Those who ignore God’s prescriptions de-legitimize their ministry and are not to be taken seriously. This is a theme throughout the New Testament. Elsewhere, the Holy Spirit says through the Apostle Paul:
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, 5 so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. 6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7 if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; 8 the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. (Romans 12:3-8)
Legitimate servants of Christ use spiritual gifts according to the Designer’s specifications. They obey the command of the Lord because they love the Lord with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and they love their neighbor more than they love themselves. Their legitimacy is authenticated by their obedience: “37 If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. 38 If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized (1 Corinthians 14:37-38).” Christians in churches then as they do in churches now recognize such servants. Such servants obey, rather than disobey God. Disobedience is sin.
God’s gifts are to be used the way He commands. Just as a pharmacist follows the doctor’s prescription and the patient takes as directed, we are to obey God as directed in the use of our gifts. This is part of the practice of our worship. Disobedience to God’s commands is sin. We can tell those who are serving God rather than themselves by the way they display their gifts. Faithful believers in worship deploy them one at a time, nor more than three, and with coordination. It’s all well regulated so that the worship service, being done decently and in order for the glory of God rather than sinful self-promotion. These themes are repeated throughout the New Testament from Romans 12:3-8 to 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14. Anyone who does not recognize these biblical prescriptions is not to be recognized (1 Corinthians 14:38).
Suggestions for Application
Just as there was in Corinth in the past, there is much confusion at present regarding the use of spiritual gifts. God, being a God of order not confusion, has spoken clearly in the Scriptures about the use and abuse of spiritual gifts. Therefore, consider and embrace these four actions:
Realize that any use of gifts is for the common good of all, rather than calling attention to oneself. Therefore, we must use our gifts in accordance with the Lord’s commands in Scripture.
Recognize in a God-loving, God-honoring; God-fearing church when people spoke/speak in tongues or prophesied/prophesy, there are no more than three people who do this in a single service. Moreover, they coordinated/coordinate carefully to make certain any tongue-speaking will have an interpreter present in order to do all things decently and in order. Any act of prophesy or teaching will follow the same prescription or specification. Worship, as Nadab and Abihu show us is not to be taken lightly.
Remember that as the Holy Spirit spoke through the pen of Paul that no one does what they do in an out of control way. They can’t say, “well the Spirit got a hold of me and I am not responsible for my actions:” “the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets (v.32)
In light of these principles, prayerfully ask yourself these questions. Given what God the Holy Spirit has commanded in “the Lord’s commandment (v. 37):
What should we think the actions of a church or its people who stand up in groups and “speak in tongues” all at once or “prophecy” all at once?
What should we think of actions that are done in disobedience to the Word of God?
How should we pray for a pastor, or group of pastors, or a church leadership that allows this to happen?
If they are ignorant of God’s Word is this a church, we should attend?
If they are disobeying God’s Word willfully, is this a church we continue to visit, attend, or recommend?