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What does “spiritual” mean to you?

This post will confront our cultural misunderstanding with the biblical meaning. And while we are at it, we will explore the significance of the phrases “by the Spirit” and “manifestation of the Spirit.” Knowing what these and other terms really mean is part of the foundation for understanding spiritual gifts.

Take a moment to read 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, then let’s get started.


Paul opens 1 Corinthians 12 with this:

Now about spirituals, brothers [and sisters], I do not want you to be ignorant.

There is no Greek word for “gifts” in this verse. Here, “spirituals” stands alone, translating pneumatika (12:1; also 14:1). Most translations add “gifts” in italics as an aid to understanding, thus rendering pneumatika as “spiritual gifts”–but literally, it says “spirituals,” that’s it

How do you understand the word “spiritual”?

Unfortunately, our culture typically uses the word in quite a different way than the Bible. William Willimon describes the understanding of “spiritual” or “spirituality” for many, if not most, in our (post)modern Western culture when he writes,

[Spirituality] has no discernable content, is completely subjective and ethically undemanding. It’s the status quo with a warm glow. It is something without words, without location or specificity. Spiritual is what we are when we sit quietly and think uplifting thoughts. Of course, no one has any idea exactly what an experience of ‘spirituality’ really is, other than a nice experience. 

Now, here is how the Bible uses the word “spiritual” (pneumatika). Bible scholar Gordon Fee states

“... spirituality is defined altogether in terms of the Spirit of God (or Christ).  One is spiritual to the degree that one lives in and walks by the Spirit; in Scripture the word has no other meaning, and no other measurement.”

Theologian, Eugene Peterson, confirms this: 

St. Paul used the adjective ‘spiritual’ (pneumatikos) to refer to actions or attitudes derived from the work of the Holy Spirit in all Christians.

Although I do not have a problem with the editorial addition of “gifts,” Paul uses the word “spirituals” alone, focusing on the gifts as the activities of the Holy Spirit in all Christians.

“by the Spirit”

In 12:3, we read,

… no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.

I will make two observations.

1. Agency: Paul highlights a type of speaking that either is by the Spirit or is not by the Spirit. This is speaking by the agency of the Holy Spirit, or not. Remember Peter’s statement from the previous post:

If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. (1 Peter 4:11)

2. Lordship: Paul identifies “Christology as the test of ‘spirituality,’ or of what it is to experience the agency of the Spirit.” (Thistleton, 923) In other words, genuine spirituality is an obedient response to the Lord Jesus, and it exalts the Lord Jesus.

“Spirituals” are by the agency of the Spirit of God, and the lordship of Christ is a mark of authentic activities by the Spirit (see also: John 16:12-15).

“the manifestation of the Spirit”

Paul continues (12:7):

To each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.

“Each one” means that each and every person “in Christ” is one through whom God desires to bestow His grace-filled benefits upon others. This is a second mark of authentic activity by the Spirit: “spirituals” are for the benefit of others, not for self-satisfaction or self-glorification

What follows in 12:8-11 is a selection of nine activities of the Spirit through His people. We will examine these and other gifts or activities in future posts. 

What does “the manifestation of the Spirit” mean?

“Manifestation” translates the Greek word phanerōsis, which is derived from phaneroō, meaning to make visible, clear, manifest, disclose. So, somehow, the Spirit reveals or discloses Himself through His people by these charismata.

Summing up

What Paul has written about “spirituals” and charismata is entirely consistent with what we learned from Peter in “7 Characteristics of Spiritual Gifts.” Reading Peter and Paul together enriches and deepens our understanding of (spiritual) gifts. 

These gifts are not so much special abilities possessed by Christians; they are something greater and more wonderful. These “spirituals” and charismata are:

The activities of God’s empowering presence working through His people as they cooperate with Him in serving others with His grace-filled benefits so that all might know and honor Him.

How can we cooperate with the Holy Spirit in His activities?

The follower of Jesus (you and me) must be sensitive and responsive to the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Your sensitivity to the Spirit is reduced by allowing sinful attitudes or actions in your life. I encourage you to pray Psalm 139:23-24—a practice that is explained in “How to walk by the Spirit” and “5 Things that will block your prayers.”

Your responsiveness increases by keeping company with God and listening to His word. These practices are explored in “An understanding of prayer that will make a difference” and “Listening well to God.”

In the next post of this series, we will identify specific spiritual gifts and begin to delve into the various kinds of activities by which the Spirit manifests Himself through God’s people for the grace-filled benefit of others.

FORWARD TO the next post in this series

BACK TO “7 Characteristics of Spiritual Gifts”

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