Romans 12:6-8 “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.”
In a recent Barna Group survey in the USA a third of church-goers had never heard of spiritual gifts. Others listed as gifts attitudes that the Bible never recognizes as gifts, such things as a sense of humour, singing, health, happiness, patience, a job, a house, compromise, premonition and creativity. Two thirds of church-goers had no idea what spiritual gifts were.
Right at the end of the ministry of the Lord Jesus, two days before the Passover, he told his disciples the parable of the three men whose master entrusted each of them with sums of money. Bear in mind the context, that Jesus had committed three years of his life to instructing and pastoring these men. He had made them eye-witnesses of his majesty. He had given them gifts and privileges and opportunities to serve him, and it was vitally important that they responded seriously to all they’d heard. So he tells them the parable of three men, the first had five talents of money, the second received two and the third was given one. The first two servants doubled the amount of money they’d received and when their master returned he rewarded them handsomely, but the third man hid the single talent in a secret place and returned it to his lord exactly as he’d received it. His master was not pleased, “You wicked and lazy servant” he said, and he ordered his men to throw that worthless servant outside, to a place characterized by “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 25:30). What is our Lord talking about? The stewardship of the gifts which the Lord has given to each of us. What do we learn from that parable? Three things; the duty of service, the reward of faithfulness and the danger of sloth. There is no Christian here who doesn’t have gifts from God. There is no Christian here who will not have to give account for the gifts he has received. There is no Christian here who does not want to receive praise from his Lord but who also fears his Saviour’s rebuke for being wicked and lazy.
So let us consider seven gifts listed in our text by the apostle Paul, and let us test ourselves in seeing how faithful we are in exercising them. My understanding is that we, like all Christians, possess all seven of these gifts to a greater or larger extent, some formally with office in the church, and some informally, all in different combinations.
- LET US PROPHESY IN PROPORTION TO OUR FAITH.
What does everyone do who prophesies? Paul tells us, “everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort” (I Cor. 14:3). So if you are talking to your children, or to other family members, or to people in the church – to any Christian who feels weak, discouraged and unhappy then you are prophesying. You are trying to help them with your lisping, stammering tongue. That is part of our calling as the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Our Lord Jesus has commissioned us to be witnesses to him. We all live under the obligation of the ‘Great Commission.’ We are to hold forth the word of life to everyone who will receive it. There are many passages in the New Testament with such an emphasis. God lays this obligation upon us quite unambiguously, not on a special class of ‘prophets’, and not only on preachers, office-bearers, or mature Christians but on every single Christian. Speak up to strengthen and encourage and comfort one another.
We are bringing a message of hope to people. There is God’s great purpose for my soul. God is going to conform it to the image of Christ. God is going to wipe away every tear from my eyes. God is going to make me perfectly blessed. God’s purpose for my body is not that it should rot in the ground that that he will transform that too. And beyond that God has a plan for this universe, for the heavens and the earth. He’s not going to extinguish them and annihilate them, but he’s going to make a new heavens and a new earth, and that is our hope. Tell your friends and neighbours of your hope. Bear testimony to them, and so you will speak to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort.
Then challenge them about changing their emotions, putting their trust in Christ maybe for the first definitive time, or all over again, and following the Lamb wherever he goes, changing their gloomy thoughts, their priorities and principles. Altering everything and bringing people to the awareness that the Lord he is our Saviour and Shepherd, he is watching over us, working everything together for our good, supplying all that we need from the glorious riches of his resources. We are telling them that. We have good news for them. We have a Saviour whom we can offer them, Christ dead to cover their sins; Christ alive to make intercession for them; Christ coming to raise their dust.
Let us prophesy with meekness and fear. With meekness because we are speaking to human beings and we have no superiority over them at all. Whatever degradation they have known there but for the grace of God are we. We esteem each one we talk to as a better man than ourselves. The moment you feel superior to them your power in prophesying to them vanishes. Dogmatism, and arrogance, and sectarian pride kill prophesying. And you also speak with fear, not the fear of cowardice, but the fear that comes from the greatness of the responsibility, and a sense of our unworthiness and ignorance, and the glory of the truths and that our lips should be obliged to speak of this. Sometimes Christians will say that they are too afraid to speak of their faith, but that nervousness is a great asset in bearing witness. If you are slick then you are no good to the church at all. So let us all be prophets.
- LET US SERVE.
Isn’t that beautiful, to have that juxtaposition of the two central graces of Christianity at the beginning, next to one another and in that order. To prophesy, and then to serve; these are the two great functions of the body of Christ on earth in all its congregations and all its members. Prophecy has to do with a man’s ignorance; service has to do with a man’s misery. They were the two functions of our Head when he was on the earth. He prophesied and he came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many. He was the last great Prophet to come from heaven opening up the heart of God to the world. He was God’s delightful Servant who took the basin and towel and washed the feet of his disciples. The body is to be like its head. We have the same double office that he has. We prophesy and we serve. For some of us our gift lies in the direction of insight and utterance, our mouths are opened, our hearts are enlarged, we are given liberty of utterance to make Christ known. Then there are others who would have the greatest difficulty in speaking.
Some of us older Christians can think of our mothers, and their reserve, and modesty, and overwhelming feelings of unworthiness. There would be very infrequent times when they would speak about the go
spel except to their own children and sisters and one or two close friends, but how they served! Their whole lives were simply abounding in service; they would wash and cook and clean and visit and take on the most menial tasks and give themselves unstintingly to serve their circle of friends. They saw that as their duty and privilege. They loved their neighbours as themselves and so scarcely a day went by without others becoming the beneficiaries of their kindness. We feel that they never got the honour that was due to them. There doesn’t seem to be the structures or mechanism in the church to honour servants like that. They themselves would be horrified if we tried to speak publicly of them and rewarded them for what they considered to be basic duties. I want to say that we do appreciate what some of you do; it does not seem to us that your service gets the recognition that it merits. I am sure I could find some imaginative and quiet ways of saying how much we appreciate what you do for members of the church all the year round.
There are two key passage on the gift of serving. The first is Luke 22:24-27; “Also a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.’” In the culture of Jesus day to serve someone was highly demeaning. Plate said, “How can a man be happy when he has to serve someone?” Happiness was never having to serve anyone again. In Christianity the polar opposite is the case. The greatest person in a congregation is the one who serves. Would you consider it menial to change bedpans in the name of Jesus? I am afraid that I would.
The other passage is I John 3:17&18; “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” Love in song alone is no love. Love only in word is no love. Love has to be in deed and action. The good Samaritan served by what he did.
- LET US TEACH.
Again in this third gift you can see how important verbal communication is to the Holy Spirit. There is no mention of music or singing amongst these gifts, but once again we have this emphasis on bringing the word to bear on mankind. We teach the world about God in the beginning creating the world, the rebellion of our father Adam ruining the world, and Christ the last Adam coming to save us. We teach people about the three R’s, Ruin through sin, Redemption through Christ and Regeneration through the Holy Spirit. We teach them the good news of the incarnation, the atonement, and the kingdom — the cradle, the cross, and the crown — of the Son of God. It was the news of how God ‘glorified his servant Jesus’ by making him Christ, the world’s long-awaited Prince and Saviour. It was the news of how God made his Son Man; and how, as man, God made him Priest, and Prophet, and King: and how, as Priest, God also made him a sacrifice for sins; and how, as Prophet, God also made him a Lawgiver for his people, and how, as King, God has also made him Judge of all the world, and given him prerogatives which in the Old Testament are exclusively Jehovah’s own — namely, to reign till every knee bows before him, and to save all who call on his name. In short, the good news was just this: that God has executed his eternal intention of glorifying his Son by exalting him as a great Saviour for great sinners.
Then we teach men and women all that Christ has told us. We teach them how we should live, what must we do to inherit eternal life, who is God and how Christ prepares us for heaven. We teach men the 10 commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. We teach men what is their chief end in life, to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever. There was a Puritan talking to some people about man’s chief end. There was a cow in the field just behind them and it was lowing loudly because it was milking time. The Puritan pointed to its full sack of milk and he said, “She knows her purpose in life. Do you?” We teach children in child-friendly ways that they can understand, but we want adults in understanding to be grown up. We teach Jews in a way they can understand and Gentiles in a way they can comprehend. We teach in the language of the 21st century. Most of all we teach men and women about Jesus Christ, his claims, his death, resurrection and reign; he has “the name above every name” (Philippians 2:9). In him “All the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). This is a staggering, incredible claim, but it is the inevitable response to reading the New Testament. This is what we are teaching:
“Who is he in yonder stall at whose feet the shepherds fall?
‘Tis the Lord, O wondrous story.
‘Tis the Lord, the king of glory.
At his feet we humbly fall.
Crown Him, crown Him, Lord of all.”
- LET US ENCOURAGE
So as we come to this fourth gift we are cheered. We learn that the gifts of the Spirit are not all about preaching and teaching and serving. If it were those gifts exclusively then members of churches would be wilting, their morale low, people feeling their best efforts were not measuring up to what the elders demanded, many becoming passengers, refusing to try to exercise their gifts in case they were scorned. There would be talent unutilized and unapplied, gifts of the Spirit shriveling up with people afraid they were going to be put down if they tried to help. So after exhorting them about speaking and serving the apostle says, “Don’t neglect encouraging one another.” Fifty times in the New Testament you meet this word ‘encourage.’
We are introduced to Barnabas in the book of Acts as he is remembered because he is the son of encouragement. That is why he was so loved in the church not because he was great in prophesying and teaching but because every congregation he visited felt renewed after he had been there. He made them feel good. He built up morale; he was an inspirational teacher, and after they listened to him they felt strong, that they could climb the mountain before them.
Again, think of the apostle Paul, scrupulously careful to encourage the congregation he wrote to, beginning all his letters (except his letter to the Galatians) with a great word of thanks and praise to God. Does he do it at the beginning of this letter? He surely does; “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world” (Roms 1:8). Then he tells them that he is praying for them all the time, and that he longs to see them but he’s been prevented from coming to them. He is encouraging them, and that is typical of how he deals with every congregati
on. He ends this letter with a long list of names of the people there that he knows about and greets. He is at pains to express his awareness of the qualities they manifest and his own debt to them.
Again you think of Jesus encouraging his disciples. “I am not going to call you servants, I am going to call you my friends,” he says. He is anxious to comfort them when he tells them of his departure. “Let not your hearts be troubled,” he says. He tells them of all the preparation he is making for them to take them to himself.
Then let us encourage one another by our words, spurring one another on, aware of one another’s needs, where the heart-ache is, the doubts and the pain. Do we assure them that they really matter to God, and they matter to us too because God loves them very much, and what they are doing is so worth-while and valuable for the church? We tell them that we praise God whenever we think of you. Paul and our Lord made Christians feel they were loved, how grateful to God they were for their fellow believers.
We spur one another on. “Go on brother! Go on! Hang in there sister. Good on you! I’m praying for you. Here’s some money to help in your evangelism,” and we stimulate them. Let’s not be dampeners; let’s not be saying, “It won’t work.” It will work. It has worked elsewhere. Why shouldn’t it work here? Let’s stimulate one another to good works.
Let’s not be absent from the meetings, and let us talk with one another and inspire and encourage one another in the work. There are men I just have to see for my heart to leap. I don’t have to hear them preach. Often I am not helped so much by their preaching as I’m helped by their personalities. They have a touch of the Barnabas about them.
- LET US CONTRIBUTE TO THE NEEDS OF OTHERS.
Paul is now talking about generosity. That is the word he uses; “let him give generously” (v.8). How important is generosity in the New Testament? Isn’t it very important? Don’t we find it commended by God and man? Weren’t there two men who met Jesus and one refused to give away all he had to the poor and walked away from Jesus. He loved what he had too much to give it to others, while another named Zacchaeus gave most of his money to the poor and to the people he’d robbed. Aren’t we told that the man God loves is the cheerful giver? Don’t we find Paul exhorting Timothy and so all preachers to really lay a spirit of generosity on their congregations, “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life” (I Tim. 6:17-19). Or again we learn that God takes special note of generosity. Consider how Paul writes to the Corinthian church “And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints.” (2 Cor. 8:1-4) What a wonderful example to every church.
A preacher named Fred Craddock tells the story of the death of his own father who was not a Christian, an intelligent man but quite anti-Christian. He’d send pastors and church members away from his door saying to the family, “All that they care about is money and attendance. That’s it. That’s the only reason why they come.” Then Fred became a Christian and a minister but his dad still told him, “All you guys want is money and membership.” Toward the end of his life Fred’s father was hospitalized and Fred would be there most days. He saw vases of flowers lining the windowsill in the room and he read the cards on the flowers. One said, ‘Women’s Fellowship.’ Another bouquet said, ‘The Deacons,’ and another and another from friends in the church. He said his dad couldn’t talk because of his infirmity but he had a box of Kleenex and on the side of that box he stole a line from Shakespeare when he wrote, “Draw your breath in pain to tell my story.” Fred looked at his dad and said, “What’s your story Dad?” Fred’s father wrote three more words on the side of that box: “I was wrong.” What a testimony to a man who had no time for the church. What a help this generosity was to his son to pray with his Dad and remind him of the gospel.
We are to out-do one another in our generosity. Two brothers began a milling business. One was married with a family and one was single. They determined right at the beginning of the establishment of their business that they would split the excess flour 50-50, half for each brother. They agreed to that, no problem. A little time passed and business was prospering, things were going well and they kept their bargain. Then one day the single brother said to himself, “You know, my brother has wife and children. He has many more demands on his resources than me. It’s not fair for me to have half and for him to have half. I know what I am going to do . . .” But he didn’t want to embarrass his brother, so he figured out how he was going to do it. In the darkness of night, he took a sackful of grain from his store and shifted it to his brother’s. About the same time the married brother was saying to his wife, “Babs, you know what? I am just so blessed by you and the kids. My poor brother over there, he’s single; he doesn’t have all of those blessings. It’s not fair that I have just as much grain as he does. I am going to give some to him so he has an extra blessing.” He did the exact thing as his brother. He took from his barn sacks of grain and began at night putting it into his brother’s barn. Then the inevitable happened. One night they ran in to each other, each loaded down with a sack of flour, and they looked at each other, and they embraced. You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, that we through his poverty might become rich. Let’s become poor in richly giving to others.
- LET US GOVERN DILIGENTLY.
A wife must keep her house with diligence; a mother must care for her children with diligence; an employer must do the same in his business, and in the church which is the pillar and ground of the truth this same vigilance must be shown. The leaders must shepherd the church of God and take heed to the flock over which the Holy Spirit has made them overseers. They are to watch for the souls of those under their care. Christians are also told to “obey those who rule over you, and be submissive” (Hebs. 13:17).
We live at a time when the ministry is undervalued and when such a simpering, bleating vicar of Dad’s Army is the stock figure of comedy. So it is understandable that the minister will want to magnify his office, stressing
its dignity and importance, and that is where the danger lies. It is nothing new; the apostle Peter warns the first century leaders, not to lord it “over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (I Pet. 5:3). Diligence imperceptibly slips into acting like a lord – the word is used in secular writing of subduing a city, overwhelming all opposition, repressing dissent, conquering and controlling a rebellious people. But if a preacher does this he usurps God’s authority. There is one Lord and one Head of a church and the people are to serve him.
Governing diligently does not mean an arrogant, lordly spirit, dominating a congregation though sheer force of personality or fluency of speech. The congregation becomes a cowed people by the knowledge they have painfully learned that the pastor will always be able to out-talk and browbeat those who stand against him. Governing diligently does not mean being remote, pompous and authoritarian, dismissive and sarcastic when approached with little in their personality to attract confidence. Governing diligently does not mean insisting on your own way in every detail of church life, the colour of the carpet tiles, the make of the projector, the menu for the fellowship lunch. From the preacher’s interference you’d get the impression that there is no one else within the fellowship with ability, gifts or common sense. Everything has to be deferred to the ecclesiastical tyrant who has taken his motto from Shakespeare: ‘I am Sir Oracle, and when I ope my lips, let no dog bark!’ That is not governing diligently.
“Whenever a group of leaders goes beyond Scripture and starts imposing regulations and edicts which have no biblical warrant, clear or implied, God’s lordship is being denied. When overseers display an unwarranted intrusiveness into their people’s lives, probing into private details which are none of their concern, they are forgetting their place. Pastors who bully the young or vulnerable are cowboys, not shepherds. To ostracise someone who has dared to disagree, however conscientiously, is a disgraceful abuse of power. Even the modern mania for counselling can threaten the liberty of God’s children. In some evangelical circles, the spiritual therapist is taking over from the Roman priest as father or mother confessor. Everyone, it seems, needs a ‘guru’ in whom to confide and from whom to receive direction. This can all too easily blur the wonder and immediacy of our relationship with our only Lord. Each of us has personal and immediate access to our heavenly Father, in whom are all the resources we can ever need. The temptation to act as a ‘lord’ is a real one. The churches are in chaos and confusion. Individualism is running rampant, as in the period when ‘there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes’ (Judges 21:25). The need for strong, diligent Christian leadership was seldom more urgent than it is today. But not ‘lordship’. Christ’s words are categorical: ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you’ (Matt. 20:25,26). Instead, we are to be ‘examples to the flock’. Here is the key factor in pastoral work. We are to follow Christ in such a way that those for whom we care may safely follow us. Our lives are to enforce what our lips profess. For a pastor to practise what he preaches means more than rehearsing his sermon. He is to be a living, acting illustration of the gospel” (Edward Donnelly, Peter: Eyewitness of His Majesty, Banner of Truth, 1998, pp. 130& 131).
- LET US SHOW MERCY CHEERFULLY.
Does this gift flow naturally from the preceding gift of governing? Doesn’t it balance it beautifully? What is this spiritual gift? It is firstly showing mercy directly and personally to Christians in need. Maybe the need is physical; they are hungry, lonely, sick, in prison and freezing with cold. You are to show mercy to them, and you know that this is not a one off. The sick will still be sick next week, next month and next year. They are dying and they are demanding, and they are not any relation of yours at all, except that they are in the family of faith. Be cheerful as you show them mercy. Don’t do it reluctantly and grudgingly. Don’t grumble about it to others. When they call you and ask for something don’t let a note of hesitancy enter your voice. Do it all cheerfully. It is absolutely essential, because that is how you received mercy from the Lord.
Here is an example of showing mercy cheerfully. I had this letter yesterday from Malcolm Firth in Latvia. He sat in our congregation for three years with Ruth his wife and now he is a preacher in Riga. He writes, “Last weekend I went with a team from Global Aid Network to visit poor families in Lauciene, 2 hours’ drive west of Riga. We took belated Christmas presents with us, shoe boxes which had been filled by families in Leipzig. Once we arrived we divided into 2 groups, and visited 6-7 families each. All of the families were referred to us by social services, and all had at least 4 children. Poverty is a real problem in the Latvian countryside, and we saw this very clearly at first hand. Of the 7 families I visited, only one had running (cold only) water; all the rest had to carry water from a well outside. Living conditions were very basic, and in some cases worse than that. There are hardly any jobs in the countryside, and financial help from the government is minimal.
“The children were delighted with their gifts, toothpaste and toothbrushes being the most commented on! One ten-year-old boy said the best thing in his box was a pen and pencil set; he is doing very well in school, and his ambition is to become president of Latvia one day. As we drove away from his home, we wondered if perhaps we had just spent time with a future leader of this country! We intend to keep in touch with the most needy of these families, and see how we can continue to help them.” Here is an example of showing mercy one Saturday in February in Latvia cheerfully
Or perhaps the mercy is one of pastoral restoration and forgiveness. They have had a fall, and you don’t hang a sign around their necks for the rest of their lives referring to it. They have repented; they have done what they could to heal the hurt. They are handling the consequences with grace. Let your dealings with them be cheerful as they are with your own children when they behaved as badly as it is possible for children to behave. You have forgiven them, and so forgive these in the body of Christ too. Show mercy cheerfully.
These are the seven gifts Paul selects of the hundreds of spiritual gifts we have. He chooses seven as the figure of fulness and completion, in other words, that God does provide for you all an abundance of gifts for what you’ll have to do in life to make you perfect in all the good works God is preparing for you. Stir up all these seven gifts and many more; keep the inner fire of such demanding gifts blazing away. Cry to God to constantly renew it, and exercise your prophesying, and your service, and teaching, and encouraging, and contributing to the needs of others, and leadership, and showing mercy and do this all the days of your life.
22nd February 2009 GEOFF THOMAS