1 Corinthians 12:1-13

Some years ago I decided that it had been a mistake not to observe Pentecost with a service devoted to that important turning point in the history of redemption. We always observed Christmas and Easter, why not Pentecost? So we began to observe Pentecost with a service designed to commemorate that important history, but on that Sunday the sermon was typically still the next in whatever series I was happening to preach at the time. Then some years ago I decided that what the theologian Herman Bavinck referred to as the “third great work of God,” deserved its own sermon as well, and so for some years now I have preached a sermon on Pentecost apropos the descent of the Spirit on the assembled saints in Jerusalem that Sunday fifty days after the Lord’s resurrection.

Our text this morning is the first thirteen verses of 1 Corinthians 12. I’m not going to comment much on the first eleven verses because this morning I’m particularly interested in the statement found in v. 13, but those earlier verses are the context of the concluding summary in vv. 12-13.

Text Comment


A brief and beautiful way of saying that it is by the Spirit not only that we first confess our faith in Jesus Christ, but that once we have the Spirit, we shall never ever but confess faith in Jesus Christ.


You might say “translation” of tongues; that is, the rendition in the language of the congregation of what had been first spoken in another language.


There are several points to make here and I will make them briefly. First, as one scholar puts it, “This verse is the hard rock which shatters all constructions of Holy Spirit baptism as an additional, postconversion, second-blessing experience.” Verse 13 plainly teaches both that all believers have been baptized by the Holy Spirit or in the Holy Spirit and that they share in that baptism from the time of their incorporation into the body of Christ; that is from the time in which they confessed Jesus Christ as Lord. In this respect there are no spiritual haves or have-nots in the body of Christ. [Gaffin, Perspectives on Pentecost, 31]

Second, pay attention to the context in which we read about this baptism of the Holy Spirit. Paul is not talking about our growth as Christians in the life of personal holiness and love. He is not, in fact, talking about internal states or personal spiritual experience at all. Here the Spirit is given to equip us to be fruitful in the service of others. Think less about immersion and more about pouring out. The Spirit is poured out upon us to equip us to be fruitful in serving others in Christ’s name. The identification of the baptism of the Holy Spirit with greater measures of holiness and with higher levels of spiritual experience has bedeviled the church’s understanding of Pentecost for a very long time. A great many Christians have associated Pentecost with what came to be called “the second blessing,” by which was meant the elevation of ordinary Christian experience to something higher, purer, and more powerful. This was something some Christians had and other Christians did not. But Pentecost is not about a Christian’s spiritual experience or his inner life. It is never said to be about that. Pentecost, as John Stott, once put it, was a missionary event. J.I. Packer described Pentecost as “‘an object lesson in the nature of the church and its mission’ rather than in the stages of universal Christian experience.” [Citing Dale Bruner in Keep in Step with the Spirit, 205] What Jesus said about Pentecost beforehand, what he said the Spirit would do when he came and what he said would be the effect of his coming, all of that had to do with the church’s outreach to the world and its ministry to others, not with different types or measures of spiritual experience. If we may put it perhaps too simply, the effect of Pentecost is external rather than internal. It is quantitative rather than qualitative.

And so it is here in 1 Corinthians 12 where again we read of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, a term that was first used of the Pentecost event itself. Remember before he left the world Jesus told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they were “baptized with the Holy Spirit.” [Acts 1:5] What was a new experience in the middle of believing life for those Christians became thereafter the case for any and every Christian from the beginning of his or her Christian life. And when they were so baptized by the Holy Spirit we read in Acts 2 that they were able to proclaim the good news to many others powerfully and persuasively and that as a result many from all over the world became followers of Jesus. Nothing is said there about the believers themselves, how they felt or how their hearts were changed. What is described is the effect of what the believers said and did on others, there in Acts 2 specifically on the unbelieving world.  Here too, in 1 Corinthians, the effect of this baptism of the Holy Spirit is to equip the saints for service; in this case service to the saints, though the gifts of the Spirit mentioned obviously can be employed just as easily in ministry to the unbelieving. Nothing is said about a second blessing or about internal states or about a greater holiness or nearness to God. Indeed, as you know, these Corinthian Christians who were baptized by the Holy Spirit were something of a spiritual mess. They were not behaving as Christians should in a variety of ways which is why the Apostle Paul had to write this first letter in the first place. But, no matter, they all had been baptized by the Holy Spirit.


Pentecostals make up one of the largest groups of Christians and the fastest growing group of Christians in the world. The movement may have begun in a storefront in Los Angeles only a century ago (though, to be sure, there were many Christians through the ages who might have been called Pentecostals if anyone had thought to use the name), but by one estimate by the year 2040 there will be a billion Pentecostals in the world, nearly the population of India or China. [D. Goldman, How Civilizations Die, 226]

Now, to be sure, Pentecostals, as other Christians, are not all the same. There are Arminian and Calvinistic Pentecostals and Roman Catholic and Protestant Pentecostals. What is more, even what might be thought to be the more distinctive elements of Pentecostal belief and practice vary widely. In some forms of Pentecostalism, so-called speaking in tongues is an,if not the, identifying practice, but in other forms of Pentecostalism speaking in tongues hardly matters at all. Almost all health and wealth preachers are Pentecostals, but there are manyPentecostals who have no sympathy for what they would rightly condemn as a crude and worldly misrepresentation of the message of Jesus Christ.

But everyone knows where the term Pentecostal comes from: Pentecost, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the church on that long ago Sunday, fifty days after the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Pentecostals take not only their name but their sense of themselves and the practice of their faith from that event and from the effects that accompanied the Spirit’s coming: the spiritual power, the remarkable phenomena, and the fact that all of this came from a distinct and fresh effusion of the Holy Spirit. Pentecostals think of themselves as the heirs of the transforming appearance of the Holy Spirit. They argue that what the Holy Spirit did then, he does now, and that the effects of the Spirit’s empowerment should be the same today as it was in those early, heady days of the new epoch. Indeed, they are very likely to think that this new epoch, which replaced the epoch of Moses, is nothing less than the epoch of the Holy Spirit. Christians should be, therefore, people empowered by the Holy Spirit; people living in his power; people exercising that power.

And what I want to say on this Pentecost Sunday is that I agree absolutely with that point of view and so should you! Pentecost did and obviously did signal a new era, a new epoch in the history of salvation. It is an epoch distinguished by a new effusion of spiritual power. And every Christian life ought to live in that power. I don’t see how anyone can read the New Testament and believe any differently.

Now, to be sure, we do not all agree as to what the Spirit’s power is meant to achieve or even precisely what that power is. That difference of viewpoint is a sad but undeniable fact. Alas Christians, much as they agree about so much, also disagree in many respects about the teaching of the Bible. We know that. We do not all agree, for example, that the miraculous gifts mentioned here in 1 Cor. 12 and featured particularly in the early chapters of the book of Acts continued to be practiced or were ever intended to be the normal experience or the normal equipment of the church. But if miraculous healing is not granted to Christians today, certainly it remains the case that there remains a variety of gifts, that those gifts come from the Holy Spirit, and the same God empowers their use. Wisdom, knowledge, and faith, for example, all mentioned in v. 8, are gifts the Spirit gives still today. In the parallel list of Spirit-given gifts that we are given in Romans 12, the miraculous gifts are largely absent and gifts such as serving, teaching, encouraging, and contributing to the needs of others come to the fore. But Bible-believing Christians of both Pentecostal and non-Pentecostal varieties should not disagree on the fundamental point: Pentecost divides the before from the after; it represents a change so great that it completely altered the fortunes of the world.

Before he left the world the Lord Jesus told his disciples to go into all the nations of the world to make disciples. God’s people had never been told to do that before. But it was not until Pentecost that they actually went and it was only because of Pentecost that they were able, these ordinary people, to turn the world upside down; to persuade so many unbelievers who had never heard of Jesus Christ, an amateur rabbi from Galilee, a backwater of the Roman Empire, a Jew when Jews were not particularly popular in the Empire in those days, I say to persuade so many of these people that Jesus Christ was God and the Savior of sinners. That much is certainly clear and it is precisely what the Lord Jesus said would be the case when the Spirit came. There may have been some anticipations of this ministry of the Spirit in the ancient epoch, but Pentecost made it the norm on a far larger scale. Pentecost itself is the only conceivable explanation for why a message so uncongenial to that world spread like wildfire.

On one occasion, as you remember, the Lord Jesus predicted the coming of the Holy Spirit and said that when the Spirit came, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” [John 7:38] Rivers of living water is a well-established Old Testament image of salvation spreading to the world and here Jesus said that that would happen not only because of the coming of the Holy Spirit but that his coming would make believers themselves a means of saving grace to the world. It isn’t a fixed law, of course, that every person becomes a Christian through the ministry of another Christian. A great many people through the ages have become believers in Jesus simply reading the Bible. I could regale you with stories of people who were alone with the Word of God and suddenly and unexpectedly some statement of the Bible jumped off the page and forced itself upon the mind and heart. That was no doubt the work of the Holy Spirit, but there was no Christian involved. However, ordinarily there is. In most accounts of conversion — an unbeliever becoming a Christian — another Christian or Christians play an important role.

This is what Jesus was talking about in the Upper Room when he spoke at some length about the coming of the Holy Spirit. He said that the Spirit would “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” Those convictions, more than anything else, are what the world needs. It needs to understand that it is sinful, that it is guilty, very guilty of moral fault and failure; it needs to understand that God requires righteousness and that only Christ can make sinners righteous; and it needs to realize that this is a problem and an issue that cannot be put off indefinitely because God’s judgment is looming; one will have to answer to God very soon. Those are the convictions that the Holy Spirit creates in the hearts of those who are being saved: that there is a great need, that Christ alone can meet that need, and that time is a-wasting. The Spirit would convince men of that; only the Spirit can.

But in that same discourse Jesus also said that when the Spirit came his disciples would do greater works than Jesus himself had done. How can that be? We certainly can’t walk on water [Florence tried it when she was at the Sea of Galilee; I actually have a picture of her with the water up to her knees.] — no apostle did that so far as we know. We can’t feed a great multitude with a few morsels of food as Jesus did. The apostles for a time were able to heal the sick as Jesus had but certainly not on a greater scale than his works of healing. But on the day of Pentecost Peter’s sermon brought 3,000 unbelievers to faith in Jesus Christ. For all we know that may be as many or more than all who believed during the several years of Christ’s public ministry. What Jesus was talking about when he spoke of the difference the Spirit would make was the spiritual conquest of the world and he was saying that Christians, by the power of the Holy Spirit, were going to be instrumental in the conquest of the world. Jesus himself had restricted his ministry almost entirely to the Jews, his own people. But he spoke of the day when the entire world would fall under the sway of the gospel, of the Holy Spirit as providing the power to make that happen, and of his disciples as the agents of the Spirit and the wielders of the Spirit’s power.

We take all of this for granted because we are so used to people becoming Christians through the ministry of other Christians. We’ve heard such stories a thousand times. A good number of you here this morning could tell the story of your coming to faith in Christ as Elder Jon Scharer did last Lord’s Day Evening, when a teenager or a college student or, indeed, in the middle of life. For most of you, perhaps not all but certainly most, the profound change that occurred within you, the revolution in your outlook and your convictions, and your experience of the overwhelming reality of God himself had something to do with Christians that you met, with the words they spoke to you and the life they lived before you.

You know very well that they didn’t cause the radical change in you. No mere human being could have done that. You needed the Holy Spirit to change you so profoundly. You encountered God himself and you were changed by the power of the Spirit. But Christians you knew played a role; were the Spirit’s helping hand as it were.

Sometimes more like his helping finger! I love this story because it is so true to life. Erik Alexander, a Scottish pastor now in retirement, was Ian Hamilton’s predecessor at New Milns, south of Glasgow, where so many of our high-schoolers have worshipped through the years on Covenant High School’s Great Britain trip. An acquaintance of Eric had become a Christian, I don’t know how. But shortly after becoming a Christian she was leaving town on a bus and her brother was seeing her off. As a very new believer she was unsure what to say to him or how to say it; how to explain what had happened to her. She was embarrassed to bring the subject up but knew she needed to say something; but she didn’t want to say the wrong thing. So, as she got on the bus, she handed him a New Testament and said, “Read that. It will do you good.”

He was so surprised that his sister, of all people, should have been interested in the Bible, that he went home and read it, and could not stop reading it. He read it into the wee hours of the morning. He went to work at his factory the next day but couldn’t get what he had read about sin and Christ and salvation out of his mind. At lunch he went out looking for some Christians who could advise him. He asked them, “What is this that is happening to me?” One of them replied, “What do you think is happening to you?” He said, “I don’t know what it is, but whatever it is, it’s God, I think.” It was, of course, and within a few days all became clear to him and he was a Christian like his sister. She hadn’t done much for him — “Read that. It will do you good.” But it was enough. The Holy Spirit did the rest. [Carson and Hall, A Commemoration of the Westminster Assembly, 238-239]

In other cases, of course, Christians do much more. If you have ever read Michael Green’s magnificent study Evangelism in the Early Church, you will know how committed the early Christians were to sharing their faith and to pressing the claims of Christ upon their acquaintances. One pagan critic of the new faith poured scorn on the message because, he said, it was spread by “women gossiping Christ at the laundry.” But what that comment reveals to us is that out of the hearts of ordinary Christians rivers of living water were flowing, just as Jesus said they would. They used every conceivable means to explain the gospel to others, just as Christians do today. They had preachers in the streets and at church on Sunday, they wrote books to reach the learned, they used art to convey their message, they brought non-Christians into their homes for meals and conversation and they took advantage of chance encounters, Justin Martyr was converted because he’d bumped into a Christian walking along the beach one day. Christians do all those things today. Think of Chuck Colson inviting friends over for dinner and then watching with them Woody Allen’s film Crimes and Misdemeanors, because it serves so well to introduce the issues of sin, guilt, and our need for forgiveness. Colson himself, if you remember, before he became a Christian, had Christians talking to him about Christ and giving him books to read. Or think of the evangelization of Muslims over the internet who could not be reached by Christians in their Arab countries where Christianity and all the more Christian evangelism is illegal and punishable by death.

Christianity Today has begun to include a “testimony” at the back of each new issue. In each case the individual tells the story of how he or she came to faith in Christ. So far the testimonies have included a Mormon woman who was a professor at Brigham Young University until her son handed his parents a Bible and urged them to read it; a news columnist and commentator for Fox News; a practicing Muslim medical student; a former safety for the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts; Twitter’s manager for social innovation, and, in the most recent issue, a Chinese American engineering student at the University of Illinois, Alexander Chu. His father and mother were practicing Buddhists, his father a Guggenheim award winner as professor at the University of Kansas.

“In the mid-1990s I arrived at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with eyes wide open, eager to soak in all campus life had to offer.

“My dorm was full of fervent Christians: the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship students shared a bond with each other and seemed to radiate love. They were the first Asian American Christians I had ever met. They cared about things that were important to me — like living with purpose and having compassion for a cause beyond themselves. Living with them, I began to realize that the Buddhism of my upbringing was not in my heart.

“Growing curious about Christianity during my sophomore year, I asked a friend if I could join him at an IVF gathering. There I heard for the first time God’s promises declared in worship songs and saw men and women praising him. I soon joined a GIG (Groups Investigating God) and began studying my first Bible, beginning with the Gospel of John. The authority with which Jesus spoke amazed me; it’s as if his words jumped off the pages, addressing me directly.

“Before I could place faith in Jesus, I needed to know that there was a rational basis for Christianity’s foundational truths. Early that summer, I attended Chapter Focus Week (a retreat sponsored by IVF) where I took an apologetics track. I heard well-founded explanations of the inspiration of Scripture, the problem of evil, and the uniqueness of the gospel. After the doctrines were satisfactorily defended, my GIG leader recommended that I focus on the person of Jesus, so as not to let my endless philosophical queries distract me from the main character of Scripture. Jesus’ display of justice and compassion from the cross made perfect sense, and my reservations dissipated. I found that, contrary to the media’s portrayal of it as narrow, crazy, and judgmental, Christianity was the most intellectually stimulating worldview I had ever encountered.

“In October 1997, during my junior year, I decided to take a study break. I started reading John Stott’s pamphlet, ‘Becoming a Christian,’ which I had picked up at an IVF gathering. While reading, I grew convinced of my sin and need to be forgiven. I drove to an open forest area that night, knelt down on the grass beneath the stars, and committed my life to Christ. I had grown up in a sea of deities, yet never had a relationship with any of them. On that day, I experienced the living God, Emmanuel: ‘God is with us.’ A peace overtook me as I gazed at the sky. That night I became the first Christian in our family’s heritage.” [CT June 2014, 79-80]

Now, as you know, we could repeat this story with variation only in the personal details millions of times. We could tell it about North Americans and about South Americans, about Europeans and Asians, about Africans and Australians. And some important features would be common to them all.

As in Alexander Chu’s case, so in most of the others, Christians played a vital role in his coming to faith. The example of their lives, their love for one another, their interest in him, the answers they provided to his questions, the satisfying explanations of the faith, and so on proved a critical instrument of the profound transformation of life that his coming to Christ amounted to, a transformation that Alexander’s parents struggled to understand or to accept.

This brings us back to 1 Corinthians 12 and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The gifts that Paul mentions there, the empowerments of the Holy Spirit, the capacities which he furnishes the church, one to this Christian and one to another, are useful to believers and unbelievers alike. They are given for the common good, we read in v.7. And later in chapter 14, Paul acknowledges that even the gifts that Christians use to minister to one another can be powerful in the impression they make on unbelievers. [14:16, 23] That is what happened in Alexander’s case. He saw Christians living together and admired and was drawn to what he saw. When Christians love one another and serve one another, they cannot help but make an impression on outsiders.

But it is also clear that it wasn’t the Christians that made Alexander Chu a believer in Jesus Christ. It was God himself; it was the Holy Spirit working within him that enabled him to call Jesus Christ his Lord; it was the Spirit who convinced him of sin, and righteousness, and judgment; it was an encounter with the loving, forgiving, and redeeming God that changed this young man’s life root and branch. We have to be baptized into the body of Christ, Paul says in v. 13, and that baptism is the work of the Holy Spirit. He empowers us to help, he makes us his instruments — in that way it can be said that rivers of living water flow from our hearts to the world — but only the Holy Spirit can incorporate a person into that community of God’s servants and helpers.

Now it is ours to face the implications of these facts and of this history of salvation as it continues today throughout the world. First, if we are the Spirit’s instruments, if the gifts he gives us are to be used for the sake of the others, if rivers of living water are to be flowing from us, then it must be our daily business to think about and to work for the salvation of others. As the great early Christian preacher, John Chrysostom, tartly put it long ago: “there is nothing chillier than a Christian who is not trying to save others.”

Second, one of the best ways to cultivate the unbeliever is to be faithful to your Christian brothers and sisters. Use your gifts for their sake and the opportunities to use them for the sake of unbelievers will multiply. The point is the Spirit expects you to be at work; that is why he gave you gifts. The more faithfully you work with them, the more by them you contribute to the lives of others, the more the Spirit will use you in other lives, Christian and non-Christian alike.

And third, we needn’t worry about our ability to change someone else’s heart. That is not our work; that is not within our power. Ours is to serve; the Holy Spirit will do with our service what he wills. You concentrate on being usefully, helpfully, and lovingly involved in the lives of others and see what the Holy Spirit will do through you! I guarantee you: Pentecost is proof that he will do more than you think!