God’s highest purpose for His people is that they be built together into Christ’s image. In an effort to reach this all-inclusive goal, God employs two means: Spiritual life and spiritual gifts.
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul makes a useful distinction between life and gift. The main difference between the two lies here: Gifts are used to minister. Life is that which is ministered. Stated simply, gifts are the tools; life is the content. Gifts are the utensils; life is the substance. Gifts are the instruments; life is the essence.
NT ministry is merely the release of Christ’s life from one person to another. Each believer has been given a ministry, and each ministry contributes something of Christ to His church and the world. It is for this reason that Paul likens ministry to a function of the physical body—some are eyes, others are hands, others are feet, etc. These different functions in the Body of Christ do not represent gifts. They instead represent ministries.
While two believers might operate in the same gift (say prophecy), their ministries may differ (one may be a hand and the other may be an eye). The hand might use the gift of prophecy to emphasize God’s eternal purpose. The eye might use the gift of prophecy to reveal something God will do in the coming year. The gift may be the same, while the ministry is different.
Our ministry is that which is unique to us. It constitutes that which we have received specially from the Lord. Ministry rests upon a specific apprehension, or insight, of Jesus Christ that we have received from God. And it is that unique insight that God calls us to contribute to His Body and the world.
In the area of NT ministry, gifts are simply tools. We use them to impart to others the Christ whom we know. Without Christ, gifts are empty. Still worse, without Christ, gifts are deceptive and misleading. What really matters to the Body is not our gifts, but the life of Christ that we convey through them. Again, it is not the gift that counts so much before God, but the thing which is ministered through it.
Regarding spiritual gifts, the two crucial questions that should be asked are, “What knowledge is being conveyed through the gift, and what kind of practical fruit is it bearing?” Good fruit is the fruit of love — which is treating others the way we want to be treated in the same situation. Good fruit is loving Jesus more and loving our fellow brethren more (see 1 John). Good fruit is becoming more like Jesus, the Lamb who was silent under persecution and attack.
These are the core questions we ought to be concerned with whenever we see a gift in operation—whether it be teaching, exhortation, prophecy, preaching, etc. When it comes to spiritual gifts, it is not the noise that matters, but the revelation of Christ that is given and the fruit that is produced.
It is all too common to discover that in groups where “gifts” abound, there is often spiritual immaturity among the saints and little to no unveiling of the Lord Jesus. This is the unfortunate consequence when Christians extol gifts above life. It is the consequence of seeking the Lord’s gifts instead of the Lord Himself. This was the peril of the church in Corinth. That church was rich in gifts, but woefully lacking in spiritual life and maturity.
Therefore, the health and increase of the Body of Christ can only come through a ministry of life, not through gifts alone. This is not to suggest that gifts are not needed, for they have their rightful place. But gifts ought never replace or usurp Christ Himself. Moreover, they are never to distract us from Him. Instead, the true function of spiritual gifts is to make Jesus Christ preeminent and central. Therefore, instead of seeking gifts, it is better to seek the Giver.