Speaking Gifts

The Holy Ghost and Fire

Peter exhorts anyone who has one of the speaking gifts, “speak as though God himself were speaking through you” (ὡς λόγια θεοῦ, 1 Pet 4:11). The first four on the list of ten speaking gifts come from Paul’s fourfold list of roles that God has established in the church: “Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors-and-teachers” (τοὺς δὲ ποιμένας καὶ διδασκάλους, Eph 4:11). The other Pauline gift lists repeat three out of these four, omitting evangelists, and include five more speaking gifts: word of wisdom, word of knowledge, distinguishing between spirits, tongues, and interpretation of tongues.

εἴ τις λαλεῖ, ὡς λόγια θεοῦ

Given the fourfold list in Ephesians 4:11, and the hierarchical language for the first three in 1 Corinthians 12:28, we can conclude that these three or four have the preeminence among all the gifts. Indeed, we might see them as formally recognized offices in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third pastor-teachers, and perhaps evangelists as a fourth priority office.

1. Apostles

  • Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors-and-teachers. (Eph 4:11)
  • Here are some of the parts God has appointed for the church: first (πρῶτος) are the apostles, second (δεύτερος) are prophets, third (τρίτος) are teachers, then (ἔπειτα) …. (1 Cor 12:28).

Usage of ἀπόστολος/G652

The term can refer to any of the following:

  • Someone sent as a messenger, envoy (John 13:16)
  • A commissioned representative of a congregation, delegate, missionary (2 Cor 8:23)
  • A messenger from God as a general term (Luke 11:49)
  • A person who has the special task of founding and establishing churches, apostle, messenger (Eph 2:20)

Preeminent Apostles

“…πρῶτον ἀποστόλους”
In the context of a Pauline gift list, the labels “first” and “second” refer to the foundational figures of the church, “the foundation of the apostles and the prophets” (Eph 2:20).1πρῶτος can be used for order in time (Rev 2:5) or sequence (Matt 21:28; Heb 10:9). But it can also refer to rank (Mark 6:21) or priority or value or importance (Matt 5:24; 6:33). In this case, it speaks of preeminance. As Thiselton notes, “The apostles are first not least in the sense that the church does not ‘raise up’ its apostles, but responds to the apostolic witness.”2Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. NIGTC (Eerdmans, 2000), 1014.
“…the church does not ‘raise up’ its apostles, but responds to the apostolic witness” — Thiselton
This refers primarily to those who were with Jesus and sent out by him (Acts 12:21–22, cf. Mark 3:14): The twelve, then Matthias (Acts 1:15–26), Paul (Rom 1:1, etc.), and perhaps Barnabas (Acts 4:36) and Jesus’s brother James (Acts 15). These exercised an unrepeatable role like Jesus assigned to Peter: “I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’), and upon this rock I will build my church” (Matt 16:18).

The Apostles

It will not do for us to react against Rome’s over-reaching claims for an apostolic succession for its priesthood and use that as an excuse for diminishing the unique foundational role of Peter and the other apostles. That would be Protestantism run amuck. But neither can we see this as a continuing office; rather, we see it as a unique and unrepeatable foundational office. Barrett writes: “The apostles confront the church with a word which it did not originate, and by which it is both created and judged. Are all apostles? Perhaps some in Corinth thought the answer should be Yes (see Barth, D.D III.ii.309; and cf. iv. 8); but it must be No, for the apostles confront the church with a word which it did not originate (cf. xiv.36), a word by which it is both created and judged.”3Charles K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistles to the Corinthians (Harper & Row, 1968), 296. This is true of only the apostles and could not be said of any subsequent figures in church history.

General Use of “apostle”

The New Testament also applies “apostle” to figures outside the circle of the Twelve. For example, “Among the prophets and teachers of the church at Antioch of Syria were Barnabas, Simeon (called “the black man”), Lucius (from Cyrene), Manaen (the childhood companion of King Herod Antipas), and Saul.” (Acts 13:1).

If we speak of modern day apostles, it would be in this more general sense. This would refer to the ongoing missionary arm of God’s work, to those who pioneer new fields and then the disciple and appoint pastors in every place (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). In this case, the “first” would refer to the primary role wherever the church is established anytime throughout church history.

2. Prophets

  • Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. (Eph 4:11)
  • …if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you. (Rom 12:6)
  • He gives one person the power to perform miracles, and another the ability to prophesy.… (1 Cor 12:10)
  • Here are some of the parts God has appointed for the church: first are apostles, second are prophets, third are teachers, then.… (1 Cor 12:28)
“…πρῶτον ἀποστόλους, δεύτερον προφήτας…”
Paul continues his list of offices: “second prophets” (1 Cor 12:28), which is also listed as a non-office gift in each of the other Pauline gift lists. Prophecy came first in the list in Romans 12, which reflects the high estimate that the New Testament church had for it (1 Cor 12:28–30; 1 Cor 14; Eph 2:20; 4:11).

Prophets vis-a-vis Canon

The ongoing existence of prophets doesn’t imply an open canon of Scripture.
Some claim that this foundational role was an office with canonical authority like that of Old Testament writing prophets. By this definition, they infer that the office ceased sometime around the end of the apostolic period, with the closing of the New Testament canon. Among Bible believing Evangalicals, this conclusion is motivated by the laudible concern to acknowledge the unique authority of Scripture, over against any ongoing prophetic claims. But defending the idea of ongoing existence of prophets doesn’t imply an open canon of Scripture.

Ateni Fresco, “The Prophets”

Even during the Old Testament age, relatively few prophets contributed to the canon, and fewer still from those who experience the democratization of the prophetic gifts throughout the New Testament age. Moses wished, and Joel prophesied, that all God’s people would be prophets (Num 11:25–29; Joel 2:28–32). That surely didn’t promise seventy books added to the Old Testament when Moses got help in the wilderness and a hundred and twenty books added on the day of Pentecost—to say nothing of millions of books added to the New Testament since the day of Pentecost. We can be fairly certain that Moses wasn’t wishing for two and a half million Old Testament books to follow his own five.

Nature of the Gift

Others agree that the gift of prophecy still functions, but only through anointed preaching. But that reduces the gift to the point that we hardly need to call it a revelatory gift at all. However we see it functioning—whether in pulpit, at a lectern, or from the pew—we should acknowledge that by this gift God still speaks to his church with revelatory authority and power. That doesn’t threaten the unique authority of Scripture; it doesn’t take prophets out from under the authority of the church. New Testament prophecy is subject to the spiritual judgment of the church, but that’s always been the norm, not a New Testament innovation.

When Paul told the Corinthian church to judge the prophets (1 Cor 14:29), he was only continuing a longstanding biblical mandate. The Old Testament people of God were told to reckon with the authority of the prophet’s message, but only if was true prophecy. That meant two things: prophecy that didn’t violate Scripture (Deut 13:1–5) and predictions that came to pass (Deut 18:9–20). They were given standards for judging, and were expected to do so. Likewise in the New Testament. Paul said, “Let two or three people prophesy, and let the others evaluate what is said” (1 Cor 14:29). And don’t you suppose that this might be a key function of those who have the gift of discerning spirits?

Responding to the Gift

Abuse of the Gift

Some charismatic circles abuse personal prophecies to manipulate fellow believers. For example, I know of one congregation in the 1970s where you couldn’t change jobs, choose a wife, or make a major purchase or sale without a “prophet” giving you the go-ahead. After awhile, it just looked like a cult-like device for controlling people, rather than empowering them—the very opposite of Moses’s wish for the democratization of prophetic gifting among the people of God (Num 11:25–29).

Of course, we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that God might give such specific guidance through the gift of prophecy. For example, see the prophecies of Joseph about Egypt’s famine (Gen 41) or of Agabus about the famine in apostolic times and about Paul’s imprisonment (Acts 11:28; 21:10–11).

Testing the Prophets

If you do receive prophetic guidance, test it. Check it out according to the twofold test from the Old Testament (Deut 13:1–5; 18:9–20). Ask other spiritual people to join in judging the utterance, especially people that you know to exercise the gift of discerning between spirits. And settle it that it is something with which your own obedient spirit bears witness. In Paul’s case, he heard the prophecy about what Jerusalem Jews would do to him, which prompted the Christians to try to talk him out of going there (Acts 21:10–12). But Paul had already testified, “I am bound by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem. I don’t know what awaits me” (Acts 20:22). After hearing Agabus’s prophecy of what awaited him, Paul said, “I am ready,” so his fellow believers said, “The Lord’s will be done”—and he left for Jerusalem (Acts 21:10–15).

Modest Understanding of Its Authority

Prophecy doesn’t necessarily involve predicting or prescribing the future at all; rather, it’s speaking for God to explain his ways with man. It might indeed deal with future matters, but it might just as well explain the present or even the past. It’s quite appropriate to call some of the Old Testament historical books the “former prophets,” and the Chronicler makes occasional reference to the prophetic sources he used to write his postexilic history (1 Chr 29:29; 2 Chr 9:29; 12:15; 32:32; 35:25).

Nor is prophecy something that provides the ongoing equivalent of canonical revelation. But it is certainly something more than human assessment of the situation—even from a point of view inculcated by Scripture and enriched by a disciplined spiritual life. Wayne Grudem defines New Testament prophecy this way:

Paul is simply referring to something that God may suddenly bring to mind, or something that God may impress on someone’s subconscious in such a way that the person has a sense that it is from God. It may be that the thought brought to mind is surprisingly distinct from the person’s own train of thought, or that it is accompanied by a sense of vividness or urgency or persistence, or in some other way gives the person a rather clear sense that it is from the Lord.4Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Zondervan 1994), 1056.

I’m not sure that “suddenly” is necessary, especially if “vividness or urgency or persistence” keeps a prophetic message on your mind for hours or days before you deliver it to the congregation. I don’t know that any attempt to explain the psychology of the prophetic experience will give us sure guideline for judging whether what we speak is prophetic, but the truth of prophetic self-apprehension must lie somewhere along the lines Grudem outlines.


In the Old Testament, examples of prophecy are so numerous that we couldn’t begin even to survey them.

Prophesying as Sign of Anointing

It would be good to note some Old Testament examples of true prophecy that didn’t entail the production of infallible Scripture. Some didn’t even necessarily involve propositional revelation at all.

Think of the seventy in the wilderness plus Eldad and Medad prophesying as a demonstration that they were anointed to serve alongside Moses in leading Israel (Num 11:25–29). Or think of Saul and his messengers prophesying (1 Sam 10:9–13; 19:20–24). Nothing they said ends up in the Scriptures preceded by “the word of the Lord came to…” or the proclamation, “Thus saith the Lord!” Indeed, nothing they said is even recorded—if they even said anything when they were prophesying.

In Saul’s case, prophetic activity involved musical performance and laying “naked on the ground all day and all night” (1 Sam 10:5–7; 19:21). It just provoked people to ask if Saul were a prophet (1 Sam 10:10–12; 19:24). These were cases of what classical Pentecostals often describe as the “initial physical evidence” of the Spirit baptism. The only information this prophesying was intended to convey to God’s people is that Saul was anointed—as their king, not as a prophet.

Revelatory but Not Canonical

Even prophecies that were intended to convey information were not necessarily canonical, or even generally authoritative. Think of the example of a young Saul and his companion who were seeking out a prophet and paying him to inform them where to find some lost livestock (1 Sam 9:6–9)—or would this be a word of knowledge? Or think of Agabus, who prophesied the great famine (Acts 11:28) and Paul’s captivity (Acts 21:10–14). And even when they were intended to be authoritative, even that didn’t constitute a claim on canonicity for the prophet (e.g., 2 Chr 24:20).5We have no Old Testament book by this preexilic Zechariah; our canonical “Zechariah” was postexilic. To say nothing of the frequent references to this or that prophet anonymously as “the man of God.”

3. Teachers and Pastor-Teachers

  • Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. (Eph 4:11)
  • Here are some of the parts God has appointed for the church:… third are teachers, then… (1 Cor 12:28).
  • If you are a teacher, teach well. (Rom 12:7)

Here Paul includes the last of his enumerated roles before moving on to those he lists without hierarchy or implied position (1 Cor 12:28). This important ministry occurs third in this list and in Romans 12:6–8, where it’s behind prophecy and serving, rather than behind apostles and prophets (1 Cor 12:28). In Ephesians 4:11, it’s fourth, behind apostles, prophets, and evangelists; and there, it’s the dual role of pastor-teacher.

Nature of the Gift

“…τοὺς μὲν ἀποστόλους, τοὺς δὲ προφήτας, τοὺς δὲ εὐαγγελιστάς, τοὺς δὲ ποιμένας καὶ διδασκάλους”
The gift can be pastoral, as Paul implies by referring to the double office of pastor-teacher (Eph 4:11). Its inclusion in two lists, once as the single title “teacher” the other as “pastor-teacher” indicates that all pastors must be teachers, though not all teachers are pastors. He says God gave “pastors-and-teachers.” Some speak of the five-fold office (Eph 4:11), but this doesn’t refer to a fourth and fifth role in the list; rather, it refers to a dual fourth role, pastor-teacher. There can be no such functionary as a pastor without the gift of teaching that he exercises. If God has called you to the pastorate, he has called you to be a teacher.

“Not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly” (Jas 3:1)
Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ” (Eph 4:12). It’s interesting to note that this “work of service” for which a pastor trains a congregation could well refer to the very gifts and functions that compose the second half of the table of gifts, labeled with Peter’s second label, “whoever serves.” The pastoral training task strengthens the church’s ability to serve and has this ultimate aim: “This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ” (Eph 4:13).


Although the noun “pastor” occurs only in Ephesians 4:11 in reference to church ministry, the related verb “to shepherd” occurs several times in this sense (John 21:15–17; Acts 20:28; 1 Pet 5:2). And using the term “flock” as an image of the church implies the title pastor for its leaders (Acts 20:28–29; 1 Pet 5:2–3). This shepherd imagery comes first from God, who is our shepherd (Gen 49:12; Ps 23:1; 89:1; 40:11), and then from Israel’s leaders (2 Sam 5:2; Ps 78:71; Jer 23:2; Ezek 34:11). So too, in the church “the Great Shepherd” is Jesus Christ (John 10:11–18; Matt 18:12–14; Luke 15:3–7; Heb 13:20; 1 Pet 2:25; 5:4), after whom pastors should pattern their ministry (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet 5:2).6O’Brien, Ephesians, 300.

Pastors train God’s people for the “work of service,” ministries labeled with Peter’s second label, “whoever serves” ( Pet 4:11)
A teacher’s job is retaining, passing on, and interpreting the already-given apostolic tradition. In the Pastoral Epistles, teaching appears to be an authoritative ministry appointed to transmit the apostolic message faithfully (2 Tim 1:13–14; 2:1–2; Titus 1:9). So Timothy was not only to pursue that ministry but to teach others to do the same (1 Tim 4:13, 16; 2 Tim 2:2). Sometimes that involves the exposition and interpretation of Scripture (Acts 15:35; 18:11, 25; Rom 2:20–21; Col 3:16; Heb 5:12). Sometimes it means explanation or reiteration of apostolic injunctions (1 Cor 4:17; Rom 16:17; 2 Thess 2:15; 2 Tim 2:2; 3:10).

O’Brien describes the pastor’s role as a shepherd-leader as well as teacher:

The term “pastor” or “shepherd” was used alongside “overseer” and “elder” to describe the church leaders (cf. Acts 20:17, 28, where “elders” are “overseers” who “pastor” the flock). Note particularly the example of Epaphras, through whom the congregations of Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis were founded (Col. 1:7–8; 4:12–13).7O’Brien, Ephesians, 299; and for further discussion, O’Brien, Gospel and Mission in the Writings of Paul: An Exegetical and Theological Analysis, (Baker, 1995), 61–64.

The New Testament also uses the terms elder (πρεσβύτερος, G4245) and overseer (ἐπίσκοπος, G1985) for pastors. The pastor’s function is that of an overseer (Phil 1:1) and elder (cf. Acts 20:17, 28; 14:23; 1 Tim 4:14; 5:17, 19, etc.): the nurture, care, and management of congregations (1 Thess 5:12; Rom 12:8).


Jesus, who was the very Logos made flesh, taught “like one who had authority”
The Bible provides many examples of the exercise of the gift of teaching. In the Old Testament, we see Solomon as a teacher, especially as depicted in Proverbs (Prov 1:1; 10:1; 25:1), but also in Ecclesiastes—though a bit jaded (Eccl 1:1–2, 12; 7:27; 12:8–10). And we see Ezra, the model teacher who “had determined to study and obey the law of the Lord and to teach those decrees and regulations to the people of Israel” (Ezra 7:10).

In the New Testament, we see Jesus, who was the very Logos made flesh and thus “taught them like one who had authority” (Mark 1:22); we see Paul, who had been “chosen… to teach the Gentiles about faith and truth” (1 Tim 2:7; 2 Tim 1:11); and those of Antioch who were “prophets and teachers:8This appears to indicate a double role of prophet-teacher, although I suppose it could mean some in this list were prophets and others were teachers. Barnabas, Simeon (called ‘the black man’), Lucius (from Cyrene), Manaen (the childhood companion of King Herod Antipas), and Saul” (Acts 13:1). Note the authoritative roles played by these teachers, as apostles and prophets.

A notice about Apollos and his teaching indicates that the teaching gift doesn’t make you infallible or above learning from others. “He was an eloquent speaker who knew the Scriptures well. He had been taught the way of the Lord, and he taught others about Jesus with an enthusiastic spirit and with accuracy” (Acts 18:24b–25a). Stellar qualifications for any teacher’s resume; however, “he knew only about John’s baptism” (Acts 18:25b). So “when Priscilla and Aquila heard him,… They took him aside and explained the way of God even more accurately” (Acts 18:26). Indeed, the best teachers are teachable and life-long learners.

The role of pastor-teacher requires devotion. Paul told Timothy, “Focus on reading the Scriptures to the church, encouraging the believers, and teaching them” (1 Tim 4:13). It requires a calling and should be exercised with caution. James warned, “Not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly” (Jas 3:1, see Ezek 3:17–18; Luke 12:47–48; Acts 20:26–27).

Evangelists (3rd in Eph 4:11)

  • Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists (εὐαγγελιστής/G2099), and the pastors and teachers. (Eph 4:11)

The terms based on the forms of the Greek root euangel– refer to announcing good news.

“Καὶ αὐτὸς ἔδωκεν τοὺς μὲν ἀποστόλους, τοὺς δὲ προφήτας, τοὺς δὲ εὐαγγελιστάς…”
The title evangelist occurs only three times in the New Testament and identifies only two people by name, Philip (Acts 21:8) and Timothy (2 Tim 4:5). But its appearance in this gift list indicates a wider distribution than just those two. Indeed, God himself is the first evangelist, who “proclaimed this good news to Abraham long ago when he said, ‘All nations will be blessed through you’” (Gal 3:8; quoting Gen 12:3; 18:18). Throughout the four Gospels we see Jesus Christ as the evangelist, proclaiming “the Good News” everywhere he went.9Matt 9:35; Mark 1:1, 14; 10:29; Luke 4:18.


In turn, Paul became an apostle whose task it was to serve as an evangelist to the Gentiles (Rom 1:15). The apostles would have been the church’s earliest evangelists, but we note that this gift was given also to an early deacon, Philip (Acts 21:1), and we note that all Christians were evangelists: “The believers who were scattered preached the Good News about Jesus wherever they went” (Acts 8:4).

Nature of the Gift

Bloemaert, “The Four Evangelists”

But like many other gifts, Christ provides not only a general dispersion of the task to all believers, but the Holy Spirit also provides a special distribution to some members. In this regard, Paul’s list includes this as something we might identify as an office, along with apostles, prophets, and pastor-teachers (Eph 4:11). Indeed, the church eventually came to identify the four gospel writers as the four evangelists.

Present church practice is to recognize itinerant preachers and people who hit the streets witnessing as evangelists. But nothing in the New Testament indicates that being an evangelist is by nature a traveling ministry. All of the apostles were evangelists, and the apostolic wish to build where no one had built before (Rom 15:20) would certainly mean an itinerant ministry; but not all evangelists are foundational apostles.

In turn, most itinerant evangelists today avoid the apostolic task and expect to work through a local church with an already established foundation. Perhaps we should take it one step further, and emphasize the gift of evangelizing as a local church gift, rather than just an itinerant ministry, and seek out and develop evangelists in our own congregations. O’Brien suggests that the task covers a range of activities from primary evangelism and church planting to the ongoing discipling of Christians and development of growing congregations (Rom 1:11–15).10O’Brien, Ephesians, 299.

In Timothy’s case, we see that he received that calling and gift through a prophetic ordination service (1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1:16, 18). It’s likely that others came into their gifts and offices through similar ordination services (Acts 13:2–3; 14:23).

Word/Message of Wisdom

  • To one person the Spirit gives the ability to give wise advice (λόγος σοφίας, 1 Cor 12:8)11Wisdom is the ability to use knowledge for correct behavior, insight, understanding (Col 4:5), or in a clever way, skill, cleverness (1 Cor 1:17); here it denotes enlightenment given through divine revelation (2 Pet 3:15).

Thiselton speaks of “articulate utterances relating to ‘wisdom,’” putting wisdom in quotes because the term σοφία/G4678 (“wisdom”) is a catchword for a key controversy throughout 1 Corinthians.12Thiselton, 1 Corinthians, 938–39. See 1 Cor 1:17, 19ff., 24, 30; 2:1, 4ff., 13; 3:19; 12:8. And Paul uses it elsewhere quite a bit too, Rom 11:33; 2 Cor 1:12; Eph 1:8, 17; 3:10; Col 1:9, 28; 2:3, 23; 3:16; 4:5.

Nature of the Gift

…doesn’t qualify anyone as a New Testament incarnation of Lay Wisdom
First, we may note that it is not shallow “words of human wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:17). This gift doesn’t qualify anyone as a resident answer-man; rather, it is a particular occasion where God grants someone supernatural insight rather than a gift of resident wisdom. That it is a “message” may indicate temporary rather than resident nature; it certainly does not make you the guru for a local congregation. This, along with the message of knowledge, might form a two-part breakdown that further specifies the content of the more diverse term, prophecies.


The Bible gives some examples of those who exercised this gift. We think of Solomon, who showed this wisdom in particular messages of wisdom such as the case with the two women claiming the same child. We think of Jesus amazing the elders and confounding his opponents with his words.

I can think of a personal occasion where I thought a fellow pastor in our district exercised this gift. We had a rather heated exchange in our district council on an issue that divided the young pastors from the older pastors. The younger pastors were arguing for spending more money on youth work; the older pastors were arguing that we needed to be good stewards of the finances of our district and not try to do more than we could. We had reaching an angry impasse when someone invited the district youth director to speak to the issue of whether we should attempt this new and expensive form of youth ministry. He said, “Well, of my friends are for it, and some of my friends are against it; I’m with my friends.” The delegates at the council chuckled, looked at each other a little shamefacedly, resolved the issue peacefully, and move on to other business. We had been reminded, by a humorous word of wisdom, that we were all co-laborers in Christ—and friends.

Word of knowledge

  • …to another the same Spirit gives a message of special knowledge (λόγος γνώσεως, 1 Cor 12:28)

Nature of the Gift

It doesn’t make you a genius—to say nothing of a fortune teller. As he does with “wisdom” above, Thiselton treats “knowledge” as a catchword for an ongoing controversy when he speaks of “articulate utterances relating to ‘knowledge.’”13Thiselton, 1 Corinthians, 938. “Knowledge” (γνῶσις/G1108) is catchword throughout Paul’s epistles, especially in 1 Corinthians.14Rom 2:20; 11:33; 15:14; 1 Cor 1:5; 8:1, 7, 10–11; 12:8; 1:2, 8; 14:6; 2 Cor 2:14; 4:6; 6:6; 8:7; 10:5; 11:6; Eph 3:19; Phil 3:8; Col 2:3; 1 Tim 6:20). Certainly, the “message of special knowledge” is the opposite of what Paul derided as “so-called knowledge,” which only generates foolish debates, profane chatter, absurdities, and angry division (1 Tim 6:20).

… doesn’t make you a genius—to say nothing of a fortune teller
It’s a gift of supernatural knowledge not gained by mere observation, questioning, or research. Indeed, it may be impossible for you to quite grasp the very ideas you’re communicating in a word of knowledge: “Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible for us to understand his decisions and his ways!” (Rom 11:33). But it doesn’t make the recipient omniscient: “Our knowledge is partial and incomplete, and even the gift of prophecy reveals only part of the whole picture” (1 Cor 13:9). Paul can pray for “complete knowledge of his will” (Col 1:9).

But notice that he focuses on ethical understanding rather than facts about the world, on the divine imperative rather than the human intellect, on obedience rather than speculative theorizing.

As with the word of wisdom, that it’s a message of knowledge suggests that it’s not so much a resident gift as a divine provision for specific occasions. It doesn’t make you a genius—to say nothing of a fortune teller. It provides a message spoken as if God himself were speaking (1 Pet 4:11), so it’s divinely timely (Prov 25:11). And often, a word of knowledge cuts right to the heart of a matter, as only a word from God can (Heb 4:12).


We see various examples throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament, we see Joshua uncovering Achan’s theft of plunder at Jericho (Josh 7:10–11) and Elisha denouncing Gehazi’s back door deal with Naaman (2 Kgs 5:20–27). We see Samuel using the gift when he met and selected Saul as king (1 Sam 9–10). We see Elijah communicating Aramean war plans to the king of Israel, operating as a spiritual fifth column for the people of God (2 Kgs 6:9–10).

In the New Testament, I think especially of examples from Jesus’s ministry, such as when he told the Samaritan woman who denied having a husband, “You’re right! You don’t have a husband—for you have had five husbands, and you aren’t even married to the man you’re living with now” (John 4:17–18). Also, Jesus frequently confounded his opponents because he knew their thoughts.15E.g., Matt 9:4; 12:24; 16:7–8; Mark 12:15; Luke 5:22; 6:8; 7:39–40; cf. John 6:61, 64. Or think of Peter, who exposed Ananias and Sapphira’s charitable giving fraud (Acts 5).

Exercising and Responding to the Gift

As with any other claim to be speaking God’s very words, this gift requires godly reverence. We certainly can’t lay claim to “superior knowledge” and then parade it as though it were any credit to our IQ. We could possess “all knowledge,” but without love it would mean nothing (1 Cor 13:2ff). And the word of knowledge isn’t a plaything for impressing and manipulating gullible audiences. You really need to have heard from God to represent what you’re saying in this way.

…a world of difference between a word of knowledge and a cold-blooded scam

Charismatic frauds give Pentecostalism and charismatic faith a horrible black eye when they play the word of knowledge card. Some have their staff do extensive research in an area where they are headed for an upcoming campaign, collect their notes, then wait for the targets they had listed to arrive for meetings. One occasion shows what it looked like when the subject just wouldn’t quite cooperate with the con:

Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

At a healing rally where the research had already been done, an evangelist asked a lady if she had ever met him before.
He repeated, “So we have never had a conversation before this moment, right?”
She responded, “No, but I spoke with your staff members.”
Irritated, he said, “That’s not what I asked. Pay attention. You and I have never had a conversation before this moment, right?”
She responded, “No, but …”
“Do you believe God knows your name?”
“Do you believe God knows everything about you?”
“Is your name _____, and do you have a son named _____?”
“Let me ask again. Have you and I ever had a conversation before tonight?”
“No, but…”
“Don’t interrupt the atmosphere, just answer yes or no to my questions. Have you and I ever had a conversation before tonight?”
She looks down at me, pleadingly, as if to say, “What do I do?”
He continues, “You had a wreck about two years ago, yes or no?”
“Do you believe Jesus heals?”
“Yes, but…” He stops her as she tries to say, “But I spoke to your staff and told them these things!”
“Don’t grieve the Spirit, just answer yes or no to my questions. Do you believe Jesus heals?”
“Yes, of course I do! But…”
As he stops her from speaking, she begins to cry nervously.
“There it is! Don’t be afraid to weep! That weeping shows that he’s coming on you right now!”16I found this sketch on a forum at http://lit4ever.org. JoniAmes@aol.com had posted it. Actually, as appalling as this example is, it seems like the author found it acceptable—as long as somebody gets healed.

This appalling manipulation, deception, and abuse will get its answer in the last judgment. Don’t be fooled by things like this, and don’t take up the practice yourself.

Don’t be like the false prophets who speak out of their own dreams and out of their own hearts, while claiming to be speaking for God (Jer 23:25ff). God condemns that attitude: “Let these false prophets tell their dreams, but let my true messengers faithfully proclaim my every word. There is a difference between straw and grain!” (Jer 23:38). There’s a world of difference between a word of knowledge and something that’s just a brainstorm—to say nothing of a cold-blooded scam.

On the other hand, if God has indeed spoken, his word will burn in your heart like a fire, and you shouldn’t withhold it when the loving, edifying moment avails itself (Jer 29:9).

Distinguishing between Spirits

  • …He gives someone else the ability to discern whether a message is from the Spirit of God or from another spirit.… (1 Cor 12:10)17The term διάκρισις/G1253 refers to an ability to evaluate and decide, discernment, differentiation; and πνεῦμα refers to spirits, whether divine, human, or supernaturally evil: …discernment of spirits (NJB), distinguishing between spirits (ESV), i.e., to tell them apart. The NLT makes explicit what the context clearly implies, that this is for judging “whether a message is from the Spirit of God or from another spirit.”

Nature of the Gift

Paul is talking about a supernatural ability to evaluate the origin of extraordinary manifestations. This critical analysis of spirits would help determine whether the utterance were supernatural and holy, merely natural human activity that could be safely ignored, or even dangerous activity of evil spirits that should be resisted and anathematized. The first feeds the church, the second can be fairly harmless though inane, but the third is downright lethal.

Why not be just as aware of who regularly operates with the gift of discernment as about who the pastors and the deacons are?

As Paul said, “The Holy Spirit tells us clearly that in the last times some will turn away from the true faith; they will follow deceptive spirits and teachings that come from demons” (1 Tim 4:1). John even warned of “demonic spirits who work miracles” but battle against the Lord (Rev 16:14).

Any congregation where the speech gifts operate ought to pray that God will give some members the ability to tell the difference between spirits so they can know whether the messages they hear are from God; it’s only the Spirit himself who “searches out everything” (1 Cor 2:10).

Why not be just as aware of who regularly operates with the gift of discernment as congregations tend to be about who speaks in tongues, who interprets, who prophesies—or who the pastor is?


As biblical examples of people who displayed the gift of discerning spirits, we think of Paul and Silas at Philippi with the young demon-possessed slave girl, who was magnifying their reputation, but for dark purposes (Acts 16:16–18). She shouted out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, and they have come to tell you how to be saved” (Acts 16:17).

An unspiritual recipient of such praise might have valued the publicity, and it was accurate; however, Paul got exasperated and cast out the public relations demon that had kept that announcement running day after day. It’s possible too that Paul saw this announcement about the “God most high” offering “salvation” as potentially confusing to his pagan audience. They could have thought the god mentioned was Zeus, and their world brimmed with claimants to the title soter, or savior.18John B. Polhill, Acts, NAC (Broadman, 1992), 351.

In the context of Paul’s gift list, distinguishing the spirits would especially denote the ability to determine the spiritual value of what was said by charismatic utterance. Regulating the prophecies, Paul says, “Let two or three people prophesy, and let the others evaluate what is said” (1 Cor 14:29, see 1 Cor 2:6–16).

The basis of that evaluation would certainly be Scripture, but God gives insight that even the most careful exegete of Scripture could never unravel on his own. To the degree that people in a congregation exercise the speaking gifts, a healthy congregation should also seek for the gift of discernment.

Indeed, why not be just as aware of who regularly operates with the gift of discernment as congregations tend to be about who speaks in tongues, who interprets, who prophesies—or who the pastor and the deacons are?

Messages in Tongues

  • …another person is given the ability to speak in unknown languages,19γένη γλωσσῶν, where γένη refers to “species,” “kind,” or “class” and γλωσσῶν refers to “means of verbal communication” or “language.” Here, tongues(-speaking) has been understood variously as unintelligible ecstatic utterance (1 Cor 14:2), heavenly language (1 Cor 13:1), or foreign languages not learned through natural means (Acts 2:4, 11). while another is given the ability to interpret what is being said. (1 Cor 12:10)
    “…ἑτέρῳ γένη γλωσσῶν”

Nature of the Gift

Not Philological Skills

To the degree that people in a congregation exercise the speaking gifts, a healthy congregation should also seek for the gift of discernment.
This isn’t the linguist’s philological skills or natural talent for picking up a language. Rather, it’s “the ability to speak in unknown languages” (1 Cor 12:10). Although some elevate this gift as though it were the preeminent gift, it should not predominate, even as the most common utterance gift. It definitely shouldn’t dominate the prophetic and pastoral teaching ministries in a church service. As we shall see when we get to the regulation of these gifts, Paul even limits the number of manifestations of this gift in a single service—and that was in a time when the preaching might run to midnight! (Acts 20:7).

The gift is “different kinds of tongues”

The gift is “different kinds of tongues,” which might indicate that we shouldn’t narrow down our understanding of their nature too much. Thiselton speaks of various understandings of what might be going on with tongues, and says these shouldn’t be treated as mutually exclusive:20Thiselton, 1 Corinthians, 972–83. angelic speech,211 Cor 13:1, cf. Testament of Job 11:24; 12:7; 1 Enoch 40; 71:11–12; 4 Macc 10:21. miraculous powers to speak other languages,22Acts 2:4–11. archaic liturgical rhythmic phrases, ecstatic speech,231 Sam 10:5–7; 19:20–22; 1 Kgs 18:29, 30; 2 Kgs 9:11, cf. the charge of drunkenness in Acts 2. and sighs too deep for words.24Rom 8:26. I wouldn’t vouch for every suggestion in the list, but I wouldn’t be quick to begin excluding options either. I certainly wouldn’t spend much time listening to see if I could identify a human language before accepting the message, and I would have no way of knowing if what I heard was the language of angels.


As examples, some think the Old Testament “prophesying” of such figures as the seventy elders and Eldad and Medad in the wilderness (Num 11:25–29). Saul could also have displayed tongues-like ecstatic speech in confirmation of his anointing as Israel’s king (1 Sam 10:11ff; 19:24ff).

Note that these accounts say nothing about the propositional content of the prophesying. I remember once asking my students in Bulgaria, “What do you think Eldad and Medad did?” I was hoping to hear someone suggest that they may have acted somewhat like Saul, who had an ecstatic experience when the Spirit came on him. What I heard was, “We believe they spoke in tongues.” This certainly can’t be proven, but this answer showed a good awareness that they were correctly viewing the experiences of the seventy, of Eldad and Medad, and of Saul as being coupled with prophetic behavior that served as a sign of anointing rather than as a vehicle for propositional revelation to the people of God.

Clearly, in none of these cases was the speech intended to be revelatory or authoritative; rather, it was to indicate to onlookers that the speaker had received the promised anointing of the Spirit. And that’s the pattern in Acts.

But the practice that Paul describes and regulates implies propositional communication, rather than just a sign of anointing. This necessarily implies the requirement that public utternaces of this sort be interpreted so they can edify the congregation.

In the only New Testament examples of tongues as a speech gift, it’s about its abuse. Paul talks of the gift of tongues being abused in the Corinthian congregation, but worth correction for use as a gift that edifies the church.

As we’ll see in the section on regulating the gifts, the only way public proclamation in tongues is useful is if it’s interpreted so everyone understands; otherwise, it needs to be kept as a private utterance, used only in your closet of prayer, in your private prayer during a chorus of corporate prayer, or as a glad signal that you have been filled with the Spirit.25I believe uninterpreted tongues might be allowed in the church so long as they remain private as individual prayers can in times of corporate prayer among fellow-believers.

Interpretation of Tongues

  • …Still another person is given the ability to speak in unknown languages, while another is given the ability to interpret what is being said.26ἑρμηνεία γλωσσῶν: The “interpretation” or “explanation” that renders intelligible a message given in words that otherwise would not be understood. (1 Cor 12:10)[su_pull quote align=”right”]”…ἄλλῳ δὲ ἑρμηνεία γλωσσῶν”[/su_pullquote]

Nature of the Gift

This isn’t the linguist’s skill to qualify you for work as a United Nations interpreter—or as a missionary. It may not even be the gift of translating; rather, it’s probably the gift of interpreting the sense of the message.27I distinguish “translating,” which attempts exact representation of what was said, from “interpretation,” which explains the meaning of what was said. The term ἑρμηνεία, from which we get “hermeneutics, “ has to do with getting at the sense of a message.


The New Testament gives no examples of this gift in operation; however, modern Pentecostalism is familiar enough with the gift to need little explanation.

But in the Old Testament we may see something like this in the work of Ezra and the Levites, who taught the postexilic residents of Jerusalem, who spoke Aramaic but not Hebrew: “They read from the Book of the Law of God and clearly explained the meaning of what was being read, helping the people to understand each passage” (Neh 8:8).28Commentators argue whether this involved linguistic work (i.e., translating from Hebrew to Aramaic) or hermeneutical work (i.e., explanation and exposition). I’m inclined toward the latter (Ezra 7; Neh 8).

I am not saying that anyone who claims to have the gift of interpreting tongues should suddenly become a long-winded expositor of the ideas embedded in messages in tongues. But I am saying that listeners shouldn’t be surprised if the interpretation sometimes runs longer than the message by a few phrases or sentences. Interpretation can be a wordy business. Nor should they be surprised if the interpretation is shorter than the message. A concise summary can be just as enlightening as a long excursus.


Author: Dale A. Brueggemann

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