Understanding the Spiritual Gifts: A Few Translation Notes on 1 Corinthians 12:1–11

focusFirst Corinthians 12:1–11 is a glorious passage but also intensely debated. As I prepared to preach this passage on Sunday, I found that it is more than the theology that is challenging in these verses; it is also the translation of the text.

What follows are a few notes on what Paul is saying in these verses that help hone in on who he is speaking to and what God is doing. As we will consider this passage again next week, I will try to put up a few more translation notes as we consider this challening passage.

1. The ‘Spiritual Ones’ (v. 1)

The ESV, NASB, NIV, NRSV) all translate πνευματικῶν as “spiritual gifts” in 1 Corinthians 12:1 and 14:1. Others (e.g., CSB), however, have recognized the ambiguity of Paul’s language. While 1 Corinthians 12–14 pertains to spiritual gifts (χάρισμα = 12:4, 9, 28, 30, 31), there is good reason for rendering πνευματικῶν as “spiritual things” or “spiritual persons.” Let’s see why.

In 1 Corinthians the word is used fourteen times: four times for persons (2:13, 15; 3:1, 14:37), five times for spiritual things (“spiritual truths,” 2:13; “spiritual things,” 9:11; “spiritual food” and “spiritual drink” and “spiritual Rock” in 10:3, 4), and four times for the “spiritual body” which has been raised from the dead (15:44, 46). Never is the word used for “gifts” in 1 Corinthians. Only does Romans 1:11 conjoin πνευματικός with χάρισμα (“that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you”).

Because of Paul’s usage of πνευματικός, it suggests rendering πνευματικῶν as “spiritual ones” or “spiritual persons.” But there is another stronger reason, and this has to do with the opening and closing inclusio of 1 Corinthians 12–14. Verse 1 clearly demarcates a new topic in Paul’s letter (“Now concerning . . .”). The topic concerns “the spiritual.” This topic runs from chapters 12 to 14. First Corinthians 15:1 then marks a new section on the gospel and resurrection. Before turning to that section, however, Paul concludes: “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord” (14:37). The word “spiritual” is the same as “spiritual gifts” in 12:1 (ESV). In this case, though, the “spiritual” is set in apposition to “prophet,” a clear indication that the word “spiritual” should be taken as indicating a person, not a gift or anything else.

Based on the placement of this word, at the end of Paul’s section, it makes good sense to read it the same way as 12:1. Hence, I take both words to refer to human persons. And probably, it is best to understand “the spiritual” as the self-proclaimed “spiritual persons” of 1 Corinthians 2:13, 15; 3:1), the very ones who were elevating themselves above others because of their self-perceived spirituality, manifested in the gift of tongues. Therefore, as David Baker and David Garland observe, Paul turns their language on its head and teaches them what true spirituality means. First, Baker writes,

They [the Corinthians] asked Paul about the “spiritual gifts” (πνευματικα), by which in their circumscribed understanding of the Holy Spirit they meant above all prophecy and speaking in tongues, but Paul answers their questions by referring to the many ‘gifts of grace’ (χάρισματα) which God gives to the Christians. Their ‘spiritual gifts’ are only two of these, and to emphasize the point, he puts them right at the end of the list. (David Baker, “The Interpretation of 1 Corinthians 12–14,” EQ 46: 229)

To this point, Garland concurs,

As in [1 Corinthians] 7:1, he uses their language without necessarily giving it the same meaning or value that they do. In this particular case, the genitive plural is obligingly ambiguous, ‘the spirituals,’ and Paul can cite their terminology but develop his own interpretation so that it refers to gifts given by the Spirit to all Christians. (1 Corinthians, BECNT, 563)

For all these reasons, I believe πνευματικῶν should be translated “the ‘spiritual ones,’” with scare quotes and a Pauline wink and a nod. Perhaps, “spiritual gifts” could be retained, understanding Paul to be saying: “Now concerning the spiritual gifts in your church, bless their hearts.” But for simplicity sake, the ‘spiritual ones’ seems best.

2. ‘Gentiles’ Are No Longer Gentiles (v. 2)

In 1 Corinthians 12:2 Paul speaks of the former idolaters who have now come to join the community of faith in Corinth. Most translate ἔθνη as “pagans” (ESV, NASB, NIV,CSB), but a few (KJV and NKJV) translate the word more literally, as “Gentiles.” The significance of this, I believe, is twofold. First, the translation “pagan” rightly captures the waywardness of the nations (ἔθνη). As Ephesians 4:17 indicates, “futility of mind” is the normal condition of all the nations. Until Christ the nations were outside of the covenant, without hope and without God in the world (Eph 2:11–13). Throughout Paul’s letters, he contrasts the Jews and the Gentiles, as he does in 1 Corinthians 1:23: “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles (ἔθνος).” Thus, Paul is addressing the non-Jews who previously sought idols, as was and is the custom of every Gentile left to his own devices (cf. Romans 1:18–32).

The second observation builds on the first. That Paul puts “the Gentiles” in the past tense makes a strange but significant point: those who were led to idols as Gentiles are no longer such. In other words, though the Corinthians did not have to change their “passport” when they came to Christ, their national identity most certainly changed. As Paul makes a threefold command regarding Jews, Gentiles, and the church in 1 Corinthians 10:32 (“Give no offense [1] to Jews or [2] to Greeks or [3] to the church of God”) we can see the same threefold truth emerging here. Gentile believers are no longer “Gentile” in their identification. Rather, they with the Jews who bless Jesus (and do not curse him, see v. 3), make up a third kind of humanity—a people defined by their new creation in Christ.

Therefore, whether you translate ἔθνη “Gentiles” or “pagans” do not miss the significance: the redeemed of the nations are no longer Corinthian, Roman, European, Asian, or American first. Those in Christ are first of all Christian, and this has massive implications on understanding our unity in Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

3. A God-Worked Work Manifesting Itself in Particular Works of Power (vv. 6a, 6b, 10)

Without making too much of differing translation of the same root word, it is important to note in 1 Corinthians 12 that “activities” and “empowers” and “working” are more than conceptually connected; they lexically related. That is, they all share the same root word.

  1. and there are varieties of activities (ἐνεργημάτων) (v. 6a)
  2. but it is the same God who empowers (ἐνεργῶν) them all in everyone (v. 6b)
  3. to another the working (ἐνεργήματα) of miracles (v. 10)

How are we to understand this repetition?

In the same context, Paul uses the same root three times—twice as a noun (#1 and #3), once a participle (#2). As to the noun, BDAG defines ἐνέργημα as an “activity as expression of capability.”[1] Likewise, Louw & Nida stress the power or effort involved in the word (42.11). For the verb, BDAG defines the transitive use of ἐνεργέω as bringing “something about through use of capability, work, produce, effect.”[2] Similarly, Louw & Nida focus on the causal power of ἐνεργέω: “to cause to function, to grant the ability to do.”[3] Long story short, the nominal and the verbal use of this root bring out the same point: God is the source of strength to do the spiritual work God requires.

To put it differently, in 1 Corinthians 12:6 and 10, Paul speaks of a variety of God-given works (activities) which are all workable (empowered) because of God works in them. Then, moving from the general to the specific, one manifestation of a God-empowered activity (a God-worked work) is the “working of miracles.” Altogether, I am not suggesting we translate these terms any differently, but that we be aware of their related lexical terminology. Because by noticing the similar wording is adds another reason to see how all gifts come from the work of one God. In this, God’s word protects us from seeing one gift as better than another. Just the opposite, because they all come from God and he empowers them all, they are given to unify the church and serve the common good of Christ’s people, just as Paul says (v. 7).

Soli Deo Gloria, ds


[1] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 335). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 335). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[3] Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: based on semantic domains (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition., Vol. 1, p. 510). New York: United Bible Societies.

2 thoughts on “Understanding the Spiritual Gifts: A Few Translation Notes on 1 Corinthians 12:1–11

  1. Pingback: Holy Spirit Power: The Gift, the Giver, the Goal, and the Gifts (1 Corinthians 12:1–11) | Via Emmaus

  2. Pingback: Is It Finished? Clarity and Conviction about the Miraculous Gifts (1 Corinthians 12–14) | Via Emmaus

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