Gifted Character

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” But Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Matthew 14:13-21 (ESV)

It’s interesting how the events unfold in the narrative of Matthew. Chapter 14 begins with the death of John the Baptist, then leads into one of the most well-known miracles Jesus performed. Matthew tells us Jesus fed five thousand men, besides woman and children. If each man had one wife and each wife one child, the number gets closer to fifteen thousand. We can’t know the exact number, but we know for certain the total number of people fed was more than five thousand.

I’m not sure which is the bigger miracle in this passage: feeding thousands or the logistics involved in feeding thousands. Jesus had the people sit and the disciples gave the food to them1. A single verse encapsulates what I would think is a logistical nightmare, yet there’s no mention of any challenges.

The more important aspect of this event is not in the miracle itself, but in how the miracle came about. Jesus just learned that John the Baptist had died; He was clearly impacted by the news as the Bible tells us He left to be alone2. Jesus would not only have been thinking about the loss of a family member and friend, but John’s death also signified Jesus’ own death was approaching. Despite His desire to be alone the crowds followed Him; Jesus’ reaction was not one of disappointment or frustration, instead the Bible tells us He had compassion on them. Matthew shares first Jesus’ character, then Jesus’ miracle.

Fast-forward to Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth and we can see something similar.

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

1 Corinthians 12:1, 4-7 (ESV)

Paul wanted those in Corinth to know that the gifts are for the common good. In other words, the gifts are not so the person with the gift can benefit, but so that others can benefit (this seems to suggest that the person with the gift gains very little, if anything, from his or her gift).

And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts.

1 Corinthians 12:28-31 (ESV)

Paul understood that there are different gifts and that each gift has an appropriate place. (We can also see that there are gifts of helping and administration, which no doubt came in handy for the disciples distributing food to thousands of hungry people.) He encouraged the Corinthians to earnestly desire the higher gifts but it’s important to remember that he’s not addressing individuals in the church, he’s addressing the church as a whole. A few versus prior he described each individual in the church as a part of a body that together makes a whole person—the church. It is the entire church community that should desire the greater gifts. This is also why the gifts are for the common good, because the hand doesn’t serve itself, it serves the body as a whole.

In 1 Corinthians 12:7 Paul describes the manifestation of the Spirit. Notice he did not say that each person is given a manifestation of the Spirit. The different gifts are each a single manifestation of the same Spirit. It’s no different than looking at an object from different points of view. Each point of view, put together, gives complete picture of the object. Each person models the same Spirit from a different perspective and therefore gives a complete picture of the Spirit. It is the Spirit of God that enables a person to contribute uniquely to others, the person contributing is no more spiritual than the next simply because of how or what they contribute. In fact, the level of spirituality a person has can’t be measured by their contribution because it’s God who decides who can do what3. The Corinthians struggled with this. They incorrectly assumed that how they were being used by God was a measure of their individual spirituality, missing entirely the fact that their role was largely incidental.

Paul goes on to explain that the measure of spirituality for a follower of Christ pivots around a single thing:

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13:8-13 (ESV)

Paul tells us that love never ends, contrasting with everything else he mentions that will end. A time is going to come when we simply won’t need the gifts of the Spirit shared in 1 Corinthians 12, but we’ll always need love. Love is the one thing that transcends the gifts. It’s God’s modus operandi4. Love, also, isn’t so much a gift of the Spirit as it is a fruit of the Spirit.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

Galatians 5:22-23 (ESV)

Love isn’t a talent or gift. Love is a character trait. And it’s the trait that Matthew highlights when he narrates Jesus feeding thousands. Jesus’ modus operandi was love. (You could even say the totality of the fruit of the Spirit is the character of Jesus.) Love is somewhat ineffable—it’s difficult to characterize or quantify. Paul injects chapter 13 in the middle of explaining to the Corinthians effective use of gifts; it’s not a coincidence or accident. To Paul it was important that people understand what ought to be the motivating factor when contributing one’s gift(s) to others—love needs to be everyone’s modus operandi. Love considers the person or persons, tries to understand, then responds in a constructive way. This doesn’t just apply within the confines of the church community, it applies everywhere, to everyone. Jesus never limited His love nor put bounds on the Spirit of God working through Him5.

The Corinthians had it wrong. They were focusing on gifts, but that isn’t the focus. I think it’s easy to miss the distinction Paul makes between a person’s character (greatest of these is love) and how God operates through a person (to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit). Jesus never focused on the gifts. Jesus lived a life of character; that should be our focus, too—the fruit of the Spirit versus the gifts of the Spirit.

Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.

1 Corinthians 14:1 (ESV)

This versus admonishes us to pursue love but desire spiritual gifts. The language here leads me to believe that love is the thing we must attain, while spiritual gifts are the thing that would be nice to have. I think where the confusion lies is that Jesus is known for doing a lot of miracles, so we tend to place the focus there: on super-natural miracles or natural gifts and talents. Because love hard to quantify it’s easier for us to see what Jesus did rather than why He did it.

  1. Matthew 14:19 

  2. Matthew 14:13 

  3. 1 Corinthians 12:11 

  4. John 3:16; Matthew 22:37-39 

  5. Matthew 15:26-28