7

And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues.

1 Corinthians 12:28 NIV

Does the order in which Paul lists these ministerial gifts ("first...second...third...etc.) have any significance? Is there Scriptural support for them being listed in order of importance to the church, or another such order, or is the order insignificant?

  • Apostles, prophets, and teachers spread and explain the faith, without which there is no salvation, so they come first, since their ministry is absolutely necessary. – Lucian Jan 2 '19 at 23:57
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I think we must suppose that Paul did not choose his words here carelessly. "The terms 'first' and 'second' are not used by him here at random," wrote John Chrysostom (349-407)1. He clearly is enumerating the ministries in some rank and the Greek text clearly reflects this (protos, deuteros, tritos, ...).

Regarding the overall sequence, Paul lists those who speak in tongues last because of the Corinthian's peculiar fascination with the practice (ch 14). "The order goes from higher to the lower, and quite deliberately," writes Chrysostom, "because the Corinithians were in the habit of putting speaking in tongues at the top of the list."2

Ambrosiaster, a psuedonymous 4th century commentator on Paul's Epistles, explained the order as follows:

Paul has placed the apostles at the head of the church. They may be identified with bishops, as Peter said of Judas: Let another take his bishopric3 There are two types of prophets, those who predict the future and those who interpret the Scriptures. The apostles are also prophets, because the top rank has all the others subordinated to it. Even a wicked man like Caiaphas uttered prophecies on the strength of his rank, not for any virtue he might have possessed.4 Teachers are those who instructed boys in the synagogue, a practice which has come down to us as well.5

Chrysostom explains the order a little differently:

For the terms, first and secondly, are not used by him here at random, but in order by enumeration to point out the more honorable and the inferior. Wherefore also he set the apostles first who had all the gifts in themselves.

Secondly, prophets. For they used to prophesy, as the daughters of Philip, as Agabus, as these very persons among the Corinthians, of whom he saith, Let the prophets speak, two or three.6 And writing also to Timothy, he said, Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy.7 And they were much more many that prophesied. And if Christ saith, The Law and the Prophets prophesied until John,8 He saith it of those prophets who before proclaimed His coming.

Thirdly, teachers. For he that prophesieth speaks all things from the Spirit; but he that teacheth sometimes discourses also out of his own mind. Wherefore also he said, Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and in teaching:9 whereas he that speaks all things by the Spirit doth not labor. This accordingly is the reason why he set him after the prophet, because the one is wholly a gift but the other is also man’s labor. For he speaks many things of his own mind, agreeing however with the sacred Scriptures.

Then miracles, then gifts of healings. Seest thou how he again divides the healings from the power, which also he did before. For the power is more than the healing: since he that hath power both punishes and heals, but he that hath the gift of healings doeth cures only. And observe how excellent the order he made use of, when he set the prophecy before the miracles and the healings. For above when he said, To one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom, and to another the word of knowledge, he spake, not setting them in order, but indifferently. Here, on the other hand, he sets a first and a second rank. Wherefore then doth he set prophecy first? Because even in the old covenant the matter has this order. For example, when Isaiah was discoursing with the Jews10, and exhibiting a demonstration of the power of God, and bringing forward the evidence of the worthlessness of the demons, he stated this also as the greater evidence of his divinity, his foretelling things to come.11


1. Homily XXXII on First Corinthians
2. Ibid.
3. Acts 1:20
4. John 11:49-51
5. Commentary on Paul's Epistles
6. 1 Corinthians 14:29
7. 1 Timothy 4:14
8. Mathew 11:13
9. 1 Timothy 5:17
10. Isaiah 41:22-23
11. Op. cit.

  • Is your point that Paul's point is that tongues is less important than the others and that they should seek the other gifts in the order given? IE: "Seek to be apostles since that is the best gift"? – Ruminator Apr 29 '18 at 12:40
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Paul's Use of Chiasms
In his paper, The Presence of Chiasmus in the New Testament, Nils W. Lund states Paul made extensive use of chiasms:

My own investigation in this field, begun in 1908, had by 1918 carried me into Ephesians, Colossians, and First Corinthians. In all three writings and in many passages I had found extensive structures of a chiastic order. (p. 78)

Given this element of Paul's writing, especially in First Corinthians, the passage in question should be examined to see if a chiastic order was used:

    Gifts - 1 Corinthians 12:28
A Apostle  <----> A' Different languages
B Prophet  <----> B' Guidances
C Teacher  <----> C' Helpings/assistances   
D Miracles <----> D' Healings

While seeming to lack a unique central point, the characteristic parallelism of chiastic order is present which Lund states can be a valuable aid to interpretation:

It should not be necessary to argue for the value of chiasmus as an aid to the interpretation of the epistles of Paul... (p. 90)

Lund does not specifically examine this verse but he does give two examples which are relevant. The first involves the words ἰαμάτων (healings) and δυνάμεις (powers) found in 12:9-10 and 12:28-29, which Lund notes (p. 86) have been arranged inversely within the chapter for the purpose of knitting them together:

This inversion of ideas serves as a device to knit together related sections. It is found in several more extensive structures in which the counter parts are found widely apart in the text. 5
5. 1 Cor. 12:9, 10 with v.28, 29: "healings" and "powers."

The passages cited are:

9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. [ESV]

28 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. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?

The chiastic pairing of miracles and healings in the church is first stated as present in individuals. Besides healings and powers, these sections share γλωσσῶν (tongues) and antithetically προφητεία (prophecy) which is absent from prophets in 12:28. Since Paul connected these sections, the understanding of 12:28 should be in harmony with 12:9-10 and 12:29.

Another example comes in how Paul used the chiastic structure to begin the discussion of gifts which expresses "...the general idea of unity and diversity with the Christian church." 1

   For as the body is one
      and hath many members,
A        and all members of the body,
      being many
   are one body.

    so also Christ.

   For even in one Spirit we all into one body were baptized
      whether Jews
      or Greeks,
B     whether bond
      or free;
   and were all of one Spirit made to drink.

A key point of the chapter is the necessity to have all gifts in the church in order for the body to be complete. The church is a place of diverse individual gifts which aggregate to a body with all gifts.

First, second, third... The temporal sequence of building the Church
Many commentators believe the first three are listed in order of importance, or hierarchy. However, this is at odds with the purpose of the chapter which is to show the diversity of gifts is needed to make a whole body: in that context, no one gift has greater value than another.

In his commentary, Richard B. Hays recognizes a temporal order may be intended:

The numbering of the first three items (apostles, prophets, and teachers) may indicate a certain hierarchy of authority (cf. Eph. 4:11), but it may also indicate something about the temporal order in which these gifts come into play in the construction of the Christian community: the itinerant apostle comes first and founds the church, while prophets and teachers follow to continue the work of construction and instructing the community. Just this sort of sequence has been described already in 3:5-14...Certainly the other items in the rest of the list (miracles, gifts of healing, assistance, direction, tongues) are not arranged in any hierarchical order.2

The first three items describe the sequence of establishing the church at Corinth and is consistent with how Paul describes his work at Corinth and God's actions in the church (12:28):

And God has appointed (ἔθετο) in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues. (NASB)

By the grace God has given me, I laid (ἔθηκα) a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. (3:10 NIV)

Interpreting the verse as itemizing the order the church at Corinth was established (which would be the same sequence elsewhere) fits the overall message and eliminates the confusion inherent in the hierarchical order, since apostles were also prophets and teachers.3 Finally, this explains Paul's varied use of the verb τίθημι. When speaking of his work (3:10), Paul states he ἔθηκα using the active voice; when speaking of God's work (12:28) Paul uses ἔθετο, the middle voice, meaning God is acting upon Himself or for His own benefit.

Services, Workings, Gifts
The chapter begins by identifying services, workings and gifts:

Now there are varieties of gifts (χαρισμάτων), but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service (διακονιῶν), but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities (ἐνεργημάτων), but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. (12:4-6 ESV)

These categories are found in 12:28:

Services: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers...
Workings (activities): ...then (ἔπειτα) miracles (or powers/forces)...
Gifts: ...then (εἶτα) gifts healings, helpings/assistances, guidances, different languages

"Then miracles" (ἔπειτα δυνάμεις) which follows first, second, third, is not fourth (as expected). The final step in the sequence is "εἶτα gifts" after which four specific gifts have been appended asyndetically.4 Now εἶτα can mean furthermore (Hebrews 12:9) which would interrupt the temporal flow to give the passage a unique separate thought:

First apostles, second prophets, third teachers (services)
    then powers (workings)
       furthermore gifts
    healings 
helpings, guidances, different languages

Services and workings are separated by the absence of individuals indicating a shift to the collective. Thus services are done by those with gifts specific to build the church after which the church itself continues to be built with powers. The description is both linear, first, second, third (services by individuals) and dynamic, the church with workings.

The interpretation of the verse is along this line:

God has built the church for His benefit with gifts:
first [the service of] apostles and different languages
second [the service of] prophets and guidances
third [the service of] teachers and helpings/assistances
then [the church has workings of] miracles/powers and healings.

Apostles, prophets, and teachers with the right gift are gifts, specifically for establishing the church, which, when established as a complete body, is itself a gift working healings. This reflects the dynamic nature of the body of Christ which is built by God with and for individuals:

26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. 27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (12:26-27 ESV)

Prophets/Guidances
Any interpretation should account for pairing prophets with the gift of guidances and, since by definition a prophet must have the gift of prophecy, the deliberate omission of that gift from the list.

The absence of prophecy reinforces the importance of the sequential nature of specific gifts used to build the church while diminishing the significance of the gift of prophecy. That is, God built the church second with prophets and guidances who also had the gift of prophecy which was not named in building the church. Guidances is κυβέρνησις so the emphasis is away from the primacy of foretelling or prophesizing events. Instead, this gift is the giving of specific guidance to the church in preparation for, or as a result of an event.

The only NT use of κυβέρνησις is in this passage but it is found 4 times in the LXX, all in Proverbs (1:5, 11:14, 20:18, 24:6). Since Paul has used a word found in only Proverbs, the implication is the Corinthians knew the scroll of Proverbs.5 The prophet's gift then functions during both normal and extraordinary times. In other words, the prophet provides guidance(s) in both normal conditions (follow Proverbs) and the unusual (take exceptional action). Or, conversely, act normally despite the extraordinary or take unusual action despite the normal circumstances. That is, the church is built by the service of a prophet who guides the right response under all conditions.

Powers/Healings
The fourth item listed, δύναμις (miracles) is a working and is paired with ἰαμάτων (healings), which Lund observes have been arranged chiastically in the chapter:

Miracles                                       Healings
A to another the workings of miracles (12:10)  A to another gifts of healings (12:9)
  X then miracles (12:28)                        X then gifts healings (12:28)
A' Do all work miracles? (12:29)               A' Do all possess gifts of healings? (12:30)

With both words the first (A) and last (A') relate specifically to individuals, but the center (X) does not. The shift to a corporate or collective sense at 12:28 is more apparent when it is considered as following (individuals in services as) first apostles, second prophets, third teachers... In other words, ..."then miracles...", is workings of the church. Thus the understanding at 12:28 is powers of the church build the church. That is, the established church continues to be built by a working of power which is sometimes manifested by individuals who work miracles. Paul's nuance is, yes individuals work miracles but these are just a part of the workings of the church, which continues to build the church.

As Lund notes, the chiastic arrangement aids in interpreting the passage as Paul acknowledges some individuals (in the church) work miracles, but the church itself is a miracle working entity. At the time Paul wrote the church was an insignificant organization, yet the church would go on to impact the world and shape history.


Notes:
1. Nils W. Lund, The Presence of Chiasmus in the New Testament, The Journal of Religion, Vol. 10, No.1 (Jan 1930), p. 80-81
2. Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, John Knox Press, 1997, p. 217
3. Paul was both apostle and teacher, another reason the sequence cannot be hierarchical. If an apostle is first and teacher third, then anyone like Paul who is both apostle and teacher must be better than one who is only an apostle and the passage makes little sense. On the other hand, first Paul preached Christ crucified to the Corinthians; then he taught those who believed.
4. Meyer's New Testament Commentary
5. The gift paired with teachers, ἀντίλημψις like guidances is only used here in the NT but is used in the LXX, 6 times all in Psalms, notably Psalm 22.

0

As I read it, the gifts he lists are those that are most publicly honored and they are listed in order by their celebrity, greatest to least. https://www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/celebrated

Paul is saying that the Assembly does, by God's design have celebrities but he explains what God's intention is concerning these within the Assembly, aka the "body" of Christ. He explains that just as in the physical body it is the eyes, mouth and hands that get all of the attention so the apostles and healers etc. are highly visible, admired and celebrated. Attention rarely is given to one's feet or kidneys. However, just as the feet and kidneys are indispensable to the body so are all of the members.

This segues into, "Yes, get all excited about these highly visible and magnificent gifts but let me show you the mature way to view the gifts":

ESV 1 Cor 12: 29Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31But earnestly desire [be excited about] the higher [celebrated] gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way...

0

"If the plain sense makes good sense, do not look for any other sense."

The first three in the list are men ministering in the Church. The rest of the list are the spiritual gifts they are given to fulfill their offices. It seems to me that to make this a descending list of significant to less significant is to totally miss the point of the whole context of the chapter. The "best gifts" in vs. 31 has to lead us to choose to edify the Church:

1 Corinthians 14:12 Even so ye, forasmuch as ye are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek that ye may excel to the edifying of the church.

This is followed well by Chapter 13 where charity is the noble spiritual self-discipline to use in edifying the Church. The order in vs 28 appears to me to be purely structural as to the function of church life. Anything else is desperate spiritualizing.

-2

That's an excellent question. I'd say of a certainty the order is of great significance while simultaneously not at all Paul's point.

"But ye covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet show I unto you a more excellent way." verse 31

The significance of Paul's order is that the Corinthian's error was division (1 Corinthians 1:10)

Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.

Though that was not part of there questions for Paul, that's what he addresses. So he lists apostolous (ἀποστόλους) apostles, as being placed first. This is to be sent out or spread out by Jesus. Thus he's saying, the greatest gift is spreading The Gospel, all others are secondary.

This is why earlier in this same epistle we have this incredible proclamation from Paul;

"For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified." 1 Corinthians 2:2

The order of gifts is simply practical perfection, beginning first with the point of the gifts which is the spreading of The Gospel.

I hope this was of some benefit. God bless.

  • 1
    (-1) There's no evidence of careful exegesis in this answer - it reads like ready-built theology backed by a favourite translation. 1) Many other translations render that first half of 12:31 as an instruction to desire the greater gifts. 2) "The greatest gift is spreading the Gospel" and "the point of the gifts... is the spreading of the Gospel" need much more support than you've given them, especially in light of 14:3, 14:12, 14:26 etc which emphasise that spiritual gifts are for the building up of the church. Your conclusions may be good - but please show your working if you can. – Steve Taylor Apr 14 '17 at 8:07
  • @Steve Taylor, I'm happy to edit my answer. But I want to fully understand building up of the church and spreading the Gospel are not different to me. Building up the church is the adding to the body of Christ, I am unclear on how you see those being in conflict. Second, I do not see the Greek rendering 12:31 as instruction. I agree translations can appear that way but even they are not conclusive. Thoughts? Thank you my friend. – N.Ish Apr 14 '17 at 15:41
  • Thanks! To me, the two are near opposites - where spreading of the Gospel is primarily an action towards those outside of the church, and "building up the church" is an action towards those inside, though there is a little natural overlap. The spiritual gifts listed in the NT are for the building up and edification of brothers and sisters, which 1 Cor 14:26 is perhaps the most explicit about, as it says they occur "when you come together..." The verb "be desirous of..." in 12:31 is a present imperative, so instruction seems fairly natural to me :) – Steve Taylor Apr 17 '17 at 7:35
  • @Steve Taylor, I agree that's logical. Let me have a look. I have a little hesitation in thinking building up the church is interior edification only. But it very well may be. – N.Ish Apr 17 '17 at 15:54
  • Is Paul saying "first in importance" or "first in time"? – Ruminator Aug 29 '17 at 16:04

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