To my reading, 1 Corinthians 12:4-30 could be summed up as: "Be content with the gifts/role God has given you because in his sight all the functions of the body of Christ are of equal importance".

Why then does the chapter end with:

But earnestly desire the higher gifts.  1 Cor 12:31, ESV

Which Paul goes on to restate at the beginning of chapter 14:

Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy  1 Cor 14:1, ESV

Given the principle of letting scripture interpret scripture, how should we interpret chapter 12 in a way that does not let Paul contradict himself

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    ζηλοῦτε in 12:31 could be translated as an indicative. I suggest that should be thought through as a possibility, although the occurrences in 14:1, 39 appear to be rightly rendered as imperatives. Jun 12, 2013 at 13:21

5 Answers 5


The passage ends as follows:

But earnestly desire the higher gifts.

And I will show you a still more excellent way.

It might be stating, retrospectively, that contentment with one's spiritual gift/s is an "excellent way" and that the very cultivation of this contentment will in itself lead to higher gifts or fruits, such as:

...the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Galatians 5:22-23

Similar to the statement of Jesus:

For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. Matthew 16:25

  • Hadn't thought of that — but it is satisfying and coherent, thank you. Jan 16, 2017 at 10:09

It's quite possible that by "the greater gifts" he means faith, hope, and love, which he discusses next, especially since he ends that discussion with the same word "greatest".

Regardless, in chapter 14, he clearly considers prophesy "greater" (verse 5) than tongues. Therefore, one must modify one's understanding of chapter 12, from "all the functions are equal" to "all the functions are allotted, proper, and honorable". It is not on the basis of equality that various gifts are to be honored; indeed, honor has much more to do with inequality. The less respectable parts of the body receive more honor. The point is not lack of dissension through homogeneity but through a diversity ordained by the Spirit.

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    so v17 is not do be taken as a discouragement from pursuing a change of function? aside: it is interesting why prophesy is greater the tongues, ie because it is more 'loving' (builds up the church not just the self) unless there is interpretation. In other words love is still paramount (cf 13:2) Oct 5, 2011 at 17:35

The Corinthians had a huge problem with being self-seeking, self-serving, self-exalting. The book of 1 Corinthians is one big long exhortation to them to stop being selfish and start loving each other.

  • In Chapter 12 that means: stop exalting yourself and your "amazing spiritual gifts" and start valuing the unique, important place that God has given to every member of the body.

  • In Chapter 13 that means: all of your "amazing spiritual gifts" that you boast so much about are all worthless if you're not loving one another

  • In Chapter 14 that means: as you are putting your attention toward loving each other, pursue the spiritual gifts, which edify others, and stop putting so much focus on "edifying" yourself at everyone else's expense!

The Corinthian church had a huge problem. Everyone was seeking his own edification and his own glory. They loved to revel in their "spirituality" by making a big show of their "amazing spiritual gift" of speaking in tongues, even though they were doing zilch to build up the body of Christ. They were totally missing the point of spiritual gifts (including tongues!): to build up the body of Christ in love.

So, the "greater gifts" are those that allow you to serve others in love. Prophecy is thus a "greater gift" than tongues -- unless there is also an interpreter, so that the body of Christ may be edified.


The Holy Spirit distributes spiritual gifts according to his own will (1 Cor 12:11 and Heb 2:4). That is, the distribution is the unilateral decision of God (1 Cor 12:18). When Paul advocates that the Corinthians "earnestly desire the greater gifts" (1 Cor 12:31) he not referring to the "what", but to the "how". For example in Romans we see the the contrast between the what and how.

Romans 1:11-12 (NASB)
11 For I long to see you so that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established; 12 that is, that I may be encouraged together with you while among you, each of us by the other’s faith, both yours and mine.

Paul is not talking imparting the "what" (spiritual gifts) to them, but the "how". That is, by exercising spiritual gifts for edification (in love), we are able to "gift" the blessing of our spiritual gift(s) to others.

In other words, he loves the believers in Rome and wants to edify them through the exercise of his spiritual gifts (and likewise them with him) so that they would all be encouraged together.

Again in the first epistle to the Thessalonians we see the same.

1 Thessalonians 3:9-10 (NASB)
9 For what thanks can we render to God for you in return for all the joy with which we rejoice before our God on your account, 10 as we night and day keep praying most earnestly that we may see your face, and may complete what is lacking in your faith?

We pass the "gift" of blessing to others for their edification, when we exercise our spiritual gifts in love. These are the so-called "greater gifts" that Paul is talking about in 1 Cor 12:31. He is not talking about the "what" (gifts unilaterally given to us by the Holy Spirit), but the "how" (the use of those same gifts to "gift" the blessing of edification to others in love). It is this latter type of "gift" that we should earnestly seek to desire, so that we may selflessly give it to others.


It's possible Paul is encouraging the Corinthian church as a whole, rather than individually, to desire the greater gifts. In other words, to desire, pray for, and seek individuals with prophetic and teaching gifts. Lord, raise up someone among us with the gift of prophecy.


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