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Why did the NT authors not define/describe spiritual gifts in detail?

Posted by on Jul 25, 2012 in scripture, spiritual gifts | 15 comments

Why did the NT authors not define/describe spiritual gifts in detail?

I’ve never published two separate blog series at the same time. But, that’s what seems to be happening this week… although by accident.

Yesterday, I asked if you would be willing to describe/define what you think the NT authors meant by the spiritual gifts / spiritually gifted persons that they called apostles, prophets, evangelists, etc. (See my post “”) I once read a commentary on Ephesians in which the author of the commentary spent twelve pages (yes, 12 pages) defining each of the spiritual gifts listed in Ephesians 4:11. (That’s over 2 pages per word that Paul used to describe the spiritual gifted individuals.)

My good friend Art left several good comments on that post (that I link to above). But, I want to point out these statements in particular:

I still can’t find enough in scripture to distinguish too neatly between apostles, prophets, and evangelists. I once thought I did, and had pages in support of the differentiation. But it all hinges (as far as I’ve been able to piece together) on too small a thread in scripture.

Maybe God didn’t have in mind that we create neat definitions for each “gift” of the Spirit, administration of the Lord, and operation from God.

I’ve reached a similar conclusion in the past. The authors of Scripture used terms such as “apostle,” “prophet,” “evangelist,” etc. but they never defined those terms for their readers. They never told them exactly what those spiritually gifted people did or did not do as it related to those terms.

Why do you think the authors of the New Testament chose not to define what they meant by those terms as they related to spiritual gifts and spiritually gifted people?


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 7-25-2012

    It isn’t only the gifts that aren’t presented in textbook’s the entirety of the kingdom of God that is hidden from the learned but revealed to babes.Few words are needed to explain an experience or person that a reader or listener is intimately acquainted with. But libraries can’t help someone understand what only personal revelation can. It probably didn’t occur to the N.T. writers that future generations of converts with a primarily Greek pedagogy would spend centuries killing and butchering one another and the gospel itself as they tried to fit heaven into their respective little theological boxes.

  2. 7-25-2012


    I agree that there are many aspects of our life in Christ that is not “spelled out” in Scripture the way that many would like it to be. I think there’s a reason for that, a reason that is related to the question about spiritual gifts. But, like you said, even without things being spelled out, we still like to spell them out, then hold people accountable to our interpretations.


  3. 7-25-2012

    Maybe what is abundantly described about the work they do collectively is all we need to fulfill these roles today? Here’s an outline of some activity:

    Paul and other team members (apologies for formatting)

    The Galatian Churches:

    • Three churches planted in an average of four months each
    • Left largely on their own after that for months—without any
    leadership in place
    • Local leadership teams emerged from within the startup churches
    • Pastors were recognized within six months of their salvation, on

    Further, consider this:

    • Paul is planting multiple churches regionally
    • The key church planter was in poor physical health, and the team
    left the area altogether within one year
    • New churches functioned independently (and indigenously) in less
    than a year

    The Macedonian Churches

    • Three churches planted in an average of two to four months each
    • The newly planted churches are left on their own for a time
    without recognized leadership
    • They function on their own in a relatively short period of time
    (months rather than years)

    Also note:

    • Paul was functioning bivocationally
    • Whole households were being converted, not just individuals
    • Paul is planting multiple churches regionally
    • Paul invites Timothy, who was already functioning itinerantly
    between Lystra and Iconium, to join the band of itinerants

    The Churches of Asia

    • While Paul follows up with a series of letters, he does not
    return again for three or four years (Acts 20:2).
    • While Paul stayed in Corinth for 18 months, it is likely that
    several churches were planted in the region
    • In a relatively short period of time, these churches are able to
    stand on their own
    • The church planters leave the region after the church is planted

    Also note:

    • Paul is planting multiple churches regionally, this time from a
    base camp in Corinth (we will see this repeated in Ephesus)
    • Paul was functioning bivocationally
    • Whole households were being converted, not just individuals
    • Paul enlists additional workers from among the new churches

    The itinerant work of Timothy:

    • Acts 16:1-4 Paul finds Timothy in Lystra (who was already
    functioning among two congregations and recommended by both–
    latent itinerant!), and Timothy begins teaching believers with
    Paul there. (52AD?)
    • Acts 17:14 Timothy in Berea (53AD?)
    • Acts 17:15 (see I THess 3:1,2) Timothy in Athens, establishing believers (54AD?)
    • I Cor 16:10 Timothy in Corinth teaching (59AD?)
    • Phil 2:19 Timothy in Philippi serving believers (64AD?)
    • I Thess 3:2 Timothy in Thessalonica, establishing believers
    • I Tim 1:3 Ephesus (65AD?) teaching elders

    The itinerant work of Titus:

    • II Cor 7:6,7 In Macedonia, comforting Paul
    • II Cor 7:13,14 in Corinth, Comforting and carrying a message from
    • Gal 2:1 in Jerusalem
    • II Tim 4:10 in Dalmatia
    • Titus 1:4,5 in Crete ordaining elders
    • Titus job in Titus 1:5 is temporary—see Titus 3:12

    We could add to these the fragments of so many others, including several women, to get a pretty clear picture of the extent of itinerant ministry and the sorts of things they did.

    You can see this fleshed out a bit more at:

  4. 7-25-2012

    I have assumed that it is really not something that we are to be too concerned about. Yes, they are spelled out as functions in the ekklesia of that time. Are they still operative today? Apostles would be the only one likely not applicable, as far as I know.

  5. 7-25-2012


    “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”.

    Far too often the Giver of the gift is neglected, and the gift regarded as a position of personal status, which becomes the focus of attention.

    The casualty is that “the common good” is then as neglected as the Giver.

  6. 7-25-2012


    I was hoping for a chart or graph… 🙂

    Seriously, I think you did a good job of describing how God used Paul and some of those traveling with him.


    I think you may be on to something. Except, I don’t see any evidence for apostles disappearing.

    Aussie John,

    What? You mean God and serving others (regardless of HOW we serve others) may be more important that our function? 😉


  7. 7-25-2012

    Haha, Alan, I have been working on an interactive chart on and off for awhile. Keep running out of money or time.

    Check it out:

  8. 7-25-2012

    I think that perhaps for the same reason that I believe the structure and organization of the church was never clearly found. Had that been done, then we would have taken what was said and used it to build a rigid hierarchy. The church is not a structure, but an organism, and as such can not have a rigid structure, but must be able to grow and change as needed.

    As it is, we have done a pretty good job of it anyway, turning such terms as apostle, prophet, evangelist etc. into titles instead of job descriptions. In some cases, prohibiting anyone not “officially” ordained into said offices from functioning or acting in any way that might be construed as being a role of that office.

    My feeling is that the terms are mostly job descriptions, rather than titles. For example, I function in the role of pastor/teacher at this time. It is my role, not an office. That does not make me a leader, although at times I lead. Nor do I call myself pastor, or expect anyone else to do so. God has called me that and placed me in that role, so until He calls me something else, and gives me a new assignment, that is what I do.

    We are admonished in the Word, not to assign titles, or lift one higher than another. We are told we are all a part of the body each one needed and each one equally important. If we keep that in mind, and treat one another accordingly, the rest of the stuff will sort itself out.

  9. 7-25-2012

    Another thought that just occurred to me. The Ephesians 4 gifts (along with all the others) should be extant in every local body. They are all essential to the growth and healthy functioning of the church both locally as well as the church universal.

  10. 7-25-2012

    Thank you, Art, and your other commenters for focusing attention on serving and glorifying God rather than on the gifts themselves. If we’re concentrating on our God-given mission, I trust that He will equip us to accomplish that mission as He sees fit. Should we really split hairs over whether He has given us the gift of prophecy, teaching, or evangelism (for example)?

  11. 7-26-2012


    Thanks for the link to the graphic. I feel better now. 🙂


    I agree. In fact, I don’t think any of the spiritual gift lists were intended to nail down or specify certain gifts. I think they were all examples or samples of how God has worked through people. He can still work in those ways – whatever that is and whatever that looks like. He could also work in other ways.


    Yes, exactly. The point of each list is summarized just before the list, when the author writes something like this: grace is given by God to everyone differently for the purpose of serving others.


  12. 7-27-2012

    I’ve taught Spiritual Gifts for about 15 years, and I have to agree that the longer I study, the more I believe God gave us flexibility in the specifics of the gifts.

    The point is that we are made with certain giftings of the spirit, and we need to know what ours are, recognize them in others, and put them to work.

    Too often we theologians make it way too complicated. Jesus managed to reduce all the law and prophets to two sentences. We should pay attention to that!


  13. 7-27-2012


    Thanks for adding to this discussion. I’ve seen too many examples where people did not know how to serve others because they were not “gifted” in the way that their favorite leaders or writers defined those gifts. My goal is to encourage every follower of Jesus to begin serving (washing feet) and allowing him to direct how that looks. Like you said, we’ve made it way too complicated!


  14. 7-30-2012

    Art definitely out did anything I would have offered, but my thought is the men and women we experience in the New Testament are living examples of APEST. We see by the things they did and the activities they participated in, what the different giftings represent. And, probably throughout history, we see the same with different characters in church history.

  15. 7-30-2012


    I think that we see living examples of many different spiritual gifts in the New Testament – apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, teachers, but also servants, tongues speakers, miracle workers, etc. And, I agree that we can see these different giftings in the lives of people throughout history.