The Best Gifts
1 Corinthians 12:28-31
And God has set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings…

We begin in order with the counsel or exhortation, "Covet earnestly," etc. Wherein again we have three particulars more. Thus I say are all those abilities which any in any kind whatsoever, or to any purpose, are endowed withal. This it is thus far useful to us, as it serves to engender all meekness and humility in us. So likewise further it holds well for the improvement and exercise of these gifts which God hath given us, that we be no niggards or restrainers of them, but good stewards of the manifold grace of God. "Freely ye have received, freely give." The dignity and excellency of them may be briefly laid forth unto us in three particulars: First, from their original and conveyance, when we shall consider how we come by them, and how they are indeed transmitted unto us. Now if there were no more but this in it, there were very good reason certainly why we should a little look after them. But secondly, that's not all, there's a further ground for our embracing them besides, and that is by considering them substantially, what they are in their own nature, and that impression which they leave upon the subject in which they are: these gifts if we do but consider them in themselves, they are very amiable and lovely, and so make those persons further to be who are endowed with them. They are special ornaments and beautifyings to them. Thirdly, and especially for their use and improvement and those gracious ends which they lead unto. So much therefore now for that, viz., the first particular considerable in this first general, and that is the object propounded, "gifts." The second is the qualification of this object by way of comparison or distinction, and that is the best or better gifts. First, for that which is implied, there are some gifts which are better than others. Consider wherein this distinction does consist, namely, in what respect some gifts are said to be better than others. First, gifts sometimes are counted better as they are anything more rare and unusual. Those which can do somewhat which few else can do besides, they do from hence for the most part esteem themselves. Thus it is with some scholars, just as it is with some books which have a price set upon them more from their scarcity than from the matter of them or any intrinsical worth which is in them. But this is not such a betterness as the apostle does intend in this place. Secondly, gifts are sometimes counted better as they are more glorious and conspicuous in the eyes of the world; thus there are some which are especially more than others, which have a greater lustre upon them. It is neither those gifts always which are most rare and unusual, nor yet which are most conspicuous and plausible, which are truly the better gifts. Therefore thirdly, to speak home to the point, there are two things especially which the apostle does here mention to us. And gifts may be said to be better in a twofold respect. First, gifts are said to be better intrinsically and materially as considered within their own compass and sphere. But then secondly, gifts are said to be better extrinsically, or extensively in their effects, as they do more communicate and enlarge themselves beyond the subject, in which they are to the good of other men. Thus those are the best gifts which do tend best to edification. The second is that which is expressed, that if there be any gifts which are better than others, those are they which we for our particulars of all others are to apply ourselves to, "Covet earnestly the best gifts." This the apostle here requires, and he does it but upon reasonable considerations. First, that common and general inclination which is in all men in everything else; there is nothing else in any kind whatsoever, which men do at any time desire or look after, but they would have the best of it as near as they can; even there sometimes where worse might serve their turn, and might be good enough for them, their mouths water after that. The best garments, the best houses, the best provisions, the best preferments. Wouldst thou have that which is good, and be the worst of all thyself? What an incongruous and unsuitable thing is this! Secondly, the consideration of the nature of the soul itself, that calls for as much from us. The better the soul is considered in its own substance and essence, the better would those things be which should qualify it, and which it would be endued withal. The better gifts do best become the better part. Thirdly, in reference also to practice and execution; therefore the better gifts, that we may accomplish the better performances and may do the most good. The operations are answerable to the principles; those which have but mean gifts, they can consequently do but mean services. This does therefore justly come home to the consciences of many persons in the world; there are some which look after none of these gifts at all; like Gallio they care for none of these things. If they may have but so much as to subsist on and to thrive in their temporal condition, that is all they take care for or trouble themselves withal. Give them but the livings, and let others go away with the gifts. Again, there are others which any gifts will very well please them, and serve their turn; which many times want judgment to discern of the better gifts, which they should give themselves unto. That this may be further rightly unfolded, we must add these following limitations by way of explication. First, that these words here of the apostle, they are not to be taken exclusively, but only emphatically. Not as denying us a liberty to look after other gifts, but as carrying us more especially to these which are of higher consideration. It is lawful and also commendable to covet meaner gifts likewise, such as knowledge and learning. This will be easily cleared unto us upon this account. First, because it is that which does bring us into a nearer likeness and similitude to God Himself; that is undoubtedly the most excellent way which does make us most conformable to Him who is the chiefest excellency. Now this we are not so much by our gifts and parts as we are by the work of grace in our hearts. Indeed it is true that we are made like unto God in some sort, in the natural faculties of our soul, our reason, understanding, etc. But this is not all, nor the chiefest; no, but so far forth as we are new created and made over again by the sanctifying work of God's Spirit in us. Secondly, grace is the more excellent way and such as is beyond common gifts, as the end is better than the means which are ordained and appointed thereunto. Thirdly, it is more excellent also in regard of the effects and consequents of it. For it gives peace of conscience and joy in the Holy Ghost. We are not saved as we have greater parts than others, more knowledge and enlightening in our understandings; but rather as we have more grace than others, and more love and flexibility in our affections. The consideration of this point may serve as a good rule unto us whereby to estimate both ourselves and other men; and that is not so much by the former as rather by the latter. Let us not think ourselves the better men so much by our wit and learning as rather by our piety and religious grace. And so much also for that second point: that grace and godliness is the most excellent way. The third is that which follows from this second, and that is this: that it is a duty which lies upon us to pursue the latter above the former, to covet the more excellent way, above the better gifts, grace before other accomplishments. And surely not without very good cause and ground for it. For first, we shall otherwise be defective in the most principal accomplishment of all. There is an argument in the very title which he gives it when he calls it "the most excellent way." What a folly is it to mind things which are inferior! Secondly, we shall be otherwise able to do less good with such gifts as these are; where there are the better gifts without the more excellent way, there will not be that improvement of those gifts as it is fitting there should be to God's glory, and the good of the Church or commonwealth in which a man is and whereunto he belongs. Take a man that has nothing but parts, and has not grace for the ordering of his parts, and he will do but very little or no good with them. Nay further, thirdly, such as these will oftentimes do so much the more hurt. St. Paul had very good reason, when he had made mention of the better gifts, to propound immediately upon it the more excellent way, because those without this are but so much the more hurtful and pernicious. Iniquity when it is armed with learning is so much the more dangerous. What does all this now come to, but so much the more strongly to enforce this present exhortation of the apostle, which we have here now before us, upon ourselves. To couple these two both together in our endeavour, which he does here together in his speech. And further, as we are to mind godliness and religion in the chiefest place, that also which is chief and most principal in it; there is the excellent way considerable in the excellent way, in opposition to that which is meaner and inferior in it. There is the form and outside of religion, and there is the power and efficacy of it. We should not be only formal Christians, but real; not only remiss Christians, but zealous; not only slight and superficial Christians, but sound and solid and substantial. Again still further, to explain this point of the excellent way a little more unto us, as we are to endeavour after this simply considered in itself; so likewise in reference to our several performances for the particular exercise and execution. There are some kind of actions and performances in religion, which as concerning the right and better discharge of them are mixed of parts and piety both. They require the better gifts, and they require the more excellent way for the doing of them. And we should not satisfy ourselves in the one without the other. Again yet further, we should be careful so to order and dispose of our gifts for the getting and improving of them, as that withal we do not prejudice our graces, and hinder and obstruct them; we should take heed of losing ourselves in our studies, as concerning the frame and temper of our hearts. Labour to advance in learning, but still remember to keep up in grace. Lastly, this excellent way, it does not only refer to the getting of grace ourselves, but likewise to the promoting of it in others. And this was that which the Apostle Paul in this place did seem especially to aim at in these Corinthians. Humility and thankfulness in the enjoyment of gifts, and charity and faithfulness in the improvement of gifts, is the most excellent way in order to the gifts themselves. The second is the proposition of it, that we have in this word, "I Show it unto you." Show it? How did he show it? Two ways, as we may conceive more especially. First, he showed it in thesi; and secondly, he showed in hypothesi. He showed it in the practice. He showed it in his doctrine and ministry, First, he showed it them in his doctrine, and by way of simple proposition he published it and declared it unto them, And that at large here in this Epistle in the chapter immediately following. The apostle showed unto these Corinthians the most excellent way; and he showed it first of all in his doctrine. Here are divers things which from hence I might very pertinently insist upon; as — First, we see here that religion is capable of demonstration. It is such as may be clearly evidenced and demonstrated and made good to those who will not be peevish and refractory and perverse. Again secondly, in that the apostle here speaking of his preaching and writing and ministerial dispensation says, "I show it unto you." We see here in what kind of way preaching and teaching is to be carried. In the demonstration of the Spirit and power (1 Corinthians 2:4). It is not enough for us simply to propound truths, but as near as we can to evidence them and demonstrate them. Therefore we are here especially to take heed of anything which may be any hindrance or prejudice hereunto. Secondly, he showed it also in his own practice and example. This we may gather from the next chapter, "Though I should speak... without charity," etc. "Though I should," is here as much as "I do not," and this is another kind of showing, which does belong to all ministers else whosoever they be, without which the other showing will do little or no good at all. The Apostle Paul, as he was a sound teacher, so he was likewise a follower of that which himself did teach. This is requisite to be, thereby to make our doctrine more effectual and full of success. Who will believe our report when we do not believe it ourselves?

(Thomas Horton, D.D.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.

WEB: God has set some in the assembly: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracle workers, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, and various kinds of languages.

Holy Covetousness
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