The Word of Knowledge

OK, this might be a bit controversial, as I’m going to challenge a charismatic shibboleth…

I have had a blog entry in preparation for a couple of years now on the meaning of “word of knowledge”, as I am not sure that the what charismatics tend to use this phrase to mean is what Paul means when he uses it. Many charismatics use “word of knowledge” to refer to supernaturally obtained knowledge about a person. For example, when Jesus says to the woman at the well, “you have five husbands”, this would be seen as a “word of knowledge”. Personally I think that this would more naturally be called a gift of “prophecy” (Gk: propheteia) or even “revelation” (Gk: apocalypsis).

What’s more, there are some concerns I have with the way this gift is used. Very often it takes the form of announcing a specific fact about a non-specific person in a meeting. In other words, it starts with “there is someone here who…”. Now all the examples of “words of knowledge” that can be found in the Bible were directed specifically at the person they relate to. This meant they could be tested, at the very least by the recipient of the word of knowedge. And where Christians use any spiritual gift, that gift should be tested.

I think this non-person-speicific approach can result in “words of knowledge” that are very vague and therefore can be seen as a risk-free form of prophecy, where there is no come-back if it misses the mark. I sometimes hear what I call “words of statistical probablity” e.g. “there is someone here with a bad back” in a room of 500 people. People argue that it causes faith for healing to rise in the hearers. I would say that I have spoken to many for whom this type of utterance leads to skepticism. I have seen non-Christian magicians wow gullible people with probability tricks – “does the name ‘Steve’ mean anything to you?”. I’m not saying that God can’t give a specific prophecy without telling the prophet who it is for, but it just strikes me as out of keeping with the biblical precedents we have.

Anyway, I am not convinced we have enough exegetical material to know exactly what Paul means when he talks about a “word of knowledge”. It is only mentioned briefly in passing (1 Cor 12:8), and not given a definition. The Greek word for “knowledge” (gnosis) could refer to natural knowledge – the type you get by studying and learning, but also could refer to supernaturally revealed knowledge (hence the “gnostics”).

So which is it? Let’s survey the places the word occurs in 1 Corinthians to see whether it refers to knowledge obtained by natural means (i.e. being taught), or by supernatural revelation.

  • 1 Cor 1:5 in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge – probably natural knowledge
  • 1 Cor 8:1 we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. – again probably natural knowledge
  • 1 Cor 8:7 However, not all possess this knowledge. – again natural knowledge (also 1 Cor 8:10,11)
  • 1 Cor 12:8 to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit – the verse in question. not enough information from the context to decide
  • 1 Cor 13:2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. – could be either in this context.
  • 1 Cor 13:8 Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. – OK, now we have the feeling that Paul can use “knowledge” to refer to some kind of supernatural revelation. Surely we will not all be ignoramuses in heaven.
  • 1 Cor 14:6 Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching? – I’ve seen lots of attempts to differentiate between these four terms. I have no idea who is right. Here’s my suggestion. Paul is saying: “revelation or knowledge … in other words … prophecy or teaching” i.e. revelation is another word for prophecy and knowledge is another word for teaching. Its only a guess though.
  • 1 Cor 15:34 For some have no knowledge of God. – this is talking about personal knowledge rather than factual so doesn’t help us

I won’t bore you with all of Paul’s other uses of this term (and there are a lot), but suffice to say that on the whole when “knowledge” refers to knowledge of factual information rather than personal knowledge of God, its source seems to be through natural means. So someone teaches us doctrine, or we study the scriptures ourselves, and we come to have knowledge – knowledge of the truth about God, about doctrine, about the mystery of salvation. In other words, with the exception of 1 Cor 13:8, it seems Paul does not usually use knowledge to mean “something that I didn’t learn from any person or book – God dropped it into my head”. Prophecy or revelation are the words to describe that. What’s more, the knowledge Paul is usually talking about seems to be doctrinal in nature – which again is out of keeping with the idea of facts about people being the normal content of a “word of knowledge”.

So on balance I am tempted to think that the gift of knowledge refers to some who has a working understanding of the Bible and a good grasp of theology, who edifies the church by explaining things to people, whether it be one on one, in a small group context, or in a teaching ministry. They bring a “word of knowledge”, by applying that knowledge in a way that teaches people, and gives them insight to see and appreciate how the Bible applies to them, and to understand God and the gospel better. This is not a dry intellectual gift – the Holy Spirit is impressing these truths on them as they study the word so they can share them with others.

What prompted me to finally post about this was that I listened to Mark Driscoll preaching on 1 Cor 12 (listen here), and he takes a similar line, arguing that the person with this gift is a “book geek” who loves to study and research, and is over the moon at the arrival of a new parcel from Amazon. People with this gift assimilate loads of information and like to hear all sides of an argument. They become a “google for Jesus” as people come to them to ask difficult questions and they love to explain what they have learned in a way that is accessible. Although its a long sermon, its well worth listening to. He also explains in it that his position on the gifts is that he is a “charismatic with a seatbelt”, and his definition of how you know whether you are in a charismaniac church is hilarious (11 minutes in to the sermon). The discussion of the gift of knowledge is towards the end of the sermon.

Anyway, whatever the gift of “knowledge” really means, I like the idea of studying to be a “google for Jesus”. I think that kind of describes a lot of Christian bloggers – theology book lovers who are looking for people to share what they have read with.

20 thoughts on “The Word of Knowledge

  1. As I’m not a Greek expert in any stretch of the imagination – here’s an honest question. Does the Greek word for “knowledge” (gnosis) presuppose the kind of study and preparation that would seem to be involved in the definition of the word of knowledge that you are giving here?

    My reason for wondering that is that the whole understanding of prophecy rests on the fact that it is a supernatural revelation, given in the immediate. That’s what Dr Lloyd-Jones argued anyhow – which is why prophecy cannot mean preaching – UNLESS the preacher is into his sermon and the Spirit reveals something (i.e the famous Spurgeon “shoe” incident) for that moment that the preacher hasn’t prepared or thought of.

    So if the Greek understanding of the word for knowledge doesn’t convey that same sense of immediate revelation, then it would seem that you have a definite case (the same as Dr Stanley Jebb I believe). But if there is some hint of an immediate revelation involved with the gift of knowledge, then maybe those charismaniacs who sense “there is someone in the room somewhere” have a case.

    I’d be interested to hear more on that – as for me, the jury is still out on the word of knowledge! I appreciate what you argued, but I have also heard of very powerful examples of where people have been powerfully helped and freed by that demonstration of the gift of the word of knowledge!

  2. Hi Dan,

    I guess I’m saying that in the Greek (not that I’m an expert either), the word for knowledge seems to be just as versatile as ours. It doesn’t presuppose anything – either how the knowledge is obtained or what the knowledge is about.

    And I’m in no way saying that God can’t speak through what we call a “word of knowledge”. I do know of a number of cases where this gift has been used very helpfully and effectively. However, I would tend to think of these instances as “prophecy”.

    As for preaching, I would say preaching is not prophecy, and agree that it can contain prophecy, but I would also argue that it can be prophetic. A prophetic sermon is one where God very specifically speaks to the preacher about what the church needs to hear on that occasion. When it is delivered there is a sense of awe that God has said something especially significant and timely.

  3. Yes I can see that as making sense. I guess that would fit in with the Scriptural understanding of prophecy – i.e to exhort, encourage and uplift. But also I am still trying to see where the section in 1 Corinthians 14 fits in – that unbelievers will come in, hear the belivers prophesying, hear the secrets of their hearts revealed and fall down and worship God.

    Is that another charismatic shibboleth I wonder?

    That we are very good at the exhorting and encouraging bit, but not so much at stepping out boldly and speaking what we feel God is saying. Maybe that’s where the confusion has come with the word of knowledge. That by and large charismatics have moved into that area of the gift of prophecy yet and so we call it another gift?

  4. I absolutlely agree with you about the misuse of the word. The two problems with the “penteconstal” interpretations are 1) Paul uses _logos_ (and not _rhema_) for word, which usually conveys the idea of principles or teachings. However, this is not a strong point since there is quite an overlap in usage. 2) A much larger problem is that if you look at Paul’s usage of _gnosis_, it *virtually always* refers to theological knowledge. For example, it is the gift of knowledge that can puff up (1 Cor 11). Paul has has this knowledge revealed to him _gnorizo_ (Eph 3:30), so Paul himself has this gift. To sum up, it is an ability to have insights into spiritual truth, either directly revealed, or through the Scriptures. The best book written on this subject is _Beginners Guide to Spiritual Gifts_ by Sam Storms. A truly excellent book.

  5. The “word of knowledge” is a supernatural manifestation by the Holy Ghost of certain facts known in the mind of God. The “word” is manifested as the “Spirit” wills, not as man wills. Examples of the word of knowledge are found in Acts 9:10-12 and 10:9-20.

    To state that it is “theological knowledge” or resident within a “Jesus googler” is to misconstrue the context of the I Corinthian passage. Otherwise, one given “gifts of healings” would be able to heal anyone according to his own whim or Paul would just be describing a doctor, which he is not.

  6. Hi Andrew,
    I notice you’ve started a blog! And thanks for bringing your true Greek expertise to the discussion. I’ve not read that book by Sam Storms, but I’m hoping to tackle Convergence in the near future.

  7. Peter,

    Your examples from Acts certainly are cases of God revealing things supernaturally. But I don’t see why you think they are “words of knowledge”. Luke calls them “visions”.

    All of the gifts are of course given by the grace and sovereignty of God, so you are right that a person cannot heal at their own whim (although most pentecostals think that for example the gift of tongues, once received can be used at any time – it doesn’t just come on you and then leave indefinitely as Lloyd-Jones seemed to think).

  8. Words of knowledge may involve visions. As there are diverisities of gifts, there are diversities of operations. Both of my examples demonstrate the manifestation of present facts known to God and revealed to his disciple.

    The gift of tongues and interpretation as elucidated in I Corinthians 12 is different from the “upon” baptism of the Holy Ghost as demonstrated in the book of Acts. As shown in I Corinthians 14, Paul stated that he “willed” to speak in tongues. Unknown tongues as evidence of the baptism is for every believer.

  9. The reason for the use of logos is that the word is a fragment or a piece of information about present facts. For instance, in my example of Acts 9:10-12, the Lord revealed certain facts about Paul, but not all facts about Paul or anybody else for that matter. The present facts were revealed in order to accomplish a certain purpose.

    The thought of a “gift” of knowledge misconstrues the text. The “gift” is not general theological knowledge. The “gift” is the “word” of knowledge.

  10. I do think Peter has an important point that is something Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones picked up upon. The list of supernatural gifts in those passages are things that the Holy Spirit gives for occasions. Lloyd-Jones argued that noone can speak in tongues at will and if they think they do, it is probably false whereas the Holy Spirit may indeed give “gifts” of tongues for occasions when one is moved deeply in prayer and runs out of their own vocabulary.

    So can we exclude the word of knowledge as a teaching gift from that? Or would we be arguing that every time the preacher comes up to speak they are requiring and needing a “word of knowledge” from the Spirit of God? And therefore are they assuming it is something they can use at will?

  11. Interesting observation Dan. It is true that the gifts/manifestations listed in 1 Cor 12:7-10 could all be interpreted as “one-offs” where the Spirit enables a person to use a gift on that occasion. Of course, some people may often receive the same type of gift. Even in the “theological knowledge” interpretation of “word of knowledge” we have been discussing I would say that the Spirit can stir up those who have such knowledge to share a word in season. Just like the “word of wisdom” – the wisdom that is shared may well be something that the person who shares it already knew was a good idea – but the Spirit prompted them to bring it and apply it on this occasion. Other times, people with knowledge / wisdom may not be led by the Spirit to weigh in with what they know all the time (lest they dominate meetings with their gift – just like some prophets / tongues speakers seemed to be doing).

    Also, in 1 Cor 12:28-30, Paul includes in these “one-off” gifts with “calling” gifts – apostle, prophet, teacher; which suggests to me accepts that some people make regular use of a particular gift, while others might never or only on occasion use it.

    I would say that we do need to emphasise the Spirit’s sovereignty in giving gifts more than we do. I have been in seminars that ‘teach’ prophecy by telling people just to say what comes into their heads. That seems to take the initiative away from the Spirit, something that Paul doesn’t want to do (1 Cor 12:11).

  12. Yes I’m familiar with those seminars on prophecy too!! The question then surely is how do we “know” when an unction has come from the Spirit to … prophecy, to speak in an unknown tongue, to interpret a tongue or using your argument to speak forth in a word of knowledge?

    Would that utterance in a word of knowledge be like preaching a sermon knowing the power of God upon you? As opposed to knowing that you had done your utmost in the study and on your knees before hand and spoke what you had prepared?

    Would you say, for example, that your sermon you preached at KCC was you using the word of knowledge??! 😉

    I think you are absolutely right about the need for seeing the Spirit’s sovereignity. While the Charismatic Movement has done much good in restoring the gifts and experience of the Spirit back to the church, maybe we have been guilty in areas of straying into flesh.

    Maybe the best way to combat that danger is to ask the same question for each gift that we are gifted with in our church. If tongues, how do we “know” that the tongue is from the Spirit? If prophecy, how do we “know” and so on?!

    I’m rambling … time for me to shut up! 🙂 But I hope my point makes sense.

  13. I wanted to provide some clarification to my previous posts. While the gifts listed in I Corinthians 12 are as the Spirit wills, tongues concomitant with the “upon” Baptism of the Holy Ghost is for every believer. Hence, Paul says in I Corinthians 14 that he “wills” to speak in tongues. That is because he is speaking about the Baptism. The gift of tongues (and interpretation) is for the edification of the church.

    As for the prophecy seminars, I’d rather eat a bar of soap.

  14. The only issue I have with Driscoll/Grudem/Storms’ assessment of the nature of this gift is that they make the mistake Peter Smythe picks up on in #2.2. Paul doesn’t say “to another the gift of knowledge”, he says “to another the word of knowledge”.

    This has always seemed to me to be referring to a fragmentary fact appropriate to the moment being communicated, rather than the ability/passion to research and accumulate lots of stored knowledge and learning. I guess the gift could be the ability to take the learnt knowledge and apply it powerfully to a situation, but that strikes me more as the realm of the teaching/pastoring gift.

    None of this is to say anything against the “googlers for Jesus”. I’m one of them, and believe that passion to be a God-given attribute of my personality!

    It should probably be said that I’m not hugely worried about what we call things though. Whether an immediate revelation of a fact is called “word of knowledge” or is a manifestation of prophecy is secondary to being open to them actually happening!

  15. Hi Jon,

    I actually think that there is a spontaneous element to the “word of knowledge” – it is a Spirit inspired piece of ‘theological’ knowledge that is brought in a meeting and comes with particular power. It is not preaching, although it could occur within a sermon. Someone with the gift of “knowledge” isn’t automatically bringing a “word of knowledge” whenever they speak – they need to be sensitive to the promptings of the Spirit. Without this, bringing such “knowledge” is in danger of just being a way to show off superior intellect and learning.

    And yes, you are right that being “open” is more important than correctly labelling things. I just think that even charismatics need to have their horizons expanded sometimes as to the diverse ways in which the Spirit can speak.

    BTW Nice blog. KUTGW

  16. Mark, I am not aware of any scriptural evidence that the “word” of knowledge means theological knowledge. Such a definition defies other scripture which states that God is no respecter of persons and would allow one to boast of “secret” knowledge.

    The Word demonstrates to us, by examples, that the word of knowledge is confined to present facts known to God and revealed to those He chooses.

  17. Dennis Cramer (denniscramer.com) is very specific about it. It has to do with past or current events or conditions that one receives from God about an individual or even a church. Different people receive the word by different senses. Visual, hearing, sensing it or smelling it.
    I volunteer time in a healing ministry (healingrooms.com). Our local group is from 7 denominations and seven churches.
    When someone comes in for healing, we ask Jesus to reveal something about that person. I receive word of knowledge visually. If I see it, then I know that the Lord will release a healing on that person when I lay hands on him. I also receive prophetic word about a person visually.

  18. Sorry

    ims till studying theology I myself has seen many gentiles come to faith, through the use of this gift. I really feel this is a major gift that God uses for reaping souls in the kingdom.
    In my experince the word of knoweldge can either be very precise including a name, illness or street address other times the spirit may give far elss detail.
    Either way my heart is just to see people eagerly desire this so that more come into the kingdom and more are healed!

  19. Hi Brilliant ones!!! Hope someone can answer me. I was a sheeple-turned to awakening. : -) There was a man that came up to me Monday night. He met me at the church I am studing how we were controlled in Religion. He knew the man that I was dating. I told this man that my friend had cancer and was in another City getting a specialist to do some studies and possibly surgery. All of a sudden he says, “I just had a word of knowledge for you about Antoine and the words he spoke to you ( He says, “It is not a “word of Knowledge of encouragement, oh what do I want to say??? A_______________”he used a word that I cannot remember. Here is the thought he shared: ” You are to cherish the words Antoine gave to you. They were very special and Never forget them. I do not know what kind of a relationship you had but the words he spoke to you were given to help you do what you must.” Now this man had NO idea that Antoine spoke many prophicies that came true and also still are on the way of coming to fruition. NO WAY. If someone could give me the word-of-knowledge “TYPE” he gave me, PLEASE give it to me. I want to include this wonderful thing in my book I am editing. Thanks so much and keep up the good work of sharing knowledge. I am learning so much it is such an exciting time to e alive.Peace and Love. Nancy Bisset 🙂

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