They gave us a wicker laundry basket filled with canned goods—with the labels all removed. We had to open them to find out what was inside. It was both a joke and a wedding present. In addition to the mysterious canned goods, we received numerous other household items, including two identical chip and dip sets.
We give young couples wedding gifts because they're starting a new life, and they need a lot of basic things to begin that new life. Even if they move into a fully furnished apartment, there's a long list of items they'll need to start a new household from scratch: towels, washcloths and a shower curtain at a minimum for the bathroom; sheets, blankets, pillowcases and a bedspread for the bedroom; pots and pans, dishes, cooking utensils and small appliances for the kitchen; and, of course, spices, salt and pepper and food for the pantry and the refrigerator. And yes, canned goods. It would be a daunting task for two young people just starting out to select, purchase and pay for all these basic things. Hence the custom of wedding showers and wedding gifts.
Starting the Christian life
When someone decides to become a Christian, they're also starting a new life. The Bible compares this new relationship to marriage, even calling the church the “bride of Christ.” So it shouldn't be too surprising that upon being baptized, becoming a part of Christ's bride, and taking up that new life, a person needs gifts to start up this new relationship. And that is just what we find. The Bible calls these "spiritual gifts," and it assures us that each person receives at least one spiritual gift when he or she accepts this new relationship.
Scripture provides us with three separate, and slightly different, lists of spiritual gifts. We find these in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4. Ephesians gives the shortest list but the broadest explanation of what the gifts mean and how to use them. "It was [God] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:11-13).
All of these gifts—apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers—comprise the basic equipment for the church to function. In order to under stand them better, let's examine the spiritual gifts Paul mentions in Ephesians.
■ First, "apostles." Just as the word epistle describes a written message that is sent, so apostle describes a person who is sent. The early apos tles, especially Paul, were what we today call "church planters." Paul and others went from city to city, raising up groups of believers and training them for service. They revisited these congregations as often as possible, and they corresponded with the congregations when they couldn't visit them in person. That's how they provided continual counseling and mentoring.
■ Next come “prophets.” We have come to associate the words prophet and prophecy with predictions of future events. But in the Bible, prophet simply means “one who speaks for God.” Sometimes God's prophets make predictions about the future, but more often they simply provide instructions from God for His people. Theologians often describe the two functions of the prophet as “foretelling” and “forthtelling.” Foretelling involves predictions, while forthtelling describes how God sends messages to His church. Sometimes these are stern warnings, but often they are messages of love. The prophet Jeremiah provides excellent examples of both. For example, he warned the people of his time (and us) that "the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure" (Jeremiah 17:9). But even in that desperate condition, the prophet assures us of God's promise: “'I know the plans I have for you,'” He says, “'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future'” (Jeremiah 29:11). If the church is Christ's bride, then He needs some way to communicate with her. The gift of prophecy provides for that need.
■ After “prophets,” we find “evangelists.” The Greek word "euangelion" from which we get our English word evangelist, literally means “good news.” So an evangelist is someone who proclaims the good news of salvation far and wide. Whereas prophets and prophecy primarily address the church, evangelists primarily address those outside the church. And they differ from apostles in that they generally do not start new congregations. Instead, they direct new believers to join an already existing congregation. Think of Billy Graham, who has proclaimed the good news to literally millions of people, potentially adding every one of them to the body of Christ. But for the most part, they joined existing congregations. For the church to fulfill its function of preaching the gospel for a witness to all nations, it needs the gift of evangelism.
■ Then we find the gift labeled “pastors and teachers.” In the original New Testament Greek, this is indeed a single gift, as the Phillips version translates it “to guide and to teach” (Ephesians 4:11). And we see this in the language itself. Our word "pastor" comes from the same root as "pasture." In other words, a pastor is literally a shepherd. And a shepherd truly guides and teaches his flock. Those with the gift to guide and teach help Christians prosper and mature spiritually in their daily lives.
While the list of gifts in Ephesians 4 does not include all those listed elsewhere—healing, miracles, tongues, and so on—it does help us understand the purpose and function of all of these marvelous gifts. Here is what Paul said is the purpose of spiritual gifts: “ to prepare God's people for works of service, so that  the body of Christ may be built up until  we all reach unity in the faith and  in the knowledge of the Son of God and  become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (verses 12, 13).
These verses clearly tell us that the church doesn't exist solely for its own sake. Rather, it's to be of service, to bless those who come in contact with the church. The church exercises these gifts both to bless those outside the church and to help those within the church to develop spiritual maturity.
As we members pursue this common purpose, it increases our sense of unity, and as we see God working through our gifts to bless others, our faith grows. In the process of doing these things, we experience a growing understanding of Christ and His mission, which, in turn, develops our Christian maturity. As we follow Christ, make His mission our own and see His power in our lives, we become more like Him.
What a blessing
When it came to the laundry basket full of canned goods we received as a wedding gift, the missing labels resulted in some interesting menu choices, but all in all, it proved to be a very useful gift, providing entertainment as well as nourishment. In fact, we enjoyed the gift of canned goods so much that over the years we've favored several other newly married couples with a similar gift. God knows what new Christians need in order to grow and become fully integrated into the church. And He has graciously provided just the right gifts—spiritual gifts—to make that possible.
This article originally appeared in Signs of the Times magazine, September, 2010.