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This morning, we will be looking at the book of 1 Corinthians. In addition to being one of the most quoted books by the early church fathers, the book of 1 Corinthians also happens to be one of my favorite books in the New Testament. This morning we will be focusing primarily on chapter 12.
Initially, I liked the book because it’s the largest available treatise on spiritual gifts. Being raised in the Charismatic / Pentecostal church, I tended to focus almost entirely on chapters 12 through 14. I remember being both delighted and frustrated at Paul’s comments that we should “desire spiritual gifts…” After all, during that time of my life, one of the most important things for me was the obtaining of the gifts of the Spirit. I wanted to be able to prophecy or perform miracles. Many of you might find this desire to be odd; however, given my goals and circumstances, this desire was a natural one.
As a teenager, I remember having a very strong desire to be “the best Christian I can be”. Since I, and those around me, thought that the pinnacle of one’s spiritual life is to obtain spiritual gifts, naturally I sought them so that I could be spiritually fulfilled. The logic was simple
- I desire to be as spiritual as possible.
- Obtaining the gifts of the Spirit is the mark of someone who is advanced in his or her spirituality.
- Therefore, I desire to obtain the gifts of the Spirit.
There was one time when I thought I witnessed a genuine miracle. We were in the middle of a worship service and a guy with a broken leg started running around the church. He finally stopped running in the front of the church and started jumping up and down. At the time, I thought to myself, “Wow, a genuine miracle; this confirms what I thought about the gifts!”
Unfortunately, the very next day I saw the guy with the broken leg. He was in a lot of pain. When someone asked my class instructor why he didn’t get healed, she told us that “He didn’t have enough faith.” Now to a non-charismatic, this might seem like an absurd explanation. But to an optimistic 15 year old, it was a perfectly reasonable explanation. If the Bible teaches that if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, that you can move mountains, then it isn’t that hard to accept the explanation my instructor gave the class. In Matthew 17:20 Jesus says,
“It was because of your little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; nothing will be impossible for you.”
Jesus said things very much like my instructor. It all made sense to me at the time.
Now even though I accepted the “he didn’t have enough faith” explanation, this event still disturbed to me. For a charismatic, the essence of being a Christian has a lot to do with maintaining a living, breathing relationship with God. This kind of relationship requires that I be able to talk to God, and that God sometimes talks to me. The closer I get to God, the more gifted and holy I should be. The more spiritual I get, the more I should be able to manifest the characteristics of God. And in my thinking at that time that meant that I should be able to obtain the gifts of the Spirit.
I often asked myself, “The guy who is prophesying over there, how much faith did he have to have in order to get that gift?” I thought to myself “Jesus said that all we need is faith as large as a mustard seed and we should be able to move mountains.” I didn’t know anyone who had faith as large as a mustard seed because none of the people I knew could move mountains. The guy who threw his crutches down and ran around the room probably had more faith than I did, but even his faith didn’t heal his broken leg.
Fortunately my mind didn’t take the next step when I was younger, but it very well could have. I easily could have asked myself, “If we are saved by faith, how much faith do I need to have in order to be saved?” If the guy with the broken leg didn’t even have enough faith to be healed from a broken leg, how could I be sure that I had enough faith to be saved from the wrath of God?
Later in life, the importance of seeking the gifts seemed to fade. This was partly because of my theological studies and partly because I never seemed to get any of the gifts. No matter how hard I sought after the gift of healing, I was never able to heal anyone. No matter how many times I tried to prophecy, it always seemed like it was just me conjuring something up in order to be as spiritual as the next guy. Additionally, the people who said that they could perform miracles, like Benny Hinn, I deemed to be scam artists.
So the conclusion that I should desire to obtain spiritual gifts faded as well. I no longer believed that my growing closer to God required that I be able to perform miracles, or give prophecies, or cast out demons. However, my giving up on that notion didn’t make my Christian life easier. It made it harder. I wanted to be spiritual! If getting the gifts of the Spirit is not what makes me spiritual, then what does?
If you have a strong desire to grow in the LORD, you must have some idea of what it means to be spiritual. If you don’t, you will have a good desire, but no way to fulfill that desire. You will find yourself asking things like, “Lord, what should I do with my life?” or “Lord, what do you want me to be?” or “How do I grow closer to you?” And while these questions are good questions, if you never get an answer to your questions, you tend to stagnate.
Church at Corinth
You might ask, what does any of this have to do with 1 Corinthians? Well, I think that the church at Corinth had a genuine desire to be spiritual. However, since they had some problems in their congregation, Paul had to adjust the course of the church there.
The letter to the Corinthians is a corrective letter. Those who understand this sometimes beat up on the Corinthians because they had so many problems. But I think behind these problems stood a genuine desire to be “spiritual”. The Corinthians were misguided and many of them were arrogant. But despite these facts, Paul speaks to them as his children in the Lord. 1 Cor. 4:14-15 says,
I am not writing these things to shame you, but to correct you as my dear children. For though you may have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers because I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
So Paul corrects them, not as he would Gnostics or other heretics who are trying to steal away people from the church, but as a parent would correct his child who has gone down the wrong path. Paul loves these people very much and he is primarily concerned with correcting their notions of what it means to be truly spiritual, and more importantly, what it means to be a Christian.
To be sure, there are some things that Paul has to squash, but Paul is primarily concerned about redirecting them. D.A. Carson notes that Paul uses a “yes that is true, but…” line of reasoning throughout the book of 1 Corinthians. There are a few exceptions, but for the most part he is saying, “Yes, you are right about that, but I have more to say on this.”
On the corrective side Paul says the following things to them:
First of all, you need to stop being divided. Christ is not divided so you ought not to be divided.
Second, you should not trust in worldly wisdom, but in the power of God. For too long you have been swayed by convincing speeches and the appearance of wisdom. I want your faith to rest in the power of God so that you may obtain a wisdom that is from God.
Third, you need to take immorality seriously. You have someone in your congregation that is sleeping with his own step-mother and you have not done anything about it! Your laxity concerning this man is dangerous to the entire congregation.
Fourth, you need to use your Christian liberty for good and not for evil. Yes, you are not under obligation to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, but if doing that harms your brother… don’t do it. Use your freedom in Christ for good.
Fifth, you need to understand that all good things come from the Spirit of God, and love is the primary fruit that comes from Him.
Finally, you need to look forward to the hope that we have, namely, that we will be bodily raised from the dead, and then we will rule and reign with Christ.
One of the main problems that Paul is addressing throughout all of this has to do with the Corinthian notion of what it means to be spiritual. I think the church at Corinth thought they knew what it meant to be spiritual. The problem for them, however, was that they brought in their pagan notions of spirituality.
The city of Corinth was well known for its immorality. The term “to Corinthianize” came to be a euphemism for prostitution. The city had a reputation for over-indulgence. As Edmond Hiebert notes, “In the Greek plays Corinthians were usually represented as drunkards.”
What was worse is that their religious lives were intimately tied to their immorality. They worshiped Aphrodite, the goddess of love. In the ancient Greek days, there were 1000 female prostitutes at her temple. Visitors of the temple could have free sex there.
This form of worship was probably introduced for more than drawing lots of people to the temple. I suppose that some people may have had that intention. However, I think that there is more to the connection between spirituality and sex. Peter Kreeft says that if you don’t have true spirituality, the closest you can get to it is sex. Sex probably acted as a surrogate for true spirituality.
Another religious practice included the use of ecstatic speech which was often done in a context where the person was “out of control” and under the influence of another personality or spirit. Greece and Rome had plenty of time to develop their pagan notions of what it meant to be in contact with the spirit world. It was this contact with the spirit world that was often identified as what it meant to be spiritual.
This mindset shouldn’t be all that foreign to us. It continues to this day. You see this kind of thing a lot in the occult and the new age. They seek out their spirit guides. They have other worldly experiences like astral-projection, out of body experiences, satanic rituals and a whole host of means of contacting the spirit world.
In Christian churches, it is common for people to identify spirituality with some kind of spiritual experience. It could be as simple as “God spoke to me” or “I was slain in the Spirit” or “I got drunk in the Spirit”. What is common to these notions of spirituality is a common means of getting at and engaging in spiritual encounters. I am not saying that these types of behaviors are of the occult or new age. I think there are subtle, yet meaningful, distinctions between the experiences of Christians and the experiences of the occult and new age.
In addition to pagan practices, the Corinthians were not that far from Athens, the center of philosophy. The Corinthians didn’t have the reputation of being the center of rigorous philosophical thought, but they did consider themselves to be the wise, forward-thinking, cosmopolitan types. They may have been very much like our modern day liberals who think they are wise because they keep up with the latest literature and political trends - not to mention the latest moral trends.
It’s likely that this is the reason why Paul says to them in the 1 Cor. 2:1-5:
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come with superior eloquence or wisdom as I proclaimed the testimony of God. For I decided to be concerned about nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and with much trembling. My conversation and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not be based on human wisdom but on the power of God.
Paul did not want Christianity to simply become the latest fad or ideology in Corinth. He wanted them to know that Christianity was the truth and that its truth was backed up by the reality and power of the Spirit of God.
Ironically, this is the very thing which the Christians at Corinth end up misunderstanding. The very means by which God, through Paul, used to establish their faith may have contributed to their thinking that the kingdom of God had fully come. It appears that many of them thought that Jesus had established the kingdom of God and that kingdom was a spiritual kingdom that called for a type of worship that resembled their own previous pagan spirituality.
With all of these things in mind, let’s turn to 1 Corinthians chapter 12 and get started with what is being said there. Verses 1 - 3
With regard to spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans you were often led astray by speechless idols, however you were led. So I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus is cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.
Paul begins this section by telling the Corinthians that he didn’t want them to be uninformed or ignorant concerning “spiritual gifts”. There are some people who think that “spiritual gifts” should be translated “spiritual things” or “spiritual persons”. However, since most translations seem to think that “spiritual gifts” is appropriate here and because I don’t think that either rendering here changes the main teaching points in the following passages, I am going to stick with “spiritual gifts” here.
So Paul is saying to them, I don’t want you to be ignorant about spiritual gifts. His first imparting of knowledge to them sets the stage for the rest of what he has to say about spiritual gifts. He contrasts their previous pagan spirituality with true Christian teaching.
Essentially, I think he is saying to them, unlike your old ways where you conjured up mysterious sayings and engaged in frenzied activities to impress dumb idols and your fellow men, Christianity is grounded in the activity of a living God. It is not birthed out of your human efforts; rather it comes about by the sovereign work of the Spirit of God.
In verse 2, Paul is offering a contrast between what pagan worship looked like vs. what Christian worship should look like. In pagan worship, man worships a statue and tries to bring about his own sense of spirituality. But statues don’t cause man to be righteous. They don’t offer any real guidance. So as a pagan you are left to speculate and be lead astray by any vain idea that surrounded the worship of that idol.
In verse 3, when Paul says that “no one speaking by the Spirit of God says that Jesus is cursed”, some people think that he is offering a criterion for telling true Christians from false ones. That may be true, but if that is the primary thing he is trying to do, it doesn’t seem to be a very helpful criterion. People say all sorts of things that they don’t really mean. Is Paul saying that unbelievers cannot utter the words “Jesus is Lord”? Obviously they can. Is Paul saying that Christians cannot utter the words “Jesus is cursed?” Obviously they can utter those words.
You could take this criterion to mean that no one speaking by the Spirit can say and mean the words “Jesus is cursed.” And no one can say and mean “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. This also seems true, but I don’t think that this is what Paul is primarily getting at here. I think his primary goal in this passage is to inform his audience of a spiritual reality.
So while I think this passage does provide a broad means of determining if someone is speaking by the Holy Spirit, I think Paul is primarily concerned about informing his readers of a particular truth about the nature of relationship between God and His creation. That truth is this: that when someone proclaims that Jesus Christ is Lord, they are not doing so on their own. In order for that proclamation to be genuine, it must come from the Holy Spirit.
The emphasis here is not so much the genuine confessions of men, but the absolute necessity of the Holy Spirit for those genuine confessions. So it is not so much about the confessions of men as about the God who makes those confessions genuine.
This seems to be more in keeping with the context for a couple reasons:
1. As I said before, if the passage is primarily about setting a criterion for knowing true and false confessions, then it doesn’t appear to be a very helpful criterion.
2. Overall, Paul seems most concerned about the unity of the church at this point. His emphasis on the Holy Spirit as the Person who unifies the church suggests that he is more interested in setting up the ontological basis for that unity.
Understood this way, these verses give grounding to what Paul is about to say. Now Paul appears to be applying this truth to the gifts and their use in the body of Christ.
Verses 4 - 11
Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are different ministries, but the same Lord. And there are different results (activities), but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. To each person the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the benefit of all. For one person is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, and another the message of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another performance of miracles, to another prophecy, and to another discernment of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. It is one and the same Spirit, distributing as he decides to each person, who produces all these things.
After reminding the Corinthians of their very real reliance upon the Holy Spirit, Paul goes on to explain that the same Spirit gives a variety of gifts to His church for the benefit of the church. One stylistic element that is very obvious throughout this section is the repeating of the theme: there is a diversity of gifts, but the same Spirit.
In verses 4 – 6 Paul does not say that the Spirit gives different gifts to different people. He says that later, but here he just says “there are different gifts, but the same Spirit, there are different ministries, but the same Lord, there are different activities, but the same God.” He could just be saying that the diversity of gifts comes from the same source. However, if he is saying that, it seems somewhat repetitive since that is the very next thing he talks about in verses 7 – 11.
I think what Paul is doing here is setting up the distribution of gifts, ministries, and activities within the context of a Triune God.
Let me read these again:
· v.4 – there are different gifts, but the same Spirit
· v.5 – there are different ministries, but the same Lord
· v.6 – there are different activities, but the same God.
Found within the theme of a diversity of gifts being empowered by the same God, we see what looks like Paul’s Trinitarian views being made manifest here. The use of Spirit, Lord, and God appear to correlate to Holy Spirit, Son, and Father respectively. Paul is not necessarily saying that the Spirit gives gifts, Jesus gives ministries, and the Father gives activities. There doesn’t appear to be a consistent use of Spirit, Lord, and God with regard to what kinds of things they give to the church. The Spirit, the Lord, and God are all the same being from which all things flow. But the Source of the gifts is a Triune God.
I should mention that it would be difficult to establish the doctrine of the Trinity from this passage alone. If we didn’t have a doctrine of the Trinity, which comes from looking at many different places in Scripture, we might not pick up on this reference to the Trinity. Be that as it may, we do recognize the Trinity and it appears that these verses are manifestations of Paul’s doctrine of God.
In verse 7, Paul gives the reason for the Spirit’s distribution of the gifts. Simply put, it is for the benefit of all. God gives gifts to the church in order to benefit the church. I think that Paul has a very organic view of the church here. In Paul’s view, each member of the church exists within the context of the whole. The church is not merely an aggregation of separate parts. Instead, it is an organic whole that, like a living organism, is more than simply the sum of its parts. This theme becomes more obvious in the last half of chapter 12.
In verses 8 – 11 we are given a list of the spiritual gifts. Here he lists wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discerning of spirits, tongues, and interpretation of tongues. Let me make a few comments about the list and then about the nature of the gifts.
First, D.A. Carson, Gordon Fee, and other Biblical scholars like them seem pretty convinced that this is not a comprehensive list of gifts. One reason for this is that other lists are given and they include gifts which are not in this list. So even though there are several lists of spiritual gifts in the New Testament, they are not identical lists.
Also, it does not appear, in this case anyway, that the gifts are ordered by their level of importance. Other lists contain these gifts in different orders. So we can’t say that one gift is more important because it came first in the list.
As an aside, let me emphasize that I don’t think these verses imply that all gifts have the same level of importance. As a matter of fact, I do think that some gifts are more important than others, and I think Paul says as much. In verse 31, within the same chapter we are discussing, Paul says to earnestly desire the best gifts. What Paul means here by “best gifts” is a matter of debate, but that there are better or more profitable gifts does appear to be the case. All I mean to say is that we shouldn’t take this list to mean that the first mentioned gifts are more important than those gifts at the end of the list simply because of the order in which they are mentioned.
Finally, notice that in this list of gifts Paul doesn’t divide them up and say “these are the supernatural gifts and these are the ones where God just augments a person’s natural talents.” He doesn’t say you can work up wisdom on your own, but the Holy Spirit has to give you the gift of miracles. He doesn’t say that the gift of discerning of spirits is something given to you at birth and the gift of healing is given to you when you reach a certain level of maturity.
My sense is that there are two main roads people go down when talking about the gifts. One road is that all the gifts are supernatural empowerments and have nothing to do with natural gifting and talent. The other road is that all the gifts are natural talents that God has given you and you simply develop them, with the help of the Spirit. I think both of these approaches lead to the wrong place.
For example, I have always found “spiritual gift inventories” to be odd and misguided. Who would take one of those inventories and then conclude, “Oh, I have the gift of healing so I’ll go clear out CMC hospital tomorrow.” It’s usually something like this, “Oh, it looks like I would be a good administrator so maybe I’ll go get that Masters in Business Administration after all.”
If you have charismatic / Pentecostal leanings and you think you have the gift of healing, you might try to become the next Benny Hinn. You might try to go to healing workshops and pray really hard the God would empower you to heal people during tent revivals.
If you are a spiritual gift inventory enthusiast and you think you have the gift of healing, you might be inclined to go to medical school so that you can “develop” your gift of healing.
I think these approaches to “finding your spiritual gifts” are misguided. The apostles with the gift of miracles didn’t throw coats at people in an opulent display of showmanship. Nor did they have a 3% success rate of healing people. On the other hand, the apostles didn’t go to medical school in order to heal the sick. They didn’t take their miraculous gifts to be the mere development of natural talents that God had given them at birth.
Both groups seek the gifts of the Spirit in vain as both of them attempt to produce the gifts of the Spirit on their own. One group attempts to get the gifts through the proper amount of faith, and the other group develops the gifts through human effort along with a little help from God. Both views have some truth, but both are (in my opinion) equally mistaken.
Paul very clearly says in verse 11 that “It is one and the same Spirit, distributing as he decides to each person, who produces all these things.” The faith healers see God as a force that can be manipulated by means of their personal faith. They do this under the pious pretense of “if someone isn’t healed, it’s because I didn’t have enough faith or because they didn’t have enough faith.” So morally they think they are off the hook because they attribute the failure of the healing to themselves and their own lack of faith. But for them to think that the gift of healing is something that they can obtain by having enough faith or by being sincere or holy enough is a misunderstanding of the nature of God.
The spiritual gifts inventory enthusiast also wants to ascribe failure to himself when he doesn’t obtain the gifts of the Spirit. But I think he too misunderstands God and how we relate to Him. If the charismatic / Pentecostal is too otherworldly, the spiritual gift inventory enthusiast is too this-worldly. In a way, they can be practical deists. A deist is someone who doesn’t believe that God intervenes in the world. Even if he doesn’t theoretically misunderstand Paul’s statement in verse 11, he doesn’t understand the correct application of it.
On the one hand, the Spirit is not a force that is just a set of necessary and sufficient conditions. On the other hand, the Spirit is not far from us, He is in us. He is always present.
The corrective to the charismatic / Pentecostal is this: The third person of the Trinity is a Person, not a force. You don’t need to perform the right rituals, you don’t need to spend your whole life trying to conjure up enough faith, and you shouldn’t ever try to manipulate God into giving you the gifts by trying to attain a certain measure of holiness. When you approach God, you do so as a servant would approach a King to petition Him. You should ask God, “Lord I seek to be gifted in whatever way you see fit. I really enjoy doing X, please give me more so that I may give to others.” If God says “No”, then you act accordingly. Acting accordingly will vary depending on the circumstance, but it always involves humility before God.
The corrective to the spiritual gift inventory enthusiast is this: To be sure, God has given you natural talents and abilities, but that is not what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 12 – 14. You don’t develop the ability to prophecy or to perform miracles. Even those more “ordinary” gifts like wisdom and knowledge are distributed by the Spirit. I believe they are special acts of grace. God is intimately involved in the affairs of your life at all times. He is not someone who just steps in here and there to help you in your desperate time of need. It is usually just the case that you recognize the presence of God more in your desperate times of need. When you pray, pray something like this: “Lord I seek to be gifted in whatever way you see fit. I really enjoy doing X and I pray that you would bless me in that for your glory.” If God says “No”, then act accordingly. Again, acting accordingly will vary depending on the circumstance, but it always involves humility before God and submission to God.
The Holy Spirit gives gifts to individual people according to His will. The same Spirit who worked through the apostles to perform mighty miracles works in you to be a good administrator. The same Spirit who prohibited Paul from preaching in Asia (Acts 16:6) works in you to give you a special amount of wisdom. These gifts are to be sought, but they are not to be sought presumptuously. Being a Person, God can say “No” any time that He wishes.
Perhaps it is the influence of the cessationists around the turn of the century that has caused us to not seek gifts from God. Cessationists are those who maintain that the “sign gifts” ceased with the death of the apostles or with the end of the “apostolic era”. While their arguments are specifically against what they call the “sign gifts,” I think their mindset has had much broader implications for us. Their views have made large sectors of the church wary of seeking anything from God. I think this is unfortunate.
Since 1 Corinthians is a corrective letter, this would have been the perfect opportunity for Paul to say the church at Corinth, “The gifts of the Spirit aren’t for you guys. God gave them to the apostles to inaugurate the new covenant.” But rather than doing that, he encourages the Corinthians, of all people, to eagerly pursue the gifts (see verse 31). These are the people who are abusing the gifts. These are the people who, at many points, seem to confuse pagan spirituality with the worship of the one true God. And yet to these people, he offers a “yes, you are gifted of the Spirit, but you need to be corrected on some matters concerning those gifts.” In chapter 12, Paul’s primary correction has to do with correcting divisiveness and pride.
To me, this is a wonderful example of the type of largeness of soul that we need to have as believers. As apologists we are very prone to reductionism. We have a penchant for seeking neat and tidy answers that we can hand to people. This mindset, I think, is foreign to the apostles. It’s not that they don’t have strong convictions. It’s not that they don’t have definite views on things. It’s that they realize that God is bigger than we are. They understand that mystery is always involved in the worship of an infinite God. And they are keenly aware of the fact that they don’t always know how God is going to work out his plan on the earth. This is not anti-intellectual in the least. It is simply the basis for humility.
Getting back to the text, I mentioned that Paul doesn’t distinguish between natural talents and supernatural empowerments here. He simply gives a list of gifts. This flattening out of the gifts appears to imply that Paul is not concerned here with elaborating on the nature of the different gifts or how those gifts are given. Instead he seems most concerned with WHO is giving the gifts. He wants to make sure that the Corinthians understand that ALL gifts are given by the Spirit, and more specifically by the same Spirit. Whether He gives them to us at birth or through some fantastic mystical experience is irrelevant here.
In fact, what I find most fascinating is that Paul speaks of things like wisdom, knowledge, and faith as being gifts of God. The fact that it isn’t just the mighty sign gifts, like miracles and healings that are given by God suggests something about the extent of our dependence on Him.
In the next section, I think Paul makes some of the most profound statements about how Christians should relate to one another.
Verses 12 – 13
For just as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body– though many – are one body, so too is Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. Whether Jews or Greeks or slaves or free, we were all made to drink of the one Spirit.
Paul has just informed his readers that the same Spirit produces a diversity of gifts. But in order for the Corinthians to properly use the gifts, they need to understand some things. Paul uses a physical illustration to point out a profound spiritual truth.
Paul tells them that though you have many gifts, you are one body! What does he mean when he says to them that they are one body? We throw that term around a lot when we talk about the body of Christ. When Paul says that “you are one body, so too is Christ”, he is, at a minimum, referring to the church. We know this from v.27 of this chapter. So we can read this verse something like “Just as a body has many parts and is still one body, so God has made the church to be one body which is composed of many parts.”
It’s very important that we don’t over spiritualize this illustration. The power of this point comes when you picture a living, breathing human body. He says, look at the human body. Do you not see that it is composed of many diverse parts and yet it functions as a single unified organism? In fact, among the things in nature, living bodies are the most unified types of beings.
In one of our education hours, we talked about the differences between living and nonliving bodies. Generally, nonliving bodies are united by mere proximity to each other. A collection of rocks in a jar, for example, is just an aggregation of a bunch of chunks of matter.
What is more unified is something like an automobile. It is unified by design. It has many different parts: an engine, wheels, an alternator, etc. and all of those parts work together to perform a function. This is what is called a functional unity. If the engine dies, the car does not repair itself. Someone other than the car has to fix it, or it will cease performing its function.
The most unified type of being is a living being. Living creatures are different from non-living objects in two ways: (1) they have the power of self-locomotion and (2) their activities originate in them and they act to perfect them. This kind of unity is what is called a substantial unity.
The human body is a great example of this. Your various parts work together for the good of the whole. When you get cut, a whole series of biochemical processes are kicked off. Almost immediately a protein mesh is formed to stop the bleeding. During that process over a dozen different proteins are involved. Some of those proteins are used in the mesh itself while others regulate the clot formation. Once the clot is no longer needed, other proteins regulate the removing of the clot.
All sorts of examples from science could be given: the process of digestion and nutrition, the processes of the immune system, etc. In short, the different parts of our body serve the whole so that the whole is preserved and perfected.
Paul didn’t have today’s science to inform him of the intricate systems of the human body. But that really isn’t necessary to get the point across. It’s just kind of nice that we have those examples as they can contribute to our sense of awe in God’s creation. Today we can see, all the more, how many different parts are required in order to make the body function properly.
What is important here is to keep in mind the type of unity and diversity involved in a human body. All the different parts work together for the good of the whole. Paul goes on to say that all men and women who are members of the church, whether they are Jews or Greeks, slave or free, are members of the same body. This really is an amazing picture of the church. Imagine God taking different parts from all nations and from all socio-economic classes to make a single unified body where all the parts contribute to the whole!
Another interesting thing about this illustration is that as a unified self, a person’s hand doesn’t have a different
political agenda from his ear. The foot doesn’t get angry at the nose for taking a liberal view of Scripture. Why not? It is because the body and soul form a single unit.
They are in agreement with one another. The hand feeds the mouth so that the stomach and intestines can provide nutrition to the lungs, heart, brain, and so on.
From this, you shouldn’t infer that we must be cookie-cutter Christians. We should be a unified whole, but the main point Paul is trying to get across is that unity and diversity are part of the very plan of God and God’s plan is good.
I should say something briefly about a couple puzzling phrases in verse 13. The phrases “we were all baptized into one body” and “we were all made to drink of the one Spirit”, have been interpreted in various ways. Historically, these have been taken to be referring to the sacrament of baptism and of the Eucharist. D.A. Carson thinks that these verses were taken that way because theologians tended to read their ecclesiology into the text. Gordon Fee takes these two phrases to be a type of Semitic parallelism. He thinks that they refer to the common reception of the Spirit at the conversion of every believer. I don’t know that I am qualified to make a call as to what these phrases refer to, so I won’t offer my position. But I did want to at least mention two prevailing views.
Verses 14 - 21
For in fact the body is not a single member, but many. If the foot says, “Since I am not a hand, I am not part of the body,” it does not lose its membership in the body because of that. And if the ear says, “Since I am not an eye, I am not part of the body,” it does not lose its membership in the body because of that. If the whole body were an eye, what part would do the hearing? If the whole were an ear, what part would exercise the sense of smell? But as a matter of fact, God has placed each of the members in the body just as he decided. If they were all the same member, where would the body be? So now there are many members, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor in turn can the head say to the foot, “I do not need you.”
One thing I really like about this section is that it shows the absurdity of the person who is unable to appreciate the diversity of gifts in the church. How absurd is it to think that if some member of the church is not an outstanding apologist that they are somehow not a part of the church? It’s as silly as the foot saying, “since I am not a hand I am not part of the body”. What an obviously foolish thing to say. Or if we were to say something like “Being a good Christian essentially means being a good theologian” how absurd would that be? It would be as absurd as saying the whole body should be an eye. But if the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?
In this chapter, I think the main point is something like this: You should not think that because someone isn’t gifted in some particular way that they are not part of the body. I don’t think Paul is saying this here, but I think the following is true: Just because you have gifts that someone else doesn’t have it doesn’t follow that that you are more spiritual than they are. Mother Theresa was not the most gifted teacher, but I defy any teacher to claim that he is more spiritual than her because he is a good teacher and she is not!
In verses 29 and 30 Paul asks a set of rhetorical questions. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? His clear answer to these questions is “No”. But the fact that all are not apostles or prophets or teachers does not exclude any of the other people from being members of the body of Christ.
What are some of the implications of this teaching? I think one of the more obvious implications has to do with how you treat other members of the body of Christ. You don’t cut your finger off when it gets stung by a bee. You nurse it to health. You don’t just let a broken arm flop around, you go to the doctor to get it set and then you take care of it until it is better. You only cut off your leg if it get’s gangrene and you have no way of fighting the infection. You only cut off a limb under very drastic circumstances.
This is such an amazing picture of the church. The implications and applications are enormous. With this view of the church in mind, ask yourself “How easy is it for us to cut off all relations with a member of the church?” Would I disassociate with my brother in the Lord because he offended me? Would I slander my sister in Christ because she tends to be annoying? Then ask yourself, would I hit my thumb with a hammer out of anger because it was causing me mild pain? Would I hammer nails into my nose to keep my sun glasses from slipping off when I go to the beach?
More commonly, we should be mindful of how we might be poisoning our brothers and sisters in Christ in subtle ways. We can harm them with bad teaching or with a cynical attitude. We can talk about people behind their back and paint pictures of them that are false so that we make ourselves look better. We can act as though all our ideas are superior to everyone else’s and not recognize the value of what others bring to the table.
Now before I go on to the next passage I want to say that we can overdo this as well. Some people do feel the weight of our obligation to the church and go to extremes in trying to meet all of the needs of the church. This mindset needs to be tempered. Many times we are pulled in a thousand directions by our many responsibilities. While I do think that Paul is teaching the Corinthians that the church is a body, I don’t think that he would have all of us quit our jobs or have us worry ourselves to death about the well being of every other member in the church.
The key to tempering our overzealous notions about singlehandedly upholding the church is found in the truth that God is the one who creates and preserves the body. Each of us has a part that we play within God’s greater scheme. But we shouldn’t think that any one of us needs to bear the burden of holding the entire body together. Again, that is God’s job. We don’t need to be the hand and the foot and the ear. We are called to be faithful to the part that we are.
As Paul says in v.18, “God has placed each of the members in the body just as He decided”. It’s too easy to miss the strong sense of divine sovereignty here. Something that is quite plain to Paul is not always plain to us. The church is not a creation of man, but a creation of God. He sets the stage, He makes the actors, and He writes the script. If we play our parts well, then God is pleased and the whole play ends up being beautiful.
Sometimes we end up being practical deists. The doctrine of providence should always remind us that God is intimately involved with the created order at all times. God knows that no one person can do it all. In fact, God knows that not just one local congregation or even one denomination can do all that needs to be done. God places us in our times and places for a reason. Our role in God’s plan is to place ourselves at God’s disposal and to discipline ourselves to be faithful even though we recognize that our hard work is done by the grace of God.
Finally, in v.21 Paul writes, “The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor in turn can the head say to the foot, “I do not need you.”” This probably speaks to the condescending attitude of some in that church. There are many references to people at the church in Corinth thinking that they are better or more spiritual than others. This type of pride has no place in the body of Christ. In fact, the amount of pride in a church is a key indicator of the health or of the sickness of a church.
Do the different parts of a body contribute to each other or compete with each other? Eyes don’t compete with hands, because they aren’t supposed to do the same things that hands do. Hands don’t see things, they take hold of things. Eyes are better at seeing than hands are, but hands are much better at grasping things than eyes are.
So again, Paul points to a spiritual deficiency in the church at Corinth by means of a physical illustration. How absurd would it be for the eye to say to the hand “I have no need of you”? It would be as absurd as a prophet telling a good administrator that the church has no need of an administrator. It would be as absurd as a deacon telling a worship leader that the church has no need of a worship leader.
In this way Paul is telling them that they need to appreciate the diversity of gifts given to the church.
This line of thinking is continued in v.22 – 26
On the contrary, those members that seem to be weaker are essential, and those members we consider less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our unpresentable members are clothed with dignity, but our presentable members do not need this. Instead, God has blended together the body, giving greater honor to the lesser member, so that there may be no division in the body, but the members may have mutual concern for one another. If one member suffers, everyone suffers with it. If a member is honored, all rejoice with it.
Here Paul brings up how we should treat those members who we consider less honorable. In keeping with the analogy of the body, he says that upon the members which we consider to be less honorable, we should bestow greater honor. Why do we do this? Verse 25 says that we do it “so that there may be no division in the body”. How is that accomplished? Verse 25b tells us that the various members should have mutual concern for one another.
Picture here a woman preparing herself to go to a fancy ball. She spends hours getting ready. She takes a shower, puts on her best dress, then goes to the store and buys a different dress, puts on that dress, arranges it is different ways, puts on makeup, looks in the mirror at every crevasse of her face, etc. etc… What she is doing is showing meticulous concern for every aspect of how she looks. She doesn’t say “Well my face looks really good, so I think I’ll wear a short skirt even though I haven’t shaved my legs for 5 months.” No, she is concerned about looking her best and that includes every part of her. Hence she takes care of herself down to the minutest detail.
The picture of a woman preparing for a glamorous evening out is actually a good picture of the church. We are the bride of Christ. When we become what God has intended us to be, we are doing just that. We are preparing ourselves for our bridegroom. We are making ourselves beautiful for him. When we care for those who are weak, it’s like we are picking out the perfect dress. When we tolerate the annoyances of other members of the body for the sake of helping them, it’s like we are meticulously making ourselves beautiful for the bridegroom.
Keep in mind too that Paul’s concern is for individual spiritual growth, but he is even more concerned about the spiritual growth of the whole church. So while we are growing personally by learning patience and self-control, we must consider part of our spiritual growth to consist in our involvement with other believers.
In verse 22 Paul says that those members of the body which seem weaker are necessary. If they are necessary, then who are we to belittle that which God has placed in the body? I think we all know the answer to this question.
In verse 23 we are given instructions on how to treat those members of the body that are less presentable. We don’t look down on them proudly as if we were better than them. We bestow greater honor on them. Over and over again, Paul contrasts the mindset of the world with the mindset of the Christian. In the economy of the world, those with power and privilege use their positions to exploit those beneath them. In God’s economy, those who have more are required to take care of and build up those who are weaker.
In verse 26 we see that there should even be an emotional investment with one another. He says “If one member suffers, everyone suffers with it. If a member is honored, all rejoice with it.” During times of persecution, those who were not suffering would suffer vicariously through those who were being martyred. Love is not primarily an emotion, but if we do not suffer emotionally with those who are members of our own body, then it is likely that we really do not will the good of our brothers and sisters. Our lack of emotional investment is very often a sign of our calloused hearts. I believe the suffering and rejoicing here has to do with an emotional “coming along side” of our brothers and sisters in the Lord.
Why do I think this? Well, if one of our friends loses an eye, we don’t feel what they feel physically. We don’t suffer with them by plucking out our eye. We suffer with them as we come along side them emotionally to say, “That is terrible that your eye was gouged out! I am so sorry for your loss.” And contrary to the pagan notions of spirituality, this is the kind of thing that characterizes a truly spiritual person.
While “suffering with” and “rejoicing with” may entail an intellectual assent to the same facts as the person you are suffering with, what is more substantial in helping your brother or sister is coming along side them emotionally. How comforting would it be for your friend to try to help you by saying “I agree with the proposition that your eye has been gouged out.”? That’s not comforting or edifying. If someone sees mere intellectual assent to your problem as a “coming along side of” that is spoken of in verse 26, then there is something psychologically wrong with that person. That person doesn’t need a course on exegesis, he needs a therapist.
Verses 27 – 31
Now you are Christ’s body, and each of you is a member of it. And God has placed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, gifts of healing, helps, gifts of leadership, different kinds of tongues. Not all are apostles, are they? Not all are prophets, are they? Not all are teachers, are they? Not all perform miracles, do they? Not all have gifts of healing, do they? Not all speak in tongues, do they? Not all interpret, do they? But you should be eager for the greater gifts. And now I will show you a way that is beyond comparison.
In this section, Paul wraps up his teaching on unity and diversity with regard to the gifts of the Spirit. First he concludes by saying that each member of the body is part of the body of Christ. He is telling them that they are part of something larger than themselves and he tells them this both as a warning and an encouragement.
Paul gives another list of ministries and gifts here. In verse 28 he says that God has placed in the church “first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, gifts of healing, helps, gifts of leadership, and different kinds of tongues.” If you notice, the first three in the list have a first, second, and third heading and they refer to offices rather than to gifts. After that he then gives an abbreviated list of the gifts that God has given to the church.
So unlike the previous list, this list contains some ranking. Apostles are first, prophets second, and teachers are third. The question has to do is what type of ranking it is? Are apostles the most important? Did they just come first chronologically? Do they have the most authority?
Gordon Fee believes that these rankings are rankings of function and in this context the function is edification. So he thinks that apostles are first with regard to the edification or the building up of the church. In part, he takes this section to be a response to the prophets in that congregation. Given the division there, Paul was asserting, in some sense, his function over and above those giving prophecy in the congregation. To me it seems like there is a ranking of authority going on here.
After the list is given, he then offers several rhetorical questions. “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all perform miracles? Do all have the gift of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret tongues?” Again, the answer to all of these questions is “no.” Paul again reinforces the notion that the body is composed of many members and that all of them are needed. Additionally, all of them are part of the body of Christ.
This chapter ends with the following: “But you should be eager for the greater gifts. And now I will show you a way that is beyond comparison.” The New King James version reads, “But earnestly desire the best gifts. And yet I show you a more excellent way.”
After looking at my commentary on 1 Corinthians, the study notes in my Bible, and the notes from the NET Bible, there is a consensus that Paul is not drawing a negative comparison between spiritual gifts and love. Different reasons were given for this conclusion, but they all seemed to agree that this was the case. This verse appears to act as a transition which continues the thought into chapter 13.
Chapter 13 seems to serve as a context for chapters 12 and 14. The basis for caring for those who are considered less honorable, the basis for preferring prophecy to tongues in the worship setting, and the basis for the desire to be unified must be love. Of course there is an ontological reality, namely the church, which God wants to preserve. But He wants to preserve it because He created her and He loves her. He wills antecedently that His church be whole but it will never be whole as long as the members of the body do not love one another.
To tie this back to my original issue concerning true spirituality, I think we need to look at how Paul corrects the Corinthians. When he addresses the issue of spiritual gifts, you would think that he would spend a lot of time comparing and contrasting pagan spirituality with Christian spirituality.
You would think he would say something like “The pagans use ecstatic speech, but tongues aren’t ecstatic speech, they are actual foreign languages. Also, prophecy has two different senses, one sense it foretelling and the other is forth telling the will of God.” And to some degree, Paul does this (especially in chapter 14). But the thrust of what he is saying to them has to do with how they should treat each other as the engage in the using of the gifts.
If Paul is teaching them about Christian spirituality, then his voice speaks much more clearly about how they ought to love one another. And ultimately, I think this is the essence of what it means for a Christian to be spiritual. It involved the building of your character. It involves your every day interactions with people. And most importantly, it is characterized by love.
If God chooses to gift you the gift of prophecy, that is His prerogative. But you should not be under the impression that Christianity is about the obtaining of spiritual gifts. It is much more about displaying the fruits of the Spirit.
What should govern the use of any gift or talent that you have is love. If you are given a talent or gift from God, then He has given that gift to you because somehow it fits within His divine plan. It is our job to be faithful with whatever He gives us.
God wants to see His church as a beautiful bride. When we sin, when we are divided, when we are arrogant, we present to Him a scraggly bride with buck teeth and harry legs. This may be a funny picture, but it is actually very serious. Picture a look of disappointment on the face of the bridegroom. Yes, we will be declared righteous by the blood of Christ, but that does not mean that we can do whatever we want here on earth. What we do here echo’s in eternity. How you live now will affect how you live then.
Collectively we grow together because it is good for our character. We are able to lend emotional and financial support to each other. We learn how to handle difficult personalities which produces patience in us. We also reap the benefits the friendships we develop.
But ultimately, when we act as God intends for us to act, as a unified body that is composed of different parts, we present ourselves collectively to God as the beautiful bride of Christ.
Our individualistic notions of Christianity, our reductionistic view of sanctification, and our poor view of the church has lead us to not care about how we present ourselves to Christ. What most of us don’t understand is that we should labor and struggle today because on that day we do not want to present ourselves to our bridegroom in an unworthy manner.
If we love Christ, we want to please Him. He has made it clear how to please Him. John 14:15 says “If you love me, you will obey my commandments”. We must strive to love Him.
This morning, I want us to break up into groups so that we can pray that God would move us to obedience. Ask that God would give us the grace to continue in love, to bear one another’s burdens, and to be discerning.
Pray that our love for one another would not be superficial and that we will be united in Christ.