Lessons From Corinth
No book in the New Testament is more crucial for our understanding of the Holy Spirit in the church than Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. Especially chapters 12, 13 and 14 provide deep insight into the nature and function of the gifts of the Spirit and the relationship between gifts and fruit. While we don’t have room here to discuss the entire letter, it will be helpful to take a brief overview, followed by a verse by verse examination of chapter 12. In the next lesson we will discuss the high-lights of chapters 13 and 14.
Paul’s reason for writing I Corinthians was because of spiritual immaturity among the members of the church manifesting in personal sin, broken relationships, the misuse of spiritual gifts and a divided church, all of which grieved the Lord of the church. The Corinthians loved the gifts of the Spirit but were woefully lacking in the fruit of the Spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control (Gal. 5:22,23). Their fellowship, their unity, without which no church can truly function, was fractured; they had become a disjointed body. This aroused the apostle’s deepest concern, of which this letter is an expression.
His teaching on the gifts of the Spirit, the charismata, must be understood in this context. If his instruction on the gifts are taken out of their setting, as they so often are, they may be misinterpreted. Caution concerning the use of spiritual gifts must not be twisted into prohibition of the gifts. Inspired counsel on the mature exercise of gifts must not be misconstrued as a devaluing of the gifts. Though he called for order in the church, at no time did he disrespect or depreciate the gifts, instead exhorting the church, “Desire earnestly spiritual gifts” (I Cor. 14:1).
When Paul says at the end of chapter 12, “And I show you a still more excellent way,” he is not advising us to discard the supernatural tools and gifts which God has so graciously provided His church. Rather, he is describing a more excellent way to use them.
Paul says in 1:7 that the Corinthian Church is “not lacking in any spiritual gift”. Yet in 3:1,2 he says: “And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able.”
All the gifts of the Spirit were in operation, nothing was lacking in reference to the charismata, and yet according to Paul these were unspiritual people, carnal Christians, “infants in Christ”, gifted babies. What was the problem? In 3:3 Paul says, “For you are still fleshly (worldly). For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly…”
We read of immorality in the church and an inability to break free of the pagan idol worship which had been the lot of many Corinthian believers before they had come to know Christ. We also read of quarreling, dissension, jealousy and a general insensitivity toward one another. And there was still in some of the believers a prideful residue of that worldly love of wisdom so characteristic of ancient Greek culture. In summary, the Corinthians had been unable to completely surrender their Greek mindset and lifestyle to the folly of the cross. As one commentator has said: “The Corinthians needed to get a new vision of Christ crucified, Christ the power of God, Christ the wisdom of God.” 1 This is why Paul wrote to them, “For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (I Cor. 2:2).
None of the gifts of the Spirit were lacking — God had blessed the church generously with the resources and empowerment necessary to be His church and accomplish His mission. But they were spiritual babies — gifted babies. Powerful gifts in the hands of immature personalities can be very destructive. Therefore Paul wrote this letter of exhortation, correction and instruction.
The question has been asked as to why the Holy Spirit was moving at all at Corinth, since there were so many problems. It has been suggested by some critics that the gifts of the Spirit are somehow discredited by the lack of maturity in that church. These questions and objections stem from a misunderstanding of Christ’s relationship with us, the nature of His gifts and the motive for His Self-giving. All that Jesus does in our lives is an expression of His goodness and grace, motivated by a desire to glorify His Father and pour out blessing on fallen, broken humanity.
Jesus called the twelve apostles, not because they were spiritually mature saints. They were immature, sinful, weak men but He met them where they were and He taught them, patiently discipled them, invested His authority and anointing in them. Yes, there was a growth process required of them and lack of growth will surely hinder the exercise of spiritual gifts but Jesus met them and meets us in the reality of our incompleteness, immaturity and even brokenness and He comes to us bearing gifts.
In addressing this problem of gifts and fruit, of powerful tools in the hands of immature personalities, one commentator has said: “It must be remembered that fruit is something that grows, that must be encouraged, that takes time to develop ... God always begins where people are, gives them as much as their faith is able to receive, and leads them on.” 2
As for the idea that the Corinthians did not deserve the gifts of the Spirit, it has been said: “People have a tendency to forget that the gifts of the Spirit must be received on the same basis as the gift of the Spirit and the gift of salvation… That the gifts of the Spirit are by grace through faith is implied also by the most common Greek word used to describe these gifts. They are charismata, ‘freely and graciously given gifts’, a word derived from charis, grace, the unmerited favor of God. Charismata are gifts given in spite of the fact that we do not deserve them. They bear witness to the goodness of God, not the goodness of those who receive them.” 3
As we read through this letter, and especially as we focus on Chapter 12, we must keep in mind that Paul was not condemning the gifts of the Spirit nor the Corinthians for exercising them. Rather, he was calling the church to a greater appropriation of the maturity necessary to exercise the gifts effectively, a higher understanding of the Giver and a deeper appreciation for the unity within the church to which His gifts have so generously and lovingly been granted.
12:1 “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware (uninformed).”
Literally, the text reads, “Now concerning spirituals, brethren.” The word spirituals is pneumatikos — that which is spiritual, supernatural. From the context we know that Paul has in mind “spiritual things” and therefore, “spiritual gifts” (the word gifts is supplied by the translator). 4 Paul is referring to the charismata, gifts given by the Holy Spirit for the work of ministry and which are dealt with in detail in this chapter.
He says, “I do not want you to be uninformed.” The members of the Corinthian Church were all well acquainted with spiritual gifts but evidently inexperienced in their operation in the church. This is what Paul is referring to. God does not want His church to be uninformed in any area. God desires to enlighten us in all things that make for abundant life and effective discipleship. As we read in James 1:5, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all men generously and without reproach, and it will be given him.”
Tragically, there are many in the church today who are quick to point out the misuse of gifts and therefore are opposed to their operation. Yet how often these persons are unaware as to what truly constitutes a gift, what its function and purpose is and why the church needs it. The greatest danger is not the misuse of the charismata but their neglect, for neglect is the greatest abuse of all. Paul says, “I do not want you to be uninformed.”
12:2 “You know that when you were pagans, you were led astray to the mute idols, however you were led.”
“Led astray” is a word that was used of prisoners being led to prison or execution. The Corinthians, living in a pagan culture, were familiar with idolatrous and occult practices. Indeed, for most of the church, this was their former life — led, motivated, dominated by the idolatrous, demonically infused customs and religious practices of their society. How ironic that people often refer to life apart from Christ as free and resist surrendering to the Lordship of Jesus because they do not want to be restrained in the chains of religion, as they suppose. But the opposite is true, as Paul points out elsewhere, “Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?” (Rom. 6:16).
Far from being free, people who yield to the prevailing idols of their culture are slaves to the demonic presence and power which infuses those idols. Freedom is found in Christ alone who said, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31,32). In presenting ourselves to Christ, submitting to His Lordship, we set free from that which would enslave us. In their former life, the Corinthians had been slaves to the demonic presence infused in their idols and were merely prisoners being led to execution. In submission to Christ, they found and we find freedom to become the full person God designed us to be.
“Mute idols” refers to the fact that the idols have no life in themselves — they represent gods that do not exist. Then how were the people led, dominated by lifeless idols? Because, as we have said, all idols are infused with a demonic anointing. The entire system of idol worship, whatever the idol may be, is empowered by demonic deception which captures the worshippers in chains of darkness. Paul reminds them of this so he can make several important points in verse three.
12:3 “Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus is accursed’; and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.”
It appears that Paul is answering a question — whether someone speaking in tongues could possibly curse Jesus. This may have been posed by those who feared and did not understand the gift of tongues — evidently they were afraid that something irreverent or unholy might be spoken by someone exercising that gift. Paul assures them throughout the chapter that tongues is one of the gifts of the Spirit and therefore no one speaking in or by the Holy Spirit can say, “Jesus be cursed.” In fact, he says that no one can truly testify to the Lordship of Jesus except through revelation given by the Holy Spirit.
Paul desires not only that they understand the proper use of spiritual gifts but also that they understand that the source of these gifts and the source of their faith and the inspiration for their confession of Jesus is the Holy Spirit and is distinct from demonic, idolatrous manifestations. Paul wanted them to learn not only the right use of the gifts but also how to discern between that which is authentic and that which is a demonic counterfeit.
Furthermore, Paul is reminding the Corinthians that in contrast to the uncertainty and demonically inspired wandering of their pagan days — “However you were led” (v. 2) — now there is certainty grounded in this unchanging, Spirit-inspired confession, “Jesus is Lord.”
Remember that the desire of the Holy Spirit is to honor Jesus (Jn. 16:14) and therefore the goal of life in the Spirit is to honor Jesus. Misusing the gifts is to dishonor Jesus and to frustrate the purpose of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit-filled life. Paul’s goal in writing this letter and especially in these three chapters (12-14) is to enable the Corinthians to regain their focus on this goal of honoring Jesus. And so he begins this chapter by contrasting the meaningful, Spirit-filled life (glorifying Jesus, confessing His Lordship) with their former life dominated by idols, false worship, false confession and therefore meaningless existence.
An application for the modern church can be drawn from verse three: since it is always the desire of the Holy Spirit to exalt Jesus, then it is always safe to seek the gifts of the Spirit. As one authority has said, “We need never be afraid to seek the Holy Spirit and His gifts. Yielding to Him will never lead us astray, for He will always exalt Jesus and honor His Lordship. The : exercise of the gifts of the Spirit becomes an opportunity to bring honor to Jesus.” 5
Having answered this opening question, Paul begins a positive discussion of the gifts of the Spirit. In verse four he states his theme:
12:4 “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit.”
This theme— diversity of gifts within the unity of the Spirit— is central to the entire letter and is dealt with from many different angles using a variety of images and illustrations. Paul will not have any gift or exercise of gifts devalued or exalted above others. If the gifts are to function properly — and this is the apostle’s goal, not to suppress the gifts but to see them function properly — then this can only be accomplished within a context of diversity in unity. One way of expressing this truth is, as one writer has said: “Diversity is corporate, not competitive.” 6
Speaking of variety in unity, the word in verse four which we translate “varieties or diversities” — ‘diairesis’ in the Greek — is plural and carries a sense of the multiplying or distributing of gifts. 7 Also, the word ‘diaireseis’ implies that no one person can monopolize the charismata for we have a plural distribution of gifts. Nor can one gift be exalted above others for there are many gifts given by the one Spirit. There is also a sense here that the gifts cannot be diminished in their distribution nor in their use. Just as a candle can be used to light other candles without losing any of its own luster, so the gifts of the Spirit, when exercised, spread the light of God’s presence without in any way diminishing or using up the gift.
Paul moves into the discussion of the harmonious use of gifts by focusing on the unity of the Giver; the streams of gift are many but the wellspring, the Source, is One — the Holy Spirit. And as we will see, the Holy Spirit Himself works in union with the other members of the Trinity.
The apostle will go on in this chapter to develop the theme of church unity by using the image of the body. But first, as a prelude to unity in the church body in the use of gifts, Paul presents the unity of the Trinity in giving and guiding the gifts.
12:4-6 “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons.”
As a model for church life, the apostle presents the unity and cooperation of the Trinity. One commentator has said, “Paul speaks first of the Spirit as the One who directs the operation of the gifts in our lives. Then he speaks of the Lord (Jesus), by whose authority the Holy Spirit works in the world today; then of God the Father who is the ultimate Giver of every good and perfect gift.” 8
Whereas in 12:4-6 Paul dealt with unity, in 12:7-10 he deals with variety.
12:7-10 “But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues.”
Verse seven moves us into a discussion of the variety and wide distribution of gifts but in referring to the gifts as a “manifestation of the Spirit” Paul points us back again to the Source: we are given a manifestation of the Spirit. Our gifts are not our own, we are only stewards. In fact, we might say that it is not so much that the gift is given to us but given through us to others.
The word which we translate manifestation or expression is phanerosis from the root phaino which means “to shine”. Phanerosis and phaino are related to phanos which is the Greek word for lantern. Paul is saying, “To each is given a shining expression, a lantern of the Spirit.” That is what Jesus meant when He said, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matt. 5:14).
Notice, “To each is given,” referring to all people who have confessed Jesus — to each of us special gifts have been given — there are no ungifted followers of Christ. As Paul said in Ephesians 4:7, “But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” The charismata, the supernatural giftings of the Holy Spirit, are lavished upon all the redeemed.
Notice also that these gifts are given “for the common good (or toward the profit).” Toward whose profit? The members of the church profit when the leadership exercises their gifts “for the equipping of the saints for the work of service / ministry to the upbuilding of the body of Christ”(Eph. 4:12). People inside and outside the church profit as God’s grace is lavished upon them through the exercise of gifted ministry. God profits because the gifts of the Spirit reveal Him and Self-revelation is God’s desire.
Note an important principle lifted up in this verse: whatever we are given is to be spent to the glory of God and for the enrichment of our brothers and sisters and for the revealing of God’s grace to people inside and outside the church. The charismata are never given for personal glory or gain; always the glory is God’s and the gain is to those whom God desires to touch and bless through the exercise of the gift. But the gifts must be exercised, they must be shared, as Paul exhorts us elsewhere, “Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly” (Romans 12:6).
We are commanded to exercise our gifts, as Jesus said, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).
In verses eight through ten, key phrases are “through the Spirit”, “according to the same Spirit”, “by the one Spirit”. The Holy Spirit is the agent for God’s activity in the church and the gifts are His. They are never ours in the sense of independent action. We are not the owners of the gifts but stewards. The gift is not for us in the sense of possession. The Spirit’s desire is to give the gift through us into the lives of others — to bless others.
A number of different gifts are listed. They are generally divided into three classes of gifts: 9
1. Revelation gifts: wisdom, knowledge, discerning of spirits
2. Power gifts: faith, miracles, healing
3. Inspiration gifts: prophecy, various kinds of tongues and interpretation of tongues
However, it must be pointed out that this arrangement, though useful for study, is not all-inclusive. There are other lists, for instance — I Corinthians 12:28-30, Romans 12:6-8, I Peter 4:10,11. Paul does not systematically categorize gifts; he seems to give practical, working lists of gifts which are being used in particular contexts.
Again, we want to distinguish these nine gifts from the nine fruit of the Spirit found in Galatians 5:22-23. Charismata are God-given empowerments for service. Fruit of the Spirit refers to the natural ripening or development of a character being shaped by the indwelling Christ. Of course as we have said, there is a relationship between gifts and fruit. Immature personalities can cause harm with their giftings; mature people can do far more good in the exercise of their gifts.
Without moving into a detailed discussion of the gifts listed here, it would be helpful in passing to comment on one gift which had become somewhat controversial in Corinth: “Various kinds of tongues”. The word “tongues” does not express the fulness of the Greek word which indicates action —“the speaking tongue, the tongue in activity.” 10
Note the phrase “various kinds”. This indicates that even within this one gift there are a variety of expressions. For instance, there have been men and women suddenly gifted with the ability to preach in a language which they had not previously learned. There is also a personal prayer language which some are given. Others are given the ability to exhort the church in an unknown tongue, while someone else interprets the message in the common language of the people.
By placing this diverse gift of tongues in its rightful place in the list of manifestations of the Spirit, Paul is honoring it while also emphasizing the fact that it must not be exalted above the other gifts — it is one of the gifts, but one among others. And as we have said, the gifted disciple must not glory in the gift. The gift is to be used to the glory of God. Neither can we use this gift of tongues, or any gift, as a measuring rod of spiritual maturity. As we see in the Corinthian church, gifts may be exercised by immature personalities but are exercised most fruitfully by mature personalities.
12:11 “But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.”
Verse 11 summarizes the preceding section. “One and the same Spirit” calls us to remember the unified working of God in the church. “All these things” reminds us of the variety of the gifts. And the final phrase, “distributing to each one individually just as He wills,” demonstrates the sovereign control of the Spirit over the gifted life of God’s people. (Although we will see in 12:31 that there is a human component in the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit in assigning gifts — we are exhorted to “earnestly desire the greater gifts”. The Spirit assigns the gifts but in response to our desire to be used.)
The variety of gifts within the sovereign, unifying control of the Spirit is a basic principal found elsewhere in the writings of Paul, “Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us” (Rom. 12:6, part of the larger discussion in Rom. 12:3-8). Peter also makes this point, “As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (I Peter 4:10). The gifts are given by the Holy Spirit, received by the steward. Receiving the gift implies the acceptance of responsibility, accountability.
Jesus makes this point in the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-29), where we are taught that we are not owners but stewards of the gifts which God has given and we will be held accountable by One greater than ourselves. (Obviously that passage is not primarily a discussion of charismata; Jesus is teaching about stewardship over whatever gifts we are given. But His point is God’s sovereign control in the distribution of gifts and talents and our accountability.)
Again, note that not only the distribution of the gifts but also the function of the gifts is the work of the Spirit. To seek to go beyond the boundaries which the Spirit has laid down or to refuse to exercise the gifts or deny others the right or opportunity to use the gifts which the Spirit so freely and graciously provides is to find fault with the Holy Spirit — to judge God. What a terrible sin this is, for we do not always know what is best for the church, but God does.
12:12 “For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ.”
Beginning with verse 12, Paul moves into an extended figure of speech — the church as a body, an organism containing many members, all of which are necessary for the full vitality of the church body but all of which must be responsive to one another and to the Head of the body, which is Christ mediated through the Holy Spirit. However, this section must be read in the context of the whole letter and especially within the context of the preceding verses of this chapter. The purpose of this letter and chapter is not to convince the Corinthians to be a part of the body of Christ — they already are. The purpose is to educate them as to what it means to be members of the body in holy unity and harmony, using the variety of their spiritual gifts for the building up of the body.
Taken within this context, the body analogy suggests that the spiritual gifts are as necessary to the body of Christ as limbs and organs are to the human body. The harmonious exercise of the Spirit-given charismata is also analogous to the harmonious working of the human body.
12:13 “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”
Paul says that “we were all baptized into one body.” The word “body” refers both to Christ and His church, the union of believers in Christ. We have been baptized, plunged by the Holy Spirit into a living union with the saints in Christ.
In Galatians 3:27, Paul says, “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” This refers not so much to our place in the body of Christ, the church, but more to our position in Christ, our identification with Him. This union with Christ into which the Holy Spirit has baptized us is so complete that Paul says we have “clothed” ourselves with Christ. When we confessed Christ, we were baptized into a spiritual union with His death and resurrection, immersed into union with Christ by the Holy Spirit. In union with Christ, we are also brought into union with His saints as members of the body.
Verse 13 is consistent with the chapter’s theme. Paul says that we have been baptized, plunged by the Holy Spirit into the stream of Christ and His church and all have been made to drink — have been watered, saturated — by the one Spirit. More literally, this last phrase could read: “One made us all drink one Spirit.” 11 The emphasis is on the word “one”: “By one Spirit ... into one body … of one Spirit.” This is not a sacramental statement concerning the rite of baptism but a continuation of the discussion on the unity of those who exercise gifts, the organic relationship of gifts and the Oneness of their source. We have been baptized, immersed into relationship with one another in union with Christ and our gifted ministries find union in Christ.
Further, this is a statement on the work of the Holy Spirit in forming unity out of national, cultural and economic diversity — Jew and Greek, slave and free. As one authority has noted: “In the first century AD the unification of so varied a multitude was very remarkable; such a thing only took place in the Christian church.” 12 The reality of national and cultural unity in the Corinthian church is used by Paul to illustrate the need for spiritual unity while respecting the diversity of race and culture and gifting.
12:14-16 “For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot says, ‘Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,’ it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. And if the ear says, ‘Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,’ it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body.”
Having made the point that God is One and that the gifts of the Spirit flow from a common Source, Paul proceeds to argue that the church should reflect that Oneness in a living, organic relationship with one another. In fact, the variety of gifts enables us to live in union, for that which one of us may lack is supplied by another, as Paul explained in Ephesians 4:15,16, “But speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.”
The whole body is “being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part.” This “causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.” Each individual member of the body of Christ, the church, is needed by every other member of the body. When each individual part supplies its particular gift, the whole body grows. This implies also the growth of each individual part.
Verses 15 and 16 are absurd statements— the foot may appreciate the fact that it is not a hand but that does not abolish the fact that both foot and hand belong to the same body. Likewise with the ear and the eye. Paul is speaking directly to the problems of division and strife in the Corinthian church. He is underscoring their need for one another, the interdependence of the healthy church.
12:17 “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?”
In verse 17 Paul flips back to a co-theme of his harmony argument, that although unity is necessary for the life of the body, so is variety — uniformity is deadly. If the whole body were one member, there would be no life. An eye can be an eye without a hand but how could it grasp anything? A hand can be a hand without an eye but how would it see what to grasp?
The problem in the modern church is too often a lack of variety in our gifts, a stifling uniformity in worship and service. In the Corinthian church there was diversity but not unity. The goal is not uniformity where one gift predominates or variety in chaos but unity vitalized by variety.
12:18 “But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired.”
Verse 18 is the figurative counterpart of verse 11. Even as the Spirit apportions the gifts “as He wills”, so also God places the members of the human body, and by analogy, members of the church, according to His sovereign design. Each member of the human body has a special place, a particular function and though we may not always appreciate its value or function, we know that God has done this “just as He desired,” (or “as it hath pleased Him” — King James). So with the church, the body of Christ. We may not always understand or fully appreciate all the gifts of the Spirit but if we worship and trust an all-wise and perfectly loving God, then we can accept His providential design.
12:19,20 “If they were all one member, where would the body be? But now there are many members, but one body”’
Verses 19 and 20 restate the idea that uniformity is deadly — the body cannot exist as one limb or organ. There is a variety of members in the body but there also must be unity if the diverse members are to prosper. So in the church. And the subtext is, “So it is with the gifts of the Spirit. If we only exercise one or two gifts, how can we have a healthy church? But though there are many gifts, there is one church.”
12:21 “And the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’; or again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’”
Paul restates the fact of interdependence through the absurd conversation of body members disavowing relationship to one another. The truth is that feet can walk without eyes, but they cannot see where they are going. Eyes can see without hands but how will we grasp anything? A head without other body parts is as immobile as a pumpkin and just as dead.
12:22-24a “On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, whereas our more presentable parts have no need of it.”
The appearance or reputation of a body member does not necessarily signify its importance or lack of importance to the overall health of the body. Analogously, we may think a gift or ministry to be less honorable than another but we must not allow prominence to be determined simply by notoriety. As one commentator has said, “There is a part written on the orchestral score that only the triangle can supply.” 13 A gift or ministry which to our superficial or prejudiced glance may appear to be foolish, may in God’s eyes, carry the utmost importance.
We do not normally watch an athletic event and say, “That athlete has a great liver” but the greatest athlete in the world could not live a normal life if his liver failed. Non-pentecostals may judge the gift of tongues to be nonsense, without honor in the body, but who are we to judge what God has created and deemed necessary to the health of the body?
Conversely, the point Paul is implying here, and we can be sure the Corinthians caught the implication, is that though a gift may have a wide dispersal and a popular exercise, i.e., tongues, it is not in God’s sight exalted above its fellow gifts. Paul emphasizes the importance of this section by opening verse 22 with the strong phrase “On the contrary” (or “Nay, much rather”).
12:24b-26 “But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that part which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.”
For the third time (12:11, 12:18, 12:24b) Paul emphasizes that the arrangement of the body, and by implication the giving of gifts, is according to God’s sovereign choice. Not only can unity exist in the context of diversity but this is the very nature of things. God planned it this way according to His good pleasure. The fact that Paul mentions this three times underscores the importance of the point.
In verse 25 we are told that the goal of God’s providential composition of the body is that there should be no division, that the body should function harmoniously, the different members caring for one another. Because of this unity, we are told in verse 26, the members are in such close connection that if one suffers, all suffer; if one rejoices, all rejoice. Liver or lung disfunction leads to disfunction throughout the body and it would not be stretching the image to say that the whole body mourns when one organ is weak. Likewise, a strong, healthy heart creates vitality and health for the whole body. The body rejoices over the proper functioning of the heart.
This speaks to the mutual care that should exist within the church. We mourn with those who mourn, we rejoice with those who rejoice. We minister grace to those in need. We are responsive to the needs of others because we exist in this organic unity in union with Christ.
12:27 “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it.”
Now Paul reaches the summit of his argument and applies the image that he has been building. We are individual members of the body of Christ but to be a member of the body of Christ in Corinth is to be a member of the body of Christ on earth. In reminding the Corinthians that they are individual members of this body, Paul is saying, in effect, “This is who you are so this is who you must be.” He reminds them that they must be willing to live who they say they are.
12:28 “And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues.”
Having made his point concerning the unity of the body amidst its diversity of members, Paul begins a brief discussion of more offices and gifts which bring fulness and vitality to the church. (he also did this in verses 8-10). He begins with “God has appointed,” once again emphasizing that it is God through the mediation of the Holy Spirit who assigns and establishes the different functions, gifts and duties of the members of His church.
Paul begins with the gift of apostolic leadership, as in Ephesians 4:11, because those who first exercised this gift were the founders of the church. However, the word apostolos may be translated ambassador, messenger — he or she who is sent. So in a general sense, we may say that this gifted ministry is still in operation today among those who go and establish the church among people groups where the church did not exist before.
Prophets received, proclaimed and wrote the oracles of Scripture and continue to speak Scripturally defined truth to the church. Teachers open and interpret the word of God to the church, planting that life-transforming word in our hearts. Those gifted in the ministry of healing manifest the mercy and power of Jesus in broken bodies, minds, relationships and societies. The gift of helps is a serving gift. Administration is an organizational gift. “Various kinds of tongues”, as we have said, includes the ability to preach in a language we have not previously learned; it includes bringing a prophetic message in an unknown language, followed by an interpretation in the common language of the church; and it includes a private prayer language used in personal devotions.
In my opinion, in this particular chapter and in this letter Paul’s use of the word charismata does not refer to natural talents or gifts in the general sense but rather to the extraordinary and supernatural tools which God sovereignly gives to His people. But it’s interesting that he lists helps (a serving gift) and administration (an organizational gift) alongside miracles and healings, as if he does not want to distinguish between what we might call natural and supernatural giftings. His point may be that all giftings are charismata — expressions of God’s grace.
In fact, one commentator insists, “Paul recognizes no distinction between natural and supernatural gifts. In his view the administration of money is just as much a charisma as is speaking in tongues and the work of diaconia (service) just as much a charisma as the exorcism of demons.” 14
It is true that every person in the world has talents and gifts through which God desires to reveal Himself to the world and enable humanity to exercise stewardship over creation. When people live apart from God, their gifts remain buried or are discovered and misused. But in relationship with God, through the indwelling Holy Spirit, we discover our unique giftings and as we surrender our talents and gifts to the Lordship of Christ, we are blessed and empowered to use them in mighty ways. But I would add that in addition to the Lord anointing our natural talents, He also gives us supernatural giftings — charismata.
12:29,30 “All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they? All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they?”
These questions require the obvious response that no one has been endowed with all the gifts and although we are all gifted, we exercise a particular office or charismata only as God has supplied. However, we need not fall into the error of comparing ourselves with one another, as if some were “superior” disciples and others “inferior.” Although we must be deliberate in seeking and exercising the gifts, it is God who assigns them, so none can boast of a higher spirituality because of their gift or ministry. As we have said, ministry gifts do not declare spiritual maturity in the person who exercises the gift. It is the way we exercise the gift that reveals maturity.
Also, the fact that we may not have been used in a particular gift in the past does not preclude the possibility of being so used in the future. Stanley Horton has some wise counsel in this:
“God has purposely given different gifts and ministries to different people. He wants us to realize we need each other. The church as a body should not be satisfied with merely the first gifts. The Holy Spirit wants to use every member and bring in all the variety that will build up the church in unity. There is no intention here of setting up sharp distinctions between clergy and laity, either, nor between full-time and part-time ministries. All are working together under the direction of the Holy Spirit as He wills. It is clear that some will be regularly used in particular ministries. Some are prophets, some are teachers. The verbs used in 12:30 are continuous presents. Some do keep on ministering gifts of healings. Some do regularly minister to the body in various kinds of tongues. Some do regularly interpret these tongues for the congregation. It should be noted here also that since these are talking about regular ministries to the Body, the fact that the questions call for a negative answer should not be pressed too far. The fact that all do not have a ministry along the lines of the gifts of healing does not mean that God cannot use them occasionally to minister healing to the sick. The fact that all do not have a ministry of tongues does not mean that all could not speak in tongues on occasion in their private devotions.” 15
In conclusion, we must remember that since it is God who gives the gifts to His people and establishes gifted ministry in His church, then we need not fear any gift for God is not the author of confusion, disharmony or death.
12:31a “But earnestly desire the greater gifts.”
One commentator reminds those who treasure and seek to obey “every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” that we would do well to read closely this verse. 16 Are we able to say, “Yes, we are earnestly desiring the higher gifts”? There is an intentionality required here, a sincere deliberation in seeking God and in seeking to be used of God.
One writer has said, “The command also re-emphasizes the fact that we do not have the gifts automatically just because we have the Spirit. Further steps of faith are needed … The Holy Spirit does apportion the gifts ‘as He wills’ but He does not disregard changing needs. Nor does He violate the integrity of our personalities by forcing a gift on us for which we do not have this earnest desire.” 17
The Holy Spirit assigns gifts according to His sovereign will but He is aware of the needs and the seasons that require a gift. He is aware of our personal desire and willingness to seek and accept a gifting. We must be intentional, earnest and deliberate in seeking supernatural empowerment for our ministries. Yes, only God can sovereignly open this door to His treasure house of gifts but we must seek, knock and ask.
Also, as we mentioned in a previous lesson, desire may speak not only of an aspiration or eagerness to exercise a particular gift but also the willingness to develop the gift. For instance, an administrative or teaching gifting would surely involve a natural talent and a supernatural anointing but would also be enhanced with training. So it is God the Holy Spirit who gifts us but we also must commit ourselves to an openness to gifts and to seasons of preparation.
12:31b “And I show you a still more excellent way.”
We must be careful not to allow 12:31b to become a line of demarcation between chapters 12 and 13, as if when Paul says, “And I show you a still more excellent way,” he is preparing to abandon these many gifts in favor of one “gift” — love. As a matter of fact, Paul does not say that love is a gift of the Spirit. He says elsewhere (Gal. 5:22,23) that love is a fruit of the Spirit, a quality of the maturing Christian character and, as such, is not a gift but a way, a more excellent way, of exercising gifts.
Yes, God has given us His love as we read in Romans 5:5, “The love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” But that is not to say that love is one of the spiritual gifts, one of the charismata. We must distinguish here between gifts and fruit. We are to seek the greater gifts and use them in a more excellent way. We are to desire the supernatural gifts of the holy Spirit which empower and enable us to function as vital members of the body of Christ but they must be exercised in the context of unity, harmony, love and respect — the more excellent way so beautifully presented in chapter 13.
1. Stanley M. Horton, What the Bible Says About the Holy Spirit (Springfield: Gospel Publishing House, 1976), p. 198.
2. Ibid., 207
3. Ibid., 207- 208
4. F.W. Grosheide, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, F.F. Bruce, ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1953), p 278.
5. Stanley Horton., p. 211.
6. Harold Horton, p. 23
7. Spiros Zodhiates, ‘The Gifts of the Spirit’, Pulpit Helps, June, 1981, p. 6.
8. Stanley Horton, p. 211.
9. Harold Horton p 26
10. F.W. Grosheide, p. 288.
11. Ibid., p. 293.
12. Ibid., p. 293
13. Harold Horton, p. 34
14. Arnold Bittlinger, Gifts and Ministries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1973), p. 17.
15. Stanley Horton, p. 218.
16. Harold Horton, p. 36
17. Stanley Horton, p. 219.
1. What is your primary gift or is there more than one?
2. Paul talks about the variety of limbs and organs in the human body and the need for unity within the body. How is this related to the gifts of the Spirit and the body of Christ (the church) ?