1 Corinthians 12

Jimmy Jo1 Corinthians, SermonsLeave a Comment

Read the passage here.

Today we’re picking up our study of 1 Corinthians at chapter 12.  Because it’s quite a lot of text, let’s jump straight in. 

But before we consider our verses in particular, it’s worth saying a few words about the literary context.  It’s clear that chapters 12-14 hang together as a unit, and we’ll talk about how they work together – the flow of Paul’s thought.  However, as we mentioned a few weeks ago, it’s also seems that chapters 12-14 pick up on something Paul’s concerned about in chapter 11, where he talks first about head coverings and then about the Lord’s Supper.  Specifically, both the discussion on head coverings and the Lord’s Supper in chapter 11 have to do with corporate worship.  We won’t revisit those conversations, but it seems relatively clear that chapters 12-14 also have to do with corporate worship – this is made most clear in chapter 14. 

Indeed, one might argue that the concern around worship extends all the way back to chapter 8 where Paul is talking about participating in cultic meals.  In other words, we might theorize that Paul begins with worship outside of the Christian context (i.e. to false gods or idols) and then moves to worship within the Christian context (i.e. to the one true God).  We might then argue that, within the context of Christian worship, Paul is trying to move from disordered worship to ordered, or true worship. 

With that in mind, we are going to very briefly outline what’s going on in chapters 12-14 as a whole.  We will then take a closer look at our chapter today (12), considering how Paul is working out his argument here in light of the greater context (again, 12-14).  We’ll then spend some time reflecting on a few thoughts or questions that arise out of this passage (for me). 

So firstly, the larger context of chapters 12-14.  Now I’m sure there’s a better way to work through this, but I’m going to begin with what seems to be Paul’s concern in these chapters.  In beginning this section, at 12:1, Paul begins with the familiar phrase, “Now about the gifts of the Spirit…”  So his concern lies somewhere here – with spiritual gifts.  And if we can short-hand this somewhat, making some assumptions (reasonably certain assumptions, but not explicitly stated by Paul), it seems that Paul’s concern has to do with an abuse of spiritual gifts in some way, shape, or form. 

Now most likely this is related to a topic that we have previously mentioned, in which certain members of the Corinthian congregation have a particular idea of what it means to be “spiritual.”  And it would seem reasonable to assume, based on how Paul writes throughout the section, that some in the congregation view themselves as more spiritual based on the gifts they possess (and others don’t).  In particular, it seems that those who demonstrate the gifts of tongues are disparaging or devaluing those who don’t have tongues.  Another possibility (not exclusive or each other) is that the gift of tongues is so highly valued that it is disrupting the experience of gathering altogether.  That is to say that some may be more concerned about the expression of their gift than they are about what the gift is supposed to be for (obviously, more on that as we continue in these chapters over the next several weeks). 

So, if we consider the flow of chapters 12-14 as a whole, we might get something like this: 

Chapter 12 begins by outlining the basic foundation – that is, there is one body and no part of the body is more important than the others.  At the end of the chapter, Paul connects this with the issue in the Corinthian church – that is, the person who has one gift is not more important than one who has another.  All are for the Body. 

Chapter 13, the famous love passage, must be understood in this context.  This is not a non-sequitur or even a theological treatise on love per se.  Rather, Paul is underlining the point that love for one another, our relationships with one another, the unity of the Body is more important than any spiritual gift.  “If I speak in the tonguesof men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

And in chapter 14, Paul says that spiritual gifts are supposed to be for the benefit of the whole body – and it should be evident how this arises out of the conversation about love.  In particular, Paul’s concern is about how gifts (especially it seems the gift of tongues) is being used in the corporate worship gathering.  In short, Paul says that if the gift is not used to build up the Body, to edify and build up one another, then what good is it?  The entire point of spiritual gifts, says Paul, is for one another (that is, not for oneself). 

So with that over-arching structure in mind, let’s return our specific passage today.  Again, we’re going to go over this very quickly and so I won’t touch on every issue or question.  And for that, I apologize.  So with that in mind, I want to draw your attention to a few verses. 

Firstly, vv. 1-3 have proved difficult for interpreters because it seems to be somewhat disconnected from what follows (from chapter 12 through chapter 14).  So what I want to suggest is that what Paul is doing here is setting the foundation for spiritual gifts as coming from Jesus.  That is to say, in light of what seems to be an arrogance or entitlement around spiritual gifts from some corners of the church, Paul wants to firmly set the stage that all gifts flow out of the authority and Lordship of Jesus Christ.  This is perhaps more clear when we also consider the next couple of verses (i.e. 1-6 together). 

12:1 Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.

1 Corinthians 12: 1-6

In the next verses, Paul moves from where gifts are from to what gifts are for.  And specifically, as we’ve already alluded to, Paul says that gifts are for the good of the Body – “for the common good” (NIV).

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.

1 Corinthians 12: 7-11

The next couple of paragraphs are the well-known metaphor of the body – “the eye cannot say to the hand…”  Here, Paul says that, since spiritual gifts are for the corporate body (and not, for example one’s personal edification or the elevation of one’s status), there is no best or more important gifts.  Likewise, a person is not better or more important because they possess a particular gift. 

And this leads directly to the final paragraph (vv. 27-31), where Paul now drops the metaphor and makes explicit his point – that is, all are equal in Christ, regardless of roles, functions, and spiritual gifts. 

27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28 And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31 Now eagerly desire the greater gifts.

And yet I will show you the most excellent way.

1 Corinthians 12: 27-31

Now I should probably make a quick comment about v. 31, because through these chapters Paul’s point seems to be that all gifts are equal, but in v. 31, Paul says “Now eagerly desire the greater gifts.”  But isn’t his whole point that the Corinthians shouldn’t be chasing after the so-called superior gifts?  And then also, what do we do with the second half of v. 31 – “And yet I will show you the most excellent way.”  That is, how does this transition into chapter 13, the Love chapter? 

I’m not going to get into that in detail here, but I simply want to present a couple of translational alternatives that may get at what may be going on (sort of, but not exactly).

31 You should set your hearts on the highest spiritual gifts, but I will show you what is the highest way of all. (Philips translation)

31 And yet some of you keep competing for so-called “important” parts. But now I want to lay out a far better way for you.  (MSG)

So having said that (insufficient, I know), here’s essentially what we might make of chapter 12: 

  • All Gifts are given by Jesus
  • Gifts are for the Body
  • The Body needs all its parts
  • All parts (gifts) are equally for the Body

Now as we’ve already outlined, we’ll see how this works out in the specific context of the Corinthian community in the next couple of weeks.  But I hope we can begin to see what Paul’s concern is.  While some in the Corinthian congregation may be concerned about spiritual gifts – what gifts I have, comparing it with the gifts others have, what that means for my position in the community, etc. – while these are probably the concerns of some in the congregation, Paul’s concern is the health and edification of the Body of Christ.  And as we will get into next week, the mark of the Body of Christ is not what gifts are being evidenced, but how well do we love one another? 

So just in closing, I want to just share one small reflection.  And for this, I want to re-visit vv. 7-11: 

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.

1 Corinthians 12: 7-11

So here, Paul gives us a list of spiritual gifts (this is the kind of thing that Paul likes to do throughout his letters).  Like Paul’s other lists, this isn’t intended to be comprehensive, but this is what we have: 

  • Message of wisdom
  • Message of knowledge
  • Faith
  • Healing
  • Miraculous powers
  • Prophecy
  • Distinguishing between spirits
  • Different tongues
  • Interpretation of Tongues

And my simple question or reflection around this is, what is the gift? 

As you might know, I spent my formative years in a Pentecostal church.  And while there is a wide range of expressions of Pentecostalism, my church at the time spent a lot of time talking about and being concerned about spiritual gifts.  Primarily, there was a lot of attention paid to speaking in tongues – as this is the “evidence” of the Holy Spirit, or the baptism of the Holy Spirit.  But there was a lot of concern about spiritual gifts in general. 

Now I cannot say at this point what my youth pastor’s particular concern actually was.  But what my young mind heard, what I received, was that the spiritual gift said something about me.  And so, when I read a passage like this one, my question would have been, “what gift do I have?”  Which could of course be translated (badly), “What power do I have?” or “What ability do I have?”  And my simple point is, I think that misses entirely what is going on, what Paul is getting at. 

To put it another way, and without beating around the bush, when Paul says one has been given a message of wisdom or a message of knowledge, what is the gift?  We might be inclined to think that the spiritual gift is the ability to deliver a message from God (that’s what I would have thought).  But upon reflection, I think that must be wrong.  Because isn’t the gift the message?  Isn’t the gift that God speaks to His people?  It’s no miracle that God is able to speak through me – didn’t he also speak through Balaam’s donkey?  The miracle is that almighty God speaks to me.  That He is concerned for such as me. 

And by the same token, we often say that one has received the gift of being able to heal (that’s how we read this verse, isn’t it?), but isn’t the true gift the healing?  Now some may of course be gifted “miraculous powers,” as we also read in v. 10.  But how is it we’re more concerned about the person through whom God might heal than we are that God heals?  What is the gift? 

The point that I’m trying to make is that the preoccupation (in some circles) with “what gift do I have?” seems to me to be largely misplaced.  I think we must rather be concerned with “What has God done?” and “What is God doing?”

What we’ve read in our passage today (ch. 12) is that gifts are given by Jesus and that gifts are for the Body.  What we do not read, no matter how much that is what we are looking for, is that spiritual gifts are in any way about me.  And yet isn’t that how we often behave or think?  We think that spiritual gifts says something about me instead of something about Christ who gives.  We think that spiritual gifts somehow serve me instead of recognizing that we are meant to serve one another. 

So I would encourage us to shift our perspective, to shift our attention.  In order to see what God is doing, oftentimes I have to take my eyes off of myself.  And instead of wondering, like perhaps the Corinthians, what God’s gifts say about me, we can begin to explore what God’s gifts say about God, the giver. 

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