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First Corinthians The Epistle of Sanctification - Book 3

An in-depth commentary/study on chapters 12 and 13 of First Corinthians.

Category - Bible Commentaries

Chapter 9

Unity in Diversity

1 Corinthians 12:11, 12 says,

11 But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills. 12 For even as the body is one and yet has many members [parts], and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ.

Paul tells us first that these are gifts that are given by the Spirit “as He wills.” Secondly, these gifts are distributed among the people. One should not expect everyone to have the same gift or gifts. Paul’s point is that God has distributed these gifts in order to allow the body of Christ to work together in unity. Since it was normal for the believers to have a limited number of gifts, God ensured that we would all need each other. Only if all of the gifts operated within the body could we expect to meet all of the spiritual needs that might arise.

The divine plan, then, was designed to combat the spirit of denominationalism, wherein the people had no gifts, but had to depend upon a single leader, priest, apostle, or pastor to meet all of their needs. The spirit of denominationalism, first seen in the days of Moses at the first Pentecost at Mount Horeb, tries to solve the problem of disunity by submitting to one man (other than Christ). In such a system, the people depend upon one man to have all of the spiritual gifts.

But Paul shows that the gifts were distributed among the people themselves. Though Paul was the apostle to that particular church, he was not a denominational leader. He recognized the importance of spiritual gifts being distributed among the people, rather than concentrating all the gifts into one leader. Hence, whenever a spiritual gift was being manifested, the apostle himself—along with everyone else—was required to submit to the word or operation of the Spirit.

Unity does not require everyone to submit to one man (other than Jesus Christ Himself). Neither does unity require that everyone be the same, or have the same spiritual gift or gifts, or even that they all share the same understanding. Unity is a matter of working together, sharing together, and helping each other come into maturity by discerning what is soulish and what is spiritual. Above all, as Paul says in chapter 13, unity is based on love, not uniformity.

United by One Baptism

1 Corinthians 12:13 says,

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.

Ethnic and class distinctions are abolished in Christ. The dividing wall in the temple, which separated Jews from Greeks, has been destroyed in Christ. Later in this chapter, Paul deals with the division between men and women, which was also represented in the dividing wall of the temple in Jerusalem.

Baptism was also the same for all, “whether slaves or free.” Becoming a believer in Christ erased all class distinctions that men had set up to order their societies. Christianity in the first century was the great emancipator of slaves, treating all men and women as equals in Christ. With the church, God was forming a new nation with a new social order, a new culture, and a new mindset, which went against the existing orders of men. Such is the Kingdom of God.

1 Corinthians 12:14-16 says,

14 For the body is not one member, but many. 15 If the foot should say, “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. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any less a part of the body.

Paul’s illustration comes in the context of spiritual gifts. Hands, feet, eyes, and ears all have their natural gifts and unique purposes in a body. If a man is blind, his ears and hands may supplement the man’s need to some extent, but they cannot truly replace his eyes. If a man has no feet, he might still walk on his hands, but his hands cannot truly replace his feet. All body parts are important in their own ways. So it is with parts of the body of Christ, so no one ought to feel left out by not having the gift that is given to another.

1 Corinthians 12:17, 18 says,

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? 18 But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired.

Once again, Paul emphasizes the fact that gifts are given according to the will of God, “just as He desired,” or willed (Greek: thelo). There is a place for desiring the greater gifts, as Paul admits in 1 Cor. 12:31, but we should remember that these are gifts that are given, not things that are to be demanded or taken without permission.

1 Corinthians 12:19, 20 says,

19 And if they were all one member, where would the body be? 20 But now there are many members, but one body.

Paul’s analogy is that everyone’s body is composed of many body parts, all of which have unique functions. Each part works with the other body parts, allowing the body as a whole to function properly and to meet its needs.

Paul’s overriding concern was that each body part should recognize the importance of the other body parts. If any body part was malfunctioning, Paul wanted to be a healer, not a surgeon.

Body Parts Must Work Together

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:21-24,

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.” 22 On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; 23 and those members of the body, which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our unseemly members come to have more abundant seemliness, 24 whereas our seemly members have no need of it….

Just as it is absurd for an eye to claim that the ear is not part of the body because of its inability to see, so also the eye cannot tell a blind hand or an unseeing foot, “I have no need of you.” Perhaps an eye or ear does not need a hand or foot to see or hear what is happening around it, but without an eye, a hand has difficulty doing its work, and a foot may stumble as it walks. Body parts must work together, even if they are not always needed for every task.

The Need for Gifts

A church may claim that the gift of prophecy is no longer needed, because we now have the “complete Scripture” since John finished writing the book of Revelation. Yet the members of such churches often flounder, not hearing God’s voice, and not knowing what direction to go in their daily lives. The biggest question is “What is God’s will for me?” The written Scriptures can guide us generally, according to the moral principles of the law or the manner in which God led others in the past. But to discover the will of God for one’s self is another matter.

The Cessationists usually admit that the early church had an advantage over us, in that they enjoyed the spiritual gifts that could provide guidance by the Holy Spirit. But they say that the gifts ended when John died. But the need for the gifts did not end. If anything, the need became greater with the death of the original apostles. The church grew more and more corrupt as the centuries passed. Today the church struggles with Babylonian immorality and distractions. Not only do many people have difficulty hearing God’s voice for themselves but they have no prophet to hear God on their behalf or even to confirm the word and will of God for them.

The fact that we possess Scriptures today does not mean that we have all that we need to apply those Scriptures to our daily lives. In fact, the Israelites in the Old Testament had the law, which was sufficient for them at the time, yet they still strayed, and God raised up prophets. The New Testament shed more light on the truth, but even after it was written, the church had difficulty understanding and applying that truth. Would God not give them prophets, too?

To say that the various gifts of the Spirit are no longer necessary is to say that one organ has no need of another organ. The eye of a seer, the ear of a prophet, the hand of a healer, the foot of the miracle worker cannot be rejected by the other body parts without impairing the functionality of the whole body. Paul’s concern in his own time was that a prophet might despise the healer, or that one who spoke in tongues might reject the need for an interpreter. But long after Paul’s death, the church began to despise all of the gifts and to reject them all as unnecessary.

Cessationism rejects outright the gifts that God has given to the church. The absurdity of this would have been obvious to the apostle. If he had foreseen such wholesale rejection of the gifts, perhaps he would have written more extensively about it. Instead, he focuses primarily upon the problem of one person thinking that his or her gift is complete in itself and has no dependence upon the other gifts. Even so, what he wrote is sufficient, for he established the necessity of each part of the body, regardless of its function (gift).

The various body parts of the church are all important. Each person is important, but Paul was not speaking merely of church members. He was speaking of anyone who exercised his or her unique gifts in the church to edify the others. What good is an ear that does not hear? What good is an eye that does not see? What good is a foot that cannot walk? Body parts are not just for show. They must function in their various gifts in order to be useful to the body.

Lesser and Greater Gifts

It seems to be normal among Christians that certain gifts are honored (and glamorized) more highly than others. This is usually because we seek that which we ourselves need the most at any given time. One who is terminally ill needs a healer above all else. One who lacks wisdom needs to find someone with the gift of wisdom. One who speaks in tongues needs an interpreter. The need at any given moment usually determines our immediate priorities.

Nonetheless, in a general sense, Christians often esteem healers more highly than one who interprets tongues, and the gift of faith draws bigger crowds than the gift of wisdom. Some push the gift of tongues upon all, while others despise tongues as being totally unnecessary or even harmful. It is natural (that is, soulish) for believers to esteem one gift above another. It was so in Paul’s time, and nothing has changed to the present day, for human nature remains unchanged.

In all of our thoughts about spiritual gifts, it is important that we do not forget those gifts that seem less important to us. While some gifts may not be needful to an individual, keep in mind that every gift is vital to someone, even if only for a moment.

Blending the Body Parts

Paul continues in 1 Corinthians 12:24,

24 … But God has so composed [sygkerannymi, “blended, co-mingled”] the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, 25 that there should be no division in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another.

Paul says here that God has deliberately distributed His gifts to each member of the body, blending them together, so that all have something to contribute to the whole, and no one is left out. We ought to be conscious of this, so that if we see one who seems to have no gift or purpose, we should pray to know that person’s function. Paul’s concern was “that there should be no division in the body.” This was a tall order in Paul’s day, and we face the same problem in our own time as well.

Perhaps Paul recognized the problem that Israel faced under Moses. The people’s rejection of the word at Mount Horeb (Exodus 20:18-21) caused them to elevate Moses to the position of the professional priest who was supposed to meet all the needs of the people. That was the day that was thereafter celebrated as Shavuot, or Pentecost.

If the Israelites had been able to receive the word at that time, they would have become true Pentecostals, and the gifts of the Spirit would have been distributed to each of the people. However, that did not happen in a general sense, although there were a few exceptions, such as Eldad and Medad, who prophesied (Numbers 11:27), and Bezalel, who had the gift of wisdom (Exodus 31:2, 3).

Paul’s concern was that the spiritual gifts might revert back to the Israelite pattern, where one man would be expected to possess all of the gifts. Paul did not want to be in the place of Moses to the Corinthian church. That was Jesus’ place. Paul believed that every believer had a gift, and that his own apostolic calling was to help all of them develop their gifts and strengthen them that they might use their gifts more effectively. Further, Paul did not want them to be dependent upon the apostle, but to depend upon the whole body.

Paul continues in 1 Corinthians 12:26, 27,

26 And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. 27 Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it.

Christ is the great equalizer. Hence, when each gift is in operation, all must submit to the gift in that person in whom Christ is working or speaking. Apostles have no right to despise the word or gift that operates in an “ordinary” believer, for to do so would be to despise the operation of Christ Himself.

Of course, it is also the function of the body itself to determine whether or not it is a genuine spiritual gift or a soulish operation of the carnal mind that is manifesting. Paul says later in 1 Cor. 14:29,

29 And let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment [diakrino, “discern, test, study”].

The body is only as functional as its individual members. Hence, it is to the advantage of the body as a whole to develop and strengthen each member’s individual gift, for when one suffers, all suffer, and when one rejoices, all rejoice.