Study Notes for I Corinthians 12:14-31
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In this final passage of I Cor. 12, Paul concentrates on emphasizing the oneness that should characterize Christ-followers. We each have different gifts, but we need to see each other and treat each other as equally significant and as part of ourselves.
In reality, each individual Christ-follower is part of the body of Christ. If any individual see himself as functioning independently of the body, that perception of himself doesn't change the fact: s/he is part of the body of Christ.
Competition, jealousy, and chaos result when people attempt separate themselves from the fellowship of believers in which they find themselves. In I Corinthians 1 and also 11 Paul chastised the local Christians for the divisions among them. In chapter 1 he points out that they were rallying themselves around their favorite spiritual leaders. In chapter 11 he confronts them for humiliating the poor. The church cannot function optimally when its parts are judging or competing with each other.
People might separate themselves for different reasons. Some might pull away because they feel inferior. Perhaps they have spiritual gifts that do not appear sensational. They might have gifts of helping or encouraging or faith, and they feel that they "get lost in the crowd." Maybe they are unassuming people who are not naturally outgoing, and they feel unnoticed and their gifts are unrecognized.
If they pull away both they and the body suffer. They see themselves as separate, and they no longer perceive the church to be a venue for their gifts. They are left without a community to minister to them, and the rest of the body loses the gifts those people had.
Sometimes people believe they have been called or gifted with high-profile gifts such as evangelism, preaching, prophecying, teaching, miracles, or healing. They can start their own ministry, they reason; they can concentrate their energies on exercising their spiritual gifts without worrying about dealing with the pettiness of the day-to-day trivia of functioning from within a larger fellowship.
The reality, though, is that if they take their gifts and "go independent", their departure really doesn't dismiss them from the body of Christ. The body suffers the amputation of certain spiritual gifts, and the person who separates loses the ministry of the gifts of helps, faith, encouragement, and corporate prayer for the success of his or her ministry.
Often the underlying motive behind people's independent leaving really is self-centeredness. The ones who feel "unworthy" might be protecting their fragile egos. Instead of trusting God to lead them to the work within the body which he has planned for them, they pull away to escape possible embarrassment. Instead of trusting God to glorify their gifts by becoming part of a magnificent ministry for him incorporating the whole body of believers, they shelter their gifts and hide them from exposure and from real or imagined criticism.
The ones with highly visible gifts may be seduced by whispered temptations of power or prestige. They may begin to think that they can preach, proclaim, perform, or prophecy better than their fellow believers, and they may branch out to attempt to build a following or to establish a ministry uniquely designed to accommodate their particular gift or viewpoint.
Another way in which people disrespect the body of Christ is to attempt either to push or manipulate their way into positions of control or management over their existing body of believers.
In any case if believers separate themselves from the body of believers, they amputate their gifts from the body of Christ. More seriously (because God can replace the missing gifts if they are needed), the separated ones remove themselves from the complementary support of the rest of the local body.
Spiritual gifts are interdependent. God gives them to us in packages that require other believers' gifts working with ours in order to yield the results He has in mind. Of what good is evangelism if there are no teachers to nurture the planted seeds? Of what good is teaching if there are no pastors to nurture the new believers? Of what good is pastoring a flock if there are no people with gifts of helping, encouraging, faith, and prayer to minister individually to the members of the flock as well as to the evangelists, teachers, and pastors? Of what good is the gift of knowledge if there is no gift of wisdom to give insight for the application of knowledge? Of what good is a ministry idea of there is no administrator to organize and oversee it?
Spiritual gifts are distinct, yet they cannot function fully without the gifts of the rest of the body. God did not make each of us independent little churches. He made a whole body of believers. He grants us gifts that must have the rest of the body in order to function properly. He made each of us equally important pieces of his temple. No matter what our gifts, we are equally important to Jesus and to the body of Christ. If any of us thinks we can be independent, the entire body suffers loss, and we lose our context and support.
If God needs a new ministry, he is the one who gives the vision to the believers he chooses, and he plants that ministry in a context of support from a larger group of believers.
Diversity in Unity
Our spiritual gifts come to us from the entire Trinity (v. 4,5). God assigns them to us according to his sovereign will.
"All these are the work of one and the same Spirit," Paul says, "and he gives them to each one, just as he determines."
Each Christ-follower is a unique work of God's creativity. Each person's gifts and interests are different. Unlike the way natural man operates, however, Christ-followers are intended to embrace each other's uniqueness in profound unity.
"Unity in diversity" is a noble-sounding goal. This phrase implies one organization accepting people of different races, handicaps, and gender identities. The intention is that people representing many personal differences would be equally accepted and respected in the organization.
The idea of unity in diversity, however, is flawed. It suggests that people with widely varied prejudices, handicaps, and advantages will learn to accept each other equally , indiscriminately, because they're socially aware and open-minded. The phrase "unity in diversity" suggests that a wide range of personal differences becomes a group's unified rallying point.
God's idea turns "unity in diversity" upside down. In fact, Paul's description of the body being composed of many differing parts might be called "diversity in unity."
In the body of Christ unity does not come from individual differences; it comes from the indwelling Holy Spirit. He alone brings the life of Christ to believers. He also bestows believers with gifts the triune God wishes each person to have. It is only because each Christ-follower is filled and sealed with the Holy Spirit that the body of Christ can truly function as a single unit composed of widely differing gifts and personalities.
In the context of Christ's church, the different gifts do not become the point around which the believers rally. They rally around Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, they learn to enhance and depend on each other's gifts by honoring and supporting them with their own.
Unity in Christ is what holds the body of believers together in an inexplicable bond. Inside that unity, the members celebrate their God-given gifts and honor the Lord Jesus by submitting to one another instead of promoting themselves.
Being the Body of Christ
When Paul calls Christ-followers the body of Christ, he is doing more than using a descriptive metaphor. Because Christ-followers actually have God's spirit indwelling them, they bear the power and love of the risen Christ in the world. Jesus is physically away from us, but he has bequeathed to us his life, his living power and love, and we are to function corporately in the world as his presence. He is bodily gone, but we embody his Spirit, and we function as his body.
As Christ's body we take seriously his promise in Romans 8:11: "And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you."
This promise means that Jesus will enable us to live like his body even though we are still in our sinful flesh. Because the Holy Spirit is in us, we become accountable to God himself for our choices and behavior.
As Christ's body we not only bear the power and love of Jesus to the world, we also must treat each other with respect and care as part of ourselves. We must build each other up and not tear each other down with criticism and jealousy. We must submit to God's sovereignty and rejoice in the gifts he gives to our fellow believers, knowing that our Lord's bestowal is not for that person's glory, but for His own. We embrace each other's gifts with joy, knowing God has given them for our own growth and good. We support each other with our own gifts, knowing that we strengthen both our own and our brother's gifts when we do so.
Also, as Christ's body we share in the sufferings of Christ. One reason Jesus has made his body to be composed of many people is that he knew we would suffer for him. Without the complementary gifts of our fellow believers and without their prayers, our individual suffering would be harder to bear.
His gifts to us are for building up the body of Christ. We do not grow in a vacuum. God's plan is for each member of his body to contribute to the growth and strength of the others. The whole of the body of Christ is truly greater than the sum of its parts.
Of Apostles and Power
God grants gifts to groups of believers as they are needed. Paul makes it very clear in this passage of I Corinthians that no gift is less honorable or important than another. He does, however, in v. 28, list three gifts that he calls first, second, and third: apostles, prophets, and teachers. He also makes the curious statement, "But eagerly desire the greater gifts." (v. 31)
These three gifts were the foundation of the church. The church was built on the witness of Christ's apostles, and on the proclamations of prophets and the explanations of teachers. Without these three gifts there would have been no church.
All other gifts are equally necessary for the growth and functioning of the church.
In Mark 3:14 we see the definition of Christ's apostles; they personally knew Christ, they were specifically commissioned by Christ, and they were given the power to perform miracles. An apostle also had to have witnessed the resurrection. (Acts 1:22) Paul came to be considered one of Christ's apostles as well because he experienced the risen Christ in person and received his commission directly from Christ (Gal. 1:1; I Cor. 1:1)
It is true that there were people who were called apostles besides those Christ personally appointed. These include Barnabas, Andronica and Junias. (Romans 16:7; Gal. 1:19) We have no record of whether these people witnessed the resurrected Christ or not. But these people were appointed by the early church to carry the gospel into areas where it was not known.
Christ-followers disagree about whether or not there are apostolic gifts granted to the church today. It seems likely, however, that people might receive apostolic gifts in the tradition of Barnabas, Andronica and Junias. The conditions for their calls, however, have to be clear. They must receive their spiritual gift and calling to apostleship from God, and their calls must be considered binding on the church. In other words, the body of Christ with its complement of spiritual gifts must perceive and agree that this call to apostleship is from the Lord and is binding on the church. These people will also receive the gifts of miracles just as the first apostles did (Mark 3:14)
We must be careful, though, not to equate gifts of miracles with evidence of apostleship. While all apostles will perform miracles, not all people with gifts of miracles will be apostles. Additionally, an apostle's message will be in complete accordance with scripture. His teaching will not create confusion or cause disunity in the body of Christ.
Finally, Paul admonishes the church to "eagerly desire the greater gifts." The phrase "eagerly desire the greater gifts" can be alternately translated, "But you are eagerly desiring the greater gifts." It appears that the Corinthians were seeking status or power by focusing on the "showy" gifts, perhaps especially tongues.
Paul is not saying that the spectacular gifts are somehow less noble. In I Corinthians 14 he goes into more detail about the gifts he considers to be "the greater gifts", but his emphasis is this. Gifts that build up the body of Christ and provide instruction and insight for its growth, such as prophecy and teaching, are the gifts we should desire even more than the spectacular gifts such as miracles, healings, and tongues.
The sensational gifts are signs for unbelievers, while gifts such as prophecy are for the believers. (see I Cor. 14:22) While some spiritual gifts do benefit the unbelieving world, the underlying purpose of the gifts is for building up the church. (Eph. 4:12) As Christ-followers living in His body, we are to desire to know God's will for us in nurturing and keeping the body healthy and growing. We are not to grasp at sensational gifts as proof of having the Spirit; neither are we to covet the miraculous gifts in order to experience power.
Every gift of the Spirit is an outpouring of the power of the triune God. He grants each gift to believers as He needs us to have them.
One in Him
God calls us to be open to whatever His desires for us are. His promise of the Holy Spirit is absolute; we are sealed with Him, and He grants us his gifts according to his sovereign will.
We are called always to keep Christ and Him crucified as the center of our attention and teaching. If we become enamored with the gifts of the Spirit instead of the Gift of Jesus' life, we are no longer focusing on Christ.
We are also to avoid adding any requirements to the gospel. If we add any steps or requirements to experiencing God's promises, we are teaching another gospel. If we begin to believe that we must seek spiritual gifts in addition to accepting the gospel, we are embracing "another gospel". (Gal. 1:7)
God has promised us "everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us". (2 Peter 1:3) Everything-salvation, spiritual gifts, membership in the body of Christ-is ours. It's God's promise to us.
God calls us to embrace his gifts to us. He calls us to accept his power and care in our lives. He calls us to use his gifts to us for strengthening our brothers and sisters in Christ.
God calls us to contentment. He calls us to trust him with his plans for our life. He calls us to embrace his gifts and not to self-centeredly seek what we desire.
He calls us to humility, to submit our gifts to the service of our brothers' and sisters' gifts. He calls us to unity in the Spirit which brings all our gifts into a wonderful whole.
We are the body of Christ.
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Studio, Redlands, CA USA. All rights reserved. Revised July 24, 2000.