1 Corinthians 12

1 Corinthians 12  •  12 min. read  •  grade level: 8
THE CORINTHIANS CAME together in assembly not only to partake of the Lord’s supper but also for the exercise of spiritual gifts, especially that of prophecy. In those days there were found prophets who were enabled by the Holy Spirit to give inspired utterances in the assembly. In this way God gave authoritative instruction and guidance while as yet the New Testament scriptures were in the making, and so not freely in the hands of believers as they are today. There was however a great danger in connection with this.
When God raised up prophets in Israel’s history, Satan promptly confused the issue by raising up many false ones. In the days of Ahab there were 850 false to one true! The adversary followed the same tactics in the early days of the church and introduced into the public assemblies of saints men who gave inspired utterances truly, but inspired not by the Holy Spirit but by demons. Hence the test laid down in verse 3 of chapter xii. The confession of Jesus as LORD is the test. Many testimonies could be adduced, proving that this test always is effective. It infallibly works. In modern spiritist seances demons will often utter sentiments which are apparently high class and beautiful, but they will never acknowledge Jesus as Lord.
Moreover, in the pagan world it was supposed that each demon had a special line of things in which he operated: one was the spirit of healing, another the spirit of prophecy or divination, and so on. The Apostle instructs the Corinthians therefore, in verses 4 to 11, that all the gifts of a divine sort which may be manifested in the church, proceed from one and the self-same Spirit—the Holy Spirit of God. The Spirit is one: the manifestations of His power and working are many. Whether it be the Spirit (verse 4) or the Lord (verse 5) or God (verse 6) diversity proceeding from unity is the feature. Gifts are connected with the Spirit: administrations with the Lord: operations with God.
Now the gifts or manifestations of the Spirit are expressed through men in the assembly of God. No one man possesses all. Occasionally one may possess many. More usually he possesses but one. But whether one or many what is possessed by each one is intended not for the sole benefit of the possessor but for the profit of all. The better rendering of verse 7 is “But to each the manifestation of the Spirit is given for profit” (ch. 12:7). (N. Tr.) The Corinthians were evidently acting rather like children; assuming that the spiritual gift conferred was something like a new toy, to be used and enjoyed for their personal pleasure and distinction. It was not; but rather a gift conferred on one member for the benefit of the whole body.
Hence, having enumerated the different gifts, and again emphasized that all proceed from the same Holy Spirit, being bestowed at His sovereign will and discretion, the apostle passes in verse 12 to the one body, for the benefit of which all is given. The human body is used as an illustration. It has many members and yet is an organic unity. Then he adds, “so also is the Christ” (Rom. 5:1515But not as the offence, so also is the free gift. For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many. (Romans 5:15))—the definite article, “the,” is in the Greek original.
This is a remarkable expression. It is not Christ personally; but rather that the one body—the church—being the body of Christ, His name can be called upon it.
The church then, as Christ’s body, is an organic unity, just as the human body is. It has been formed by an act of God in the energy of the one Spirit. It is important that we should remember this, since by this fact its integrity is guaranteed. It cannot be violated or destroyed by man or by Satanic power, though the visible manifestation of it during its sojourn on earth may be, and has been, marred. The thing itself, divinely formed, abides, and will be perfectly displayed in glory.
The action of the Spirit in forming the one body is described as a “baptism.” In baptism a man is submerged and figurately buried. The one body was formed, and we are brought into it, on this basis; namely, that we as natural men, as children of Adam, with all our personal peculiarities and angularities, have been submerged in the one Spirit. Hence all our natural distinctions have disappeared in the one body. There was no greater national distinction than Jew and Gentile; no clearer social cleavage than bond and free. But these distinctions and cleavages, and all others like them, are gone in the one body. In the light of this how foolish and sinful were the parties and schools and cleavages among the Corinthians: how puerile their strivings for personal distinctions and profit! And how foolish and sinful and puerile are similar things which disfigure Christians today!
Let us take it to heart. We have forgotten the real force and meaning of that baptism by which we have found our place in the one body. Thank God, I am in the one body, but I am there on the basis of having my old “I” submerged. And you are there as having your old “I” submerged. And every other member of the body is there as having the old “I” submerged. And there is no other way of being in the one body but by having the old “I” submerged. If we all were really in the truth of this, what a change would come over the outward aspect of all things, amongst the saints of God.
But not only have we all been baptized in one Spirit into one body, but we each severally and for ourselves have been made to “drink into (or, of) one Spirit” (ch. 12:13). This seems to be an allusion to John 7:37-3937In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. 38He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. 39(But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.) (John 7:37‑39). Each member of the body has personally received or imbibed of the one Spirit, so that He characterizes and governs each. Unity is thus produced in this two-fold way. Each has been submerged in the Spirit: and the Spirit is in each by a personal imbibing.
Verses 12 and 13 then, give us what has been brought to pass by God Himself in the energy of His Spirit, and consequently human failure does not enter into the matter. It is the ideal thing, but it is not, because of that, idealistic and unreal. It is not just a beautiful idea to be left in the airy region of mere ideas. No, it is an actual existing fact by Divine act; and faith perceives it and acts accordingly. If we do not perceive it we cannot act accordingly.
Let us then have faith to perceive what has been brought to pass by the Spirit’s act, and what we have received by drinking of one Spirit; and may our whole life in relation to Christ Himself and our fellow members be influenced thereby.
If verse 13 teaches that all true believers have been baptized into one body, the next verse again emphasizes the corresponding truth that the body is composed of many members. The unity which God has established in the one body must not be confounded with uniformity. Uniformity is largely stamped upon man’s work, especially in this our day, but not upon God’s work. Man invents machines which turn out articles by the thousand or the million exactly uniform in all respects. In God’s handiwork we see the utmost diversity in unity—unity in the most marvelous diversity.
In verses 14 to 26, the human body is taken as an illustration of this, and the point is worked out with great fullness of detail. The Apostle evidently felt it to be most important that the matter should be clearly understood. And why so important?
The answer to this is, we judge, that he knew the inveterate tendency of human hearts. It is so natural, even to believers, to love a little party all intent upon the same thing; in which all can settle down amiably and comfortably and without friction to enjoy themselves, in connection with that upon which all are intent. Then of course others, whose thoughts or activities or functions are so widely different, can be dispensed with; and the schism or division, of which verse 25 speaks, supervenes.
The illustration of this point, given in verse 21, is very striking. The eye is the organ of sight, the hand the organ of work. Some believers are “seers” marked by intelligence and spiritual insight. They revel in an understanding of the things of God. They give themselves to study and contemplation, and probably have very little time for active work. Other believers are very active workers: they put their hand to many a hard task in the interests of their Lord. Indeed they work so hard that their danger is lest their labor becomes uninstructed, and hence astray from the will of the Lord. Now the danger is that the “eye” may say to the “hand” I have no need of thee. It is not suggested that the “hand” may say this to the “eye”. Practical experience proves that it is usually the intellectual, far-seeing brother who is tempted to speak thus to the brother who is far less intelligent but a far harder worker, rather than vice versa.
Again, the head and feet are placed in contrast. Not only seeing, but hearing, smelling and tasting are confined to the head. Only one of the five senses is distributed over the body. If the head is to exercise its functions it needs quietude and repose. But the feet are instruments of motion. The head wishes for what is still and stationary that it may be enabled to observe and hear and think, but the feet are all for that activity and movement that will disturb it. The head may be strongly tempted to say to the feet, I have no need of you!
In the human body every member is necessary, for God has tempered it together. He has given more abundant honor to those parts which might be esteemed without honor, and given abundant comeliness to what might appear uncomely. Medical science seems to be accumulating proofs of this, by showing how obscure glands, which formerly no one thought much of, are really of great importance, exercising such a control that if they cease functioning the body dies. So it is in the body of Christ, and hence the members are to have the same care and interest in one another. If one is affected, either for good or ill, all are affected.
Observe that all through the illustration the human body is contemplated as the work of God. Verse 18 states it, and again verse 24 mentions it, and thereby schism is excluded. Again in verse 21 it does not say that the eye should not say to the hand, I have no need of thee, but that it cannot. In just the same way the one body of Christ is viewed as the fruit of God’s work. It is what God has established; God’s work which can never be undone by man.
Observe on the other hand that though it is God’s work it is not because of that an idealistic thing, removed from the sphere of present and practical life, without any bearing upon the church in its present condition. The very opposite, for the Apostle at once proceeds to give just that present application.
That application begins in verse 27. The definite article “the,” is not in the Greek, and is better omitted even though it produces clumsy English. He did not say, “Ye are the body of Christ,” (ch. 12:27) for that would have indicated to these saints at Corinth that they were the whole thing, and might have led to the further supposition that they were merely the one body in Corinth. Then there might be the one body in Ephesus, and so on, until the contradictory and inconsistent idea of there being many “one bodies” might have been reached. He said, “Ye are body of Christ,” (ch. 12:27) that is, they were of the body of Christ and bore the “body of Christ” character in Corinth, each of them being a member in particular.
They were members, then, of Christ’s body, and from that he turns, in the next verse, to speak of how God had set some of these members in the “church,” or “assembly.” We do well to differentiate in our thoughts between the body of Christ, formed by Divine act, and the assembly as found in this world, whether locally at Corinth, or in its totality. But while we differentiate we must not divorce the two, since the action of the members takes place in the assembly, and their action is to be governed and regulated by the truth just set forth as to the body.
The “gifts” or “manifestations” of the Spirit, which were granted to some of the members, are detailed in verse 28. The order of them is to be noted. Apostles come first, diversities of tongues come last. The Corinthians, who were carnal, set great store by the more spectacular gifts, as do many carnally minded believers today. To speak in an unknown tongue was to them evidently the most desirable thing of all. Their estimate was however a mistaken one. The gifts are divided according to the sovereign viii of the Spirit. No one gift was given to everybody. As a rule each individual had one distinguishing gift.
Seven questions are found in verses 29 and 30. They are asked but not answered because the answer is obvious. Uniformly the answer is, No. Notice the sixth question, since there are those who insist that no one has properly received the Holy Ghost if they do not speak with tongues. But, “do all speak with tongues?” (ch. 12:30). The answer is, No. Yet they had all been “made to drink into one Spirit” (ch. 12:13).
What then is to be our attitude in regard to the various gifts? We are to desire earnestly the better, or greater, gifts; that is, such as prophesying, or teaching, as is evident from the opening verses of chapter xiv. These are better because they are for wider and more general profit, and the gifts are given to each for the profit of all. And there is a way of more surpassing excellence by which this end may be reached. This way is the way of “charity” or divine love, as unfolded in chapter 13. The Apostle turns aside for a moment from the main line of his theme to stress the surpassing excellence of that love which is the very nature of God himself.