Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12:21–26 What God wants in the church

1 Corinthians 12:21–26

21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

One theme that permeates the book of First Corinthians is reversal of status. In status-conscious Roman Corinth that was a big deal! They did not seem to remember that Jesus said, “Many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Mark 10:31).

This theme of status-reversal was strongly expressed in 1 Cor. 1:27: “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” In our text for today this theme surfaces again. Garland explains 1 Cor. 11:21 by saying: “’Eye’ and ‘head’ are transparent metaphors for those in leadership roles, who are likely more affluent and better educated. The ‘hands’ and ‘feet’ represent the laboring class or slaves. ‘Eyes’ and ‘heads’ in the church always get special treatment and then begin to think that they are special.”[1] It is a short step to the delusional idea that the special people really don’t need the other, lesser people.

With the words “on the contrary” (1 Cor. 12:22), Paul turns the reasoning of the special ones upside-down. Those parts of the body they consider to be “less endowed with power and status than others” (Thiselton) are in fact necessary.[2] In 1 Cor. 12:23, Paul points out that the Corinthians already give special honor to parts that they think are “less honorable” and “unpresentable” by covering them up; this is regarded as a reference to sexual organs.[3] Other parts of the body, such as the face, are “presentable” and “need no special treatment” (1 Cor. 12:24a).

But quite aside from human evaluation of the various parts of the body, God has leveled the playing field by “giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it” (1 Cor. 12:24b). That God had two purposes in mind is made clear by verse 25: (1) “that there should be no division in the body” and (2) “that its parts should have equal concern for each other.” God’s stated purposes ran counter to the culture of Roman Corinth and were in direct conflict with the presence of divisions in the church and the self-absorbed, high-handed practices of “the strong.”

Jesus was the countercultural model of honoring those who society thought unworthy. He loved the poor, the oppressed and the weak and had harsh words for the elite. It should not surprise us that it honors him when we hold the most humble member of the body in high regard.

When there is mutual concern and reciprocity, the church suffers together or rejoices together according to the welfare of any person belonging to it (1 Cor. 12:26). With this in mind, Garland summarizes: “The church is not to be like its surrounding society, which always honors those who are already honored. It is to be countercultural and bestow the greatest honor on those who seem to be negligible.”[4]

Copyright © 2013 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.



[1] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 595.

[2] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 1006.

[3] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987) 613.

[4] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 596.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!