Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12:12–20 God’s choice about gifts must prevail

1 Corinthians 12:12–20

12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body — whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free — and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

 15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

Paul began his letter to the Corinthians by expressive his anguish over divisions in the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 1:10–13). Throughout the letter he has appealed for unity and the love necessary to sustain it. He continues that theme in our passage by using a metaphor the believers in Roman Corinth would understand: the human body and its various parts.

The Corinthians would have found this metaphor familiar in two ways. First, Corinth had an important temple of Asclepios, the god of healing. The Corinth Archaeological Museum contains “a large number of terra-cotta models of heads, hands, feet, arms, legs, eyes, ears, and every part of the body . . . [created] in prayer or in thanks for restoration of health.”[1] Second, the Corinthians would have understood language about the body and its parts “as language traditionally used to argue for unity on the basis of a hierarchical political structure.”[2] (emphasis original). Since ancient political writers used this metaphor to appeal for unity within a city or larger group of people, Paul did the same.

Several times in our study of 1 Corinthians, we have looked at the organization of Paul’s argument to help us understand it better. David Garland shows that the literary structure for this week’s biblical text fits a pattern of ABBA, meaning that the verses labeled “A” complement each other, as do the verses labeled “B.” In this case that looks like this:

A   The body as one but with many members (12:12–14)

      B   The inescapable diversity of members within the body (12:15–20)

      B   The inescapable interdependence of members of the body (12:21–26)

A   The differing functions within the body (12:27–31)[3]

Today we will cover the first AB of the pattern. Concerning verse 12, Thiselton argues that the grammar puts greatest emphasis on Christ, next most emphasis on the unity of the one body, and third most emphasis on the plurality of the parts of the body.[4] Garland supports this idea by saying, “’Unity dominates diversity and makes diversity genuinely meaningful and constructive.’”[5] Keep in mind that the metaphor involves the human body, but the way that metaphor was understood in Roman Corinth involved unity within a hierarchical structure. The one at the top of the hierarchy is plainly Christ the Lord.

Gordon Fee explains Paul’s point in 1 Cor. 12:13 by saying: “What makes the Corinthians one is their common experience of the Spirit . . . . The Spirit is essentially what distinguishes the believer from the nonbeliever (2:10–14).”[6] Since Romans 8:9 also makes it abundantly clear that having the Holy Spirit is the difference between being a Christian or an unbeliever, we get some clarity on the baptism referred to in verse 13. This cannot be a reference to water baptism because those who trust in Christ do not do so while being baptized in water. Instead, baptism in this verse is a metaphor for the immersion in the Spirit that happens to “all,” whether “Jews or Gentiles, slave or free” (1 Cor. 12:13), at the moment of salvation.

Paul again changes metaphor in the clause “we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Cor. 12:13b). The Greek verb can mean drink or even refer to “being watered, saturated or drenched in the Spirit”[7] as it does in 1 Cor. 3:6–8.

Since 1 Cor. 12:13 is the only place in the New Testament where the biblical text expressly speaks of baptism in/by the Spirit, it has unfortunately been used by some Christian groups to support the idea of a Spirit-experience at some time after salvation. Thiselton explains why this idea is wrongheaded: “Any theology that might imply that this one baptism in 13a in which believers were baptized by [or in] one Spirit might mark off some postconversion experience or status enjoyed only by some Christians attacks and undermines Paul’s entire argument and emphasis.”[8] (emphasis original).

Verse 14 strikes a blow against anyone who would try to exalt one spiritual gift as the sole mark of spirituality. It also ties the need for diverse gifts to the created order. Garland aptly states: “One person alone, no matter how gifted, cannot play a Beethoven symphony, act a Shakespearian tragedy, or compete against another team. The same is true in the church.”[9]

1 Cor. 12:18 shows us that God is the one who has placed the parts of the body into their harmonious arrangement, and he does not need any help from those who think they have a better design. It was God’s creative choice to have the body consist of many parts, not just one (1 Cor. 12:19). But those many parts work together to function as a single body (1 Cor. 12:20).

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

[1] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 7.

[2] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 992.

[3] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 589.

[4] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 996.

[5] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 590, quoting M.L. Soards.

[6] 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) 603.

[7] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1000-01.

[8] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 997-98.

[9] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 589.

Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12:4–7 Paul’s synopsis

1 Corinthians 12:4–7

4 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. 5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6 There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. 7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.

Compare 1 Corinthians 12:1 with 12:4, paying attention to the word translated “gift.”

 Now about the gifts (pneumatikos) of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. (1 Cor. 12:1)

 There are different kinds of gifts (charisma), but the same Spirit distributes them. (1 Cor. 12:4)

 The Greek word translated “gifts of the Spirit” in verse 1 (pneumatikos) means “having to do with the divine Spirit.” It could be a reference to either “spiritual things” or “spiritual persons.” The English versions have translated pneumatikos in a more specific manner in 1 Cor. 12:1 due to the context beginning in verses 4–6, where Paul begins his extensive argument about spiritual gifts. But this contextual translation obscures the fact that Paul has changed words and uses the Greek noun charisma in verse 4, meaning “that which is freely and graciously given.”[1] This word is closely related to the Greek noun charis, which is usually translated “grace.” God’s grace has come to us through Christ crucified.

So, what is the point? Some of the Corinthian believers — and some believers today — want to focus attention on themselves as spiritual by using the spectacular gift they have been given as proof of their supremacy over others. Paul is saying that emphasis is all wrong! God gave them this spiritual ability as a free gift, a grace-gift, not as their due. All honor should go to the gift-giver, not to the gift-holder.

It is easy to spot the deliberate parallels in 1 Cor. 12:4–6. Note, for example, the phrases “different kinds” and “the same” that occur in each verse. This heavy use of parallel phrasing focuses the mind on the few differences between the verses.

One such difference is the progression “Spirit . . . Lord . . . God,” a clear reference to the Holy Spirit, the Lord Jesus and God the Father. In short, the entire Trinity is involved in providing spiritual gifts for the good of the church. Further, the Father, the Son and the Spirit are all different, but they are totally unified in their actions. Even the Corinthians should have gotten the hint that the variety of spiritual gifts should operate in unity and not division.

Another progression is the sequence “kinds of gifts . . . kinds of service . . . kinds of working.” At first glance, these phrases seem to focus on the gifting, service or work carried out by each believer, but that misses the point. We have already noted that the gifts are apportioned by the Spirit (verse 4) as a matter of God’s grace or kindness. The different types of service are all designed to honor the same Lord (verse 5). The phrase “kinds of working” (verse 6) speaks not only of work but of bringing about results[2], and Paul attributes this working to “the same God who produces all of them in everyone” (1 Cor. 12:6b, NET). So, there is much more emphasis on what God is doing than initially comes to our attention.

Another difference stands out in the parallel phrasing of verses 4–6; it is the phrase “in all of them and in everyone” (1 Cor. 12:6).Thiselton explains that in verses 4–6 Paul is succinctly introducing his coming argument in 1 Cor. 12:7–30.[3] So, it is vital right at the start to say that every single Christian has been gifted by the Holy Spirit. This leaves no room to claim — as some were doing in Roman Corinth and as some are doing today — that only those with certain gifts, notably tongues, could be considered spiritual.

If taking personal credit is a warped attitude about spiritual gifts, what can we say about the right attitude. Thiselton gives us a treasure when he says, “Jean-Jacques Suurmond sums up this issue well: ‘It is not so much a matter of having a gift, as of being a gift.”[4] That comes close to expressing all that Paul is saying about a Christ-centered life in First Corinthians!

Now it should be clearly stated that since God has graciously gifted you as a Christian with a specific spiritual gift, he is expecting results. You are a steward of all that God has given you, and a day has been set for your stewardship to be evaluated. Since your gift is given “for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7), it is clear what the evaluation will entail. Heads up!

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

 [1] BDAG-3, charisma, gift, q.v.

[2] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 933.

[3] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 929.

[4] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 902.

Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12:1–3 An all-consuming confession

1 Corinthians 12:1–3

1 Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2 You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. 3 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.

Having dealt with provocative worship conduct and abuses of the Lord’s Supper in chapter 11, Paul continues to correct problems within the worship setting in 1 Cor. 12–14. But the problem he addresses is likely the most serious due to the amount of space he devotes to it. It relates to problems he has already addressed in this letter — pride, lack of love, and the scramble for status.

What is this important issue that Paul must address? In yet another example of competitiveness instead of community, some are using the spiritual gift of tongues to exalt their own spiritual status above that of others.

By now we should be accustomed to expect a slow and gradual start in Paul’s argument followed by a hard-hitting conclusion. Accordingly, we must be patient in anticipating his conclusions in chapter 13 (love is superior to all the gifts) and chapter 14 (worship must be conducted decently and in order). For the moment, Paul will concentrate on showing the diversity of spiritual gifts and the unity of the church in needing every one of them.

David Garland takes Paul’s perspective to show how the apostle intends to address the distortion of spirituality in Corinth: “From Paul’s perspective, the basic issues are, What does it mean to be spiritual? and How are Christians to exercise their spiritual gifts in the church?”[1]

Paul gets the ball rolling in 1 Cor. 12:1 by announcing his subject — “gifts of the Spirit” — and adding, “I do not want you to be uninformed.” By putting the matter in these words he is subtly suggesting that they are uninformed in light of what is going on among them. Very slick work, Paul!

Verses 2 and 3 are a lot harder than they look. Garland suggests that Paul describes three religious experiences:

1. Pagan experience: being led astray to dumb idols [verse 2]

2. Jewish experience: declaring Jesus is anathema [verse 3a]

3. Christian experience in the Spirit: confessing Jesus is Lord [verse 3b][2]

NIV follows their normal custom in 1 Cor. 12:2 by using verbal variety (“you were influenced and led astray”) for two Greek verbs that are close relatives. The NIV translation puts the matter into the realm of the mind and suggests inner devotion to dumb idols. But what if Paul is using a more literal activity to illustrate his point? In many cultures a festival parade in the city streets was used to draw adherents along with the action, then into an idol temple and finally to the very foot of the images themselves. Anthony Thiselton says such a scenario is attractive though impossible to prove: “The [festival parade] then symbolizes the ignorance and slavery of the Corinthians’ pre-conversion life, in which they simply followed where they were led, like the sacrificial animals in the procession.”[3] This is the type of “spirituality” the Corinthians had known before. (A lot of Americans are behaving this way in our time.)

As to the Jewish experience Paul is referencing in the first part of verse three, recall that Paul knows he also is writing to some who were converts from Judaism. Paul describes their experience in the synagogue (1 Cor. 12:3a). Garland explains, “Since the evidence reveals that this cursing of Jesus actually occurred in synagogues, it is the most likely background.”[4]

But neither the pagan processions through the streets to idols nor the complete renunciation of Jesus in the synagogue represent spirituality. Only those who confess that “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor. 12:3b) speak by the Holy Spirit.

We might put Paul’s reasoning in a formal argument:

1. Christians all confess “Jesus is Lord.”

2. Only those who confess “Jesus is Lord” assuredly speak by the Holy Spirit.

3. Therefore, all Christians are spiritual, because they all speak by the Holy Spirit.

As we will soon see, spirituality is not the possession only of those who have the most spectacular or showy gifts of the Spirit. Every Christian is spiritual and every gift is needed for the church to function as it should.

Note carefully that this description of spirituality is Christological. It depends directly on confessing Christ as Lord. Thiselton says that the identification of Jesus as “Lord” is Paul’s favorite description, occurring 220 times in his writings. Thiselton adds, “On one side, Christ takes responsibility for the believer as his or her [Lord]; on the other side, the Lord is the authority to whom the believer is responsible and from whom the believer derives his or her lifestyle and ethics.”[5] This exchange is how the new covenant in Christ’s blood works.

By redefining all Christians as spiritual, Paul lays the foundation for his description of spiritual gifts and their use in the church (1 Cor. 12:4–11). It all starts with Christ as Lord.

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) 558.

[2] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 571.

[3] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 912.

[4] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 571.

[5] Thiselton, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 926.