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.

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