READ : 1 Corinthians 12:1-27
Every Christian is called to service in Christ’s name David Bast has selected ten vivid metaphors from First and Second Corinthians that describe “ministers of Christ,” and he explores them in this series. His message today: “We are the Body of Christ,” the best known and most familiar of Paul’s images of what we are in Christ.
“Now concerning the gifts of the Spirit,” writes Paul at the beginning of 1 Corinthians chapter twelve, “I do not want you to be ignorant.” “I would not have you be ignorant” is a favorite phrase of the apostle, which he often uses to introduce some especially important teaching, in this instance, teaching about spiritual gifts in the body of Christ. If there is any wish of Paul’s that has not been fulfilled it surely must be this one. Most of us do remain ignorant, woefully ignorant, not only about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but about his person as well and his work in general. We know all about the Lord Jesus; we have a fairly clear conception of God the Father; but the Holy Spirit remains little more than a name, a mysterious force, an impersonal “it.”
Christmas is a favorite holiday. Easter thrills and excites the whole church, but how much attention do we pay to Pentecost, the day when the “wind of God” roared, when fire fell from above, when the heavenly Dove descended upon the disciples as he had upon their Lord?
Our ignorance of the ministry of the Holy Spirit is a grave handicap in living the Christian life, for the Spirit is that Person of the Godhead with whom we have most to do, with whom we are most directly involved here and now as children of the Father and followers of Jesus. The Spirit is the one who dwells within us. He is the presence of Christ in our lives and hearts. He it is who quickens us when we are spiritually dead and brings us to new birth, who imparts to us the gift of faith, who helps us in our weakness and teaches us how to pray, who cultivates the fruit of holiness in us, who gives us gifts for ministry and equips us for service in the world and for the church. Just as no one can become a Christian without the work of the Spirit, so no Christian can grow apart from reliance upon him. We need to replace our ignorance of the Holy Spirit with intimacy, and there is no better place to begin than with the vivid imagery of 1 Corinthians 12.
Paul’s primary concern here is to emphasize the unity which the Spirit creates in the church based upon the common experience that every Christian has of him. While believers, like all people, are different and vary in personality, in ability, in gifts, in temperament, these variations do not imply differences within God, or a variety of “spirits,” as Paul says. The fact that Christians do not all worship the same way, for example, does not mean that some have the Spirit while others do not, or that one group has a different form of the Spirit than another.
There is “the same Spirit,” Paul says, “the same Lord, the same God” – repeating these words same or one and applying them to the Holy Spirit seven more times in 1 Corinthians 12:4-13. This intensive repetition suggests that Paul was greatly concerned with the issue of unity, and that, like many of our churches today, the congregation in Corinth suffered from a spiritual elitism in which some considered their knowledge, experience and gifts of the Holy Spirit to be superior to that of others. No, says Paul, there is just one Spirit.
And then he goes on to stress the fact that all Christians participate in this one Spirit. All have received him. “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given . . .” (v.7); “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body . . . and we were all given the one Spirit to drink,” Paul says (v.13; italics added).
Some people teach a two-stage experience of the Christian life. According to this view, one becomes a Christian by believing in Christ, but he or she does not receive the fullness, power and gifts of the Holy Spirit until undergoing a subsequent experience known as the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit” which usually occurs in response to the laying on of hands and is attested by the gift of speaking in tongues. This teaching has the effect of dividing the church into two kinds of Christians: lesser, ordinary believers, and the higher, “Spirit-filled” group.
But according to the apostle Paul, the baptism of, or in, or by (the words are all used) the Holy Spirit is something that has already happened to everyone who has become a Christian. For Paul this is another way of describing conversion. It is an essential part of becoming a believer in Jesus Christ. Faith in Christ, in fact, is only possible with the help of the Holy Spirit. Says Paul, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3).
Spectacular spiritual powers aren’t the most important indicator that you have received the Holy Spirit. Simple faith in Christ is. If you can say “Jesus is my Lord” and mean it, then you have the Holy Spirit living and working within you. Our greatest need as Christians is not to receive the Holy Spirit or “get more” of him. He is already with us and within us. What we most need to do is to turn more and more to him, to grow in intimacy in our relation with him. I think that is what the New Testament means by “being filled with the Spirit,” to follow his leading – to “keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25, NIV), to obey his commands.
Although there is just one Spirit and all have received him who are in Christ, thereby creating the essential unity which marks the church, there is still a great diversity. The way Christians differ is not in the possession or lack of the Spirit or the “amount” of him that they have, as if one person could have 10% of the Spirit and another 100%, though this is not to say that there are not different levels of spiritual maturity and holiness among Christians. There obviously are. But your personal level of spiritual life isn’t determined by how much of the Holy Spirit you have but by how much of you he has, as someone has memorably put it.
The point Paul wants to make here in 1 Corinthians 12 is that many of the differences between Christians are due to the variety of gifts the Spirit has given. “There are different kinds of gifts,” he says before proceeding to list some of them. The catalogue of gifts mentioned here and in other passages in the New Testament (e.g. Rom. 12) seem to be illustrative rather than exhaustive. That is to say, almost any positive or helpful quality can be a gift from the Spirit, from the very miraculous (such as healing or speaking in tongues), to the marvelous (like prophecy – i.e. proclaiming the Word of God, discernment of the will of God), to the very mundane (the gift of administration, or looking after details, or showing hospitality to others).
The key things to observe here are, first, that just as every Christian has received the Spirit so he or she has also received some gift of the Spirit, and second, that all of these gifts are intended “for the common good” (v.7). Every Christian is, rightly understood, a charismatic Christian – one who has been given a gift (in Greek, a charismaton) from the Holy Spirit for the sake of others. And every congregation must become more “charismatic” in its life, worship and witness, living in dependence upon the Spirit as all members exercise his gifts in ministry for the benefit of all.
So this is the double emphasis of 1 Corinthians 12: one Spirit, whom all Christians have received, but many different gifts that complement each other and are all intended for ministry. And to underscore his message of unity with diversity and diversity within unity in the church, the apostle Paul introduces his best-known metaphor describing who we are as Christ’s servants: We are the body of Christ:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body . . . Now you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.
1 Corinthians 12:12-13,27
Paul uses the human body as an analogy for the Christian church, the “body of Christ.” Just as the body has many different members or parts with a wide range of functions, so there are many individuals in a congregation with a variety of gifts, some being good at one thing and others at another. Paul uses this figure of speech as an illustration to make three practical applications for our lives as Christians in our own congregations.
First, we all belong to the body, whoever we are (1 Corinthians 12:14-20). No one is excluded just because he or she does not seem to have an important role or possess an outstanding gift. Nor must any of us try to live on our own apart from the body, as if we have no need of it (vv. 21-25). No, we all belong.
Second, we all need each other. Just as Paul rejects the false humility that says, “Because I’m not a hand but only a foot I don’t really belong; nobody would miss me,” so he also forbids the proud superiority of the eye which would dismiss the hand. We need everyone, great and small, and should have equal concern for all (v.25).
Third, we must sympathize with each other. In the same way that if one part of the body hurts, you feel it all over. So when one in the body of Christ is suffering, the whole body suffers. To sympathize means literally to “feel along with” another person. “I feel your pain” has become a popular mantra, often casually thrown out to a sufferer. But it should be literally true in the body of Christ. “If one member suffers,” Paul says, “all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (v.26). And then, he adds, “I will show you a still more excellent way” (v.31). Those words come at the very end of 1 Corinthians 12 and serve as the apostle’s lead-in to his great song of love in chapter 13, the love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Here’s a thought: If your congregation lived really and truly like the body of Christ, do you think it might grow?