All through this letter, the Apostle Paul has been addressing a number of different issues with the church in Corinth. And in today’s chapter he writes to them about spiritual gifts and about how the church is like a body: so, just as a body is made up of different parts, and each part has a different function to perform, so the church is made up with different members, and each member has a gift from God with which they’re able to serve one another. And while we normally assume that this chapter is all about spiritual gifts, the fact is — as we’ll see — that it’s really about how believers in every age are to love one another. In fact, this chapter is connected with the next chapter which is all about love and about how we’re to love one another with a love that is patient and kind and which does not envy or boast and which is not proud or rude and so on. So, when believers meet together for worship and fellowship, we’re to be careful to love one another, for this is God’s will for his people in every age. So, let’s turn to the passage to see what the Lord is saying to us today.
Verses 1 to 3
And, first of all, in verses 1 to 3, he introduces the topic. But what is the topic? Well, when he says ‘now about’, it’s clear he’s writing about a topic which they addressed to him. We’ve seen him do that before. For instance, back in chapter 7, he wrote to them about marriage, which was something they had written to him about. But what were they asking him about this time?
Well, the NIV translates the opening words of chapter 12 as:
Now, about spiritual gifts, brothers….
So do most other English translations, including the old King James Version. The ESV — which is the Bible I use at home — translates Paul’s words in the same way. However, the ESV has a footnote beside the words ‘spiritual gifts’; and in the footnote the translators say that his words can also be translated ‘spiritual persons’. So, he could be saying:
Now, about spiritual persons, brothers….
The same Greek word can be translated ‘spiritual gifts’ or ‘spiritual persons’.
So, is he writing about gifts or persons? Well, the reason most English translations think he’s addressing the topic of spiritual gifts, is because he goes on to write about spiritual gifts; and he lists some of them in verses 8 to 10. However, from what he will go on to say about speaking in tongues in chapters 13 and 14, it seems that some of the believers in Corinth were boasting because they spoke in tongues. It seems some of them were pre-occupied with tongues and regarded any other gifts of the Spirit as inferior and unimportant. In other words, those who spoke in tongues regarded themselves as the really spiritual people in that congregation. They were the really spiritual people in Corinth; and those who did not speak in tongues were not; they were a kind of second class Christian.
Of course, it’s just the same today, isn’t it? There are some churches and Christians who are pre-occupied with speaking in tongues; and some of them — not all of them, but some of them — can be dismissive of those churches and believers which take a different view on tongue-speaking. I knew some pentecostal believers when I lived in the south and I once looked up the statement of faith on their church’s website. And according to their statement of faith, speaking in tongues was the sign of being filled with the Spirit. So, if you didn’t speak in tongues, you weren’t filled with the Spirit. If you didn’t speak in tongues, you weren’t a really spiritual believer and you were missing out on something special. And if you belonged to a church where the members did not speak in tongues, well that wasn’t a true church. Do you see? What was happening in Corinth still happens today.
And so, although Paul says many things about spiritual gifts in this chapter, his real interest is with people and with the way the people in Corinth were treating one another. And the first point Paul makes about this whole topic is found in verses 2 and 3 where he makes the point that every believer — every believer! — is spiritual. Look what he says. He first of all refers to how some of them before they were converted to faith in Christ were pagans. And when they were pagans, they worshipped and bowed down to mute idols. So, they worshipped idols and false gods which could not speak. And, of course, they could not speak because they weren’t real; they were made-up gods.
Then he refers to those who cursed the Lord Jesus. It’s possible that he’s referring to those of them who were once Jews, because that’s what unbelieving Jews would say about the Lord Jesus. In the Old Testament it says that everyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse; and so unbelieving Jews would say about the Lord Jesus that since he hung and died on a cross, then he must be cursed by God. So, some of the believers in Corinth were once pagans who worshipped mute idols which said nothing; and some of them were once Jews who, if they said anything about the Lord Jesus, they would have said that he was under God’s curse. But now, those in the church who were once pagans and those in the church who were once unbelieving Jews are able to say that Jesus is Lord.
What happened to them? How did they change their mind about him? Who convinced them to believe that Jesus is Lord? Well, it was the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit came into their lives and enabled them to believe the good news about Jesus Christ so that they turned from their sins in repentance and turned with faith to the Saviour and confessed him as their Lord. Without the help of the Holy Spirit, they would never have believed. But the Spirit came into their lives and convinced them and converted them to faith in Christ. And so — and this is really Paul’s point — every believer is a spiritual person. Every believer is spiritual and has the Holy Spirit in them, because you can’t believe without the help of the Holy Spirit.
That’s Paul’s first point. Some in Corinth boasted that only those who speak in tongues are spiritual. Not so, says Paul. Not so, because everyone who believes is a spiritual person, because it’s the Holy Spirit who enables us to believe.
Verses 4 to 6
Paul’s second point is in verses 4 to 6 where he makes clear that there are a variety of spiritual gifts, but they all come from the same source. And where do they come from? Well, since we normally call them ‘spiritual gifts’, we usually associate the gifts with the Holy Spirit. However, Paul makes clear that each person of the Trinity is involved in the giving and the working of these gifts. And so, he refers in these verses to the Holy Spirit and to the Lord Jesus Christ and to God; and when he says ‘God’ in verse 6, he’s referring to God the Father. And look how he describes the gifts in relation to the persons of the Trinity. In relation to the Spirit, we can think of them as gifts which he bestows on his people. In relation to the Lord Jesus, we can think of them as kinds of service, because the gifts are given to enable believers to serve the Lord Jesus Christ and his church. And in relation to God the Father, we can think of the way God empowers the believer and enables his people to use the gifts.
Paul’s point is this: there are a variety of gifts and they all come from the same source. So, how dare they boast about one kind of gift and despise those with another kind of gift! Those who spoke in tongues were boasting about it; and they looked down on those who possessed another kind of gift. But how dare they despise their fellow believer and their fellow believer’s gift, when every gift comes from God. Every gift comes from him and every gift is therefore to be honoured and valued in the church.
Verses 7 to 11
Paul’s next point is that there are many gifts, which the Spirit gives to each one of them individually; but each gift is given for the good of everyone. So, in verse 7 he wrote that to each one, or to each believer in Corinth, the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. By referring to the gifts as manifestations of the Spirit, he’s saying that the Holy Spirit manifested himself or revealed himself to each believer by giving each of them a separate gift.
So, there are many types of gift which are given to them individually. And then Paul lists the gifts. At least, he lists some of them. And the reason I say that he lists some of them is because if you compare this list of gifts to the list of gifts we find in Romans 12 and in Ephesians 4 and even in later in 1 Corinthians 12, you’ll see the lists are not the same. So, this is only a sampling of all the gifts which the Spirit gives to his people. But in this list, he mentions wisdom and knowledge. He mentions faith and gifts of healing and miraculous powers. He also mentions prophecy and distinguishing between spirits and speaking in different kinds of tongue and the interpretation of tongues.
It’s always difficult to categorise the gifts or to divide them up into groups, but we can possibly divide this list of gifts into word gifts and deed gifts. So, wisdom, knowledge, prophecy, distinguishing spirits, speaking in tongues and interpreting tongues are all word gifts; they’re all to do with speaking. Faith, healings, miracles are deed gifts. They’re about doing something.
It’s also difficult to say what some of these gifts are. Some Bible commentators think wisdom means receiving some divine insight into how to live wisely. However, throughout Paul’s letters wisdom refers to a God-given insight into the mystery of the gospel. Knowledge is presumably the God-given understanding which the Lord gave to the apostles, for instance, to enable them to make his will known to his people. Where did Paul get all the knowledge which he displays in his letters? Well, as an apostle of Jesus Christ, he got that knowledge from the Lord.
Since every believer possesses faith, it’s likely that the spiritual gift of faith which we find here is a special kind of faith; the faith that is able to move mountains. And that means the faith Paul mentions here is related to the next two gifts which are gifts of healing and the power to perform miracles. Interestingly, we tend to think that the Bible is full of miracles and healings; but in fact there are really only three periods of miracles in the Bible: during the days of Moses and Joshua; during the days of Elijah and Elisha; and during the days of the Lord Jesus and his apostles. In other words, miracles and healings are not very common in the Bible, but the power to heal and to perform miracles is listed as one of the gifts which was known to the church in Corinth.
Next in the list comes prophecy and the ability to distinguish between spirits. There needed to be someone in the church who had discernment to determine whether or not anyone who spoke was really inspired by God. Was this message really from the Lord or was the speaker mistaken?
And then last of all in Paul’s list was the ability to speak in tongues and the ability to interpret those tongues. I’ll say more about speaking in tongues and prophecy when we get to chapter 14. But it seems that the Corinthians regarded speaking in tongues as the most important gift. It was, for them, the pre-eminent gift. But what does Paul do? He puts it last of all in his list. They treated it as the most important; he put it at the end of the list to indicate to them that they were wrong to treat it as the pre-eminent and most important gift.
Now all of these gifts — which the Spirit gave to them individually — were to be used not for their own benefit, but for the good of all. The gifts of the Spirit were for the common good. So, the one with the gift of wisdom and knowledge was to share what they knew with the rest of the church. The one with faith and who could heal the sick and perform miracles was to use that gift for the good of others. The one who prophesies and the one who spoke in tongues were likewise to use that gift for the good of the whole church. The gift was not given for their own personal benefit; and they were not meant to boast and take pride in the gifts they had received. No, the gifts were given to enable the people to love and serve their fellow believers. Instead of saying, ‘Look at me and what I can do!’, they were to say: ‘What can I do to help you? How can I serve you today?’
So, there were many gifts, which the Spirit gave to each one of them individually; but each gift was given for the good of everyone.
Verses 12 to 26
In verses 12 to 26 Paul compares the church of Jesus Christ to a body. And he does so to make a number of separate points.
First of all, the church is made up of many members who combine together to form one church. So, think of your body. It’s made up of different parts: you have your eyes and ears and nose and mouth and arms and legs and so on. All of those parts combine together to form one body. So, it is with the church of Jesus Christ: the church is made up of many different members, but we all combine together to form one body, one church. And Paul says in verse 13 that we are all baptised by one Spirit into one body. Some commentators think he’s referring to the time when new believers were baptised with water and became members of the church. However, he could also be referring to that moment when the Holy Spirit came into their lives to enable them to repent and believe and when they were therefore cleansed from the guilt of their sins. And so, having believed and having been cleansed, they became members of the church.
Paul also says that were given one Spirit to drink. Well, the Lord Jesus referred in John 7 to coming to him in order to drink from streams of living water. And John explained that the Lord was referring to the Holy Spirit, who can be likened to a stream of living water, because from him we receive life in all its fullness. But Paul’s point is simply that the Holy Spirit has united believers together as members of Christ’s church. The church in Corinth was made up of Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free; but they were united by the Spirit in Christ’s church.
Secondly, no member in the church should envy or disregard another member, because every member has a gift which is necessary for the whole. So, Paul imagines a foot envying a hand and wishing it were a hand too. And he imagines an ear envying an eye and wishing it were an eye too. But every person’s body needs a combination of hands and feet and eyes and ears. In the same way, the members of the church in Corinth should not envy or disregard one another. The ones without the gift of tongues should not envy those with the gift of tongues; and the ones with the gift of tongues should not despise the ones without that gift. Just as God has determined the way our physical body should be, so he has determined how the church should be; and just as every part of the body is vital, so every member in the church is vital.
Thirdly, we need and rely on one another. So, Paul imagines an eye saying to the hand: ‘I don’t need you.’ But no, because each part of the body is indispensable to the whole. And Paul goes on to refer obliquely in verses 22 to 24 to the reproductive organs in a person’s body which have to be covered up. Even though they’re covered up, and they’re never put on show, they’re vital, aren’t they? They’re indispensable. The human race would not survive very long if we didn’t have our reproductive organs. Well, those who possessed the gift of tongues in Corinth needed to realise that there were others in the church in Corinth whose gifts may be less showy and spectacular than their own, but they were nevertheless vital to the church. So, there should be no divisions among them and there should be equal concern and sympathy for one another.
Verses 27 to 31
So, what have we learned so far? There are a variety of spiritual gifts, but they all come from the same source. There are many gifts, but each gift is given for the good of everyone. Then the church is made up of many members who combine together to form one church. No member in the church should envy or disregard another member, because every member has a gift which is necessary for the whole. And we need and rely on one another.
Finally in verses 27 to 31 Paul again lists some of the gifts. Or he lists some of the people who possess certain gifts of the Spirit: apostles and prophets; teachers; those who work miracles; those who heal; those who are able to help others; and those with gifts of administration, which is not so much to do with paperwork and filing, but to guiding the church in the right way. And, once again, Paul puts those who speak in different tongues at the end of the list to underline that they’re not to think their gift is the best gift.
God had given to the church all these different people with different gifts and callings and responsibilities. Not everyone is an apostle. Not everyone is a prophet. Not everyone is a teacher. And so on. There are many gifts. And go ahead — says Paul to the Corinthians in verse 31 — go ahead and seek the greater gifts. There’s no harm — he’s saying to the Corinthians — in seeking the gifts of the Spirit. However, here’s one last thing they need to remember. They need to remember the importance of love. That’s the more excellent way, which Paul refers to right at the end of verse 31; and it’s how he introduces chapter 13 and everything he says in that chapter about love. God had distributed among the believers in Corinth many different kinds of gift, but love is superior to all those gifts of the Spirit; and without love, we’re nothing.
So, what lesson can we learn from this chapter? What’s the main point of this passage? Well, despite the fact that Paul says much here about spiritual gifts, spiritual gifts are not really the point of this passage. In fact, there are good reasons for believing that most, if not all, of the gifts which Paul mentions here and which were known to Corinthians are not found in the church today. These gifts have ceased.
Why do I say that? Well, I’ll say more about this when we get to chapter 14, but we need to be clear that the apostolic era was different from today. It was different from today. And I can say that because, of course, the apostles were alive in those days, and they had seen the Lord with their own eyes; and they were eye-witnesses to all he said and did; and they had been appointed by the Lord himself to be his official eye-witnesses. In those days, you could still go to an apostle and ask them what they saw. You can’t do that today; there’s no one alive today who has seen the Lord with his own eyes. So, that makes the apostolic era different from today.
But what also makes the apostolic era different from today is the fact that the Bible was not yet finished. The New Testament had not yet been written. When we want to know what God has done for us, when we want to know the good news of salvation, when we want to know the will of the Lord for his church and for how his people should live, we have the Bible to guide us. And that’s an enormous privilege which we enjoy which the people living in the apostolic era could not enjoy.
And so, when we want to know anything about the Lord, we have the Bible to guide us. And so, of course, when Paul was writing to Timothy to prepare him and the church for life after the apostles, he was able to write to him with confidence about the Bible being the inspired word of God which is useful for teaching and rebuking and correcting and training, so that the man of God — which means a minister — may be thoroughly equipped for his ministry. The day was coming when Timothy could no longer ask the apostles or the prophets for help; but it didn’t matter, because he had the Bible which is sufficient.
So, having the Bible is a wonderful privilege which we enjoy. But instead of having a complete Bible to guide them, the early believers were able to rely on the Spirit-inspired revelation of the apostles and prophets and those who spoke in tongues and who possessed special wisdom and knowledge of God’s will. And their Spirit-inspired revelation was confirmed by means of signs and wonders and miracles.
So, the gifts of the Spirit which we read about here were for the early church while it existed in that special apostolic era which was different from today. That doesn’t mean that God no longer heals anyone. But it means there is no one with the gift of healing; and instead believers are invited to pray to the Lord for loved ones who are sick. And in case anyone thinks that this makes this chapter irrelevant to us, then we should remember that so much of what we have read in this letter is unknown to us today, because we no longer eat a full meal with the Lord’s Supper which they did; and we don’t have to deal with food sacrificed to idols as they did. Those problems were unique to them, but still there were lessons for us to learn. And while the Corinthians benefitted from these gifts of the Spirit, and we don’t, nevertheless the lesson we learn from this passage is that we’re to love one another just as they were to love one another. We’re not to despise each other, because the church is still made up of many members; and we’re all different; but the Lord has placed us together and he calls on us to love and serve one another and to work together for the common good, using whatever good things he has bestowed on us, so that the church of Jesus Christ is built up and not destroyed or spoiled by our sin and selfishness. And that’s a message which the church in every generation needs to hear, and it’s one we need to hear, because often the sin living in us gets the better of us, and we despise one another and criticise one another and hurt one another, instead of working together to build each other up in the faith. Paul was making the point that the truly spiritual person is the one who loves. And that’s the same today: the truly spiritual person is the man or woman or the boy or girl who loves and serves their fellow believers.