Taking our Proper Place, 1 Corinthians 12:1-31


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1 Corinthians 12:1-31

Text Comment

We read verses 1-11 and vv. 27-31 last time and made comment on them as we read.  So I will refrain from making additional comment on them.

v.12     Now, what follows is an elaborate illustration in which Paul likens the church to a human body in which each part plays its own vital role.  His purpose is clearly to affirm the importance of the unity of the church, the place of each member in the body, and, in particular, to remind those who are glorying in the flashy gifts that God has given them and lording it over those who are not so impressive, that in the body of Christ, as in a human body, every member is important and its proper function depends upon every member serving the interests of the whole.  When Paul says at the end of v. 12 “So it is with Christ,” that is short for “so it is in the body of Christ.”  It is a wonderfully powerful way of speaking.  So it is with Christ, in other words, is another way of saying, so it is with us who are Christians.

v.13     To get this idea of “the baptism of the Holy Spirit” clear in your mind, think not of some internal state that has been created in God’s people by the work of the Holy Spirit.  Paul here doesn’t seem to be speaking of the new birth, or regeneration or even of sanctification and the renewal of our lives in a strict sense.  Think rather of the Holy Spirit being poured out upon us to equip us to be fruitful in our service of others as our service of Christ.  This was the original idea in Acts 1:5 where the Lord promised his disciples that after he left the world they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit.  And when they were, according to Acts 2:4, they were able to bless others and serve Christ with the gifts that had been given to them.  Fruitfulness in service, spiritual equipment with which to minister to others, that is the idea here of the baptism of the Holy Spirit.  And that baptism is common to us all in the Christian church.

v.18     The diversity in the body of Christ is by God’s own design.

v.21     The next section is clearly reflecting the fact that some in the Corinthian church seemed to feel that they did not need the others, that their superior rank, perhaps socially but certainly in respect to the spiritual gifts they had been given, rendered them self-sufficient.

v.22     Think, for example of internal organs, much less impressive than the eye or the tongue, yet the body could not function without them.  They may remain behind the scenes, but without them the body cannot function.  Or, as one church father commented on this text:  “No matter how elevated a person may be, if he has no one under him, his rank is worthless.  The greatest emperor still needs an army.”  [Ambrosiaster in ACCS, 127]

v.24     Paul is speaking primarily of the sexual organs, of course, which we take care to cover, which we don’t, say, in the case of the face.  His point is clear.  Bodily appearances can be deceiving, all the parts are necessary.  [Fee, 614]  Or, as Augustine cleverly observes:  “Aren’t the hairs of your head certainly of less value than your other members?  What is cheaper, more despicable, more lowly in your body than the hairs of your head?  Yet if the barber trims your hair unskillfully, you become angry at him because he does not cut your hair evenly.”  [ACCS, 127]

Pride takes many forms.  Sin makes every human being a lover of himself or herself, but that self-love, that ambition to be first, to be above and before others, takes many different forms.  Alexis de Tocqueville, with his typical insight, saw pride taking typical and distinct forms among his own French countrymen, in comparison, say, to the form it took among the English.

            “The French want no one to be their superior.  The English want inferiors.  The French man constantly raises his eyes above him with anxiety.  The English man lowers his beneath him with satisfaction.  On either side it is pride, but understood in a different way.”

So people can express the pride and self-love raging in their hearts by looking down on others or by anxiously looking up to be sure that no one is looking down at them.  Well, both of those expressions of pride could be found in Corinth.  There were those full of concern that the church seem as impressive and its leaders as impressive as those of the world. They didn’t want anyone thinking they were rubes, especially their peers in Corinthian society. They were critical of Paul because, in their view, he didn’t make them look good enough in sophisticated Corinth.  Then there were those looking down on other believers because of their social and economic status, sure of their own superiority and expressing their contempt for those beneath them in public behavior, even at the Lord’s Supper, that advertised the distinctions between various groups in the church.  And there were those agog over their spiritual powers and sure that gifts such as they had been given placed them above the ordinary run of Christians in the church.

You find, of course, all of these same habits of mind and conditions of heart in the church today.  Pride lurks everywhere, around every corner; it sits on the edge of many of the words we speak, and it motivates our thoughts and attitudes even when we are unaware of it.  We are always looking at others and thinking about others and comparing ourselves to others from the vantage point of our own self-worship.  John Adams, our country’s second president, got it exactly right:

            “I believe there is no one principle which predominates in

human nature so much in every stage of life, from the cradle to

the grave, in males and females, old and young, black and white,

rich and poor, high and low, as this passion for superiority.”

[In McCullough, John Adams, 170]

Pride is such a ubiquitous, powerful and subtle parasite, that it attaches itself even to the holy things we do.

                        When I would speak what thou hast done

To save me from my sin,

I cannot make thy mercies known,

But self-applause creeps in.

Any minister worth his salt will tell you that when the Lord helps him to preach a powerful sermon and God’s people are stirred by it, it is almost impossible for him not to bask in the glory of their appreciation and of the sermon’s power, even though he knows full well it was God who gave him that sermon and God who made it powerful.  You remember Jean Massillon, the great French preacher. After a service in which he had preached one of his characteristically eloquent and powerful sermons, a woman lavished praise on him.  “Madam,” he said, “the Devil has already said that to me and much more eloquently than you.”

Pride can even turn Paul’s argument here and his illustration of the church as a human body with every part playing its significant role on its head.  I remember when I was in seminary, years ago now, one day in a counseling class we were divided into groups.  In the group, one by one, we were asked to say good things about ourselves, to pay compliments to ourselves.  In particular, we were pointed to 1 Corinthians 12, and its parallel in Romans 12, and asked to list what we thought some of our gifts to be.  This was designed to be an exercise in building up our self-esteem, in fostering a positive and healthy self-concept.  I remember how uncomfortable I was doing that exercise.  For I knew very well that my problem, my great problem, was not an inferiority complex. My problem was not that I had too low a view of myself.  It was rather that I thought far too highly of myself.  In any case, Paul’s text here was being turned into an exercise in building self-confidence and a sense of self-worth.

Now, I don’t deny that folk sometimes struggle with an inferiority complex, that they have too low a view of themselves, even if that sense of inferiority is only another kind of mask behind which pride hides itself.  And I don’t doubt that there is that in Paul’s teaching here upon which one can rightly build a sense of one’s own importance.  God has made us, every believer, a part of his family, has given us gifts, has made us important to one another, and so on.  All of this is undoubtedly true.

But, the fact is, Paul wrote what he did precisely because these Corinthian Christians, in a way typical of all Christians, at least some of the time, were making a life of looking down their noses at one another, or thinking themselves better than the other, or worrying that someone might think himself or herself better than they.  He used his illustration of the church as like a human body to take people down a notch or two, not to lift them higher in their own estimation.  Even such holy things, such wonderful things, such useful things as the great gifts that God had bestowed on the Corinthian church were being turned into instruments of their pride.  The tongues-speaker boasted of the phenomenal power he had to speak a message directly from God in a language he had never learned.  The man or woman with the gift of interpretation or translation, puffed up with importance at the thought that only he could tell what the tongues-speaker was saying and only he report it to the church even though he had never learned the language being used either.  And the one who could heal the sick was sure that his gift was the greatest one of all.  After all, “if you have your health, you have everything!”  And so the gifts of the Holy Spirit were driving the church apart, as each man or woman looked to the gifts to prove their own personal superiority, and as those without the flashier and more public gifts envied those who had them.

“Rubbish!” says Paul.  You have missed the point of these gifts and so are misusing them.  The gifts should humble you not puff you up.  It is interesting, by the way, that in the other passage in which Paul discusses the gifts that the Holy Spirit distributes throughout the church, the passage in Romans 12, he makes the same point.  His purpose is not to compliment them for their giftedness but, as he says, “For by the grace of God given to me I say to every one of you:  Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment… Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”

In both passages in which Paul discusses the spiritual gifts he is interested in putting Christians in their proper place, a place they all too often wander away from.  And there isn’t a one of us in this sanctuary this morning who doesn’t need, really need to hear Paul say what he has to say to us.

I speak about all of this with a special authority because I am a minister.  I hold the office of teacher in the church and what remains of the office of prophecy.  Paul speaks directly to me in 1 Corinthians 12 in a way even more directly that he speaks to many of you.  And, being a minister, I have long ago learned to my shame and to my sorrow how the sin of pride hounds ministers.  Robert McCheyne thought that envy – simply another word for pride – was the chief sin of ministers.  I read this once in the diary of Thomas Shepard, the Puritan father and founder of Harvard.

            “December 9.  After my Wednesday sermon I saw the towering

pride of my heart in all I did.  As soon as I had done any publick

work my wicked heart would immediately look wistfully whether

men praised me or no.  Hereupon I saw my incurable vileness to

make the opinions of passing men my rule…and my reward in

doing the work of the everlasting God.  I saw…that upon every

enlargement of mine I was ready to be [something] in my own

eyes.”  [Whyte, Thomas Shepard, 106]

And then we read later in his diary, great man and great Christian that he was, “Nov. 10, 1642.  I kept a private fast for the conquest of my pride.” [116]

And you know it is so with you.  You either think well of yourself because of the gifts God has given you or you envy those who have the gifts you do not.  You either think more highly of yourself than you ought to think or you resent the superiority of others around you.

Well, Paul makes a direct attack on that pride.  He lays the ax to its root in several ways.

  • First, he says, those things that distinguish you, that make others notice you, that you are so easily tempted to pride yourself in, they are all God’s gifts to you.

That is, these spiritual gifts are just that, gifts.  And so is everything else that is good and worthy and admirable in your life.  As Paul said to them earlier in this same letter, “What do you have that you did not receive?”  You didn’t earn these things, any more than you earned your appearance or some talent that you have.  You didn’t deserve these things and you certainly cannot take credit for them.

Paul uses two different words for spiritual gifts in this passage.  The first, which we find in v. 1, is pneumatika, that is, things of the Spirit.  The point of that term is precisely that the gifts we are speaking of are God’s work, specifically the Holy Spirit’s work in man and not the actualizing of a human capacity, talent, or skill.  [Packer, Quest for Godliness, 224]  The second word is charismata, which we find in vv. 4, 9, 28 and so on. It means “gift” or “favor,” anything freely bestowed.  As John Owen comments on this word, “It is the absolute freedom in the bestower of them that is principally intended in this [word].”  [Works, iv, 423]

In other words, you have these gifts because God saw fit to give them to you.  He might just as well have given them to someone else.  When you think and act as if these gifts – whether tongues and interpretation in the days of the Corinthian church, or teaching, helping, serving, giving, exercising leadership, and so on that are listed here and elsewhere in the New Testament – you are forgetting yourself and you are forgetting what these things are:  a present God gave you.  And if you are one of the presentable ones in the church or if you are one of those less presentable, this is all God’s doing, his wisdom, his plan and purpose.  He might just as well have reversed those roles and placed you in some other position. When you are tempted to think highly of yourself, just remember what other believers will think of you if they know that you are taking personal credit for the gifts that God has so kindly given to you in defiance of your sinfulness and ill-desert.

  • Second, your gifts are but a small part of the whole giftedness of Christ’s body.

The church requires the entire range of the Holy Spirit’s gifts and you have but one or two of them.  Others have been given gifts and, presentable or not, they are likewise critical to the church’s life.  The pituitary gland is very small, but have you ever seen the woe it causes in a human life when it does not work properly?  And now even genes, tiny as they are, we understand control great things in the human body.  You are not enough, your gifts depend upon the presence of the gifts of others.  We tend to think that this is not so, that we are somehow uniquely indispensable, but that is just another lie our pride is always whispering to our hearts.  How important we think we are; how much more important than anyone else thinks we are!

It is to make this point that Paul uses his wonderful illustration of the body and its various members.  Each requires the other.  It is really quite funny to think about it.  The eye says to the hand, “I don’t need you.”  And the hand says in return, “Oh no?  Well, here’s looking at you, kid,” and sticks a finger in the eye.  Or the head says to the feet, “Take a walk!”  And the feet do, right into the pool until the head is underwater and drowning.”  It is, Paul says, as absurd as that, when Christians act like they are self-sufficient and don’t need one another.  The Spirit’s distribution of his gifts, this is Paul’s point, proves that everyone else is important too.  You are not required to think that everyone else is better, or more important than you are – that is false humility – but you are required to think that everyone else is as important as you are!

  • Third, Paul says, it isn’t the possession of the gift but the use of it that is the measure of a Christian man or woman.

As he said at the beginning, in v. 7, the gifts the Holy Spirit distributes in the church are for the common good.  And this is the point that he is going to ring the changes on in the next part of his argument, in chapter 13, the famous “love chapter.”  “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”  I have gifts coming out my ears; I can be the most presentable of all the Christians in the church, I can impress everyone around me with my importance, but if I am not using my gifts to serve others in Christ’s name, if I am more concerned with applause than with love for God and man, then my gifts only increase my guilt and aggravate my sin.  God the Holy Spirit gave you his gifts, not first for your sake, but for the sake of others!

Usually when people tell me what they think their spiritual gift is, it is one of the flashier of the gifts, usually teaching.  Teaching, after all, places us in front of other people, it serves to get us attention, if we do it well people will admire us and even come to depend upon us.  But, characteristically, the Bible says that teaching is a sacred trust, it is for the purpose of building up God’s people not the teacher, and that your teaching will be measured in the great day not by how much you were admired for it or how much you may have enjoyed the limelight, but rather by how well you served the saints.  “Let few be teachers,” we are warned, “for they will be judged more strictly.”

We naturally tend to think that the more gifted we are, the more fortunate.  The Bible doesn’t say that; it says, the more gifted we are, the more responsible and accountable we are.  Every gift is a stewardship for the exercise of which we will have to give an account.  If we could just see the Day of Judgment in our mind’s eye and ourselves going up to the great white throne, we would care much less about what gifts the Holy Spirit may have seen fit to give us, and much, much more about the faithful and loving exercise of our simple duties every day.

People often wonder what their gifts are.  The Bible doesn’t tell you to go to a seminar to find out.  It doesn’t seem to care much what your gifts are.  It cares much more than you love your brothers and sisters.  After all, each spiritual gift is also, in some way, an ordinary duty.  Every Christian has teaching to do, as a parent, as a friend, as a witness.  Every Christian has serving to do and giving to do and so on.  Do all of those things with a heart of love for God and your brethren and you will find and others will see that you do certain things particularly well.  Those are the gifts the Spirit has given you.

Paul’s simple but profound counsel to us is simply this.  Some of you are better at one thing than others, others of you are gifted in this way or that.  Some of you may be wondering just what you are gifted at.  But the fact of the matter is that the Lord’s chief concern is that you love one another and care for one another in that spirit of humility appropriate to sinners saved by grace.  The measure of your life is not your gifts but your love.  Whether you are a hand or an eye or the head, the Lord will measure your life by how well and with what humble love you have served the feet, the elbows, the knees of our body.

There was a minister in Scotland in the days of Samuel Rutherford by the name of Castlelaw.  Mr. Castlelaw of Stewarton.  Now this minister was not much of a preacher, and he knew it. He knew he couldn’t preach like other ministers he knew.  And so he encouraged the people of his parish, as often as they could, to hear the sermons of other, better preachers.  And he would often invite better preachers to come and fill his pulpit in Stewarton so that his people too could hear the Word of God powerfully preached to their hearts and consciences.  And he would, in his gratitude, accompany these more gifted men to and from his parish, singing psalms all the way.

Now, I suppose you would have to be a minister yourself and a preacher to know with what astonishment a minister hears about such a man and with what envy a godly minister considers the spirit of such a man.  It seems to ministers that such a man must have come from another and a far better world and have a heart far different from his own, that he could so gladly rejoice in the gifts God had given to another minister and so gladly parade that other man’s gifts in front of his own congregation.  Mr. Castlelaw will never be as famous as Samuel Rutherford, or Robert Blair, or David Dickson, some of the famous preachers of his time in Scotland.  But, like the poor widow who put her two mites into the temple treasury, like the sinful woman who loved the Lord much, his name will be written in letters of gold in heaven; not for his gifts, but for his love and for his beautiful humility.

We may have impressive gifts; we may wonder if we have any gifts at all; no matter.  That is the Spirit’s business and his doing.  But we can all love and we can all live our lives for the sake of this truth:  “what do you have that you did not receive?”  There are lots of gifted people in the church and in the world.  There are many known and celebrated for their gifts.  There are many fewer who are known for their humility and for their love.  Let us aspire to be found in that smaller group…for Jesus’ sake.