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1 Corinthians 12

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

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1 Corinthians 12:1 to 1 Corinthians 14:39

It is hard for us in the twentieth century to realize how ab­solutely new the Christian religion was when Paul wrote these let­ters. Take one single ordinary question: What do these Christians do when they get together for meetings? Nowadays that sounds like a silly question. Everyone knows about "church services." They are so regular, so much in one groove, that there is an "order of service" made long in advance; the minister’s sermon will perhaps be typed days ahead of time; and if you have been there before, you can take next Sunday’s service bulletin and figure almost to the minute what the congregation will be doing at any particular time between 11 and 12 o’clock.

Not so in the first century; not at all so in Corinth. If you had dropped in on them some Lord’s Day, you would have per­haps been embarrassed, certainly confused. A feeling of tension, of great excitement, would pervade the meeting. Everybody would seem to be talking at once. You might understand ordinary Greek, but you would discover that some of these people were shouting strange sounds that nobody could understand. If you hung around and talked after the meeting, you would discover that these people attributed their excitement, and their talking and shouting, even the unintelligible noises, to the Holy Spirit. You would find that the people who talked in this odd fashion, if it could be called "talk," were rather proud of it, and in fact considered that this "speaking in tongues" as they called it was a special mark of distinction. You might overhear an argument between one of the "tongues" speakers and another man who claimed to have healed six people that week just by laying his hands on them. Another member might be claiming that the Holy Spirit’s "gift" to a speaker you could understand was greater than his gift to one you could not.

One thing is sure. If you went through a modern congrega­tion asking, "Have you any spiritual gifts?" you might get some glassy stares. But at Corinth you would get eager replies, "Yes, yes, I’ve got the greatest!" We do not know how much they had written Paul about this, but he writes to this confused, ex­cited situation. There is no doubt that they wanted the "gifts" —the powers, strange and impressive—of the Spirit. The question was, How can we know they are gifts of the Holy Spirit? There were other religions with somewhat similar features. And there is a further question: What are the principal gifts? What powers should we want most to have?

Verses 1-11

Spiritual Gifts (12:1-11)

In writing on this problem Paul lays down some plain, practical principles, fresh and forceful as the day they were first put on paper. Furthermore, in discussing the question Paul rises to a height of eloquence and insight he seldom if ever equals; the great and famous chapter on love comes right in the middle of what he has to say about spiritual gifts and the worship of God. Most of this needs no commentary, as it is simple and plain.

First, Paul says what is more obvious to us than it was, perhaps, at Corinth: No one can curse Jesus and claim to be speaking by the Spirit. On the other hand, no one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit. Of course any wicked person could repeat those words, but what Paul means is that no one can sin­cerely accept Jesus as Lord of his life, his Number One authority, except by the Holy Spirit. This broadens the idea of "spiritual" beyond the limits which many of us set. A person who does not lead in public prayer, who has no sensational conversion to re­port, and who could not teach a Sunday school class or a Bible study group, might not be considered "spiritual" in some circles; but if the sincere devotion to Jesus as Lord and Master is there, then by Paul’s definition the person is spiritual.

Paul next makes it clear that there is only one Holy Spirit. That did not go without saying at Corinth, because in those days the Church had not realized this truth. Even the author of the Book of Revelation can speak of the seven spirits of God (Revelation 4:5). Paul’s reason for insisting on one Spirit is to keep us from thinking that some "gifts" must be better, or higher, than others. It is all one and the same Spirit who works in various people with various results.

Paul does not use these words, but it is plain from what he says that the Holy Spirit is personal—no "It," no thing, but personal, though of course on a higher plane than human persons.

Paul connects the Holy Spirit with baptism, which means that to some degree all baptized persons have already known the con­tact of the Holy Spirit. Not that the ceremony with water pro­duces or brings down the Spirit; on the contrary, whatever effec­tiveness baptism may have, comes from the Spirit himself.

Verses 12-30

The Unity of the Church as the Body of Christ (12:12-30)

At this point Paul brings in an idea which is extremely impor­tant for understanding the nature of the Church, an idea he worked out in his later letters to Ephesus and Colossae. That is the thought of the Church as a body, an organism, in which each individual Christian is a member. He had spoken to the Romans about Christians’ being "one body in Christ" (Romans 12:5), but now he speaks of their being "the body of Christ" (vs. 27).

Many thoughts arise from this one figure of speech, one of the most fruitful and suggestive in the New Testament. The main thought in this chapter, obviously, is that in the Church, as in a living body, there is unity and variety. (Note how Paul keeps his points aimed at Corinth, that split-apart church. He is not writing an essay for theologians; he is the practical pastor and bishop, saying what needs to be said to a particular congregation. And so far as we have the same diseases, we need his diagnosis and are helped by his prescription.)

There is no need for one member or organ of a body to brag of its importance. Each member of the body is useful to all the rest but in turn needs the rest. Elsewhere Paul reminds us that Christ is the Head of the Church; the Church needs him, he needs the Church. But in Corinthians the emphasis is on our need of one another. Though we all derive our true life from Christ, not one of us can live as a Christian—a living, serving Christian—without the intimate joining-with and working-with other Chris­tians, just as it is among the members of a body. It has been sug­gested that we might make Paul’s meaning more vivid if we translated his key phrase not "members" of one another but "membranes." To sum it up bluntly, it is no more possible to be a lone independent Christian apart from the Church than it is for an ear or an eye to be a lone independent ear or eye, with no body. An eye in a head is priceless; an eye in a glass jar is a curiosity.

Paul sums up this whole business of spiritual gifts, and puts an end to all the argument over which one is most important, in the single sentence: "To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good" (12:7).

The "More Excellent Way" of Love (12:31-13:13)

Paul does line up some "spiritual gifts" twice, in 12:8-10 and 12:27-30. Perhaps he thinks of these in order of importance, but probably not, since the two lists are not identical. The point with which he ends chapter 12 is: Desire the higher gifts; what­ever gifts you feel to be higher and highest, hope and pray for these. But he goes on to mention one spiritual gift without which all other gifts are nothing, one gift in comparison with which every other is a poor second. Paul sees nothing wrong in spiritual ambition, that is, desire for great and unusual spiritual capacity and power. What he does find wrong, or tragically mistaken, is to mistake a lesser gift for the greater, or to overlook the greatest, the most essential of all.

This gift, of course, is love. The immortal 13th chapter is a prose poem on Christian love. One great Bible teacher has said that Paul probably had written this poem before this and possibly had polished it over a period of years. Then when he was writing this letter he realized that this was the very "slot" for it, so in it went. Be that as it may, this 13th chapter is one of at least four high points of this Corinthian letter. The first is 1:18-2:12, the meaning of the Cross; the second, his story of the Last Supper (11:23-26); the third, this poem on Love; and the fourth, his vision of the Christian’s destiny (15:42-58). There are many shorter and unforgettable sayings, but these are longer flights if not higher.

Another writer voices this one’s thought in saying that anyone who attempts to comment on this chapter of the Bible (not to mention others) comes away feeling that he has only left the mark of soiled and clumsy hands on a thing of beauty and holi­ness. It is a chapter that does not call for explanation so much as illustration, the kind of illustration that can be supplied only by the reader. What is true of the Bible as a whole is strongly true here: these high thoughts are meant to be lived.

Only one point will be made here, a point perhaps not realized by all readers. The Christian religion almost had to coin a new word for "love." The Greek world was not unlike our Hollywood­ized world; the word "love" had been dragged through a lot of mud. The usual word for "love" in the Greek-speaking world was a word that invariably suggested physical sex desire and not much else. (The word survives in our English word "erotic.") There was a second word several shades brighter, but still a little pale, suggesting a kind of placid friendship. What was needed was a word that would express the Christian ex­perience of the love of God himself, the love that is outpoured even on the loveless and the unlovable, the love that sent God’s Son to suffer and die with and for us. A word was needed that would be used also to refer to the attitude of Christians to one another—some word that would reflect the total un-self-seeking quality of God’s love and go far beyond the always partly, some­times wholly, selfish desire that often goes by the name of love. So, as by common consent, the writers of the books that became our New Testament took a word that was not brand-new, to be sure, but decidedly rare, a literary rather than a common word. In English letters it is agape, pronounced ah-gah’-pay. There is really no English word that translates it precisely. "Love" has, for many people, the taste of grease paint, the technicolor arti­ficiality of Hollywood. It can be used for selfish, proud desire, it can be used of infatuation. Agape never hinted at any such things. It was a word baptized, so to speak, into Christian use. The word "charity" is just as far from a perfect translation as "love" is. The word "’charity" nowadays always suggests Lady Bountiful taking Christmas baskets to the poor. It suggests stuffing something into chinks left by imperfect justice. It sug­gests something patronizing. It even suggests to some people the idea of paying stone by stone for a "mansion in the sky." Love is infinitely warmer, more personal, and more permanent than what is usually meant by "’charity." Love is .. .

But why waste words? Read 1 Corinthians 13 over and over for yourself. Learn what love is—Christian love, God-like love. Read that chapter in all the different translations you can lay your hands on. Read it and meditate on it and let it grip your imagination and fire your soul. Read and practice it. Then you begin to know what in this world never can be fully known, the true meaning of love.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on 1 Corinthians 12". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/1-corinthians-12.html.
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