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Our apostle begins this chapter with the resolution of another case, concerning the nature and right use of spiritual gifts. Some that excelled in them, were proud of them, using them to vain ostentation: he therefore tells them he would not have them ignorant as touching spiritual gifts: not ignorant either of their Author from whence they came, the Holy Spirit of God; nor of their end and use, which is the benefit and edification of others. Gifts are for the good of others; but a man shall have the advantage and comforts of his own graces. Gifts are the gold which adorns the temple; but grace is the altar which sanctifies the gold.
Lord! how many have gone laden with gifts to hell! how many have prophesied in thy name, and yet perished in thy wrath! How many cast devils out of others, who yet were cast to the devils themselves! How many wrought miracles, and did many wonderful works, who yet perished for evil workers!
Lord! let me never build upon this bottom (gifts) for eternity; these may make me glorious in the eyes of men, but grace renders me precious in the sight of God.
Observe here, 1. How the apostle reminds the Corinthians of what they were in their heathenish state; namely, idolatrous Gentiles, serving dumb idols; for though the devil sometimes spake in and by the idols, yet the idols themselves had mouths and spake not: and they were carried away unto these dumb idols, even as they were led; that is, as they were led by their idolatrous priests, who had nothing of this divine Spirit amongst them, which they, since their conversion from Gentilism to Christianity, had been made partakers of.
Now from this description of idolaters, that they serve and worship dumb idols, we learn, what an absurd and unreasonable sin idolatry is; the worshipper is better than the god he worships: reasonable men worship unreasonable creatures; sensible men adore senseless stocks and stones; and they who can speak, invocate, and call upon dumb idols, that can neither speak nor hear.
And yet how prone is the nature of man to idolatry and false worship; partly, because it is a worship of our own invention, and we are fond of what is of our own finding out, and setting up; and partly because it is external and pompous, it courts the outward senses with glittering appearances; and men do naturally love and choose that for the object of their worship which may be seen, rather than walk by sight, and not by faith, so do they worship too: an invisible and unseen being is neither the object of their adoration, nor election and choice.
The great difference that was then in the world, was about Jesus. Those that were led away by dumb idols, were taught by Satan to blaspheme, and say, upon the mention of our Saviour's name, Jesus anathema, Jesus anathema; that is, let Jesus be anathema, accursed, detested and destroyed, as the common odium of their gods.
Now when the apostle says, such speak not by the Spirit of God, his meaning is, that they did it by the impulse and instinct of the devil, by the actings and instigation of the evil spirit, which ruled in those children of disobedience: on the other side, every one that believeth calleth Jesus Lord, and professeth faith in him.
Now none says the apostle, can do this but by the Holy Ghost, that is, by his help and assistance. But it may be said, we read in scripture of many who were actuated by the unclean spirit, that yet called Jesus Lord, Mark 1:23 ; Acts 16:17.
Ans. 1. These acknowledgments of Christ to be Lord, were either wrested from the devil, and were a considerable part of his torment, or were overruled by God to advance the glory of Christ.
But, 2. The apostle here speaks of such a calling Jesus Lord, as was accompanied with faith in him, and subjection to him. There is a double saying that Jesus is Lord; the one verbal, Ore tenus, with lip and tongue only, without the consent of the heart, or obedience of the life; the other actual, when we do with our whole souls own and acknowledge him, love and embrace him, obey and serve him, as Lord, and vote for his government and dominion over us. No man thus calleth Jesus Lord, but by the Holy Ghost renewing and sanctifying him, assisting and enabling him so to do.
That is, there is a great variety and diversity of spiritual gifts, but it is the same Spirit from whence they all proceed and flow; and there are different administrations and offices in the church, but it is the same Lord who hath appointed all these offices; and there are diversities of operations performed by these officers in the church, but it is the same God who worketh in them all.
Here gifts are ascribed to the Holy Ghost, administrations to the Lord Christ, and operations to God the Father; but in all these there are great diversities both of kinds and degrees; they differ in their nature, extent, and use.
Thus it is with reference to spiritual gifts: but in the case of sanctifying graces it was far otherwise; these are all bestowed jointly, or not at all.
God cannot give humility to one, purity to another, charity alone to a third; because there is such an inseparable union and alliance among the graces of the Spirit, (a concatenation of graces, as some call it,) that where one really is, there all the rest must be.
Hence probably it is, why the whole of religion is sometimes expressed by one particular duty of it, sometimes by faith, sometimes by hope, sometimes by repentance, sometimes by charity; because the combination of these saving graces is such, that the mentioning of one implies and concludes all the rest.
Observe here, how the apostle enumerates and reckons up the several sorts and kinds of spiritual gifts, which were at that time plentifully poured forth upon the ministers and members of the church of Christ, which begat astonishment and admiration; and of these extraordinary gifts our apostle reckons up nine sorts or kinds, which were found in the primitive church in his days, as they here follow:
1. One had the word of wisdom; that is, the revelation of the gospel, which is called the manifold wisdom of God: this was the gift of the apostles, to whom extraordinary measures of divine wisdom were first given, to reveal the mysteries of the gospel to the pagan world.
2. Another had the word of knowledge; that is, a special ability to interpret the mystical senses and veiled meanings of the scripture, and also to foretell remote and future things. Thus St. Paul told the centurion before the shipwreck, that not a man in the ship should be lost, Acts 27 : and Agabus foretold the famine, and St. Paul's imprisonment, Acts 11 .
3. To another faith; by which some understand supernatural courage and confidence, with which God did endow them, when he called them to extraordinary sufferings or services; accordingly we read, in the Acts of the Apostles, with what invincible courage and resolution poor men appeared before the Jewish and heathen tribunals, and with what astonishing presence, both of body and mind, they bore the name of Jesus before the kings and people of the earth. Others by faith here understand miraculous faith, that is, a supernatural confidence, and firm assurance, wrought by the Holy Spirit in the minds of some, in the apostle's time, by which they were certain that they could do such a miracle before they do such and such a miracle before they undertook to do it; and the greatest apostle durst never undertake to do a miracle, but when he was assured by the Spirit that he could do it: and indeed it was requisite for Almighty God, by some secret preceding impression of mind, to let the teachers of the gospel know when he would assist them in working miracles, lest they should attempt to work when they could not, and so discredit Christ's doctrine, their own authority, and dishonour the name of God: and therefore it is observable, that the gift of faith here is set immediately before the gift of healing and working miracles, because it consisted in an antecedent impulse to both.
4. The next miraculous gift is the gift of healing; that is, a power of curing all diseases both of body and mind, without the help of physic, through the name alone of Jesus Christ.
5. The gift of miracles; under which is comprehended the power of silencing and casting out devils, inflicting disease and death on the bodies of incorrigible sinners, as on Elymas and Ananias: also the more wonderful power in raising the dead.
6. The gift of prophecy; that is,
(1.) The prediction or foreknowledge of things to come. Thus Agabus foretold by the Spirit a famine, Acts 12 and this gift was sometimes exercised by foretelling who would be fit persons to do God service in the church; thus, According to the foregoing prophecies concerning thee, neglect not the gift that was given thee by prophecy. 1 Timothy 1:18; 1 Timothy 1:14
(2.) Others by prophecy understand preaching and expounding the scriptures by divine inspiration, praising God by inspired hymns and psalms, and also praying unto him in public assemblies by inspired prayers; for in the apostle's time there was a miraculous gift of preaching, praying, and singing, in which the Spirit did in an extraordinary manner assist some persons; which with other extraordinary gifts is long since ceased.
7. The gift of discerning spirits; that is, either,
First, a power of quick and sure discerning, whether men pretending to the Spirit spake from God, or not; or a supernatural sagacity to discern between the impulses of satanical spirits, and divinely- inspired persons.
Secondly, a spirit of discerning whether such or such persons be best qualified for such an office in the church, and accordingly choosing them out for that work. Thus Acts 13:2-Leviticus : the Holy Spirit in the prophet said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.
Or, lastly, by this power of discerning spirits, the apostles could tell very much of the inward purposes of men's hearts and thoughts; so Peter discerned the heart of Ananias, and the thoughts of Simon Magus.
8. The gift of tongues, that is, an ability to speak divers kinds of languages, unlearned and untaught. To which was added,
9. The gift of interpreting those languages: for these two gifts did not always go together: some could speak divers languages, that could not interpret them; others could interpret them that could not speak them; for, say some, the gift of strange tongues was usually accompanied with such strange raptures, that the person affected could not use his understanding in an ordinary way, so as to interpret and explain his own inspriations, in the audience to which he spoke; which he spoke; which was the reason why the Spirit did usually reveal to others, who stood by, and understood not the inspired languages, the matter which was spoken.
Thus are the extraordinary and miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit enumerated by the apostle, which were bestowed upon the primitive church, whose infant state required all this extraordinary assistance; but as the church grew up, Almighty God, like a wise nurse, weaned her by degrees from these miraculous gifts, till at last arriving at her full stature, he left her, as parents leave their children when grown to be men, to subsist without these extraordinary helps and supplies.
Here our apostle acquaints us that the intent and design of God in giving these various gifts, was the profit and edification of his church, which he compares to a body that has many members; for though that one Spirit which distributes the gifts, could have given them all to the same person, yet to maintain a mutual dependence, and a charitable serviceableness of the members one among another, he gave to one one gift, to another another; by which means one member of the church would be obliged to take care of the rest.
Behold here, how the wisdom of God has ordered the state of the church, like that of the natural body, to which the apostle elegantly compares the body of Christ, which is his church: As the body hath many members, so also has Christ; that is, the church of Christ. Now having assured them, that they were indeed members of one body, he tells them what it was that made them so, 1 Corinthians 12:13. For by one Spirit, says he, we are baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, and have been all made to drink into one Spirit; that is, by being baptized we are all made members of the body of Christ, and united one to another under him the head; and this, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, bond or free, we are all one in Christ, who by baptism were admitted into the church; and this union of ours, one with another, is testified and declared by our communion at the Lord's table, which is here called a drinking into one Spirit.
And whereas by baptism we are said by one Spirit to be baptized into one body, and at the Lord's supper are said to drink into one Spirit; we learn, that the grace of the Holy Spirit was given in baptism and in the Lord's supper to all the faithful, who do not receive unprofitable signs, but the quickening grace and Spirit of God, to make them living members of that one body.
Our apostle here elegantly compares the state of the mystical body, the church, with that of the natural body. As the natural body is one, so is the mystical body; as the natural body is informed and animated with one spirit or soul, so the mystical body, the church, is animated by one and the same Spirit, received from our spiritual head, Christ Jesus, and communicated to all the members of his body, to give them life and motion. As the members of the natural body are not alike, but some superior, and others inferior in excellency, yet all of indispensable use; (for the wise God hath created no member of man's body in vain; but designed all for the mutual help and benefit of one another,) in like manner is it in the church, the mystical body; there are different gifts, others are of meaner abilities; yet all conduce to the good of the whole. One of inferior gifts must not account himself useless, (for every one that cannot be excellent may yet by useful,) for if so, what would become of the church? Therefore there must be different gifts and offices for different uses. But every one must employ his gift, and perform his office, according to the nature of it, for the service of the whole.
Learn hence, 1. That several men have their several gifts, as it pleaseth the gift-giving Spirit to give unto them.
Learn, 2. That such as have the meanest talent, either of gifts or graces, ought not to esteem themselves, or be esteemed by others, as useless or unserviceable; but to employ their talent, though ever so small, for the service and benefit of the whole church.
As if the apostle had said, Whereas our wise Creator, who made the body of man, has appointed all the members of that body for divers uses and offices, and also appointed the order in which every member shall stand; that the head shall be uppermost to guide the body, the foot lowermost to bear the body.
In like manner our gracious Redeemer has appointed to the several members of his church distinct offices in his church. And as the principal members of the body, the eye and hand, do need the less principal; so the rulers, pastors, and wisest members of the church, do need the less principal; so the rulers, pastors, and wisest members of the church, do need even those weak and inferior Christians whom the world makes small account of. The eye, that is, the man of great understanding, cannot say to the hand, the person employed in lesser services, I have no need of you; nor again the head, that is, the person placed in the highest dignity in the church, cannot say to the feet, the person employed in the lowest offices of the church, I have no need of you. Therefore the superior members of the church must not pride it over the inferior, no the most knowing Christians despise the less knowing as unuseful and unprofitable; but as fellow-members, jointly endeavour the mutual benefit and advantage of one another.
Still our apostle proceeds in that elegant comparison betwixt the members of the body natural and the body mystical; showing, that as there are some members in the natural body that are less honourable, and some that are more honourable; and whereas we put more abundant honour upon the less honourable members by a decent covering and modest adorning of them, but upon our comely parts, such as the face, we put no covering, being comely enough of itself, and lacking no artificial beauty; in like manner all the members of the mystical body ought to be instructed that the meanest offices in the church, and the meanest members of the church, who have least gifts, are as well of that spiritual body, the church, as those that have more excellent offices and gifts: and as the meaner must not envy the more excellent, so neither must the more excellent despise the meaner, but put a due value and respect upon one another.
For practising of which duty, a double reason is here assigned:
1. That there may be no schism in the body, but the members have the same care for, and regard to, one another; if the members of the natural body should strive among themselves, the whole body would come to ruin by schism; so great mischief would arise to the church, the mystical body, by divisions and dissensions amongst the particular members of it.
2. Because there ought to be a sympathy between the members of the mystical body, as there is betwixt the members of the natural body. There is a feeling with each other, both of joy and grief, in and among the natural members: they all rejoice and mourn with one another: if one member be pinched, the whole body is pained.
Thus all the mystical members of Christ's body, the church, ought to have the same common interest, the same common concern, the same common care, and the same mutual sympathy, with each other, both in weal and woe.
Our apostle having thus finished his elegant and excellent comparison between the members of the natural, and those of the mystical body; he comes now to make a particular and close application of it to the believing Corinthians, whom he acknowledges to be a part of the mystical body of Christ; and that it is their duty to carry themselves towards their fellow-members as the members of the body natural do towards each other, who are evermore solicitous for the good of one another.
Now, says he, Ye are the members of Christ; as if he had said, Thus must it be with you who are the several members of Christ's church, which is his body.
From the whole of this comparison, with the apostle's application of it, we learn,
1. That as there can be no natural body without divers members, so no mystical body without diversity of gifts and offices.
2. That as the more inferior members of the natural body are as truly members of the natural body are as truly members as the most noble; and as necessary and servicable to the body as the other; so are inferior Christians as much the members of Christ's body, and in their place as useful and necessary, as other members of Christ's body, and in their place as useful and necessary, as other members of the church which are more excellent in spiritual gifts.
Learn, 3. That as all the members of the natural body are placed and disposed according to the wisdom and pleasure of Almighty God; in like manner the members of Christ's mystical body are, by the unerring wisdom of God, placed in the station and condition in the church in which he has set them, and accordingly they ought to be satisfied with it, and endeavour to be useful in it.
Learn, 4. That as there is no division in the members of the natural body, but all the members of the natural body, but all the members take care of, and are employed for, the good of the whole; so ought matters to be managed in the body mystical, that there be no divisions nor separate interests in it, but they should mutually regard the common interests of one another, sympathizing, sorrowing, and rejoicing together.
O happy day! when the interests of all parties, and private concernments, shall give place to public interests.
Our apostle having in the beginning of the chapter reckoned up the divers gifts which God had variously bestowed upon the church, here in the close of the chapter he reckons up the particular officers that he thought fit to place in his church.
1. Apostles; persons sent forth immediately by Christ, to lay the foundation of Christian churches, and upon whom the care of all the churches lay.
2. Prophets; or persons immediately inspired with the knowledge of future things.
3. Teachers; such as labour in the word and doctrine, either as itinerary preachers, going from place to place, or as settled, fixed ministers in the church, expounding the scriptures to the people.
4. Miracles; that is, some persons endued with an extraordinary power to work miracles, for convincing infidels, and comfirming believers.
5. Gifts of healing; such persons as had a power conferred upon them to heal diseases, without the help of physic, in an extraordinary way.
6. Helps; deacons which took care of the poor, and assisted the church in the distribution of her charity; and also assisted in holy things, particularly in baptizing, and administering the Lord's supper.
7. Governments; the rulers of the church and spiritual guides.
8. Diversities of tongues; that is, persons enabled to speak divers languages, in order to the farther spreading of the gospel without the help of study.
Behold here the wisdom of God in this various distribution of gifts and offices in his church: all which, as they are designed by him, so ought they to be managed by her, for the general good of the whole, without either pride or haughtiness on the one hand, or envy and emulation on the other.
The force of the apostle's argument lies thus: As the natural body, to which he had before alluded, cannot be all eye, nor all ear, nor all hand, nor all foot; in like manner in the mystical body, the church, all cannot govern, prophesy, teach, work miracles, heal diseases; but one has this gift, and another that; one has this office in the church, and another that; all which are to be employed and improved for the common good of the church, and mutual benefit of each other.
He concludes the chapter with this advice, that they covet, and desire the best; that is, the most useful and excellent gifts, the most beneficial and edifying gifts, such as are most advantageous to the church; yet withal intimating to them, that though there be an excellency in gifts, yet there is a greater excellency in grace, particularly in the grace of love. Charity, or love to God and our neighbour, is more excelling than a load of gifts, though very extraordinary, though supernatural and miraculous.
Yet show I unto you a more excellent way: that is, a more excellent way of ministering to the welfare of the church, and of edifying your own souls, even by true Christian love one towards another.
Learn hence, That as the sanctifying graces of the Holy Spirit are more excellent than the miraculous and extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, so it is the Christian's duty to be much more covetous and desirous of them; for when gifts vanish away, the habits of grace shall never fail, but abide for ever, particularly the grace of love, which shall not only accompany us to heaven, but in heaven; where, from a small and little spark, it shall be improved into a seraphic and never-failing flame.
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Burkitt, William. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 12". Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 13 / Ordinary 18