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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
1 Corinthians 12

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-31

Chapter 18

CONCERNING SPIRITUAL GIFTS

This Epistle is well fitted to disabuse our minds of the idea that the primitive Church was in all respects superior to the Church of our own day. We turn page after page, and find little but contention, jealousies, errors, immorality, fantastic ideas, immodesty, irreverence, profanity. At this point in the Epistle we do come upon a state of things which differentiates the primitive Church from our own; but here too the superior advantages of those early Christians were sadly abused by ignorance and envy. The members of the Corinthian Church were possessed of "spiritual gifts." They were endowed at their conversion or at baptism with certain powers which they had not previously possessed, and which were due to the influence of the Holy Spirit. It would have been surprising had so entire a revolution in human feelings and prospects as Christianity introduced not been accompanied by some extraordinary and abnormal manifestation. The new Divine life which was suddenly poured into human nature stirred it to unusual power. Men and women who yesterday could only sit and condole with their sick friends found themselves today in so elevated a state of mind that they could impart to the sick vital energy. Young men who had been brought up in idolatry and ignorance suddenly found their minds filled with new and stimulating ideas which they felt impelled to impart to those who would listen. These and the like extraordinary gifts, which were very helpful in calling attention to the young Christian community, speedily passed away when the Christian Church took its place as an established institution.

If we are disposed to question the genuineness of those manifestations because in our own day the Spirit of Christ does not produce them, there are two considerations which should weigh with us. First, that which Browning urges: that miracles which were once needed are now no longer required, because they served the purpose for which they were given. As when you sow a plot in a garden you stick twigs around it, that no careless person may tread down and destroy the young and yet unseen plant, but when the plants have themselves become as tall and visible as the twigs, then these are useless, so if the miracles actually served to help the young Church’s growth, she by their means has now become sufficiently visible and sufficiently understood to need them no more.

And, secondly, it was to be expected that the first impact of these new Christian forces on the spirit of man should produce disturbance and violent emotions, such as could not be expected to continue as the normal condition of things. New political or social ideas suddenly possessing a people, as at the French Revolution, carry them to many actions and inspire them with an energy which cannot be normal. And gentle and without observation as were the Spirit and the kingdom of Christ, yet it was impossible but that, under the pressure of the most influential and inspiring ideas which ever possessed our race, there should be some extraordinary manifestations.

Nothing could be more natural than that these gifts should be overrated and should almost be considered as the most substantial and advantageous blessings Christianity had to offer. First being accepted as evidence of the real indwelling of the Holy Spirit, they came to be prized for their own sake. Originally designed as signs of the reality of the communication between the risen Lord and His Church, and therefore as assurances that the holiness and blessedness promised by Christ were not unattainable, they came to be regarded as themselves more precious than the holiness they promised. Given to this individual and to that in order that each might have some gift by which he could profit the community, they came to be looked upon as distinctions of which the individual was proud, and therefore introduced vanity, envy, and separation, instead of mutual esteem and helpfulness. One gift was measured with another and rated above or below it; and, as usual, what was useful could not compete with what was surprising. The gift of speaking for the spiritual profit of the hearers was little thought of in comparison with the gift of speaking in unknown tongues. Throughout this and the two following chapters Paul explains the object of these gifts and the principle of their distribution and employment; he enounces the supremacy of love, and lays down certain rules for the guidance of meetings in which these gifts were displayed.

Paul introduces his remarks by reminding them that their previous history sufficiently explained their need of instruction. "In your former heathen state you had no experience whatever similar to that which you now have in the Church. The dumb idols to the worship of which you let yourselves be carried did not communicate powers similar to those which the Spirit now communicates to you. Consequently, novices as you are in this domain, you need a guiding thread to prevent you from going astray. This is why I instruct you." And the first thing you need to guide you is a criterion by which you can judge whether so called manifestations of the Spirit are genuine or spurious. The test is a simple one. Everyone whose words or actions disparage Jesus proclaims himself to be under some other influence than that of the Spirit; everyone who owns Jesus as Lord, serving Him and promoting His cause, is animated by the Spirit.

"No man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed." But was there any possibility of such an utterance being heard in a Christian Church? It seems there was. It seems that very early in the history of Christianity men were found in the Church who could not reconcile themselves to the accursed death of Christ. They believed in the Gospel He proclaimed, the miracles He wrought, the kingdom He founded; but the Crucifixion was still a stumbling block to them. And so they framed a theory to suit their own prejudices, and held that the Divine Logos descended upon Jesus at His baptism and spoke and acted through Him, but abandoned Him before the Crucifixion. It was Jesus, a mere man, who died on the Cross the accursed death. This degradation of Jesus was not to be tolerated in the Christian Church, and was decisive as to a man’s possession of true spiritual gifts. To own the lordship of Jesus was the test of a man’s Christianity. Did he acknowledge as supreme that Person who had lived and died under the name of Jesus? Did he employ his spiritual gifts for the furtherance of His kingdom and as one who was really endeavouring to serve this unseen Master? Then no hesitation need be shown in admitting his claim to be animated by the Spirit of God.

In other words, Paul wishes them to understand that, after all, the only sure test of a man’s Christianity is his actual submission to Christ. No wonderful works he may accomplish in the Church or in the world prove his possession of Christ’s Spirit. "Many will say to Me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Thy name, and in Thy name have cast out devils, and in Thy name have done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you; depart from Me, ye that work iniquity." A man may gather and edify a large congregation, he may write ably in defence of Christianity, he may be recognised as a benefactor of his age, or he may be considered the most successful of missionaries, but the only test of a man’s claims to be listened to by the Church is his actual submission to Christ. He will seek not his own glory, but the good of men. And as to the gifts themselves, they should be no cause of discord, for they have everything in common: they have their source in God; they are for Christ’s service; they are forms of the same Spirit. "There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all."

The new life then introduced by Christ into the individual and society was found to assume various forms and to suffice for all the needs of human nature in this world. Paul delighted to survey the variety of endowment and faculty which appeared in the Church. Wisdom, knowledge, faith, power to work miracles, extraordinary gifts of exhortation or prophecy and also of speaking in unknown tongues, capacity for managing affairs and general helpfulness-these and other gifts were the efflorescence of the new life. As the sun in spring develops each seed according to its own special kind and character, so this new spiritual force develops in each man his most intimate and special character. Christian influence is not an external appliance that clips all men after one pattern as trees in an avenue are clipped into one shape; but it is an inward and vital power which causes each to grow according to his own individuality, one with the rugged irregularity of the oak, another with the orderly richness of the plane. Variety in harmony is said to be the principle of all beauty, and it is this which the Divine Spirit in man produces. Individual distinctions are not obliterated, but developed and directed for the service of the community. At one in their allegiance to Christ, bound into one body by common affections, beliefs, and hopes, and aiming at the advancement of one cause, Christians are yet as different as other men in faculty, in temperament, in attainment.

There is no truth coming more determinedly to the front in our own day than this: that society is an organism similar to the human body. This indeed is no new idea, nor is it an exclusively Christian idea. That man was made for society and that it was each man’s business to labour for the good of the whole was common Stoic doctrine. It was taught that every man should believe himself to be born, not for himself, but for the whole world. Take one out of many expressions of this truth: "You have seen a hand cut off, or a foot, or a head, lying apart from the rest of the body; that is what a man makes himself when he separates himself from others or does anything unsocial. You were made by nature a part; and it is due to the benevolence of God that, if you have become detached from the whole, you can be reunited to it." And in the very earliest days, when the populace of Rome became disaffected and seditious and retired outside the city walls to a camp of their own, Menenius Agrippa went out to them and uttered his fable which Shakespeare has helped to make famous. He related how the various members of the body-the hand, the eye, the ear-mutinied and refused to work any longer because it seemed to them that all the food and enjoyment for which they toiled went to another member, and not to them. It was of course easy for the accused member to clear itself of the charge of inactivity and show that the food it received was not retained for its own exclusive use, but was distributed through the rivers of the blood, and how "the strongest nerves and small inferior veins" from it received the natural competency whereby they lived.

But although this comparison of society to the body is not new, it is now being more seriously and scientifically examined and pushed to its legitimate conclusions and applications. The "real meaning of the doctrine that society is an organism is that an individual has no life except that which is social, and that he cannot realise his own purposes except in realising the larger purposes of society." All the organs of the body by which we do our work in the world and earn our bread are themselves maintained in life and fulfil the end of their own existence by working for and maintaining the whole body; and except in the common life of the body they cannot be maintained at all. It is the same with the other organs of the body. The heart, the lungs, the digestive organs, have hard and constant work to do; but only by doing it can they fulfil the very purpose of their existence and maintain themselves in life by contributing to the life of the body in which alone they can live at all. The same principle holds good in society. It is obvious in trade and commerce; a man can only maintain himself in life by helping to maintain other people. And the ideal society is one in which each man should not only yield reluctantly to the compulsion of this natural law, but should clearly see the great ends for which mankind exists and labour zealously to promote these ends, should as eagerly seek what contributes to the good of the whole as the hand is stretched out for food or as the palate relishes what stays the appetite and nourishes the whole body.

Illustrating the relation of Christians to one another by the figure of the members of a body, Paul suggests several ideas.

1. The unity of Christians is a vital unity. The members of the body of Christ form, one whole because they partake of one common life. "By one Spirit are we all baptised into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit." The unity of those who together form the body of Christ is not a mechanical unity, as of a pound of shot in a bag; nor is it a unity imposed by external force, as of caged wild beasts in a menagerie; nor is it a unity of mere accidental juxtaposition, as of passengers in a train or of the inhabitants of a town. But as the life of the human body maintains all the various members and nourishes them to a well-proportioned and harmonious growth, so is it in the body of Christ. Remove from the human body the life that supports it, and all the members fall away from connection with one another; but so long as the life is retained it assimilates in the most surprising way all nutriment to its own precise type and form. The lion and the tiger may eat precisely the same food, but that food nourishes in each a different form. The life that animates the human body assimilates nutriment to its own uses, imparting to each member its due proportion and maintaining all the members in their relation to one another.

The unity of Christians is a unity of this kind, a vital unity. The same spiritual life exists in all Christians, derived from the same source, supplying them with similar energy, and prompting them to the same habits and aims. They accept the Spirit of Christ, and so are formed into one body, being no more isolated, self-seeking, and each man fighting for his own hand, but banded together for the promotion of one common cause. There is no clashing between the interests of the individual and the interests of the society or kingdom to which he belongs. The member finds its only life and function in the body. It is by the freest and most deliberate exercise of his reason and his will that a man attaches himself to Christ, seeing that by so doing he enters the only path to real happiness and attainment. The individual can only utter and fulfil his best self by doing his best possible for society. His devotement to public interests is no self-destroying generosity, but the dictate of duty and of reason. To quote a writer who deals with this matter from the philosophical point of view, "he who has made the welfare of the race his aim has done so, not from a generous choice, but because he regards the pursuit of this welfare as his imperative duty. The welfare of the race is his own ideal, what he must realise in order to be what he ought to be. The welfare of the race is his own welfare, which he must seek because he must be himself. Cromwell, Luther, Mahomet, were heroes, not because they did something over and above what they ought to have done. but because their ideal self was coextensive with the larger life of their world. ‘I can no other’ was the voice of each Their large purposes were what they owed to themselves just as much as to their world." Those who cannot philosophically reconcile the claims of society and the claims of the individual are yet enabled by their attachment to Christ and by their acceptance of His Spirit to merge self in the larger whole of Christ’s body and find their truest life in seeking the good of others. It is by their acceptance of Christ’s Spirit as the source and Guide of their own life that they enter into fellowship with the community of men.

2. Paul is careful to show that the very efficiency of the body depends upon the multiplicity and variety of the members of which it is composed: "If they were all one member, where were the body? If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling?" The lowest forms of life have either no distinct organs or very few; but the higher we ascend in the scale of life the more numerous and more distinctly differentiated are the organs. In the lower forms one member discharges several functions, and the animal uses the same organ for locomotion as it uses for eating and digesting; in the higher forms each department of life and activity is presided over by its own sense or organ. The same law holds good of society. Among tribes low down in the scale of civilisation each man is his own farmer, or shepherd, or huntsman, and his own priest, and butcher, and cook, and clothier. Each man does everything for himself. But as men become civilised the various wants of society are supplied by different individuals, and every function is specialised. The same law necessarily holds true of the body of Christ. It is highly organised, and no one organ can do the whole work of the body. Therefore one has this gift, another that. And the more nearly this body approaches perfection, the more various and distinct will these gifts be. One important function of the Church therefore is to elicit and utilise every faculty for good which its members possess. In a society in which Christianity is but beginning to take root, it may fall to one man to do the work of the whole Christian body-to be eye, tongue, foot, hand, and heart. He must evangelise, he must teach, he must legislate, he must enforce law; he must preach, he must pray, he must lead the singing; he must plan the church and help to build it: translate the Scriptures and help to print them; teach the savages to wear a little clothing and help to make it; dissuade them from war and instruct them in the arts of peace, instilling a taste for agriculture and commerce. But when the Christian society has left this rudimentary stage behind, those various functions are discharged by different individuals; and as it advances towards a perfect condition its functions and organs become as multifarious and as distinctly differentiated as the organs of the human body. Every member of the Church is different from every other, and has a gift of his own. Some are fitted to nourish the Church herself and maintain the body of Christ in health and efficiency; some are fitted to act on the world outside: they are eyes to perceive, feet to pursue, hands to lay hold of those who are straying from the light.

Everyone, therefore, who is drawn into the fellowship of the body of Christ has something to contribute to its good and to the work it does. He is in connection with that body because the Spirit of Christ has possessed and assimilated him to it; and that Spirit energises in him. He may not see that anything the Church is presently engaged in is work he can undertake. He may feel out of place and awkward when he attempts to do what others are doing. He feels himself like a greyhound, compelled to run by scent and not by sight, and expected to do the work of a pointer, and not seize his quarry, or as if set to do the work of an eye with the hand. He can do it only in a groping, fumbling, imperfect manner. But this is only a hint that he is meant for other work, not for none. And it is for him to discover what his Christian instincts lead him to. The eye does not need to be told it is for seeing, or the hand that it is for grasping. The eye and the hand of the child instinctively do their office. And where there is true Christian life, it matters not what the member of Christ’s body be, it will find its function, even though that function is new in the Church’s experience.

The fact, then, that you are very different from the ordinary members of the Church is no reason for supposing you do not belong to Christ’s body. The ear is very different from the eye; it can detect neither form nor colour: it cannot enjoy a landscape or welcome a friend: but "if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?" Is it not, on the contrary, its very diversity from the eye that makes it a welcome addition to the body, enriching its capabilities and enlarging its usefulness? It is not by comparison with other people that we can. tell whether we belong to the body of Christ, nor is our function in that body determined by anything which some other member is doing. The very difficulty we find in adjusting ourselves to others and in finding any already existing Christian work to which we can give ourselves is a hint that we have the opportunity of adding to the Church’s efficiency. The Church can claim to be perfect only when she embraces the most diversely gifted individuals and allows the tastes, instincts, and aptitudes of all to be used in her work.

3. As there is to be no slothful self-disparagement in the body of Christ, so must there be no depreciation of other people. "The eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you." When zealous people discover new methods, they forthwith despise the normal ecclesiastical system that has stood the test and is stamped with the approval of centuries. One method cannot regenerate and Christianise the world, any more than one member can do the whole work of the body. Paul goes even further, and reminds us that the "feeble" parts of the body are "the more necessary"; the heart, the brain, the lungs, and all those delicate members of the body that do its essential work entirely hidden from view are more necessary than the hand or the foot, the loss of which no doubt cripples, but does not kill. So in the Church of Christ it is the hidden souls who by their prayers and domestic godliness maintain the whole body in health and enable more conspicuously gifted members to do their part. Contempt for any member of the body of Christ is most unseemly and sinful. Yet men seem unable ever to learn how many members, and how various, it takes to complete a body, and how needful are those functions they themselves are wholly unable to discharge.

4. Lastly, Paul is careful to teach that "the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal." It is not for the glorification of the individual that the new spiritual life manifests itself in this or that remarkable form, but for the edification of the body of Christ. However beautiful any feature of a face may be, it is hideous apart from its position among the rest and lying by itself. Morally hideous and no longer admirable is the Christian who attracts attention to himself and does not subordinate his gift to the advantage of the whole body of Christ. If in the human body any member asserts itself and is not subservient to the one central will, that is recognised as disease: St. Virus’ dance. If any member ceases to obey the central will, paralysis is indicated. And equally so is disease indicated wherever a Christian seeks his own ends or his own glorification, and not the advantage of the whole body. Simon Magus sought to make a reputation and a competence for himself by spiritual gifts. What in his case was mainly stupidity is in ours sin, if we use such powers and opportunities as we have for our own purposes, and not with a view to the profit of others.

Let us then endeavour to recognise our position as members of Christ’s body. Let us with seriousness accept Him as appointed by God to be our true spiritual Life and Head; let us consider what we have it in our power to do for the good of the whole body; and let us put aside all jealousy, envy, and selfishness, and with meekness honour the work done by others while humbly and hopefully doing our own.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 12:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/1-corinthians-12.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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