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Commentary 1 Corinthians 12:12-30

The early Corinthian church certainly has the reputation of being contentious and divided. Already in his letter, Paul has appealed to the Corinthians to be united and lamented their dissensions (1:10-17), chastised them for their divisions and factions at the Lord's Table (11:17-22), and, in the verses immediately preceding our text, has found it necessary to address the divisive issue of spiritual gifts (12:1-11). Following our verses, after the great love chapter, Paul again finds it necessary to instruct the Corinthians concerning the proper recognition and use of their spiritual gifts (chapter 14).
In 1 Corinthians 12:12-30 Paul is concerned with presenting the unity which exists despite the diversity of members in the body of Christ. The illustration of the body is used here by Paul (cf. Rom 12:4-5; Eph 4:14-16; Col 3:15) to underscore the source of the Christian community's unity, the Holy Spirit, by which all Christians are baptized into the body of Christ. Following immediately after 12:1-11, where Paul has discussed the variety of gifts and the unity of the Spirit, 12:12-30 stresses the reality of unity in diversity. As in 12:1-11 Paul speaks of the necessity of each Christian using his or her gift for the common good, so also in 12:12-30, Paul emphasizes that individuality is not obliterated upon entering the body of Christ. On the contrary, individual contributions are necessary for the proper functioning of the body. Paul makes clear, however, that the unity of the body derives entirely from God's action and the working of the Spirit, not from the striving of the individual members of the body.
Paul's illustration of the body and its different members is not an unfamiliar image to any preacher. However, the use of the image raises certain questions about the source of the illustration. F. F. Bruce does not find it particularly helpful to try to determine such a source, although he does survey various possibilities (i.e., the Stoic understanding of the world or the state as a body, with each citizen having a necessary role to play; the Hebrew tendency to think in terms of the corporate personality; and even the Damascus road incident when the Lord asked Saul, "Why do you persecute me?")1 Whatever the source of the image of the body, the important point is Paul's understanding of the church as the body of Christ. Paul moves from using a mere illustration to discussing a reality (v. 27--"you are the body of Christ and individually members of it."). Individual members, through the individual act of baptism, are incorporated into the reality of Christ's body and play a necessary role in that body.
Furthermore, the image of the body and the various members addresses any claim by any individual member to superiority or greater honor, by virtue of having a different gift. Two statements can be made about this point. First, while to the outside observer, obvious differences remain among members (i.e., Jew and Greek, slave and free), participation in the body through baptism abrogates these differences. The unity of the Spirit does not allow any member of the body to boast or to feel inferior. Membership in the body of Christ is the result of God's grace through the baptism of the Spirit, not the result of a shrewd use of one's gift. Second, in concert with vv. 1-11, no individual member can dissociate himself or herself from the rest of the body. Such a separation from the body harms both the individual member and the body itself. Just as the body does not consist of only a foot, ear, or eye (12:14-18), so no individual member possesses all of the spiritual gifts. Paul's humorous questions in verse 17 underline the absurdity of imagining either that an individual Christian can thrive away from the community or that the community as a whole must share the same gift.
Paul emphasizes God's providential ordering and arrangement or the organs in the body, in order that the body may function smoothly and that there may be no discord (v. 25). Here the image becomes inadequate, for while it is easy to appreciate the whole body suffering when one member is afflicted, it is hard to imagine how different organs of the body can rejoice when another member is honored. Nevertheless, the point has been made: just as God has arranged the organs of the body to function together for a purpose, so God has given different spiritual gifts to individuals for the purpose of strengthening the body of Christ (cf. 12:7, 11).
Finally, in verse 27, Paul again explicitly relates the concept of the body to the church as the body of Christ. What he has said above about the organization and functioning of the human body is applicable to the Corinthians and, indeed, the whole church. Their unity is based on the working of the Spirit and each of them has an indispensable role to play. As C. K. Barrett notes, "The very fact that they were individually and collectively, constituted by spiritual gifts shows that they were not simply the body of Christians (which would have been a natural expression to use) but the body of Christ, since it was only in Christ that the spiritual gifts existed, and since the spiritual gifts were bestowed in order to make it possible for the human community to do the work of Christ."2
In verses 28-30 Paul returns to a discussion of the particular spiritual gifts (cf. 12:8-10; Rom 12:6-8). Paul's use of ordinal numbers to designate apostles, prophets, and teachers might tempt us to think he is being inconsistent andelevating certain gifts above others. However, the context of these verses and his listing elsewhere of the gifts of the Spirit indicate that such lists are representative and not exhaustive. The emphasis on unity amidst such variety and diversity guards against elevating any gift above any other. Through the use of rhetorical questions (vv. 29-30) which require an emphatic "No!" for their answers, Paul recalls the absurd image of a body which is only an foot, ear, or eye, and once again celebrates the wonder of diversity working together for unity in the body of Christ.
Application of the Text
Such a familiar text requires close attention to keep the preacher from merely repeating Paul's image in different words. While the image of the body and its members is helpful, the preacher must address the important theological reality Paul is seeking to illustrate with his image of the body: our membership in and unity as the body of Christ depends on God's plan and the working of the Spirit.
Perhaps no other aspect of the church's life offers so much potential and, at the same time, so much opportunity for abuse, as the recognition and use of individual spiritual gifts. The preacher must decide if Paul's image is reality or an idea, for that will certainly determine the direction of one's preaching. In a society which is fragmented by race, class, sex, and economic status, the church should offer a vision of what is means to be baptized into one body--Jew or Greek, slave or free. And yet, the contemporary church itself is too often split by racial, economic, denominational, and theological differences which believe our unity in Christ. Even individual congregations are subdivided into groups determined by sex and age. The challenge in preaching this text is to discover once again the reality of what it means to be the body of Christ and individually members of it, and then to convey that in proclamation and practice.
Philip Gladden
1. F. F. Bruce, 1 and 2 Corinthians (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott Ltd., 1971), p. 120. 2. C. K. Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1968), p. 292.
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