1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Corinth was an important and wealthy city on the isthmus (narrow strip of land) separating Northern and Southern Greece. The Apostle Paul spent 18 months there on his Second Missionary Journey and established a church there. Acts 18 gives us considerable detail about Paul’s work in Corinth during that time.
At the conclusion of his visit to Corinth, Paul left to visit Ephesus, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Galatia (Acts 18:18-23). After leaving Corinth, Paul wrote a letter to the Christians at Corinth warning them “to have no company with sexual sinners” (5:9), but that letter has been lost to us.
Paul is writing this letter in response to a report from Chloe’s people about problems in the Corinthian church (1:11). In this letter, he provides apostolic guidance for dealing with those problems.
In chapters 8-10, Paul addressed the issue of eating food that had been sacrificed to idols.
In chapter 11, he dealt with the issues of head coverings (vv. 2-16) and abuses at the Lord’s Supper (vv. 17ff.).
In chapters 12-14, Paul deals with the issue of spiritual gifts. Rather than celebrating one another’s gifts, the Corinthian Christians have become prideful concerning their particular gifts and dismissive of the gifts of others. Therefore spiritual gifts have become a divisive influence among them (see especially 12:12-31).
In the first eleven verses of chapter 12, Paul talked about the variety of spiritual gifts, given by the Spirit to believers “as he (the Spirit) desires” (v. 11). He emphasized that, while there are many gifts, it is the one Spirit who gives them all (vv. 8-10).
1 CORINTHIANS 12:12-13. AS THE BODY IS ONE, AND HAS MANY MEMBERS
12For as the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of the body, being many, are one body; so also is Christ. 13For in one Spirit we were all baptized (Greek: ebaptisthemen—from baptizo) into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all given to drink into one Spirit.
“For as the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of the body, being many, are one body; so also is Christ“ (v. 12). The word “for” connects this verse with verses 1-11. In those verses, Paul emphasized the variety of gifts and the one Spirit who gives them.
Greeks would be familiar with the “body” and “members” metaphor, because they use similar language with regard to their relationship to the state.
Verse 12 can be represented as a chiastic structure (a literary form common to both Old and New Testaments), as follows:
A: For just as the body is one
B: and has many members
B’: and all of the members of the body
A’: though many, are one body (Fee, 601)
A and A’ are parallel to each other, emphasizing the oneness of the body. Likewise, B and B’ are parallel, emphasizing the many members of the body.
In a chiastic structure, the center (in this example, B and B’—many members) functions like a bulls-eye—the center point—the emphasis. This suggests that Paul’s primary concern in this text is the variety of members rather than the unity of the body. In verses 12-13, as he sets up his metaphor, he emphasizes the unity of Christ’s body. However, beginning with verse 14, he emphasizes the importance of its many members.
Paul uses this metaphor of the church as a body with many members elsewhere:
• He uses almost identical language in Romans 12:4-7.
• In 1 Corinthians 6:15, he says, “Don’t you know that your bodies are members of Christ?”
• In 1 Corinthians 10:17, he says, “Because there is one loaf of bread, we, who are many, are one body; for we all partake of the one loaf of bread.”
In 1 Corinthians 11:29, he said, “For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy way eats and drinks judgment to himself, if he doesn’t discern the Lord’s body.” This deserves our consideration. While the word “body” in 11:29 could mean Christ’s physical body, the context had to do with divisions in the church and Christians who ate and drank to excess while their poorer brothers and sisters went home hungry (11:17-22). Paul outlined the meaning of the Lord’s Supper in 11:23-26. He then warned against eating and drinking “in an unworthy way” (v. 27). Then he said, “For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy way eats and drinks judgment to himself, if he doesn’t discern the Lord’s body” (v. 29). “Discern the body” could simply mean recognizing the bread as the body of Christ. However, it could mean showing concern for the church and its members, who are the body of Christ (Colossians 1:18, 24; Ephesians 1:22-23; 5:23). Or it could mean both.
“so also is Christ“ (v. 12b). We expect Paul to say, “so it is with the church,” but instead he says, “so also is Christ.” While he doesn’t say “the body of Christ” in this verse, in verse 27 he says, “Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually.” It seems likely that, in verse 12, he intends to identify Christ with the church, which is his body.
“For in one Spirit we were all baptized (ebaptisthemen—from baptizo) into one body“ (v. 13a). What kind of baptism does Paul mean? When we hear the word, “baptized,” we naturally assume water baptism, but that isn’t the only kind of baptism mentioned in the New Testament.
John the Baptist promised that Jesus would “baptize you in the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 3:11; see also Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33). Just prior to his ascension, Jesus reiterated that promise, saying, “For John indeed baptized in water, but you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:5; see also Acts 11:16).
That baptism of Spirit and fire was fulfilled at Pentecost, when “tongues like fire appeared and were distributed to them, and one sat on each of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other languages, as the Spirit gave them the ability to speak” (Acts 2:3-4). Later in that chapter, three thousand members of the crowd were baptized, presumably by water baptism—but first the disciples were baptized with the Spirit and with fire.
In his encounter with Nicodemus, Jesus didn’t use the word “baptism,” but he did allude to water and Spirit baptism, saying, “Most certainly I tell you, unless one is born of water and spirit, he can’t enter into the Kingdom of God! That which is born of the flesh is flesh. That which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:5-6).
We associate the Greek word baptizo with water baptism, and that is certainly appropriate. However, we need to keep in mind that baptizo, prior to the rise of the church, referred not to a religious rite but to immersing, dipping, or submerging in water (Renn, 89). A friend of mine, visiting Greece and eating in a restaurant, asked her waiter the meaning of the word baptizo. Rather than using words to explain baptizo, the waiter went to the kitchen to get an egg and a glass of water. He then demonstrated the meaning of baptizo by dropping the egg into the glass, submerging it in water, and saying, “That is baptizo.”
Therefore, when Paul says, “we were all baptized into one body,” he could be talking about being immersed in water, in the Spirit, or a combination of the two. The fact that he uses the phrase “one Spirit” (vv. 13a, 13c) twice in this verse suggests that he is talking about immersion in the Spirit rather than water baptism—although he could mean both.
But the real point of this verse has to do with “one Spirit” and “one body”—the unity of the church which these Corinthian Christians have impaired by their disputes over spiritual gifts.
“whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free“ (v. 13b). These are categories into which people of that time and place tended to separate themselves. In Galatians 3:28, Paul adds the categories of “male nor female.” In Colossians 3:11, he adds the categories of barbarian and Scythian. Today we might say “black and white” or “Russian and American.”
Both Jews and Greeks would take pride in their identity and each would think of its group as superior to the other. Those who were free would think of themselves as superior to slaves—and, indeed, they were superior according to usual human measures. However, once we are in Christ, those divisions disappear and we are equal before God. God loves us equally. In God’s value system, there are only people, not categories.
“and were all given to drink into one Spirit“ (v. 13c). When we become Christians, we are not only immersed in the Spirit. The Spirit comes into our innermost selves and dwells within.
1 CORINTHIANS 12:14-26. THE BODY IS NOT ONE MEMBER, BUT MANY
14For the body is not one member, but many. 15If the foot would say, “Because I’m not the hand, I’m not part of the body,” it is not therefore not part of the body. 16If the ear would say, “Because I’m not the eye, I’m not part of the body,” it’s not therefore not part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the smelling be? 18 But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body, just as he desired.
19If they were all one member, where would the body be? 20But now they are many members, but one body. 21The eye can’t tell the hand, “I have no need for you,” or again the head to the feet, “I have no need for you.” 22No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary. 23Those parts of the body which we think to be less honorable (Greek: atimotera—from timao), on those we bestow more abundant honor; and our unpresentable parts (aschemona) have more abundant propriety; 24 whereas our presentable parts have no such need. But God composed the body together, giving more abundant honor to the inferior part, 25that there should be no division in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. 26When one member suffers, all the members suffer with it. Or when one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.
“For the body is not one member, but many“ (v. 14). Paul uses similar language in Romans 12:4.
In verses 12-13, Paul emphasized the unity of Christ’s body. Now he shifts the emphasis to the variety of its members—and the importance of its members to each other. If it is important for the church to be united, it is also important for it to recognize the value of its diversity.
Many problems in the Corinthian church have been caused by the failure of its members to understand the value of their diversity. Some members have been “puffed up” (4:6)—lording it over other members, believing that they enjoyed the greater gifts. They treated their gifts as if they were personal accomplishments. However, their gifts were just that—gifts—not something that they had earned. Furthermore, they were failing to acknowledge the value of other people’s gifts, even though they were interdependent—dependent on each other.
And those who thought themselves to be less gifted were envious of those who seemed to be more gifted. Their envy was caustic.
“If the foot would say, ‘Because I’m not the hand, I’m not part of the body,’ it is not therefore not part of the body” (v.15). Are the Christians who don’t feel that they belong to the body the “more gifted” or the “less gifted” members? They could be either one.
• The “more gifted” people could disdain having to associate with the hoi poloi—the ordinary people in their midst. They could feel that they were above the crowd. But Paul brings them back to earth by emphasizing the value of all the body’s members.
• The “less gifted” could feel excluded from full membership by those who seemed to be more gifted. They could be tempted to withdraw, thinking that no one needed them. But Paul lifts them up, emphasizing the value of their gifts, however small they might appear on the surface.
Paul uses a series of simple illustrations to make the Corinthian Christians aware of just how foolish they have been. Some of them might have been people who worked primarily with their hands—but they wouldn’t want to lose their feet. Others might be more dependent on their feet—but they wouldn’t want to lose their hands. Both hands and feet are important.
“If the ear would say, ‘Because I’m not the eye, I’m not part of the body,’ it’s not therefore not part of the body” (v. 16). Which is more important, our ears or our eyes? Many of us would say that our eyes are more important, because we could function at a higher level without our hearing than without our sight (but Ray Charles might say otherwise). However, we really need both hearing and sight to function at our best. Both ears and eyes are important. We wouldn’t want to lose either.
“If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the smelling be?” (v. 17). Now Paul uses humor to mock those who prize their “important” gift. He pictures a person who is just an eye—a cartoonish character more at home on children’s TV than in the church. How could such a person hear? For that matter, how could such a person move from place to place—or eat—or earn a living? An eye standing by itself would be helpless—pitiful.
Then he portrays the body as a big ear—another cartoonish figure. Sure, the ear could hear, but what else could it do? It couldn’t smell. It couldn’t see. It couldn’t do anything but hear. It, too, would be helpless and pitiful.
“But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body, just as he desired“ (v. 18). The Great Architect had a purpose in mind, and designed the body accordingly—both our physical bodies and the church body. We might think that we could have done it better—but who are we to question the one who designed all of creation? God would respond, as he did to Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if you have understanding. Who determined its measures, if you know? Or who stretched the line on it?” (Job 38:4-5; see all of Job 38-41). Then we would have to respond, “therefore I have uttered that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I didn’t know ” (Job 42:3b).
When I was young, I got a summer job working on an Interstate bridge between Junction City and Abilene, Kansas. It was the early 1960s, and the nation was just getting a good start on the Interstate system. Other than the Kansas Turnpike, I had never seen an Interstate-type highway. When I got to the job site, I was completely befuddled. The workers were rearranging the dirt in the middle of a farmer’s field. They had begun work on the forms into which they would later pour concrete for the bridge’s foundations. However, the work site made absolutely no sense to me. I couldn’t even figure out if the finished bridge would run north and south or east and west. Fortunately, I wasn’t expected to see the big picture. They had hired me to do grunt work—unloading steel rebar and using an ordinary shovel. Fortunately, the foreman understood the blueprints and could make sense of the design.
I could have protested that the work site made no sense, but that would only have revealed my ignorance. So also, when we are tempted to protest that God has made a mistake with the design of our physical bodies or the design of the church body, we need to step back and recognize that God understands the design. We need to pray, “Guide me in your truth, and teach me, For you are the God of my salvation, I wait for you all day long ” (Psalm 25:5).
“If they were all one member, where would the body be? But now they are many members, but one body. The eye can’t tell the hand, ‘I have no need for you,’ or again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need for you‘“ (v. 19-21). These verses recapitulate the case that Paul has made in verses 15-18.
“No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary“ (v. 22). In The Pulpit Commentary on 1 Corinthians, Kenneth Chafin tells about a young man with whom he went to school. The man was an excellent football fullback who had great potential. However, he had an accident on a summer job that resulted in the loss of his big toe. After that loss, he no longer had the quickness and agility that had made him an excellent athlete, so he was no longer competitive. The lesson is that even minor body parts, such as toes, are important. They contribute to the well-being of the whole body, and their loss would be a loss to the whole body.
So it is with the church. Every member is important—even the least among us (Matthew 19:30; Luke 9:46-48).
“Those parts of the body which we think to be less honorable (atimotera—from atimao—the opposite of timao), on those we bestow more abundant honor; and our unpresentable (aschemona) parts have more abundant propriety; whereas our presentable parts have no such need“ (v. 23-24a). This is an obvious reference to genitalia. Except for people involved in pornography and an occasional exhibitionist, people treat their private parts privately. Men in locker rooms tend to position themselves with their backs to other men while changing their clothes. They wrap towels around their waists going to and from the showers. Even men who wear tank top shirts to show off their rippling muscles in the weight room tend to behave with modesty in the locker room.
But this modesty does not mean that people do not care about their private parts. On the contrary, a man who has been wounded below the waist on the battlefield is likely to be more concerned about the status of his private parts than with anything else.
This is what Paul means when he says that we treat “our unpresentable parts…more abundant honor.”
“But God composed the body together, giving more abundant honor to the inferior part, that there should be no division in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another” (v. 24b-25). What Paul said in verses 23-24a is part of God’s design. God wants us to value all the parts of our bodies—and wants the church to value all of its members.
“When one member suffers, all the members suffer with it“ (v. 26a). See the comments on verse 22 above.
Stop to consider what happens when you hit your finger with a hammer or stub your toe. Until the pain subsides, it overwhelms your whole consciousness. You might be able to “play through the pain,” but you will be conscious of the pain. You probably won’t stop to give thanks for all the body parts that don’t hurt, because your pain will draw most of your attention to the member that does hurt. The same would be true if you had a bad toothache or a migraine headache. If one part of our body hurts, we hurt.
So it is (or should be) when a member of the body of Christ is in pain. We should feel sympathy—a word derived from the Greek words syn and pathos—to feel together with. In other words, the pain of other Christians should be our pain. If it isn’t, we are out of sync with God’s plan and need to pray for God to reorient our thinking and feeling.
“Or when one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it“ (v. 26b). If someone says, “You have beautiful eyes” or “You are really smart,” we feel good all over. If someone honors one part of our body, our whole being rejoices.
So it is (or should be) when members of the body of Christ are honored. Once again, we should be in sympathy—able to “feel together with” the honored person the joy that he or she is experiencing. Their joy should be our joy. If not, we are out of sync with God’s plan and need to pray for God to reorient our thinking and feeling.
This brings to mind the word envy (Greek: phthonos). Envy is one of the sins of ungodly and wicked people “who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18, 29). It is one of the “works of the flesh” (Galatians 5:19, 21). It is one of the products of false teaching (1 Timothy 6:2, 4). Peter calls us to rid ourselves “all wickedness, all deceit, hypocrisies, envies, and all evil speaking” (1 Peter 2:1). What a better world this would be if we would do that!
Envy is the opposite of the feeling that God wants us to have when another member of the body has cause to rejoice. Sadly, we sometimes do feel envious when someone else gets the promotion—or when someone else’s child graduates with honors—or when the choir director chooses someone else to sing the solo—etc., etc. etc. That is not how God designed us to be. It is not in accord with God’s will. God calls us to share each others suffering and rejoicing.
1 CORINTHIANS 12:27-31a. YOU ARE THE BODY OF CHRIST
27Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually. 28God has set some in the assembly: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracle workers (dunamis—mighty works—miracles), then gifts of healings, helps (antilempsis—helping), governments (kybernesis—piloting or directing or managing), and various kinds of languages. 29Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all miracle workers? 30 Do all have gifts of healings? Do all speak with various languages? Do all interpret? 31aBut earnestly desire the best gifts.
“Now you are the body of Christ” (v. 27a). See the comments on verses 12b and 14 above.
In this verse, Paul says that the Corinthian Christians “are the body of Christ.” Elsewhere, the New Testament says that the church is the body of Christ (Romans 12:4-5; Colossians 1:18, 24; Ephesians 1:22-23; 5:22-24). God’s purpose is that the gifts that he gave us are “for the perfecting of the saints, to the work of serving, to the building up of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-12).
In verses 14-26, Paul was speaking about our physical bodies. Throughout that passage, we understood that Paul was using the metaphor of our physical bodies to point to something even more important. Now, in this verse, he makes the connection explicit. We, the church, are the body of Christ, and the things he said in verses 14-26 apply to the church as well as to our physical bodies.
“and members individually” (v. 27b). In this phrase, Paul once again emphasizes that Christ’s body, the church, is composed of many members. In verses 14-26, Paul pointed out that each member of the body is important—and that the loss of any member brings loss to the whole body.
We knew that this was true with regard to our physical bodies, but it is sometimes difficult to persuade ourselves that it is also true with the church. We can usually think of two or three people whom the church could lose without suffering real loss. However, unless those people are truly evil (and there are evil people who have their names on church rolls), their presence in the church is part of God’s design—and they are important to the well-being of the church at large—each and every one of them.
“God has set some in the assembly: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers” (v. 28a). Some scholars would categorize these three—apostles, prophets, and teachers—as offices rather than gifts. However, that distinction is less than absolute. In 11:4-11, Paul talks about “various kinds of gifts” (11:4), among which he includes prophecy (11:10). He also lists both prophecy and teaching among the “gifts differing according to the grace that was given to us” (Romans 12:6-7). Some scholars see the inclusion of apostles in this verse as evidence that Paul considers it a gift (Donaldson).
Paul obviously considers these three—apostles, prophets, and teachers—as the most significant of the offices or gifts. Some would also rank-order the rest of the gifts mentioned in verse 28—deeds of power, gifts of healing, etc. However, we should tread lightly. Paul has been emphasizing the variety of gifts and the value of each of the gifts, and it seems unlikely that he would rank order them here.
“apostles” The word apostle comes from the Greek word apostolos. It means “sent one” or “the one who is sent.” Jesus was sent by the Father (Mark 9:37), and he chose the apostles to be sent out to continue his work.
“prophets” While people today think of prophecy as foretelling the future, the role of a Biblical prophet was to convey a message from God. In many cases, that involved giving people a glimpse of the future, but the foretelling of the future was only in support of the larger prophetic message.
“teachers” Teaching was an honored calling among the Jews, and teaching characterized much of Jesus’ ministry (Matthew 5-7; 11:1; Mark 4:1-2; Luke 4:15; John 7:14). The apostles were also known for teaching (Acts 5:21-28).
“miracle workers”(dunamis—mighty works—miracles) (v. 28b). The word dunamis is the word from which we get our word “dynamite.” It means power, but in this context means the working of miracles.
Jesus worked many miracles, which served two purposes. First, they alleviated suffering. Second, they authenticated Jesus’ ministry. In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ miracles are called signs, because they point to something larger than the miracles themselves (John 2:1-11; 4:46-54; 5:1-9; 6:1-40; 9:1-12; 11:1-45).
Jesus’ disciples also worked miracles to authenticate their ministry (Acts 2, esp. v. 43; 5:12-20; 14:8; 16:16-27; 19:11-20; 20:9-12; Romans 15:18-19).
“then gifts of healing” (v. 28c). Note that the word “gifts” is plural. Perhaps that means that there is one gift for one kind of healing and another gift for another kind of healing. We certainly recognize that kind of specificity in the medical community today. Perhaps we need to think of that kind of specificity in the faith community. It is also possible that the Spirit might give one person the gift of healing for this situation and another person the gift of healing for a different situation.
Gifts of healing accomplish two things. First, they relieve the suffering of the person who is healed. Second, they equip the church to witness to the power of God in its midst.
Not everyone has the gift of healing, but Jesus did. Paul did. Other apostles did. We have no reason to believe that the gift of healing is not still alive today.
“helps” (antilempsis—helping) (v. 28d). What kinds of assistance? They are limited only by the kinds of needs that people have. Through the centuries, the church has ministered to vulnerable people—children, the poor, the sick, prisoners, people with various kinds of disabilities, alcoholics, drug addicts, urban gang members, homeless people, victims of disasters—the list is endless.
But antilempsis need not be limited to those with special needs. Pastors need help—Paul spoke of Epaphroditus as his “fellow worker, fellow soldier, …servant of my need, …risking his life to supply that which was lacking in your service toward me” (Philippians 2:25, 30).
Teachers need aides. Physicians need nurses, administrators, lab technicians, and cleaning people. The church needs people to assume a broad range of volunteer offices. The only limit on possibilities for antilempsis is the limit of our imagination.
“governments” (kybernesis) (v. 28e). The word kybernesis has to do with piloting or directing or managing. It is used in Acts 27:11 to speak of the captain of a ship.
Kybernesis is the gift of taking charge and steering a ship or a person or an organization wisely. To do this well, a person needs vision, courage, respect for people, self-discipline, and a bit of maturity. Not everyone has this combination of gifts.
The church needs pastors and other key leaders to be good leaders, but not all are. When they are not, they will do the church a great service by encouraging people within the congregation who have the gift of kybernesis to take a leadership role.
“various kinds of languages” (v. 28f). What are these various kinds of tongues? We have two very different examples of speaking in tongues in Acts 2:5-13 and in this letter to the Corinthians. In the Acts account, Peter’s sermon was heard by people from many nations—and each heard the sermon in his own language. In this letter to the Corinthians, Paul is concerned about speaking in tongues without an interpreter—which means that the speech was not immediately intelligible.
In this letter to the Corinthian church, Paul repeatedly addresses issues related to the gift of tongues (12:10, 28, 30; 13:1; 14:2, 4-25), giving us reason to believe that those issues are especially serious in Corinth. Apparently, some Corinthian Christians count speaking in tongues as the most significant of gifts, and have become prideful about their ability to speak in tongues. In chapter 14, Paul goes to great lengths to put that gift in perspective. Prophecy, not speaking in tongues, is the superior gift (14:1-5). Speaking in unintelligible tongues does not benefit the church (14:6-12). The person who speaks in tongues “pray that he may interpret” (14:13), because such speech without interpretation is unproductive (14:14).
In his lists of gifts (12:4-10, 28), he places the gift of tongues and their interpretation last. He devotes the first half of chapter 14 to counsel concerning the gift of tongues—much more space than he devotes to problems with other spiritual gifts. In that chapter, he makes it clear that the gift of prophecy is superior to the gift of tongues (14:2-5, 20-25). Elsewhere, he lists gifts without mentioning the gift of tongues (Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-12).
“Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all miracle workers? Do all have gifts of healings? Do all speak with various languages? Do all interpret?“ (vv. 29-30). These are rhetorical questions that expect the answer, “No, of course not!”
Throughout verses 14-30, Paul emphasized the variety of gifts that the Spirit “works all of these, distributing to each one separately as he desires” (12:11). The Spirit allotted these gifts for the cause of Christ and the edification of the church—not so that one believer can lord it over other believers, claiming superior gifts. All gifts are important, and Christians need to celebrate each others’ gifts rather than expecting adulation for their particular gifts.
“But earnestly desire the best gifts“ (v. 31a). Given that Paul has been emphasizing the variety of gifts and the value of each of them, it seems odd that Paul would now call these Corinthian Christians to “desire the best gifts.” First of all, the Spirit “works all of these, distributing to each one separately as he desires” (12:11), so striving for gifts seems out of place. Second, Paul has been calling these people to tamp down their egos and celebrate each others gifts, so calling them to become ambitious regarding gifts seems like a contradiction.
But Paul uses these words to lay the groundwork for pointing these Christians to a “most excellent way”—the way of love—a way that is not allotted by the Spirit to a few people, but a way that every believer can and should embrace.
Is love a spiritual gift (charismaton) or an attitude (or way of living) that Paul, in this chapter, holds up as a contrast to spiritual gifts? Based on Paul’s counsel to “earnestly desire the best gifts” (v. 31a), we could assume that love is one of those greater gifts—that, in fact, it is the greatest gift (13:13).
However, the Holy Spirit distributes charismaton to individuals as the Spirit sees fit (12:4-11). Not everyone can be an apostle or a prophet or a teacher. Not everyone can work miracles. Not everyone possesses gifts of healing. Not everyone can speak in tongues. Not everyone can interpret tongues (12:29-30). These are not gifts which we can choose, but which the Spirit “works all of these, distributing to each one separately as he desires” (12:11). Love, on the other hand, is something to which every Christian is called—the sine qua non—”that without which, nothing”) of Christian character.
In chapter 13, Paul does not call love a charismaton, but holds it up as foundational for every charismaton. The gifts of tongues and prophecy and knowledge and faith have no meaning unless they are undergirded with love (13:1-2). Sacrificial generosity has no meaning unless it is motivated by love (13:3). The implication is that, which we cannot choose charismaton, we can choose love. Also,charismaton (tongues, knowledge, and prophecy) are temporary—they will end—but love never ends (13:8-10).
Whether we think of love as a gift or an attitude is less important than whether we adopt it as the motivating force for our lives.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, Daily Study Bible: Letters to the Corinthians, (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1975)
Barrett, C.K., Black’s New Testament Commentary: The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993)
Chafin, Kenneth L., The Preacher’s Commentary: 1-2 Corinthians, Vol. 30 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1985)
Cousar, Charles B., in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Donaldson, Terence, L., “Apostle,” in (Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: A-C, Vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006)
Farris, Stephen, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Fee, Gordon D., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987)
Hayes, Richard B., Interpretation: First Corinthians (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997)
Holladay, Carl R., in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1994)
Horsley, Richard A., Abingdon New Testament Commentary: 1 Corinthians (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998)
MacArthur, John, Jr., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1 Corinthians (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 1984)
Morris, Leon, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: 1 Corinthians, Vol. 10 (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1985)
Nash, Robert Scott, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: 1 Corinthians (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2009)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Sampley, J. Paul, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Soards, Marion, New International Biblical Commentary: 1 Corinthians (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999)
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