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First Corinthians: Gifts and the Body

January 26, 2008

Paul turned to the next topic of inquiry, spiritual gifts. Perhaps the Corinthians had asked Paul about which gifts were greater, or perhaps whether people without visible spiritual gifts were true Christians. There were apparently even some controversies about whether certain gifts were really from God. It is likely that there were controversies such as these, which Paul began to address.

1Co 12:1-3 Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant. You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. Therefore I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.

Paul began by reminding the Corinthians of their idolatrous past. Since they had been so foolish in the past, and so easily duped into worshiping a dumb idol, he was not surprised that they could not distinguish what comes from the Spirit and what does not.

“Jesus is Lord” was the distinguishing mark of a Christian. It was not merely the words but the life behind the words that told the story. Jesus himself said, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” But in the days of the early church, merely saying “Jesus is Lord could bring terrible consequences. In some places, the unbelieving Jews may have been requiring people to curse Jesus in order to be accepted in the synagogue. Paul himself, prior to his conversion, had arrested Christians and tried to force them to blaspheme (Acts 26:11). And in years to come, the Roman government would require Christians to curse Jesus (or to pronounce “Caesar is Lord”) or be put to death. In such circumstances, surely it was only by the power of the Holy Spirit that a person could be so bold as to say “Jesus is Lord.”

Whatever gift one of the Corinthians might have received was not a reward for wisdom or righteousness. Instead the gift was, literally, a gift. The gifts were given as a tool to benefit the whole church. This key point Paul would make repeatedly in chapter 14:

1Co 12:7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.

Paul enumerated eight different gifts of the Spirit which were found among the Corinthian church. All of the different gifts were needed by the body. Drawing an analogy to the physical body, Paul demonstrated how foolish it is for people to act like someone with a different gift is not needed or not significant. Even more, how foolish it would be for everyone to try to have the same gift, to the exclusion of all the other gifts needed in the body!

1Co 12:27-31 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But eagerly desire the greater gifts. And now I will show you the most excellent way.

The sentence translated in the NIV as “But eagerly desire the greater gifts” can also be translated as “But you eagerly desire the greater gifts.” Instead of a command (imperative mood), it could be an observation (indicative mood). In my mind that fits the sense of the passage better, because Paul just chastised them for all wanting the same gifts:

1Co 12:17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?

The gifts were not distributed according to the wishes of men, but as the Spirit determines:

1Co 12:11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.

However, since they were determined to pursue what they thought were the greatest gifts, Paul “became all things to all men” in this case, saying in effect, “Ok, if that’s the way you want to be, then let me tell you what is the greatest gift you should be pursuing.” Thus Paul introduced his instructions on love.

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