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An exposition of 1 Corinthians 12

The slogan “the thrill of victory and the agony fo defeat” used to introduce ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,: back in the 90’ could also be indicative of Paul’s experiences with the church in Corinth. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians makes it clear why the church in Corinth became know historically has the “problem” church. Division, tolerated immorality, brothers suing brothers, arrogance toward weak Christians, negative attitudes toward Paul’s rights as an apostle, competitiveness at the Lord’s Supper, spiritual elitism regarding the charismatic gifts of the Spirit, and misunderstanding about the resurrection of Jesus Christ were all “issues” plaguing the church. Yet, Corinth has also been honored historically because of its special place in Paul’s heart, being the birthplace of his friendship with Aquila and Priscilla as well as a city where he labored for a year and a half “winning as many as possible” for Jesus.

In light of the culture from which it emerged, the church in Corinth seemed almost destined for serious problems. Nestled between the ancient cities of Sparta and Athens, Corinth served as the capital city of the province of Achaea and the connecting city between the Adriatic and Aegean Seas. Being at the crossroads of both land and sea travel, Corinth was a city exposed to a wide variety of influences, predominately Greek. The religion of the Greeks was polytheistic (the worship of many gods), and thus lacked the absolutes necessary to produce conviction to keep the society from falling into oral decay. Also, Corinth served as the center for the worship of the Greek goddess of fertility, Aphrodite, whose shrine was served by 1,000 “sacred” prostitutes. Obviously, this type of immorality would be felt throughout the whole city. Through the city was corrupt and the obstacles were seemingly insurmountable, Corinth was a city of incredible potential and strategic importance for the evangelization of Europe and Asia Minor.

The Crucial Issue

As is true with the study of any passage of Scripture, it is important to study the immediate context of the passage as well as the wider context (the complete book) in order to arrive at a more complete understanding of the passage. The purpose of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is to deal with serveral doctrinal and practical issues that the Corinthians were struggling with; division (1:10), tolerating immorality (chapter 5), lawsuits between Christians (6:1-8), marriage (chapter 7), food sacrificed to idols (chapter 8), Paul’s rights as an apostle (chapter 9), the role of women in the Church (11:1-16), the Lord’s supper (11:17-34), charismatic gifts (chapters 12-14), and the resurrection (chapter 15).Though there will always be issues to be discussed and studies in the church, in order to “keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3), it is crucial for us to understand that most issues that have appeared to be “matters of doctrine” had their conception in unresolved conflict between people. The attitudes of people are as important to resolution of issues as the issues themselves. This is why 1 Corinthians 12 is important to our understudying of Paul’s attempt to deal with the problems in Corinth. Though Paul addresses each issue separately, in this chapter Paul begins to strike at the heart of the Corinthian problem.

1 Corinthians 12:1-13

Most scholars regard chapter 12 as the beginning of Paul’s explanation of the charismatic gifts of the Spirit because of the introductory phrase, “Now about spiritual gifts…” (vs. 1). However, this is also the place Paul begins to resolve the “real” Corinthian problem. This is more than just a section of Paul’s letter explaining the truth about the charismatic gifts of the Spirit, it is more importantly a section explaining the right attitudes Christians must have toward one another. Regarding the gifts of the Spirit, Paul points out that “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit” (vs. 4). In the next seven verses he refers to the “same Lord,” and the “same God” while referring to “the same Spirit” another three times. His purpose is to emphasize the common source of the gifts as more significant and spellbinding than the gifts themselves. Possessing the “spiritual gifts” has been absorbed too deeply into the egos of the Corinthians and self-esteem was too much at stake over possessing the gifts rather than the relationship with the one bestowing them. God was moving the church through the gifts he had given various Christians in the congregation, however, those God had specifically chosen to work through had become haughty and arrogant which resulted in division, hate and pride, rather than the love and unity God was attempting to infuse into the Church.

Paul’s phrase, “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body” (vs. 12), points us to one of the problems in achieving unity. In order for unity to occur in the church each of us must break out of our own world and regard the world of others as important as our own. Take the physical world as an illustration. It makes no difference what God creates—an unseen pebble at the bottom of the ocean or a beautiful spring lily on the side of a mountain—it is without doubt beyond the border of our intellectual ability to completely comprehend its complexity and beauty. In other words, whatever God creates contains enough complexity to prevent our comprehension of it. And if this is true of one part then imagine the challenge of comprehending the whole creation. This is why it is easy for the scientist studying in the field of astronomy to become prideful toward the scientist studying in the field of biology. The one small part of the world he is studying has become so captivating it has in a sense filled up his appreciation capacity and therefore leaves him the conviction that his field is the most important one. Let’s apply this principle to the spiritual realm. In the Corinthian example, verses 8-10 provide a limit of the gifts of the Spirit—wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, etc. The experience that went along with each of those gifts must have been truly exhilarating. Miraculous knowledge would have been so insightfully mesmerizing that those possessing it would believe it to be the greatest gift. Because of our selfishness and pride, whatever God gives us, whether spiritual or physical, becomes part of a world which we feel compelled to protect and defend. All of the gifts carried with it the temptation to elevate it above all the other gifts and thus you have the situation in Corinth. The conviction that what we possess is the greatest of the best does not come from any objective evaluation of or possessions but rather from our sinful nature.

1 Corinthians 12:14-26

Verses 14-26 provide valuable insight in the reason the Corinthians, being so blessed by God, were trapped in the abyss of disunity. Paul addresses two attitudes which were the source for the disunity in the congregation: 1) Attitudes associated with feelings of superiority, and 2) Attitudes associate with feelings of inferiority. The feelings of inferiority are seen in the statement Paul makes in verse 15, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body.” The attitude of superiority is obvious in the statement in verse 21, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’” What you have in Corinth is a problem with insecurity and pride.

Possession of the miraculous (gifts of the Spirit in this case) can be dangerous both to the prideful and insecure. To the prideful or the one which an attitude of superiority this ability becomes another treasure in an almost full treasure chest. The gift is regarded as deserved, expected and the fore flaunted. Without a daily brokenness and a powerful walk with God, the miraculous amplifies the pride within a heart which results in the person viewing God’s gift not as undeserved but simply another cultivated part of his own personality—just another talent that was destined to emerge. It is impossible for that person to admit need, which brings bonding and intimacy to relationships, and thus unity. The only need the prideful admin is the need to lead, for in leading the contrast between the leader and follower is satisfying to the ego of the prideful. It confirms his superiority.

To the insecure the ability to perform the miraculous can be an oasis to the desert of failure, rejection and low self-esteem. It becomes the answer, the way out, and therefore becomes too important of a possession, to necessary, and ends up becoming addictive. It evolves subtlety from a divine gift into a death gripping accomplishment and even more injuriously as a barometer of spiritual value. This, to the brittle ego of the insecure can be a devastating experience. The possibility of giving up leadership, position or results in ministry is extremely threatening to the insecure because when position or results are gone so are self-worth, personal identity and hope. For the insecure to rebound spiritually after the loss of these gifts is very rare.

Most of us do not consider a person with an inferiority complex as a threat to the unity of the church. However, Paul does not address this attitude without reason. Christians who do not gain the victory over this struggle will be a great hinderance to God’s purpose of intimately bonding Christians together. Feelings of inferiority keep us from wholeheartedly accepting our place in the body of Christ. Insecure Christians are never able to make the most of every opportunity because they are too consumed in their desperate search of other ego-nourishing opportunities. Yet, a chance in situations makes no difference because the feelings of being punished, put down and out of place prevents them from bonding with people wherever they are. The feeling of not measuring up to those around us leaves us restless and with a sense of not belonging.

The need to belong is powerful and even translates into a strong driving force in our lives. We, as humans are transient creatures, always searching for that place, people, or those things that insure our being at “home.” Living without the feeling that we belong activates our search for that place or relationship where we do. Those who find it will give up everything to keep it. This is the reason why Christians willingly give up all to know Christ, because in large part, there is that refreshing security of coming home, of belonging. Jesus referred to these emotions in Luke 15, in the parable of the prodigal son. Yet, on the other hand, when Christians fall away it is often over other relationships, either family, friends, or a romance. Though deceived, they too give up everything for the security of belonging. We want to belong, we were created to belong, and we are in a constant anxious search until we do.

Paul’s response to the statement, “…I do not belong to the body…” is “…it would not for that reason sense to be part of the Boyd (vs. 5). Paul is appealing to the fact that our belonging in contrast to our feelings of not belonging. It is the age-old stand-off between fact and feeling. And yet, Paul is not calling for one over the other, but rather, the achievement of both. In other words, we must realize that it is in the realm of emotion that the greatest amount of deception takes place which is why feeling something to be right is often confused with it actually being right. Feelings alone are not enough, they must have an object, and in this case it is the facts. We must be sure that we “feel the facts.”

It is impossible for Satan to alter the truth, therefore, his focus is to alter how we feel about it. Satan can do nothing to change the course of history, to nullify the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, to keep God from fulfilling his promises to us in space and time, but he can attack our emotions to the point that God’s accomplishments mean little to us. It makes no difference that God has placed us in the body of Christ with the promise that nothing “…will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39), if we do not feel that we are part of the body. History, as powerful as it is, is powerless in the face of emotions that refuse it. We will be taken out of the course of God’s history by the deception of our emotions unless we make a decision to deal with the emotional obstacles that are preventing the facts from entering the emotional center of our lives.

Once we accept that “…God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as wanted them to be” (vs. 18), we can then crucify our feelings of inferiority and superiority and begin to feel the emotions that come from being united as one body. We limit the amount and quality of our emotions if they are regulated solely by our personal victories and defeats. Being assured by the facts that God has a place for us keeps us from being threatened and intimidate by the victories and happiness of others. When the defensive walls around our personal world are taken down because of our security in the power and love of God, we allow the joys and victories, as well as the defeats of our brothers and sisters to become part of our world. Paul says, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (vs. 26). Once the walls collapse we must rely on God’s power for the endurance and strength necessary to embrace the emotional joys and defeats of the other parts of the body. Our emotional experience is broadened as well as our emotional capacity. Only in the body of Christ, the church, is the power and the means to accomplish genuine unity available.

This passage shows that unity can be achieved but it demands tha tour attitudes about one another change and our commitment to remove all obstacles preventing the feeling of family be abolished. Our gifts and talents can never be a licensed for the promote of self but must be given over in heart, soul, mind and strength to the well-being of other parts of the body. The whole body lives and dies together, and in reality, it is only when other parts of the body are alive and well that we can make any valid claim to be living ourselves.

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