1 Corinthians 12:12-20
November 25, 2018
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 13:40 in the audio file.
Or, Reminders to the Discontent Members
Paul wasn’t the first one to use the analogy of a body to describe a diverse and mutually dependent group, but he did use it well, and with some differences.
The analogy is at least as old as the 6th or 5th century BC as one of Aesop’s Fables, “The Belly and the Members”:
Long ago when the members of the human body had very strong wills of their own and did not work together as amicably as they do now, they denounced the belly for leading an idle and luxurious life, while they were wholly occupied in supporting it and ministering to its wants and pleasures. At one point, they agreed to cut off the belly’s supplies for the future. The hands declared that they would not lift a thing, not even a crust of bread; the mouth that it would not accept any more food for the teeth to chew; the legs that they would no longer carry the belly from place to place, and so on with the others. No sooner did they set their plan of starving the belly into subjection than they all began, one by one, to fail and flag so that the whole body started to pine away. Consequently, the members became convinced that the belly, cumbersome and useless at it seemed to be, also had an important function of its own. In fact, they realized that they were just as dependent on it as it was on them and that if they wanted to keep the body in a healthy state, they would have to work together for the common good of all.
The Roman historian Livy (History of Rome 2.32.9-12) recorded a story about Menenius Agrippa, a member of the Roman senate, who used the story in 494 BC to urge the citizens to appreciate and support the senate. The imagery was also used by Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca, among others (Thiselton). It’s found in Plato’s Republic in the 5th or 4th century BC. The illustration is against division.
Paul was also against division in the church. “I appeal to you brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you” (1 Corinthians 1:10) A few verses later, “Is Christ divided?” (1 Corinthians 1:13).
He’s already compared the church to a field (3:5-9) and to a building (3:9-15), but the metaphor of a living body is maybe the most glorious and galvanizing.
You are the body of Christ. Paul says as much in verse 27. It is true, it is not your doing, and it is a reality with implications for all of life. This is a theme worth remembering.
The reason Paul used the body illustration, or even more strongly stated, described the body of Christ as incarnated in His people, was due to division in the Corinthian church. They divided themselves according to preferred preacher of the cross, they divided themselves according to those eating meat or not, and they were dividing themselves according to rank of spiritual gift. The gift that some of them esteemed more highly was the gift of tongues, and this is the subject of all of chapter 14. Paul is getting a running start, he’s building a foundation of what all spiritual gifts are for as he prepares to put tongues in its place.
At the beginning of chapter 12 Paul reminded them about the apportions of gifts, ministries, and fruitfulness all given by the Lord through the Spirit. Every believer gets a gift, not all the gifts are the same, but it is the same Spirit who “apportions to each one individually as he wills” (verse 11).
Starting in verse 12 through the end of the chapter Paul likens all these gifted people to a body, and he has a few different things to emphasize. In verses 12-14 we see how we became a body. In verses 15-20 we see encouragement to the discontent members, in verses 21-26 we see encouragement to the uppity members, and in verses 27-31 we see some obvious questions related to the varieties of gifts. For this morning we’ll start with the first two paragraphs.
Paul introduces the body analogy as applied to the church.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.
A few things stand out about this. First, there is emphasis on the unity of different members. Previous uses of the body analogy in Greek and Roman culture were more political and, while speaking of a common purpose, still stressed the hierarchy, or in some cases the need for centralization (i.e., the State as belly). Paul emphasizes the interdependence of the parts, but even more the equal “bodiness” of each part.
Second, there is emphasis on connection more than on commitment. The English word members is great, but it has multiple meanings. Throughout 1 Corinthians 12 Paul never uses “members” the way we usually think about members, as in a sort of social attachment, enrolling in a club or a society. The members Paul has in mind are the body “parts” (NIV), limbs and organs, and these parts don’t sign up or pay dues or get inducted. Members join an organization, members of a body are joined.
The third emphasis is that this body is Christ: one body, so it is with Christ. Paul loved to talk about how believers are “in Christ” and how Christ is “in us.” We have union with Christ. But the union described in verse 12 is a union “as Christ.” We are not only connected to Him but we are incarnating Him, together, on earth. We are Christ’s body, not only being possessed by Him but incarnating His limbs and organs. This also means that no one “can claim to be ‘the whole Christ’” by himself (Thiselton).
In verse 2 we learned how to identify a man by his confession. If he says “Jesus is Lord” then we know that this is the Spirit’s work in that man. And when the Spirit works, He changes our confession and our connections. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
This “Spirit baptism” happens at regeneration. Water baptism pictures our death and resurrection with Christ, and it pictures our union into Christ’s body, but becoming a part of the Body happens without getting wet. Nationality (Jews or Greeks) doesn’t matter to be a part of this body, though being a member of this group doesn’t eliminate one’s nationality. Social status (slaves or free) doesn’t matter to be a part of this body, though being a member of this group doesn’t automatically change one’s social status or calling. You can be a part of more than one kind of “body” at a time, with the privileges and promises and responsibilities that go with each.
Also, if this was a “level up” spiritual life, a second experience after conversion, as some Charismatic teachers claim, wouldn’t that ruin Paul’s entire point in this chapter?
See 1 Corinthians 10:2-4 for “drinking the same spiritual drink.” We are identified as those who share the source of our common life. And the point of the short paragraph is repeated: For the body does not consist of one member but of many.
The next two paragraphs (15-20, 21-26) personify two attitudes, both of which need adjustment, from the perspective of two extremities and two sensory organs (Ciampa & Rosner). The first attitude in verses 15-20 is that of feeling worthless.
A part of the body could feel worthless, and that doesn’t make it not part of the body. This is Paul’s point. And also, a part could feel worthless because it is made to feel worthless by the other parts, or because of self-pity and envy, or because it is weak. If you find yourself saying these sorts of things, you need to ask why. You may need encouragement, you may need to repent.
If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. Why did Paul choose these two parts? There’s some potential envy we could envision. People generally take care of their hands more than their feet, hands generally get more attention than feet. Feet are the furthest away from the head, and they are often covered, by shoes or clothes or under the table. But the “feelings” of the feet don’t matter as to whether they are part of the body or not. A foot could resent the hand’s position, or the foot could feel sorry for itself, but it is still a part, and a necessary, useful part for supporting the whole body and getting it where it wants to go.
And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. Again, in terms of actual “bodiness,” it doesn’t matter what the ear feels about itself, or why it feels that way. Eyes do get more attention. By percentage, eyes get more compliments than ears. “You have such pretty ears” is not typical, nor is “I want to dive into your ears” a frequent pick-up line. Ears get pierced; they need accessories to get attention, whereas eyes get makeup that accentuates them. But that doesn’t change that the ears provide one of the five senses, a crucial and necessary part for communication.
The logic of this disappointment and discontent is self-defeating. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? The same is true of the foot and hand; who would open the jar of pickles if the whole body were a foot? Hands can stand, but it sure is nice to use them for other things. Each part does its part, and all the parts have a purpose. Being discontent about our part is as absurd as ears pouting that they can’t see.
The purpose of every part is God-given. But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each of them, as he chose. This is one of the key differences in Paul’s use of the analogy. Plato and Aesop had what as their standard? Pragmatism? A philosophical observation? Political rhetoric? That only goes so far. It could also be used to emphasize that some parts were better and more important than other parts, so get over it and pay your taxes, you plebe.
In the church body, the authority of the arrangement is divine. God arranged…as he chose. It is His doing. And in so doing He gives dignity and value to every part. This, obviously, doesn’t mean that every part is the same. If every part was the same there would be no body. If all were a single member, where would the body be? These final verses of the paragraph summarize the argument so far. It would be a grotesque mutant, and not considered a body at all. A pile of legs doesn’t make a body, and one quadrant can’t secede from the union and become its own body. As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
Paul already listed some gifts in verses 8-10, and there is another list in verses 28-30. At no point does he map the gifts to parts, as if prophets were the mouth or apostles were the knees or helping was the hands. But the point here is that there are many parts, and every part has a part. Being discontent is an argument against God’s arrangement.
It is possible to feel worthless. But what should you do with that feeling? You should at least remember that you belong to the body, and that you belong because of God’s choice. Because of that, if you isolate yourself, regardless of the motivation, you are not hurting the rest of the parts, you are actually hurting yourself.
When it comes to your motivation for feeling worthless, is it because you are not content? Do you envy another part, another gifted member? Self-pity is another form of pride. The obviously proud parts will get their own attention in verses 21-26, but complaining against how God arranged things is still self-centered. Don’t despise your part, don’t despise other parts either. These verses correct improper comparisons.
You may have a sense of uselessness, or at least inferiority, because you’ve been taught, explicitly or implicitly, that your “part” is not as spiritual, not as significant. To the degree that preachers (and missionaries and Sunday School teachers) have said so, they are wrong, and poor teachers of the text. These verses clarify our identity as Christ’s body.
This has immediate application for our local body, but it also applies beyond TEC; believers are us, we are them. We are not inferior, we are not superior. We are the body of Christ throughout history and across the globe. So, do your parts.
The gas pedal and the brake pedal could hardly be closer to each other, and they could hardly have different individual purposes. But they are both parts of one car, and they are both important since speeding up and slowing down are both required. They share the same overall purpose, and there is no reason for one to envy or criticize the other. So with you. You are the body of Christ. Do your part.
May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 15:5–6, ESV)