1 Corinthians 12:21-31
December 2, 2018
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 15:50 in the audio file.
Or, Reminders to the Uppity Members
Pride is sly; she has many wily outfits she can wear. Only some of her costumes are outlandish, the ones that say “Look at me! Love me!” But there are other times when pride puts on more delicate self-absorption, “I’ll never look that good, I should just stay home and be bitter that I’m not loved like that.” This is the attitude found in the members of the body in 1 Corinthians 12:15-20. Certain parts say, “You don’t need me, I don’t really belong.” This might not be thinking too highly of oneself, but it is thinking too focused on oneself.
Paul addresses the more obviously proud parts in verses 21-26, then finishes with the body analogy and returns to the subject of spiritual gifts; different members have different gifts. But before we hear the personified pride, remember that pride is clever and deceitful. I cannot think of a time when I heard one of you say that another one of you was useless to the body and didn’t belong. I’m not talking about sin and discipline, I’m talking about giftedness and service. Undoubtedly that kind of talk takes place in some churches, but I haven’t heard anything like it in our body.
But, I have totally heard this: “I don’t want to ask anyone else for help.” You say, “I don’t look down on other gifted members,” but aren’t you looking down on them by refusing to depend on them? You don’t have to brag about your giftedness to communicate self-sufficiency, and self-sufficiency is just as much a denial of body-life as direct put downs.
As Paul continues on his way to correct the Corinthians for their overvaluation of tongues and the showy gifts, Paul reminds the uppity members that they need the other members.
In the previous paragraph Paul put words in the mouths of body members that weren’t mouths. The analogy is old, but he raises it to another level. This time the dialogue is short and the personified parts are different. The verbalized uppity is not pretty.
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” In the first case, living blindly would be easier than living handlessly. In the second case, living without your head isn’t an option. But if all you were was a head, well, that wouldn’t be much of a life. There are a lot of truth-loving Christians who seem to esteem the “brain in vat” idea as if God wished He could take back the rest of our parts that aren’t having holy thoughts. But what if you wanted to take the log out of your eye? Who would you ask? And yet the eye acts as if it were the whole “I”?
The eye, the hand, the head, the feet, these are all on the outside, and they are all visible doing stuff. But there are other parts, too, that are just as, if not even more, necessary.
On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. These weaker parts aren’t the hand or the feet from the previous verse. These weaker parts are probably a reference to the internal organs, maybe the heart and the lungs. These parts seem weaker from the perspective that they need more protection; they don’t walk to the coffee shop by themselves. But we can’t do without them. Living with no hands is inconvenient, but living with no heart is impossible. So it would be wrong to patronize the heart’s contribution.
Not only weaker parts, but on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our presentable parts do not require. The less honorable could be the hurt or broken parts. “Meh, they don’t really count.” But don’t we honor those parts by changing our scheduled and attending special meetings with well-trained professionals (doctors) who take pictures (x-rays, MRIs) and prescribe special ointments (and other costly medicines) and schedule massages and extra attention? The unpresentable parts are the parts we (should) keep private. We keep them covered, which our hands and feet don’t need. Some parts of the body are eye-candy, some are not. We should see with the naked eye, but the eye shouldn’t see everything naked.
These unpresentable parts probably refer to some of the waste management and reproductive departments. And these are necessary parts. We might be embarrassed about them, but mankind doesn’t exist without them. So we treat them with the appropriate amount of respect and with the appropriate amount of covering. There are members in a church that are crucial to the church reproducing, and they aren’t always the ones on stage.
There are a lot of parts, they do different things, they can be sorted into different categories, but they are orchestrated for the same tune. God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. For the third time in the chapter Paul magnifies God as Maker. The body is an amazing organism, with all the systems and structure and skeleton. God composed it. The Greek word refers to a mixed blend of various items, like with colors, or combine with the effect of harmony, as in music.
The body works in such a way that the right hand might not know what the left hand is doing, up to the point that the left hand gets stuck in the door. Then it’s all hands on deck to deal with the problem. This is a feature of body life, not a drag on your freedom. You’ll appreciate it next time you get slammed in the door. We have the same care for one another, we have the right kind of anxious concern.
And we all bear the consequences. This is a beautiful verse for those with ears to hear. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. This is how it works in a healthy body. Pain in one particular part affects the whole. When your leg is broken, you can’t walk, or you walk with crutches, and your armpits get rubbed raw. You definitely aren’t going to get the gold in the 100-yard dash. A dead fly in your soup ruins the whole bowl, and a little sin or stupidity hurts the whole body.
Plato (Republic 5.10.462C–D) uses a similar analogy:
When one of us has a wounded finger, the body and soul of that person and their inter-relationship are affected, and we say the man feels pain in his finger. Even so with every other part of the body—when one part suffers there is pain, and there is joy when one part is restored to health.
Likewise if one part of you wins, all of you wins. Your feet win the 100-yard dash, but your neck gets to wear the medal. Even the players on the bench get championship rings, or sno-cones. If your job is to be a hand model, that’s great, but it’s not just the hands the benefit. All of you gets to eat after your feet take you to the bank to cash the paycheck. This weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice is how in tune the whole body should be with one another.
If you’re thinking you have too many problems to deal with that 1) no one else cares or 2) you don’t have anything left to care about someone else, then actually your part is a big part of the problem. If you’re competing with another part of the body, you are also part of the problem. If you can’t share praise, if you can’t rejoice with rejoicers, your part is a problem. We are living “one life” (Thiselton).
At the beginning of the analogy Paul explained that we become the body by the work of the Spirit; the Spirit baptizes us into the one body. As Paul applies the body analogy to our spiritual gifts, he declares that the body is who we are.
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. Were the Corinthians that dense? Did this sentence smack them in the face (or torso, or whatever part)? Actually, maybe. And actually, individualism is such a strong idol that it’s hard to remember even though it is right in front of our nose. The unity and mutual care and connection of the members is glorious, but isolation sticks out like a sore thumb
Just as God placed and arranged and composed the body, so God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers. I’ll stop for a moment at this point in the list because these are persons, maybe offices, rather than body parts or kinds of gifts. Paul also mentions these three in Ephesians (4:11). But why number them? Are the ordinal numbers an order of importance? Haven’t all the previous verses been about how all the parts are important?
I believe that these first, second, third are ordered for two reasons. First, they are chronologically necessary as the foundation for the church (see also Ephesians 2:20). Apostles and prophets in particular are so called, and teachers would continue the work of transmitting the life and doctrine. Second, the reason Paul puts these kind of men at the front is because these are exactly the ones the Corinthians put at the back. Remember in chapter 4 when Paul referred to he and his fellow apostles as the “scum of the world, the refuse of all thins“? The Corinthians loved the show of tongues, and probably healings and miracles, so apostles and prophets and teachers were the last ones they admired.
Apostles were appointed by Christ Himself, not by churches. Prophets were those who were specially gifted to speak God’s Word into particular contexts. They make announcements, give judgments, and their messages were to be tested (see 1 Corinthians 14). Teachers took the apostolic doctrine and the tested prophecies and taught them to others regardless of place, in every place. They “instructed others in the meaning and moral implications of the Christian faith” (Barrett). They interpreted and transmitted the Word of God.
Paul continues, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Not all the gifts are repeated from verses 8-10, and actually a couple gifts are added: namely helping and administrating.
What does the “gift of helps” not cover? How many ways could you help someone that would build up the body? The word could be broken down as meaning “to take up” something for someone, giving them assistance, especially with a burden. It’s love in action, seeing a need and meeting that need.
The word administrating (“guidance” NIV, “governments” KJV, “leadership” NET) often described the pilot of a ship. It’s not the captain necessarily, but the pilot had responsibility to plan and steer the ship to the destination. These are leaders, perhaps similar in Plato’s vocab to his ideal philosopher-kings/leaders. Jesus said that the greatest leaders would also be the greatest servants, so strategizing doesn’t mean never sweating. But God gives some members not only eyes to see needs, but the vision to organize a team of parts to meet needs on a broader scale or longer duration. The “leaders” in Corinth were not navigating the rocks of division well.
The application, however, is still directed to those with a warped ranking of spiritual gifts, either uppity because of the gifts they had or downcast because of what they didn’t. Seven rhetorical questions all expect the same answer.
Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? Uh, let’s think about it…No! While some of the apostles did prophecy and teach and do miracles and speak in tongues (like Paul himself), most of the believers didn’t do most of the same things. It was silly, or snooty, for any one part to require a body made out of eyes.
He’s about to transition into an amazing, and generally familiar to us, passage. Paul wants them to want more, but he wants to make sure that they understand both what they should want and how to exercise what they want.
What they should want are the higher gifts. But earnestly desire the higher gifts. Higher? Aren’t we not supposed to talk about higher and lower? Well, there are honored and necessary to honor parts, so it’s not a same sort of equality. Every part is equally a part of the body, but not every part of the body is equal.
So are we back to ranking gifts? Only in one way. The gifts that the Corinthians considered higher gifts were the gifts of exhibition: especially tongues. The actual higher gifts are the gifts of edification: which are legion, and which could be but do not need to be up front. We might not refer to Helps as a higher gift, but I think it belongs in this list. We all ought to be zealous for opportunities and capacity to build up the body. “Covet” (KJV) them.
And regardless of what gifts we have, there is a more excellent way. This also is not the way of the Corinthians. They were proud, envious, and divided. What we’re about to see is that love must drive our ministry, which will include not envying or boasting, and a refusal to insist on its own way.
To be of great profit to the body you do not need to have prominence. The excellent gifts are the gifts of max edification not max exhibition. So edify someone however you can!
Quit envying others, quit elevating yourself over others. Quit moping that you aren’t necessary to us. Quit keeping us in the dark so that we don’t know how we can help you; we are suffering with you, but it’d be nice to know why, and maybe one of the other parts could help. May Christ be visible among us from limb to limb.
I don’t know how much, but I know that each of you believers has been given some amount of grace to use for others. It might be grace in a kind word, grace in a confronting word, grace in preparing a meal, grace in setting up chairs. Grace, grace, God’s grace, grace that speaks and grace that serves. There is also grace to you in the strength to steward grace, so don’t keep what you could spend.
As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4:10–11, ESV)