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Dr. Constable's Expository Notes Constable's Expository Notes
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These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 12". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://studylight.org/
commentaries/ eng/ dcc/ 1-corinthians-12.html. 2012.
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians 12". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://studylight.org/
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E. Spiritual gifts and spiritual people chs. 12-14
Paul had been dealing with matters related to worship since 1 Corinthians 8:1. He had forbidden the Corinthians from participating in temple meals but had allowed eating marketplace meat under certain circumstances (1 Corinthians 8:1 to 1 Corinthians 11:1). Then he dealt with two issues involving their own gatherings for worship: head-coverings and the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:2-34). The issue of spiritual gifts (chs. 12-14) was the third issue involving their own gatherings for worship. This is the most important of the three as evidenced by the amount of text Paul devoted to it and by the issue itself. Paul explained that being "spiritual" at present, for the perfect state has not yet come (1 Corinthians 13:8-13), means to edify the church in worship.
"More than any other issue, the Corinthians and Paul are at odds over the role of the Spirit. For them ’Spirit’ has been their entrée to life in the realm of sophia (’wisdom’) and gnosis (’knowledge’), with their consequent rejection of the material order, both now (1 Corinthians 7:1-7) and for the future (1 Corinthians 15:12), as well as their rejection of the Christian life as modeled by Paul’s imitation of Christ (1 Corinthians 4:15-21). Their experience of tongues as the language(s) of angels had allowed them to assume heavenly existence now (1 Corinthians 4:8), thought of primarily in terms of nonmaterial existence, rather than ethical-moral life in the present. Thus Paul tries to disabuse them of their singular and overly enthusiastic emphasis on tongues (the point of chaps. 12-14); but in so doing, he tries to retool their understanding of the Spirit so as to bring it into line with the gospel." [Note: Fee, "Toward a . . .," p. 45.]
Paul wanted to correct the Corinthians in this section, not just provide more teaching, as he did throughout this epistle. This becomes clear in chapter 14. They were abusing the gift of tongues. The whole section divides into three parts and structurally follows an A-B-A chiastic pattern, as do other parts of this letter (i.e., chs. 1-3; 1 Corinthians 7:25-40; chs. 8-10). First there is general instruction (ch. 12), then a theological interlude (ch. 13), and finally specific correction (ch. 14).
". . . there is not a single suggestion in Paul’s response that they were themselves divided on this issue or that they were politely asking his advice. More likely, the crucial issue is their decided position over against him as to what it means to be pneumatikos (’spiritual’). Their view apparently not only denied the material/physical side of Christian existence (hence the reason why chap. 15 follows hard on the heels of this section), but had an element of ’spiritualized (or overrealized) eschatology’ as well.
"The key probably lies with 1 Corinthians 13:1, where tongues is associated with angels. As noted elsewhere (1 Corinthians 7:1-7; 1 Corinthians 11:2-16), the Corinthians seem to have considered themselves to be already like the angels, thus truly ’spiritual,’ needing neither sex in the present (1 Corinthians 7:1-7) nor a body in the future (1 Corinthians 15:1-58). Speaking angelic dialects by the Spirit was evidence enough for them of their participation in the new spirituality, hence their singular enthusiasm for this gift." [Note: Idem, The First . . ., pp. 572-73.]
The presence of the phrase peri de ("Now concerning" or "Now about") plus the change in subject mark another matter about which the Corinthians had written Paul with a question (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:1; 1 Corinthians 8:1). It had to do with the gifts (abilities) the Holy Spirit gives those believers He indwells. [Note: For defense of the view that spiritual gifts are ministries rather than abilities, see Kenneth Berding, "Confusing Word and Concept in ’Spiritual Gifts’: Have We Forgotten James Barr’s Exhortations?" Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 43:1 (March 2000):37-51.] This subject is the focus of all that Paul wrote in chapters 12-14, including the famous thirteenth chapter on love.
As in 1 Corinthians 10:1, Paul implied that what followed was instruction his readers needed. "Spiritual gifts" is literally "the spirituals" (Gr. ton pneumatikon). Paul used pneumatika when he wanted to emphasize the Spirit, and he used charismata when he wanted to stress the gift. Pneumatikon is a broader term than the gifts themselves, though it includes them. It appears to refer primarily to the people who are spiritual (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:15; 1 Corinthians 3:1). Evidently the Corinthians’ question dealt with the marks of a spiritual Christian. A spiritual Christian is a believer under the control of the Holy Spirit compared with one under the control of his or her flesh (Galatians 5:16) or a demonic spirit (1 Corinthians 10:20-21). In 1 Corinthians 2:15 Paul described mature Christians as "spiritual" (Gr. pneumatikos, having the Spirit) in contrast to "natural" (i.e., unsaved, not having the Spirit). However, he proceeded immediately to clarify that it is not only possession of the Spirit but also control by the Spirit that marks one as truly spiritual (1 Corinthians 3:3).
1. The test of Spirit control 12:1-3
The apostle began his discussion by clarifying the indicators that a person is under the control of the indwelling Spirit of God. With this approach, he set the Corinthians’ former experience as idolaters in contrast to their present experience as Christians. "Inspired utterance" in itself does not identify what is truly "spiritual." The intelligible content of such an utterance does when the content is the basic confession that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Many of the Corinthian believers had been pagans. Various influences had led them away from worship of the true God and into idolatry.
"Corinth was experience-oriented and self-oriented. Mystery religions and other pagan cults were in great abundance, from which cults many of the members at the Corinthian church received their initial religious instruction. After being converted they had failed to free themselves from pagan attitudes and they confused the true work of the Spirit of God with the former pneumatic and ecstatic experiences of the pagan religions, especially the Dionysian mystery or the religion of Apollo." [Note: H. Wayne House, "Tongues and the Mystery Religions of Corinth," Bibliotheca Sacra 140:558 (April-June 1983):147-48.]
Dumb idols are idols that do not speak in contrast with the living God who does speak. Paul previously said that demons are behind the worship of idols (1 Corinthians 10:20). He did not say that the prophecy or glossolalia (speaking in tongues) being spoken in the Corinthian church proceeded from demonic sources. He only reminded his readers that there are "inspired" utterances that come from sources other than the Holy Spirit. Probably some of them had spoken in tongues when they were pagans.
"In classical [Greek] literature, Apollo was particularly renowned as the source of ecstatic utterances, as on the lips of Cassandra of Troy, the priestess of Delphi or the Sibyl of Cumae (whose frenzy as she prophesied under the god’s control is vividly described by Virgil); at a humbler level the fortune-telling slave-girl of Acts 16:16 was dominated by the same kind of ’pythonic’ spirit." [Note: Bruce, 1 and 2 Corinthians, p. 117.]
Enthusiasm or ecstasy or "inspired" utterance do not necessarily indicate spirituality. By "inspired" utterance I mean any utterance that the speaker claimed came from God, not necessarily a truly inspired new revelation from God. Paul’s original readers needed to pay attention to what the person speaking in such a state said.
"Not the manner but the content of ecstatic speech determines its authenticity." [Note: Barrett, p. 279. Cf. Deuteronomy 13:2-6; 18:21-22.]
What the person said about Jesus Christ was especially important. No one the Holy Spirit motivated would curse Jesus Christ. Probably no one in the Corinthian church had. In the Septuagint anathema means a thing devoted to God without being redeemed, doomed to destruction (Leviticus 27:28-29; Joshua 6:17; Joshua 7:12). [Note: Robertson, 4:167.] Anathema is an Aramaic term carried over from the church’s Jewish background. Likewise no one would sincerely acknowledge that Jesus is Lord, Savior and or Sovereign, unless the Holy Spirit had some influence over him or her. This was true regardless of whether the person was speaking in an ecstatic condition or in plain speech. Paul was not enabling his readers to test the spirits to see if they were of God (cf. 1 John 4:1-3). His point was that "inspired" utterance as such does not indicate that the Holy Spirit is leading a person.
The Holy Spirit leads those under His control to glorify Jesus Christ, not dumb idols, with their speech (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:10-13).
"The ultimate criterion of the Spirit’s activity is the exaltation of Jesus as Lord. Whatever takes away from that, even if they be legitimate expressions of the Spirit, begins to move away from Christ to a more pagan fascination with spiritual activity as an end in itself." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 582.]
Although there is only one Holy Spirit, He gives many different abilities to different people. Everything in this pericope revolves around these two ideas. "Gifts" (Gr. charismata, from charis, meaning "grace") are abilities that enable a person to glorify and serve God. God gives them freely and graciously. That they are abilities seems clear from how Paul described them here and elsewhere (Romans 12).
Diversity in the Godhead and the gifts 12:4-11
2. The need for varieties of spiritual gifts 12:4-31
Paul planned to return to the subject of glossolalia (ch. 14), but first he wanted to talk more generally about spiritual gifts. In the verses that follow he dealt with differences in gifts in the church.
"Having given the negative and positive criterion of genuine spiritual endowments as manifested in speech, the Apostle goes on to point out the essential oneness of these very varied gifts." [Note: Robertson and Plummer, p. 262.]
Diversity, not uniformity, is necessary for a healthy church, and God has seen to it that diversity exists (1 Corinthians 12:6-7; 1 Corinthians 12:11; 1 Corinthians 12:18; 1 Corinthians 12:24; 1 Corinthians 12:28). Notice that the Corinthians were doing in the area of spiritual gifts essentially what they were doing in relation to their teachers (1 Corinthians 3:4-23). They were preferring one over others and thereby failing to benefit from them all. This section of Paul’s argument puts the subject of gifts into proper theological perspective whereas the previous pericope put it into its proper Christological perspective.
Likewise there are different ministries or services (Gr. diakonia; opportunities for service) that the one Lord over the church gives.
Furthermore there are different effects or workings (Gr. energemata; manifestations of the Spirit’s power at work) that the one God who is responsible for all of them bestows. Just as Spirit, Lord, and God are distinct yet closely related in 1 Corinthians 12:4-6, so are gifts, ministries, and effects. We should probably not view these words as representing entirely separate ideas but as facets of God’s work in and through the believer. It is God who is responsible for our abilities, our opportunities for service, and the individual ways in which we minister, including the results.
Each believer regardless of his or her gifts, ministries, and the manner and extent of God’s blessing demonstrates the Holy Spirit through his or her life. Paul’s point here was not that each believer has a gift, though that is true (cf. 1 Peter 4:10). His point was that the Spirit manifests Himself in a great variety of ways. Gifts, ministries, and effects all manifest the Spirit’s presence, not just the more spectacular ones in each category. Believers who have spectacular gifts, ministries, or effectiveness are not necessarily more spiritual than Christians who do not. Each believer makes a unique contribution to the common good, not just certain believers (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; 1 Corinthians 3:4-10). Several examples of this fact follow in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10.
Paul mentioned nine ways in which the Spirit manifests Himself through believers. The list is representative rather than exhaustive as is clear when we compare this list with other similar ones (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:28-30; 1 Corinthians 7:7; 1 Corinthians 13:1-3; 1 Corinthians 13:8; 1 Corinthians 14:6; 1 Corinthians 14:26; Romans 12:4-8; Ephesians 4:11).
In this verse there is no definite article before the word "word" in either of its uses. This probably points to Paul’s referring to an utterance of wisdom or knowledge, namely, a wise or knowledgeable utterance (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:17 to 1 Corinthians 2:16). [Note: Morris, p. 170.] The difference in the utterances probably lies in wisdom representing a mature perception of what is true to reality (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:24; 1 Corinthians 2:6-13; 1 Corinthians 14:6) and knowledge standing for understanding of God’s mysteries (revelations) in particular (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:2; 1 Corinthians 14:6).
"It is the discourse, not the wisdom or knowledge behind it, that is the spiritual gift, for it is this that is of direct service to the church . . ." [Note: Barrett, pp. 284-85.]
Faith is trust in God. Every Christian has some faith just as every Christian has some wisdom and knowledge. However some believers have more God-given ability to trust God than others just as some have more God-given wisdom or knowledge than others. All believers should seek to cultivate wisdom, knowledge, and faith, but some have a larger God-given capacity for one or another of them than other Christians do.
The "gifts of healings" (literally) by definition refer to abilities to cause healing to take place. Evidently there were various types of healings that those so gifted could produce, for example, physical, psychological, and spiritual healings. Counselors and medical doctors have a degree of ability to produce healing today. However most Christians believe God has not given the ability to restore people to health instantaneously today as He did in the early church. [Note: For a discussion of the temporary nature of some of the gifts, namely, that they were in use in the early church but not thereafter, see Thomas R. Edgar, "The Cessation of the Sign Gifts," Bibliotheca Sacra 145:580 (October-December 1988):371-86; and John F. Walvoord, "Contemporary Issues in the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Part IV: Spiritual Gifts Today," Bibliotheca Sacra 130:520 (October-December 1973):315-28. This article was reprinted under the title "The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts" in Bibliotheca Sacra 143:570 (April-June 1986):109-21. See also Vern S. Poythress, "Modern Spiritual Gifts as Analogous to Apostolic Gifts: Affirming Extraordinary Works of the Spirit within Cessationist Theology," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 39:1 (March 1996):71-101.]
Miracles are mighty works (Gr. dynameis) that alter the natural course of events. Probably all types of miracles beside healings are in view. God gave the ability to do miracles to His Son and to some Christians in the early church to signify that He was with them and empowering them (cf. Luke 4:14 to Luke 9:50; Galatians 3:5; Hebrews 2:4). Luke’s Gospel, in particular, presents Jesus as teaching and then validating His teaching by doing miracles. Acts shows the apostles doing the same thing.
Prophecy has a four-fold meaning in the New Testament. Prophets foretold future events. They also declared things known only by special new revelation from God. Third, they uttered under the Spirit’s prompting some lofty statement or message in praise of God, or a word of instruction, refutation, reproof, admonition, or comfort for others (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:4; 1 Corinthians 13:9; 1 Corinthians 14:1; 1 Corinthians 14:3-5; 1 Corinthians 14:24; 1 Corinthians 14:31; 1 Corinthians 14:39). Fourth, they led in worship (Exodus 15:20-21; 1 Chronicles 25:1). Evidently the first and second of these abilities passed out of existence with the composition of the last New Testament books. The last of the New Testament books that God inspired was probably Revelation, which most likely dates from about A.D. 95. [Note: See Mark L. Hitchcock, "A Defense of the Domitianic Date of the Book of Revelation" (Ph.D. dissertation, Dallas Theological Seminary), 2005.]
"First, although prophecy was an especially widespread phenomenon in the religions of antiquity, Paul’s understanding-as well as that of the other NT writers-was thoroughly conditioned by his own history in Judaism. The prophet was a person who spoke to God’s people under the inspiration of the Spirit. The ’inspired utterance’ came by revelation and announced judgment (usually) or salvation. Although the prophets often performed symbolic acts, which they then interpreted, the mainstream of prophetic activity, at least as it came to be canonized, had very little to do with ’ecstasy,’ especially ’frenzy’ or ’mania.’ For the most part the prophets were understood only too well! Often the word spoken had a futuristic element, so in that sense they also came to be seen as ’predicters’; but that was only one element, and not necessarily the crucial one." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 595.]
The ability to distinguish between spirits was apparently a gift of discernment. It enabled a person to tell whether a propounded prophecy was genuine or counterfeit, namely, from the Holy Spirit or a false spirit (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:29; 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21). Thus it had a relationship to prophecy similar to that between interpretation and tongues. [Note: Keener, p. 101.]
The gift of tongues, about which Paul would say much more in chapter 14, was the ability to speak in one or more languages that the speaker had not learned. However the languages do not seem limited to human languages (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:1). Nevertheless they were intelligible with interpretation (1 Corinthians 14:10-14). They were not just gibberish. The New Testament writers did not consider the ecstatic utterances of pagans or Christians that were other than languages to be manifestations of the Spirit’s gift of tongues.
It should be noted . . . that only tongues is included in every list of ’gifts’ in these three chapters [1 Corinthians 12:8-10; 1 Corinthians 12:28-30; 1 Corinthians 13:1-3; 1 Corinthians 13:8; 1 Corinthians 14:6; 1 Corinthians 14:26]. Its place at the conclusion of each list in chap. 12, but at the beginning in 1 Corinthians 13:1 and 1 Corinthians 14:6, suggests that the problem lies here. It is listed last not because it is ’least,’ but because it is the problem. He always includes it, but at the end, after the greater concern for diversity has been heard." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 572. Cf. idem, "Tongues-Least of the Gifts? Some Exegetical Observations on 1 Corinthians 12-14," Pneuma 2 (1980):3-14.]
The person with the ability to interpret tongues (languages) could translate what a tongues-speaker said accurately so others present could know the meaning of what he or she said. Presumably some Christians with the gift of tongues also had the gift of interpreting tongues so they could explain what they had said.
"With the possible exception of faith, all these gifts seem to have been confirmatory and foundational gifts for the establishment of the church (cf. Hebrews 2:4; Ephesians 2:20) and were therefore temporary." [Note: Lowery, "1 Corinthians," p. 533.]
This section concludes with another reminder that though these manifestations of the Spirit vary they all indicate the presence and working of the Spirit of God. Paul also stressed again the Spirit’s sovereignty in distributing the gifts (cf. John 3:8). The Corinthians should not try to manipulate the Spirit but accept and submit to His distribution of the gifts as He saw fit.
There is a general progression in this list from the more common to the more uncommon and esoteric gifts (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:28). The more unusual gifts that appear toward the end of this list attracted the Corinthians. Some gifts were probably more common at one place and in one church than were others depending on the Spirit’s sovereign distribution (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:4-5). Some were probably more common at some times than at others, too, as the Spirit bestowed them.
The apostle spoke of this comparison in other epistles as well (Romans 12:4-5; Ephesians 4:11-13; Colossians 1:18; Colossians 2:19). He probably adapted the idea of the body politic, an essentially secular but commonly understood concept, to illustrate the church. There can be unity in a body without uniformity. Here the apostle stressed the fact that diversity among the members is an essential part of a unified body. Evidently the Corinthians were striving for unanimity and did not appreciate that there can and must be diversity in a "spiritual" church.
"One of the marks of an individual’s maturity is a growing understanding of, and appreciation for, his own body. There is a parallel in the spiritual life: as we mature in Christ, we gain a better understanding of the church, which is Christ’s body. The emphasis in recent years on ’body life’ has been a good one. It has helped to counteract the wrong emphasis on ’individual Christianity’ that can lead to isolation from the local church." [Note: Wiersbe, 1:607.]
The body and its members 12:12-14
Paul now compared the body of Christ, the universal church, though by extension the local church as well, to a human body. Again his point was not that the church needs to have unity but that it needs to have diversity.
The baptism of the Spirit took place initially on the day of Pentecost (Acts 1:5; Acts 2:33; Acts 11:16). Subsequently individual believers experienced Spirit baptism when they personally trusted Christ as their Savior (Acts 11:15-17; Romans 8:9).
In Spirit baptism the Holy Spirit baptizes (Gr. baptidzo, lit. submerges) the believer into the body of Christ. He makes us a part of it. Water baptism illustrates this. Every believer experiences Spirit baptism regardless of his or her race or social status. We are now on equal footing in the sense that we are all members of the body of Christ.
The figure of drinking of one Spirit recalls John 7:37-39 where Jesus invited the thirsty to come and drink of Him to find refreshment. Baptism and drinking are both initiation experiences and take place at the same time. In the first figure the Spirit places the believer into Christ, and in the second the Spirit comes into the Christian. This is probably a case of Semitic parallelism in which both clauses make essentially the same point.
". . . the Spirit not only surrounds us, but is within us." [Note: Barrett, p. 289.]
Both bodies, the physical human body and the spiritual body of Christ, consist of many members. This fact helps us realize our limited contribution to the larger organism. A body composed of only one organ would be a monstrosity.
The modern church often uses this pericope to stress the importance of unity, which is a great need today. However, Paul’s emphasis originally was on the importance of diversity.
Perhaps Paul chose the feet, hands, ears, and eyes as examples because of their prominence in the body. Even though they are prominent and important they cannot stand alone. They need each other.
". . . Chrysostom remarks that the foot contrasts itself with the hand rather than with the ear, because we do not envy those who are very much higher than ourselves so much as those who have got a little above us . . ." [Note: Robertson and Plummer, p. 273.]
The application of the figure 12:15-26
Paul proceeded to spell out the implications of his analogy.
Different functions as well as different members are necessary in the body (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:4). Paul’s point was not the inferiority of some members but the need for all members.
Paul again stressed God’s sovereignty in placing each member in the body as He has chosen in this verse. We need to discover how God has gifted us and to become as effective as possible where He has placed us. We should concentrate on using the abilities we have received rather than longing to be different or insisting on doing things that God has not gifted us to do (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:26-27).
"Whenever we begin to think about our own importance in the Christian Church, the possibility of really Christian work is gone." [Note: Barclay, The Letters . . ., p. 127.]
If all the members of the human body were the same, it would not be able to function as a body. It would be incapable of getting anything accomplished. For example, if all had the gift of tongues, the gift that the Corinthians valued so highly, the body would not function.
Uniformity is not the case in the human body, however. It has a variety of members, but it is one unified organism.
It is interesting that Paul used the head and the feet as examples, the top of the body and the bottom. He may have been reminding those who felt superior that those whom they regarded as inferior were also necessary (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:17-34). Too often because we differ from each other we also differ with each other.
Rather than regarding themselves as superior, the "haves" in the church needed to remember that the "have nots" were important for the effective operation of the whole organism. Even the little toe, or the rarely appreciated pancreas, plays a crucial role in the physical body.
When dealing with our human bodies we bestow more honor on our less honorable parts by covering them up. This makes our unseemly members more seemly. Paul may have been referring to the sexual organs. [Note: Fee, The First . . ., pp. 613-14.] On the other hand, the more honorable parts, such as our faces, do not require special covering. The point is that we take special pains to honor our less esteemed physical members, and we should do the same in the church rather than neglecting or despising them. When is the last time your church gave public recognition to the nursery workers or the clean up crew?
God has constructed bodies, both human and spiritual, so the different members can care for one another. He does not ignore any member but makes provision for each one. We do not always see this in the human body, but it is true. Likewise God’s honoring the less prominent members in the church may not be apparent now, but it will be at the judgment seat of Christ if not before then.
God does not want dissension (Gr. schisma) in His body. There was some in the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 1:10; 1 Corinthians 11:18). Rather (strong contrast in the Greek, alla) the members should have anxious care for one another. Paul illustrated this attitude with what follows.
The suffering of one means the suffering of all, and the well-being of one means the well-being of all.
"Plato had pointed out that we do not say, ’My finger has a pain,’ we say, ’I have a pain.’" [Note: Barclay, The Letters . . ., p. 126.]
In view of this we can and should honestly rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15).
"Ancients emphasized that true friends shared each other’s joys and sorrows." [Note: Keener, p. 104.]
Paul’s preceding comments about the body (1 Corinthians 12:12-26) are applicable to both the physical body and the spiritual body of Christ. However, he was speaking about the human body primarily, as an illustration of the spiritual body.
"You" is emphatic in the Greek text and is plural. The Corinthian Christians are in view, but what Paul said of them applies to all groups of Christians. Together we make up the body of Christ, and each of us is an individual member in it. Again, what Paul said of the church is true of it in its macro and in its micro forms, the universal church and the local church.
The fact of diversity restated 12:27-31
Next, the apostle spoke more specifically about the members of the body of Christ again (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:1-11).
Paul listed eight kinds of members with special functions. This list differs somewhat from the one in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 where he identified nine manifestations of the Spirit’s working. This list, as the former one, is selective rather than exhaustive.
The ranking of these gifted individuals is evidently in the order of the importance of their ministries. When Paul said all the members were essential earlier (1 Corinthians 12:21) he did not mean that some did not have a more crucial function to perform than others. He did not mention this distinction there because he wanted each member to appreciate the essential necessity of every other member. In another sense, however, some gifts are more important than others (1 Corinthians 12:31; 1 Corinthians 14:1).
God called and gifted the apostles to plant and to establish the church in places the gospel had not yet gone. Apostello means to send out, so it is proper to think of apostles as missionaries. Prophets were the channels through whom God sent His revelations to His people (cf. Ephesians 2:20). Some of them also wrote the books of the New Testament. Teachers gave believers instruction in the Scriptures. Teachers were more important in the church than the prophets who simply gave words of edification, exhortation, and consolation (1 Corinthians 14:3), but they were less important than the prophets who gave new authoritative revelation. The latter type of prophet is in view in this verse.
". . . a scholar will learn more from a good teacher than he will from any book. We have books in plenty nowadays, but it is still true that it is through people that we really learn of Christ." [Note: Barclay, The Letters . . ., p. 129.]
Workers of miracles and healers gave dramatic proof that the power of God was working in the church so others would trust Christ. They may have ministered especially to the Jews since the Jews looked for such indications of God’s presence and blessing (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:22). Helpers seem to have provided assistance of various kinds for people in need. Administrators managed and directed the affairs of the churches. Tongues-speakers bring up the rear in this list as being the least important of those mentioned. Paul said more about their relative importance in chapter 14.
"The shortness of the list of charismata in Eph. iv. II as compared with the list here is perhaps an indication that the regular exercise of extraordinary gifts in public worship was already dying out." [Note: Robertson and Plummer, p. 281, footnote. Cf. A Dictionary of the Bible, "Lord’s Day," 3:141, by N. J. D. White.]
The traditional view is that Paul wrote Ephesians (ca. A.D. 62) some years after he wrote 1 Corinthians (ca. A.D. 56).
These two verses contain a third list of gifts in a descending order of priority. Each of Paul’s seven questions expects a negative answer. The apostle’s point was that it would be ridiculous for everyone to have the same gift. Variety is essential. It is wrong to equate one gift, particularly speaking in tongues, with spirituality.
"All of the believers in the Corinthian assembly had been baptized by the Spirit [1 Corinthians 12:13], but not all of them spoke in tongues (1 Corinthians 12:30)." [Note: Wiersbe, 1:609.]
". . . in these verses Paul strikes a deathblow to the theory that speaking in tongues is the sign of the possession of the Spirit, for the answer ’No’ is expected to each question (cf. Greek)." [Note: S. L. Johnson Jr., p. 1251.]
Paul advised the Corinthians to seek some gifts more than others because some are more significant in the functioning of the body than others. While the bestowal of gifts is the sovereign prerogative of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:8-11; 1 Corinthians 12:18), human desire plays a part in His bestowal (cf. James 4:2). This seems to indicate that the Spirit does not give all His gifts to us at the moment of our salvation. I see nothing in Scripture that prohibits our viewing the abilities God gives us at birth as part of His spiritual gifts. Likewise a believer can receive a gift or an opportunity for service or the Spirit’s blessing on his ministry years after his conversion. Everything we have or ever will have is a gift from God. [Note: See Barclay, The Letters . . ., p. 120.]
God did not give the gift of apostleship, in the technical sense, to any other than those whom Christ Himself selected who had seen the risen Lord. It went to a small group in the first generation of the church’s history. Apostleship in the general sense of one sent out with a message continues today. Normally we refer to these gifted people as missionaries to distinguish them from Paul and the 12 apostles.
Likewise we use the term prophet in a technical and in a general sense today. Usually we think of prophets as people who gave new revelation from God or predicted the future. As I mentioned previously, prophets also spoke forth a word from the Lord by exhorting or encouraging the church, and some of them led the church in worship. The Greek word prophetes means "one who speaks forth." In the first, technical sense prophets have ceased in the church. In the second, general sense they are still with us. [Note: See John E. Johnson, "The Old Testament Offices as Paradigm for Pastoral Identity," Bibliotheca Sacra 152:606 (April-June 1995):182-200.] We usually refer to the exhorters and encouragers as preachers to distinguish them from first century prophets who gave new revelation and predicted the future.
Today some people who desire to sharpen their ability to preach and teach the Scriptures enroll in Bible college or seminary to do so. This is one example of zealously desiring the greater gifts.
However, Paul said there is an even more important discipline that a believer should cultivate to reach the goal of being maximally effective. That way involves valuing and cultivating love (ch. 13). The apostle did not mean, of course, that one should disregard the most important gifts but seek love. We should give attention to cultivating love and cultivating abilities that are strategically important in Christ’s body. Nevertheless as important as sharpening abilities is, it is even more important that we excel in loving.
"’The most excellent way’ which Paul will now show his friends at Corinth is not one more gift among many, but ’a way beyond all this.’ That extraordinary way is, of course, the way of agape, that fruit of the Spirit which is of primary importance to every believer and to the body of Christ." [Note: Thomas A. Jackson, "Concerning Spiritual Gifts: A Study of 1 Corinthians 12," Faith and Mission 7:1 (Fall 1989):68.]
"What Paul is about to embark on is a description of what he calls ’a way that is beyond comparison.’ The way they are going is basically destructive to the church as a community; the way they are being called to is one that seeks the good of others before oneself. It is the way of edifying the church (1 Corinthians 14:1-5), of seeking the common good (1 Corinthians 12:7). In that context one will still earnestly desire the things of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 14:1), but precisely so that others will be edified. Thus it is not ’love versus gifts’ that Paul has in mind, but ’love as the only context for gifts’; for without the former, the latter have no usefulness at all-but then neither does much of anything else in the Christian life." [Note: Fee, The First . . ., p. 625.]
Chapter 12 is a chapter that stresses balance (cf. Galatians 5). On the one hand each Christian is only a part of a larger organism, but each is an indispensable part. In one sense we are equally important because we all serve an essential function, but in another sense some are more crucial than others. God determines our gifts, ministries, and individual differences, yet our desire and initiative do have something to do with our service as well. Ability, ministry opportunity, and individuality are very important, but love is even more important. A good measure of our personal maturity as Christians will be how well we can keep these paradoxes in balance in our personal lives and ministries. The Corinthians needed help in this area.
"The Church is neither a dead mass of similar particles, like a heap of sand, nor a living swarm of antagonistic individuals, like a cage of wild beasts: it has the unity of a living organism, in which no two parts are exactly alike, but all discharge different functions for the good of the whole. All men are not equal, and no individual can be independent of the rest: everywhere there is subordination and dependence. Some have special gifts, some have none; some have several gifts, some only one; some have higher gifts, some have lower: but every individual has some function to discharge, and all must work together for the common good. This is the all-important point-unity in loving service." [Note: Robertson and Plummer, pp. 269-70.]