1 Corinthians 12:27-13:13
First Corinthians 12-14 addresses the question of how best to regulate the use of spiritual gifts in the church. Paul began his treatment by establishing the Lordship of Jesus Christ as the fundamental criterion for evaluating spiritual gifts. Then, in 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, the apostle pointed out that diversity derives from God himself. Verses 12-14 appealed to the need to have diversity in the context of unity by introducing the concept of the body. Just as a body has many parts, so the church as the body of Christ has diversity in its members, but there is unity in its quality of being a body. Verses 15-26 attempted to illustrate the implications of the unity and of the diversity within the body of Christ. In verses 27-31 Paul returns the major focus to diversity once again.
Spiritual Gifts: Expression of Diversity - 1 Corinthians 12:27-31
Verse 27 makes it clear that Paul has had the church at Corinth in mind all along in chapter 12. Addressing them directly he states, "And you are Christ's body." The word "you" in Greek is plural and it is in the emphatic position of the sentence, "And YOU ALL are Christ's body." Paul does not state that the Corinthians are the totality of the body of Christ. He does not state that they are part of Christ's body. He declares that the nature of their relationship to Christ is that of being his body. The point is that all he had communicated about unity and diversity regarding physical bodies in the preceding verses should be understood as applying to them.
The final part of verse 27 states that each of them is a member or a part of that body. Just as the parts of a physical body are incredibly diverse the Corinthians should understand themselves as incredibly diverse. However, in spite of all the diversity of the parts a physical body is still a unity. The Corinthians' diversity cannot change the fundamental unity that is theirs simply by being Christ's body.
Verse 28 begins Paul's application of this truth to the problem of spiritual gifts. The diversity of spiritual gifts is not the problem. God has placed such diversity in the life of the church. The God who has created such diversity within the human body and within creation has also celebrated diversity in the church. God is the one who has given the individual gifts.
Paul then moves through another list of spiritual gifts. Eight gifts are mentioned in this list. Some are persons or positions such as apostles and prophets while other gifts are characteristics or activities. The first three are persons and Paul ranks them numerically, "First apostles, second prophets, third teachers." The next two have the modifier "then," "then deeds of powers, then gifts of healing." The final three gifts are listed without a modifier suggesting that if Paul had intended to rank the gifts when he began the sentence, he gave up on the process before the end. This fact and the differences (in both content and order) in the lists of gifts found in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10; 12:28; 12:29-30; Romans 12: 6-8; and Ephesians 4:11 suggest that any detailed attempt to rank the gifts arises from the prejudices of the interpreter rather than from the actual teaching of Scripture.
The first three gifts listed in verse 28 are apostles, prophets, and teachers. It is a bit surprising that apostles are listed in the context of spiritual gifts. Study of the use of the term in the New Testament suggests that only those who had seen Jesus and were appointed by the Lord to apostolic ministry could be designated as apostles. Paul's own apostleship was under question by some (1 Corinthians 9:1) because of questions whether or not he possessed the qualifications. Furthermore, the rest of the spiritual gifts and the context here suggests that spiritual gifts are gifts that operate in the context of a local congregation. Apostles were involved in traveling ministry and "belonged" to the whole church rather than to any particular local congregation. Perhaps Paul was simply acknowledging that at the time of writing 1 Corinthians all local churches had been founded by apostles or as a result of apostolic ministry. Each church understood itself to be connected to an apostle.
By the end of the first Christian century there is considerable evidence of traveling prophets. In fact, these ministers were making such a nuisance of themselves that an early church document called The Didache developed a series of tests to distinguish between genuine and false prophets. However, Paul's letters imply a period of the church when prophets were (at least primarily) local church ministers. Such prophets were inspired by the Spirit to speak a word from God to the local congregation. There is no evidence that suggests that prediction or "fore-telling" was a defining element in prophetic messages. Any message from God to the church came via a prophet. Chapter 14 implies that any member of the congregation might potentially be gifted to function as a prophet. Thus there was no sense of ministerial status or clergy standing associated with the prophets.
The third set of gifted persons that Paul mentions in verse 28 is teachers. There is no evidence that the term "teachers" had anything but a functional meaning at the time of 1 Corinthians. That is to say, teachers were people who taught - not positions that had to be filled. These people were able to remember the preaching of the apostles and their reports of the teaching of Jesus. From the store house of memory teachers then drew out material that was applicable to the needs of the local church and interpreted those traditions in light of the new situation.
Paul then lists miracles and gifts of healing. In the Greek text these are not persons or positions but activities or ministries. The same two gifts were listed in verses 9 and 10 in the opposite order. The Greek word for miracles literally means power or powerful deeds. It is not at all clear what Paul understood under miracles that was not also includes in gifts of healing. Some suggest that the gift of miracles included demon exorcism. Others suggest that it represents effective power in prayer for the protection of people and the supplying of various material needs. Physical healing is specifically listed as a separate gift. Both here and in verse 9 the term is plural, gifts of healing. This suggests that Paul does not have in mind someone with a "healing" ministry but individual times when the gift of healing is granted to someone within the body of Christ. Fee (p. 621) points out that "the emphasis is not on the people who have these gifts, but simply on the presence of the gifts themselves in the community."
The next two gifts are difficult to translate with confidence. The first of the two is usually translated in terms of helpful deeds. The Greek word does not appear anywhere else in the New Testament though it can be found in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. There it means to help, assist or come to the aid of another person. Most of the Old Testament uses of the word speak of God's help given to those in need. However, in the secular papyri the word was used for the help one might seek from a king. Thus Paul seems to envision the church being a place where some are gifted to intervene in helpful ways in the needs and pains of others. Romans 12:8 appears to refer to this same gift with two phrases, contributing to the needs of others and showing mercy. In the life of the modern church the various kinds of compassionate ministries and counseling seem to fill a similar role.
The second of these two gifts is usually referred to in terms of administration or leadership. The Greek word also only appears here in the New Testament, but it is the root word from which we derive the English word "government." The cognate Greek noun was a pilot or steersman. Thus the idea of guidance is the central concept of this gift. The word "administration" tends to conjure up the ideas of administrative skills, which is not what Paul has in mind here. Leadership may be the best available English word to describe this gift. Paul seems to understand this guidance as pertaining corporately to the church. In this the gift differs from the guidance that is generally offered at the individual level in our time.
The final gift listed here is "kinds of tongues." The expression is identical with that found in verse 10. The Greek word for tongue here is glossa, which has led to describing this gift as glossalalia. The unfolding of Paul's argument in chapter 14 suggests that this gift of tongues was at the center of the problem Paul was addressing. His instructions in both chapters 12 and 14 indicate that "tongues" was inspired by the Spirit, it was unintelligible without "interpretation," and Paul believed that it was subject to human control. The best scholarship understands that the experience of "tongues" at Corinth was quite similar to the practices of glossalalia today. It is quite possible that Paul understood the "tongues" to be actual human languages unknown in that part of the world or to be the language of angels (see 1 Corinthians 13:1). His insistence on interpretation in chapter 14 can be taken that way. However, the lack of understanding of linguistics in the first century would have left the apostle without any definite way of answering the questions one way or the other.
The idea that each of the gift lists is only representative rather than comprehensively listing every gift finds support in verses 29-30. Paul concludes this segment of his argument with a series of seven rhetorical questions. The form of these questions is, "Not all perform ______ gift, do they?" The Greek question is constructed to show that Paul assumed the answer to be a resounding, "No!" No one is expected to be endowed with all the gifts and there is no single gift that must be exercised by every believer. In light of Paul's discussion of the relative importance of the various parts of the body in 1 Corinthians 12:20-26 the obvious conclusion is that no single spiritual gift can be considered superior to any other gift. The clear point is that all the gifts are necessary for the healthy functioning of the body of Christ. Diversity within the unity of the body of Christ must be the characteristic of the church. No form of uniformity honors God, but diversity in unity does.
In effect the seven questions form another list of spiritual gifts. Six of the eight listed in verse 28 appear following the same order as given in verse 28. The gifts of helpfulness and leadership are omitted. The gift of interpretation, listed in verse 10 but not in verse 28 is added. Uneasiness over these differences reflects our modern concern 1) for precision and 2) to regard the Bible as the answer book for our problems rather than a guide toward godliness. Paul's point is sufficiently clear. No gift can be made the evidence of a superior spirituality. No gift can be expected for everyone in the body of Christ. A healthy church is seen in the diversity of its gifts rather than in a concentration of a single gift.
Verse 31 appears to begin by commanding the Corinthians zealously to seek the greater gifts. This command is no problem for those who believe that Paul intended to rank the spiritual gifts in order of importance in the preceding lists. However, for those who argue, as this lesson has, that Paul was not attempting to rank the gifts it is a bit puzzling to find him commanding his readers to pursue the greater gifts.
There are several ways scholars have attempted to explain this command. Some argue that Paul is quoting from the Corinthians in the first part of verse 31 and then giving his response in the second part of the verse. By this interpretation Paul says, "You Corinthians say, 'Zealously seek the greater gifts,' but I am going to show you a more excellent way." Other scholars point out that the verb "zealously seek" in Greek can be taken as either an imperative or an indicative. If it is taken as an indicative the meaning is, "You Corinthians are busy seeking the greater gifts, but I am going to show you a more excellent way."
The final interpretation takes verse 31a as an imperative that begins a new section. But immediately after the words, "Zealously seek the greater gifts," Paul decides to insert the material from chapter 13. When he finishes he returns to the theme of zealous seeking in 1 Corinthians 14:1. By this interpretation verse 31a really introduces the material beginning in chapter 14. It is difficult to choose between the second and third interpretation as more likely. The normal indicators of a quotation from the Corinthians are lacking in this passage. However, the verb could be taken as either an indicative or an imperative. And verse 31a does connect best to 14:1. Chapter 13 interrupts the close connection between these two verses. Whether chapter 13 interrupts Paul's flow of thought is another matter.
The Way of Love - 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
1 Corinthians 13 is one of the best known and best loved passages of the Bible. The structure and beauty of the chapter are evidence of a highly skilled author. The unusually high literary quality of the chapter and the strong connection between 12:31 and 14:1 have led to the theory that someone other than Paul wrote chapter 13 and inserted it into 1 Corinthians at a later date. Regardless of one's conclusions on that question it is a fact that 1 Corinthians 13 has most frequently been studied out of context as a source for understanding the Christian view of love.
First Corinthians 13 has been called "The Hymn to Love." It is more structured than much of Paul's writings. The chapter can be divided into three clear divisions. Verses 1-3 contrast love with other religious actions and attitudes. Verses 4-7 describe love (primarily in terms of what it is not). Verses 8-13 return to the contrasting of love with other religious and theological concepts. The similarity of verses 1-3 and 8-13 has led many commentators to describe the chapter in terms of an ABA' pattern. This pattern of writing was considered an evidence of stylistic expertise in the biblical world. Further, the sentences are more balanced than is usually the case in Pauline writings and the vocabulary is powerful. These facts have led some to conclude that Paul did not originally compose chapter 13.
If he did not compose the chapter two possibilities exist. Someone else prior to 1 Corinthians could have written it and Paul, knowing it, quoted it here because he thought it fit. The other possibility is that someone inserted it into 1 Corinthians after the letter had been written. This is the less likely explanation. Though chapter 13 interrupts the connection between 12:31 and 14:1 it does not interrupt Paul's flow of thought. The language of prophecy and tongues figures prominently in chapter 13. These gifts were mentioned in chapter 12 and will become the main subjects of chapter 14. Chapter 13 certainly appears to be part of the flow of thought not a later insertion.
Close examination shows that the literary quality of the chapter can be exaggerated. Though it is much more artistically written than most of Paul's letters, chapter 13 is still prose. All efforts to interpret it as poetry and to put it into verses have failed. The idea that Paul was quoting a hymn to love that he had heard and memorized is not the most likely explanation. A very probable explanation of the unusual nature and structure of chapter 13 is that Paul was adapting some "sermonic" material that he had developed in the past. Through several years of preaching and polishing it Paul had developed the balanced sentences and the pointed vocabulary. The adaptation to the Corinthian situation provides the emphasis on prophecy and tongues and keeps it from being as evenly structured as we might expect in a hymn.
The key word in chapter 13 is love. The Greek word throughout the chapter is agape. It is often said (correctly) that agape does not refer to emotional love, but to seeking the best for the other person without regard to the closeness of relationship with that person. It is important to remember that linguists and Bible scholars do not have an ancient dictionary full of definitions (Webster's Greek Dictionary, 3rd edition, A.D. 47). Rather the meaning of biblical words is determined by close observation of how those words are used. First Corinthians 13 is one of the major resources for understanding the meaning of agape. Paul's use of the word throughout chapter 13 helps us understand that agape seeks the best for the other person.
Verses 1-3 describe the importance of love. Three conditional sentences are worded and ordered to hammer away at the Corinthians' absorption with speaking in tongues. Fee (p. 630) makes a very important observation:
If the Corinthians - or we - miss the message of chapter 13 the purpose of the whole letter of 1 Corinthians will likely fail. This may be the reason Paul gave his best writing skills to the message of this chapter.
The point of verse 1 is that speaking in tongues without love is meaningless noise. The intertestamental Jewish book, the Testament of Job, speaks of people speaking ecstatically in the angelic dialect. Paul does not commit himself to such an understanding of what the Corinthians were doing as they spoke in tongues. Rather, he is open to the possibility that the Corinthian phenomenon was a human matter or angelic speech. Either case does not matter unless the speakers have love. Without love the most elevated and religious speech is empty, hollow, meaningless and perhaps even pagan. Thus verse 1 is frontal attack on the Corinthian pre-occupation with speaking in tongues.
However, Paul moves to other religious values in verse 2. Prophecy, understanding mysteries, knowledge, and faith are all weighed in the balances and found wanting if not accompanied by love. Prophecy is the gift Paul will promote in chapter 14. There is no need to rehearse the centrality of faith in Christianity. Paul is not "picking" on the Corinthians in verse 2. Any religious value or expression is meaningless without love.
Verse 3 moves beyond spiritual gifts into sacrificial religious commitments. The Greek literally speaks of parceling out one's possessions presumably to feed the poor. The verb means to feed by putting little bits [of food] into the mouth. Though such acts of mercy would have been highly approved in Judaism (see Matthew 6:1-4) Paul sees no value in it if done without love.
The final clause in verses 1-3 is textually uncertain. Some ancient manuscripts read, "If I hand over my body that I might be burned." Others read, "If I hand over my body that I might boast." The evidence suggests that the "boast" edition was more likely original. In either case the important part of the phrase is in handing over his body. To totally give up oneself to God brings no benefit for the person who makes that sacrifice of self without love. Whatever our most significant spiritual achievement may be it is nothing without love.
Verses 4-7 attempt to define the character of love. The sentences of this section are short, several times a single Greek verb expresses the whole idea. The first two phrases are positive. Love is long suffering and kind. The next eight expressions describe love negatively. The first three reject the idea that love is boastful or arrogant. The fourth denies that love behaves inappropriately. Love is not self-seeking. The sixth and seventh elements are especially relational in nature. Love is not easily angered or provoked. It does not keep record of wrongs. The final negative element in this list states that love does not rejoice in evil. At this point Paul returns to a positive statement. Instead of rejoicing in evil, love co-rejoices in the truth. The shift from rejoicing to another Greek word, "co-rejoicing," indicates the fact that love operates in the community of faith.
Verse 7 concludes the central section of chapter 13 with four positive, parallel sentences. All four consist of two words in the Greek text and the first word is identical in all four. That first word is "all things" (one word in Greek). The first and last sentences are parallel in that they seem to refer to endurance or patience. The two middle sentences are related in that they deal with faith and hope. The first phrase of verse 8 sums up the four elements of verse 7. Love never fails. It endures, it believes in the present, and it hopes for the future. Even more than the Energizer bunny, love just keeps going.
Verses 8b-13 return to the meaninglessness of religious virtues without love. Paul points out the lack of value in prophecies, tongues, and knowledge by reminding the Corinthians that those virtues will someday cease. In both ancient and contemporary culture permanence is the mark of quality. No matter how highly one might value prophecy, tongues, or knowledge those virtues are temporary.
Verses 9-10 further points out that prophecy and knowledge are partial rather than complete. As a result there is built in obsolescence in prophecy and knowledge. Paul could have easily moved to verse 13 at this point. However, he inserts two illustrations before coming to his conclusion. The partial quality of the spiritual gifts valued so highly by the Corinthians compares poorly to the final relationship that God intends. In fact, their fascination with their spiritual gifts is like childish immaturity. What God has in mind is as different as adult maturity. The Corinthians have a long way to go. Their understanding of spiritual realities is no better than the knowledge gained by gazing into a poor quality mirror.
Paul's conclusion is a bit surprising. We would expect him to say that only love abides forever. What he states is that faith, hope, and love remain forever. But the greatest of these is love. The importance of love is not that it is the only eternal reality. Faith and hope are also eternal. Love's importance derives from the fact that its absence makes faith, hope, and any other religious virtue meaningless.
We may or may not be tempted toward a Corinthian understanding of spirituality. We may or may not swing to an opposite extreme of reducing life in the Spirit to correct creeds. But we dare not forget Paul's powerful exhortation of the centrality and eternality of love. However we may end up being religious, we will never be Christian without love. The teaching of Jesus and of the New Testament confronts us with the demand for love of God and of neighbor.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you study each day ask the Lord to make his word come alive in your heart. Ask him to help you understand how his word should apply to your life.
First Day: Read the notes on 1 Corinthians 12:27-13:13. Look up the Scripture references given.
1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. Describe why they were significant.
2. Select a spiritual truth that has a personal application in your own life. Describe how it applies.
3. Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to construct your life around 1 Corinthians 13.
Second Day: Read 1 Corinthians 14:1-19. Now turn your focus to 1 Corinthians 14:1-12.
1. What advantages or good results does Paul attribute to the gift of prophecy in verses 1-5? How do these advantages compare with the results of speaking in a tongue?
2. What primary goal for the church does Paul promote in verses 1-5? In the life of your local church what ministries would best contribute to the "upbuilding" or "edification" of that congregation?
3. What goal does Paul have in mind needing to be accomplished for the church in verse 6? What must happen for that benefit to be achieved?
Third Day: Read 1 Corinthians 14:1-25. Focus in on 1 Corinthians 14:6-19.
1. Summarize Paul's point in verses 7-11 in your words. What problem(s) with speaking in tongues do these verses reveal?
2. The NRSV translates verse 12 to say strive to excel in spiritual gifts for the building up of the church. What spiritual gift(s) should you excel in for the building up of your church? Ask the Lord to show you new ways of excelling in the exercise of your spiritual gifts.
3. What does Paul say about the importance of the mind in worship according to verses 14-16? What application would you make for the way the mind is used and involved in worship today?
Fourth Day: Read 1 Corinthians 14:6-33. Now focus on 1 Corinthians 14:13-25.
1. What concern for outsiders and unbelievers appear in these focus verses? What principle guides Paul's instructions on this subject? How should we apply that same principle to our worship today?
2. Verse 21 quotes from Isaiah 28:11-12. Compare and contrast the use Paul makes of the quotation with the way it appears to function in its original context in Isaiah.
3. How will a present day sinner know that God is present in your local church? Write a brief prayer summarizing what you would like God to do for your church in this area.
Fifth Day: Read 1 Corinthians 14:20-40. Focus your attention on 1 Corinthians 14:26-33.
1. What instructions does Paul give for structuring the worship service in these focus verses? Why does he instruct in this way?
2. What system of "checks and balances" does Paul envision? Do you think his instructions are adequate or do we need more detailed instruction? Why? or why not?
3. Explain what the statement, "God is not a God of disorder, but of peace," means to you in the context of the way you believe worship should be conducted.
Sixth Day: Read 1 Corinthians 14:20-40. Now focus your attention on 1 Corinthians 14:33-40.
1. What do you think Paul had in mind in the instructions for a woman to not speak in church? How does 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 influence your understanding of the verses in the focus passage?
2. What do you think Paul is doing in verses 37-38? Is it fair? Is it right? Would a similar strategy by a pastor in our time be appropriate? Why? or why not?
3. What does verse 40 represent in the context of all of chapter 14? What application does verse 40 have for contemporary worship?