Called to the Common Good
1 Corinthians 12:27–31
1 Corinthians 12:1–13
1 Corinthians 12:1–13
After participating in this lesson, each student will be able to:
1. Summarize what Paul says about the purpose and function of spiritual gifts.
2. Discuss ways that spiritual gifts can contribute to the common ministry of his or her church.
3. Conduct a spiritual self-examination to determine personal spiritual gifts and suggest a specific ministry in which they can be put to use.
How to Say It
Moses. MO-zes or MO-zez.
Daily Bible Readings
Monday, July 17—Excel in Gifts That Build Up (1 Corinthians 14:6–12)
Tuesday, July 18—Be Rich in Good Works (1 Timothy 6:13–19)
Wednesday, July 19—Varieties of Gifts (1 Corinthians 12:1–6)
Thursday, July 20—All Gifts Activated by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:7–11)
Friday, July 21—The Body Consists of Many Members (1 Corinthians 12:12–20)
Saturday, July 22—If One Member Suffers, All Suffer (1 Corinthians 12:21–26)
Sunday, July 23—Strive for the Greater Gifts (1 Corinthians 12:27–31)
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.
—1 Corinthians 12:7
Why Teach This Lesson?
Many churches have split over the issue of spiritual gifts. What a controversial topic! Today’s lesson reveals an ancient church’s struggle over such gifts.
Above all, our understanding and use of spiritual gifts should be in line with a vital truth: these gifts are for the benefit of the church, not just the individual. Such gifts are for service, not for self-edification. Study and application of this lesson will be of great value for all who are confused about spiritual gifts but who sincerely wants to know what God’s Word teaches on this important matter.
A. The Maker’s Mark
Several years ago, the Hallmark® greeting card company ran a series of ads that encouraged viewers to look at the back of a card rather than the front. Typically, these commercials would show a young man purchasing a romantic card for his lady friend and presenting it before a date. After opening the envelope, the young woman would immediately turn the card over. If she saw the Hallmark® company logo, the gentlemen was in for a pleasant evening; if she saw another brand name, he could rest assured that she would want to end the evening early.
This ad campaign may or may not have brought grief to well-meaning people who dared to buy other brands of greeting cards. Yet it does illustrate the value that we attribute to a “maker’s mark.” Companies that take pride in their products generally attempt to display their names or logos prominently, whether it be on a card, an automobile, or a line of clothing. When we see these logos, we are reminded immediately of the quality and reputation of the item.
In today’s passage Paul applies this same philosophy to the issue of spiritual gifts that God gives us for service in his church. Because they proceed from God, true spiritual gifts always bear two distinct labels: they always point to doctrinal truth, and they always work toward the common good of the church.
B. Lesson Background
From the founding of the church on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), spiritual gifts have been a characteristic feature of Christianity. It is everywhere clear in the New Testament that these gifts represent the power of God working through individuals to benefit the whole church and to advance the gospel. But Paul’s extended comments on the gifts in 1 Corinthians 12–14 indicate that they had actually become a source of pride and division in the Corinthian church.
This problem made it necessary for the apostle to lay down strict guidelines on how and for what purposes spiritual gifts should be used. Our lesson today covers the beginning of this discussion in 1 Corinthians 12.
I. Spirit’s Mark (1 Corinthians 12:1-3)
A. Need to Know (vv. 1, 2)
1. Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant.
The first four chapters of 1 Corinthians reveal that this church is divided along certain lines. The discussion here suggests that a misunderstanding of spiritual gifts may be one aspect of that debate. The opening formula for this chapter indicates that the Corinthians had asked Paul to comment on the issue in their letter to him (see also 1 Corinthians 7:1 in Lesson 5).
2. You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols.
Many of the Corinthians believers are Gentiles rather than Jews. As such, this group has a strong connection to the pagan religious beliefs that they held to prior to becoming Christians (Acts 18:4–8). Before accepting Christ they had worshiped objects of wood, stone, silver, and gold that could say nothing and reveal nothing about God.
Now things are different for all the Corinthian Christians: the true God speaks to the church frequently and powerfully through the Holy Spirit in various ways (vv. 8–10, below). The Corinthians therefore need to be discerning in order to distinguish those who truly speak by the Spirit of God from those who do not. The truth that Paul is about to offer will help them from being led astray again into idolatry.
B. Test of the Spirit (v. 3)
3. Therefore I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.
Sound doctrine is the most basic measure of the Spirit’s presence. Like the apostle John, Paul insists that the Spirit of God will never inspire anyone to say anything false about Jesus (compare 1 John 4:1–6). Paul’s comments echo Deuteronomy 18:20. There Moses indicates that no true prophet will ever speak in the name of other gods or attempt to lead people into idolatry. Similarly, the Holy Spirit will never lead a Christian away from the truth of Christ. Anyone who claims to speak on behalf of the Spirit while denying biblical doctrine is a liar.
Of course Paul’s test no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit would apply only to those professing to be Christians. A nonbeliever obviously can utter the three words “Jesus is Lord” without conviction; this certainly would not prove that such a person possesses the Spirit. Paul means that those Corinthian believers who are prophesying, teaching, or speaking in a tongue under the Spirit’s influence will always say what is true. Correct doctrine is therefore the first and most basic test of the Spirit’s presence.
II. Spirit’s Oneness (1 Corinthians 12:4-7)
A. Differences and Unity (vv. 4-6)
4-6. There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.
Unfortunately, people who confess Jesus as Lord may still use their gifts in ways that glorify themselves rather than him. Paul, therefore, stresses that all gifts proceed from a common source. As such they should all work together in harmony for God’s purposes.
Paul emphasizes harmony and unity here through a series of contrasts built on the formula, “different but the same.” There are different gifts, but all come from the same Spirit; different kinds of service, but all from the same Lord; different kinds of working, but all through the power of the same God.
At a more subtle level, Paul is relating the diversity and unity of gifts in the church to the diversity and unity of God. These verses contain the most direct statement of the doctrine of the Trinity anywhere in the Bible. The three different personalities of the Trinity—Spirit, Lord (Christ), and God (the Father)—exist and work together in complete harmony. So also should Christians, in a sense, be unified in their use of differing spiritual gifts.
It is probably not useful to push for too much of a distinction between the words gifts, service, and working. Rather than focus on technical shades of meaning among these three, it’s much more useful to see Paul’s broader point: the Corinthian Christians have no reason to be arrogant. Their gifts, service, and work, whether miraculous or not, are from God. Their use of these should not lead to division.
The Same Thing, Only Different
Remarking on the statement, “It’s the same thing, only different,” one observer said, “It’s commonly used by people who really have no idea what they’re talking about. As a phrase, it represents either total ambivalence or total ignorance. Take your pick.”
“It’s the same thing, only different” does sound like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it? But in the realm of the work of the Holy Spirit, the statement has some validity. The same Holy Spirit works in the lives of all the people of God; yet the Spirit works in different ways. The purpose of the Spirit’s work is to accomplish another thing that seems at first glance to be an impossibility: he is seeking to make many into one. Yet the coach of a basketball team has a similar task. So does the army drill sergeant.
Instead of being jealous of the gifts of another person or resentful of the accomplishments of another church, we are to rejoice. We will rejoice when we realize that what they are doing is what we are doing, as we are all one in Christ. We may do it in different ways, we may have different gifts, but in the end it is all the same thing, only different.
B. Common Good (v. 7)
7. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.
The implications of the phrase each one is somewhat controversial. Some argue that Paul means that each individual Christian receives a spiritual gift: every person has received a gift for the common good. This claim may be supported by appeal to Romans 12:6–8 and Ephesians 4:7–13. In those passages Paul includes among the gifts of the Spirit certain general abilities such as teaching, leadership, and generosity.
Others, however, interpret the phrase each one more narrowly as a reference to certain people who possess gifts, a limited number within the church. Thus the idea would be that every person who has received such a gift should use it for the common good. Those who think this interpretation is the correct one point to the word manifestation. They propose that this term suggests miraculous abilities (such as healing) that only certain people possess.
In either case, Paul’s main point is clear: all spiritual gifts are given for the benefit of the church at large. These gifts are not for the private edification of the person who has been gifted. As Paul indicates in Ephesians 4, the gift is a gift to the church, not to the individual. The individual is simply the vessel through whom God administers the needed skill.
III. Spirit’s Manifestations (1 Corinthians 12:8-10)
A. Wisdom and Knowledge (v. 8)
8. To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit,
In verses 8, 9 Paul lists ways in which the Spirit manifests himself in the church. All are tied together by the repetition of the phrase the same Spirit. The Spirit holds the church together and unites the efforts of individual Christians.
The first listed is message of wisdom. This is the ability to apply godly principles to problems of everyday life. The person with this gift is able to interpret situations from the perspective of the gospel of Christ. Such an ability is especially needed in the church in pagan Corinth, for the congregation is only about five years old at the time this letter is written. The leaders of this church, as newer Christians, need the Spirit’s help to add maturity to their outlook. The fact that Paul lists wisdom first may indicate that he thinks this is the most important item in this list.
Some think that message of knowledge relates to information about spiritual and doctrinal issues and the ability to communicate these to others. Others, however, think message of knowledge means pretty much the same thing as message of wisdom. If this is the case, it means that Paul is using variety of expression as he does with gifts, service, and work in verses 4–6, above.
B. Faith and Healing (v. 9)
9.… to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit,
Faith, in this context, does not mean “saving faith.” Rather, it refers to a supernatural gift of especially effective faith, perhaps relating to prayer. Some students propose that the term should be translated faithfulness. This would mean that the person receives a special gift of patience and perseverance to endure hardship and perhaps even martyrdom as a witness to Christ.
The gifts of healing refer to the ability to cure people of illness miraculously but only as a testimony to God’s power for purposes of evangelism. Paul had to leave his friend Trophimus behind sick on one occasion (2 Timothy 4:20), and Timothy was plagued by a persistent stomach problem (1 Timothy 5:23). Thus Paul did not always seem to have the gift of healing as he did in Acts 14:8–10; 28:7–9.
C. Prophecy and Discernment (v. 10a)
10.… to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits,
In half-verses 10a and 10b, Paul ends his list with four types of gifts that seem to be connected with the most trouble in Corinth. These gifts involve claims about God revealing something through the individual. At the outset we should note that miraculous powers is a general term that includes other items on the list.
Prophecy is the first of the four. It refers to the ability to speak on behalf of God, perhaps including predictions of what will happen in the future (see Acts 11:27, 28; 21:10, 11). Distinguishing between spirits is the ability to determine whether someone’s words and actions are motivated by genuine desire to please God or by selfish interests or perhaps even by demonic influences. First John 4:1 indicates that all Christians should be able to do this to at least some extent. But Paul seems to be using distinguishing between spirits in a narrower, deeper sense.
D. Tongues and Interpretation (v. 10b)
10.… to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues.
Tongues is the ability to speak in languages that one has not studied. The key example is what happened on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1–11; compare 10:46; 11:15; 19:6). This gift apparently is intended to emphasize the universal nature of the gospel by illustrating God’s rule over all people groups. Paul’s remarks in 1 Corinthians 14 suggest that the content of such utterances is parallel to prophecy in some respects.
Just as in any situation where someone is speaking a language that we do not understand, interpretation is needed. The Spirit therefore enables some of the Corinthians to interpret and translate these tongues so that others can benefit from the message (see 1 Corinthians 14:27, 28).
Such gifts can lead to division easily. That division occurs when people lose track of the difference between their own opinions and divine revelations, or when they become more interested in their ability to deliver God’s message than in the actual contents of that message. Paul therefore stresses that all these gifts, because they proceed from the same source, should proclaim a unified message that benefits all members of the church. See the next verse.
IV. Spirit’s Blessings (1 Corinthians 12:11-13)
A. Many Gifts, One Spirit (v. 11)
11. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.
From a human perspective, some gifts are more impressive than others. As such, it is easy for those who possess such gifts to feel more important than, say, the person who is blessed with a uniquely generous spirit or the ability to encourage others (Romans 12:8). Those who are tempted to rank people based on their gifts should keep in mind the source of all gifts. God chooses which gifts go to which people; they come to the receiver like inherited property—something the receiver had never earned and did nothing to deserve.
B. One Spirit, One Church (vv. 12, 13)
12. The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ.
Earlier, Paul compared the exercise of spiritual gifts with the workings of the Trinity. Now he turns to an analogy of the human body as he does in Romans 12:4–8. The parts of the human body are different from one another, with unique functions. Even so, the human body as a whole can function effectively only if each part works properly and in unison with the other parts. Even the simple act of walking across a room involves the coordinated efforts of dozens of bones and muscles.
Visual for Lesson 8.
Point out that the picture on the right is from the 1940s. Then ask, “How has the church improved in making ‘many’ into ‘one’?”
By analogy, the church can function smoothly and fulfill its mission in the world only when each member uses his or her individual gifts in ways that benefit the common cause of the gospel. God is glorified when that happens.
13. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
When we consider the membership of any given congregation, it is sometimes surprising that churches can be unified at all! People come to Christ from many different backgrounds, and Paul highlights two categories here. Before they entered the church, the Corinthian Christians came from different ethnic and religious environments (Jews or Greeks). They also came from different social classes (slave or free).
But the people that they once were took on a new identity in Christian baptism (Romans 6:1–4; Galatians 3:26–29). God brings us back to life as his child in faith. In this way we have a common heritage, a common family, and a common sense of purpose—at least, we should have a common sense of purpose that helps us overcome our differences.
The phrase one Spirit to drink may refer to Jesus’ description of the Spirit as “living water” that flows to everyone who believes on Jesus (John 7:37–39). On the Day of Pentecost, the gift of the Spirit was associated with baptism (see Acts 2:38). We share a common rebirth as God’s children (Galatians 4:1–7). As God’s children we all enjoy the privileges of the Spirit’s ministry. This being the case, it is an ironic abuse of the Spirit and of our spiritual birthright when we take pride in the gifts God has given us for the common good.
Pride and Ego
Rap singer Queen Latifah was asked about the sin of pride. “Pride is a sin?” she asked. “I wasn’t aware of that.” Actress Kirstie Alley added, “I don’t think pride is a sin. I think some idiot made that up.” Rapper Ice-T echoed the same idea: “Pride is mandatory. That’s one of the problems of the inner-city. Kids don’t have enough pride” (source: “MTV,” John MacArthur, Jr. via www.biblebb.com).
Our English word ego is from the Latin. It has to do with ‘I,’ the self. It is often used in a negative sense as someone who has “an inflated ego” or “is an egomaniac.” When one’s ego wins out, he or she becomes the center of his or her universe. It is seen in the strutting, chest-thumping athlete. It is seen in the politician who expects preferential treatment. It is seen in the preacher who leads his congregation with a “holier than thou” attitude. A good acrostic for the word ego is Easing God Out.
The remedy for human ego is submission to the Holy Spirit. Ego and misdirected pride disappear when we realize that “self” is bound up in the person of Christ and not in our own personhood. Our boasting, as Paul indicates, does not come in our accomplishments but in the cross of Christ (Galatians 6:14). Is pride a sin? It depends on what we are proud of. A good ego check never hurts.
—A. E. A.
Abraham Lincoln famously said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Yet that quote is not original to Lincoln. Jesus said it first (see Luke 11:17). The principle involved is timeless. It is true of every type of organization, from a marriage to a sports team to a large corporation. The whole group always benefits when everyone works together.
But the church differs from every other organization in one key respect, a fact that Paul underscores in verses 12, 13 in our passage today. When the Christ was in this world, he inhabited a physical body. In that body he prophesied, taught, gave wise counsel, and performed miracles. All this was done to draw attention to the presence of the kingdom of God and to call people to repentance. Now Christ has returned to Heaven, yet he continues his ministry in the world through a different kind of body: the church.
This fact makes unity and harmony in the exercise of gifts vital; it is through the church’s message, supported by spiritual gifts, that Christ continues his work of calling the world to a relationship with God. A church divided cannot stand and accomplish this mission.
Underwood, J., Nickelson, R. L., & Underwood, J. 2005. New International Version Standard Lesson Commentary : 2005-2006 . Standard Publishing: Cincinnati