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1 Corinthians 12

Hamilton Smith

The apostle has presented the Lord's Supper as the rallying feast of the assembly. Now he brings before us the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and His presence in the assembly, without which no godly order can be maintained when the saints come together to partake of the Supper or for the exercise of ministry.

We learn from this passage that the church is the body of Christ, formed by the Spirit, and that in the body the Holy Spirit works in dividing gifts for the good of the body to every man severally as He will (verse 11), to be used under the guidance of the Spirit (verse 3). The apostle thus warns us against the intrusion of evil spirits and human pretension by maintaining the rights of the Holy Spirit in the assembly of God.

(Vv. 1-3). The chapter opens by giving us the true marks of a ministry by the Spirit of God, thus enabling us to detect and refuse any ministry that emanates from a false spirit. Called from the Gentiles, these Corinthian believers had formerly been under the influence of false spirits, and led to worship dumb idols, and curse Jesus. No man speaking by the Holy Spirit would lead to the worship of idols, or belittle Christ. On the contrary the Holy Spirit will ever lead to the confession of Jesus as Lord.

The third verse is not exactly a test to enable us to distinguish between believers and unbelievers; it is rather giving us a means to discern whether a man is speaking by the Spirit of God or a false spirit. To have such a test in a day when revelations were still being given by the Holy Spirit, and therefore when the devil was seeking to counterfeit revelation, was of special importance. (See 2 Thessalonians 2: 2.) Nor has the importance of the test ceased, though revelation is complete, for we are warned that in the latter times some will give heed to seducing spirits, and, further, that there will be those who, while professing to be ministers of Christ, are in reality ministers of Satan. Such can be detected by their attitude to Christ. Anyone who belittles Christ is not led by the Spirit of God. (See 1 Timothy 4: 1; 2 Cor. 11: 13-15.)

Having prepared us to discern when a man is speaking by the Spirit of God, the apostle proceeds to instruct us as to the divine power and authority for the exercise of the different gifts for ministry (verses 4, 5).

(V. 4). Every one speaking by the Holy Spirit will exalt Christ, but the Spirit may speak through very different gifts. Nevertheless, all are exercised in the energy and power of the same Spirit.

(V. 5). Moreover, the various gifts are used to carry out different forms of service, but it is the same Lord who directs in every service.

(V. 6). Lastly, the exercise of the gifts in different services will produce different effects, or "operations", but it is the same God who works to produce the results in souls.

We thus learn that gifts can be rightly used only in the energy of the Spirit, under the direction of the Lord; and any true work in souls is the result of the operation of God.

These three verses, rightly understood, go far to rebuke, and at the same time correct, three grave disorders in Christendom. First, it is very generally taught in the religious world that, for the exercise of gift, natural ability, human wisdom and the training of a theological college are preliminary necessities. The apostle teaches that, for the exercise of gift in the church of God, we require that which no schools of men can give, and no human attainments supply. We require the presence and power of the Spirit. Under His power He can, and does, use "unlearned and ignorant" fishermen, such as Peter and John, to fill the high position of apostles and turn the world upside down, or He can use a highly educated man like the apostle Paul. The pride of man is thus set aside and all is made to turn upon the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

Secondly, Christendom claims that before a man can exercise his gift he must be ordained by man and sent out to serve by some human authority. The apostle insists that true service requires only the authority of the Lord.

Thirdly, men rely very largely for the work in souls upon eloquence, moving appeals, music, singing, and other methods that appeal to the senses. The apostle tells us that it is "God which worketh all in all". It is God who worketh everything that is divine in everyone in whom there is a work. The apostle has already reminded these believers, "My speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God" (1 Cor 2: 4, 5).

We thus learn that the power for the exercise of gifts is not of man; it is from the Holy Spirit. The authority for the service is not from man; it comes from the Lord. The result in souls is not produced by man; it is the operation of God.

(V. 7). Having spoken of the divine source of all gifts, the apostle now instructs us as to the difference of the gifts and their distribution (verses 7-11). We learn that the Spirit does not concentrate all His manifestations in one man, or in one class of men. The instructions rebuke an outstanding evil of Christendom by which a special class of men is set apart for the ministry, thus dividing the people of God into clergy and laity. Scripture knows no such distinction. Christendom, setting aside God's order, practically says the manifestation of the Spirit is given to one man who is ordained to preside over a congregation. Here it is "every man" to whom the manifestation of the Spirit is given.

Moreover, this manifestation of the Spirit is given "to profit withal". It is given, not in order that the individual may exalt himself, or obtain a prominent place amongst the people of God, or gain personal influence and advantage, but for the common good and profit of all. The instruction had special significance for the Corinthian believers who were using gifts for the exaltation of themselves.

(Vv. 8-10). The apostle proceeds to distinguish between the different gifts. He is speaking, not so much of the possession of the gifts, but of the "manifestation", or use, of the gifts. He thus speaks, not merely of wisdom and knowledge, but of "the word of wisdom" and "the word of knowledge". The "word" implies the communication of wisdom and knowledge for the help of others.

Wisdom is the possession of the mind of God, so that everything is viewed as before God, and in relation to God, enabling its possessor to act rightly in any particular circumstance. Knowledge is rather an intelligent acquaintance with the revealed word of God, so that the doctrine can be clearly stated. Faith, in this passage, is not simply faith in Christ and the gospel, which is common to all believers; it is rather the special faith given to certain believers that enables them to help the Lord's people, by rising above difficulties, overcoming opposition, and guiding them in their perplexities.

The gifts of healing were sign gifts in connection with our bodies. The working of miracles, other than healings, would involve a display of power over material things and spiritual beings. (Compare Mark 16: 17, 18; Acts 13: 11; Acts 16: 18; Acts 28: 5.)

Prophecy was a manifestation of spiritual power in the spiritual domain, enabling its possessor to give the mind of God as to the present or future. (Compare Acts 11: 28; 1 Cor. 14: 3.)

Discerning of spirits is a gift which, as one has said, "means the faculty of deciding, not between true and spurious professors of the Lord Jesus, but between the Spirit's teaching and that which simulated it by evil spirits" (W.K.).

Divers kinds of tongues may be given to one, and the interpretation of tongues to another.

(V. 11). Having these different gifts set before us, we are reminded that, while some are miraculous, all are spiritual. "All these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as He will." God's order for His assembly is diversity of gifts, distributed to different individuals, exercised by one will - the power and will of the Holy Spirit. All true order in the assemblies of God's people is the outcome of God Himself working in the midst of His people. Christendom, by its human arrangements, ordained ministry and prescribed ritual, ignores this order in practice, if not in doctrine.

(Vv. 12, 13). From the varied manifestations of the Spirit the apostle passes on to speak of the sphere in which the Spirit acts. This leads to a very blessed unfolding of the truth of the assembly viewed as the body of Christ. According to God's order, believers do not exercise these gifts as isolated individuals, but as members of the body of Christ and for the good of the whole body. The apostle takes the human body to illustrate certain great truths as to the body of Christ. As the human body is one and yet composed of many members, all having their place and part in that one body, "so also is the Christ". This is a beautiful way of presenting the truth. The subject is the church, but the apostle does not say, "so also is the church", but "so also is the Christ". The body is Christ's body and includes Christ and the members. It is His body for the expressing of Himself. This is in accord with the truth first presented to the apostle at his conversion, when the Lord asks, "Why persecutest thou Me?". To touch His people is to touch Himself, His body.

We are then told that the church is composed of believers, whether from Jews or Gentiles, baptized into one body by the Spirit. This baptism of the Spirit, as we know from Acts 1: 5 and Acts 2, took place at Pentecost, when believers, by the gift and indwelling of the Holy Ghost, were united to Christ the Head in heaven and to one another.

Having presented the truth of the church as the body of Christ, the apostle, in the remainder of the chapter, uses the functions of the human body to set forth the practice that should mark the body of Christ upon earth. He shows that, as the human body has been constituted to work as one united whole to the exclusion of all disorder, so should it be in the assembly.

(Vv. 14-19). First, we are reminded that in the human body there is diversity in unity. "The body is not one member, but many." This diversity would be entirely ignored, and the gravest disorder arise, if each member neglected its own function through envy of members having perhaps a higher function. If the foot began to complain that it was not a hand, or the ear that it was not an eye, the work of the body would cease to function, for complaining members cease to work effectively for the good of the body. Such disorder can only be prevented by the recognition that it is God, and not man, that has "set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased Him", giving each its appointed place and function. The pre-eminence of one member would do away with the body. "If they were all one member", there would be no body.

(Vv. 20-25). Secondly, the apostle shows that there is unity in diversity. While there are many members there is only one body. But this unity of the body would be greatly imperilled if the higher members were to look with disdain upon the lower members. Already we have seen that envy of one another would break up the diversity; now we learn that disdain would break up the unity. If the eye treats the hand with contempt, and the head sneers at the feet, all unity of the body would be gone. Again, this disorder can only be excluded by the recognition of the presence and power of God, who has tempered the body together in such a fashion that no member can dispense with the other members.

The recognition of the first great truth, that there is diversity in unity, would entirely shut out the worldly principle of clerisy, for it is evident that in the one body no one member can claim pre-eminence, each member having its own function.

The recognition of the second truth, that there is unity in diversity, would exclude the principle of independency. The members, though each having its special function, are dependent upon one another. The truth, then, of the body of Christ is that no believer has the pre-eminence and all are dependent upon one another.

(V. 26). The result is that, if "one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it". The expression of this is doubtless greatly hindered by the divided state of Christendom. Nevertheless, the truth remains that the members do affect one another, as they are united to one another by the Holy Spirit, and that which depends upon the Spirit abides, however much our failure may hinder its expression. The more spiritual we are the more we shall realise the truth that we all affect one another. The broken condition of the assembly has weakened our spiritual sensibilities, but, as one has said, "We consciously suffer or rejoice, in the measure of our spiritual power".

(V. 27). The apostle has been speaking of the great principles that are true of the whole assembly of God upon earth, viewed as the body of Christ. He now applies these truths to the local assembly at Corinth. He says, "Now ye are Christ's body and members in particular" (N.Tn.). He does not say, "Ye are the body of Christ", as wrongly translated in the Authorised Version, but, "Ye are Christ's body", or "Ye are body of Christ". The assembly at Corinth was not the body of Christ, but was the local expression of the body as forming part of it. A general might say to some soldiers in a given locality, "Remember you are Life Guards"; he does not say, "You are the Life Guards", for they do not include the whole regiment; nevertheless, they locally represent the regiment.

So today it is still the privilege and responsibility of all Christians in any given locality to gather together simply as the members of the body of Christ upon earth, and as locally representative of that one body. By the Spirit every believer is a member of the body of Christ, and being such is responsible to walk in consistency with this great truth, refusing to be associated with the sects of Christendom which practically deny this truth. In Christendom this great truth is ignored by Christians gathering together around some devoted servant, or by others forming a union to maintain some particular truth. The only unity formed by the Spirit is the one body of Christ, and the only membership that Scripture recognises is membership of this body.

In this day of brokenness sincere Christians attempt to bring about the union of Christians by establishing unions for prayer, for preaching the Gospel, for missionary work, and for the spread of certain truths such as holiness and the coming of the Lord. But while many are prepared to join these man-made unions, how few will leave the various sects formed according to man's wisdom and arrangements, in order to walk in the light of the only unity formed by the Spirit and to act under the guidance of the Spirit. And yet the Lord asks for nothing more. He does not impose upon our consciences an endless variety of meetings and unions, to join which, as it has been pointed out, would be utterly impracticable for the large majority of Christians. Nor does the Lord propose that we should leave the different sects, and travel to some distant spot, to meet together for one week in the year, in order to express our oneness in Christ. Were it so we should be asked to do something utterly impossible for the vast majority of God's people.

Surely what the Lord looks for is that His people should, in their own locality, leave everything that is a denial of the truth, and meet together in the truth of the one body of which, if they are believers, they are already members. One has truly said, "What the Lord requires is possible for all to realise, noiseless, and without pomp, true in its character and at all seasons". Such a path is open to the simplest and poorest of God's people. It is true that if a few have God-given faith to gather together in any locality, in the light of the truth of the one body, it could hardly be said of them, as of the assembly at Corinth, "Ye are Christ's body", as being representative of the body of Christ, as in this day of brokenness it would be difficult to find any company of saints that includes all believers locally. It is, however, still possible for believers, who are prepared at all cost to walk in obedience to the word, to walk together in the light of the one body.

(Vv. 28-30). In the closing verses there is brought before us the fact that God has set in "the assembly" - that is the church as a whole - different gifts. In the Epistle to the Ephesians we learn that the gifts are given from Christ the ascended Head of the body. In Corinthians we learn that the Holy Ghost distributes the gifts in the assembly on earth.

Some of these gifts were doubtless for the inauguration of Christianity. Such are the sign gifts. There is not a word to say that they would continue through the whole church period. It is significant that the gifts which men covet are placed lowest in the scale.

(V. 31). Gift is something that we may rightly covet. Nevertheless, as we, like the believers at Corinth, can easily abuse gifts by seeking to use them to exalt ourselves, we are told there is a more excellent way of serving one another. Of this more excellent way the apostle immediately proceeds to speak.