The Body of Christ
Topic: Spiritual Gifts Passage: 1 Corinthians 12:14–12:31a
“THE BODY OF CHRIST”
1 Corinthians 12:14-31a
14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administering, and various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But earnestly desire the higher gifts.
Although its creator Charles Schulz died nearly two decades ago, his comic strip “Peanuts” remains my favorite. It is still syndicated and is printed daily in newspapers all across the country. I probably don’t need to introduce most of you to the characters...
One day Linus is sitting alone watching television. Lucy storms into the room demanding that he switch the channel. Rather meekly he asks her what makes her think that she just walk in and take over. She raises her fat little fist toward his face and blurts out, “These five fingers...individually, they’re nothing, but when I curl them together like this into a single unit, they form a weapon that is terrible to behold.” Rather meekly, Linus hangs his head and asks, “Which channel do you want?” Feeling like a wimp, he then sighs, turns around, looks at his own fingers, and asks, “Why can’t you guys get organized like that?”
Churches sometimes find themselves asking similar questions regarding why their members cannot seem to work together. In his classic work entitled The Pursuit of God, A.W. Tozer wrote about the key to finding “unity” among fellow-members within the body of Christ:
Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other? They are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which each one must individually bow. So one hundred worshipers meeting together, each one looking away to Christ, are in heart nearer to each other than they could possibly be, were they to become “unity” conscious and turn their eyes away from God to strive for closer fellowship.
“Unity” is considered “the state of being one.” Its antonym or its opposite, at least according to standard dictionary definitions, is “diversity.” What makes the Church of Jesus Christ a paradox is that “unity” and “diversity” are able to coexist for the glory of God. That can only happen when all eyes are fixed on Him. That is because, even though we may be prone to forget at times, the Lord remains sovereign over the affairs of His Church.
We may have found it hard to understand that were we to have attended a worship gathering in Corinth at the time Paul wrote this letter. And that explains why the apostle devoted three chapters of this epistle to providing instruction regarding their misuse of the “spiritual gifts” (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:1) with which God had blessed them. Instead of employing the “gifts” for the good of the entire body, which was God’s purpose for granting them, the Corinthians were proudly flaunting them and using them for self-edification. And in so doing, they demonstrated that they misunderstood the very nature of a Christian church.
To this day, the Lord intends for His Church to be unified in the midst of their diversity. That thesis is stated most clearly in verse 27, where the apostle states, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” In support of that statement, Paul illustrates that purpose through three similar and related statements that argue for God’s providential control of His the church. The fact that He is sovereign is first demonstrated in verses 14 through 20, and is summarized in verse 18. It is there that we learn...
God arranges the members of the body as He chooses (verses 14-20).
Paul had just declared in verses 12 that the Church or “the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” And in verse 13 he explained that it is that way because the Holy Spirit has “baptized”—or placed—every believer into that one “body.”
So starting with verse 14 he illustrates that principle by drawing parallels between the members of the Church to the various parts of the human body. His point is to show how each part of the physical body has been sovereignly placed where it is for a specific purpose, and is essential for the proper functioning of the entire body. It is same way with the church. Just as the human body needs all of its parts in order to operate optimally, so the Church needs all of its members fulfilling their “gifted” roles.
The fact that the word “body” (“σομα”) appears eighteen times in verses 12 through 31 keeps us mindful that its health and well-being are the central topic of this discussion. By way of application, what Paul wants us to see is that God has equipped His Church in such a way so as to reach its full potential in glorifying Him and in making Him known.
The diversity of the Church is both a beautiful thing to behold and an absolute necessity in fulfilling the plan of God. And we must keep in mind that it is our “unity,” not our “uniformity,” that He uses to get the job done. As an older New Testament scholar put it, “God did not level all down to monotonous similarity.” And while there is much diversity within the body of Christ, there is also mutual dependence.
In verses 15 through 18, Paul presents a number of hypothetical scenarios drawn from his personification of human body parts. He might have begun this string of comparisons by saying, “Just imagine a foot saying to a hand, ‘I don’t belong to the same body that you do.’ Or an eye saying to an ear, ‘I don’t belong to this body.’ Can you even imagine that?” Even if these body parts could speak, that situation would be ludicrous. By trying to picture such a scene, Paul may have been thinking back to those of whom he wrote in chapter 11, “the haves” and “the have nots” who unfortunately had separated themselves at the Lord’s Table. Both there and here, his point is to demonstrate that every part of the body matters because each serves a necessary function.
In just a little while, we’ll be gathering downstairs for a common meal. Many of you have brought dishes and desserts that will be shared with others. If the pattern holds true, we will tend to gather and group with those other members of the body with whom we are most familiar. But let me encourage you today to make an intentional effort to sit with someone you may not know as well—a fellow-member of the body, who because your mutual relationship with Christ, you have more in common with than you might imagine.
It is vitally important that we understand that the Church does not function as a collection of separate parts. Each part is interdependent upon every other part. And the beauty of interdependence is in each member’s indispensability. As fellow members of this local church, we are indispensable to one another. Every other member is essential to us, and we to them. Every one of us is a part of the body that God Himself has put together to display the beauty of the Gospel.
Each member is there by virtue of Divine placement. That’s what verse 18 is telling us: “God arranged the members in the body, each one as he chose.” This is the first of three similar phrases that argue for God’s sovereign placement within the body of each individual part.
Paul follows up that statement with a very practical question: “If all were a single member, where would the body be?” That’s a ridiculous notion to consider when we think of the human body. If all we were was a hand or a foot, we wouldn’t be able to see or to hear. And if all we were was an eye or an ear, we wouldn’t be able to pick up anything or go anywhere. Paul wants the absurdity of such thoughts to sink in and be applied to the Church. Instead, as he concludes the first section of this passage in verse 20: “In sense,” he writes, “there are many parts, yet (in other, there is but) one body.”
When it comes to thinking about the Church the first thing we need to realize is that God has arranged the members of the body in a sovereignly chosen manner. Our responsibility, therefore, is to find our place within the body by discovering, developing, and deploying our gifts in the manner that He has equipped us.
That brings us to a second area of consideration related to God’s sovereign oversight of His Church, and that is...
God blends the body, giving greater honor to the less prominent parts (verses 21-26).
We see this in verses 21 through 26, and it is summarized in verse 24, where we read. “God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it.” It is difficult at times in knowing when Paul is speaking of the local church and when he refers to the universal Church, meaning all the followers of Jesus Christ regardless of local church or denominational affiliation. I tend to believe—if, indeed, there is a change of subjects—that the transition takes place here in verse 21.
Continuing his personification of the human body, he writes, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem weaker are indispensable.” The term “weaker” (“ασθενηs”) can be understood to mean in a comparative sense, “without as much importance or influence.” In some ways, although those parts of the body are vital to our daily life, we tend to take them for granted. Not many of us, for example, pay very much attention to how many times our heart beats per minute or how much oxygen we take into our lungs every hour. But no one would deny the importance of those organs to our survival. Indeed, the well-being of the body is dependent upon the health of each individual part.
Paul continues in verses 23 through 24, adding, “And on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require.” It seems clear that he is referring here to the so-called “private parts” of our body and the care that we take to cover them with clothing so that our nakedness is not exposed. No one can question the necessity of our bodies’ reproductive or excremental organs, but they are not meant to be “publicly displayed,” in spite of contemporary cultural trends. Does that mean that they are any less valuable than the hands or the feet? Of course not! And nor would we ever say that we “we have no need” of them.
The same principle applies to the local fellowship of believers. Whenever you and I rehearse our Church Covenant, we are confessing our need for one another. The average church member may think that elders are more necessary for the proper function of the body, but if there were no church members there would be no need for elders. In some ways, those who labor behind the scenes in supportive roles are as equally deserving and in many cases more deserving than those whose roles are more public. I believe that heaven will one day reveal that.
God surely knows, which is why we are reminded here that “God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it.” The word “composed” (“συγκεραννυμι”) means “to blend” or “put together.” As we look around this morning, it is unlikely that we see very many of our fellow-members who are “just like us.” We are different from one another in our ages, genders, races, areas of interest and aptitude, marital statuses, as well as in the ways in which we have been “gifted” by the Lord to serve one another.
And God intended for it to be that way. Paul even says as much when he writes in verse 25 that God’s purpose for such diversity within the body is “that there be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care (or equal concern) for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” There are no levels of superiority nor reasons for envy within the body of Christ. Neither is there justification for anyone to assume that they “don’t really matter.” There may not be equivalence in function among the members of the body, but there is equal value placed on each member exercising his or her “gifts” for the benefit of the entire body.
It has been said that “There are no private sufferings nor private rejoicings within the body of Christ.” Whenever we lose a member of our fellowship—due to a move or transfer, church discipline, or death—there is a profound sense of “loss” that is natural for us to feel. Once again, Paul’s illustrative use of the human body vividly reinforces the point. Years ago, we used to sing “Blest be the Tie” whenever we would observe the Lord’s Supper. It is a song that dates back to the late-18th-century, and perhaps need to be revived in our day. It says,
Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.
Before our Father’s throne we pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one, Our comforts and our cares.
We share our mutual woes, our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows the sympathizing tear.
When we asunder part, it gives us inward pain;
But we shall still be joined in heart, and hope to meet again.
God arranges the members of the body as He chooses and God blends the body, giving greater honor to the less prominent parts. There is yet one more aspect of God’s sovereignty over His Church that we must see from this passage. Beginning with verse 27, we learn that...
God equips the body with everything it needs to function according to His sovereign plan (verses 27-31a).
As mentioned earlier, it is here that we discover the thesis statement that summarizes the entire passage. Paul writes, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” The fact that there is no definite article preceding “body of Christ” in the original text suggests that Paul is addressing a local congregation of believers. That it is said to be “of Christ” further suggests that it is His possession. Jesus purchased the Church—including this local church—for Himself at the cost of His own blood.
The writer offers further clarity when in verse 28 he switches from his repeated reference of “body” to “church.” Actually, this is the “body” that he has been referring to all along. You are likely aware that the Greek word for “church” is “εκκλησια,” which literally means “called out.” As with the 1st-century “church” in Corinth, our local church is a collective assembly of believers “called out” from the world by God Himself. Collectively, we are “the body of Christ and individually members of it.” What’s more, God has equipped us with “gifts” necessary to serve Him.
Another abbreviated catalog of those “gifts” is given in verse 28. While this is just a partial list, there would seem to be a “ranking” of “the gifts” in the way that Paul lists them: “First apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administering, and various kinds of tongues.” Perhaps these “gifts” were ordered in this way to emphasize the importance each played in the life of the early church. For example, the apostles and prophets had a foundational role in establishing the church. Ephesians 2:20 bears that out. And teachers, of course, would have followed the apostles and prophets, and were needed for the building up of the body.
All of the questions that follow in verses 29 and 30 expect negative replies (“μη”): “Are all apostles?” No! “Are all prophets?” Of course not! “Are all teachers?” Certainly not! “Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues?” Why no! No one “spiritual gift” is for everyone, and no one believer possesses all of the gifts. Instead, God distributes the “gifts” and equips His local churches so that they are able to carry out the specific purposes He has for each. Nothing works in greater harmony as when God’s people allow Him to bring about unity through the diversity of “gifts” with which He has equipped the “body.”
Before closing out this discussion, Paul inserts a rather interesting imperative when he charges the Corinthian believers to “earnestly desire the higher gifts.” This statement has provided fodder to some of our charismatic friends, who see it as a challenge and a charge for individual Christians to pursue the more outwardly-spectacular “gifts,” particularly the “gift of tongues.” But if we are right in assuming that Paul was ordering the list of “gifts” in verse 28 according to their significance to the church, then “tongues,” which appears last in the list, would not have been one of “the higher gifts.”
There does not seem to be a “hierarchy of authority” in view here, but rather a hierarchy of value or profitability measured in terms of the ability to edify the church as a whole. To put it another way, through the use of this imperative, the writer is urging the readers to seek after those “gifts” that would most edify and benefit their local church.
For those of us who make up the local body of Christ known as Temple Hills Baptist Church, our “earnest desire” for “gifting” is currently in the areas of leadership, evangelism and discipleship, hospitality, workers with children, maintenance, and a number of ministries we might mention. If our goal as a church is—as we have stated it—“to spread a passion for the glory of God to all peoples through the preaching of the Gospel and making disciples,” then it is perfectly normal and right for us to pray—and even plead—for the Lord to fill those voids by sovereignly “gifting” us.
So let’s be clear. God’s sovereign care and control of His Church does not preclude human responsibility. God “gifts” and equips the local church, but generally speaking, those “gifts” come in the form of people....people of God who are eager and willing to serve Him alongside one another for His eternal glory.
I will sometimes ask those who are shopping for a church home and happen upon us, “What are you looking for in a local church?” Often they will reply with a list of their current needs: a vibrant children’s ministry or active youth program, a style of worship that fits their personality, small groups, captivating preaching...none of which are “bad” things, but neither are they included among the “nine marks of a healthy church. The response I listen intently to hear is “We’re looking for a church where we can grow in our relationship with the Lord through His Word, and a place where we can serve Him faithfully.” May their tribe increase!
When church members are looking out for themselves or seeing themselves in competition with others, diversity will inevitably lead to disunity and division within the body. But when the members care for one another by being willing to invest themselves and their “gifts” with one another for the glory of God, diversity leads to unity that will honor the Lord whose body we are.
How might the Lord of the Church be challenging you these days? I think of how Jesus described His own ministry in Mark 10:45, when on His journey toward the cross where He would lay down His life for those who were to become a part of the Church that He would build on the foundation of His own blood, said, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus Christ gave His life for you in order that you might invest your life in Him through the ministry of His body.
God is able to do great and unexpected things through those whose hearts are “in tune” with Him.