A Study of 1 Corinthians 12
Introduction: Tonight in our study through 1 Corinthians we’re coming to chapter 12, where the apostle Paul confronts yet another problem that had arisen in the Corinthian church—the divisions over the subject of speaking in tongues. I may be wrong about this, but I don’t think this is currently a particularly divisive issue among the Christians that I commonly interact with. Yes, I know there has been a lot of discussion and debate on the West Coast about this, but I’ve not been too exercised about it one way or the other. It’s been a long time since anyone asked me a question about speaking in tongues. I used to be quizzed more about those things than I have in recent years. But nevertheless, it is a curious subject and we have three chapters here devoted to it – 1 Corinthians 12, 13, and 14. Those are the chapters we’re coming to in our on-going studies through 1 Corinthians.
In order to get a grip on the broader subject, let’s start in the Gospel of Mark. The last paragraph of Mark’s Gospel is a puzzler. The oldest Greek manuscripts do not have these verses, and there is a lot of speculation that verses 9-20 were added later. But regardless of that, I take these verses as Scripture and will just have to ask Mark about it when I get to heaven. Verse 17, which comes right after Mark’s version of the Great Commission, says: These signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues.
Well, that is exactly what happened on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2. This was the day when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the 120 followers of Jesus in the Upper Room, which effectively launched the era of the church. The church was born in Acts 2 as the Holy Spirit came down to indwell the believers. This was the beginning of a new era, of a new dispensation, in the plan of God for the earth. It was the beginning of the age of the church, the age of the Gospel, the age of missions, the age of grace.
Now, whenever we have God launching a new dispensation – such as the creation or the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai or the Second Coming of Christ – there are spectacular phenomena. That was true here. Acts 2:1 says: When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues [or languages] as the Spirit enabled them.
These various phenomena were temporary, momentary, and easy to interpret. The sound of the wind represented the arrival of the Holy Spirit. The fire resting on each of them meant that now every believer was indwelled by the Spirit and commissioned and set on fire to be a missionary and an evangelist. And the various languages represented the fact that the Gospel wasn’t just for the Hebrew speaking people but for everyone else on earth. It was for every tongue and tribe. The Spirit-anointed church was to take the Gospel to the ends of the world. The verses that follow make it clear that these “tongues” were not heavenly sounds or gibberish, but represented the language groups of those who had traveled from far-flung places to be in Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost. We can be absolutely sure of that. There is no other valid interpretation or explanation.
Now later in Acts—as the Gospel reaches new groups such as the Gentiles—there are echoes or smaller reenactments of the Day of Pentecost, so there are a small handful of times as the rolling Pentecostal movement reaches new mile-markers when this phenomena is repeated, but it is the same interpretation. The ability to speak supernaturally in other human languages was a momentary sign that the Gospel was to be taken to every language group on earth. There is no command in the book of Acts for Christians to speak in tongues.
Then we turn to the book of Romans, which presents the church with its theology. There is no mention of tongues, not a word about having a supernatural ability to speak in other languages or in a heavenly tongue. Romans covers many aspects of justification and of practical Christian living, but Paul doesn’t bring up tongues in Romans. There is also no mention of tongues in Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, or 1 or 2 Thessalonians. There is no mention of tongues in the Pastoral Epistles to Timothy or Titus, where Paul deals with issues relating to church life. There is nothing in Hebrews, or in Peter’s epistles, or in John’s letters, or in James or Jude, or in the book of Revelation. The New Testament letters — in which Christian doctrine and duties are set forth — don’t even mention the subject of tongues (glossolalia) once.
But in the book of 1 Corinthians, an interesting problem had arisen in the Corinthian church involving speaking in a strange and bizarre way, and so Paul addressed the issue. So in the book of Acts, tongues were a special sign inaugarting the dispensation of missions, with no indication or command to continue the practice. And in the rest of the New Testament, the subject doesn’t come up except for one occasion when it was a source of division and trouble in the church. In my mind, that is telling as it relates to the tone of biblical truth in this area of inquiry.
Background: The situation in Corinth seems to be there was a group of people who felt they were more spiritual than the others, and they demonstrated this by getting excited and speaking animatedly, exuberantly, in almost a delirious way. Now, the interesting thing to me is that Paul does not come right out and forbid them from doing this, nor does he promote the practice. In some ways, especially in chapter 14, he is sympathetic to the tongues-speakers. He does not forbid them. He simply seeks to manage this practice and bring order and unity to the church. In my opinion, here are the elements of what he is going to tell us in chapters 12, 13, and 14:
- When come to Christ we are indwelled and empowered by the Holy Spirit. We can’t even be saved with the working of the Holy Spirit. He is the one who helps us acknowledge the Lordship of Christ.
- He also gives every believer certain abilities for the work of the kingdom. These abilities are given and empowered by the Trinity.
- Every Christian therefore has his or her own unique set of tasks and abilities and gifts and strengths.
- Speaking in tongues is last on the list.
- Not everyone should speak in tongues. It is not a universal gift.
- The exercise of our abilities and gifts—whatever they are—should unify us, just as a body is unified as each member functions under the direction of the head.
- The fruit of the Spirit—especially love—is greater than the gifts of the Spirit—especially tongues.
- If you do speak it tongues keep it under control, especially in a public setting or else people will think that you’re crazy.
- Tongues have limited value.
- If someone wants to speak in tongues, do not forbid them, but everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way.
Verse by Verse: So with all that as background, let’s look at this chapter verse by verse. We’ll get to chapters 13 and 14 in the next couple of weeks, but we can begin tonight with chapter 12:
Verse 1: Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.
One of the most wonderful aspects of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is this: When He comes into our lives, He gives us all special ways in which we can serve God. Some are effective in one area of ministry, and some are effective at another. In four different New Testament passages, we have listings of various abilities or gifts of the Spirit. But here is the important thing. When we are using our Spirit-given gifts, we will be doing so under the Lordship of Christ. Look at verses 2-3:
Verse 2: You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray by mute idols. Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus is cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.
The phrase “Jesus is Lord” was the New Testament confession of faith. Romans 10:9 says, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” It is the Holy Spirit who prompts us to proclaim the Lordship of Christ and who changes our lives and our hearts. As the Holy Spirit brings our lives under the Lordship of Christ, then we’re in a position to begin finding and exercising the gifts or abilities He has given us. The most important thing the Holy Spirit wants to do with our tongues is have us say: “Jesus is Lord!” That isn’t speaking in tongues, but speaking the truth with the one tongue we have.
Verses 4-6: There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.
Notice the presence of the Trinity in this passage. We all have different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit gives them to us. We have different kinds of same service, but one Kurios, the New Testament divine name for Jesus—Lord. We have different kinds of ways to work for the Lord, but in everyone of us God—Theos, the New Testament divine name for the Father—is at work. This passage is so encouraging to me, and I think it should be for you. In a church like ours, every single one of us has been given a different task and assignment and gift and ministry by the Trinity. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is at work through every one of us—through me and every one of you. We are all in this together. The implication of this, of course, is that the subject of spiritual gifts should unite us rather than divide us.
Verse 7: Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To each one without exception. Every member of a church has been given the gift or manifestation or ministry by the Holy Spirit. And now Paul is going to list some of them. Notice what he puts last on the list.
Verses 8-11: To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and He distributes them to each one, just as He determines.
People ask the question: Has the gift of healing or the gift of miracles or the gift of tongues died out? Was it simply New Testament phenomena? Well, I frankly don’t know, but I don’t think we can prove the case one way or the other from this passage. Paul’s point is that if it divides us it isn’t good. We all have different gifts, but as we use them it should be in a unified way. It should bring unity to the Body of Christ, the church. And now, the apostle Paul is going to use that very metaphor—the body.
Verses 12-21: Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body – whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts of the body, every one of them, just as He wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”
This is one of the most brilliant analogies in the Bible. I have a body and it has many parts—hands and feet and eyes and ears. But when everything is controlled by my brain, my body should work in a unified fashion.
Verses 22-25: On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensible, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need to special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its part should have equal concern for each other.
Here Paul very carefully says that every part of the body is important, and some parts are very important that should be covered in a modest way. This provides a biblical basis for modesty.
Verses 26-27: If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
We are related to each other organically. Christians have a supernatural sense of fellowship. We’re not like club members. We’re not like people who belong to the country club or the civic club. We’re family members and we have great empathy for each other. We care about one another.
Verse 28: And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Notice here is another list of gifts and offices. Notice what is first—the apostles. We talked a few weeks ago about the fact there were twelve apostles who became the foundation stones of the church, but in a secondary way there’s a sense in which the apostolic gift is that of being sent out with the Gospel. Then come the preachers and teachers, and then Paul lists the gifts of miracles and healing, then the gift of helping, of guidance. And notice again what is last on the list—different kinds of tongues.
Verse 29: Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speaking in tongues? Do all interpret? The implication is “No.” Not every Christian should be an apostle. Not every Christian is gifted as a prophet? Not every Christian should speak in tongues. To me, this is clear as can be. And while Paul does not forbid someone from speaking in tongues, he certainly tells us that not every Christian should do it. So if you have a friend who tells you that you need to be baptized in the Spirit and evidence that by speaking in tongues, don’t worry about it. This was not a universal practice in the New Testament. In fact, if it weren’t for the troubles over it in Corinth, it would not have even been mentioned in the New Testament epistles.
Verse 31: Now eagerly desire the greater gifts. And yet I wills how you the most excellent way.
And with those words, he transitions into one of the most glorious and famous chapters of the Bible—the Love Chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, which we’ll look at next week. Now, I come away from 1 Corinthians 12 tremendously encouraged.
Conclusion: I had a dream last night that I was trying to catch an airplane flight to go to another city to minister. I was going at the invitation of a very large Christian university. I couldn’t find the airport or the gate, and finally missed the flight altogether. Then a friend came up to me, a professor who coordinated the university’s ministry. He told me that they no longer needed me. That the quality of my work had declined and there were others who could do a better job. I awoke very troubled by that dream, and I had to shake it off this morning. It’s not hard to interpret. I think we all worry from time to time that our usefulness for the kingdom is slipping away. We worry that our usefulness declines with age and time and infirmity. But that’s a satanic lie. Whatever our age or stage in life, we have the Trinity equipping and empowering us and working through us. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — the Three Members of the Godhead are eager to use us every day in ways that are mysterious and powerful. It’s not in our own strength! It’s not by power or by strength, but by His Spirit – by Father, Son, and Spirit. God is determined to use His children. These verses encouraged me so much today, so let me end by repeating them: There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone [that means you and me] it is the same God at work.