You will know that we were working our way through the book of 1 Corinthians, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, until we broke for the Advent season. Now that we’re back in the new year, we’ll return to 1 Corinthians. We were in chapter 12, you may remember. We had already addressed the first half of the chapter and so we are picking up at chapter 12 at verse 12 for the second half of the chapter. You’ll find it on page 959 in the church Bibles if you’re using one of them; please do turn there.
Paul, you will remember, has been dealing with the problem of division in Corinth and it’s a problem that has reared its ugly head in different ways as we’ve worked through the book together. There’ve been divisions over leadership. Some were boasting in their favorite preacher and others in a different preacher. There were divisions over economics and lawsuits among believers. There was even division over which foods were permissible or forbidden and under what circumstances. And in chapter 12, Paul has been addressing the problem of divisions related to spiritual gifts. You see, some at Corinth were claiming that to be a really spiritual person meant exercising certain of the more spectacular and public spiritual gifts. And if you weren’t gifted in one of those ways, well then that must mean you were obviously a lesser class of Christian. It was causing division in the church. And Paul appeals to a fundamental truth of the Christian faith to help teach these divided Corinthian believers about true unity in diversity within the church in the opening verses of chapter 12. He pointed them to the work of the blessed Trinity who gives diverse gifts by the same Spirit and the same Lord and the same God. God Himself, Paul taught, is both diverse in the glorious fellowship of the three persons, and one in the fundamental unity of His singular, divine essence. And since this is what God, the gift-giver is like, so in the same way, the church is to be richly diverse in gifts and ministries, and yet profoundly one in fellowship and mutual service and love. That was Paul’s message last time.
And now this morning we’re going to see Paul continues to address the problem of division over spiritual gifts at Corinth, but he will appeal now to a different image, a different illustration, to help him challenge the divisiveness in the church. In the first half of the chapter, the illustration he used was the doctrine of the Trinity. This time, as we’ll see in verses 12 through 27 or so, the illustration is the human body; the diversity and yet the unity of the human body. Before we read it together and see how Paul works out that illustration, that metaphor, let me invite you if you would please to bow your heads first of all and call on the Lord to help us as we pray. Let’s pray together.
O Lord, before us now is Your Word. We pray that the Holy Spirit would take it up and give light by it to our understanding, that He would generate and quicken appropriate godly affections in our hearts that we might tremble before You and love the truth and long to be pleasing in Your sight, that it would incline our wills and enable us to receive and rest upon Christ and live in new obedience to Him as Your Word has its way with us. Would You do that now as we read the Holy Scriptures and hear their message proclaimed? For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
1 Corinthians chapter 12 at verse 12. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“For just as 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. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 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. 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. 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? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
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 to be weaker are indispensable, 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, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken to us in His holy Word.
When I got married – in Britain, after a wedding ceremony there’s a reception with a meal with formal speeches and there’s always a role for the father-in-law to give a speech. My father-in-law’s speech, during the course of his speech, he told the story of a newlywed couple who were still struggling to navigate the realities of their new life together. And the wife would regularly have to correct her husband for speaking about “his car.” “No, dear. It’s our car.” Or, “his house.” “No, dear. It’s our house.” Or, “his money.” “No, dear. It’s our money." And this, of course, went on for some time until one night they're asleep in bed when the wife elbows her husband awake. "I heard a noise downstairs!" "I'm sure it's just your imagination. Go back to sleep." Then she hears it again and so she nudges him a second time. "I definitely heard something downstairs!" "Sweetheart, I'm sure you're just hearing things. There's nothing there; go back to sleep." When she elbows him a third time and says, "No, I'm convinced there's something there! You need to check it out!" he sits up and rubs the sleep from his eyes and says, "Well dear, if you're so concerned, why don't you put our trousers on and go find out what’s going on!”
The fact is, learning to live as one, to think in “we” categories, is not quite so easy. It takes time and effort and hard work. It’s challenging to live out our unity together. That was certainly the case for the Corinthians. They had a hard time learning to live in unity. And so Paul takes up this metaphor of the body to help them, to help us, see the importance and the practicality of Christian unity.
The Body and Christ
Look at verses 12 and 13 first of all where Paul introduces his theme. “For just as 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.” Now pause there for a moment. Let’s allow the unusual way verse 12 ends to register with us. We expect Paul to say something like, “All the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with the Church.” He’s talking about the Church. The metaphor of the body with diverse parts is a metaphor for the Church. But that’s not what he says. He says, “so it is with Christ.”
Why does he do that? Well because he wants us to understand, although he’s using the body as a metaphor, it is a metaphor pointing us to something that is fundamental and real and a spiritual reality behind the image. When we became Christians, we did not simply join a club. We were, rather, joined, we were united to Jesus Christ by the mysterious and powerful working of the Holy Spirit. And when we were connected and united to Christ, we were also united to every other Christian united to Christ. So that there is a most profound and fundamental unity, whether you see it, whether you feel it or not, between every single believer and the Savior, the Lord Jesus, and every single believer and every other believer in the Savior. It is as intimate and profound as the union of diverse members in the anatomy of the human body, Paul is saying. Which means, the implication of that is, to live in disharmony, to give place to needless division in the Church, is to contradict the fundamental spiritual reality about who we are in Jesus. We are one, essentially and fundamentally. It is to live at odds with who we are as Christian people.
Verse 13, if you’ll look at it with me, tells us how it is we became one with Christ and therefore with one another. Verse 13, “For in one Spirit, we were all baptized into one body – Jews and Greeks, slaves and free – and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” Now Paul has made reference, sometimes obliquely, sometimes directly, in the chapters leading up to this one, to the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And here he’s talking about the supernatural realities to which the sacraments point us. Water baptism is the outward sign of the baptism of the Holy Spirit which is performed by Christ and by which, Paul says, we are inducted into the body of Christ and united to Jesus. And just as a little aside, there are some strands of Christian teaching out there that would have you believe that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is a second order blessing that comes later on in the Christian life. That is simply not the teaching of the apostle Paul. To be a Christian at all is to have been baptized by Christ in the Spirit and so united to Him. You must have the Spirit and be baptized by Christ in the Spirit to be a Christian.
And likewise, Paul says we drink in the Holy Spirit, which is the spiritual reality to which the bread and the wine of the Lord's Supper point us; the Spirit, the life-giving Spirit that flows to us from Jesus Christ, the fountainhead. The point Paul is making isn't hard to understand, although it is vitally important. Here's his point. To be a Christian at all means to be infinitely, profoundly connected supernaturally by the Holy Spirit to Jesus Christ Himself. Every single Christian, regardless of ethnicity or class or social status, is one in Him. Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, male, female, black, white, rich, poor – we're all one in Jesus Christ. Made one by the Holy Spirit.
Live Out Unity
And so now, Paul wants to call the Corinthians, he’s calling us to begin to be who we really are; to live out the unity that is forged by the Holy Spirit in Christ, the Head. And that, of course, is where things get challenging and difficult. It’s not so easy to live out our unity. We are like the newlyweds in the story from earlier aren’t we – united in law, united perhaps even in love, but learning to live out our unity is sometimes challenging and it takes time and effort and hard work. It’s not easy. And so in verses 14 to 26, Paul is going to tackle two related attitudes in the Corinthian church that rear their ugly heads in our own church and in every church, that often inhibit our ability to live together in the unity of the Spirit in the body of Christ.
If you’ll look at the passage with me, you’ll see in verses 14 to 20 first of all Paul deals with how we often think about ourselves; some wrong thinking about ourselves, 14 to 20. He wants us to focus there and to prize Biblical diversity. And then in 21 to 26, he deals with how we often think about others. Some wrong thinking about others that creep in if we’re not careful. And this time, the emphasis falls on our fundamental unity. How we think of ourselves and how we think of others.
How We Think of Ourselves
Let’s look at what he says about how we think of ourselves, first of all. In 14 to 20, Paul continues playing with this metaphor of the body and with more than just a hint of comedy, he imagines talking body parts complaining about their role in the body. Do you see that in the text?
Verse 15, “If the foot should say, ‘Because I’m not a hand, I don’t belong in the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong in the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.” It’s slightly absurd, isn’t it? Paul wants us to smile at the silliness of his metaphor because frankly, sometimes when we think like this we are being silly! The question some of the Corinthians were asking themselves has to do with a sense of inferiority. “I’m only a foot and not a hand. Maybe I don’t belong in the body at all.” That’s what they were saying about themselves. “I’m only a member; I’m not a small group leader. I’m only a shut-in, elderly church member and I can’t go on mission trips. I’m a stay-home mom with no margin in my life. I’m not a WIC circle leader. Maybe because I can’t preach or teach the Bible or stand up front and talk, maybe I’m not very valuable. Maybe I don’t really belong. Maybe it’d be better for everyone if I went somewhere else.” But that, Paul says, that’s absurd.
And he plays out the absurdity a bit more in verse 17 if you’ll look there with me. “If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?” It’s a bizarre image, isn’t it? Freakish. Not a body, just an ear, just an eye, just a nose! How utterly useless, right? The body only functions when all the parts work together. It only operates when each part, however small or mundane or apparently useless we may think them to be, function in harmony with the others. When we think about ourselves like this, we really are missing the point. Sure, you may not be an eye or a hand or a nose. You don’t have the same gifts that I have, nor do I have the same gifts as you, but look at verse 18. As it is, God has arranged the members of the body. Each one of them as He chose. “If all were a single member, where would the body be?” Here’s why the kind of dejection and dissatisfaction we sometimes battle is ultimately so wrongheaded. It’s God who gets to determine the nature and the range of a person’s gifts and it’s God who deploys them as He wills in the local church. God is sovereign in this whole matter of giftedness and our role in the body. It’s really not up to us to complain that we don’t have the gifts that other people do. Comparisons are deadly in the Christian life; comparisons are deadly in the Christian life. Our calling is simply to use what God has given us, in humility, for the glory of His name and the good of those around it. It is to use our unique gifts in our unique circumstances as only we can, for the praise of His name.
So maybe you’re not an upfront kind of guy; you don’t do well speaking in public. You can pray though, can’t you? Maybe you can’t lead a small group, but you can welcome new faces, show some kindness and generosity to those you can see are hurting around you, can’t you? Maybe you’ll never be invited to lead a mission team. You can tell your friends about Jesus, can’t you? Maybe you’ll never be an elder. You can practice hospitality, can’t you? There is a valid, beautiful diversity in the body of Christ as God has organized and ordained it to be, and we are not to exclude ourselves because we don’t think we have the gifts we see in others. That’s the big idea of these verses.
Paul actually brackets the section with virtually the same statement in verse 14 and again in verse 20 so that we don’t miss the point. Verse 14, “The body does not consist of one member, but many.” We need each other. Verse 20, “As it is, there are many parts yet one body.” We need each other. In all our difference and diversity, if you are in Christ, through faith, because of the work of the Holy Spirit connecting you, uniting you to Jesus, you are in the body. And this same Spirit of Christ has gifted you and called you to serve. God Himself has ordained your role, your ministry. Just because it’s not the same as your neighbor’s, just because it is apparently more modest, less dramatic, just because it’s unrecognized or uncelebrated even does not mean it’s unimportant. No, the body needs ears and eyes and hands and feet and we are not to exclude ourselves when God Himself has included us. If you’re a Christian, you have been included and you are necessary. You are necessary.
How We Think of Others
And then in verses 21 through 26, notice the image changes. The problem, rather, change; the issue. If the problem in the previous section has to do with how we are sometimes tempted to think of ourselves as we engage in comparisons, the problem in 21 to 26 is how we sometimes are tempted to think about others. You see that in verse 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.’ On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are” – notice this word – “indispensable 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, which our more presentable parts do not require.” So on the one hand, there were church members at Corinth excluding themselves because they felt they were inferior. And then on the other hand, at the opposite extreme, there were church members at Corinth excluding others. Some said of themselves, “I am not needed,” while others were saying, “You are not needed. I don’t need you.”
It’s actually a pretty common sentiment, “I don’t need you,” in our society, that privileges individualism; where the autonomous self is king. “I don’t need you.” That may be the reigning attitude in our society but it is not at all an attitude that fits within the body of Christ, the local church. No member of the body can say to any other, “I don’t need you.”
Look again at Paul’s extended metaphor. In the body, he says, some parts are covered up. They are unpresentable parts, and we give those parts special attention, carefully covering them for modesty’s sake. We don’t need to give that kind of attention to the eye or the hand, but we do other parts. The point Paul’s making is clear, isn’t it? Those of you who are gifted with public ministries, you’re not the ones who need to be shown special care, special attention. It’s the so-called “unpresentable parts” – that’s how they thought of themselves. And yet, Paul says, they’re vital. They are “indispensable” is his word, for the good functioning and the health of the body and they need special care. There are people in our congregation whose vital, indispensable ministries go largely unnoticed and sometimes even unsupported. The older lady who mentors younger women. The emeritus elder who can’t really make it to church anymore but he is a prayer warrior, interceding for so very many in Jesus’ name. That family of really very modest means that opens its home on a regular basis to care for college students. The quite encouragers and the servant-hearted doers and the generous givers and the pastoral visitors and the disciple-makers and the faithful helpers. While our culture privileges the extrovert and the upfront big personality, we need to practice extra care toward the vital, vital ministries of our brothers and sisters that go largely unseen. As Paul puts it, we are to show “greater honor” to those that lack it.
Which is a Gospel pattern, isn't it? Christ Himself, you will remember, came not as a mighty, conquering hero, but as a carpenter's boy who became a wandering rabbi, rejected by most crucified by the Romans. It's the upside-down, back-to-front, counterintuitive pattern of the Gospel. By means of a cross, Jesus saves the world. It's also the pattern of Paul's ministry. It was not as the elite Pharisee, the best educated with privileged status that he planted churches all over the Roman Empire. No, counting these things rubbish for the sake of Christ, it was the often rejected, beaten, imprisoned, self-supported itinerant preacher that reached the world for Jesus. It may seem to us that the guy up front is the most important – the elders or the speaker at the big event. That's what is really means to make a difference for the kingdom. But the Gospel pattern is different. It is the unpresentable parts that require special honor that are vital, that are indispensable, without which the body cannot function well to the glory of God.
No Christian is Unneeded
And so Paul corrects the mistake in the same way he did the previous mistake. Isn’t it interesting, the antidote for both errors – “I’m not needed” or “I don’t need you” – is the same. Look at verse 24. He points to the prerogatives of a sovereign God who orders the body as He wills. God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body but that the members may have the same care for one another. God has put the church together this way. No Christian is unnecessary or unneeded. Has that penetrated? Do you need to hear that? Maybe tell yourself that some? No Christian is unnecessary or unneeded in the Church of Jesus Christ. God’s plan is that the members of the body of Christ exercise special care for one another, understanding that eyes and ears need hands and feet; that every part needs every other in order for the health and good functioning of the whole. So that, in the church, verse 26, “if one member suffers, all suffer together. If one member is honored, all rejoice together.”
When you stub your toe in the middle of the night and you’re hopping around in the darkness, it’s not just your toe that hurts, is it? When you have acute back pain – some of you know all about that – it can be completely immobilizing. It’s not just an ache in your back; it can be completely immobilizing. Pain in one part of the body is the pain of the body, the whole body. When one part suffers, the whole suffers with it. Or when, conversely, when one part is honored, the whole body rejoices together. When someone says, “You have beautiful eye” or “a dazzling smile,” or body language changes to reflect the pleasure we feel as we bask in the glow of the compliment. Doesn’t it? It shows. We react. When we are honored, the whole body responds. That’s how it’s to be in the Church. When one member suffers, we all are to grieve in solidarity with him or with her. And when one member is honored, we’re not to look at them with jealousy, but rather we are to rejoice in the blessing that is received.
Unity and Diversity
Now that is actually a profoundly countercultural picture of a human society. Don’t you think? Paul sums it up really very helpfully in verse 27. We are the body of Christ, united, and individually members of it. Our society everywhere is longing for that balance where both are preserved, where unity and individuality alike are honored and cherished. Where the group does not suppress the individual; where the individual supports and upholds the group. Paul is saying you will look in vain in all the organizations and societies of the world for that reality till you look for it in the church of Jesus Christ. There, you will see it certainly not perfectly – the Corinthians were struggling to live it out; we struggle to live it out. And yet, really even here among us, sinners though we are, you can still see it – the members of the body of Christ serving one another with compassion and tenderness and love, rejoicing together in the honor that one member receives, mourning and grieving in solidarity together when one member suffers.
How is it possible? Where does it come from? How can you find it for yourself? It comes, Paul says, from being united to Jesus Christ. The Church of Jesus Christ is not the country club at prayer. It’s not just another organization to which you can commit yourself. It is a supernatural institution. It is an organism inhabited and penetrated by the Spirit of Jesus Christ Himself. To belong to the Church is to belong to the Body of Christ, and that changes everything. So that though you may struggle mightily with pride – “I don’t need you” – or insecurity – “I’m not needed” – there is wonderful hope for you in the Church of Jesus Christ because it is a supernatural institution and the Spirit of Christ, as it were, flows through the veins of the body giving it life and cohesion and drawing every part together in unity to make us marvelously one.
So it may be that you find yourself struggling with deep insecurity and a sense of not being valued or wondering where your place may be. Let me say to you that we want to care for you well. Please do not tell yourself that you must suffer in silence alone. Come and pour out your heart. We want to stand with you in solidarity and to find ways to deploy you in the service of the name of the Lord Jesus. Every part, however weak and small and vulnerable it may be, is indispensable. Or it may be that you find yourself struggling with pride – “I don’t need you.” That is not a Gospel pattern. You are called now to repent and to acknowledge that every member in the body needs every other. An eye is not an adequate body. A hand or a nose or an ear alone – we need the whole! We need one another. You need your brothers and sisters around you. And so hear the apostle Paul exhort you, at whichever point you may be on that spectrum, to begin to love the Church, to love the Church, which is the Body of Christ, and to love its members in all their diversity because we are, in fact, one in a common Savior. May the Lord help us indeed to love the Church and begin to serve her for His glory.
Let’s pray together.
Our Father, we do confess to the inverted pride that makes us insecure. It makes us think that we’re not loved or cared about or that we can’t make any contribution or that we are not worth anything; that we ought to simply quietly slip away. And we confess to pride of the other extreme that says we need no one, certainly not the weak and the small and the vulnerable. We are strong and sufficient unto ourselves. What lies we tell ourselves. What a massive contradiction we are when often both extremes fester in one heart. As we bow before You, we confess to You how much we need You. Thank You that to belong to the Church isn’t to belong to any other merely human institution. It is to belong to a supernatural organization, inhabited and empowered by the Spirit of Christ who unites us to Jesus. And because that’s true, there is hope for us in our insecurity and in our boasting that we won’t be who we once were, but we will be more like our Savior and more willing to love and serve one another. Oh, do that work among us we pray, that we may be who we really are – one in our common Head and common Redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ in whose name we now pray. Amen.
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