The Twenty-Third in a Series of Sermons on 1 Corinthians
Almost all peoples and cultures have some sort of utopian dream–a world of universal peace and harmony. John Lennon’s Imagine anyone? The problem is that ours is a fallen race. Because we are a fallen race we are divided along racial, socio-economic, political and theological lines. Much like the ancient Corinthians, we struggle to find true unity in a world of diversity. Because of human sin, the only way unity can be obtained is through force (“agree or else”), through coercion or deception (like that of a false religion or a political ideology), or through “kumbaya” unity (a superficial “herd” mentality). The bad news is there will be no earthly utopia this side of Christ’s second advent. The good news is that God does provide us with a true unity based upon our common faith in Jesus Christ realized in the church through the person and work of the Holy Spirit. And while this unity is imperfectly realized in this life, nevertheless, in Christ’s church, God takes a whole host of diverse and different people and forms them into one body, the church of Jesus Christ in which his Holy Spirit dwells.
In 1 Corinthians chapter 12, Paul is addressing a question the Corinthians had asked him in a letter. Based on Paul’s answer–which runs all the way from 1 Corinthians 12:1-14:40–the original question certainly had something to do with the role and practice of speaking in tongues (a subject addressed in chapter 14). In chapter 12, Paul begins to answer this question by laying the groundwork for how we should understand the gifts of the Spirit in general (the charismata). The Apostle begins by making the case that unless we confess that Jesus is Lord–that is, we confess that Jesus is Lord of all things, that he is the very Son of God, that he died for our sins and that he was raised from the dead for our justification–we cannot understand “spiritual things” (the pneumotikon).
But, says Paul, we cannot confess that Jesus is Lord except by the power of the Holy Spirit. And it is the Holy Spirit whose gifts are given to those who are members of Christ’s church, which is his body. In the previous section of this chapter (verses 4-11), Paul has made the point that God gives these gifts of the Spirit–which are supernatural endowments of the Spirit–as he wills for the common good of the church. Although the Corinthians were struggling with the mistaken assumption that the greater the gift the more important the person who possessed that gift, Paul emphasizes that these gifts were not given so that people could boast about their spiritual prowess, or so that they could call attention to themselves, or even use these gifts as a pretense for dividing the church into factions. No, these gifts were given for the common good, the building-up of the body of Christ.
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