Epiphany 3 • 1 Corinthians 12:12–31a • January 27, 2013
By Andrew H. Bartelt
The central point is clear: the unity of the corporate body of Christ, made up of diverse parts with different functions, all working for the common good. This is integral to the overall theme of 1 Corinthians, in which Paul deals with a conflicted congregation that, ironically, “was not lacking in any spiritual gift” (μὴ ὑστερεῖσθαι ἐν μηδενὶ χαρίσματι 1:7), yet was filled with division, in large part because of the misuse, misunderstanding, and misappropriation of those “spiritual gifts” to which Paul here turns his attention (12:1, Περὶ δὲ τῶν πνευματικῶν, literally “things of the spirit,” cf 2:13, 15, of the people themselves in 3:1).
In 12:4 Paul focuses on the χαρισμάτα, used previously only in 1:7 and 7:7, slightly more specifically “gifts (from the spirit).” In both terms the emphasis is on the Spirit who gives them and works them in and through his people, not on the identification or categorization of the gifts as works that we do. The same can be said for the list in v 28ff: this is not a precise list of ecclesiastical offices or rigid rubrics for organizational structure, all of which were, at the time, quite fluid and ad hoc, guided by the Spirit’s work “when and where he wills.”
Thus the major caution for the preacher is to avoid over‑interpreting the details of this text in such a direction, especially with a goal of “discovering one’s spiritual gift(s).”
Two foundational points are critical: first, such gifts are gifts and actions of God; the focus must remain on his work and activity, not ours, though done in and through us. Quoting James Dunn, the CTCR document (p. 19) notes that a “charisma is an event, an action enabled by divine power; charisma is divine energy accomplishing a particular result (in word or deed) through the individual.”
Second, the initial premise of ch 12 (12:3) states the one universal gift and activity of the Spirit by which the body of Christ is formed and marked: no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. Here a proper and key distinction is made between those with or without the Spirit.
The pericope at hand then unpacks the proper understanding of the Spirit-gifts that flow from such “spiritually discerned” confession (2:14). Lockwood summarizes that vv. 12–13 introduce the metaphor of the body; vv. 14–20 address those members of the body who might feel inferior and be led to jealousy; vv. 21–26 speak to those who might feel superior, turning the more obvious “ranking of gifts/members” on its head by asserting that the “weaker” parts are necessary, even “indispensable” (ἀναγκαῖά). Finally, vv. 27–31 apply the body metaphor to the whole church, with a diversity of gifts and functions and offices, but all working together for the sake of the whole, which finds its greatest gift in the agape-love embodied in Christ (ch. 13). The goal is not in the gifts but in the proper functioning of the whole body, marked by concern for one another (vv. 25–26).
The danger of focusing on one’s individual “spiritual gifts” has already been noted; the theme is one of unity by which the individualities of the various gifts is not lost but absorbed into the corporate body, whose purpose is, simply, to be the body of Christ in the world, proclaiming and “embodying” that Jesus is Lord of the Kingdom of God. It’s not “about me,” but about the body of Christ. The interplay of “one” and of the “many” and the “all” (e.g. vv. 12–14) is striking.
One can certainly unpack that into the need to avoid the schisms, divisions, and divisiveness that too often characterize the church, but this is not yet another exhortation to “just get along.” The unity starts with baptism (v. 13), with the spirit-spoken confession about Jesus (v. 3), and with the koinonia in his body and blood (11:15–17, 12:17ff). Sola gratia is the great equalizer: before God and without the Spirit, no one can claim confession of Jesus, and we would all be accursed as those who would curse the Savior, Lord, and King. In the humility before God, we come together and even work together in the same humility before one another.
 See the CTCR document on “Spiritual Gifts” (1994, www.lcms.org/Document.fdoc?src=lcm&id=413), and the helpful discussion, including further translation and exegetical notes, in Greg Lockwood, 1 Corinthians, Concordia Commentary Series (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2000).