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For just as the body is one and yet has many membersand all the members of the body – though many – are one bodyso too is Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one bodyWhether Jews or Greeks or slaves or freewe were all made to drink of the one Spirit. For in fact the body is not a single memberbut many.  If the foot says“Since I am not a handI am not part of the body,” it does not lose its membership in the body because of that. And if the ear says“Since I am not an eyeI am not part of the body,” it does not lose its membership in the body because of that.  (1Corinthians 12:12-16)

 

Related imageHave you ever tried to go a day without using your non-dominate hand? Most of us who are right handed don’t use our left hands for much requiring dexterity, but I think if we didn’t have use of it, we’d be at a serious disadvantage to all the people with two hands.

Now, imagine if you lost that hand entirely. You couldn’t get it back. Yeah. Most of us, if we had a choice, would not choose to cut off a limb, and if we had a functioning limb, we wouldn’t choose not to use it … except as some weird writer exercise.

The Corinthian Christians don’t seem to have seen it this way. In a spiritual sense, they effectively cut off every member of the body except those who had a certain kind of gift and ministry. The Corinthians didn’t esteem all of the spiritual gifts, but seemed fixated upon only one or a few gifts, while disdaining the rest. As a result, those who didn’t possess the prize gift(s) concluded they had nothing to contribute to the church body. Others who did possess the highly regarded gift(s) felt smugly independent of the rest of the body.

Paul used the term “body” nearly 20 times in Chapter 12. He indicated the church is Christ’s body, the image of which should be illustrative of the nature and function of the church. One of the serious problems facing the Corinthian church was disunity. Paul didn’t hesitate to bring up the problem of factions at the outset of the letter (1:10). These divisions were certainly related to allegiances to certain leaders (1:12, etc.), but they may are also tied to what we might call strengths and weaknesses (1:18-31). Divisions were so intense they had even resulted in lawsuits brought before secular courts (6:1). The Corinthian Christian who thought he was wise and knew so much was the one who believed he was free to participate in heathen idol worship ceremonies without any concern that his doing so might cause another saint to stumble (8:1-13).

Paul wanted the Corinthians to stop thinking and acting like their behavior didn’t affect anyone else and to begin to act with a sense of corporate identity and responsibility. In athletic terms, Paul wanted the Corinthians to begin to think and behave like a team, rather than like a bunch of spiritual “Lone Rangers”. Paul introduced the imagery of the body to correct the Corinthians’ misconceptions concerning spiritual gifts.

Many images are employed for the people of God … a priesthood, a race, a nation, and a temple (see 1 Peter 2:4-9Ephesians 2:11-22). God’s people are referred to as a vine or a vineyard, which is to produce fruit (Isaiah 5John 15, etc.). The people of God are described as the bride, or wife, of God (see Isaiah 62:5Jeremiah 2:32-35; Hosea; Revelation 21:2, 9; 22:17). We are also likened to a flock of sheep, of which God is the Shepherd (see Psalm 23John 10; 21:15-17), and elders are under-shepherds (1 Peter 5:1-4).

Only the Paul referred to the church as a body. I’m going to attribute it to his traveling companion Luke, a physician. The church of Jesus Christ is His body. Every believer, whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, is joined to the body of Christ by the baptism of the Holy Spirit (verse 13). There is one body into which every saint is baptized. There is but one people of God. The distinction between Jew and Gentile is abolished in Christ (Ephesians 2:11-22).

The imagery of the church as the body of Christ underscores the unity of all believers (Ephesians 4:3-6). It shows how evil and counter-productive the divisions in the Corinthian church were. My identity is found in Christ, because I am a part of His body. My righteousness is Christ’s righteousness. His death is mine; His resurrection and new life, mine (see Romans 6:1-11). As a Christian, I cannot think of myself only as an individual. I must perceive myself as a part of the church … as a part of Christ’s body. To identify with Christ by faith is also to identify with His body, the church. No wonder Paul so quickly joins himself to fellow-believers (see Acts 9:19, 26). As a wife merges her identity with her husband, becoming one flesh, so the believer merges his or her identity with the body of Christ, the church. Those who fail to identify themselves with the body of Christ are disobedient in their refusal (see Hebrews 10:25).

Ah, but while we are one body, we have many functions. The Corinthian church was blessed with the full spectrum of spiritual gifts (see 1:4-7). Yet, in spite of this very broad range of gifts granted to this church, only a few select gifts were valued. Carrying forward with the metaphor of the body, if the Corinthian church had its way, the entire body would be only one organ.

If the whole body were an eyewhat part would do the hearing? If the whole were an earwhat part would exercise the sense of smell? But as a matter of fact, God has placed each of the members in the body just as he decidedIf they were all the same memberwhere would the body be? So now there are many membersbut one body. The eye cannot say to the hand“I do not need you,” nor in turn can the head say to the foot“I do not need you.” On the contrarythose members that seem to be weaker are essential, and those members we consider less honorable we clothe with greater honorand our unpresentable members are clothed with dignity, (1Corinthians 12:17-23) 

Repeatedly, Paul emphasized that the body is one, but the members are many (see verses 12, 13, 14, 18, 20, 27). Christian unity does not mean uniformity. We’re not factory made. While there is only one body of Christ, there are many different members, many different limbs and organs, each of which has a unique role to play in the body. Paul emphasized that each member has a role that is essential to the health and ministry of the body, the church.

As a member of the church, the body of Christ, we find we are a part of a much greater whole—we belong to an organism whose “head” is Christ and whose function is to represent Christ to a fallen world. As a member of the universal church, we also find our true identity as an individual. The body imagery illustrates the individuality of every Christian. Each believer is, in body terms, an individual organ or member. Each believer is uniquely gifted with a blending of spiritual gifts and is given a particular function within the body. No two saints have the same place in the body. Thus, each believer is unique. In one sense, the Christian is inseparably joined to the whole body, and in another, each believer is absolutely unique in the body. We have our identity with Christ’s body and in His body.

Notice how this union with Christ’s body shaped Paul’s view of his own ministry, particularly of his sufferings:

but our presentable members do not need this. InsteadGod has blended together the bodygiving greater honor to the lesser member, so that there may be no division in the bodybut the members may have mutual concern for one another. If one member sufferseveryone suffers with it. If a member is honoredall rejoice with it. (1Corinthians 12:24-26)

Paul saw himself as inseparably joined to the body of Christ. He viewed his ministry as Christ’s ministry. He viewed his sufferings for Christ as Christ’s sufferings. He saw his message as that of Christ and the power by which he ministered as His power, manifested through him. Paul summed up this matter in his own words to the Philippians:

For I know that this shall turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I shall not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ shall even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Philippians 1:19-21).

Most of the Corinthian Christians wanted to be something they were not. The “foot” wanted to be a “hand” (12:15); the “ear” wished it were an “eye” (12:16). The matter of spiritual gifts and placement in the body of Christ is not something we control. Our spiritual gifts, our place of service in the body, and the results of our ministry are all divinely determined (12:4-6).

When we are discontent with the gift(s) God has given us, our protest is against the Holy Spirit of God, the sovereign Giver of gifts. To question either the Spirit’s goodness, or His infinite wisdom in giving us our gifts, is like my foot deciding it will no longer listen to my brain. While biologically possible, it’s not to my foot’s benefit. The Holy Spirit knows what the whole body of Christ needs far better than we do.

Spiritual gifts are “graces” sovereignly bestowed upon believers. Spiritual gifts, like salvation, are not a matter of merit. Gifts are not earned; they are sovereignly graced upon us. Because of this, those who take pride in their gifts reveal their own foolishness and ignorance (see 1 Corinthians 4:7).

Those who mistake gifts as an evidence of spirituality or of status are wrong, and those who mistake their gift as a symbol of insignificance are just as wrong in that they demean the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

This sovereign gracing is amply evidenced in the Book of Acts. Where are gifts ever given as a reward for service? Where are particular gifts granted because men sought them? In Acts 2Acts 8Acts 10, and Acts 19, the baptism and the gifts of the Holy Spirit were not sought; they came as a surprise to those who are granted them. I think that because the Corinthians highly valued a very few gifts and disdained the rest, these prized gifts were sought and perhaps even falsely pretended. I see Christians today trying desperately to obtain certain gifts, and I have to ask why. If they are sovereignly bestowed, why must we strive to get them?

A New Set of Standards

Now you are Christ’s bodyand each of you is a member of it. And God has placed in the church first apostlessecond prophetsthird teachersthen miraclesgifts of healinghelpsgifts of leadershipdifferent kinds of tongues. Not all are apostlesare they? Not all are prophetsare they? Not all are teachersare they? Not all perform miraclesdo they? Not all have gifts of healingdo they? Not all speak in tonguesdo they? Not all interpretdo they? But you should be eager for the greater giftsAnd now I will show you a way that is beyond comparison. (1Corinthians 12:27-31)

There’s a real surprise of our text! The imagery of the body amazingly illustrates that the most visible, most attractive parts of the body are not the most important. I have a friend whose son was born with a birth defect … he lacked a rectum. While you can live without a hand, you can’t live without the functions involved with rectum. The “child” is now an adult and living an active life, but it took dozens of surgeries to correct his problem and every one of those surgeries were necessary for him to live. Conversely, I have cousins who were born deaf. While that complicates their lives, they have never been in fear of death from their disability. Getting a cochlear implant is a voluntary procedure. Similarly, the more attractive gifts of singing and preaching get all the attention in churches, but most churches would find it difficult to function without the janitor and the treasurer. While often we think these people are not really gifted, the gifts of administration and helps are found in the New Testament listened right along with preaching and prophesying (but not singing, which might give you some pause).

Paul rebuked these status-seeking saints at Corinth when he turned their value system upside-down. The body illustrates what he is teaching. Those members of the body which are of the least importance are those to which we devote the most attention and effort. We paint our toenails, put rings on our ears, and noses! We put rings and jewelry on our fingers. Truthfully, we can live without ears (or hearing), eyes (or seeing), fingers, hands, legs, toes. The least needed members of our body are the ones which are most visible and to which the most “glory” is given. Yet, they are the lesser gifts. Those gifts which are most visible, most vocal, most glorified in the Corinthian church were, in reality, the least important gifts. The Corinthians had been storing up sand in their safety deposit boxes and using gold for stepping stones.

The most important gifts, like the most important organs, are those which are not visible or spectacular, those of which we are least conscious. You cannot see my spleen, my kidneys, my liver, or my heart, but I cannot live without them. They do not get a lot of attention, but they are the most vital members of my body, whether others value them or not.

The concept of the church as the body of Christ should change our way of thinking of ourselves and of the church.

Within the body of Christ, we are far too individualistic in our thinking. We are far too competitive in our thinking and actions, so that the advance or success of others is viewed as a personal setback for us. We must begin to think cooperatively, realizing that the success of other saints is our victory, and, more importantly, our Lord’s victory. We need to strive not only for our own growth in Christ, but for the corporate and collective growth of the entire church (see Ephesians 4:11-16).

The concept of the church as the body of Christ should cause us to think in terms of the local church, but also beyond the local church.

The “church” is the body of Christ, but in the New Testament the “church” is often bigger than just one local church. Paul spoke of “the church” as those believers in a certain political or geographical setting (e.g., the seven “churches” of Asia in Revelation 2 and 3). In contemporary terms, there are many local churches in towns across America, but we might also think in terms of the collective of several churches that is in a particular town, the entire body of believers in a town. We speak of the church “in America” or “in Russia”. In prison ministry, we speak of the church “behind the walls.”

Just as individual believers think and act competitively, so local churches can fall into the same error. There should be ways in which we, as individual believers and as a local churches, express our identification with the larger “church.” Southern/Great Commission Baptists express this through our Cooperative Program, but all too often, even that fails to expand our minds beyond the four walls of our own congregation. We fixate on a handful of people killed in a mass shooting in some American city, but we ignore the deadly virus killing hundreds of thousands in Africa, for example. There isn’t the same degree of concern or involvement, yet African Christians are part of the body of Christ. They depend upon us, as we depend upon them. We should avoid isolationism in the church of our Lord Jesus Christ.

While there is a sense in which the body is to support and provide for the needs of each individual member, let us never forget that this is not the primary purpose of the church. 

Too many people attend church to have their “needs met.” Too many people leave churches, complaining that the church has not met their needs. The church is to build up itself in love, but the goal of the church is to live out the life of our Lord Jesus Christ, to His glory. We, the church, are the body of Christ. This means we, as the church, are to carry on His ministry in the world today. The church ministers to itself, to build itself up so that it may carry out its mission, and that mission is living out Christ in a fallen world. We have become so preoccupied with the church’s ministry to us as individuals that we have failed to concentrate on the church’s mission to the world, and our obligation to sacrifice ourselves in ministry to and through the church to the world. The question is not, “What is the church doing for me?” The question should be, “What can I contribute to the church to participate in its fulfillment of its mission and calling?“

Christians who are a part of the church, the body of Christ, need to understand that while differences may be the basis for division and strife in the world, these differences are by divine design and are intended to enhance our dependence upon one another, and thus to illustrate true Christian unity.

Unity is not evidenced by uniformity but by harmony and interdependence as each individual saint carries out his or her unique function in the body. That which results in division in the fallen world in which we live should be the occasion for unity and harmony in the church. We should not all want to look alike or function alike, but each should function as God has made him or her, so that the body is benefited by our presence and ministry. As God made Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, male and female, one in Christ, we need to demonstrate this unity in diversity, because we are one body.

The concept of the church as a body calls into question one of the important operating principles of the modern day “church growth movement.” 

For most of my Christian life, I have attended churches that lacked homogeneity, but that is not the standard practice of American churches. In fact, homogeneous groupings are considered “best practices.” The principle goes something like this:

  • Birds of a feather flock together.
  • People are more comfortable around “their kind.”
  • There’s statistical evidence that the churches which are growing the fastest are those whose membership is largely of the same racial, social, and economic class.

The churches of today are encouraged to appeal to, or target, a particular segment of society. Rather than apologize for this, they are assured they will enjoy the fruits of success. I think that flies in the face of the imagery of the church as the body of Christ. I think it’s an affront to the gospel itself. We shouldn’t seek to present a look-alike face to the world. That condemns us to our own cultural values and way of thinking. We should strive to be different, as God intended, with each church member contributing our unique gifts and ministries which He has given, to the edification of the church and to the glory of God.

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