Commentary on 1 Corinthians 12:1-11
What is God Up To?
Paul begins chapter 12 by saying, “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed” (1 Corinthians 12:1).
By all accounts, the Corinthians had a full measure of the Spirit’s power. Prophecy, speaking in tongues, and the interpretation of tongues, knowledge: the Corinthians had them all and more. Yet they also had conflict, immorality, and thoughtless disregard for one another. How could they know something was a gift of the Spirit and not merely self-indulgence? Throughout this chapter and the next, Paul teaches on the topic of how to discern God’s work in the activation of various gifts and how to value one’s brothers and sisters in Christ across that variety.
What is God up to? My colleagues in the field of congregational mission and leadership regard this question as the central one for Christian public leaders: “What is God doing in this place?” What is God doing in the church, in the neighborhood, in the lives of people within the fold of the congregation and the lives of those beyond it?
Sometimes congregations have never asked questions about their reason for being in this way. Other times, people are used to God talk but not sure how to differentiate what God might be up to from what one or another group on the ground is fervently working for. Paul offers three criteria for making such judgments.
What is God up to? Through God’s Spirit, God is first of all bearing witness to Jesus as Lord. “No one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). In Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Ross Douthat is sharply critical of various Christian heresies popular in America today, from the prosperity gospel of people like Joel Osteen, to preoccupation with “the God within” from Oprah Winfrey and others, to Glenn Beck’s understanding of God as chiefly concerned to spread democracy throughout the world by means of American military might and foreign policy. One of the things all of these voices have in common is silence about that which Paul told the Corinthians was all he decided to know among them: “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).
According to the apostle Paul, one way to know whether a movement is led by the Spirit of God is to listen for its claims about Jesus Christ. The Spirit makes Jesus known to us in the cross (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18-31), the supper (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23-34), and the resurrection (cf. 1 Corinthians 15). By the Spirit, the church testifies that Jesus — not money, security, self esteem, paranoia, power, or anything else — is Lord.
Gifts from God’s Spirit proclaim Jesus as Lord. They also serve the common good. Paul’s second criterion for discerning the work of the Holy Spirit points to the Spirit’s interest in the common life of those it draws together. Just as the Spirit is all about talking up Jesus as Lord, so the Spirit is all about building up the group rather than enriching individuals. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7).
Individuals receive gifts from the Spirit, yet each gift is for the body as a whole. This implies that if a gift cannot be shared, and shared for the good of others, it is not from the Spirit. It also implies that any attempt to rank individuals according to their possession of “better” gifts would be at odds with each gift’s common purpose for the good of all.
The third clue Paul offers to us as we try to answer what God is up to in a particular place is a sort of negative criterion. Whatever God’s Spirit is doing, it will probably not be characterized by tidiness. When you are looking for the Spirit’s gifts, look for a bit of a mess. This means, among other things, that the fact that you did not think of something — whether “you” are a long-time member, or a pastor, or the church council, or the apostle Paul — is not enough to say it is a bad idea. True, Paul urges that Corinthians to do everything “decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40), but this requirement does not preclude a varied collection of activities.
The Corinthians were the original enthusiasts, giving every evidence of having swallowed the Holy Spirit feathers and all. Many of them seem enthralled by the more dramatic external manifestations of the Holy Spirit’s work (tongues, prophecy, healing, etc.). Sadly, at the same time, they ignored the quieter work of the Spirit to draw them into a community that respects all its members. They could not, for instance, share the Lord’s Supper together equitably (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23-34).
When Paul tries to redirect the Corinthians’ attraction for spiritual gifts, it is not because he likes tradition more than innovation or because he is trying to erase difference. Paul directs the Corinthians to the “still more excellent way” of faith, hope, and love (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:31; 13:13) because that way will bring them back to valuing one another more than their own knowledge, wisdom, prophecy, miracles, tongues, and all the rest. The person sitting beside you in the pew or kneeling alongside you at the altar rail: that brother or sister in Christ matters more than all the spiritual gifts in the congregation. Paul’s goal is not a tidy community life but a loving one.
How do we know the work of the Holy Spirit among us? The Spirit proclaims Jesus as Lord, offers its gifts to the church for the common good, and activates love for the neighbor. These criteria give us a place to start as we continue to look for what God is up to in our own churches and neighborhoods today.