Commentary on 1 Corinthians 12:1-11
“Now concerning spiritual gifts.” With this formulaic transition, by now familiar to the hearers of this letter (see 7:1; 8:1), Paul now turns to address one more item in the list of issues that have been brought to his attention by the Corinthian congregation.
His remarks are both particular and in many ways pertinent to his response to other issues addressed in this letter. Since today’s lesson begins a series of sequential readings from 1 Corinthians in the next several Sundays, it will be helpful to review some of the central themes upon which the letter and this particular reading depend.
You are Not Lacking…
In his familiar opening of “thanksgiving” (1:4-9) Paul already states some general convictions of faith, which undergird his theological counsel. These convictions provide a crucial foundation for all that Paul has to say to those Christians at Corinth and to us Christians today who continue to wrestle with similar questions of how to orchestrate our lives in the midst of often difficult and conflicting choices of practice and personal relations.
At the center stands a confidence in the grace of God that has been given to all in Christ Jesus. This confidence is extended in the promise that God has called believers into this fellowship in the name of Jesus their Lord, and that God is faithful to his promise to hold and strengthen them until the day of Jesus Christ. The sign and seal of this faithfulness is the assurance of the Spirit’s active presence in their person and community and, no matter what their fears and particular evidences to the contrary, as ones called into this community they are not lacking in any gift that the Spirit has to offer.
In a this season of Epiphany, when we reflect on themes of revelation or manifestation, it will be important to hear again this reassuring confident conviction, that even in the midst of hidden signs or evidence to the contrary, because of the promise of God’s call and faithfulness we can rest assured that we already possess every gift that the Spirit has in store for us.
All Things are Lawful…
Other important themes accompany this central conviction. Believers have been given a new wisdom belonging to the proclamation of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1:18-2.5). Because of the death and resurrection of Christ, this community lives empowered by the Spirit even in its common confession that Jesus is Lord (12:3). The mark of this life in the Spirit is a mind-boggling reconciling freedom binding all of creation together: “All things are yours; you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God” (3:22-23).
The key to faithful exercise of such freedom, which places the whole world along with all of its uncertainties and associated risks at our fingertips, is to understand that the Christian life is thus always ambiguous. It calls us to live between difficult and often competing alternatives, while trusting the Spirit for guidance within community. The guiding principle, in the form of a Pauline mantra, is confidence that with the Spirit’s gifts comes the wisdom to understand and the ability to work for that which “builds up the community. “All things are lawful; but not all things are helpful” (6:12; 10:23). Consideration of these two verses together underscores that for Paul “what is beneficial,” “what builds up,” and living in the “freedom” of “all things being lawful” are mutually interdependent realities.
Some Key Implications
Paul’s counsel holds out key implications for the Christian life. We live confidently in the call and faithfulness of God’s promises in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and in the power of the Spirit to bind communities together in love (see chapter 13). Yet we are never ripped out of the world or separate from it. Our actions always take shape in particular situations and experiences.
Fruitful choices need to be worked out through the use of reason in the midst of particular needs. They assume the capacity given by the Spirit to use freedom to make responsible choices. It is the same Spirit who works in everyone for the common good, but often with differing gifts and differing choices (12:7, 11). These background convictions are woven into the fabric of today’s reading and those that follow in the next several Sundays.
Concerning Spiritual Gifts
The translation “spiritual gifts” (12.1; Greek pneumatikoi) is potentially misleading. It might better be translated as “those gifts which the Spirit offers.” Used fifteen times in this letter, it testifies to the central importance of this theme in the letter as a whole. It is regularly used interchangeably with another word translated as “gifts” in verse 4 (charism; 1:7; 7:7 and 12:9, 28, 30, 31). In the opening “thanksgiving” Paul has assured the Corinthians they are not lacking in any “gift” that the Spirit has to offer (1:7). Now he turns to address those particular gifts that have apparently occasioned no little dissension in the community.
Jesus is Lord
When considering God’s gifts, Paul says, we always need to begin by getting one thing straight. The central “gift” of the Spirit is our common confession that Jesus Christ is Lord. This confession, empowered by the event of the cross and resurrection, binds this community and all Christian communities together in a unity that overarches all our differences. It is a gift in which we all share by the word and promise of God.
Wisdom as Gift
Now Paul says, “I do not want you to be uninformed” (12:1) and “I want you to understand” (12:3). Wisdom, too, is a key gift of the Spirit. Paul earlier speaks of the mysterious wisdom of God that belongs to the event of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1:18-2,5). Although Paul in this whole section is thus implying that wisdom is needed to resolve differences, several terms in particular call attention to important insights that belong to wisdom.
- “Varieties of gifts” (12:4) — The translation partially misses Paul’s point. It should be “divisions” or “distributions” or “allotments” thus calling attention to the active role of the Spirit. In any case “divisions” is a term belonging to wisdom. It is wisdom that gives the ability to make distinctions and to assess the implications of particularity and difference in practical real life situations. Paul invites the Corinthians to join him in using that gift in assessing and living with differences in community.
- “The common good” (12:7) — The allotments of the Spirit are not arbitrary or willy-nilly. They are given with particularity and with purpose “for the common good.” Of course that “common good” is not always transparent; it has to be negotiated in practice, again by the use of the gift of wisdom, in consideration of what it is that “builds up the community.” Here, of course, Paul’s list of gifts in verses 7 through 10 is doing just that. Some relative judgment is being made about what gifts are most important in community. He begins with “wisdom,” “knowledge,” and “faith,” and ends with the gift of “tongues.”
- “Manifestation” (12:7) — Manifestation is also a wisdom term. Manifestation is an Epiphany word. It calls attention to wisdom’s ability to take things that are hidden or mystifying and bring them out into the open for consideration and understanding. It acknowledges the presence and activity of the Spirit in the particular gifts that belong to the diverse endowments of the believing community.
Unity in Trinity
In a particularly effective and carefully chosen three-part rhetorical refrain, Paul calls attention to the bond of diversity and unity that belongs to the gifts of the Spirit (12:4,5,6). Three times he speaks of the diversity of the “allotments.” Three times in the word “same” he calls attention to the unity of the giver in a telling Trinitarian formula: “same Spirit…same Lord (Jesus)…same God.”
Further, in a three-fold intentional progression, he calls attention first to the “gift,” then to the “service,” the purpose for which the gift is given, and finally to the “energy” or “active capacity” which enables the performance of that service. It is the power of the Trinity that enables “all things in every and all circumstances and in all persons” (the Greek is deliberately ambiguous, inclusive, and particular all at the same time). The importance of this conviction is underscored by the fact that its repetition in verse 11 frames this whole section. The Spirit’s gifts are diverse and particular (12:1, 11), but in each situation they are energized by the “one and the same” (note the emphasis) Spirit. All of this takes place “according to the Spirit’s will.” We are reminded that in the end the gifts, the ministry, and the empowering of the community for service all belong to God.