Commentary on 1 Corinthians 12:1-11
Emerging out of a holiday season of gift giving, the New Testament text for today provides a different take on the concept of giving and receiving gifts. Where popular stories about Santa Claus depict a magnanimous giver doling out longed-for presents for the sake of individual enjoyment, Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts imagines a divine giver who bestows gifts based on what will most contribute to the common good of a whole community.
Ultimately, this distribution of gifts serves to make the Spirit itself manifest among the community of believers. This manifestation of the Spirit makes for a fitting theme to explore during the season of Epiphany when attention may otherwise be given solely to the revelation of the Second Person of the Trinity.
Situating 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 in literary context
First Corinthians 12 begins with a formula that Paul has used several times already in the letter: “Now concerning…” (see also 7:1; 8:1; 16:1). While this formula indicates that Paul is beginning a new subject, it also appears to be signaling that he is responding to issues that were raised by the Corinthians themselves. Here, it is helpful to be reminded that we are receiving only one side of the dynamic communication that was occurring between Paul and the congregation in Corinth. So, while we do not know precisely what questions and concerns the congregation was raising, Paul’s response suggests a few possibilities.
It is also helpful to situate this passage within the context of the larger letter. Though Paul takes on several knotty theological problems throughout the epistle, his thesis in 1:10 sets the stage for everything that the letter will address: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” Paul’s appeal for unity and the abolition of divisions provides an important backdrop for reading this text in 12:1-11 where he will explore how unity can still be achieved even in the midst of radical difference.
One of the central points of 12:1-11 seems to be a celebration of diversity and difference. That is, while it seems likely that several in the Corinthian congregation were upholding the supremacy of speaking in tongues (glossolalia), Paul is at pains to illustrate that all spiritual gifts are worthwhile and are inspired by the same Spirit that distributes the gift of glossolalia to some. In fact, despite the Corinthians’ emphasis on glossolalia, Paul notably saves this gift until close to the end of his list of possible giftings in verses 8-10. Such a placement could suggest that Paul is attempting to downplay the hype that the Corinthians have attached to this one particular gift.
With this potential purpose in mind, Paul’s introduction to his topic in verses 2-3 may seem a bit more fitting. That is, Paul will be addressing a certain type of speaking (speaking in tongues). So, his reference to the Corinthians’ previous behavior of following idols who could not speak (verse 2) and his instruction that the Spirit inspires the speaking of the phrase “Jesus is Lord” sets the stage for the ways in which he will be addressing speech issues in what follows.
Beyond merely setting the stage for further conversation about issues of Spirit-inspired speech, the phrase “Jesus is Lord” is a central claim worth pondering on its own. Appearing also in the famous “Christ Hymn” of Philippians 2:5-11, the phrase “Jesus is Lord” is, perhaps, the central kernel of the early Christian kerygma (see also Philippians 2:11).
Though deceptively simple on its surface, this claim makes a radical political statement. That is, to claim that Jesus is Lord is also to claim that Caesar and other human leaders are not lord. Such claims would have surely been viewed with suspicion, and Christians who made such claims publicly may have faced any number of potentially negative consequences. Thus, Paul’s statement that this phrase can only be spoken through the Holy Spirit makes more sense. Paul seems to be asserting that only the Holy Spirit can offer the courage necessary to make such an incendiary proclamation considering the potentially fatal results.
Just as the Spirit inspires the courage necessary to proclaim Jesus’s lordship, so too does that Spirit distribute several other giftings. In verse 11, Paul reasserts his claim from verse 4 that the same Spirit is responsible for activating all gifts. Intriguingly, the verb that Paul uses in verse 11 to describe the Spirit’s distribution of gifts (diaireo) is the same verb used in Luke’s Parable of the Prodigal Son to describe the father’s division of his estate between his sons (Luke 15:12). While Luke’s account had not yet been written at the time that Paul is penning his epistle, the image of bequeathing an inheritance seems fitting for Paul’s larger argument here. That is, the Spirit is envisaged as doling out gifts for the sake of the common good (1 Corinthians 12:7).
Reading 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 with the lectionary
This passage makes for an intriguing companion to the lectionary’s Gospel text for today, John 2:1-11. In that text, the Fourth Gospel recounts Jesus’s first miracle of turning water into wine at a wedding in Cana. Here in 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, Paul describes the ways in which the same Spirit (see also 12:4) empowers Christians with a variety of comparable abilities. In John, Jesus’s miracle is identified as the first of his signs (John 2:11) and serves as a revelation of his identity and power. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul suggests another sort of revelation: the revealing of the Spirit. Indeed, the term that Paul uses in 12:7 (phanerosis) might best be translated as something like “disclosure” or “revelation.” That is, even as Jesus’s miracle reveals him as a wonder-worker, so too do the Corinthians’ use of their gifts reveal the work of the Spirit in their midst. This is an epiphany indeed!