Commentary on 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Today’s reading is a rhetorically linked continuation of the reading of last Sunday. Because of this it will be important to begin by revisiting last week’s introductory remarks regarding overall key themes of this Corinthian letter. They provide an essential background perspective for the particular arguments being made here.
Sealing the Argument
The initial two words (“for” “just as”) of today’s reading, though small, are especially significant to understanding the argument. The initial “for” is equivalent to an enormous “BECAUSE” that links the reading to 12:1-11 and characterizes this section as an expansion, elucidation, or proof of the preceding assertions. The “just as” indicates that a comparison is being made by way of illustration. The linking “so” of this comparison significantly directs our attention to the figure of Christ as a cryptic code for all that Paul has said about the centrality of the cross and resurrection. The three-fold repetition of the initial “for” (because) at the beginning of verses 12, 13, and 14, underscores the carefully constructed character of the argument that is being made.
The first assertion or “proof” (12:12) picks up last Sunday’s notation of the varied gifts of God’s Spirit in Jesus Christ and develops them in the crucial extended metaphor of the image of the human body. This metaphor combines two critical assertions that will be developed more fully in verses 14 through 26. The body is one but is constituted of many members; even so, though it has many members, it is still one body. This key understanding of the oneness of the body is accentuated by its assertion both at the beginning and ending of the sentence. Then comes the sort of add-on “teaser” — “so it is with Christ” — which awaits further development in verses 27-31a.
The second assertion (12:13) develops like a ring of concentric circles. In the outer circle is the beginning and ending double reference to the one Spirit of God, who, as the author of the gifts of the community, surrounds and sustains its life. In the next ring comes reference to baptism and to the “drinking” of the Eucharist, the two events that mark the origin and sustenance of this life in community. And in the innermost ring is the “one body” created and sustained by this Spirit and these sacraments of unity, along with an imaginative portrayal of that oneness. Jews or Greeks, slave or free, the potential divisions of the varied origins of this community have been swallowed up and overcome in the oneness of the body and the Spirit.
The third assertion (12:14) simply restates the first as directly and succinctly as possible. The body consists of not just one member but many! It is a common sense offering of wisdom, deriving from observation upon which all can agree, and supported by the tools of rhetorical argument — arguing from the lesser to the greater, the one and the many, the seen to the unseen, the particular to the universal. This restated conclusion now prepares for the fuller development of the illustration in the imaginative dialog of verses 15 through 21.
A Talking Foot … and Then Back to a Marvelous New Reality
Paul now makes effective use of one more rhetorical device in the imaginative conversation of talking body parts. The dialog underscores the absurdity of a body in which each of the parts were to go it alone, ignoring the importance of the body’s functioning as a unit or whole.
But then in an important move, “but as it is…” (12:18), Paul both brings us back to reality and develops the argument in a novel and compelling way. The arrangement of the one body with its many members is not simply an accident to be observed but has a divine origin and purpose. Here we meet a distinctive treatment of the body metaphor that is quite different in character and purpose from the elsewhere familiar “Christ as head” and “we as body” image of Ephesians.
Here instead a different point is being made by the focus on the conviction that “God has arranged the members of the body, each one of them, as he chose.” The implications of this conviction are asserted finally in the key culminating insight belonging the gift of oneness of the Christian community: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (12:26).
In order to stress this reality in community, Paul reinforces the three key words, “arrange” (12:24), “suffer,” and “rejoice” (12:26) by incorporating in them a typical and beloved unique Pauline prefix. The Greek preposition syn (meaning “with” or “together,” as in the words “symbiosis” or “symphony”) is prefixed to each of these key verbs. It is as if to underscore the assertion that our oneness is a matter of God’s design. From creation God has “mixed us all together,” that we might suffer and rejoice together in a mutual harmony.
Now we meet even one more key insight of the body language as Paul develops it for the Corinthians. It would be significant alone to underscore that the body is composed of many parts and each part has an important function. Weight is added in the assertion that all of this is by God’s design and the gift of the Spirit. But now this insight is pressed in one further step by reflection on the interrelation of the weaker and stronger members of the body. Because “God has arranged the body, giving greater honor to the inferior member,” (12:24) we are led to imagine and discover the implications of the members’ mutual “care for one another” (12:25).
Bringing the Argument Home
At some point Paul has to “seal the deal” and bring the argument home. In one final appeal he addresses his hearers and us directly. The first word of verse 27 is a big emphatic YOU! (in the plural not the singular to underscore once again this many-membered body). Now here’s the point, Paul says, and it’s all about YOU: “You are the body of Christ, and each one of you is an important member of that body.” But of course, in light the preceding verses, we are meant to hear that this calls us not to some assertion of privileged status, but rather to the recognition of our responsibility for mutual care for the members of this body.
All of this belongs to God’s purpose from the beginning. At this point the church is in a certain sense no way different from the whole of creation. The “God has appointed” for the church of verse 28 is identical to the verb used in the “God has arranged the members in the body” of verse 18. In a series of rhetorical questions, Paul directs attention to a variety of ministry functions, a list that now takes its place alongside the list of the variety of gifts of the Spirit that have been enumerated in 12:4-11. But now these gifts and ministry functions have been newly interpreted and directed toward the mutual edification of a community, a body of which Christ is also a part, through the mutual care for one another in both the sufferings and the successes of life.