(Read 1 Corinthians 12)
This scripture is one of several in the New Testament that deal with the subject of the membership of the body of Christ.
We saw last week that the oneness of the body of Christ was symbolically represented at the Lord's table by the one loaf. There the fact of corporate unity was set forth in connection with the remembrance of the Lord Jesus in His death, but in this twelfth chapter of First Corinthians the diversity that exists in the body of Christ is brought out very distinctly.
The body of Christ is one, and in this respect is quite distinct from the unity of the nation of Israel. That nation consisted, as we know, of twelve tribes, and those twelve tribes were represented before the Lord on the table of showbread by twelve loaves, one for each tribe. There was a national unity expressed in the fact that all the tribes were there, and the nation as a whole was thus represented, while the fact of their having the joint responsibility of administration in government was set out by there being twelve loaves. In the representation of the church of Christ, however, there is but one loaf. And this more intimate unity exists in spite of the fact that the body of Christ is made up of believing Jews and Gentiles, of bond and free, indeed of all classes and conditions of men. They are all brought together and welded by the Holy Spirit into a single corporation — the body of Christ.
But then the church is not a community, a congregation of people who are all precisely alike, all identical in character, capacity, and condition before the Lord, and who therefore make up a solid mass of similar particles, so to speak. There is a diversity among the members of Christ, necessary for life, for living action towards one another, and for testimony for God in the world. Therefore the Spirit of God uses this figure of the human body to represent the relationship of believers one to another in the body of Christ, and, above all, in their connection with Him as their Head on high.
Union with the Head
It is often overlooked in speaking of the body of Christ that the body is of no account at all apart from the Head. The headless body of Goliath was but the proof of his final defeat. The body of Christ upon the earth without its Head is really unthinkable; and we can easily rob ourselves of the beauty and force of this truth by forgetting that there is a real and vital connection between the saints of God as a whole and the Lord Jesus Christ on high. He is the living Head, there, and because He is the living Head there, the body of Christ on earth lives also, and will live, and must live, so long as the Head remains intact in glory.
This fact is a source of comfort to those saints of God who are really tried and troubled by the present condition of ecclesiastical affairs, which are so different from what we find in the scriptures. Perhaps some persons are cast down by the confusion; they say, "What is to become of us? What is to become of the saints of God? What is to become of the church of God? Is it all to be wrecked? Is it to go absolutely to pieces, and its testimony to be destroyed utterly?" Never; because of this unseen, but real, connection with the Lord Jesus Christ on high.
And this connection — if you will allow me to dwell on this point for a moment — this connection of the "body" with Christ does not depend upon ourselves in the same way as our personal communion with Christ depends upon ourselves. To take an example, we know very well that we may go through a day in happy intercourse with the Lord Jesus Christ, but this is the result of some conscious effort on our part. On the other hand, because we are lackadaisical in our ways, and allow things to drift, and temporal matters to usurp the chief place in our hearts, we may lose altogether the sense of the communion which we have, and which, as children of God, we should enjoy with the Father and the Son.
Therefore, the enjoyment of individual communion, viewed in this way, depends upon ourselves. But the wonderful connection of the church of God with the Lord Jesus Christ does not depend upon ourselves. We are baptized into one body by the Holy Spirit of God, and it is the Holy Spirit of God Who is the powerful link between the saints of God as the body of Christ upon the earth and the glorified Head on high. And as long as the church is on earth the Spirit abides in that habitation of God.
We can therefore take assurance and comfort from the remembrance of this fact. But we must also bear in mind that the active care exercised by the Lord does not remove from us all responsibility in connection with the church. This is enforced by scripture also. We have our own responsibility as members of the body of Christ, and in this twelfth chapter we have brought out the activities that go on amongst the saints of God for their edification, for their spiritual joy, for their peace, for their power to witness for the truth in the world. The Spirit of God shows us here that all the saints of God are mutually dependent one upon another; that their common welfare and spiritual growth rest upon individual effort, individual faithfulness, individual communion with the Lord Jesus Christ.
You will see that at the commencement of this chapter, the apostle refers to the sharp distinction that should be drawn between the power of the Holy Spirit of God acting in the assembly and the counterfeit action of the emissaries of Satan demons who, through idols, exercised a destructive effect upon men.
The Corinthians, in their natural state, were accustomed to spiritual manifestations, and therefore they might be deceived when such were displayed in the assembly of God. Consequently, the apostle gave them a test whereby they might prove what was of the Holy Spirit and what was of an unclean spirit; and this test was the Lordship of Christ. The Spirit of God invariably glorifies the Lord Jesus Christ, and calls Him "Lord"; but an unclean spirit never does this. Never; he is there to degrade, if possible, the Person of the Lord Jesus and remove Him from the attention of the saints of God. The apostle writes, "I give you therefore to know, that no one, speaking in (the power of the) Spirit of God, says Curse (on) Jesus; and no one can say, Lord Jesus, unless in (the power of the) Holy Spirit." (New Trans.)
Divine Agency and the Gifts
Then he proceeds in the fourth, fifth and sixth verses to show that the actions which take place in the assembly of God for mutual edification and comfort, arise from the agency of the Spirit of God, of the Lord Jesus Christ, of God Himself. He says, "There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all." Here he establishes the great fact that whatever ministry is really worth having amongst the saints of God comes to us by the power of God working in our midst. This may seem a very simple and elementary truth, but it is one of real importance to us, because we may find ourselves in a very small company of people, where we may have elements of weakness staring us in the face every time we are together. And if we suppose that our resources are entirely in the hands and hearts of those that are assembled together, we shall be depressed perhaps by this poverty-stricken condition. Despair seizes us for the simple reason that we have forgotten the existence of the Spirit of God; we have forgotten the Lordship of Christ; we have forgotten that God Himself works all in all in the assembly. In short, we have overlooked the threefold encouragement of these verses.
Paul says, first of all, There are many gifts and various gifts in the assembly, but there is one Spirit Who gives them. The same Spirit distributes His gifts in the assembly to one and another as it pleases Him. He is the ruler. He appoints. There is no human arrangement at all, but the various kinds of gifts all spring from the same Spirit. You must have noticed in this chapter how the phrase recurs over and over again — "the same Spirit." There is one Spirit, the One Who came down at Pentecost, the One Who dwells in the church, the One Whom the Lord promised to be with us for ever. It is not a human, not an evil spirit, but the same Holy Spirit; He gives the gifts.
But, secondly, a man may have a gift, and may be concerned to know how and when he is to use it. For direction in this matter he has to look to the Lord, as may be gathered from the teaching in the next verse. They had differences of administrations, which means the ordering of the time when the gift should be put in exercise. There was the regulation of the movements of the soul, directing each man when to speak and when to be silent; what place he is to speak in, and what place he is to desist from visiting. All such activity is under the direction of the "same Lord."
You find instances in the Acts. Those that assayed to go into Bithynia were not suffered to go by the Spirit of Jesus (Acts 16:7, N. Tr.). The Lord spoke to Paul in Corinth, telling him that He had much people in that city, and the apostle remained there for eighteen months, teaching the word of God (Acts 18:9-11). And so you find the Lord exercising His prerogative of government in the midst of the church. The man who has received a gift by the Holy Spirit has no right to use it except as the Lord directs. The Lord will not allow anyone to use His gift for his own pleasure, but only as He means him to act in the midst of the church. If it is a question even of singing praise collectively in the assembly, the Lord Jesus Christ says, "In the midst of the assembly will I sing praise unto Thee" (Heb. 2:12). "He leads His own in praise to God.
So that the Lord administers whatever processes are in progress in the body of Christ for its maintenance. And then the apostle says, "There are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all." He makes it clear that it is God Himself Who is active — not that the Spirit is not God; He is; not that the Lord Jesus is not God; He is. But the apostle sums up the Trinity in a word, and shows us that God Himself is intimately interested in all the affairs of the assembly of God. He worketh all things in all the assembly. The words are so framed that there is no loophole of escape from His operation. There is no little obscure member whose functions are left out of it. There is no little deed that is done, no action such as giving out a hymn, nor any simple act performed by any member of the body of Christ, but God Himself is the One Who works all things in all. What a holy character this truth imparts to assembly activity! And how effective for the well-being of the assembly!
The Manifestation of the Spirit
We have spoken already of the Spirit bestowing the gifts in a general way (verse 4). The apostle goes on to speak more fully in the seventh and the following verses of the manifestation of the Spirit: "the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal." What are we to understand by "the manifestation of the Spirit"? The manifestation is the act of making the presence of the Spirit plain and patent to others. What is hidden is certainly not manifest; and the Holy Spirit Himself is here in this world in an invisible form. The Lord Jesus Christ, God the Son, was manifest in flesh; He was seen of angels, as well as men. He was an object of sight and hearing to the apostles and others. He was manifest in the world; but the Holy Spirit is not incarnate, and therefore His presence and His action are concealed for the most part. The manifestation of the Spirit is through the members of the body of Christ.
The fact whether this person has a gift or that person has a gift is known only to the Spirit, except when the Spirit manifests Himself in working through this person and that for the exercise of the gift. Hence the apostle speaks here of the "manifestation of the Spirit, which is given to every man to profit withal."
Take the first example given. A certain man has the word of wisdom; there it is in his soul. It is, a power of discerning spiritual truth which he has within himself. The Spirit has given it to him. and he enjoys it himself. But so far as the rest of the assembly is concerned, they are ignorant of it, until the Holy Spirit leads that person to use the word of wisdom for the comfort and the well-being of his fellow-members. Then the action of the Holy Spirit is made manifest. When a brother stands up and gives a word of wisdom, then I say to myself, "That is of the Spirit of God That man is speaking as led of God. I know there is something in his word that I can put into practice in my life. I feel the power of the Spirit of truth behind it."
So the apostle gives us a rule, as it were, by which we may judge the working of the Holy Spirit among the members of the body of Christ. When those possessing gifts are actuated by the Holy Spirit of God, they do something or say something in the assembly which is to the profit of the fellow-members. Such useful exercise does not arise simply because a person has a very happy thought that came to him during the week, and now thinks he would like to communicate it to everyone else on the Lord's Day morning. It does not at all follow that the word from God which was very helpful to himself is also a word of wisdom on that particular occasion for others. Who is to judge what is suitable for all those assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus? It is the Spirit of God Who manifests His controlling and influencing power by choosing and directing the ministry in a way most helpful to the saints of God.
And so you have this catalogue of diverse ministry which gives us the manifold manifestation of the Spirit: the word of wisdom, and the word of knowledge, both of which the apostle is careful to say are by the same Spirit. Then he says, "to another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit." Why do we find in this varied list the repetition, "by the same Spirit"? Because we are so apt to approve only of the particular gift that pleases us, forgetting the great variety in the Holy Spirit's operations.
There are some, for instance, who are very pleased with an exhibition of knowledge. A person who can run very quickly from Genesis to Revelation and point out this, that, and the other throughout the pages of Scripture commands their admiration. They say, "What a knowledge of the Scripture he has!" And the exhibition of knowledge — the fact of his possessing apparently an intimate acquaintance with the truths of Scripture — appeals to them as a mark of spiritual ability.
The word of knowledge is here stated to be the manifestation of the Spirit; and it has its place as a means of instruction; but then I ought not to say, "I like the word of knowledge, and prefer it to anything else." The Spirit of God may see that I need a word of wisdom first. This is something different from the word of knowledge, because wisdom is the right application of the truth of God to the troublesome and puzzling circumstances in which we often find ourselves.
A person gives us a word by the Holy Spirit which, like a flash of light, shows us the way. We may have been praying and puzzling. for a long time as to what was the right thing for us, and at last some one is led to give the word of wisdom. Then we know what is the will of God. He has set before us that truth of scripture which has shone as a light upon our path.
To be able to do this is a high attainment in ministry to the saints. I suppose only that person can speak the words of wisdom who is humble and lowly in himself; who has the fear of God before him; and who lives in communion with the Son; for only the Lord Himself can teach us how to apply His truth to the manifold difficulties that arise day by day. But the wise person is the one who sits like Mary at the feet of the Lord Jesus, and hears His word — that word which is always capable of helping us, and of preserving us from the errors to which we are liable. This is how we learn to be wise ourselves; and the Holy Spirit then gives us the word of wisdom, that is, the ability of putting it so that it will help others. We read in the Proverbs, "The tongue of the wise useth knowledge aright" (Prov. 15:2).
This service is not necessarily and always a word spoken in the assembly meeting. A word of wisdom may be spoken in private life between two members of the body of Christ. And if we can even in a private way speak a word of wisdom to a person who is distracted and perplexed in the things of daily life, it is of great value: it is something which will advance the spiritual health of the whole body of Christ.
Let us remember that the Spirit of God gives all these things. We would probably like to possess the gift of healing; but the Spirit of God puts first the word of wisdom; and the word of knowledge comes before it, and the word of faith too. Faith is the power of taking hold of God, of laying hold of His word, and of counting upon Him in the face of every difficulty, and of every foe. There are those that have this faith which is given them by God the Spirit. We are all believers, but not every believer has the faith that is spoken of here — the faith that removes mountains, the faith that opposes Satan and quenches his fiery darts, the faith that is always triumphant, the faith that walks even upon the waves of the sea.
Nine Gifts, One Spirit
As the fruit of the Spirit in Gal. 5:22, 23, is ninefold, so there are nine gifts of the Spirit enumerated here for the help and blessing of the church; but you will notice that in the eleventh verse the apostle says, "All these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as He will." So there is no confusion in the body of Christ. In the human body all its members are co-ordinated, and they work together for a common purpose — the health and activity of the whole. And so it is in the body of Christ, the reason being that God's own Spirit is working there. However many the gifts may be, He controls and uses them all for one purpose, that is, for the blessing of all the members of the body of Christ and so to the glorification of the Head of the body, Christ Himself.
And it is added that He, the Holy Spirit, divides severally to every man as He will. Thus the power and authority of the Spirit of God are present in the midst of the church. I think we ought to be very jealous of the authority of the Spirit of God amongst the saints, lest it should be disregarded.
The Lord Jesus has sent down the Holy Spirit into this world, and His dwelling-place is in the church. His presence is denied, of course, by the world. Alas, it is also denied largely by Christendom; and we who know the glory of Christ, His faithfulness to His word, and that He sent His Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and that God the Holy Spirit still dwells in the midst of His saints — how often we do not recognise His presence! Ought we not always to bow to His authority? Ought we not to wait for His leading? Ought we not ever to seek to be in such an attitude of soul that He may use us as He will?
This necessity for dependence applies to sisters as well as brothers, to silence as well as speech. For the Holy Spirit answers the expectation that is in the hearts of those that are together; and we all must wait for His movement. Did I say wait? Yes, in our audible worship we have to wait; we always have to wait for the direction of the Spirit of God.
But the word "waiting" in this connection is sometimes misunderstood. Let me seek to make it quite plain for the youngest of our friends here tonight. We come together — at eleven o'clock, shall we say? — for the breaking of bread, and we sit together quietly perhaps even for a quarter of an hour, waiting; but are our hearts inactive during that time? Is there nothing Godward passing in our souls? Is the mind a blank, as it were, waiting for some person to break the silence and to speak aloud?
If so, you are waiting in a wrong sense. The Spirit works in the hearts of those who recognize His presence, and He would do so in the hearts of all that are together. At eleven o'clock, the appointed time, the Lord Jesus Christ is there. The Holy Spirit is there. The worship and the remembrance of the Lord Jesus Christ in His death should begin at eleven o'clock. It is not at all a question of something audible being the essential feature. Waiting is the dependent attitude we take before the Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit. We are together to remember the Lord, and He brings to our hearts His holy word; the Spirit brings before us the glory of Christ, the beauty of His Person, the marvels of His sacrifice; and we break out in adoration and praise to Him, as our hearts are led back to consider Him when He laid down His life for us.
Oh, beloved friends, the Holy Spirit is verily present amongst the saints, and He works, surely works, on these occasions, if we really believe in His presence and forbid the rising up of the impatience of our flesh.
"So Also Is Christ"
In the next three verses, (12-14), the apostle goes on to speak of the oneness of the body of Christ. He says first: "For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ." The apostle has been speaking about the gifts — the word of knowledge to one, the word of wisdom to another, faith to another, healing to another, and so on — but then not all men have gifts. The apostle now speaks of the whole body, which consists of numerous members. They are all one, though there are many. There is a variety in the body, all the members having their respective differences; but by reason of these differences they contribute to the health and efficiency of the whole body of Christ.
This unity is not something to be constructed by ourselves, the members; it is not something that is a result of each one losing his individuality, and so becoming merged with the others. That is not the way in which the body is formed. We find that it is formed by the connection of the members with the Lord Jesus Christ. There is a remarkable expression here: "All the members of that one body, being many, are one body; so also is Christ." The apostle is evidently speaking of the Head in glory and the body here upon the earth, constituting one spiritual "man", Christ being the Head, and all the members the body. When he says, "So also is Christ," that mystical man is designated by one name — Christ.
We have an analogous instance in the Old Testament where in Genesis 5:2, speaking of God's creation of man, we read, "Male and female created He them, and blessed them, and called their name, Adam." The two, husband and wife, were looked upon as one flesh bearing one name. Both were one, and the oneness in Eden is alluded to in Ephesians 5:30-32, in connection with Christ and the church in her bridal aspect. Here then you have the intimate unity existing between the body upon the earth and Christ in glory: "So also is Christ." Christ and His body are described as one.
"For by one Spirit", he says, "are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit." There is an allusion apparently to the two Christian ordinances — to baptism first, and to the Lord's Supper in the drinking "into one Spirit." The allusion does not imply, of course, that baptism by water has anything to do with the formation of the body, but the apostle uses that well-known term to describe the action of the Holy Spirit when He came down and formed that new unity. He baptized all believing Jews and Gentiles, bond and free, into that new thing, which is called the body of Christ, in which they are all one.
But the apostle also uses a second figure, we "have been all made to drink into one Spirit." And this use perhaps explains or helps to explain why in 1 Corinthians 10, speaking of the Lord's Supper, the cup is mentioned before the loaf, because there the question treated in the verses is one of communion, of association; and "drinking the cup" especially implies our communion with Christ and our communion with one another at the Lord's table. Accordingly the apostle says here, we "have been all made to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many." All the members share the operations of the one Spirit. It will he remembered that our Lord used the term "drink" with reference to the Holy Spirit's descent at Pentecost (John 7:37-39).
The Foot and the Hand
Paul goes on to show how the various members composing the church of God are dependent one upon another. There is an interdependence between all those who make up this holy body of Christ. — No one person, no one member, can isolate himself from the body, and maintain an independence, "If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?" The seriousness of such a spirit of independence lies in the effort to get away from practical connection with the body of Christ. It is not only that a foot assuming to have no connection with the hand does an injury to the hand, but the whole body is affected. The apostle asks, "Is it therefore not of the body?"
If the foot, or the hand, or both of them, were severed from the body the relations would be different, but each forms an essential part of the body. What is the body without the foot? It is an incomplete thing. A maimed body is imperfect, and its well-being is interfered with. Therefore there is a necessity for the presence of each member in the body, and for its activity. If the foot does not act, of what use is it? Though it exists as a part of the body, it is a useless member. It does not help, and all the members are affected. They all suffer because it does not do its duty.
Do we not see the application to ourselves? The functions of the foot and the hand, walk and service for God in this world, are not to be divorced. Both are necessary, because we should walk before the world as those that belong to Christ, just as truly as we should serve to the glory of Christ. This applies equally to one member or more. The person who serves actively and diligently but fails to walk in the fear of the Lord is injuring the body of Christ. He is making a great display, showing much activity as a rule, but there is not a consistency of life. There must be the right and faithful walk as well as the devoted service. The same principle applies to the eye and the ear and the other members.
Care for One Another
I need not go through these verses in detail. The gist of them is that all the various members have their duty and relation one to another, and they are all helpful to each other. All the members need to "have the same care one for another." We are put together in a spiritual association by the power of God and the action of the Spirit of God; and being there, we have a responsibility, not only to the Lord, our Head, but we have also a responsibility to one another. We have by love to serve one another. We have to help one another in the things of the Lord. We have to contribute to one another's spiritual joy and peace. Where anything can be done to advance another's knowledge of scripture and of the Lord Jesus Christ, it is our business to do what we can in that respect.
We sometimes forget our responsibility to our fellow-members that are so near to us. We think of lands and islands far away, and of people far away, who are removed from us by natural inclination and habit and so on; and we forget those by whose side we sit week by week, whose faces we see, and with whose voices we join in praising the Lord, kneeling with them at the throne of grace. It is so easy to forget that we all, far and near, are members of the body of Christ, and that our responsibility to them all is, for that reason, greater than to any others upon the face of the earth.
The members of Christ should have the same care one for another. This care requires thought; it requires wise action; it requires self-denial. It requires a certain amount of personal loss and self-sacrifice oftentimes to be real helpers one of another. Sometimes we may fail and be covered with confusion when we try to help others. We must not be discouraged; there is still our responsibility. We cannot avoid occasional failure, and this does not alter the fact that we are bound to serve one another.
The tide of spiritual vitality in the body flows down from the Head in heaven, and it comes to my fellow-member as it comes to me. This living energy binds us together practically in the discharge of our mutual affections and responsibilities. The apostle says in the twenty-sixth verse: "Whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it." There, I think, is summed up the effect of this unseen work of the Spirit of God amongst the saints, which we often overlook to our loss, because it is distinct from oral ministry in the assembly.
Very often what we do and say in the privacy of our lives as the saints of God, in prayer and Bible study, in the practice of Christian virtues, in seeking to follow Christ more closely, has an influence, apart from our knowledge, upon our fellow-members about us. We exercise an influence upon others without trying to do so. We know very well that when sometimes we come into the presence of certain persons a feeling which we had not before takes possession of us. A certain amount of joy, a certain amount of peace, an indescribable elation comes to us, and seems to help us and do us good. The shake of the hand, the very look on the face, no word being said, are often enough to illustrate the powerful influence for good that one member of Christ can shed upon a fellow-member.
This may be true of a young person, as well as of an older one. We exercise the greatest beneficial influence of this kind upon others, in so far as we ourselves receive from our Head in glory that which He alone can give us of life and communion, of holiness and power. Oh, may we covet this power of being of real spiritual value to others! There may be only two or three around us; this does not matter at all. It is not a question of numbers in any way. The whole secret is for me to be right with the Lord for myself, to allow the Holy Spirit Who dwells in the church of God to influence me in my life and action. If this be so, then the self-same Spirit Who works in the hearts of all the saints of God, Who produces His fruit in me, will, use me, perhaps silently, for the help and blessing of others.
The Local Assembly
The apostle up to this point has been speaking of the church of God as the body of Christ, regarding it in its entirety. He looks at the whole of the saints of God on the earth at one time. I hardly think that scripture warrants us in saying that the church of God, that is, the church of God composed of all the believers in Christ from Pentecost to the day of His coming, is described as the body. The body is the living thing at any given time here on the earth, though associated with Christ in heaven. Those saints who have fallen asleep and are now in Christ still form part of the assembly which Christ is building, but the body of Christ is the living organization on earth. The Lord Jesus Christ was here in the body prepared for Him, and He was the Faithful and True Witness for God. When He went on high He formed the church which is His body, to be a witness for His name, speaking to all in the world of the Christ Who is gone on high.
In the twenty-seventh verse, Paul does not repeat what we have in the thirteenth verse: we are "all baptized into one body;" or what we have in 1 Corinthians 10:17, "we, being many, are one bread and one body;" or as in Romans 12:5, "we, being many, are one body in Christ." In these passages, he is speaking of Christians generally, of what is true of fall believers wherever they are. But here, he says, "Ye are the body of Christ," that is, those to whom he was writing, the assembly at Corinth. He means they were so in a representative way. They were responsible in their measure, according to their limitations, in the same way as the saints of God everywhere. They did not in themselves form the complete body, but they were its local representative. The assembly at Corinth was representative of the whole assembly of Christ.
"Ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular." They singly were members of the body of Christ. It does not follow that Corinth would have the same variety in the manifestation of the Spirit that was in the church at large. We know that in an assembly of only two or three persons there could hardly be a dozen gifts amongst so few. But the distribution of gifts is not the point here. They were the body of Christ so far as receiving their due share of blessing from Christ, the Head in glory. Two or three, whoever they might be, will receive a measure of the gift of His grace in the Same way as the whole body. The Lord Jesus Christ is not unmindful of those who in weakness and feebleness represent Him here upon the earth. He regards them as His body, and as members of His body. Not that they have on this account any ground for self-satisfaction, or anything wherein to boast. The truth was stated for the comfort, and also for the reproof of those at Corinth; but we cannot now dwell further upon this interesting truth.
Apostles, Prophets, Teachers
The apostle goes on in the twenty-eight verse to speak of what gifts are in the church generally. "And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues." These are what God has set there normally. He does not here refer to the saints as the body, but as the assembly; and so he speaks of those gifts bestowed by Christ when He ascended up on high, and gave gifts to men.
The first three, which he places in the order of their importance, are apostles, prophets, teachers: these seem to be personal gifts. Thus, the apostles were so many persons that were bestowed upon the church. They had no successors, being given for the definite purpose of laying the foundation of the church. They passed away when this work was done. They laid the foundation (Eph. 2:20): there were no more added to them, because their particular service was not continued.
The prophets of the church were gifted to communicate the mind of God about the truths and blessings consequent upon the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, while the apostles communicated the mind and will of God in the New Testament order of things for His newly-formed assembly. The teachers follow these two as those who expounded to the saints of God the instructions given to the early church through the superior gifts, and also explained the Old Testament scriptures in the light of the New.
And Paul puts these three classes first of all to correct the extraordinary and harmful mistake that had been made at Corinth. In this assembly they were esteeming above everything else the showy gifts of tongues and healings; and the apostle quietly reproves them by this very order. The gift of tongues was very well and useful in its place, but the main object in the exercise of gift was the edification of the church. This was the great test of value, and therefore the apostles, prophets, and teachers come first. God has set them foremost in the assembly, and Paul, himself the chiefest of the apostles, has put them first. We must keep them there, that is, their writings.
Other gifts, as helps and governments, remain in the assembly, and will remain to the end. This list shows the great variety of gifts bestowed. But the apostle shows they are not all apostles, they are not all prophets, They are distributed proportionately in number and quality. There is a variety to meet all the needs of the saints and to fulfil the purpose in God's mind for the help and blessing of the church.
It will be seen that the whole tenor of the chapter is to show how God is working amongst the saints for their comfort and edification, for their building up on their most holy faith. God is doing His work still. The danger is that we may miss being benefited by that work. We may be in such a frame of mind or in such an association that the divine work and the divine purpose will pass by unheeded by us, and we may then be unhelped by what God is doing to edify and encourage His saints.
I am not now alluding to what the Lord is doing for us individually, but rather, of what is true of the assemblies of the saints and of their relationships with one another. We may receive a full share of these blessings if we will. The love of God is active; we know the Holy Spirit is not idle. The Lord Jesus Christ never sleeps or slumbers. He is doing His work. How is it that we are not benefited more than we are? Where is the hindrance? Where is the fault? What is wrong? Is there anything wrong with God, with the Spirit of God, with the Head of the church? No, beloved friends, the fault is with ourselves. We do not put ourselves in that attitude, in that frame of soul, to receive the benefits of the working of the Spirit of God.
Coveting the Best Gifts
The apostle says, "Covet earnestly the best (or the greater) gifts." Do not be on the look-out for tongues. I think this exhortation may be taken in two ways. Sometimes it is regarded as meaning that a person is encouraged to have a holy ambition to possess some great gift in the church; and no doubt, this view is right, though very few of such ambitions will be realized. But does not the apostle mean more than this? Does he not mean that all the saints should desire that God would work in their midst by the greater gifts, that is, by the gifts for edification?
Supposing, if it were possible, that a person spoke with tongues in our midst tonight, and that there was no interpretation, and, therefore, no edification. What would be the benefit, as the apostle asks later on, to the saints? No benefit at all. There would be no edification, no promotion of love, holiness, wisdom or knowledge. Such a display would not be for the glory of the Lord. It would not be by the Spirit of God. But what is for the building up of the saints and for the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ is the mark of the greater gift. Let us desire this for ourselves. Oh, the poverty-stricken condition in which we are! Then, are you often on your knees asking God to speak through His servants to bring home, His word in power to your souls? Are you asking Him to speak to you through the mouths of others? It may be by a simple brother, for the Lord can speak to your soul through anyone.
But, supposing there are no gifts, what then? The apostle says, "I show you a more excellent way." And this he does in the next chapter. Prophecies may fail, tongues will cease, knowledge may vanish away, but there is one thing that will always remain, while the church is on earth; and that is love, the love of God, and the love of saints. And we ought to desire to cultivate love within us, to let love do its work upon us; because, as says the apostle in another place, it is love that edifies. A person may stand up in the assembly, and deliver a most moving and touching address, but if there is no love in it, if the Spirit of God is not bringing the love of Christ to me through His word, it will not help my soul, it will not bring me nearer in walk to the Lord Jesus Christ.
This exhortation I leave with you: "Covet earnestly the best gifts", and do look out for that more excellent way of love which is within the reach of everyone of us. Let us love one another because Christ has loved us and given Himself for us. He has set us the example. He has given us an incentive. He loved us when there was nothing lovely in us. He died for us when we were sinners. This unselfishness should be the character of our love. Do we love just those who are pleasant and agreeable to us? What about the cantankerous ones? What about those persons to whom we can hardly get near? Do we love them and pray for them? "Covet earnestly the best gifts", and study that more excellent way given us in the thirteenth chapter.