On Sunday nights we have been slowly making our way through this letter from the Apostle Paul to a divided little church in the ancient Greek city of Corinth. More specifically, we have been lately discussing the spiritual gifts, which Paul addresses in chapters 12-14, and we have been trying to ask and answer the question of “what does it mean to be spiritual? What does a truly spiritual person look like?”
That was a question that was dividing the church in Corinth, and it divides churches today. What does true holiness look like, and what does it look like to be led by the spirit of God? Does true spirituality mean that you’ll be out on the street corners preaching to the lost in all your spare time? Does it mean that you should adopt all the orphans that you can possibly squeeze into your home? Does real spirituality mean you should be the one preaching and teaching at every opportunity? Or does true spirituality mean that you should be the perpetual waiting tables and changing diapers?
How you answer the question of what true spirituality looks like tells a lot about what you think about Christianity, and about the bible. The answers to these questions also reveal something significant about our understanding of the church. Paul knew that a properly functioning church won’t force people into a cookie cutter mold. Rather, the church is gloriously diverse in its giftings. And that diversity ought to be an opportunity to rejoice in God’s design, rather than lament that people are different than us.
But before we get into that, let’s read 1 Corinthians 12:12-31.
12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves[d] or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts,[e] yet one body.
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 31 But earnestly desire the higher gifts.
And I will show you a still more excellent way.
Let’s begin by looking at verses 12-13 and see the Illustration introduced. The illustration introduced. Paul turns to anatomy in verse 12 to introduce his sermon illustration about the church:
12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.
Ever the master teacher, Paul uses in this whole section of text an extended illustration in order to highlight certain truths that have been otherwise missed by the Corinthian congregation. He begins with the wonderful theological truth that the church is the body of Christ.
But he also does something unexpected in verse 12. Did you catch it? He says “12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with…the church?” No. That’s not what he says. He says, so it is with Christ.
That’s an intentional assertion, and it’s deeply theological. Paul is teaching us that the body of Christ is so associated with Jesus himself, that they are spoken of a single, connected entity.
In fact, this language of the body of Christ is used in several other places, which specifically highlight Christ as the head of the body. He is the head of the body in terms of authority and rule. He’s the boss, he’s the alpha and the omega, he’s the leader and chief.
But he’s also head in terms our origin. Just like the headwaters of a stream is the source of a river, so too is Christ the fountain, the source, the origin of our union with the body.
To connect it more specifically to this passage, we are united to the body, we are made a part of the body of Christ, through our union with the head. It is by faith in Christ and faith alone that we become part of the organic institution of the body of Christ, and by virtue of our union with our head, we then become united in the body with one another. Union with Christ our head is the ultimate ground of our fellowship.
The world cannot understand this. The world divides people along all manner of categories, like gender, or race, or how much money we make, or what school we went to, or what political party we like, or what job we have.
But not so the church. The church is glorious in its diversity, because what unites us is nothing accidental like the color of our skin or the size of our bank accounts. What unites us is a shared bond with our head, Jesus Christ. And because of that bond, we share in the body. That’s the next verse:
13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves[d] or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
Into a single spirit, we were all baptized. The Jews and the Greeks, the slaves or the free, the rich or the poor, the black and the white, all baptized into the ONE body. There’s no hierarchy of merit that anyone can claim. There’s no preferential treatment, nor a secret handshake that gets us into the door. It’s only baptism into the Spirit by faith in Christ.
And notice both of the church’s sacraments highlighted here: baptized into the Spirit, and made to drink of one spirit, which is language pointing back to chapter 10:4, and back the Lord’s supper discussion in the previous chapter.
Our union with Christ produces the theological reality of baptism in the fullness of the Holy Spirit, which then is pictured when we undergo water baptism when we join the church.
And our union with Christ then permits the ongoing blessing of participation in the Lord’s Supper among the body, whereby the Spirit works through the picture of the gospel to preserve us until the end. It is into one Spirit we are baptized, and therefore, it is into one body that we are baptized.
In sum, Paul uses our singular head, Jesus Christ, and our sharing in the ONE Holy Spirit, in order to get us to see the silliness of division over the gifting in the body.
But there were divisions in Corinth, divisions over how to value the various spiritual gifts, as we see in the verses ahead. And so Paul warns the Corinthians about two different pitfalls, two dangers. The first danger is a sense of inferiority. The danger of a sense of inferiority that some people had about their spiritual gifts. We see this in verses 14-19. Look with me at verse 14:
14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.
Paul reminds them of the underlying principle, that the body has various parts. Simple enough. Even a child can recognize that. Children know that each body as two eyes, two ears, two feet. One mouth.
But then he pushes the illustration further, showing the inconsistency of their own thinking. The foot can’t say to itself that it doesn’t belong, simply because it’s not a hand. But sometimes we can act like feet and think this way.
“The feet think to themselves, I’m down here at the bottom of the body, the closest to the dust, and therefore I’m furthest from Heaven. I’m nothing special. I’m good for nothing except stinking, and carrying around heavy things. If I were only a hand, then, then I could be something special. I could be useful, I could grab things and I could communicate. But I’m not, and so I am worthless.”
And they listen to the lies of Satan and of the world, that tell them they are useless and unimportant because they aren’t gifted like those people serving in positions of prominence.
But Paul corrects their thinking by reminding them of a key principle: that diversity of parts is NECESSARY for the body’s proper function. If the body is function according to its design, it must have different parts. Verse 17:
17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?
If the whole body were eyes, just imagine the silly picture, if your whole body was covered in eyes, how would you hear? You wouldn’t. You’d be deaf. Your body wouldn’t be operating according to its design and according to its maximal function. Conversely, if the whole body was covered with ears, you’d have great hearing, but you couldn’t smell.
It’s a silly mental picture, but the truth is so simple that even children understand. In fact, we can take it even further. Children, when you get home, I want you to try and un-tie your shoes without using your hands. Some of you might be able to do that. But once you do that, I then want you to put your shoes back on and then tie the shoelaces back, without using your hands. You can’t do it. You need hands.
You’ll see very quickly that things get difficult, even impossible, when we try to operate out of accord with God’s design for our body. Indeed, when part of the body is missing, the whole body can’t work right.
And God knows that. That’s why he’s gifted the body as he did. Verse 18:
18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.
Here is another argument for contentment in our gifting and station. God has gifted each member, as he saw fit. That means He hasn’t made a mistake. You may FEEL inferior, but that’s not true. You’ve been given exactly the gifts that YOU need and that the BODY needs.
Don’t grow envious of the usefulness hands, or the prominence of the eyes. And don’t lament the fact that you were born a foot. Trust that God knows what he is doing. He’s knitted you together in your mother’s whom, and designed you according to infinite wisdom, and he’s spent no less care knitting together the body of Christ.
To illustrate the point again, Paul asks a rhetorical question in verse 19:
19 If all were a single member, where would the body be?
If everybody was a foot, or a hand, or a mouth, what would be the body be like? It would be deficient, indeed, if might even perish entirely. If the church had all mouths but no stomach, we’d die. If we were all eyes but no heart, we’d be done for.
So it is with the body of Christ. If everybody were the same, it would not only be unpleasant, it would be deficient, deformed, and it would eventually disintegrate.
But so often we think like this, don’t we. We think to ourselves: “If people would just think the way that I do, that they would all listen to me, and adopt my priorities, and spend time and effort on the things that I like to do, if they’d run the ministry the way I want it to be run, then everything in the church would run like clockwork.”
What we’re saying in that moment is that I wish everybody were a hand like me. Or everybody were a foot like me. We want everybody to be just like me, and then life would be sweet and harmonious.
But that’s the exact opposite of what Paul is arguing in this passage. Indeed, it’s not merely ignorant of God’s design for the church. Such a disposition is often rooted in pride and impatience. The hands can’t tolerate the feet, and the eyes have no patience for the ears. We consider ourselves, our gifts, our preferences as much more important and mature than everybody else’s.
No, we must remember that there is divine-intentionality in the diversity of giftings and roles in the body of Christ, and to wish for anything else is to resist the very will of God himself. Verse 20:
20 As it is, there are many parts,[e] yet one body.
Many parts, one body. Many members, one form. Many roles, one mission. Does any of this sound familiar to you? Do you ever feel envious of the gifts of others, or inferior to them because their gifts seem so impressive? Have you ever lamented the fact that you feel lesser, or mediocre compared to the super-gifted saints around you?
Then hear Paul’s words. Don’t stew in envious pride. Repent of the pride that makes you and your giftings the primary concern. The good of the body and the glory of Christ should be our main concerns.
And remember the good news. That our head has come and died for the prideful and the envious. He calls us to himself, to remember his humble and content soul, who never resisted God’s design for him, but rather said, “Father, not my will but yours be done,” even when that will lead to his death.
He came to the nobodys, and gifted them in the Holy Spirit. In humility, He came to the envious that they might be made content, and he came to the weak, that they might share in His strength.
Further, when you find yourself feeling like a depressed foot again, remember the honor that God bestows on lowly feet. “How beautiful are the feet that spread the good news.” He admires the beauty of the church’s feet, and has provided for their covering. He despises not the weaker ones, but cherishes them with a special love. The lowly are closer to God’s own heart. Remember that, when you’re tempted to be jealous of those with more prominent gifts.
Next, we looked at the danger of inferiority, of feeling less than because of our gifts. Now let’s move on to the other danger, which we might call spiritual gift elitism. Elitism.
This is the temptation to think that some gifts, some people, are less prominent and therefore less relevant. Less useful, and therefore, dispensable. But as we will see, Paul would have us come to the EXACT OPPOSITE conclusion. Look at verse 21.
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”
The eye cannot look at the hands and proclaim “I don’t need you.” Indeed, the eye has neither the authority nor could the eye even remain in existence without the hand. The eye needs the hands to be fed, and the hands need the eye to know where to go.
Further, the head, which is the controlling organ, can’t tell the feet that they’re useless. Without the feet, the body couldn’t move, and therefore the head would have no purpose nor means of locomotion.
Paul not only makes this point, but actually presses it into a surprising conclusion. Verse 22:
22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable,
The weaker parts are INDISPENSABLE. That means essential, vital, critical. The parts of the body that we think are weaker, we actually couldn’t live without. You know that person that kinda annoys you, or that person that you’re not really sure what they do or why they are here? They might actually be indispensable to the life of the body.
In fact, when I think of our homebound saints, who are physically limited and often unable to move at all, who can do little more than sit in their chairs and pray, people could consider them as dispensable, as unnecessary, or as contributing nothing to the life of the body. But in God’s calculus, they’re actually indispensable, critical, necessary to the proper function and vitality of the body.
But We don’t think that way do we. We think the preacher, or the teacher, or the ministry leader, THOSE are the critical components. Those are the gifts and roles that really hold the ship together. But they’re not, not really. The most vital roles are the ones that often receive the least amount of honor.
And that shouldn’t surprise us. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12:9 that God’s power is made perfect IN WEAKNESS. The weakest among us can actually be the most necessary, because they aren’t at all deceived by an allusion of autonomy or of self-sufficiency. They know very well their own weakness, and that drives them to the head, the source of all strength, and when filled with the strength of the spirit, they are more vital than those with the most impressive gifting, or the most prominent roles.
For example, take the principle back to the image of the body, and think about your lungs. How often do we think about our lungs? Probably not often. They’re soft, fragile, they need the protection of bones in the rib cage. And lungs are totally dependent upon others: they need other muscles like the diaphragm to work in order for the lungs to even operate. Lungs aren’t as outwardly impressive as the feet, which can move the entire body. Lungs don’t make sound like our mouths can. Lungs can’t pick up heavy things, like our hands. And yet, weaker organs, like our lungs, are absolutely vital.
Breathing away with no recognition and no outwardly-visible results, Lungs may seem like a weak and dispensable part, but they are actually indispensable. Without lungs, we die, and we die quickly.
So, it is within the body of Christ. Don’t let our shortsighted perception lead us to believe that impressive function and outward performance are the markers of true importance.
Indeed, Paul proves that point, by going back to the image of the human body. Verse 23:
23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require.
The less honorable parts of the body, we show honor by covering up. We use snazzy shoes to cover up unsightly feet. People use make-up to mask blemishes, dyes to cover fading, and various styles of clothing to try and make attractive what has perhaps begun to wilt with time.
Further, he says the unpresentable parts we treat with greater modesty. I’ll not mention the unmentionables here, but I think you get where Paul is going. The parts which would cause embarrassment or shame if they were revealed, the parts which we call indecent for public exposure, those are the parts that we treat with extra special care.
And that special care is not needed by other parts of the body. That’s what verse 24 says. Paul doesn’t list what the “more presentable parts” might be. Perhaps the hands or the face, neither of which require covering or much care, and neither of which present scandal when seen in public.
God has designed and ordained that the body treat its members in such a way, that some parts are more seemly than others, some require more care and protection than others, and the same is true in the church.
We can’t expect every part of the body to act the same way, to function the same way, and to require the same kind of care.
To switch to another well-known biblical analogy, some sheep need more correction, others fall right in line. Some need personal care, others are mostly self-sufficient. Some need to be told what to eat and what not to eat, others are self-feeders. Some sheep are sickly, some are physically fit. Some need regular shearing, others less so.
Diversity is no reason for elitism or snobbery. Difference is both a fact of and a blessing to the body. As Paul says next:
But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.
The diversity, far from being a liability, actually contributes to the unity of the body. In God’s wonderful design, we have weak and strong together, presentable and unpresentable members of the body, blending together in harmony.
If everyone were strong, who would the strong care for? And if everyone where weak, who would be there to lift them up? If everyone were a servant, who would be served? And if everyone needed to be served, who would be the servants? If everyone were healthy, there’d be no opportunity to show mercy and compassion.
If everyone were teachers, there’d be no one to be taught. And if nobody were teachers, who’d do the teaching?
You get my point. If all were the same, there could be no harmony. The church would be like an orchestra that could only play one note. One, boring, staccato, note. But within the diversity, with hundreds of different instruments playing hundreds of different notes, all following the master conductor, our head, then the church becomes a symphony, with some providing the melody and others filling in the harmonies, all producing sweet music that could never have been produced if there were only a single kind of instrument.
And notice too, that so tight is His conducting, this unity, shared by the body of Christ, so close is their association, that they rise or fall together, Paul says:
26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
So close is our union, that if one part of our body is in pain, we all feel it. If you have ever had a splitting migraine, or maybe you slept wrong and got a pinched nerve in your neck, you know how a single body part suffering can affect the entire body.
The same is true in the church, or at least it should be. When one instrument it out of tune, the whole symphony feels it. When one person grieves, we all grieve. When one is hurt, we all hurt. That’s part of sharing one another’s burdens.
But it’s true not only in the pain, but also in joy. When one member is honored, we all can rejoice. When one person succeeds, we all can share in the joy. Rather than being jealous of another person’s being honored, we can praise God that part of our body was honored.
But we don’t often feel that way, do we? We can be tempted to envy when another gets the praise we want, the role we want, the opportunity we want, the job we want. Rather than joining in the joy, we jealously suck the joy from ourselves and others, by pouting about what we think is unfair or what we think we deserve. We can even grow to despise the other parts of the body that seem to get all the honor, while we get nothing.
Let us not succumb to such a temptation. The world thinks that way. The world demands that we all get equal airtime, equal authority, equal gifting, that there is no distinctions. But that’s not the way God made the world to work, nor is that the way the body works. Some were given a higher station, others lower. Some were given prominent gifts, some less so. Some were given strength, others given weakness.
And we must remember that if you’ve been given the gift of faith, if you’re united to our head, Jesus Christ, then remember that you’ve been baptized into the Holy Spirit, fully immersed into the gifting-God of all grace. He’s given you exactly what you need, and what the body needs, in order for each part to function according to His sovereign design.
Don’t let the evil one lure you away with envy or a sense of inferiority. Don’t let despair or jealousy divide you from the body. And don’t let a spirit of elitism sneak in and tempt you to judge others as dispensable.
Remember that Jesus didn’t consider you dispensable. Even though you were weak, you were defiled, you were less honorable in your sin and worthy of everlasting shame, Christ came down. He took your shame and your dishonor on the cross. He washed you of your defilement.
And he’s replaced your dishonor with honor. He’s taken your weakness and replaced it with His unfailing strength. He’s taken your separation and isolation, and connected you with a body, his body, the family of God. Don’t despise God’s design for the body, because in His design, you’ve been shown immense honor.
And if you aren’t yet a part of the body of Christ, or if you’re not exactly sure what I’ve been talking about, then hear again the good news. Jesus Christ is the son of God, who came into the world to bear the sins of His people. If you will turn from sin and trust in the good news of this salvation, then you too can be made a part of the body of Christ, inwardly, through the washing of the Holy Spirit, and outwardly, through water baptism when you join the church.
This message is for all, regardless of how dirty or defiled by sin. He can make you clean. He can make you a part of the united body, His body.
And this picture of Christ’s united body is demonstrated for us in another way also, which we see as we celebrate Christ’s supper. Our Lord instituted a meal for ongoing observance within his body, whereby broken bread symbolized his body, which was sacrificed in our place. And the cup of blessing symbolized his blood, shed for the cleansing of sinners.
If you’re like the disciples in Acts 2, devoted to God’s word, to fellowship among the body, to the prayers of the body, and to the breaking of bread around the table, then we invite you to join us in this meal. If you’re not united to Christ our head, then first be united to him, be washed of your sin by faith in Christ, and then come and join us at the table.
 See John Gill’s commentary on this point.