Updated: Apr 26, 2021
We each serve God in unique, but equally valuable, ways.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for 1 Corinthians 12:4-26
God has given every Christian a special gift with which to serve Him, but those gifts are to be used for His glory and not our own. These gifts are uniquely spread through every church so that each church can accomplish its unique task in its community. We are to work together to make our church healthy and effective.
For just as the body is one and has many parts, and all the parts of that body, though many, are one body—so also is Christ. 1 Corinthians 12:12
[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
Mr. Potato Head!!!
If you have access to a Mr. Potato Head, bring him in! What are the funniest things you remember about “arranging” the parts of a Mr. Potato Head they may have played with growing up? We all did silly things with this toy. But then ask, “Can you imagine if people were built the way we played with that toy?” The answer is “of course not”. If you have any medical folks in your class, ask them about the amazing way God designed the human body. Why are our eyes where they are? Why are our ears where they are? Why is our nose/mouth so close together? Why is our heart located where it is? What about the digestive system? Arms? Legs? Ribs? Go down the list (be sensitive when/if people bring up certain parts of the body)—the truth is that the human body is an amazing thing. Everything is right where it needs to be to do everything our body needs to do. Our body is incredibly diverse. The muscular system is very different than the respiratory system (and the cardio-vascular, digestive, lymphatic, nervous, endocrine, and skeletal systems), yet they inhabit similar spaces and work closely together. Any person who has had a part of their body damaged or removed can attest to the challenges of compensating for that loss. That’s why we are supposed to take care of our entire body, through exercise, healthy eating, brain stimulation, and positive relationships.
Every part matters.
Paul uses the human body as an illustration of how God has designed the church. Every person plays a unique and necessary role, and God has given every church what it needs to function well. When one person isn’t using his/her gifts to serve the church, the church suffers (just like when a body part is damaged).
If you want, take this illustration to the “team” “group” level . . .
“The Weakest Link”
Go through your team sports clichés and pull out your favorites. Here are some that come to mind: “There is no I in TEAM.” “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” “You can’t play every position at once.” “Talent wins games, but teamwork wins championships.” In school, I didn’t really like group projects, and I didn’t really enjoy team sports because I had to rely on other people (who I didn’t think cared as much as I did). (Eventually, I found people with similar interests to mind, and then I loved group/team work.) My experiences basically proved the wisdom of those clichés. But the reality of life was summarized by Helen Keller: “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”
The truth is that God designed humanity to work together. In arm wrestling, we can focus on one part of the body (this is a real picture); but in life, we need help from people with abilities of every kind.
Other places where you can use similar clichés: in music (a choir needs all 4 parts; an orchestra needs all the instruments; a band needs a good producer); in business (the CEO can’t answer every phone; the driver can’t be at the register); and so on.
This Week's Big Idea: An Overview of Spiritual Gifts
We hit this topic when we studied 1 Peter—October 16, 2016 (if you keep a file of these). So it’s only been a year-and-a-half. I always like to give an overview of all spiritual gifts, but if you have a great memory, here’s the unique angle you will take this week: Peter spoke about the nature and purpose of spiritual gifts as a whole; Paul speaks about the use and misuse of specific spiritual gifts.
Let’s use 1 Peter 4:10 as our framework: Based on the gift they have received, everyone should use it to serve others, as good managers of the varied grace of God. If anyone speaks, his speech should be like the oracles of God; if anyone serves, his service should be from the strength God provides, so that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.
Here are the primary passages related to spiritual gifts, organized around that principle.
Romans 12:3-8 1 Cor 12:4-13 1 Cor 12:27-31 Eph 4:4-13
Gifts Related to Proclaiming and Teaching the Word of God
Prophecy Prophecy Prophets (2nd) Prophets
Teaching Teachers (3rd) Pastor/Teachers
Apostles (1st) Apostles
Gifts Related to Serving and Building Up the Body of Christ
Performing Miracles Miracles
[Other possible gifts: Celibacy (1 Cor 7:1-7); Music (1 Cor 14:26); Hospitality (Gen 18:3); Craftsmanship (Ex 28:3)]
Prophecy/Prophet – the gift of proclaiming something that God has spontaneously brought to mind. So for this, a prophet “reveals” truth from God, either in the form of a right word from Scripture, or in the form of knowledge given by God about a certain situation.
Teaching/Teacher (/Pastor) – the gift of explaining and applying Scripture to people’s lives. I include “pastor” here because the only time “pastor” is mentioned as a gift is in connection with teaching. Not all teachers are pastors.
Exhorting – the gift of encouragement within the church. God specifically gives some church members the gift of overcoming division and doubt through positive words and actions that work to build up the “body” (the church).
Wisdom and Knowledge – the gift of a well-ordered brain to serve the church. Apparently, some people simply have supernaturally “boosted” levels of these; it does not seem to be restricted to biblical knowledge.
Apostle – the gift of establishing a new work of God in a “frontier”. Some argue that Paul was the last new apostle. If not, then this gift refers to people who are supernaturally gifted at starting church planting movements.
Evangelist – the office of sharing the good news of Jesus, often with big results. Some Christians are more attuned to opportunities to share the gospel, with a special gift of communication, often leading to positive responses.
Serving/Helping – the gift of putting others above one’s self. God has supernaturally boosted some people’s ability to do this; they are not wearied but invigorated by selfless service.
Giving – the gift of sacrificially providing for others’ needs. Some people have the ability to give beyond that which makes “sense” to the American mentality.
Leading/Managing – the gift of putting a church in a position to grow. These words mean similar things in the Bible; we think of them as different today. Leading a church is very different than leading a business.
Showing Mercy – the gift of forgiveness and reconciliation. God has given some people the special gift of mercy regardless of cost, often inspiring mercy on the part of others (especially in times of great persecution and stress).
Faith – the gift of trust in spite of all odds. I’m not sure what else to say.
Discerning Spirits – the gift of knowing whether a word or deed is from God.
Healing/Miracles/Tongues/Interpreting - these are the endlessly-debated so-called “miraculous gifts” which I will address on the back page. Paul spends an entire chapter on these (1 Cor 14) because the Corinthians were using them to bring glory to themselves, proving that they did not understand the purpose of God giving them spiritual gifts in the first place.
[Editor's Note, 2021: We have since put all of our "SHAPE" materials online, including an in-depth study of spiritual gifts.
If you want additional material, you might consider
Here’s what to know about online spiritual gift research: most sites are either very pro-miraculous gifts, or very anti-miraculous gifts (as in, speaking in tongues and miraculous healings are either commonplace today, or they don’t exist at all). We should never paint God with a broad brush like that, so be discerning when reading what the internet says about the Bible.
When we went through 1 Peter, I encouraged everyone to take a “spiritual gifts inventory”. This is a fun way to try to get a sense of what gift(s) God may have given you. If you didn’t do inventories then, do them now! The results of an inventory are not foolproof, but they can get you started in investigating how God has “SHAPE”d you. Here are some online inventories:
When you take an online inventory, you are stuck with their interpretation of spiritual gifts in the results, so please take everything online with a grain of salt. But it will give you some things to talk about!
Our Context in 1 Corinthians
This passage makes so much more sense when we remember what’s going on in the Corinthian church. After Paul left, they disintegrated into factions (a lot based on social status), making some church members so upset that they sent Paul a list of questions on what they were supposed to be doing. Paul has answered these questions more or less in order, but the topic of “worship” took more attention than perhaps the Corinthians were asking for. We talked about Paul’s instructions for the Lord’s Supper last week. This week, we’re addressing spiritual gifts (in chapter 14, Paul focuses on how they are supposed to be used in worship services), which leads to another rabbit hole we will chase next week (chapter 13—”love”) which covers how the people and their gifts are supposed to work together. The church was already divided along socio-economic lines. It seems that some members were compensating for their status by misusing their spiritual gifts to bring attention and glory to themselves (this could be wealthy people flaunting their “superiority” or poor people trying to create their own “elite”). Paul uses this entire section to explain that spiritual gifts and worship are not about the people at all (or their desires to show off) but rather God’s plans and designs for the church to reflect His glory in the world.
Part 1: Diverse (1 Corinthians 12:4-6)
Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different ministries, but the same Lord. And there are different activities, but the same God produces each gift in each person.
You should need a whole lot of help teaching and explaining these verses. To make a long story short, it takes a wide variety of people and abilities for something as complex as a church to function properly. But whereas some people get ego out of their abilities (“I’m a self-made man” “I trained at Julliard” “I went to West Point”), Paul makes it clear that every gift and action ultimately comes from God. He gave us our bodies; He knows our abilities. He sent the Spirit to empower us to His service in unique ways. No one can boast about who we are or what we can do because it all comes from God. (This is like the teenager boasting about being rich even though he had nothing to do with his wealth.)
Paul gives us a three-fold breakdown (gifts/ministries/activities). Based on the use of these words elsewhere, here’s what I think Paul is trying to establish: the Triune God (Spirit/Lord/God) has set before every church many opportunities for service, many ways to get those done, and all of the “tools” necessary. Your leader guide focuses on the supernatural gifts here, but as I say in the sidebar, nothing in here precludes the possibility that God also helps us supernaturally use the natural abilities He has already given us. The point though to all of this is that it all comes from the One True God—no one can boast about our opportunities, our abilities, our effectiveness, or our results. It’s about God, not us.
The church in Corinth clearly didn’t understand this, which is why Paul felt the need to educate them further. But these are lessons we still need to learn today.
(1) Every church member is a minister. What are you doing to serve our community through our church family?
(2) No one gets to boast about how or where they serve. That defeats the whole purpose of the church, which is to point our world to God.
(3) Our various ways of service are supposed to bring us together, not split us apart. Just because you may not be interested in someone else’s ministry doesn’t mean that you can’t work together in some way.
The Greek word for “gift” is charisma (plural charismata) which comes directly from the Greek word for “grace” charis. The “Charismatic Movement” takes its name from this, primarily focusing on the miraculous gifts as being normal for today (mainly tongues). Here are some things we have to make sure everyone knows about them:
They are gifts. God did not hand them out as payment for service, and we cannot say that anyone earned them. You might argue that “important Christians have more gifts than I do” to which I would respond “those Christians have probably just exercised their gifts more than you have”. That leads to . . .
Spiritual gifts are in no way tied to spiritual maturity. A Christian who might have a very strong gift of some kind cannot compare himself favorably to another who may not have any obvious gifts. Such gifts do not manifest themselves in ways that we can all see. This leads to . . .
Some skills that may be visible in a church today (like graphic design, or singing, or playing piano, or public speaking) are not necessarily tied to a spiritual gift at all. Such abilities are not good tests of spiritual maturity. But, that leads finally to . . .
Nowhere does Paul say that his lists are comprehensive. If anything, we can say that those gifts listed were the ones being misused at Corinth! That could easily mean that a number of skills and abilities we see among our church members are in fact augmented by the Holy Spirit’s help. We don’t need to debate that—just be looking for ways we can serve in our church.
Part 2: Specific (1 Corinthians 12:7-10)
A manifestation of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good: to one is given a message of wisdom through the Spirit, to another, a message of knowledge by the same Spirit, to another, faith by the same Spirit, to another, gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another, the performing of miracles, to another, prophecy, to another, distinguishing between spirits, to another, different kinds of tongues, to another, interpretation of tongues.
And now, for those people who might not understand their own special “gift” (or might think they don’t have one), Paul goes into detail. Every Christian has been given something from the Spirit to be used for the good of the church and the ministry of the kingdom. “Manifestation” is used here instead of “gift” because Paul is making the point that this ability is of the Spirit—it doesn’t belong to us like we think of a “gift”. What belongs to us is how we choose to use it.
Above, I gave you my brief explanation of the gifts (between mine and the one in your leader guide, you should have a reasonable summary). Because the miraculous gifts are the source of much debate, I discuss them below. It’s fun to talk about what our gifts are/may be. If you have group members who don’t know what their gifts are, here are 3 steps to take: (1) take one of those on-line inventories I have listed in the sidebar; (2) ask your friends what they think God may have gifted them with; (3) volunteer to participate in a ministry or event and see how things go. Just make sure your group understands that God has gifted them for amazing service, and He wants them to be serving.
Aside: The Asclepion in Corinth
An “asclepion” was a healing temple, and Corinth had a famous one. There was a strange tradition there in which people would make terra cotta sculptures or images of whatever body part was healed and then leave that outside the temple. I have heard some Christian scholars argue that Paul had the bizarre sight of random body parts piled up outside a temple when he created the “body” imagery he used in this letter. I don’t think Paul needed any help coming up with this great illustration that’s really pretty obvious, but that does make for a great story—the Apostle Paul looking at a pile of body parts and realizing how the church functions just like a body . . .
Part 3: Intentional (1 Corinthians 12:11-12, 21-26)
One and the same Spirit is active in all these, distributing to each person as he wills. For just as the body is one and has many parts, and all the parts of that body, though many, are one body—so also is Christ. . . . The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” Or again, the head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that are weaker are indispensable. And those parts of the body that we consider less honorable, we clothe these with greater honor, and our unrespectable parts are treated with greater respect, which our respectable parts do not need. Instead, God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the less honorable, so that there would be no division in the body, but that the members would have the same concern for each other. So if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.
And then finally we get to the great “body” passage. If you didn’t use my Mr. Potato Head illustration at the beginning, use it here. Have people in-the-know talk about how amazing our bodies have been designed. Have people talk about the challenges of a body that isn’t working at full capacity. What seems to have been happening in Corinth was the people were celebrating certain jobs. (And we still do that today—You can sing? You’re special! You can motivate? You’re special! It really doesn’t matter how visionary Steve Jobs was; without the people actually executing that vision, he was just a lot of hot air who once had a job at Atari.) Specifically, people who spoke in tongues were doing it to seem super-spiritual and get praise.
One of my favorite shows from years past was Dirty Jobs; the tag line from the intro was “These are the people who do the dirty jobs that make civilized life possible for the rest of us”. It would be roadkill collector, wastewater treatment plant filter cleaner, bridge rust remover, pest controller, sewer monitor, and so on. Things that if they didn’t get done, our society would literally fall apart. But those aren’t jobs that we see promoted on CNN or in college advertisements. Paul says that not only should we celebrate those “dirty jobs” but we should also look at our own body as proof that God has designed humanity in such a way that we are always reminded of the importance of the "dirty" work. Think about the way we are private about certain bodily functions; and yet what would happen if we didn’t do those functions? Our pancreas is pretty ugly, if you ask me, as is our liver. But what happens when they don’t work?
It seems that in Corinth, the Christians there looked down on the members who were poor, infirm, maybe not evidently skilled. Paul said they were completely wrong for ever acting that way. Those “weaker” or “less respectable” parts are to be treated with even greater respect and care. A pastor once told me, “Any pastor unwilling to scrub toilets truly doesn’t understand Christian ministry.” I kind of think that’s what Paul is getting at here. There are a variety of ministries and functions in each church, and God has given a variety of gifts to help them get done—but they’re each equally important. We affirm one another in our role in the church because we need every member to be serving in every way we do. Brag on the people you know about the “little things” they do around here. They’re a greeter. They’re in the nursery. They help set up for Brotherhood Dinner or VBS. And maybe that will help inspire some of your other class members to say “I can do that”.
Finally, note Paul’s line that when one person suffers, the whole church suffers. It is important for each one of us to look out for our friends and peers. What are you doing to help take care of the people you know in our church family?
Closing Thoughts: The Miraculous Gifts (and Pentecostalism)
The Pentecostal Movement takes its name from the events of Pentecost, particularly the part about speaking in tongues. The Charismatic Movement takes its name from Charismata, which we said was the Greek word used here for “gifts”.
In our passage, Paul mentions (1) gifts of healing, (2) performing miracles, (3) tongues, and (4) interpreting tongues. Those gifts are only mentioned in this passage in the Bible. Well, Pentecostals and Charismatics believe that those gifts are normative for every church. Conversely, many Baptists believe that those gifts “ceased” after the apostolic age. Consequently, there is not a lot of cooperation between those groups of churches. What do we do with this?
I think it’s simple. All of the spiritual gifts we read about here are to be treated the same way. Paul lists “performing miracles” right alongside “message of wisdom”; nowhere does Paul indicate that some gifts continue and some don’t. BUT Paul goes on to say in a few verses after our passage, “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?” The answer is no. Whereas Charismatics seem to think that those gifts are commonplace to all Christians, Paul clearly says that they are not. I believe that God specifically used/uses miraculous gifts to supernaturally validate the message of the gospel in hostile environments. Here in America, we really don’t need that—we’re “Christianized”—and so God doesn’t distribute those gifts here. I have heard from missionary friends in extreme frontiers about miraculous healings and speaking in unknown languages, and the exercise of those gifts directly led to salvations and church starts. (That’s why I believe that people like Benny Hinn are charlatans.)