Message # 41 | 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 | April 23, 2017

Introduction

Nearly 2,500 years ago, a slave and storyteller by the name of Aesop wrote the following:

One fine day it occurred to the Members of the Body that they were doing all the work and the Belly was having all the food. So they held a meeting, and after a long discussion, decided to strike work till the Belly consented to take its proper share of the work. So for a day or two, the Hands refused to take the food, the Mouth refused to receive it, and the Teeth had no work to do. But after a day or two the Members began to find that they themselves were not in a very active condition: the Hands could hardly move, and the Mouth was all parched and dry, while the Legs were unable to support the rest. So thus they found that even the Belly in its dull quiet way was doing necessary work for the Body, and that all must work together or the Body will go to pieces.[1]

And with that we step into one of many analogies that Scripture uses to define and describe the church. Three of these analogies are rooted in Old Testament imagery. Throughout the Old Testament we see that Israel is referenced as God’s bride, God’s flock, and God’s vineyard. All of these are repeated in the New Testament and refer to the church. We are considered the bride of Christ. We are considered branches and Christ is the vine. We are sheep and Christ is our chief shepherd. Each of these word pictures point to the reality of God’s ever present, personal, and protective relationship with his people.

In the New Testament  there are some additional metaphors for the church. (1) The church is a kingdom in which Christ is it’s King. (2) The church is a household or family. We are considered to be sisters and brothers of one another and of Christ. We were adopted into his family. God is our Father. (3) Peter describes the church as a building. He writes, “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5 ESV). Paul as well tells us that the church was “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph 2:20 ESV).

And then we come to 1 Corinthians 12 and find a word picture that seems to reflect Aesop’s fable. The church is as well one body with many members. Paul uses the body analogy in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27.

With this analogy he confronts two errors, underestimating your value in the body of Christ and overestimating your value in the body of Christ. In either error he challenges every believer to [purpose statement] accurately assess and submit to how God sovereignly places you within the body of Christ.

Error # 1: Underestimating your value to the body (15-17).

Much had gone on in the Corinthian church for many members to feel like they were not important to body life. Likely, the division that occurred as different members split off their commitment to a specific person (Paul, Apollos, Peter, or Christ) resulted in many members feeling left out or on the fringe. Inevitably, people were pushed to the sides or to the fringe of church life as others debated the appropriateness of sexuality within the church or lawsuits between members or differences of opinion on whether or not members should be celibate or married. Others were dismissed as the rich or powerful flaunted their positions with head coverings and lavish meals during the observance of the Lord’s Supper. Clearly people were ostracized as the church setup specific spiritual gifts as a sign of true spirituality.

So, simply, there were probably a lot of people who didn’t feel part. They didn’t feel important to the rest of the church. Maybe they were poor or held a lowly social position and as a result felt unimportant or irrelevant in the church. Others may have felt insignificant because they deemed their spiritual gift as less in value. While others were performing large or dramatic and publicly visible spiritual gifts, they considered themselves an irrelevant foot who was always covered up and was criticized for stinking too often. And let’s add to this reality. The church didn’t do a good job of making them feel like an important part. Some members may have been unintentional or inadvertent in their disunity but it seems like others were quite purposeful as the rich and powerful set themselves up over others.

Paul addresses, first, this group of ostracized and fringe believers with his analogy about the church family being a body with many different members. Paul tells them that perception is not reality. The treatment of others had affected their opinion of themselves and their view of their value within the church body. They had concluded, wrongly, that they were not valuable, that they were not important. Yet, Paul disagrees. If you conclude that you are unimportant to the church family, you are perceiving something wrongly. Let me offer a couple of ways this may work itself out.

Underestimating your value. You may underestimate the value of your service and need to embrace the reality that, even if your service is small, it is important. I don’t believe there are any irrelevant, insignificant, or small ministries in the church, but let me throw out what some may consider to be small. “I only listen to kids say verses in AWANA” or “I can’t get out as often as I would like and all I can do is pray through the church prayer lists” or “I only work in the nursery once or twice a month” or “I only sing on the worship team once in a while”? Really any statement concerning your ministry that starts with, “I only,” signifies that you are underestimating the value of your giftedness.

Choosing not to serve. You may have chosen to not use the gifts God has given you within the church and as a result you don’t feel important. Yet, the reality is that you are important and the whole church is not benefitting from your gift and is in fact not as healthy as it would be if you were to implement your gift.

There could be a number of different reasons why you have not chosen to implement your gift. Let me acknowledge potentially the most severe. Someone may choose to not use their gift out of pure spiritual laziness and immaturity. Hopefully this would not be true of any of us. Maybe, you don’t like the gift God has given you. You may not care for the place in which he placed you. You may want something else and as a result choose to not use the gift that God has given you. When this choice is made the entire body is negatively impacted. When a foot chooses to not do what it was meant to do because it desires to be a hand instead, it negatively affects the entire body.

Maybe instead of using the gifts God has given you, you pursue some other area in which God didn’t gift you. I have experienced a similar struggle in the different youth sports I’ve helped coach. There are always more prominent positions in any given sport and typically most of the players want to play those spots. In football, a lot of the players want to be a running back or quarterback and most do not want to fill the role of lineman. In baseball a lot of players want the opportunity to be the pitcher or catcher and most do not want to fill the role of outfield. Yet what would happen if all my football players were running backs and everyone refused to block on the line? What if we had 5 pitchers and 5 catchers in baseball and no one was willing to play right field? The occasional pop fly to right field would turn in to a game winning at bat. The church is the same. Every role is important and if any role is missing, the whole body is drastically and negatively impacted.

Church fails to equip or release. The church may have done a poor job in assisting you in serving, either because we failed to equip you or because we have not allowed you to serve in the areas you are gifted. Sin can be present within the church structure and this sin would negatively impact the functioning of the church. If bias, prejudice, or nepotism affected your ability to serve, the whole church body would be negatively impacted. If service is established based on “who you know” instead of God’s giftedness, the whole church is hurt.

There are going to be consequences to the entire church when any one of its members undervalues their role within the church body. When an ear stops hearing because it wants to be an eye, everyone feels the consequences. When a hand chooses to be a foot, it’s no wonder that we walk around kind of wobbly. When people choose to not use what they have, a church tends to compensate by forcing people who are not gifted in those areas to do them anyway.  If the hand refuses to work, the foot may be forced to pick up a fork and feed the body. It might get done, but it’s going to be messy and take a lot longer.

MACARTHUR. Because a hand is not doing its job, a foot is called on to do that work, and so on. If most of the congregation is inactive, the active members must do work for which they are not equipped. The answer to an inactive organism, however, is not an active organization. Carnality cannot be overcome by compensation. No human substitutions can satisfactorily replace God’s plan and God’s power.[2]

Correction # 1: Trust God’s sovereignty in his placement of you in the body (18).

Whether or not someone has chosen to not use their giftedness because they are lazy or because they don’t really like it or because they would prefer some other gift – whatever the reason, the solution to this problem is contentment and trust in God’s sovereign decision of where he chose to place you within the body of Christ. Since each of our roles is determined by God, whenever we refuse to embrace our role we are in essence communicating that God made an error in his decision and equipping of us.

The reality is that we are responsible to do that which God has designed us to do. Disclaiming a certain role or refusing to function within that role does not remove your responsibility for that role. “We have no right to remove ourselves from our God–given responsibilities just because we are dissatisfied with what we are and what we have.”[3] This is a negative way or even a cynical way of looking at this. Consider as well, a few positive ways to view God’s sovereign decision in his placement of you within the body. (1) He doesn’t expect you to be what he didn’t design you to be. There should be great comfort in that. Too often we try to force certain roles on ourselves or others. This is not only unhealthy, it goes against how God designed you. (2) Be free, content, satisfied, and even liberated in the role that God has designed for you. There is a great deal of delight in service as we identify our roles and flourish in them. There is great frustration when we attempt or are forced to fill a role that we were never intended to fill.

Error # 2: Overestimating your value to the body (19-21).

And to those Corinthians who thought they were more spiritual because they were connected to Apollos or to those men who kept their head covered when others of a lower social status walked past or to the wealthy who refused to serve the poor – Paul cautions you to not overestimate your value in the body. Yes, some in the Corinthian church were undervaluing their role in the church body, but there were others that were way overestimating their value to the body. Paul goes on to write, “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” (1 Cor 12:21 ESV).

In this analogy, the head and eyes are probably symbolic of those in leadership or those who consider themselves leaders. The eye thinks its perceived value makes the hand irrelevant, or the head’s opinion of itself leads it to believe that the foot isn’t important. In essence, pride and narcissism have snuck in and warped the thinking of part of the body. And yet, the reality is that those who are placed in prominent positions could never perform their duties or gifts without the aid and cooperation of those which “seem to be weaker” or those “we think less honorable” (1 Cor 12:22-23).

People without my gift aren’t important. This overestimation can work itself out in a variety of ways as well. There are two prominent ways in which this likely presented itself within the Corinthian church. First, some of the prominent members were dismissive of those who “seem to be weaker.” It was as if their presence was insignificant. It wouldn’t have mattered if they were there or not. Maybe they considered themselves as the most significant. Maybe they gave the most money or served the most or their areas of service were more important. “After all if those other people didn’t come, what would really happen? Would we really be worse off?” They were dismissive of others they deemed less significant than themselves. This was probably the wealthy group that sat together at dinner and enjoyed a full buffet while the poor looked on hungry. The rich would probably have preferred that the poor just stay home, after all the poor kind of dampened the spirit of their party. In this case, those who considered themselves more prominent or more important overestimated their value. In this case, it’s not likely that they wanted everyone to be like them. Instead they would have just preferred that those who were not like them not be part at all.

Everyone should have my gift. There are certainly other ways this can work itself out,[4] but let me offer one additional way. There are those who think everyone should have their gift. This is clearly one of Paul’s primary purposes in this chapter. In this case, people don’t overestimate their own personal value but instead are overestimating the value of a specific gift. The Corinthian church seemed to place too much importance on the gift of tongues and the gift of prophecy. Division had occurred in the church due to some not having one gift or another. Those who had exhibited the gift of tongues or the gift of prophecy had placed themselves over those who had not. This had caused a great deal of division and ostracizing. While this particular struggle is most prominent in charismatic and Pentecostal churches, this same challenge can present itself differently in a host of other churches. Some may not expect everyone to exhibit their spirituality in tongues or prophecy, but I’ve been in churches that expected everyone to exhibit the same passion and method in evangelism and in so doing have failed in their ongoing discipleship and training. Other churches have expected everyone to master theology and as a result have failed to evangelize. In all of them, they overestimated the value of one spiritual gift over others. In so doing they ostracized and pushed to the fringe or out the door those who had different gifts.[5]

Everyone being the same is ludicrous. If either of these groups of people get their way, the consequences are devastating. Paul goes on to write, “If all were a single member, where would the body be? (1 Cor 12:19 ESV). Paul takes this logic to a ludicrous end. “What if the whole body were an eye? This freakish object would have no sense of smell, no faculty of hearing, no way to perambulate except to roll around, no way to feed itself or to digest. A well-functioning body requires a multiplicity of members with a multiplicity of functions.”[6]

Correction # 2: Show greater honor (22-26).

“The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Cor 12:22 ESV). The mouth, while it may want to feel like it’s indispensable, is not needed for life. The body could lose the hand or the foot and still a productive life. Of course those parts are as well important and without them it does make life more challenging, but they are not indispensable. On the other hand, the lungs, or heart, mind – those parts that are guarded by the body and hid away within the body are truly indispensable. This is as well true of the body of Christ. The roles that may appear to be more insignificant are probably, in reality, less important. The heart of a church and the spiritual power of a church may lie in a quiet and hidden older member as they fervently and consistently pray for the church and its membership.

This passage uses a couple of terms to refer to these protected and honorable parts. (1) Paul refers to them as “those parts of the body that we think less honorable” (1 Cor 12:23a). This term, less honorable, likely refers to those parts of our body that we hide with our clothes. Some of us may have more less honorable parts than others.  We wear t-shirts to cover our flabby arms and stomachs. We wear socks to cover our unseemly feet. We may wear hats to cover our bad hair day or no-hair day. We may deem these parts less honorable, but they are honored by our care of them. (2) Paul takes this a step further and writes, “our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty” (1 Cor 12:23b). Based on the context and the language used, these “unpresentable parts” most likely refer to the parts of the body that are considered to be private and have traditionally been covered in even the most immodest of people groups.

These “less honorable” parts or these “unpresentable parts” are acknowledged as important by the honor the rest of the body shows as it protects, cares, and covers them. The principle is quite clear. It ought to be natural for the church body to protect those members that are potentially the most vulnerable; and not only protect them because they have the appearance of weakness but because they are in reality more important to the church than the more visible, seemingly stronger parts.

We are affected. “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor 12:26). Paul’s statement here is not a command but instead a reality. In the same way that a great deal of pressure is placed on one leg when the other is unable to perform as it ought, the same is true in the body of Christ. When one part either chooses not to or is unable to perform their role in the body, other parts will be forced to compensate and in so doing injure the appropriate balance of the body. The reverse is as well true, when one part takes on more than they should, other parts are weakened by their forced inactivity.  When a part of the church body is hurting, the reality is that the rest of the church is hurting. It may not sense this hurt. It may not realize its’ lack of effectiveness, but it has been negatively affected. In the same way that our bodies can adjust to a certain level of pain or a certain missing part and sense that it is okay, it isn’t really okay. It is affected negatively.

As well, when honor is extended to one part, the rest is honored with it. Have you ever commended someone’s hand for their athletic ability with the intention of overlooking the rest of the body. “Wow! You’re hands are amazing at basketball.” How ludicrous. You realize that any ability on the part of the body involves all the body, therefore any honor displayed in one is extended to the whole. The church is the same. Whenever part of the church is honored, the whole is honored.

Feel the hurt and joy of others. As has already been said, this is not a command so much as it is a reality. Even so, we ought to approach this as an exhortation as well. We should purpose to suffer with those who are suffering and rejoice with those who rejoice.

Conclusion

This passage offers the body as an analogy for the church. It is one body but is made up of many mutually dependent parts. Paul confronts us with two potential errors. We can at times underestimate our value in the body of Christ. When we do we need to trust God’s sovereign placement within the body. We can as well error by overestimating our value in the body. The correction to this is to realize our interdependence and honor those parts that appear to be less honorable and unpresentable. Therefore we are called to accurately assess and submit to how God sovereignly places us within the body of Christ.

LUTHER. The sun does not say that it is black. The tree does not say, “I bear no apples, pears, or grapes.” That is not humility, but if you have gifts you should say, “These gifts are from God; I did not confer them upon myself. One should not be puffed up on their account. If someone else does not have the gifts I have, then, he has others. If I exalt my gifts and despise another’s, that is pride.” The sun does not vaunt himself, though more fair than the earth and the trees, but says, “Although tree, you do not shine, I will not despise you, for you are green and I will help you to be green.”[7]

 

[1] Aesop, Aesop’s Fables (Amazon Digital Services LLC, 2016), Kindle Locations 323-328.  Aesop’s Fables is a collection of fables credited to Aesop, a slave and storyteller believed to have lived in ancient Greece between 620 and 564 BCE.

[2] John F. MacArthur Jr., 1 Corinthians, 316.

[3] John F. MacArthur Jr., 1 Corinthians, 315.

[4] Another way that doesn’t seem to be one of the main points of this passage – some believers may think they possess more gifts than they really do. As a result, they monopolize areas of service and don’t allow others to serve with their gifts. This could be the leader who never delegates because he doesn’t think anyone can do it as good as he can.

[5] This mentality can be prominent in leadership but can be present in others as well. People have left a church because that church did not have the same emphasis as they did. Maybe they had a specific passion for evangelism or community outreach. Instead of seeing themselves as a gift to a church that needed help in a specific area, they left because that church didn’t reflect their giftedness.

[6] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 595.

[7] Martin Luther, Luther’s Meditations on the Gospels, trans. Roland Herbert Bainton (Westminster, 1962), 29.

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