In 1991, the University of Michigan recruited what many sports analysts believed to be the top five basketball freshmen in the country. They was dubbed the “Fab Five,” and everyone was talking about how Michigan was probably going to have four successive NCAA championships. History, however, proved otherwise. While each of those five players was a superstar in their own right, they never meshed as a team. During the four years they played together, Michigan didn’t win even one championship.
The apostle Paul faced a similar situation in the city of Corinth. The church there had a lot of superstars who were quite gifted. In fact, Paul said back in chapter 1, “you are not lacking in any gift.” (I Corinthians 1:7)
But like that basketball team, this group of Christians just didn’t seem to mesh. There was strife and jealousy. Those blessed with certain spiritual gifts felt superior to those whose gifts seemed more “average.” Others acted in total disregard to those around them, unconcerned about the effect their words and actions might have on others. And so, Paul had something to say about how they should use their gifts and work together as a team.
This morning, we begin a new section in our study of I Corinthians. In chapters 12-14, Paul is going to be talking about the subject of spiritual gifts. He starts off by saying, “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed.” (I Corinthians 12:1).
Let me begin by making several observations and then we’ll get into the text. First of all, let me explain what we mean by a “spiritual gift.” Paul actually uses several different Greek words throughout this text. The word he uses here in verse 1 is pneumatikos, which literally means “spiritual things”, things that come from the Spirit.
In verse 4, he’ll use the word charisma, which means “a gift”. In verse 5, he’ll use the word diakonia which means “ministry” or “the area in which you serve”. And then in verse 6, he uses the word energema, from which we get our English word “energy”, and it describes activity or work.
So, if we put all those ideas together, here’s what we come up with: Spiritual gifts are special abilities given to Christians by God to enable them to be active in ministries that build up the body of Christ.
In verse 4, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (I Corinthians 12:4-7)
Paul goes on in verses 8-10 to list some of those gifts. It is worth noting that some of those gifts were of a miraculous nature – some Christians could heal the sick, others could work miracles, others had the ability to speak in tongues (foreign languages), others had the gift of prophecy.
But some gifts in the early church were not of a miraculous nature. In Romans 12, Paul said that some Christians have the gift of serving, others have the gift of encouragement, others have the gift of generosity. But, again, whatever gifts God has given us are intended to be used to build up the body of Christ. It’s “for the common good.”
So, how many spiritual gifts are there? It’s hard to give a good answer to that because there’s not just one list. There are actually three different lists in I Corinthians chapter 12, Romans chapter 12, Ephesians chapter 4. Some spiritual gifts are listed in multiple places. Some gifts are found in one list but not the others.
But, altogether, they add up to somewhere around 18 different gifts. That might not be the exact number but suffice it to say, there are a lot of different gifts. And two people may have exactly the same gift, but they have different styles in the way they use that gift.
So, I think that’s Paul meant when he said that there are “varieties of gifts”, “varieties of service”, “varieties of activities.” When you think about all the different gifts, different styles, different personalities that Christians have, that variety is one of the things that makes the church so beautiful.
But I think there are a couple of problems that we sometimes find in the church. The first is that some Christians are not actively involved in any sort of ministry. They like to regard themselves as spectators rather than participants. And, sadly, they never get to experience the joy of being actively involved in ministry and seeing God work through them as they use their spiritual gifts.
Imagine how a parent would feel if on Christmas Day when the gifts for their children were handed out, the children just took them, said “Thank you,” and laid them aside with no attempt to open the gifts, not even to find out what they were! I wonder if God feels the same way when he gives us gifts that he intends for us to use, but we never take the trouble to even find out what they are, much less put them to use.
A second problem we sometimes find in the church is that Christians may be actively involved in ministry, but they’re not in a ministry that corresponds with their spiritual gifts. It’s like a story I heard recently about a sea captain and his chief engineer who were having an argument as to which one of them was more important to the ship. When they couldn’t agree, they decided they would swap places. The chief engineer went up to the bridge, and the captain went down into the engine room.
After a couple of hours, the captain came up on deck covered with oil and soot. He waved a monkey wrench and said, “Chief! You need to come down here; I can’t make her go!” To which the chief said, “Of course you can’t. I run the ship aground!”
And the point is, each of us has spiritual gifts, things that we’re really good at. But if we spend all of our time and energy doing something we’re not good at and we really don’t enjoy, then we aren’t going to be very effective. And that’s one of the reasons why the elders meet with everyone in this church, to help you to learn what your gifts are and where your passions lie, so that we can put you to work in a way that will be most beneficial, both to you and to the congregation as a whole.
Now there are several images that Paul could have used to describe how we all need to use our gifts to build up the church. He could have said that we’re all on the same team, and so we need to work together as a team. But Paul preferred a different metaphor. The image he used most often was the human body.
In verse 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.” (I Corinthians 12:12)
Our human body has many members, many different parts, but all of those parts fit together into this one body. I’m going to guess that when I walked up here this morning, nobody thought to themselves, “Hey, look at those ankles working! Check out those knees! Look at those eyes! Look at that wrist!” No, all you thought was, ― “There’s Alan.” There are all of these different parts, but they all make up one body.
And the only time you would single out one member of the body is when that member isn’t functioning correctly. For example, if I limped on my way up to the podium, you might say, “Hey, what’s wrong with his ankle?” or, “What’s wrong with his knee?” But when everything is working correctly, all we see is one body functioning in harmony. And Paul says that’s a beautiful picture of the church, the body of Christ — many members all functioning together as one body.
So, let’s take a look at what Paul has to say about this body of Christ and then we’ll go back and make some observations.
Verse 14, “For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 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. 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.
“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? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
“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.’ On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 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, which our more presentable parts do not require.
“But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” (I Corinthians 12:14-26)
Then Paul concludes by saying: “Together you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of that body.” (I Corinthians 12:27, NCV).
We all have different jobs, but we’re members of one another. That means we’re connected. What I do affects you, and what you do affects me.
Whenever a speck of dust blows into your eye, what happens? Instinctively, you rub your eye with your finger. You don’t have to debate with your finger to help your eye. Can you imagine the brain sending a message to the hand, “Hey, I just got word that there’s a problem up in the eye. Can you go up there and see if there’s anything you can do to help out?” And your hand says, “I don’t know. Last week, I smashed my thumb and the eye didn’t do anything to help me. I’m going to have to think about this before I do anything.”
No, you know good and well it doesn’t work like that. It’s a body. When one part hurts, it all hurts. And when there’s a problem in the body, every single member is going to do what it can to help correct the problem. Because the parts of the body are members of one another. Paul says, “That’s the way it needs to be in the church.”
We are “members of one another”. When you go through difficult times in your life, we all hurt. And when you’re experiencing good times in your life, it makes us all feel good. And when there’s a problem in the body, every single member is going to do what it can to help correct that problem.
Because the purpose of our spiritual gifts is not just to be able to say, “I’ve got a gift.” Spiritual gifts are given to us for a specific reason. Back in verse 7, Paul said that these gifts are given to us “for the common good.” Our gifts are meant to help everyone else in the church.
So, let me point out two things.
1. You need everyone else
Rugged individualism has always been considered one of the qualities of great Americans. The explorer who did it on his own, the pioneers who grew their own food, made their own clothes, and many of their own tools — these have been our heroes in our books of history.
And so, we have this mentality that says rugged individualism is the stuff that separates the men from the boys. We take great pride not only in doing our own thing, but in doing it alone, or at least doing it without having to depend on others.
We have the attitude, “I can do it myself. I don’t need anybody else’s help.” We all want to be able to say, “I’m independent; I’m self-sufficient.”
But unfortunately, that attitude can work its way into the church. And so, as Christians, we sometimes get the idea that we really don’t need anyone else to live a Christian life. But nothing could be further from the truth. None of us here this morning would have heard about God or the gospel if it hadn’t been for someone else leading us to Christ or inviting us to worship. We would never have grown in our faith to the extent that we have without the Christian teachers and friends who helped us and guided us.
The fact of the matter is that we, as Christians, are mutually dependent on one another. You need everyone else in this church. But the flip side of that is also true….
2. Everyone else here needs you
In most organizations, 20 percent of the people will do 80 percent of the work. But God didn’t design the church that way. Paul said that each and every Christian has been given a gift. Which means that we all have a job to do.
And it’s our responsibility to figure out what our gifts are and then use those gifts for the glory of God and the good of the church. “Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them…” (Romans 12:6).
Some of you may be thinking, “That may be true, but I don’t have any real talent. I can’t speak, I can’t sing. I don’t feel like I’m a very important part of the body.” First of all, you need to realize that God has given you some special ability; you just may not recognize it yet. And secondly, Paul’s point is that if you’re a part of the body, then that makes your gift important.
You may be a Sunday school teacher with three students, but your job is just as important as the preacher who preaches to 5,000 people on Sunday mornings. Someone used to say that the most important light in the house is not the great chandelier in the parlor. It’s the night-light in the hallway that keeps you from breaking your neck on the way to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
Everybody has different abilities. Some teach, some lead singing, some clean the building, some send cards to the sick, some preach in foreign fields, some prepare meals for the sick, some help in the food pantry. Whatever your job, God sees it as important. And, as long as you’re a part of the body of Christ, you can’t see yourself as unimportant or unneeded. Simply find the gift that God has given you and put it to use.
Again, as Paul said in verse 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. 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.” (I Corinthians 12:15-16).
Just because you think you’re unimportant doesn’t eliminate your responsibility to function in the way that God called you. You can’t sit in a corner and say, “Since I’m just a foot, and I don’t have what others have, I’m not going to be involved.” If God made you a foot, then it’s your responsibility to be the very best foot you can be.
But here’s what was going on in Corinth. There were a lot of feet sitting around saying, “I wish I was an ear, or an eye — even a hand wouldn’t be half bad. At least that’s a little way up the ladder.”
Even those higher up were still jealous. Paul talks about the ear. Now the ear is pretty important. But even the ear might say, “I wish I could be an eye. But since I’m just an ear, I guess they really don’t need me.”
Whatever your gift is in the body of Christ, it’s needed, and God wants you to use it. There’s no sense sitting in a corner saying, “Well, I don’t have much to offer. I can’t speak in public; I can’t sing. There’s no sense getting me involved.” But so many Christians do that.
Maybe some of you have been doing that. You’ve never really gotten involved in the work of the church because you thought nobody wanted what you have to offer. But that isn’t the case. God wants you to use whatever gift you have.
And, the truth is, it wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense if everyone could do the same thing. “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 all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.” (I Corinthians 12:17-19).
Paul uses a bit of humor here. He says, “Suppose every member of the body wanted to be an eye and so, the whole body is an eye. If that was the case, then it wouldn’t really be a body — it would just be a big eye. Or if the whole thing is an ear, or a nose, it just won’t work that way. The whole concept of the body is you have many different members, but they all come together and work together, so that the body can function.
And Paul says that’s the way it is with the body of Christ. It’s evident that one of the problems in the Corinthian church was that everyone wanted the greater gifts — the more spectacular gifts, the more public gifts — so that they would feel more important. “I want to heal people. I want to do miracles. I want to speak in tongues.”
Some of them had various serving roles, but they didn’t like that: “I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to be a toe; I want to be an eye. I don’t want to be an ear; I want to be a hand.” And that kind of attitude was detrimental to the church in Corinth.
There is such great value in our diversity. The fact that we are all different from one another is so important. Because no matter how significant any one part of the body may be, it can’t survive alone. We need all the different parts.
Each part of the body does something different. And each part of the body is necessary. Which means that if you don’t do your job, the whole body suffers. Everything you do (or don’t do) affects everyone else in this congregation because we’re connected; we’re a body.
And so, in order to effectively meet the needs in this church, we’ve got to be connected. Which means we need to get to know one another on a personal basis. For example, if James Macalinao has a special need in his life, you’re not going to be able to do anything to help him unless (1) you know James well enough to know that the need exists in his life, and (2) you’re close enough to James to care about what happens to him.
The elders are hoping that our Shepherding Groups will help us to do that, to provide a place where you can get to know others better, a place where you can be there to help others when they’re struggling.
And the elders want to help you to find your place in the body. If you say, “I don’t know what my talent is” or “I don’t know what my place in the body is”, we would love to meet with you and help you figure that out.
In the meanwhile, take a look around, find a need and do something to help meet that need. But whatever you do, don’t isolate yourself, because the church is a body, and we’re members of one another.
I want to close with a story that Philip Yancey tells about how he used to live in Chicago and attended a church in the rough part of town. There was a man in that church by the name of Adolphus, described by Yancey as “a young man with a wild, angry look in his eye.” Yancey said, “Every inner-city church has at least one Adolphus. He had spent some time in Vietnam, and most likely his troubles started there. He could never hold a job for long. His fits of rage and craziness sometimes landed him in an asylum.
“If Adolphus took his medication on Sunday, he was manageable. Otherwise, well, church could be even more exciting than usual. . . As part of worship, LaSalle had a time called ‘Prayers of the People.’ We would all stand, and spontaneously various people would call out a prayer—for peace in the world, for healing of the sick, for justice in the community. ‘Lord, hear our prayer,’ we would respond in unison after each spoken request. Adolphus soon figured out that Prayers of the People provided an ideal platform for him to air his concerns.
“’Lord, thank you for creating Whitney Houston and her magnificent body!’ he prayed one morning. After a puzzled pause, a few chimed in weakly, ‘Lord, hear our prayer.’
“’Lord, thank you for the big recording contract I signed last week, and for all the good things happening to my band!’….Those of us who knew Adolphus realized he was fantasizing, but others joined in with a heartfelt, ‘Lord, hear our prayer’ . . . Once Adolphus prayed ‘that the [ministers] of this church would see their houses burn down this week.’ No one seconded that prayer.
“A group of people in the church, including a doctor and a psychiatrist, took on Adolphus as a special project. Every time he had an outburst, they pulled him aside and talked it through, using the word ‘inappropriate’ a lot. ‘Adolphus, your anger may be justified. But there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to express it. Praying for the [preacher’s] house to burn down is inappropriate.’
“We learned that Adolphus sometimes walked the five miles to church on Sunday because he could not afford the bus fare. Members of the congregation began to offer him rides. Some invited him over for meals.….
“Against all odds, Adolphus’ story has a happy ending. He calmed down. He started calling people in the church when he felt the craziness coming on. He even got married.”
Yancey concludes, “In his entire life, no one had ever invested that kind of energy and concern in Adolphus. He had no family, he had no job, he had no stability. Church became for him the one stable place. It accepted him despite all he had done to earn rejection. The church did not give up on Adolphus.” [i]
When I first read that story, I thought, “Isn’t that great, how this church helped this crazy guy out?” But I think I was missing the real point of the story. The church doesn’t exist so that people who have it all together can help out those who don’t. The church exists because we all have a little bit of Adolphus in us. And when we become disconnected from the rest of the body of Christ, all of us are in danger of letting our crazy ideas, about ourselves and about God, take over.
Is it possible to be a Christian all by yourself? Paul tells us the answer is, “no”. We can try to go it alone, but we will never do so successfully. We’re part of a body, and the parts of a body are not intended to live on their own. We were made to be connected to the body of Christ.
The church is a place where people who have received grace from God can extend grace to one another. The church is a place where all of us acknowledge that we cannot go it alone, that we need each other. Like all groups made up of humans, the church isn’t perfect. But it is the place where we can find family, and where we can become better people together than we would be alone.
Thank you all for being a part of this body.
[i] Church: Why Bother? My Personal Pilgrimage by Philip Yancey.