1 Corinthians 12 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

1 Corinthians 12
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant.

(1) Now concerning spiritual gifts.—Again the sequence of the topics treated of is probably decided by the subjects contained in the letter from Corinth (see 1 Corinthians 7:1; 1 Corinthians 8:1), and the Apostle replies to inquiries regarding the comparative value and importance of certain spiritual gifts. In this early age the Church was full of the divine energy of spiritual youth. From the indwelling Spirit of God resulted certain marvellous “gifts,” some of which ceased with the apostolic age—some of which seem to have lingered for centuries, even to our own day—declaring themselves intermittently in times of profound religious awakening. The party spirit with which the Corinthian Church seems to have been saturated naturally led to diverse views as to the relative importance of certain of these gifts—some were unduly exalted, some unduly depreciated. The truth that these gifts are valuable as evidence of the indwelling Spirit, and so far as they could be useful for the Church, was forgotten. The Apostle reserves for consideration in more detail (see 1 Corinthians 13) the special gift of tongues, which was, perhaps, the gift most exaggerated and most misunderstood at Corinth, and deals in this chapter with the subject of spiritual gifts generally. The subject of the chapter is The Source, Object, and Value of Spiritual Gifts, and the chapter may be thus subdivided:—

1 Corinthians 12:1-3. The confession of Christ as Lord is the true evidence of the Spirit.

1 Corinthians 12:4-11. The gifts of the Spirit are diverse in character, but the origin is the same.

1 Corinthians 12:12-30. The analogy of the human body shows that the spiritual Body (the Church) is not a collection of independent parts, but a living organism consisting of mutually interdependent members.

I would not have you ignorant.—Better, I do not wish you to be ignorant.

Ye know that ye were Gentiles, carried away unto these dumb idols, even as ye were led.
(2) Ye know that ye were Gentiles.—Better (according to the weight of MSS. evidence), Ye know that when ye were Gentiles ye were, &c. In this and the following verse the Apostle reminds his readers that so far from regarding the marvellous manifestations of the Spirit, such as speaking with tongues and prophesying, as the most wonderful miracles, the greatest miracle of all was their conversion. That blind followers of dumb idols should be transformed into intelligent believers in the living Word was the most striking work of the Spirit. They were now no longer led hither and thither by diverse teachings and diverse gods; they had an unchanging principle of life, and an unerring guide of conduct. The contrast of the present state of Christians with their former state as heathens is a topic of frequent occurrence in St. Paul’s writings (Romans 11:30; Colossians 1:21; Colossians 3:7, &c.).

Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed: and that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost.
(3) Wherefore I give you to understand.—Better, Wherefore I make known unto you. Because such was your condition, and there still seems to linger in your minds some of the ignorance which belonged to such a state, I make known unto you the one great test of your possession of the Holy Spirit. If any man say “Jesus is anathema,” that is a proof that he has not that Spirit. If any man say “Jesus is Lord,” that is a proof that he has that Spirit.

(3)Operating in words, as in prophetic utterances.

(4) Operating in distinguishing true and false spirits.

III.Gifts which relate to tongues.

(1)Speaking with tongues.

(2)Interpreting tongues.

The “wisdom” and the “knowledge” differ, in that the former expresses the deep spiritual insight into spiritual truth which some possess, the latter the intellectual appreciation of Christian doctrine, which is not so profound as the former, and which as the man passes into the spiritual state will vanish away (1 Corinthians 13:8).

Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit.
(4-6) NOW there are diversities of gifts.—Although conversion is identical in every case, yet afterwards there are spiritual gifts which vary according to individual capacity and character, but they all come from the one Spirit. There are varieties of ministration in which those spiritual gifts are employed, and (not “but” in the Greek) the same Lord is served by these varied ministries; there are varieties of operations resulting from these gifts and ministrations, but it is the same God who works them all in all cases. We have here a clear indication of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity—the HOLY SPIRIT, the direct source of spiritual gifts; the SON, the one in whose service these gifts are to be used as ministers; the FATHER, the one supreme origin of all powers thus bestowed in diverse manners by the one Spirit, and for diverse purposes in the ministering to the One Son. Thus, underlying this passage is the vivid realisation of the Trinity in unity, and unity in Trinity of the Divine Nature.

And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord.
And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all.
But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal.
(7) But the manifestation of the Spirit.—These gifts which flow from one source are intended to flow towards one object, viz., the benefit of the whole Church. If it were only for a man’s own benefit it would cease to be a “manifestation”—it would be sufficient for the person to possess the spirit consciously to himself. But the object of light is to give light to others. The object of the spiritual light is to make manifest to others.

For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit;
(8) For to one is given by the Spirit.1 Corinthians 12:8-10 illustrate the former statements as to varieties of endowments for the object of the manifestation of the Spirit, still, however, emphasising the unity of their origin, viz., the Holy Spirit. The following division (Meyer’s) of the gifts which are here mentioned is, perhaps, the best approach to a classification which can be made. In the Greek the genera (so to speak) are divided by the word hetero, the species by allo, both words being rendered in the English by the one word “another “:—

I.Gifts which have reference to intellectual power.

(1)The word of wisdom.

(2)The word of knowledge.

II.Gifts which depend upon special energy of faith.

(1) The faith itself.

(2) Operating in deeds.



To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit;
(9) Faith.—This cannot mean the faith which is necessary to salvation, for that belongs to all Christians; but such faith as is mentioned in Matthew 17:20, Luke 17:6, the results of such a faith being here enlarged, and not embracing miracles alone, but prophecy and the discerning of spirits. In the Greek “the word of wisdom” is said to be given by the Spirit; “the word of knowledge “according to the Spirit; and “the faith and gift of healing” in the Spirit. By the use of this variety of expression the Apostle probably means to indicate the variety of methods of operation of the Spirit, as well as the diversity of the gifts which He lavishes.

To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues:
(10) Prophecy.—Not in its modern and limited sense of foretelling the future, but forthtelling truth generally.

Discerning of spiritsi.e., the power to distinguish between the workings of the Holy Spirit and of evil and misleading spirits (see 1 Timothy 4:1; 1 John 4:1). On the gifts of tongues and interpretations of tongues, see 1 Corinthians 14.

But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will.
(11) But all these.—Again, in striking contrast to the great varieties of gifts, the common source of them all is emphatically repeated. The Corinthians estimated these gifts variously, according to their variety in operation. The Apostle estimates their common value as proceeding from the One Spirit, distributed according to His will. Those who valued men more or less according to the kind of gift they possessed were really, if unconsciously, criticising the giver.

For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.
For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.
(13) For.—Here follows an illustrative proof of the former statement. The human body is composed of many members, and so also is the spiritual body of Christ, which is His Church.

To drink into one Spirit.—Better (in accordance with the best MSS.), to drink one Spirit. The act of baptism was not only a watering of the convert with the washing of regeneration, but a partaking of one Spirit on his part. It is the same word as is used in 1 Corinthians 3:6, Apollos “watered.”

For the body is not one member, but many.
(14) For the body is not one member, but many.—Here follows a series of suggestions as to the different parts of the body claiming independence of the body itself, which the nature of the case shows to be absurd.

If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?
(15) Is it therefore not of the body?—Better, It is not on that account not of the body; and so omit the note of interrogation in the subsequent passages of these verses also. The illustration is almost the same as that contained in Livy, ii. 32, the fable of the revolt of the limbs against the belly. Pope, in his Essay on Man (9), employs the same idea thus:—

“What if the foot, ordain’d the dust to tread,

Or hand, to toil, aspired to be the head?

What if the head, the eye, or ear declined

To serve mere engines to the ruling mind?

Just as absurd for any part to claim

To be another in this general frame:

Just as absurd to mourn the fate or pains

The great directing MIND OF ALL ordains.

All are but parts of one stupendous whole,

Whose body Nature is, and God the soul.”

And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?
If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling?
(17) If the whole body were an eye.—Here is shown how absurd it would be for the body to be merely one member, and in 1 Corinthians 12:19 is shown the converse absurdity of the members losing their individuality. There is a corporate body composed of divers members. That is the difference between a dead machine and a living organism.

But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him.
And if they were all one member, where were the body?
But now are they many members, yet but one body.
(20) But now are they.—From the reductio ad absurdum of the previous verses the Apostle turns to the fact as it is, and proceeds (in 1 Corinthians 12:21) to state that there is a mutual interdependence in the members of the body. The eye is dependent on the hand, the head upon the feet. Here, no doubt, the illustration is drawn out in this particular direction to rebuke those who being themselves possessed of what were considered important spiritual gifts despised the gifts which the Spirit had bestowed on others.

And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.
Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary:
(22) Which seem to be more feeble.—The general argument of this and the following verse (without attempting to identify the particular parts of the body referred to) is that the weakest parts of the body are as necessary to the body as the strongest; and those parts which are considered less seemly are more abundantly cared for by being carefully covered with clothes, as distinguished from the face and hands which are uncovered.

And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness.
For our comely parts have no need: but God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honour to that part which lacked:
(24) For our comely parts have no need.—These words (better, and our comely parts have no need) conclude the former verse. The words, “But God hath tempered,” commence a new sentence, in which the natural practice of covering parts of the body is stated to be in harmony with God’s evident intention.

That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another.
(25) That there should be no schism.—The existence of differences of gifts in the Church had been used by the Corinthians to cause schisms, exalting some gifts and depreciating others, when this very variety in the Church ought, as was the intention of variety in the human body, to create a mutual dependence, which would promote unity.

And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it.
(26) And whether one member suffer.—This verse completes the statement of the perfect unity of the members in one body and with one another. They are not only physically joined together, but they are so united as to feel together.

Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.
(27) Now.—We have here in general terms the application of the foregoing illustration, the detailed application of which follows in 1 Corinthians 12:28. The Apostles were those selected by our Lord Himself, or afterwards elected by them to join that body. (On prophets and teachers, see 1 Corinthians 12:10.) The teachers were probably a junior order of instructors. (See Acts 13:1; Ephesians 4:11.) The enumeration of the gifts here corresponds with that previously given in 1 Corinthians 12:9-10, with the exception of the mention here of “helps” and “governments,” and the omission of “interpretation of tongues” and “discernment of spirit.” Possibly, therefore, the words inserted here are only another designation of the same thing. The “helps” being the aid required for those who heard tongues in order to the understanding them, and the “governments” being the due regulation of the acceptance of certain spiritual powers and rejection of others.

And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues.
Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles?
Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret?
But covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way.
(31) But covet oarnestly,—Better, But earnestly seek the better gifts. All this argument is not meant to check ardour and to damp enthusiasm. The Spirit divideth to every man as He wills, but He wills to give to each the best gift that each desires and is capable of receiving. The receptivity which comes with earnest and practical desire is in the case of each individual the determining cause as to what gift the Spirit will give. The last sentence, “And yet show I unto you a more excellent way,” ought to form the opening clause of the next chapter. The “more excellent way” is not some gift to be desired to the exclusion of the other gifts, but a more excellent way of striving for those gifts. You are not to strive for any one gift because it is more highly esteemed, or because it is more apparently useful, or because it is more easily attained. That which will consecrate every struggle for attainment and every gift when attained is LOVE.

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