1 Corinthians 12:1-31

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Paul did not wish the Corinthian believers to be in ignorance about the “spiritual [gifts].” Based on his development of the subject, he wanted them to recognize the source of these gifts and the purpose for which they had been granted. (12:1; see the Notes section.)

Corinthian believers who had been Gentiles alienated from God knew how they had conducted themselves as idolaters. They had been led as by a compelling force to speechless idols, representations of nonexistent deities. As idolaters, they had been led away like irrational animals, for their impulses and emotions, not their mental faculties, gave rise to their ecstatic or frenzied outbursts. (12:2)

In view of their past experience as idolaters, Paul wanted them to know that God’s spirit would never give rise to empty or blasphemous expressions. Under the impelling power of God’s spirit, no one would have been able to say, “Jesus [is] accursed [anáthema]!” God’s spirit would prompt the acknowledgment, “Jesus [is] Lord.” Without the operation of the holy spirit, a person would not be able to make this acknowledgment as an expression of genuine faith. (12:3)

Although a variety of spiritual gifts existed, all had the same source—God’s spirit. The spiritual gifts had been granted to function in a unified manner, with no gift working at cross-purposes with the other gifts. (12:4)

Continuing to emphasize this unity, Paul, after calling attention to the existence of a variety of services or ministries, added that there is the same Lord. The varied ministries related to looking after the material needs of fellow believers. Help had to be provided to poor widows and others who may have been impoverished on account of persecution, natural disasters, or other adversities. Those rendering varied services needed to be able to evaluate needs and to have the essential skills to render appropriate aid in an impartial manner. Through the operation of the holy spirit, the Lord Jesus Christ enhanced the abilities of those who ministered and guided their efforts. (12:5)

There were various works, but there was only one God who was working in all who were performing a variety of tasks for the benefit of fellow believers. With the heavenly Father being the one who, by means of his spirit, furthered the accomplishment of the works in everyone, this would rule out any divisiveness or competitiveness. All works would contribute to benefit the congregation as a whole. These works could have included all operations of a miraculous nature, which operations God effects by means of his spirit and in all believers who have been granted the spiritual endowments. (12:6)

To each one, the manifestation of the spirit in the form of spiritual gifts had been given for a beneficial purpose. This indicates that believers were to use their divinely granted gifts in a manner that would contribute to the well-being of the congregation. The possession of one or more of these gifts was not to be a basis for pride. (12:7)

One believer might have the “word of wisdom” as a spiritual gift. This may have related to the ability to provide wise guidance and admonition to fellow believers. (12:8) In 2 Peter 3:15, this wisdom is attributed to Paul. “Our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you.”

Another believer might have “word of knowledge,” a miraculous knowledge that would not have been acquired through a process of learning and instruction. (12:8) When, for example, Ananias and Sapphira lied about the amount from the purchase price of a field they had donated for believers in need, Peter, by reason of his possession of miraculously granted knowledge, exposed their deception. (Acts 5:1-9)

Although “word of wisdom” and “word of knowledge” designated two distinct gifts, they were both the product of the same spirit, God’s spirit. (12:8) Likewise, one believer might have the spiritual gift of faith, whereas another believer might be endowed with the ability to heal illness and affliction. Though very different spiritual gifts, they were still a product of the one spirit of God. In this case, faith would not be the faith all believers in Christ and his Father possessed. It would be a miraculous faith or conviction that enabled the possessor to know when to take a particular course of action that would have seemed impossible but which would lead to good results. (12:9) Paul apparently referred to this faith as the kind which can move mountains or what appeared to be insurmountable obstacles. (13:2)

For a believer to have been endowed with works of power may have included the spiritual gift of being able to free others from demon possession, to raise the dead, and to restore sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. The gift of prophecy with which another believer may have been endowed included being able to foretell future events and to console, edify, encourage, and strengthen fellow believers by making known God’s will. (12:10)

A believer with the gift to discern “spirits” would have been able to determine whether prophetic utterances originated from God or had a human or demonic source. Based on the account in Acts 2:7-11, believers who had been granted the gift of tongues were able to express themselves like native speakers in languages other than those they had learned. Those with the gift of “interpretation of tongues” would have been able to translate languages they did not personally speak. (12:10)

“The one and the same spirit” operated to empower believers to exercise this great variety of gifts. Paul attributed the possession of the gifts individual believers might have to the wishing or choosing (boúlomai) of the “spirit” (pneúma). This indicated that the gifts had been divinely granted to the possessor and did not involve the individual’s personal choice. (12:11; compare Acts 8:18-20.) A similar use of the Greek word pneúma, with the contextual meaning of “wind,” is found in John 3:8, “The wind (pneúma) blows where it wishes [or chooses (thélo)], and you hear its sound, but you do not know from where it is coming and where it is going.” Although the Greek verbs boúlomai and thélo are different, they both can denote wishing or choosing but not always a choice that involves intelligent thought. (See, for example, the Septuagint rendering of Job 39:9, where boúlomai is used regarding an animal.)

The physical organism, though consisting of many parts, is just one body. “So also is the Christ,” meaning that the many believers who are members of Christ’s body form one corporate whole. (12:12)

Including himself with all other believers, Paul stressed unity, saying, “For also in one spirit all of us were baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks [representative of all non-Jews], whether slaves or free [persons], and all of us were made to drink of one spirit.” Believers experienced this baptism when they received God’s spirit. Upon then coming to be united to Christ as their head and members of his corporate body, they were baptized “in” or by means of one spirit “into one body.” Neither ethnic nor social differences mattered, for God’s spirit had been imparted without distinction to all believers. This constituted them partakers of the spirit, and so they could appropriately be referred to as being made to “drink of one spirit.” (12:13)

The body itself is not one member but is made up of many parts. (12:14) This applies to both the physical body and the corporate body of Christ.

All of the members are essential for the proper functioning of the body. The foot could not say that, on account of its not being a hand, it is no part of the body. Similarly, the ear could not say that, because of its not being an eye, it is no part of the body. (12:15, 16)

The body parts depend on one another. “If the whole body [were] an eye, where [would] the [faculty of] hearing [be]? If the whole [body were the faculty of] hearing, where [would the faculty of] smelling [be]?” For the body to have the full complement of senses, the respective organs are needed. It would be seriously detrimental to the body if its function were limited solely to one organ. (12:17)

God, in keeping with his will, has placed the members in the body, with each part having an assigned function that benefits the corporate whole. (12:18) Continuing to stress the interdependence of the many body members, Paul raised a rhetorical question, “But if all [the parts] were one member, where [would] the body [be]?” One organ is not enough for a functioning body to exist. (12:19)

“Now, however, [there are] indeed [not in all manuscripts] many members, but [only] one body.” By virtue of its many parts, the body exists as a viable organism. (12:20)

Paul went on to illustrate that the parts of the body are not independent of one another. The eye is in no position to tell the hand, “I do not need you.” Even the vital head cannot say to the feet, “I do not need you.” (12:21)

In fact, as the apostle continued, the seemingly “weaker” body parts are essential, performing important functions. These weaker body members would be parts other than those like the feet, legs, hands and arms that are associated with activity and exertion. The eyes, the brain, the heart, the lungs, and various other internal organs cannot be subjected to the kind of external hazards that the feet and hands encounter on a regular basis. Whereas the amputation of a hand or a foot would not usually mean the end of life for the body, the loss of the kidneys, the lungs, the heart, the brain or various other internal organs would be fatal. (12:22)

Body parts or organs that are considered “dishonorable” or not fit for continual exposure are the very ones to which greater attention is given. Certain parts of the body customarily are covered by clothing. “We,” as Paul noted, thus surround these parts with “greater honor.” The body members that are regarded as unbecoming for exposure are the very parts that are treated with greater respect, for garments serve to conceal them from public view. The comely or attractive body parts (like the face), however, have no such need for clothing. (12:23)

God’s arrangement of the human body is such that greater honor is given to the parts or organs that appear to be lacking in attractiveness or hardiness. The internal organs are hidden from view and protected. From the standpoint of their indispensable role in the continuance of life, the major internal organs have been assigned greater honor. Without the functions they perform, the body could not continue to live. (12:24)

On account of the way in which God has arranged the human body, there is no division in the organism, but all the parts are interconnected. Paul referred to these body parts as having the “same concern for one another. And when one member suffers, all the other members suffer with it. When one member is glorified, all the other members rejoice with it.” A pain in one part of the body affects the whole organism. The noteworthy accomplishment of one member brings joy to the whole body. Acknowledgment of good work done with the hands, for example, may be regarded as “glorifying” or praising them. For the individual, the expressions of commendation contribute to joy and satisfaction. In this manner, the whole body rejoices with the glorified member. (12:25, 26)

Making an application to the Corinthian believers, Paul continued, “But you are Christ’s body and members from a part.” There is no definite article preceding the Greek expression “body of Christ.” This may be significant, for the Corinthians did not make up the whole body of Christ but, as a community of believers, were part of that body. While numerous translations have rendered the literal Greek (“members out of part”) as meaning that the Corinthian believers were individually members of the body of Christ, it may be preferable to understand the words to reflect the actual situation. Individually they were part of a part of a far greater whole that formed the complete body of Christ. (12:27)

It is in the entire community of believers or in the body of Christ that God has set, placed, or appointed the members with their respective functions for the benefit of all. “First [are] apostles; second, prophets; third, teachers; then [works of] power; then gifts of healing; [means of] helping; leadership [abilities], [various] kinds of tongues.” (12:28)

In the case of the twelve apostles, they were in position to provide firsthand testimony concerning the example and teaching of Jesus Christ. As the divinely appointed apostle to the non-Jewish nations, Paul had received special revelations from the Son of God. Prophets, though at times foretelling future events, primarily made known God’s will, admonishing and encouraging fellow believers. Teachers provided instruction and imparted the knowledge believers needed to live in harmony with their identity as God’s beloved children. Works of power included the expelling of demons, raising the dead, and restoring sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. Gifts of healing related to bringing relief to the sick and afflicted. Means of helping (literally, “helps”) probably included all arrangements for providing aid to those in need. The expression “leadership abilities” is a rendering of the plural form of kybérnesis, which term refers to leading, administering, directing, or managing. One function could have been the ability to arrange for and direct relief efforts. Last came the miraculously imparted ability to speak in languages that one had not learned. (12:28)

According to the divine arrangement, the greatest gifts are those that lead to the upbuilding and strengthening of the community of believers as a whole. These gifts also require the use of the conscious mental faculties in cooperating with the leading of God’s spirit and require the greatest personal effort. (12:28; see the Notes section.)

By means of rhetorical questions, Paul reminded the Corinthian believers that not all were apostles, not all were prophets, not all were teachers, not all performed deeds of power, not all did healing, not all spoke in tongues, and not all translated tongues (languages they had not previously learned). He admonished them to strive for the greater gifts. Nevertheless, he wanted to show them the surpassing, superior, or more excellent way, and that way was the way of love, a selfless compassionate care and concern for the welfare of others. (12:29-31)

Among the Corinthians, the speaking in tongues had been overemphasized. So it appears that the greater gifts, such as prophesying and teaching, were not allowed to be expressed fully. These latent greater gifts or endowments should have been zealously sought. They were not to be permitted to atrophy but to be used to the full for the benefit of the congregation. (12:31)


In 1 Corinthians 12:1, the term for “spiritual things” (the plural form of pneumatikós) can also designate “spiritual persons.” There is a possibility that the reference is to persons who possessed the spiritual gifts instead of the spiritual gifts themselves. In that case, Paul wanted the possessors of the gifts to recognize their source and their rightful use for the benefit of the community of believers.

The listing of the gifts (12:28) places the speaking in tongues last. Among the Corinthians, the use of this gift resulted in disruptive emotional outbursts, with various ones speaking at the same time. (14:5, 23, 27) The problem this brought about in the Corinthian congregation illustrates what can happen when the value of certain gifts, including those that require real effort, are minimized or denigrated. Care needs to be exercised to treat all fellow believers as valued members of Christ’s body. While some may not be as prominent as hands and feet in visibility and activity, they may, by their loving compassion and concern, perform vital functions comparable to the internal organs of the human body, benefiting the community in many unobservable ways.