Our previous verses impressed upon us our unity through the Holy Spirit. We may be different, but we are one in Christ. Our next verses emphasize the reality and importance of our diversity.
For the body does not consist of one member but of many.
The basic point of this sentence, and of the whole chapter, is that all the members of a church belong with a role to play in the health of the church. No one in the church is an extra that the church can just as well do without.
The first type of church member addressed is the one who thinks he does not have a gift or one that is important.
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. 16 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. 17 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?
Isn’t that great imagery? Can you picture this huge eyeball rolling around, or even better, a gigantic ear hopping about? Maybe we can give them some arms and legs. I don’t know if Paul means to be humorous, but he has a serious point to get across.
If a foot could speak, it might reveal an inferiority complex. Hands are admired. The hands of a woman may be admired for their delicacy and softness; the hands of a man for
their strength. Now feet – how often do you hear of a person being praised for the beauty of their feet. The common wear for feet in Paul’s day was sandals. There was a reason why washing a guest’s feet was a common act of courtesy – they were dirty. Feet come in contact with dirt and mud. They are the lowest members of the body. And yet, their role to play in the body is absolutely essential. They literally hold up the body. They permit the body to move about. Without them, the body would not be whole.
Consider the ear. It may be up high on the body, but it does not compare with the eye in receiving praise. Lovers extol one another’s eyes; how many bother to mention the ears. And which is the greater worry – to lose one’s hearing or one’s sight. We might worry about losing our hearing; we are scared of going blind. But ask the one who has lost all hearing, what it is like to no longer hear music or laughter or the sound of his loved one’s voices; he might want to trade seeing for hearing. Not to hear is to feel cut off from a conversation, to feel cut off from the body. The ear, though little noticed, is very important.
And what about the nose? It doesn’t get named in the metaphor, but what it does is noted. How many times have we taken pleasure in smelling flowers or a fresh baked pie? How many times have we avoided something harmful because of the foul odor? Smelling serves a needed service, though we would not think to rate in high on the list of essential body parts.
Now, the feet and the hands, the ears and the eyes, even the nose all exist according to God’s plan. 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
If we were evolutionists, we would marvel over the way nature evolved the human body into a highly complex, efficient machine. As an aside, it is in contemplating such complexity that makes me wonder how scientists of the body can be atheists, or even agnostics. Think of all the planning that goes into making a computer which does not compare with the complexity of the human body. And we are to take it that it came about through the work of blind forces?
But that is how some Christians approach the church body. The church just happened. People came for whatever reasons and just happen to be in one local church. No, God arranged the members of the church body, each one of them, as he chose, so that however minor a role may seem to anyone, it is exactly what God wants. And it fits into the body exactly to make that body whole.
Paul now turns his attention to the church member who is arrogant about the role he plays. 21 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.”
So Mr. Eye is very pleased with himself. He sees the beauties of the world. He guides the body. The feet know where to go because he sees the path; the hand knows what to pick up because Mr. Eye sees the object needed. “But, Mr. Eye, let’s see (no pun intended) you pick up the apple and put it into Mr. Mouth so the body can be nourished. Oh, you can’t do it? Then I suppose the body will have to go hungry” If Mr. Head were to disregard the need for lowly feet, he would find out quickly his need when he wanted the body to move. If the feet don’t move, the body doesn’t move.
Paul then turns, in his metaphor, to what most likely are internal organs and what we refer to as our “private areas.”
22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 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, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require.
Our internal organs are so delicate as to need the protection of skin and bone. Even so, each is indispensable. Remove a hand and the body may still function, albeit with less efficiency; remove the liver and the body dies. Remove both feet and the body is handicapped; remove both kidneys and, again, the body dies. Regarding our “private areas,” they are kept private both because of functions that are embarrassing and that have the honorable role of bringing forth life, as well as pleasure. All the more care is given to them, which hands, and legs, and face do not require.
Again, God has designed the human body purposefully so that each member plays its role in the welfare of the whole body, and, indeed, in the welfare of the other members.
But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
An important truth is being conveyed here, which involves our connectedness to one another. I am a diabetic, meaning that my pancreas fails to function as it ought. My pancreas suffers; because it suffers the other members of my body suffer as well. I have to keep watch over my feet. Diabetics are more likely to have to have their toes, and even their feet, amputated. I take pills to protect my kidneys because diabetics are more likely to have kidney failure. I go to the ophthalmologist twice a year to keep an eye on (pun intended) blood vessels in the back of the eyes that might be seeping blood. That’s a problem for diabetics. The list could go on. Whatever disease someone might get, for some reason diabetics are more likely to get it. If the pancreas is going to suffer, it wants company!
Indeed, it is through suffering that we learn how important body members are. If the head forgets about the feet, just stub a toe; the head will pay attention! The converse is also true. The head might ache if the back is in pain. Cure the back pain, and the headache disappears. Modern medicine only continues to learn the amazing ways in which different parts of the body affect other seemingly unrelated parts.
It is not difficult to see where Paul is heading with this body analogy. 27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
The members of a church are connected, and because we are connected, the welfare of each member should impact us all. When one member suffers, the other members suffer; when one member is honored, then the other members rejoice with her or him. There ought not to be any "they" as opposed to "us."
Furthermore, there ought not to be pride or jealousy due to gifts and positions in the church. Look at the next verses:
Note first the focus given to God – 28 And God has appointed in the church. This is the third time Paul makes this emphasis: (18) God arranged the members in the body…as he chose; (24) God has so composed the body. Spiritual gifts and positions in the church are distributed as God so chooses. If we are tempted to inquire in a complaining manner, "Why does so-and-so get to be…," understand that God is the one we must ask.
Let's look at the list he gives: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?
Note that the first three are listed as positions in the church, while the others are listed as functions. Note also that the first three are ranked, and possibly the two following as well, though not likely, considering that they are listed in reverse order in verses 9 and 10. I think Paul (consciously or unconsciously) distinguish these gifts/positions for two reasons. One is to yet again impress upon the Corinth Church his authority. Remember, the church is showing decreasing regard for Paul as an authority figure. The other reason will become more evident in chapter 14, and that is the premium value of edification, whether it be in the role of apostle, prophet, or teacher. The apostle proclaims the gospel; the prophet brings forth a word from the Lord; the teacher teaches God's Word; they all edify, build up the church, with the spoken word. Without edification, the miracles, healings, good deeds, and tongue-speaking are fruitless.
Even so, God has so given gifts and appointed offices in the church in such a way that all the gifts – be they of edification or wonderful signs or plain old deeds of service – are allotted to each individual as he so chooses. And for that reason alone, each person should receive and exercise his or her gifts gladly, knowing that he or she is promoting the welfare of the Lord's church, just as he wants it done.
The chapter ends with the remark, 31 But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.
It seems odd for Paul to tell his readers to earnestly desire the higher gifts, seeing as he has just made the point that not everyone can have the so-called higher gifts of edification. This is where, again, chapter 14 helps. In that chapter Paul will argue the superiority of prophecy over speaking in tongues, based on the criteria of edification. And the reason for bringing up the subject is the great fuss the Corinthians have made over tongues. Speaking in tongues is the hotshot gift to have. It is the gift everybody desires. Paul is saying that if they are to make a wish list of gifts to have, pick what is of greater use to the body. But before he wades further into that issue, he wants to put in perspective what really matters – thus, chapter 13.
What is it that you need to hear? Are you one who wonders if you have any real place in the church? You are not sure of your gift, or perhaps you do know what you do well, but it doesn't seem to be of much value. At least no one else seems to give much attention to what you do. Understand that God's Word says that whether you are an eye or an eyelash, a lung or an appendix, you matter to the church body because God has made you who you are, has given you the gifts he so desires to see in you, and has fit you into the body in just the right way. Furthermore, you will be judged by God by how you exercise your gift and not anyone else's. What you do with what is given you is what matters. Don't worry about whether you get attention or not, whether you make a visible impact or one that seems minimal; be faithful to your Lord.
Perhaps you are one who possesses a "higher gift," at least one that gives you greater attention. Others in the church let you know how vital you are to the life of the church. Take heed not to exalt yourself over others. For what you possess is what is given you. As Paul told some of the proud Corinthians in 4:7: "What do you have that you did not receive?" One of the errors we can make about ourselves is that we are indispensable to God. It is one thing to play an important role in the church; it is another to think that God is indebted to us in such a way that without us our Lord could not provide adequately for his church. It is good to give thanks to the Lord for making you useful, but you cross the line into sinful pride for either thanking the Lord for making you more useful than others or for actually inferring to God that he should be thankful for you.
All of us need to heed the lesson that we are to share in one another's sufferings and joys. When a marriage is hurting, we should all feel the hurt. When a child has wandered away, we should share in the loss. And when someone's loved one has received the gospel, we should share in that joy. Or when a brother or sister receives blessing and honor, we should rejoice over his or her good fortune. In other words, we should pay attention to one another. You cannot practically keep up with what is going on in everyone's life, but you should try to be attentive to whomever you can. Try to talk to one another, and if you can't talk, you still can pray. One exercise to do is to take the church directory and pray for five or ten names daily until you have gone through the directory. When you do, be attentive to what the Holy Spirit might have you do, such as make a phone call, send a note, etc. Or use the church newsletter birthday list to pray for the person with a birthday. By doing something structured like this, you will take note of the parts of the body that normally would go unnoticed.
Finally, I want you to consider how freeing this teaching about being members of the church body is. Those of you with the so-called lesser gifts no longer have to be burdened with guilt that you do not do more spectacular work. God measures obedience and not how your gift stacks up with anyone else's. Those of you with the more visible gifts can take heart that you were not given your gifts based on your spiritual performance level. It is a heavy burden to bear to believe that God has given you a gift and lets you keep it as long as you prove to be more worthy than those who don't have the gift. It is true relief to know that when you have exercised your gift, God commends you merely for doing your duty with the gift he has given you. He does not praise you above any other faithful servant.
Consider how freeing this teaching is for the church body. There is no need to clamor for attention, no reason for jealousy or pride. We are all merely doing what God has chosen each of us to do. Or another way of looking at it is that we all have the great distinction of carrying out the special role God has given to each one of us. Again, there is no basis then for jealousy or pride. No one needs to jockey for God's commendation.
That is how grace works. It removes the burden of performance to win and keep God's favor. It takes away cause for pride and thus helps us avoid becoming arrogant bores. It takes away cause for jealousy and so decreases our tendency to turn into bitter complainers.
That is how the gospel works. Christ bore the burden of salvation; the Holy Spirit bears the burden of applying that salvation in our lives so that we may be fruitful in God's service. We get it all. Christ wins for us the favor to be used by God. The Holy Spirit gives us all we need to do just the right job, so that we can achieve the purpose for which we were made – to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. Good deal!
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