In the Spirit

In the absence of the completed word of God, spiritual gifts were necessary for the early church to carry out its mission. Today, if a question comes up, all that has to be done is to find the appropriate scriptures which provide the answer. But in New Testament times, it was not so easy because the sacred writings were still in the process of being lived out and then being written. The panoply of spiritual gifts were available in the local congregations so that the local church could then function in accordance with the dictates of King Jesus, and the brethren could learn to observe all that Jesus commanded. As Paul began this letter to the Corinthian congregation, he noted, "You are not lacking any gift" (I Corinthians 1:7). But because the gift was under the control of the user, there was some abuse and misuse of those manifestations of the Spirit, and the apostle Paul was compelled to write giving directions for the correction of such improper usage. He introduces his topic thusly: "Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware" (I Corinthians 12:1).

Even today there are those who pay "attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons" (I Timothy 4:1), whether it results in Catholicism or the New Age movement. But for us who believe and know the truth, we will consult the "living oracles," the completed written word of God!

Manifestations of the Spirit

Forgiveness of sins and the indwelling Holy Spirit cannot be seen. The devil, of course, can take advantage of that fact and offer falsities pretending to offer forgiveness and the Spirit. Because these are in the realm of the unseen, many are duped into believing that they are saved when they are in fact just as lost as ever. But how can a sincere individual know that he is forgiven? In our time we can consult the written, living, and abiding word of God in order to know what to believe and do to be saved. But in the first century AD, the sacred pages constituting what we call the New Testament had not yet been composed, so the early church was dependent upon external, visible signs and prophecies to guide them in the paths of righteousness. Hence it was that God gave what He called gifts of the Spirit or manifestations of the Spirit to confirm the testimony concerning Jesus, to confirm the doctrines and practices implemented by the apostles, and to enable the early church to function in the absence of the written word of God.

While not specified in I Corinthians, these gifts were given only through the laying on of hands of the apostles. These manifestations of the Spirit were critical in laying out the direction the early church was to follow, and in enabling the apostles to establish congregations relatively quickly so that they could move the gospel on to the next location.

The Working of the Spirit

One of the Holy Spirit’s jobs is to orchestrate the plan of God on earth. The book of Acts, for example, opens by expressing that even Jesus, after His resurrection, "had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen" (Acts 1:2). The church had to be brought into existence by the action of the Holy Spirit as recorded in Acts chapter two, and it had to continue to be guided in its direction and outreach by that same Spirit. Hence, in accordance with the will of Jesus, the Holy Spirit established the kingdom of heaven first in Jerusalem, then extended it to Judea and Samaria, and finally to the remotest parts of the earth. Over and over the same cycle was repeated, as the writer of the book of Hebrews noted, concerning the exceedingly great salvation that had been ushered in, and in which all could participate: "After it was at the first spoken through the Lord," the writer commented, "it was confirmed to us by those who heard [the apostles], God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and by various gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will" (Hebrews 2:3,4). These gifts of the Holy Spirit are generally listed in Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthian brethren.

"To each one," the apostle Paul had emphasized, was given a manifestation of the Spirit "for the common good." Thus the early church was able to spread very rapidly to all the world, to be able to go through the tremendous persecution and suffering it endured, and to be established as a historical fact as part of the basis the people of the twenty-first century have for believing in the teachings of the New Testament. Praise God for His infinite and long-reaching wisdom!

Gifts Resulting in Unity

"There is one body and one Spirit," the apostle Paul had stated. In the language of an earlier generation in America, the church is constitutionally and intentionally one. The Spirit produced that unity, and the brethren were to be "diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Ephesians 4:3,4). In the first century churches, there was no completed, written set of scriptures called The New Testament. Hence the local congregations were dependent upon individuals having gifts of manifestations of the Spirit in order to effectively disseminate the gospel and to function as a unit for that purpose. The apostle thus emphasizes that gifts were given through the same Spirit, ministries were mobilized by the same Lord, and the effects of grace were given by the same God. Furthermore, the manifestations of the Spirit were given for the common good. The goal was for the church at Corinth, for example, to work together in their usage of their gifts rather than being split into factions.

Oneness, or unity, is the major driving force of the apostle in this section of the epistle. The backgrounds of the saints, whether Jew or Greek, whether slave or free, was irrelevant. The point was that now they were in the body of Christ, and were to lay aside the self-serving spirit which plagues the world, and subject themselves to the will of Christ. "For the body," says the apostle, "is not one member, but many" (I Corinthians 12:14).

God Places the Members

The one true church really belongs to Christ. It also belongs to God the Father, because there is not any super distinction or competition between them. Hence the church at Corinth is referred to by the apostle as "the church of God which is at Corinth." And this church of God at Corinth was riddled by infighting and division. The apostle Paul, then, is laboring in this epistle to get rid of the factions and contentions inside the congregation. One of the avenues of his approach has been to stress the importance of the Lord’s Supper, and the concomitant concepts of their being in fellowship with the Lord Jesus through His body and blood, and therefore being in fellowship with one another. "Since there is one bread," he had written, "we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread" (I Corinthians 10:17). "The members of the body," he had also noted, "though they are many, are one body." "In one spirit," was another of his points, "we were all immersed into one body … and all made to drink of one Spirit" (I Corinthians 12:12,13).

The true church is not of human origin. Man does not set the terms of membership; man does not determine the purpose nor the organization. Hence the church’s job is to function in accordance with the heavenly directives, recognizing that each individual in the congregation is here at this specific time because of the will and design of God. The members of the local body are therefore to appreciate what each brings to the functioning of the congregation, and each member is to recognize how important he is to Christ and the long-term plan of God!

Spreading the Honor

The Father, out of His abundance, gives to us who lack. From "the riches of His glory" comes the mystery — "Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Colossians 1:27). "God, being rich in mercy," asseverates Paul, and "because of His great love with which He loved us," love demonstrated even in the desperateness of our lost and darkened condition, "made us alive together with Christ" (Ephesians 2:4,5). His character is such that He willingly gives His glory, His honor, His grace, His Holy Spirit, and His mercy! Inasmuch as He expects His children to "become partakers of the divine nature," it is not surprising if He should constitute the church in such a way as part of its inner workings require the development of His character in each disciple of Christ. Honor, along with grace and mercy, would be distributed from stronger members, out of their abundance, to those who lack and who are weaker.

"But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, that there should be no division in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another" (I Corinthians 12:24,25). This is how the Head wants to spread the honor and care around; so let’s participate!

Rejoicing and Suffering Together

The physical body of man is very much a unit. Whether the hurt or the irritation is from a torn toenail or from a throbbing headache, the parts of the body feel the pain together. Likewise those special moments of joy are experienced together as the warmth of the event floods through. God, then, in constituting the church, termed it "the body of Christ" in order for the saints to have a touchstone on which to base their interactions with one another. Each part of the body therefore has honor as part of the body; the hair follicle is of no less value than the heart; it simply has a different function. "God has so composed the body" are the words of the apostle. Just as the physical body of a human being is "fearfully and wonderfully made," even more so is the spiritual body of Christ. As the physical body is a marvel of engineering, even more so the local congregation is a marvel of spiritual engineering.

As important as the body of Christ is, the Lord Himself never forgets that it consists of individuals. The Good Shepherd indicated that He would leave the safe sheep for the one sheep that was lost. He focuses on strengthening the individual so that the whole body then is strengthened and can function as He intends it. "Now you are Christ’s body," is the way the apostle Paul states it, "and individually members of it" (I Corinthians 12:27).

God Has Appointed

The true church of Christ is being built by Jesus Christ. While there are many man-made organizations claiming to be Christ’s church, and there is obviously much twisting of the word and intent of the Great King, the fact remains that there is a church that Jesus is building. He has had, and currently has, the offices He desires in the church, and the specific disciples in place to fill those offices. "But now God has placed the members," Paul had reminded the brethren in Corinth, "each one of them, in the body, just as He desires" (I Corinthians 12:18). As an example of God’s placement, the apostle Paul had stated of King David approvingly in his remarks to the synagogue at Antioch of Pisidia, that "he had served the purpose of God in his own generation," (Acts 13:36). How much more, then, those "upon whom the ends of the ages have come."

The question might be posed: Can a person be a Christian without having one of these gifts? The obvious answer is in the affirmative. That being the case, those who were gifted had no reason to think they could look down on those who filled the place of the ungifted. "But earnestly desire the greater gifts," he encourages, bringing up the point that other gifts might be latent in some of the gifted brethren. To help the brethren keep the proper perspective, he is going to go back to the foundational character trait of God, and discuss love. "And I show you a still more excellent way," is his introduction (I Corinthians 12:31).