Friday 11 August 2017

A navy of ordinary people – reflections on spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12

A couple of weeks ago we went to see Dunkirk the movie. Although technically Dunkirk was a withdrawal or a retreat it paved the way for Britain’s recovery and eventual victory in WW2 against the Nazi threat when 330,000 soldiers were pulled off the French beaches to safety.

What people call the miracle of Dunkirk was effected when King George VI called the whole nation to prayer and three extraordinary things happened: Hitler inexplicably gave the order to his tanks not to advance further when the British and French troops were trapped between them and the sea, a storm grounded the Luftwaffe and the subsequent calm sea enabled a huge flotilla of small boats to reach the beach.

The most emotional moment of the whole film was the arrival of this flotilla out of the mist.
Certainly (alongside the providence of the halted tanks, the storm and the calm) what happened at Dunkirk is that many individuals, with extraordinary courage and at huge personal risk, joined together to offer whatever skills and resources they had in a selfless effort to rescue others.

And that is the perspective that Christopher Nolan offers in his film Dunkirk. Many ordinary people joined together to make the Dunkirk evacuation possible.

Director Christopher Nolan has said: ‘as a group of people we can achieve so much more than we can individually.’

An army of ordinary people, or perhaps more accurately, a navy of ordinary people.

And it’s this picture of the church – a group of diverse people engaged in a common task – that is the subject of 1 Corinthians 12.

The apostle Paul could have used a variety of different metaphors to capture this idea of a people of diverse origins and skills uniting together – an army, an orchestra – but in this passage, as we will see, he uses the metaphor of the body.  The church is the body of Christ.

Paul is responding to a question or perhaps series of questions that they have raised about the subject spiritual gifts. But he is also using this as an opportunity to teach them important theology and truth about what it means to belong to the church and how to behave within it especially with respect to working together.

In this passage the apostle Paul he makes it clear that despite their individual and corporate failings – these Christians in Corinth are ‘the body of Christ’ (v27). They have been baptised by one Spirit into one body (v13). They are people who recognise Jesus as Lord (v3) – the one who holds all authority in the universe, to whom they have given their lives. And despite their diverse backgrounds as both Jews and Greeks (v13) they have been given the one Spirit to drink.

And so Paul asks by addressing five questions about spiritual gifts

1.       What are spiritual gifts? (v7)

He starts in vs 4-6 by saying there are different ‘gifts’, different kinds of ‘service’, different ‘kinds of working’. We are told in verse seven that they are ‘manifestations of the spirit’. That’s the Holy Spirit, the third person the Trinity after the father and son. The Holy Spirit is the one who leads us to faith in Christ’s death and resurrection (v13) and who lives in us. And he gives special abilities - what are described in verses  4 & 5 as ‘gifts’, ‘services’ and ‘workings’. There are no less than eight specific references to the Holy Spirit in just the first eleven verses of this chapter.

2.       Who receives these gifts? (v7,11)

We are told that they are given ‘to each one’ (v7 & 11).

Not just to pastors, leaders, preachers or deacons but to every single member of the congregation.

You see, there is no division here between minister and congregation, between clergy and laity, between priests and pew sitters. Yes of course there was order and authority, and in Paul’s letter to Timothy and Titus - the pastoral epistles - a leadership structure consisting of elders and deacons on which our own church is modelled, but this leadership is plural and all members of the congregation are ministers in the sense that each one gift that benefit others.

Some have more than one gift. Paul it seems was an apostle, teacher, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher - but the point is that every member of Christ’s church has at least one gift. Each person is a minister of sorts.

This year 2017 is the 500th anniversary of the protestant reformation which began with Martin Luther nailing 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517.

The whole aim of the reformation was to take the church back to the Bible and to the doctrines taught there.

One of the key truths that Luther rediscovered was what we now call ‘the priesthood of all believers’.

In his Address to the Nobility of the German Nation (1520), Luther criticised the traditional distinction between the ‘temporal’ and ‘spiritual’ orders—the laity and the clergy—arguing that all who belong to Christ through faith, baptism, and the Gospel shared in the priesthood of Jesus Christ. 

All baptised believers are called to be priests, Luther said, but not all are called to be pastors.

3.       What are these gifts for? (v7)

We are told that they are for ‘the common good’ (v7). In other words they are intended not for self -edification or glorification but to benefit others. And so you see that every member of the church is both incomplete and interdependent, having something that all others need and at the same time needing all others.

4.       What do these gifts include? (v8-10)

We see that they are extraordinarily diverse (v8-10). There are nine different gifts mentioned: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous powers, prophecy, distinguishing between spirits, speaking in tongues and the interpretation of tongues. And we see all of these gifts operating in the early church in the book of Acts.  

Is this list intended to be exhaustive? No it’s clear that these are just examples. And Paul is not giving us here any teaching about what these specific gifts are in order to satisfy our curiosity.

His prime purpose is to illustrate their diversity.

There are similar, but interestingly not identical lists of gifts in other parts of the New Testament. Some of these gifts are repeated and others are new.

So in Romans 12:6-8 the list includes prophecy, serving, encouragement, contribution to the needs of others, leadership and showing mercy.

In Ephesians 4:11 we read of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Almost exactly the same list appears later at the end of 1 Corinthians 12.

1 Peter 4:10-11 speaks of speaking, serving and showing hospitality.

So in these five passages alone we see about 20 gifts and I expect that not even these are meant to be exhaustive, but simply illustrative of the diversity of God’s bountiful giving.

Of course as you might expect in different cultures, denominations and periods in church history different gifts are more prominent – as you might expect in a church which is worldwide.

Some of these gifts are more spectacular – prophecy, miracles, speaking in tongues – others are more familiar and may appear even more mundane – but all are gifts of God’s spirit.

Some are possessed by many individuals – other are much rarer.

In the Old Testament Exodus 35:31ff talks about Bezalel who was gifted with all kinds of crafts by the Holy Spirit. It was Bezalel who was responsible for virtually all of the decorative work in the Tabernacle.

Remarkably, a person with very similar gifting, Huram Abi, did all the ornate work in Solomon’s Temple.

So these were uniquely gifted individuals in arts and crafts, but needed thousands of others to help them fulfil their tasks,

5.       How are these gifts distributed? (v11)

We are told that they are distributed ‘as the spirit determines’ (v11)  they are gifts of grace not earned - you can’t earn a gift. You can only receive it. These gifts are given by virtue of God’s unmerited favour. It is God who arranges (v18) and apportions (v28). The Greek word charismata used in this passage simply means gifts of grace.

We see exactly the same idea in Romans 12:6. ‘Having gifts that differ according to the grace given us, let us use them’. And because they are gifts of grace there is therefore no pride in having them.

One of the most gifted preachers in the evangelical church today is John Piper. I recently had the privilege of being at a conference where he was giving the main Bible talks and went along to a question-and-answer session where we all got to ask our most burning questions.

One of the first questions John was asked was how he dealt with pride. The obvious implication was that the questioner felt he was head and shoulders above not just other Christians but above preachers as well.

His answer was very challenging. First, he said, ‘I know my own heart and there is very little to be proud of’. Second, he said, ‘I know that that any ability or gift I have is given to me by God, so what is there to boast about?’

So how do they these gifts work together?

Paul illustrates this by using a metaphor - the metaphor of the body.

Why should he choose the body? Elsewhere in the New Testament we see a building or a bride or an army used to illustrate the church.

However here uses the body because he wants to show that the church is like a living, growing organism made up of diverse parts all of which interrelate and cooperate with each other.

The key thing about the body, is every that part, whether visible or invisible, is dependent on every other part. All parts need to be working for the body to be functioning properly.

In part 2 of this blog we will look at two wrong attitudes which threaten the integrity of the body.

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