This morning, please open your Bibles to 1 Corinthians 12. We'll be looking at the final words of this great chapter, verses 27-31. Please read along with me. This is the Word of God.
27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in the church 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? 31 But earnestly desire the higher gifts.
And I will show you a still more excellent way.
Here ends the reading of God's Word. Let's pray.
Prayer for Illumination
Gracious God, we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from your mouth. Make us hungry for this heavenly food, that it may nourish us today in the ways of eternal life; through Jesus Christ, the bread of heaven. Amen.
Several years ago, I had a surgery to repair an ACL torn during a youth group soccer game. As I emerged from the anesthesia, drifting in and out of consciousness, the nurses attending to my care gave me a long, detailed list of steps for proper rehabilitation. My brother-in-law, who stopped by after work to drive me home, did his best to keep up, but it was overwhelming. Long story short, I went home, largely clueless about my care. They gave me some paperwork, but in my stupor, I either didn't know where it was or didn't care.
That night, if memory serves, we heard a loud tapping on our back door at around 3AM. We lived in neighborhood with some drug activity, and we think it was a man looking for a dealer living on our street. Instinctively, I shot out of bed and started to run toward the door. I didn't make it one step. I collapsed, fell to the floor - and suddenly remembered that I'd just had surgery.
Thankfully, our dog met the man and nearly destroyed our door trying to get to him. My wife, Molly, yelled that he had the wrong house, and he apologized - which was nice - and then moved on.
As I crawled awkwardly back into bed, I realized how much I'd taken for granted my body's coordination, that its members depend upon one another and work together. With a hobbled knee, my body no longer operated as designed. The result was, shall we say, clumsy and awkward.
For the last two weeks, we've looked at the broader chapter in which we find these inspired verses. With these words, the Apostle Paul tells us that to be in union with God is also to be in union with one another. If we've been reconciled to God, we've been (positionally) and are being (practically) reconciled to one another.
So deep and pervasive is this union that Paul describes it using the metaphor of the very body of Christ. He then extends the metaphor, saying that we are all unique members of that body, each with a diversity of distinct yet complementary gifts.
Ideally, with Christ honored as the head of this body, its members coordinate the exercise of their functions according to his will, for their mutual benefit. This is the desired fruit of the Spirit's work in the community - that we would be one even as God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one (John 17:21ff) .
Of course, this is a difficult ideal to reach, even and sometimes especially within the church. For one, we are deeply affected by our culture, and our culture kicks against notions of mutual dependence and coordination. We say that we value freedom but what we all too often truly value is a cheap, mythical version called autonomy - freedom from any constraints. We're tempted to view freedom as doing what we want, when we want, however we want.
True Freedom Promotes Flourishing
This morning, I'd like to show you that true freedom is not the lack of constraints and commitments. It is the enjoyment of constraints and commitments that, by God's design, promote our flourishing.
A couple of weeks ago, my eldest son and I watched a movie based and filmed in nearby Kissimmee. It's called The Florida Project, and tells the story of a six-year-old girl named, Moonee, and her young mother, Halley. Living in a motel called the Magic Castle, Halley and Moonee answer to virtually no one. Moonee spends her days unsupervised and engaged in all sorts of misbehavior (spitting on cars, stealing, mooching from tourists, and so on), along with other children from the nearby motel community. Halley seeks rent money in a variety of schemes, ultimately including prostitution. It's an oddly endearing, but tragically ironic story. Halley and Mooney pride themselves in their perceived autonomy, but no one watching the movie would call them free. They're slaves to social isolation, uncertainty, fear, poverty, and more.
Our culture kicks against these notions of mutual dependence for another reason though: superficiality. We might surround ourselves with dozens of people day to day, and attract thousands of followers on social media, while yet not being truly known by any of them. Our quest for autonomy undermines our relationships, often leaving us with artificial, electronically mediated imitations of community.
Why does superficiality flow from a quest for autonomy? Because in order to be known, truly known, we must be in relationship. This involves both the risk of vulnerability and the responsibility of care. On the one hand, to be known is to share intimate levels of knowledge concerning ourselves, and that is inherently dangerous. It gives others power over us; it risks exploitation. It makes us vulnerable. On the other, to be known involves assuming the same sacred trust of others. It is to do unto them what we would have them do unto us. It assumes responsibility for their care. In both, we lose a measure of freedom.
Let me give you an example. If my deepest value is autonomy, then a long-term, abiding relationship like marriage will be impossible. If I allow my fear of exploitation to trump my willingness to trust, I will not open myself to my wife. I'll refuse vulnerability. I'll remain hidden to her, even as I sit in the same room, so to speak. By living in fear of losing my misguided notion of freedom, I will never know the freedom of finding and enjoying her acceptance.
Likewise, if I do not assume the responsibility of caring for my wife, serving her good even over my own, she won't be able to grow in trust and dependence upon me. She will seek the security and satisfaction for which God fashioned marriage as a preeminent channel of his blessing in other ways, thereby weakening and eventually dissolving the marriage bond.
In this way, our misguided value of autonomy can leave us in self-imposed prisons. It's toxic to the quality of our relationships. Ultimately, it renders them unsustainable.
Thankfully, the freedom offered to us by Jesus Christ isn't a lack of constraints. It is the embrace of proper constraints, God-designed boundaries that promote flourishing.
I find the thinking of Tim Keller absolutely fascinating on these themes. Two weeks ago, I shared his illustration of a five-year-old driving a car. At once, the child seems free. After all, he's defying the engineers' counsel as well as society's laws. He has no constraints. Yet, would anyone in a reasonable frame of mind consider that child free? Absolutely not. Instinctively, we'd try to rescue them because we know that they're anything but free - especially of danger!
Similarly, every so often, the local authorities establish a "burn ban" here in Central Florida. Due to exceedingly dry conditions, they make it illegal to burn outdoors. The ban is designed to prevent brush fires, as well as their resulting destruction to life and property. Is this a deprivation of freedom? Well, if you confuse freedom with autonomy, it might seem so. However, if you value freedom from wildfires that would otherwise threaten your home and family, the constraint might seem rather liberating.
Truthfully, none of us are ever autonomous, free of constraints. The question is what, not if, constraints apply to us.
We only know who we are when we know whose we are (v. 27).
This is one place where Christianity is deeply counter-cultural. The Christian comes along and says that the deepest source of their identity is not ultimately their decisions, what they've made of themselves. Instead, they say its anchored in God's decisions, what he's made them. In other words, we don't create our deepest identity; we have one defined and graciously given to us by God. We are his, not our own. We're thereby constrained, but by the bonds of his love. Listen to how the psalmist describes us (Psalm 100:3).
Know that the Lord, he is God!
It is he who made us, and not we ourselves;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
This brings us to an important truth: we know who we are when we know whose we are.
In verse 27, Paul declares that we are the body of Christ. We are in union with God through Jesus Christ, and share in communion with one another. This, by God's design, is our deepest, bedrock identity. We don't exist unto ourselves. We exist unto Him and his body, unto one another. These relationships, and their constraints, are by God's design, and they are for our good - for our flourishing. True freedom - freedom from fear, worry, anxiety, shame, judgment, and the like - are all ultimately found within the bonds and boundaries of an abiding relationship with him and one another.
When I was a youth pastor, I loved pulling students into the ministry who didn't really have a tribe of their own, or a strong sense of identity and belonging. While there were always those who enjoyed a strong sense of identity in sports or the arts or popularity and so on, there were many others without a sense of inclusion and identity.
Sometimes, they wandered into youth group, and we'd try to love them well. Occasionally, one thing that we did, quite by accident, was give these seemingly nameless students a name - like a playful nickname. What I found was that the act of naming had tremendous power. It conferred identity, a sense of belonging, that some of those kids probably didn't have in many social settings or even their homes. Soon after, you'd see their confidence rise and their sense of personal mission crystallize.
We can either spend our lives trying restlessly to make a name for ourselves or we can rest in the name given to us by God - the Name that is above every name. When we know whose we are, we can know who we truly are - and live out of that identity.
We only know what to do when we know what’s been done (v. 28).
As we behold who we are in in the Name of Christ, we're freed from the tyranny of trying to make a great name for ourselves. We flip the script, so to speak. Instead of engaging in feverish activity in search of identity, our activity can precede from a calm sense of identity. The more we understand who we are, the more we will understand what we are to do.
This is why the gospel isn't merely the starting point of the Christian faith. It's not, as many have said, the ABCs of the faith. It's the A-Zs. As we deepen in our understanding and enjoyment of the gospel message, we trade a restless search for security, significance, and satisfaction apart from Christ for rest in the security, significance, and satisfaction he so freely offers.
This gospel perspective transforms our priorities. Understanding what Christ has done enables us to better grasp what we must do. We can trade our efforts at private kingdom building for the joy of building his kingdom.
For this reason, note what Paul says in verse 28:
28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues.
At a minimum, do you see what he's saying there? He's saying that every member of the body of Christ has been appointed unto a part within the work of the body. He lists eight representative, not exhaustive, appointments.
Let's look quickly at each of these roles, the precise nature of which all involving some conjecture on the part of biblical scholars.
- Apostles - This title is used in two senses in the New Testament. It can either refer to the limited number of Christ-appointed leaders for the early church (ex. the Twelve), or - more generally - to church-appointed emissaries of the gospel (ex. Barnabas). The office of apostle, in the former sense, was not perpetual.
- Prophets - This probably refers to those gifted in the practical application of the Word of God to particular settings and issues.
- Teachers - These probably emphasized instruction in the universal truths of the faith, as opposed to the prophets' emphasis on particular, local applications.
- Miracles - This refers to extraordinary manifestations of God's power, authenticating messengers of the gospel and foreshadowing the coming restoration of God's created order.
- Healing - This is probably a complement and subset of the previous, miracles, but also referring to the more routine care of sick members.
- Helping - This probably refers to something like the work of deacons.
- Administrating - This probably refers to something like the overseeing work of elders.
- Tongues - This remains a point of contention within the church, but - in my estimation and that of the Reformed tradition - refers to the gift of speaking in and interpretation of other human languages (see Acts 2).
So, on the one hand, Paul tells us that we have an ultimate identity as God's children. We all share the Name of Jesus Christ. However, using these examples, he also shows us that this fundamental unity does not preclude a wide diversity of secondary gifts and callings within the church. Rather, it orients them properly, that we might complement instead of compete with one another.
Now, we see this kind of thing on display, often quite beautifully, here at Willow Creek. We have a diverse membership. We have those gifted by God to teach. We have those gifted by God in administration. We have gifted, called deacons and care team members. When all of these gifts find expression in celebration of the One we all have in common, it promotes the flourishing of the body of Christ.
We only know what we’ve been given when we know what we lacked (vv. 29-30).
Paul then continues, showing that none of us has it all - by design. By God's design, we're not autonomous. We're lacking. We're needy. We're insufficient. We're dependent upon him, and - since God distributes his graces among and through every member of the body - one another.
Rhetorically, Paul asks:
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?
Of course, the answer is a resounding, "No!" The conclusions are obvious. First, we need one another. Second, we're better together.
The degree to which we understand our insufficiency is the degree to which we'll gratefully enjoy his sufficiency, expressed through his people.
We only go higher by going lower (v. 31).
Finally, we're presented with a difficult issue here in verse 31. Paul tells us to "earnestly desire the higher gifts." Our temptation is - understandably, given the chapter divisions in our modern Bibles - to look at the list just enumerated in verses 29-30 and to prioritize them. This would be a mistake.
Paul continues in verse 31 with these words, "And I will show you a still more excellent way." In other words, he is going to unpack what he means by the "higher gifts." He does this in what follows, one of the most famous passages in all of Scripture: 1 Corinthians 13.
This chapter describes the nature of love, and concludes, "So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love." In other words, Paul is encouraging us - in the exercise of whatever particular and unique gifts entrusted to us - toward the higher gifts, of which none is higher than love.
We cannot embrace the higher gifts apart from going lower, making ourselves servants of all.
This, of course, is what our Savior did for us. In love, he condescended to share in our humanity, as well as to suffer the misery of this fallen world (Philippians 2). He offered himself for our benefit, to the glory of God the Father.
He left his home that we might have one with the Father.
He was rejected that we might be accepted.
He suffered that we might be comforted.
He was condemned that we might be forgiven.
For these reasons, the Apostle Paul asked rhetorically of the Romans (8:31-32):
31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
With our ultimate identity anchored in Christ, and as members of the body he's designed for our shared flourishing, he invites us to know the joy of caring for one another - more and more - as he cares for us, each in our own way.
You're loved. Don't forget it.
John Calvin and John Pringle, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010).
Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010).
Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Tim Keller, Making Sense of God: Finding God in the Modern World (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2018).