“No Divisions in the Body” (1 Corinthians 12:14–26)
Listen to the Sermon:
Do not demean your gifts then second do not despise other gifts do not despise other gifts and then third do not divide the body do not divide the body
Hear now the word of the Lord from 1 Corinthians 12:14-26.
14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 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? 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.
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.” 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. 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.
1 Corinthians 12:14-26, ESV
This is the Word of the Lord that’s given to us in love this morning. As we study this passage it’s probably easy to see that this is a fairly straightforward passage to understand. The imagery is so vivid, we all understand the parts of our bodies that make up one whole body. So, as we read this it seems on the surface to be a very easy and simple passage to understand, but that actually could be a problem for us. This passage may in fact be too easy to understand and perhaps too familiar to us if we’ve studied this passage again and again.
Now I say that not because I want the Bible to be difficult, because I don’t. Rather when we read this story, this image, this picture of the members of the body of Christ as individual people in the church, sometimes we tend not to actually read the words that are there. We sometimes just read over it. We get a general sense of the passage, then we take that general sense and run with it. Then we go immediately into application mode, what does this mean for me, what does it mean for you, let’s start applying this.
In the process, if we haven’t really understood this well, we actually overlook some of the details of what Paul says. Worse than that we can then perhaps fill in some of those gaps by reading our own ideas into this passage, ideas that might actually run contrary to what Paul has said.
Let me give you a perfect illustration of how this passage has been misused in the past. Now this image here of many members making up one body is not new to Paul. This isn’t something that he was the first person to sort of use to describe some larger body of people. In fact, if you read the history there were many times in history where different people or philosophers talked about individual groups, whether a family or a clan or a tribe or a whole nation, as individual members of a body.
That was a very common thing. However, in the past when people would use that image, the same image that Paul is using here, they would use it to emphasize the importance of the body over the importance of any individual member. So, the message would be we live in a body, so your individual needs are not important, the only thing that’s important is the good of the whole. Or even to take that one step further and say, you know what you’re actually just a foot you need to just be quiet and serve the needs of the head.
The image was often used this way in the ancient world for the sake of promoting unity and harmony. Ancient cultures, and some modern cultures but not ones in the West, were collectivists. They exalted the body at the expense of its members. That’s a very real way of misreading this passage.
Guess what? We do the exact opposite error. We’re not collectivists, we are individualist, we just had a grand party yesterday to celebrate our individuality. Remember that we have these unalienable rights for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Well that leads us to read this passage in a very particular way that also falls into its own issues as we emphasize the importance of individual members above the body, even at the expense of the body.
So, we teach that each foot should dance to the beat of its own drum and we tell every hand to just take for itself whatever it pleases. For every ear and for every eye we offer personally curated individualized endless streams of audio and video to suit your particular tastes. We are a culture of extreme rampant individualism. We don’t abuse individuals so much for the sake of the whole. Rather, because we emphasize diversity and freedom, we have such a fractured society where we are torn apart and divided and factionalized one from another.
Well whatever culture were coming from, whether it’s from a collectivist background where we’re looking primarily at the body and sort of ignore the individual members, or whether we’re coming from an individualist background where we look at the individual members and forget there’s a larger body, this passage confronts assumptions that we don’t even know we’re making.
So, it’s important that we read what Paul says because this word, which was given for all times to all peoples, cuts both ways and confronts both kinds of errors.
Our big idea as we study this passage this morning is this, God has arranged and honored every member in the body of Christ.
By speaking of an arrangement, that’s a word to individualists that you can’t pick your own arrangement and you can’t go off on your own you’re a part of a larger body. By speaking of every member being honored, that’s a word to collectivists that you can’t do something for the whole at the expense of a member. Each member is honored in the body of Christ.
There are three parts to this passage.
1. The Way We Look at Our Gifts
2. The Way We Look at Other’s Gifts
3. The Way We Look at the Whole Body of Christ
The Way We Look at Our Gifts
So first we see this instruction, “do not demean your gifts”. In the first paragraph in verses 14-20 Paul tells us don’t demean your gifts, because we are tempted often to do this very thing. In verse 14 Paul says,
14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 1 Corinthians 12:14, ESV
Paul is saying the body, by definition, cannot be composed of identical members, so you should not expect to have identical gifts to other people. If the body was one big pile of noses that wouldn’t be a very effective body, you need all the parts working together in coordination to have a body.
Then Paul illustrates this point in verses 15 through 16, he says,
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.
1 Corinthians 12:15-16, ESV
Now because each member has this unique role to play, what Paul is saying here is that no member should look at another member and envy those gifts. Do not demean your gifts, the gifts that God has entrusted to you. This is one of the places where we’re perhaps a little too familiar with this passage. I’ve never noticed this until I was studying it this week and I can’t count the number of times I’ve read 1 Corinthians. Notice here this specific comparison that Paul makes, it’s a different kind of comparison than Paul makes in the next paragraph, here the comparison is between members of the body that are similar, but one member compares itself to a slightly more impressive member of the body.
So, notice that the foot doesn’t compare itself to the ear, which is a very different kind of organ or limb, but rather the foot compares itself to a hand because a foot is something like a hand. If a foot looked at the hand and says, look at all the things that a hand can do that I can’t, well if I can’t do all the things that a hand can do, I guess I don’t have a purpose here. In the same way the ear compares itself not to the hand but to the eye, I mean I guess it’s cool to hear things and all but think of what I could do if I could see, I can’t see so I don’t know what I’m doing here.
Leon Morris, a commentator on this passage, writes, “We are prone to envy those who surpass us a little rather than those who are patently in a different class.” Don’t demean your gifts, don’t look at someone who’s similar but maybe outpaces you just a little bit by your estimation. Don’t envy the gifts of others, don’t demean your own gifts.
Paul exposes then in verse 17 the absurdity of that kind of comparison game. In verse 17 he says,
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?
1 Corinthians 12:17, ESV
Each of us must be content with our role in the body because each role is not only unique, but it’s essential. Look there are ways to be unique but unessential. When I was in Little League baseball I had very unique talents, which is to say that I had none. So, my coach then had to find a place to put me that wouldn’t be too essential because that would expose our team to a lot of risk. So, I was plopped in right field because not many kids could hit it out to right field at that point in time. That was how my unique, but unessential gifts were used in that particular team.
Well it’s a very different kind of a thing in the church. The church is not at all like that. It isn’t that some of us have these unique gifts that well I guess we got to just find a way to for this person to get a participation ribbon. No, what God is saying in his word is that every individual gift, every individual function, is absolutely necessary and in it essential and indispensable in the body of Christ.
Then Paul reminds us that the reason for this is not an accident, the body did not work its way together by some strange evolutionary process. Rather the body came together by the explicit choice of God himself. Look at verses 18 through 20,
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.
1 Corinthians 12:18-20, ESV
To demean your gifts is to criticize God’s wisdom. To want what someone else has is to tell God that he has made a mistake. Not only is this a sinful attitude toward God, but the problem is that this robs us of the great joy that we have. The great joy that we would have if we were content with what God gave us.
As the father of several young children I’m amazed at how often fights break out because one child sees a toy that the other child has. Now the first child may actually have a better toy at the moment, but the important thing is the other child has a toy that the first child does not and that is cause for war. I think why do they do this, wouldn’t they be so much happier if they were just content with what they had? Then I think, oh I do the same thing, wouldn’t I be so much happier if I could be content with what God has given me.
Our Heavenly Father is so gracious, so good, so loving he gives only good gifts. What he has given to you is not a throwaway gift, it’s not an accident, it’s by God’s specific purpose and choice. Don’t demean your own gifts.
The Way We Look at Other’s Gifts
Well what then about the gifts that God gives to other people? If that’s how we should think about our gifts, what should we do when we look at the gifts of other people? How should we evaluate and assess those?
Sometimes our problem is not that we look at someone else and say, boy I wish I had those gifts and start to envy that person. We’d rather look at a person and think, I don’t know what purpose those gifts serve, and we begin to despise what God has given to them.
So, the next paragraph in verses 21 through 24 Paul gives us the next instruction, “do not despise other gifts.” In verse 21 Paul was telling us that we should not despise or look down on someone else’s gifts, he writes,
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.” 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. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it,
1 Corinthians 12:21-24, ESV
Notice the comparisons have changed here. It’s no longer between similar but slightly more impressive comparisons, such as the foot to the hand or the ear to the eye. Now we’re seeing comparisons of very different kinds, one set of gifts that seem to be stronger versus another set of gifts that seem to be weak. I used that word “seem” for a reason. We’ll talk more about that word “seem” in a moment.
Here the eye compares itself with a hand. That the point of comparison could potentially be the reach the hand has. It can reach for something that’s an arm’s length away, but the eye can reach a lot of things that are a very far distance away, certainly farther than the hand. It is a different or a similar kind of comparison.
The head then compares itself not to the hand, but to the feet because the head is so much higher than the feet which are in the dirt. Now almost certainly when Paul uses the images of a head and of eyes, he’s talking about the leadership roles in the church. Paul is saying that those with gifts and roles of leadership should not look down upon other members of the church, but that means this applies to every one of us.
None of us should look down on another person, another member of the body of Christ, and despise what seemed to be weaker gifts. What Paul says is that what seems to be weaker to us is not necessarily weaker. In fact, those gifts which we evaluate, which we think, to be weaker are nevertheless indispensable in the body of Christ.
Look at verse 22, “on the contrary, the parts of the body that seemed to be weaker are indispensable,”. We underestimate their strength, we look upon these things and they don’t seem to be of much use, much function, much power and yet God looks on these things differently. God says this all over the place in his word, such as 1 Samuel 16:7, man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart. The Lord gives specific gifts and he wants those to be used in the specific way in which they are to be used because every gift is indispensable to the body.
Now not only does Paul warn us about despising seemingly weaker gifts, he goes a step further than this. In verse 23 he says, “and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable, we bestow greater honor.” Paul is saying there these gifts in the body of Christ which outwardly are not that impressive, and they don’t accumulate a whole lot of praise from people looking on them. What Paul says is that we should be giving great honor to those who labor faithfully in in very humble circumstances.
Last week I encouraged you to encourage someone else to use their spiritual gifts and this really should be an ongoing exercise for us, to be constantly thinking, how can I encourage other people in the body of Christ to use and exercise their gifts. This is all the more true for those whom you recognize whose gifts are not flashy, not outwardly visible and obvious to other people. Paul takes this idea then even one step further, not just the weak, not just those who seem to have less honor.
Look at the end of verse 23 into verse 24, “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. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it.”
Well, Paul here is talking about these unpresentable parts. He’s talking about our private parts and he’s making a point here that the great care and attention that we give in the modesty to cover over those parts doesn’t demean the value of those parts, rather our modesty gives those parts greater honor. The same is true with exercise of gifts in the church that most people will never see.
What’s Paul talking about here? Well think particularly of gifts like generosity and prayer. In Matthew chapter 6 Jesus says that when you give, this isn’t a gift that’s showing it’s flashy that you should do before everybody, so everyone praises you and said wow you’re a really generous person. If you do that Jesus says, “I tell you the truth you’ve received your reward in full.”
The same thing is true of prayer. That is why you pray don’t stand on the street corners and show everyone when an eloquent prayer you are; “I tell you the truth you’ve received your reward in full.” Instead Jesus says, “when you give in secret and your Father who sees in secret will reward you and when you pray go to your secret closet and pray there and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” The lack of public recognition does not mean that God has abandoned those gifts as ultimately worthless. The fact is that God himself bestows great significance, great honor on those gifts that will never be outwardly seen.
Some of you give endlessly of your resources, blessing others in ways that will never come to light until the Judgment Day when all secrets are exposed for good or for evil. Some of you labor for hours upon hours in secret prayer, exercising a spiritual gift that no one else will see. Remember what Jesus said, “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Remember what God says in his word here, “but God has so composed the body giving greater honor to the part that lacked it.” Do not demean your gifts and do not despise the gifts of others.
The Way We Look at the Whole Body of Christ
Well in this third and final section Paul tells us the purpose of this, why should we work so hard at unity when unity is so difficult. It would be so much easier to just give up the attempt and the efforts at this, but Paul says in verse 25 and 26 that we must not divide the body.
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.
1 Corinthians 12:25-26, ESV
Paul says here’s the purpose that I’m writing this, here’s what I’m wanting out of this, that there may be no division in the body. Don’t divide the body, but rather that the members may have the same care for one another. The body cannot survive if its various members divide individualistically or into groups of factions that care only for their own concerns. Each member needs to care for the needs of all the members and all of the members needs to care for each of the needs of each of the members individually.
So in verse 26 Paul says, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” In suffering or in rejoicing we stand together, we’re not divided, we are together in this.
I think about what happens when you experience pain in any part of your body. It isn’t that you sort of register it from afar and think well that’s tough for my finger or my foot. Martin Luther has this great line that he’s written about this passage he says, “See what the whole body does when the foot is trodden on or a finger is pinched; how the eye looks dour, the nose draws up, the mouth cries out, and all the members are ready to rescue and to help and none can leave the other, so that it means not that the foot or a finger is trodden on and is pinched, but the entire body.”
What you suffer with one part of you, your whole body suffers together with that part. Our bodies know this intuitively. Our bodies have no part jumping into the efforts when one individual member is suffering. Yet this comes so hard for us doesn’t it? To really suffer with someone who is suffering. The same thing is true though we are rejoicing. It’s not just that we’re all supposed to be miserable together, although that’s part of it, we all must rejoice together.
Anthony Thistleton, a commentator on this, observes that it would be absurd to go up to a someone who’s just won a race and say, I congratulate your legs. Now that would be absurd because we know that in a race your whole body has to work in a coordinated effort so your lungs are working to bring in enough oxygen, your heart is pumping that out to the various members, your arms are trying to keep your legs in rhythm. That’s the extent of my running knowledge and body knowledge, but all of that is a corporate, coordinated body effort. So, when the legs win the whole body rejoices together.
We must suffer together and rejoice together. Each individual member’s welfare is as vitally important to my welfare as my own welfare is. You have to look at it that way and if we truly believe this, we would have no problems fulfilling the second of the great Commandments, “you should love your neighbor as yourself.” We would have no problem considering others as more significant than ourselves.
If you’re like me you, that probably means a lot of work in this area because I know I need it. May God continue to knit us together as many members of one body in Christ
What should we do with this? How should we apply this great passage on the individual members in the body of Christ?
1. The first application is this submit to God’s purposes for your life. We demean our own gifts when we look at envy on the gifts of others. When we do this, we are despising and pridefully holding our self-up against God’s arrangement of the various members of the body of Christ. God has not given you something that is beneath you. God has not given you an unofficial role that he’s just trying to find a way for you to earn your participation ribbon.
Everything God calls us to is essential in the body of Christ, there are no spare limbs, there are no spare organs. This isn’t like when you get a kit to build something and at the end there are screws left over and you wonder, did I build this right or are those on purpose left over. God leaves nothing left over, every part has a purpose. So, submit to and embrace God’s purposes for your life.
Now here’s what this looks like as you think about the ways in which the Holy Spirit of God has equipped you. This isn’t about sitting back and dreaming about what might be one day or someday. It’s actually a lot more careful reflection on what’s in front of you right now; where you are right now, what responsibilities has God given you and your family in your neighborhood and your work, in your church. What abilities has God given you to accomplish those responsibilities? What relationships has God entrusted to you?
When we think about our gifts these are questions of stewardship. Again, the whole point of stewardship is that we’ve been entrusted with something and will be asked at the end by the master to give an account for how we have invested in what he has entrusted to us.
If you are a foot, are you serving the body to take it where it needs to go? If you’re a hand are you serving the body with your ability to provide for other’s needs? If you’re an ear are you serving the body by listening and learning? If you’re an eye are you serving the body by seeing where the body needs to go?
The point of all of these metaphors and images is not that you need to come to know precisely which part of the body you correspond to, it’s not like that. This isn’t sort of like an online quiz you can take to get a personality profile. You need rather to know what part you play in the body of Christ. Again, of your responsibilities and abilities and relationships, you need to know where you should be serving now. If you don’t know this and you want to know this, understand this is one of the best things that the elders can work with you toward. If you want to know how to serve please come talk to the me or to one of the other elders, we would be happy to help you to find ways to exercise your gifts.
Of course, when we talk about all of this submitting our lives to God’s purposes, we’ve got to also understand first of all that this is impossible until we have surrendered our lives to Christ by faith. The Bible teaches that apart from Christ we can do nothing. The Bible teaches us that God loves us and that he has a magnificent plan for our lives, that is a true statement. Then because God loved you, he sent his Son into this world to die for you at the cross so that all those who confess their sins and look to Jesus Christ in faith for salvation, trusting in Jesus and what he has done for us so that we might be saved, you will be saved.
You wait for him more than watchmen for the morning. With the Lord there is redemption. So, if you have never submitted to the lordship of Christ by looking to him, entrusting saving faith, why not today look to Jesus and be saved? So, the first application point then is to submit to God’s purposes for your life.
2. The second application point is this, encourage others to use their gifts. Encouraging the others is the opposite of, its the remedy against despising the gifts of others who seem to have weaker or less honorable or less presentable gifts than yours. Here’s why, because when we proactively encourage other people we are required to sit down and think about why God has put this member in the body of Christ. We have to think about why God has included this person’s gifts and what would we lose collectively if we did not have this person individually.
When you start to sit that down and think about that, you come away with a greater appreciation for what God is doing in the church. You begin to recognize that every person, every gift, every function is indispensable, it’s essential. Of course, seeking to encourage others is not just for your benefit. You sort of get to sit back and think about the importance of other people, but then when you go and encourage people to tell them what you see about the way the Lord is working in their life, that helps that person. In fact, it may help the other person if they are right now demeaning their own gifts.
Well, all of this is good if I had a gift like that person or that person or that person, but I have what I have and it’s really not that much; if only I were like the hand, if only if I were like the eye. When you encourage that person you teach them what the Bible says, that their roles and their place in the body of Christ is important and indispensable.
Now I last week gave you a challenge to go encourage another person to use their gifts. I had only one person take me up on that challenge. So, I’m going to reissue it. You don’t have to tell me about it, but I hope that you’re doing it. Let me tell you about it again.
Find someone else this week whose gifts, especially whose gifts may be overlooked and underappreciated in the body of Christ. Go to that person and encourage that person about the importance, the essentialness, the indispensability of their gifts. Encourage that person to use their gifts. Then pray that the Holy Spirit would fan into flames that person’s spiritual gifts. If you want, I’d love to hear about it. You may be doing this, you don’t have to tell me about it, but I would love to know because you may be seeing gifts in other persons that I personally have not, and it will help me to grow in appreciation for the body of Christ. That’s a good form of gossip.
3. The third application then is this bind up the body of Christ. The body suffers together and rejoices together. What do you see as a barrier between you and fellow members of the body of Christ? We cannot exist in silos and we cannot be separated into factions. We live together and die together, we’ve got to remain together. Again, in our individualistic society we have any number of possible reasons to divide from one another, possible justifications to go to war against each other, whether it’s over politics or education or generational outlooks or family or life situation or our opinions about COVID-19 or whatever it is. We can’t let these issues divide us in the body of Christ.
We’ve all got to be finding ways to connect with one another, especially people who are not like us. Find ways to share their sorrows and find ways to rejoice in their honor. Brothers and sisters what a privilege we have. We have not been saved merely as individuals, but as a part of a body, as a group where we stand together, where we benefit from one another’s gifts, where there are people there to suffer with us, and there are people there to rejoice with us. We get to do the same for them.
So, brothers and sisters, let us pray that God continues to knit us closer together as many members of the one body of Christ.
Our Father in Heaven, we pray that you would remind us of these gifts that you have given us and remind us especially of the gifts that you have given to others. We pray that we would not demean our gifts, that we would not despise other’s gifts, but that you would rather keep us from dividing the body by uniting us closer and closer into relationship in the body of Christ. We pray for the unity and the glory and the goodness of Christ, that you would love us and build us up in this way so that Christ would look good and so your church would be blessed. It’s in Jesus name we pray. Amen.