31 March 2017

1 Corinthians 12:27-31

“Strive for the greater gifts.” (v. 31)

Psalm: Psalm 130


Paul sums up his teaching about the Church at this point by returning to the image of the body with many different parts, which he has developed extensively in the previous section.

He moves on to list the roles which contribute to building up a church. The list has many echoes elsewhere in the New Testament. Paul himself is an apostle, sent out to proclaim the Good News (of Jesus Christ), especially where it hasn't previously been heard. Prophets have a role in worship (see 1 Corinthians 11:4-5 with its reference to men and women who pray and prophesy, speaking with insight into the past, present and future - like Simeon, Luke 2:34-35). Teachers pass on the tradition to help others make sense of their new faith, as Philip helped the Ethiopian official (Acts 8:26-40). A church also needs people who can channel God's power and healing; it needs people who can help others, who can guide (the Greek word is associated with steering a ship), who can speak in tongues or interpret.

Paul uses the collective term'charisms'to describe these gifts. The word indicates that they flow from 'charis', the grace of God. This is why his understanding of charismatic gifts is so wide - God's grace permeates every aspect of the Church's life.

The final words in this section take us back to the focus of the previous verses on the collaborative functioning of the Body of Christ. No single person has every gift needed for a flourishing church. Paul's rhetorical questions expect the answer 'no, of course not'. We need one another's gifts.

Yet at the same time, we should not be complacent about our gifts. Paul invites us to seek the greater gifts. The Greek word translated 'seek' suggests zeal, or enthusiasm, even passion - but what are these "greater gifts"? Is Paul establishing a hierarchy of gifts, contrary to everything he has previously said? It seems more likely that he is using this approach to lead his hearers to an understanding that there are gifts on a different level from those he has listed - the ones he will go on to describe so beautifully in his next section.

To Ponder

  • Who would you name as a modern-day prophet? Why?
  • What is the relationship between the way the word 'charismatic' is used in contemporary church life and the way Paul uses it?

Bible notes author

The Revd Caroline Wickens

Caroline is a Methodist presbyter, currently serving as superintendent of the Dudley and Netherton Circuit just outside Wolverhampton. She is married to Andrew, an Anglican priest, and has two teenage children.