Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Body of Christ part 1

The Body of Christ, Part 1: Gifts, Talents and Abilities

[Text: 1 Corinthians 12:1-11]  


I’ve been ask to talk about living in the christian fellowship we call church.  This heterogeneous amalgamation of personalities, backgrounds, experiences, talents, dreams.  After praying about it I believe the Lord put it on my heart to take the next two sermons from 1 Corinthians chapter 12.

In this sermon we are going to discuss gifts, talents and abilities.  Next time we are going to talk about and define the “The body of Christ”.   

Our text comes from the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church located in the city of Corinth, Greece.  I like these letters to Corinth.  They aren’t full of abstract ideas and high, moral platitudes, but rather the pages are smeared with the grit and grime that can only come from contact with real life.  

The church in Corinth was surrounded by this dirt. Ex-slaves wondering the streets day and night looking for food and money however they might get it, male and female prostitutes plying their trade, a thriving culture of gambling.  All the while a  perverse sort of morality flowed like a black river out of the great temple of Aphrodite with its 1,000 religious prostitutes. The moral depravity of Corinth was world renowned.

And in the middle of all this, like a lovely flower growing in the middle of a busy street, was God’s church.    Not just surviving but thriving.  Oh, they had their problems to be sure, but you have to look at them in the light of both what they were surrounded by as well as what they had come out of.   Please understand, I am not trying to justify their sin.  I am merely asking you to read these letters through the lens of grace.  

What a beautiful and amazing thing that God allowed this church to be such an object lesson for all the other struggling little flowers that would come after. Could you imagine if God had chosen our fellowship for this horror...I mean, honor?  Our churches today are not very different from the Corinthian church are they?   But God chose them, not to air their dirty laundry, this letter serving as some sort of first century tabloid; but to be a beacon of hope.  A constant reminder that God is merciful and will work even with what appears to us mere mortals as the worst of situations.    

The overriding theme of this letter, if I were allowed only one word, is unity. Besides the immorality that the modern mind cannot but help honing in on, there was an atmosphere of bickering, backbiting and competitiveness.  Our text today begins to address an issue that was lending to this atmosphere. God had blessed this church with gifts that the members went on to exploit in order to win popularity contests. And just as happens today, not only did those with certain gifts purport them to be better than other gifts, the rest of the congregations began believing this lie.   Paul, however, writes to tell the congregation that this is all wrong and not God’s way. All gifts are from Him and therefore all are important and needed.

And this is what I want to focus on in this sermon.  Gifts, talents and abilities: what they are, where they come from, what they are for.

Let’s read 1 Corinthians 12:1-11.

What are gifts?

Paul writes about various spiritual gifts here.  He mentions both here and in our text for next week, the following:

Wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, interpretation of tongues, apostles, prophets, teachers, helps, and administrations.

Let me just make two brief remarks on Paul’s lists:

1.  I do not believe he was prioritizing gifts, per se. This would be the exact opposite of Paul’s intent in this passage (something we will explore next). The Corinthian church had already prioritized gifts and the last thing Paul was going to do was simply give them a different order they could use to lord over people.   

2.  I don’t believe this list is exhaustive. Paul’s list was based on the more outgoing and visible gifts, the common ones people were misunderstanding and misusing.

With these two points in mind I wish to apply God’s words through the Apostle in a broader, more general sense to not just include the list given here, but all our gifts, talents and abilities.  

At this point I believe a proper definition of a gift in the biblical sense of the passage under consideration, is in order:

Any ability we have that can be utilized to bring glory to God and results in the edification of the body of Christ through godly encouragement, admonishment, rebuke, correction, and the increase in godliness.

This definition is far from complete and only a first attempt on my part, but I believe it will serve as a good starting point for our purposes.

Origins of our Gifts

Where do our gifts, abilities and talents come from?  Sounds like an easy question to answer, doesn’t it?   Well, it is easy, but it isn’t something we always spend a lot of time talking or even thinking about.   Paul starts out this passage by reminding the people about their past and their present as a way of making a very important point.  

First, he says, “When you were pagans, you were led astray to the mute idols, however you were led” (NASB).  But in the next verse he compares their old life with their new life by saying, “Therefore I want you to know that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus is accursed”; and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit”.    

I have run into some really strange teaching when it comes to the second verse.   Some (including myself at one time) came to the wrong conclusion that this verse was actually an acid test for true Christianity.  That is, if you want to know whether someone is a Christian or not get them to confess “Jesus is Lord”.  However, this is not what this verse is saying.  In fact, it really has nothing to do with whether someone is a Christian or not.   Someone who is a Christian can say “Jesus is accursed” and someone that is not a Christian can say “Jesus is Lord”.   

Paul starts out literally saying, “Before God called you, you couldn’t help but chase after idols”.    This idea is weaved throughout Paul’s theology.  The truth that men and women, left to themselves and without continual, active intervention by God, will always do the wrong thing.   Take a look at Romans 3:9-18.  Additionally Isaiah 64:6 tells us that, “...[a]ll our righteousness have become like filthy rags”.    

Paul then elaborates on this idea in verse 3.  What he is saying is that if you say anything that is good and truthful about God it is because God has done this.  And if God is willing for you to speak truth about Him, you cannot, at the same time, speak lies. Perhaps Paul had in mind the prophet Balaam when he wrote this?  When the Israelites, during their wanderings, passed through the land of Moab, the king, out of fear, hired the prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites so that the king could then destroy them in battle.  Listen to how Deuteronomy 23:3-5 summarizes it:

No Ammonite or Moabite shall enter the assembly of the LORD; none of their descendants, even to the tenth generation, shall ever enter the assembly of the LORD, because they did not meet you with food and water on the way when you came out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. “Nevertheless, the LORD your God was not willing to listen to Balaam, but the LORD your God turned the curse into a blessing for you because the LORD your God loves you...”

What happened?  Balaam was paid by the king to curse the Israelites but God wouldn’t let him.  Instead he put into his mouth a blessing, and while a blessing was in his mouth, no curse could be found there.  

The point Paul was trying to make reinforces a truth that, for Paul, was vital to the growth and survival of the church:  The truth of the sovereignty of God.  He is large and in charge!  So that when it comes to our gifts, abilities and talents, they come from God.    

This is not to say that these same gifts cannot be used for ungoldly and selfish purposes.  In fact, that was a big part of the Corinthians's’ problem:  God had given them these wonderful gifts and they were using them for their own glory instead of His.

Now, you may be thinking, “But I don’t speak in tongues, or prophesy and I’m terrible in front of people.  What can I do?”  You have to keep in mind that ALL of our gifts, talents and abilities come from God.  As I mentioned at the start, these gifts mentioned in our text are only a sampling of the gifts God gives.  Turn with me to Exodus 35:30-35; 36:1.   Here we read about two men: Bezalel and Oholiab who were artisans.   Don’t miss the point here though.  To us it doesn’t seem strange that these men had what we would consider some fairly nifty and unique skills.  But think about where they were and what sort of culture they were a part of.  They were now part of a nomadic lifestyle. Skills that were in high demand would be hunting, gathering of food and fighting.  Not the skills these men had.

Imagine that the Israelites are confronted by an enemy.  All the warriors are grabbing their weapons and battle gear and Oholiab stands up and says, “I can embroiderer!”   Or Bezalel builds a beautiful stone edifice for parking the oxen in at the end of the day.  Fat good that would do them when the packed up the tents and moved the following week.   You see, for the situation they were in their gifts, talents and abilities didn’t look all that important.  But all of a sudden God spoke and the situation changed.  Their skills were very important. God was going to use them to build him a tabernacle that would be the center of Israel’s worship for years to come, in which would dwell God’s presence.   

I also would like to point out that, in this case, I don’t believe that either of these men woke up one morning and said, “Hey, I know how to build a tabernacle.” It wasn’t like the matrix.  [Talk about Neo and getting plugged in the first time.  “I know Kung-Fu”.]   These men were trained in these skills and clearly had innate talent to boot, something the Egyptians probably identified and leveraged.   But God tells us that in no uncertain terms, these skills they have are from Him and Him alone.

When Zerubbabel was anointed by God to rebuild the temple after the Israelites exile to Babylon, it didn’t look to some like it would ever happen.  But God prophesied through the prophet/priest Zechariah in chapter four of the book that bears his name:

“‘Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit’, says the Lord.”   and “Who despises the day of small things?”

What you have, what you can do, the gifts, the talents, the abilities, the education, the training, the knowledge: it all comes from God and is for his glory alone and for the building up of the body of Christ.

Purpose of our Gifts

We’ve seen so far that, according to our text, any ability that we have, whether it is something we’ve learned to do over years such as a special training or education, or something immediately given us directly, such as speaking in tongues, a prophetic ministry or healing, are all gifts and all come from God.  He is sovereign and we would not be able to do anything good for God or his kingdom if God had not given us the gifts, abilities and talents we have.

So what is the point of these gifts?   I’ve already mentioned it, but verse 7 says it best:

But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good”.  

Our gifts all come from God.  Not one gift is more important than another. And they are to all be used for the common good.   

Turn to Philipians 2:3-7. Who was more gifted than Jesus Christ?  Does anyone want to argue against the truth that Jesus was the most gifted man to ever walk the face of this planet?   Yet he used everything he had for the glory of God and the benefit of his fellow humanity.  Verse four says: not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.”   The word “merely” isn’t in the original text but implied by the word “also”.   But It is interesting to read that verse without the word merely in it.  “ not look out for your own personal needs”.   Now clearly we need to take care of ourselves, but don’t  miss the fact that the emphasis in this verse is on the “others” rather than the “your own”.

Our gifts, which come only from God, should be used to build up God’s temple just like with Bezalel and Oholiab.


Let me make some concluding remarks.  Paul’s purpose in writing this letter was to promote unity.  But a sub-purpose found in this chapter was to teach us the proper use of our gifts in the body of Christ.   If you haven’t picked up on it yet let me spell it out plainly:  Everyone in this church has something to offer God and his people.  In this day of recession, job loss and job insecurity let me say it loud and clear:  There is no unemployment in the kingdom of God!   Everyone has a place, everyone has something they can do.   

Maybe it is teaching, maybe cooking for shut-ins, maybe it is the nursery or the boys brigade.  Maybe it is leading a bible study or having people over to your house for fellowship and a meal.  It might be prophecy or wisdom or special knowledge, music, writing or art.  This list is, for all practical reasons, infinite.  

True, not every one is qualified for what they “think” they are qualified for.  But that is what the body is here for. This is why we need to be in fellowship when it comes to the gifts God has given us.

1st.  To have someone to spend our gifts on.   Yes, we are to use our gifts for all people, not just the church, but Scripture actually puts a premium on building up the body of Christ.  This is hard to do if you are not regularly in contact with the body.

2nd.  To help us identify and develop those gifts.   I’m not a huge fan of personality profiles.  Yes, they can be helpful and I am not against their use, but I don’t believe there is any good substitute for getting to know people and getting to be known by people.   When you are around people regularly and building meaningful relationships people begin to let you know what your gifts are, even if you don’t.   

Next time we are going to, Lord willing, talk about the body of Christ and what it means to be a part of this body. I am going to also tell you about two amazing people who changed lives and were shakers and movers in the Kingdom of God.  One was a waiter and the other a seamstress.  Let’s pray.


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