May 13, 2016 1 Corinthians 12:1-20
How many sermons or Sunday School lessons have you heard on 1 Corinthians 12:4-20 about spiritual gifts? And how many on the first three verses of the passage? One of the advantages of an inductive-study discussion group is that we get to explore unfamiliar parts of familiar passages. The discussion on this passage was a great example of that benefit.
Paul starts out the passage with a reference to spiritual gifts (v. 1). His “Now concerning” (peri de, Περὶ δὲ) transitions seem to mark topics that the Corinthians had specifically asked him to help them with (1 Corinthians 7:1; cf. 7:25, 8:1 as well as this passage). We don’t know exactly what they asked, but we have Paul’s extended response on this subject (1 Corinthians 12-14). After our discussion on the passage I suggest that we learned something about what the Corinthians were asking.
In order to answer their questions about spiritual gifts, he first brings up what might have been an uncomfortable memory, their pagan past. A question came up about the meaning of pagan. Was that the same as atheist? We talked a bit about the categories Paul might have had in mind – Jew and Gentile (essentially everybody else, all non-Jews). Gentiles, those not part of the Jewish race, could have a variety of religious views. Monotheists were non-Jews who still worshiped one God. Atheists believed there was no God at all, and polytheists believed in multiple gods. “Pagans” would be followers of polytheistic or pantheistic religions. They had not been atheists who denied the existence of God. They had any number of gods they followed. The Corinthians Christians had that background.
Twice in verse 2 he reminds them of how they were “led” or “led astray” to the idols. If they were led, someone (or something) must have been doing the leading. Paul has already connected idol worship to demonic influence (1 Corinthians 10:14-21). The Corinthians were used to hearing about countless different deities and idols. Many of the church members had probably actively participated in various forms of worship to different gods. Now Paul is about to describe the variety of spiritual gifts and experiences. How were the former pagans who were now Christians to be able to distinguish the work of the one true God from the activity of numerous demons? Perhaps that was the question they had asked Paul about.
As a result of that confusion (“Therefore” in verse 3), Paul gives them a straightforward test with both a negative and a positive standard: “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” (v. 3). Simple, right? The first part makes sense. Cursing Christ is never the work of the Holy Spirit (assuming Paul is using “Spirit of God” and “Holy Spirit” as equivalent descriptions). Anyone cursing or belittling or sneering at Jesus is “being led” (as Paul said before) by a very different spirit. There may be a hint here referring back to the Corinthians’ tendency to blend Christian and pagan worship, to “drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons” (10:21). Any worship practice that disparages Jesus is not legitimate.
The second part of the test gave our discussion group more difficulty. Several members suggested that they knew people who claimed to be Christians, and who would easily say the words, “Jesus is Lord,” but who really did not follow Him. Numerous suggestions were made, especially pointing to other passages, such as Romans 10:9-11 that mention spoken testimony along with genuine heart belief. Perhaps “Jesus is Lord” is, as one participant offered, “shorthand” for that genuine faith. But the question persisted: That is not what Paul says in this passage. He is giving the Christians an uncomplicated test, so it is unlikely he would leave out a critical element such as belief in the heart. What was the criterion he was giving them? Surely he would want the test to be clear and unlikely to be misunderstood. “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” How do we reconcile a clear Biblical statement that seems so contrary to our experience?
After considerable discussion we began to think about the culture surrounding the Corinthians and comparing it with our culture. Saying the words, “Jesus is Lord” in our culture is generally not a big deal. Some people might think you are odd, but there is not much cost or risk involved in making the statement. Saying the words doesn’t really make you stand out, since our culture generally has a Judeo-Christian background and history. Other than ardent atheists many Americans identify somehow with Christianity. Saying “Jesus is Lord” to identify with Him doesn’t draw much attention, and there is little or no personal cost as a result.
For the Corinthians it might cost them their social standing or their job. Identifying with Jesus as the Lord of Lords over all the pagan gods would be more counter-cultural than we can imagine. Whereas in our culture, being a good, upstanding church member might be good for social contacts and business reputation, it would likely be just the opposite in first-century Corinth. Saying “Jesus is Lord” could ruin your social and business life. “The Christians were accused of atheism. The charge arose from the fact that many in the empire could not understand an imageless worship. Monotheism held no attraction for such people. As a result they blamed the Christians for insulting the gods of the state.”
When Paul wrote, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” he was not thinking of twenty-first century, pseudo-Christian America. He was writing to a group existing in a culture where only the work of the Holy Spirit could overcome the fear of what might happen. No one would risk the ostracism or worse that would result unless they genuinely had the Spirit working within them. The open, bold identification with Jesus and the willingness to face the potential cost were much different for the Corinthians than for us.
Paul then moves into his well-known discussion of spiritual gifts, and more specifically the divine unity behind the diversity of gifts. Our group did not spend much of our limited meeting time on this section. One thought was that since the Corinthians were accustomed to such a wide variety of so-called gods and different types of idol worship it would be all too easy for them to mistake the variety of gifts for a variety of spirits or powers. Given their already-demonstrated tendency toward divisions and factions within the church (1 Corinthians 1:10-13; 11:18) Paul probably saw the possibility of one more source of disharmony among them. He emphasized the unity underlying the diversity based on the unity of the Triune God (vv. 4-6). The identification with Jesus grows from a heart transformed by the Holy Spirit, and the place where the Spirit’s work is seen dramatically is within the diversity of the church. His work in Christians as individuals and in the church is the power that enables genuine, costly identification with Jesus as Lord.
Those two aspects, identification and cost, still affect our application of Paul’s test. How do we identify with Jesus? What costs might be involved for us? Our culture continues to accelerate down several paths that make that identification potentially more costly. The test that Paul gave the first-century Corinthians – open identification with Jesus and His lordship over all areas of life – may become a more realistic test in our culture as well. As the cost increases for deviation from political correctness fewer superficial followers will be willing to make such a statement. Dr. Shelley’s comment about the culture “blaming Christians for insulting the gods of the state” takes on a whole new dimension. The “gods of the state” are not always carved in wood or stone. Ideological gods can be just as fiercely protected by a culture with equally strong reactions to those who sincerely say, “Jesus is Lord.” May God the Holy Spirit empower us to continue that proclamation.
 Lit, “Gentile” (ethne, ἔθνη). Twenty-one translations use “pagan” (e.g., NASB, ESV, NIV); eight use “heathen” (RSV, WYC); thirteen use “gentile” (ASV, Phillips, KJV). The contextual emphasis on idols seems to justify the translation of pagans, non-Jews who worshipped idols. https://www.biblegateway.com/verse/en/1%20Corinthians%2012:2
 Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995), 42.