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Week of September 4, 2011

 

Bible Verses:  Psalm 133:1-3; 1 Corinthians 12:12-18, 21-26.

 

Lesson Focus:  This lesson highlights the priority of community among believers as revealed in the Bible. Community produces blessing, provides care, and is created by God.

 

Community is Vital:  1 Corinthians 12:12-18.

 

[12]  For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. [13]  For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body--Jews or Greeks, slaves or free--and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

[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.  [ESV]

 

[12-13]  Unity in diversity. The phrase the body, introduced in verse 12, perfectly illustrates the two themes of variety and unity. Many members … one body is Paul’s summary of the matter. The way he ends verse 12 is highly significant. We would expect him to say: “Just as the body is one and has many members, so it is with the church.” In fact, he says, so it is with Christ. It is important not so to identify Christ with His church that we lose sight of His pre-eminence and transcendence. Nevertheless, Paul is clearly referring here to the way Christ today manifests Himself by the Spirit to the world through His church. In order to accomplish His work on earth, Jesus had a body made of flesh and blood. In order to accomplish His work today, Jesus has a body that consists of living human beings. Paul is affirming both the rich variety and the deep unity in Christ Himself. In this all Christians share as members of this one body through this one Spirit. In verse 13, the being baptized by the one Spirit and the drinking of one Spirit are clearly equivalent expressions. In this context it is likely that baptized carries the double connotation of ‘being initiated into’ and ‘being overwhelmed by’. For example, contemporary secular Greek sources spoke of a submerged ship being baptized. Paul seems, then, to be saying both that Christians are in the Holy Spirit, and that the Holy Spirit is in Christians, parallel to our being in Christ and Christ being in us. By reverting to another metaphor used to describe the Holy Spirit, wind or air or breath, we can see the same truth: a new body is surrounded by air, but must also breathe in the air, if it is to carry on living and growing. If all Christians have been initiated into and overwhelmed by the Spirit through the work of Jesus the baptizer, if Jesus has made all Christians drink of the Spirit, it is legitimate to ask today whether the church as a whole or a particular local church or an individual member is genuinely experiencing what Paul is describing. In verse 13 Paul can appeal, not just to an event, but to an experience in the life of every Corinthian believer. This event, this experience, transformed them from pagans to Christians, introduced them into the community of Christian believers, and began an experiential participation in the Spirit’s presence and power. We need today to point one another with expectancy to Jesus the baptizer as the person who longs to take us all deeper and deeper into the reality of the Spirit’s power and presence. It is not a question of one special experience to be imposed upon all; but it is a reality to be experienced, and that experience can be continuous and daily. This expectant openness to experience the Spirit more and more on the part of every Christian will unite the body in eager dependence upon Jesus. The reference in verse 13 to Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, reminds us of the many-colored diversity of the body of Christ. Corinth was a cosmopolitan seaport full of people from many different cultures. That presented difficulties, but it offered immense potential for a robust testimony to Christ. The more we today draw on the richness of the world-wide community of believers, the more pungent and attractive will be our testimony.

 

[14-18]  We need one another. Paul now uses the human body to illustrate truths about life in the body of Christ. The stress in verses 15-16 is on a wrong kind of independence which could be based either on feeling not needed and unimportant, or on resenting not having been made or gifted differently. If we are together the body of Christ, we need one another, not only for the health of the body as a whole, but also to enable each individual to operate at full potential. Any Christian who operates independently from others is reducing his own effectiveness and that of the body as a whole. The practical application of this truth in a local situation is surely obvious: at the very least it means a genuine effort by those in pastoral oversight to recognize, train and release the gifts of every individual for effective service. That means recognizing hidden talent, crossing denominational and other boundaries, moving away from clerical monopoly, and developing partnership in ministry outside the immediate locality and indeed with a global perspective. We need one another and we live in a world where communications of all kinds make it possible for this to be practically realized. A body which is all eyes and ears is not a body. Each member is unique, distinctive, irreplaceable, unrepeatable. This is the glory of the church as the body of Christ. Instead of allowing ourselves to be cast in any one mold, we ought to relish the differences and learn to capitalize on them. It is true of most churches that there are many round pegs in square holes: they become jammed. Equally, there are many square pegs in round holes: they are either too big to belong or too small to fill the need. There are also many pegs trying to fill several holes at once. That leads to many others lying around unused. Another variation on the same theme happens when new pegs are forced to fit into existing holes, instead of being allowed to find their own niche or a totally new kind. We differ from one another, because God wants those differences to be molded into a special unity which is demonstrably his own doing. Rather than build up community out of diversity, we often tend to let each sub-group form its own unit and grow in isolation from other natural groupings. The community which is alive to the Spirit is committed, by Scripture, to the costly struggle of living out the reconciliation of all men to one another and to God, by uniting black and white, new believer and mature disciple, Jew and Gentile, young and old, male and female, single and married. There are many other, more subtle, distinctives which we can easily and unconsciously stifle, to the point where the body has effectively lost several limbs by social, cultural or intellectual amputation. We differ from one another and only God, who made us different, can hold us together.

 

Community Cares for its Own:  1 Corinthians 12:21-26.

 

[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.  [ESV]

 

Paul continues speaking of body parts to illustrate how foolish it would be for the eye to say to the hand, or the head to the feat, I have no need of you. This verbalizes the actual attitude of some Corinthians toward their brothers and sisters that Paul seeks to change. Eye and head are transparent metaphors for those in leadership roles, who are likely to be more affluent and better educated. The hands and feet represent the laboring class. Eyes and heads in the church always get special treatment and then begin to think that they are special. A sense of superiority can breed notions of self-sufficiency, since those who think that they are all-important can imagine that the minor players are superfluous and dispensable. It is obvious in a body that no part is autonomous, but Paul uses the body analogy to turn self-centered vanity upside down. It is, in fact, the unpresentable parts that are the most necessary for the body to live, and they receive special treatment. The weaker and superior members are only apparently or seemingly so, and appearances are deceiving. Such apparent weakness has no relationship to their real value and necessity to the body. In the same manner, the persons with deceptively ordinary and unprestigious gifts are as necessary for the proper functioning of the community as those who put on a more glittery display. All are of equal value; but if there is to be any over-compensation, it is to be for the less favored. The church is not to be like its surrounding society, which always honors those who are already honored. It is to be countercultural and bestow the greatest honor on those who seem to be negligible. Paul continues the analogy in verse 23 by noting the special attention paid to these necessary, but unpresentable, members. These unpresentable parts may seem to be the most shameful part of the body, but our very attention to them – our constant care to cover them and shield them from trivializing and vulgarizing public exposure – demonstrated that they are actually the most necessary of the body’s members, those with the highest status. Verse 24 affirms that this is God’s very intention. God composed, implying mixing and blending, deliberately so. Paul employs the body analogy to undermine the hierarchy of values that habitually honors those already honored and humiliates those already humbled in society. The so-called gifted and glorious members should share their glory with the unglorious and invest them with honor instead of flaunting their gifts or gloating over their illusory superiority. The conclusion in 12:25-26 expresses the purpose of this ordering of the body: that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. The opposite of division is showing care for one another. Evidence of callous indifference to the plight of the “have-nots” at the Lord’s Supper [11:17-34] reveals a bodily breakdown. Their behavior at their Lord’s Supper disclosed their prejudice: these members could go missing with no great loss to the church. All have experienced, at one time or another, how the whole physical body suffers when one member hurts. The same is true for the body of Christ. As one attends to physical ailments in the body, so Paul expects the church to attend to those members who are suffering. The principle of love embodied in the cross mandates that one should always seek honor for others, which stands in absolute antithesis to the dominant value that seeks honor only for oneself in a preening self-indulgence. The gift of the weaker, unpresentable members to the church give others a concrete opportunity to practice love and patience.

 

Community Leads to the Lord’s Blessing:  Psalm 133:1-3.

 

[1]  Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity! [2]  It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes! [3]  It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the LORD has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.  [ESV]

 

The psalmist pronounces a blessing on those who dwell in unity. During the pilgrimages, the Israelites enjoyed an ecumenical experience on their way toward and in Jerusalem. The pilgrims came from many different walks of life, regions, and tribes as they gathered for one purpose: the worship of the Lord in Jerusalem. Their unity was in conformity with the regulations for the three annual feasts. During the feasts the Israelites celebrated their common heritage – redemption from Egypt and their encampment around the tabernacle in the wilderness. The fellowship of God’s people on earth is an expression of the priesthood of all believers, a promise made to Israel and renewed to the church in Christ [1 Peter 2:9-10]. The psalmist compares the expression of harmonious unity to sacerdotal oil. The oil prepared for use in the tabernacle was a special, fragrant oil, whose recipe was not to be imitated. In addition to being used for the consecration of the Tent of Meeting, only the high priest and the priests could be anointed with this oil, associated exclusively with priestly service. The specific reference to Aaron should not be limited to him, as the whole priesthood was anointed with oil. Here Aaron is the head of the priestly clan. His name is representative of all the priests. Through the priestly institution the Lord assured His people of forgiveness and blessing. At the same time the allusion back to primitive Israel in the wilderness conjures up the association of the unity of the tribes around the tabernacle and the receiving of the high priestly ministry of Aaron after he had been consecrated by oil. The simile further compares the unity of the brotherhood to the plentiful oil, which flows down from the head to the beard and to his robes. Because of the high altitude of Mount Hermon (over nine thousand feet above sea level) and the precipitation in the forms of rain, snow, and dew. Mount Hermon was proverbial for its lush greenery even during the summer months and for its dew that sustained the vegetation. The experience of the pilgrims is like that of the refreshing dew of Hermon. During the summer months virtually no precipitation falls on Jerusalem, even in the form of dew. During these months at least two pilgrimages were held: the Feast of Firstfruits in May/June and the Feast of Booths in September. Regardless of how harsh the conditions of the pilgrimage, life, or nature, the fellowship of the brotherhood of God’s people was refreshing. The psalmist returns to the note of blessing. Where God’s people are living together in unity, there the Lord sends blessing by His command. The nature of the blessing is specified in the second part of verse 3: life forevermore. Life with its fullness of enjoyment in the presence of God is a gift of God. Psalm 133 reflects Israel’s capacity to appreciate the common joys of life and to attribute them to the well-ordered generosity of Yahweh.

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.         What important truth is Paul emphasizing by comparing the church to a human body? How can you put this truth into practice in your local church?

 

2.         Why is both unity and diversity important in the church? What does Paul mean by baptized in one Spirit and drink of one Spirit? Why is his teaching here essential for there to be unity in the church?

 

3.         What is your response when a fellow Christian is honored? How do you respond when someone is suffering? How does the body-concept of the church instruct you concerning these two situations?

 

References:

1 Corinthians, David Garland, Baker.

The Message of 1 Corinthians, David Prior, Inter Varsity.

Psalms, Volume 3, James Boice, Baker.

Psalms, William VanGemeren, EBC, Zondervan.