By Amy Peeler
1 Corinthians 12 is a passage to which I return often; I would imagine this is true for many of you. The beginning includes Paul’s presentation on spiritual gifts, and this is probably the most applicable section. The one God gives many gifts to the people of God. We can be thankful to God for the way the Spirit has gifted us. We cannot be prideful because the gifts come from God and not ourselves. We should not be covetous of others’ gifts because the all-knowing God has given to each precisely what is beneficial. Those lessons never grow old, so maybe you just need to read and reflect on one of those aspects this morning.
The aspect that jumped out to me when I turned to this text this time was the prominence of the theme of speech: unspeaking idols, what you can and cannot say by the Spirit, many gifts that are verbal, including words of wisdom and knowledge, and tongues. Since words matter so much, as Scripture attests, the tongue can bless and curse; it is the small rudder that can steer for good or ill a mighty ship. I’d like to put our focus there. From this passage, we learn that words have to do with identity, of God, ourselves, and the relationship between us. We are what we say, or is it better said, we say from whom we are. We can learn from this well-known chapter when and what to speak, not just with our mouths but with our lives as well.
I’ll start with the most confusing verse: in verse 3 Paul says, “No one is able to say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” This seems, on its surface, plainly false. Anyone could make his or her mouth form the words “Jesus,” “is,” and “Lord.”
The first part of verse 3 is also odd but for a different reason. Paul says, “No one speaking by the Spirit of God says ‘Jesus is cursed.’” As the Jesus is Lord statement seems plainly false, this one seems plainly true, obvious to the point of banality. The confusion over these phrases has led to numerous suggestions. One commentary listed 12 different interpretive options.
If Paul is saying something true and meaningful in these verses, it resides, I think, in the issue of identity, both divine and human identity.
To discover that, we need to remind ourselves of the group to whom he is writing. The church, or better said, churches in the city of Corinth were a motley crew. They are famous (or is that infamous) for their many and various problems, but my focus today lies in a particular aspect of their identity, deeply important in the ancient world, namely their ethnic identity. By comparing names listed in Corinthians with other works in the New Testament, dominantly Acts, and paying attention to Corinthians itself, we can see that these churches consisted largely of Gentiles who had embraced faith in Jesus the Messiah of the people of Israel.
Paul makes a very peculiar statement about their ethnic identity here. In this discussion of spiritual things, he very quickly turns to a point they all know, that they were Gentiles. Why is this spoken as a reality in the past? Aren’t they still Gentiles? Since conversion to Judaism was so controversial in Paul’s ministry, it does not seem that they have become Jews, because he would have mentioned the issue of circumcision. They are still Gentiles. They have not become some other kind of person.
Or have they? 1 Corinthians 12 is not the only time he distinguishes this group from Gentiles. In 5:1, when he excoriates them for tolerating sexual immorality in their midst he says, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among Gentiles.” He seems to be differentiating them from the Gentiles, and in this instance, they are worse. At the close of chapter 10 he charges, “give no offense to Jews or Greeks or the church of God.” By saying “Jews and Greeks” he is covering almost everyone in their world, from a Jewish standpoint at least, so what is this new third distinct category different than previous ways of dividing humans? Right after our verses for today he says this: “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free.” (1 Cor. 12:13). It seems that he believes they were Gentiles, but now after their baptism they are something else, something that supersedes any other identity.
I must be careful here, because such language could be interpreted as obliteration of ethnic identity. Forget about being Greek; you are Christian. Translated into our setting: forget about being African American or Asian or Latinx or White; you are Christian. And really so often that is not obliteration of all ethnicity but assimilation to the dominant ethnicity. You are now Christian, so act White. That is as ugly as it is ridiculous. We know from other writings of Paul’s that he does not forget about his own Jewish identity or the ethnic identities of others. It forms a large part of how he thinks about and performs his ministry. But I do think he is saying that “Christian” is the foundational part of their identity. It is the lens through which all other identities are sifted. Because of Christ, you, Gentile Corinthians, are now participants in and of the Spirit.
So who is the Spirit?
He tells them at the beginning of this section that he is addressing pneumatikwn, spiritual things. Commentators debate whether this means spiritual people or spiritual gifts, but without question, the entire focus here is on the spiritual dimension.
As Paul proceeds through this discussion, the Spirit is the one who inspires speech, the Spirit is the one who gives gifts. This statement prompts Paul to think about other divine provisions. There are many ministries, but the same Lord. There are many works, but the same God who works all things in all. Beautiful variety from the same source. So let me say it again: who is this Spirit?
1 Corinthians 12:4–6 is a big deal. It is leaping off the page, staring you in the face, seeds of trinitarian language from a Jewish monotheist, the earliest statement of its kind in the New Testament. The Spirit, the Lord, and God. It wasn’t long before this text, like the great commission in Matthew 28, became a foundation stone for the Christian doctrine of God. Paul may not been thinking in the language of hypostases, but he is showing a diversity in unity, not only with the gifts given, but also the God who gives them.
The reiteration of the shared work between the Spirit and God appears in the list of gifts given. One thing the Spirit does is energizes all things. That is how Paul closes the list. Paul begins the list in the same way. All things are energized, but this time it is by God. God and the Spirit do the same work. The Spirit, the Lord Jesus, and God are all involved in pouring out good things on God’s people.
There is a three-in-oneness to the confusing verses at the beginning as well. The statements that can and cannot be made all concern Jesus. Jesus is cursed or Jesus is Lord. Both statements have to do with his relationship with God. “Lord” can mean sir or sovereign, but for readers familiar with Israel’s Scriptures, it means so much more. It is a recollection of the name of God. God’s holy name revealed to Moses in Exodus 3 was not repeated when Jews read their Scriptures. They inserted instead the word Adonai. When those Hebrew texts were translated into Greek, translators used the term kurios, Lord, just the term that Paul uses here. To say that Jesus is Lord, is in fact to say that Jesus is God.
Such a relationship is also at play with the statement “Jesus is cursed.” Anathema (one of the Greek words that comes without transformation into English) indicates that which is cut off from God. Hence, these statements Paul is lifting up as examples say either that Jesus is separated from God or that Jesus is God, and Paul highlights the role of the Spirit in each kind of speech. The Spirit cannot be a part of statements that separate Jesus from God, but only the Spirit can enable statements that join Jesus with God. There are three entities, three divine entities, involved (or absolutely not involved) in each statement.
But the nature of the positive statement “Jesus is Lord” invites another connection, namely between the God being spoken of and the person doing the speaking. If this is Spirit-inspired theologically radical speech, in the language of one commentator, Richard Hays, “anyone who utters that confession is not just mouthing the words but making a self-involving confession of the Lordship of Jesus.” These people are not just speaking; they are proclaiming who God is and who they are under God’s sovereignty. This is speech that is paired with action.
What does such a statement have to do with the various giftings discussed here?
The Spirit gives charismata, things unearned, gracious gifts. And there are many of them. The Greek term here is diaireseis, many and various kinds, diversities, we might say. Like the beauty of different flowers in an arrangement. The same Spirit gives to one a word of wisdom and another a word of knowledge. To another the Spirit gives faith. To some gifts of healing, to another prophecy, to another discernment of spirits, to another kinds of tongues, to another interpretation of tongues.
But what does this have to do with the Lordship of Jesus Christ, with saying that Jesus is Lord? Are verses 4 and following a non-sequitur from 2 and 3? I do not think so.
Notice again the prominence of the theme of speech.
In verse 2, in his statement about their previous way of life among the idols, speech is present. Many of the gods and goddesses of the time were thought to have caused ecstatic mysterious utterances, but they were in fact, Paul says here, aphona. Phoneo means to speak, and the alpha at the beginning negates it. They were unspeaking, so whatever people did in their worship was self-deceptive gibberish and/or the work of demons.
The Spirit about whom Paul speaks here, however, is loquacious. The Spirit gives meaningful and edifying speech, allowing people to speak rightly about Jesus, to speak words of wisdom and knowledge, prophecy, discernment, tongues, interpretation.
But there are other gifts as well that aren’t immediately connected with speech: Faith, healing, miracles. Maybe this passage has a great deal to say about words, but not only about words.
When the Spirit allows you to say “Jesus is Lord,” that is not just a verbal event, but a pledge of allegiance that manifests in a changed life. That common pledge said by the many will be expressed in these diversities of gifts, ministries, and works. It will be lives that speak, with words and actions, of the sovereignty of the God of Israel manifest in the Messiah, Jesus Christ, who sent his Spirit to work in his people. Only the Spirit can allow you to make such a life-altering pledge and only the Spirit can produce the gifts that flow from it.
What does your life speak? If you look at the list of the different gifts of the Spirit, it is a picture of a beautifully eloquent life: does your life speak that which is
- Cognizant, even celebratory, of differences?
Does your life speak clearly?
That list comes at us fast and furious in such a setting, but provides an invitation for further reflection on what each kind of gift might look like.
The primary question is this: Does your life proclaim that Jesus is Lord? Or is Jesus, through your life, cursed? Is your life cutting people off from the true source of God, or bringing people under the sovereignty of God?
Have you had those occasions, where you had a sense it wasn’t you speaking but God’s Spirit? God allowed you to say just what a friend needed, you shared a testimony with a non-believer, you reached out with tangible assistance to someone at just the right time.
Our lives speaking of Jesus is not so much about mustering up what needs to be said, but listening to God through Scripture and through prayer, preparing the ground of our hearts, so that when the need arises, we can dismantle any barriers of resistance, of pride, of fear of judgment, of a sense of inadequacy, and let the Spirit speak.
If Jesus is your Lord, it’s time to say so, with your words and your life, and the Spirit of God graciously desires to allow you to do so.
The Rev. Dr. Amy Peeler is associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and associate rector of St. Mark’s, Geneva, Illinois.