Starting in ch. 12 (chs. 12-14 building a unit) the apostle uses the metaphor of the body (especially 12:12-31) to speak about differences and unity in the body of Christ – that is, the church. A matter of historical and cultural significance is the cursus honorum (Ben Witherington, Conflict And Community In Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary On 1 And 2 Corinthians [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995], 259-60). In such the Roman society classified its members into two major groups: the honestiores (those who deserve honor and prestige) and the humiliores (the non-elite). As we have already seen in the preceding chapters, power and prestige (social significance) is of highest value at Roman Corinth. Thus via Roman evaluation the Corinthian church lacked spiritual understanding concerning the gifts and social equality within the church.
In 12:2 Paul speaks of the believers “being led astray to mute idols” in their former days in paganism. A possible background for such might be the pagan temple processions which would end up in a temple where mute idols were worshipped.
One of the questions, raised by the reader, in this passage is “What is the main problem the apostle is addressing here?” Is the problem a matter of a wrong understanding of spiritual gifts? Or an over-realized eschatology (or even over emphasized pneumatology)? There might be some of these aspects as underlying issues, yet it seems best to understand the main problem in terms of independence: see for example the body metaphor “I do not need you” (v. 21ff.). What the apostle then wants to address is that the members of the Corinthian church are not independent of each other, but need each other.
Two factors are meant to determine the behavior of believers: (1) the spiritual health of the fellow believers (edification of the church); and (2) the effect on unbelievers.
First Corinthians 12:1-31 speaks of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the unity of the church. In 12:1 Paul makes a comment which must have been a “slap in the face” (Witherington, 256) to the readers. Thinking that they are very spiritual, Paul needs to state “…concerning spiritual gifts…I do not want you to be ignorant.” Then he reminds them of their former days in paganism (v.2). In v. 3 Paul states that no Christian can speak in terms of Jesus being cursed nor that non-Christian can really confess the Lordship of Christ. The crucified Messiah is accursed according to the Torah (Deut 20:23). Only through the power and work of the Holy Spirit is a person able to see that Jesus is Lord; the crucified Jesus is the Messiah (who was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven). No one apart from the Holy Spirit can acknowledge the crucified Messiah is the Lord of the universe. This is the most fundamental reality building the foundation for fellowship and unity – which then is more important than social prestige as well as spiritual gifts.
In 12:4-11 Paul speaks of the diversity of the gifts. In v. 4 he mentions diversity of gifts but that there is one Spirit. There is diversity of services but there is one Lord (v.5). The gifts are expressed in different services. There is diversity of activities but there is one God (v.6). Gifts are given to the church to benefit all believers (i.e., the common good; v.7). Then he lists the different gifts in vv.8-11.
In 12:12-31 Paul specifically addresses the issue of unity within diversity. Via the metaphor of the human body, Paul reminds the Corinthian believers that there are many members but that those belong to the same body! Through baptism by the Holy Spirit believers are immersed into one body (v.13). No independence of any member within the body can be claimed (vv.14-18, 21). In vv. 22-24a Paul illustrates the indisputable unity of the members of the human body. God gave different responsibilities to different parts of the body (vv.24b-26).
This then needs to be applied to the church (vv. 27-31). Every single believer is a part in the body of Christ (v.27). God appointed people for the edification of the church (vv.28-30). In v. 31a Paul challenges the believers to eagerly desire the greater gifts and in v.31b asserts that the better way to true spirituality is the practice of God’s love.
In the infamous chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians Paul talks about such love. Karl Barth supposedly said that if we read 1 Cor 13 we see who God is! This is true and could also be further defined in Christological terms and ethical implications for the believer.
In 13:1-3 Paul writes that love is superior to any of the gifts of the Spirit if done without love. Then he goes on to describe the nature of such a love (vv.4-7) and its eternal permanence (vv.8-13).
In the first five verses of ch. 14 Paul specifies the criterion and purpose of speaking in tongues and prophecy. He exhorts the believers to love, to eagerly desire spiritual gifts, and to seek the gift of prophecy (v.1). Speaking in tongues is not evil (Paul speaks in tongues himself; v.18) but the main issue is that speaking in tongues is not edifying to the church (v.4), but is directly addressed to God and no one understands what is being uttered (v.2). The gift of prophecy, however, does provide strength, encouragement, and comfort (v.3). That is why to Paul prophecy is superior to the gift of languages (if there is no translation) – it is edifying to the entire congregation (v.5).
In vv.14-19 Paul lays down rules of intelligibility. In v.6 he gives an illustration from his own ministry at Corinth and continues with an illustration from musical instruments (vv. 7-8). In congregational settings the gift of tongues does not necessarily contribute to the edification of the church. Understanding requires intelligible words and all human languages have meaning. But hearing an unintelligible language turns the listeners into foreigners and no one is edified (vv.9-11). That is why they need to excel in the gifts which edify the church (v.12). If however the speaking in tongues takes place in a congregational meeting, there needs to be translation (vv.13-17). In vv. 18-19 Paul tells the Corinthian church of his personal life and in his public ministry concerning the gift of speaking in tongues.
In 14:20-25 he argues from Scripture that prophecy is superior. In quoting Isa 28:11-12, Paul asserts that speaking in unintelligible languages is a sign not for believers, but for unbelievers and that speaking words of prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers. Verse 23 shows that unbelievers will think that Christians are insane if they hear unintelligible languages and but could be convinced of sin when they hear words of prophecy (vv.24-25).
First Corinthians 14:26-40 concludes then with rules for the meetings of the congregation. In sum all the practices within the church need to be edifying to the believer and glorifying to God.