1 Corinthians 12:1-3ff
Chapters 12-14 of 1 Corinthians open an entirely new window upon the early Christian understanding of the Spirit of God, compared with the Pauline passages we have examined thus far in these notes. Paul begins this section with the following words:
“And, about the (thing)s of the Spirit, brothers, I do not wish you to be without knowledge.” (12:1)
The precise meaning of the substantive plural adjective oi( pneumatikoi/ is a bit uncertain. It could refer to persons—i.e., “the spiritual (one)s”, or “the (one)s of the Spirit”, masculine in gender; however, a neuter plural seems more appropriate in context: “the (thing)s of the Spirit”, “the spiritual (thing)s”. Possibly the neuter usage anticipates the plural noun xari/smata in vv. 4, 9, but it is better not to read this word (i.e. “gifts”) into the translation of v. 1.
The phrasing in verse 1 suggests that Paul is responding to something written to him by the believers in Corinth—here certain issues dealing with “matters involving the Spirit”, i.e. the presence and activity of the Spirit among believers in the community/congregational setting. The first issue, mentioned briefly in vv. 2-3, is somewhat obscure and poorly understood by Christians today. Here is how the instruction reads:
“You have seen that when, (as people of the) nations, you were (led) toward the voiceless images, being led [i.e. carried] away, even as you were led. Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking in (the) Spirit of God says ‘Yeshua (be) set up (under a curse)!’, and (similarly) no one is able to say ‘Yeshua (is) Lord!’, if not in (the) holy Spirit.”
This advice has seemed rather peculiar to many readers; after all, what Christian would ever curse Jesus? (the noun a)na/qema literally refers to something being “set up” under God’s curse). One has to keep in mind the context of charismatic prophetic experience in the ancient world, by which a person, under the influence of a divine spirit, would be caught up in an inspired ecstasy, often manifest in unusual behavior and the utterance of strange words. This was well attested as prophetic phenomena in the early periods of Israel’s history (cf. the earlier notes on Num 11:16-30; 1 Sam 10:6ff; 16:13-15, etc), though there is rather little evidence for it in the later writings (including the Prophets of the 7th-5th centuries). The charismatic/ecstatic manifestation of the Spirit in the book of Acts (i.e. the Pentecost narrative, 2:1-13ff) would seem to indicate a special reappearance of the phenomenon, associated with the “outpouring” of the Spirit in the New Age. The prophetic experience in the early chapters of Acts is manifested specifically by the miraculous speaking “in other tongues”; however, Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, has in mind a much wider set of spiritual phenomena (vv. 4ff, cf. below).
Believers, under the influence of the Spirit, would speak “in tongues” or otherwise “prophesy” in ways that might seem strange or difficult to understand (thus the need for designated interpreters, etc). Some at Corinth may have been concerned about certain things that might be said in such a state; could people be “carried away” so as to utter something scandalous, false, or even blasphemous to God? Paul addresses their concern (such as it may have been) by contrasting the Christian state of Spirit-inspired prophecy (v. 3) with similar sorts of oracular phenomena among the pagan Greeks (v. 2). As people are led (vb a&gw) toward the false gods (“voiceless images”), they are sometimes “led away” (a)pa/gw, i.e. “carried away”) so as to utter strange and false things (under the influence of false or evil spirits). However, the Spirit-inspired believer cannot utter anything false or contrary to God. Paul states this in the starkest terms by contrasting someone uttering a curse against Jesus with making a declaration of faith. No one under the influence of the holy Spirit could say anything against Jesus; similarly, no one under the influence of a false/evil spirit could declare the truth of Jesus as Lord.
Among the spiritual phenomena listed by Paul in verses 7-11 is diakri/sew$ pneuma/twn, the ability to judge/discern between spirits—that is, between the holy Spirit of God and other (false/evil) spirits. The fundamental meaning of kri/si$ has to with separating out, i.e. making distinction, such as between the true and false. The author of 1 John deals with a similar question of discerning between true Spirit-inspired teaching regarding Christ and that which is “antichrist” (against the Anointed), deriving from false/evil spirits (2:18ff; 4:1-6). In such a charismatic setting, where Christians relied on Spirit-inspired utterance for authoritative teaching and guidance, determining what speech was genuinely from the Spirit was a definite challenge for believers at the time.
The manifestation of the Spirit in the book of Acts, as crystalized in the Pentecost narrative (2:1-13) and the citation of Joel 2:28-32 in the speech of Peter that follows (vv. 17-21), would suggest that all believers were to function as Spirit-inspired prophets. Yet, here in 1 Cor 12, Paul lists prophecy as just one of the spiritual “gifts”, though certainly among the greatest of these gifts (12:28; 14:1ff). It would seem Paul has in mind that only certain individuals would possess the gift of prophecy, though his exhortation in 14:1 (and the instruction that follows) implies that all believers can (and perhaps should) possess this gift; it may only be the immaturity of believers that limits or hinders possession and use of the gift (2:6ff, 14-16; 3:1-4ff). The egalitarian principle expressed in Joel 2:28-29 / Acts 2:17-18, and realized, to some extent at least, in the early Jerusalem Community, would seem to be maintained by Paul (and others) in the Corinthian congregations. In the congregational setting, different persons could prophesy in turn, including both men and women, though with certain restrictions (cf. 11:2-16; 14:13-40, and my earlier articles in the series “Women in the Church”). Practical considerations meant that not all believers in the congregation would actively perform as prophets, even if that were the ideal.
There may also be a valid distinction between the settings of Acts and 1 Corinthians—that of Acts is the early Christian mission (proclamation of the Gospel among the nations), while 1 Corinthians 12-14 has in view the interaction of believers with each other, in community. One may rightly say that all believers are called to be prophets, in terms of the proclamation of the Gospel, while, perhaps, this role is reserved for certain (gifted) individuals within the Community setting. We may compare, for example, the situation in Acts 6, where select individuals were called upon to serve at the table, while the apostles (i.e. the Twelve) focused more exclusively on preaching and teaching. Yet, certainly, men such as Stephen were perfectly able (and gifted by the Spirit) to preach the Gospel with skill and power, and scarcely limited to role of diako/no$ (servant) at table.
The rich assortment of spiritual “gifts” (xari/smata) outlined by Paul in 1 Cor 12:4-11, 27ff (cp. Rom 12:3-8) certainly marks a profound development of the prophetic tradition regarding the Spirit which we see in the book of Acts. From the single, overriding idea of believers functioning as inspired prophets (i.e. spokespersons for God), with the special manifestation of speaking in the tongues (languages) of the nations (i.e., for the mission to the Gentiles), in 1 Cor 12-14, the Spirit is described as manifest in a wide range of “gifts”. Even so, Paul’s discussion does focus essentially on the same two phenomena central to the Acts narrative—prophecy and speaking in tongues. Here “tongues” appears to have a rather different meaning than in the book of Acts, where it clearly (at least in the Pentecost narrative) refers to the miraculous ability to speak/preach in the languages of the nations. In 1 Corinthians, by contrast, Paul seems to have in mind a special sort of ‘heavenly’ language with which one may communicate with God. He devalues it use and importance within the public, congregational setting, since there were significant challenges regarding interpretation, which made it better suited for private worship. Also, as one reads between the lines, it is likely that some at Corinth were particularly enamored with the phenomenon of “speaking in tongues”, and it may have been used among them as a status sign. Paul gives much greater weight to prophecy, since it represents the long-standing tradition of inspired communication of the word and will of God for His people. The close association between the Spirit of God and prophecy, in the Old Testament and Jewish tradition, has been well documented in the earlier notes on “The Spirit of God in the Old Testament”.