November 21, 1993
The human body performs best when all the various parts work together harmoniously. Paul taught that this was also true of the church, which is most effective when its members exercise their spiritual gifts under the headship of Christ. Alistair Begg explains why this unity is best expressed through membership in a local church as we each discover and fulfill our unique, God-given roles.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Now I invite you to turn to 1 Corinthians 12, to the portion that we just read.
One of the things that we’re told in creative writing when we go to school is that if we can possibly use similes and metaphors, we will be far more effective in our communication, because to speak in terms of pictures which graphically illustrate a truth is helpful to most readers. And it is not surprising to us, then, to discover that when we read the pages of the New Testament, we find that it is littered with metaphor in order to help us understand the instruction that is contained. And this evening, in coming to 1 Corinthians 12:12, we come to arguably the best-known biblical metaphor, certainly in terms of describing the unity of the church—namely, the picture of the body. And if you were taking notes, you would want just to note, first of all, that what we have here is an illustration, and then we’ll go on to notice the explanation, and then we’ll conclude with some application. That’s how I make an attempt to get through it, and that may be helpful to you.
First of all, then, we have this straightforward illustration: “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its part are many, they form one body.” The metaphor is straightforward. It is this: it takes many different parts to make up one body; those parts inevitably differ from one another; and the fact that they are different from one another in no way diminishes the body’s basic unity. That’s the truth. That’s the thesis in verse 12. If we understand that, then we understand what it is that Paul is going to expound in all of the remaining section of chapter 12 and, indeed, into chapter 14. You say, “Well, it’s very straightforward.” Yes, of course it is. “It’s simple enough for a child to understand.” Exactly. Any child, by means of simple observation, even observing themselves in the bathroom mirror, is going to be able to understand this metaphor in 1 Corinthians 12:12.
Now, at the same time, it’s clearly obvious that Paul is not giving instruction on human anatomy, but his point is made—and this takes us from the illustration itself into the explanation—is made in the second sentence of verse 12, the final five words if you’re using the New International Version: “So,” he says, “it is with Christ.” What he has just said concerning the nature of the body—the distinguishing parts of it, its unity in the midst of diversity—is made clear, he says, with Christ.
Now, this may at first strike us as surprising, insofar as we know that what he is concerned with is the question of the church. And if we were asked to complete it without the Bible in front of us, we would probably have said, “So it is with the church.” But he says, “So it is with Christ.” So why does he use the word “Christ” rather than the word “church” when he’s actually talking about the nature of the church? Well, I think it’s fairly obvious that he substitutes the word “Christ” for the word “church” in order to impress upon his readers, then and now, that it is impossible to speak about the church apart from Christ—that when we say “Christ,” we say “church”; when we say “church,” we say “Jesus.”
Because when we think it out, how does Christ make himself known in the world today? The answer is, through his church. The Bible makes it clear that there is only one true church, of which every true believer in Christ is a member. We ought not to be confused by many different religious persuasions, by all kinds of denominations and all sorts of affiliations, all manner of clubs and societies and organizations, and all sorts of religious entities. There is only one true church, which comprises all who are in Christ. Bittlinger, the commentator, says, “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.” So, he says, there is diversity in the midst of unity within a human body; so it is with Christ. So it is with he who is the head of the church and who is the essential expression of our unity.
In the second letter that he writes to Corinth, in 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul pens words that are familiar to many of us: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old [is] gone, the new has come!” One of the favorite phrases of the apostle Paul is the little two-word phrase “in Christ.” There’s a famous book on Paul entitled A Man in Christ. And we have this juxtaposition of truth in the New Testament, speaking about the fact that when a person is brought to faith in Christ, not only are they placed into Christ, but Christ is in them. So, we are in Christ, and Christ is in us. By faith we are incorporated into Jesus and we are made members of his body. It is impossible to experience the new birth—the “new creation,” in terms of 2 Corinthians 5:17—and not to be made part of the body of Christ. In Christ, in the church.
Now, the explanation then continues in verse 13. Going on to amplify this truth, he then writes, “For we were all baptized by,” or with, or in, “one Spirit into one body”—irrespective of our background, he says. Whether there are racial distinctions among us, whether there are social distinctions among us, the unifying factor is this: we were all baptized with the one Spirit, and we were all made to “drink” of the one Spirit. That is why, incidentally, any kind of disunity within the body of Christ that is on the basis of superficial things that mark disruption in a culture must never be tolerated. The background that we have, the income that we have, the school we attended, the color of our skin, our political perspectives, etc., must never be allowed to divide the body of Christ, because there is an intrinsic unity which exists as a result of our having been made part of Christ.
Now, verse 13 is not referring to water baptism. This is very important for us to understand. Some of you read that and immediately thought of what happened here last Sunday evening. But that is to think of it incorrectly. When we think of what the New Testament teaches in terms of baptism in water, we know that that is something which follows conversion; it is something that is submitted to according to the command of Christ. What we have here in verse 13 is one of the multivarious ways that the New Testament speaks of our initial Christian experience. When we think in terms of the common parlance in relationship to Christian testimony, we would perhaps say that we had been “converted,” some would say that they had been “saved,” some would say that their “sins had been forgiven,” some would say that they were “born again,” some would say this and that, and legitimately we might equally say we were “baptized with the Spirit” or we were “made to drink of the Spirit.” It is expressive of our initial encounter in coming to faith.
Now, let me illustrate this, first turning you to the book of Romans in chapter 8, and then we’ll flip to Galatians—just a couple of references. Romans 8:8: “Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. You, however,” verse 9, “are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.” So any notion that you may have that it is possible to have Christ and not have the Spirit is not a New Testament notion. It is impossible to be born again of the Spirit of God without being baptized with or in the Holy Spirit and made to drink of that same Spirit.
Galatians 3:5: “Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?” He’s already said in the opening chapter that he can’t believe that people who began in the Spirit would try and continue their Christian life in the flesh. In chapter 5, he speaks of it, in verse 25, in these words: “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”
Now, I want to underscore this as carefully as I can this evening. We are only going to two supplementary sections—we could go all over the place—to discover that the New Testament authors take it for granted that God has given their readers in Christ his Holy Spirit. And it is in this connection that we’re to understand the thirteenth verse. This is not something that is unique to a few, but it is universal Christian experience. It is initial Christian experience. It is written in the past tense—in the aorist tense, actually—to speak of a once-and-for-all event which has abiding, continuing significance.
Before going on to describe in verse 14 and following the nature of and significance of their diversity from one another in terms of spiritual gifts, he emphasizes the nature of their unity. And the way in which he expresses unity in the body of Christ is by means of this notion of baptism with the Holy Spirit.
Now, for those of us who’ve been round the block a little bit, we will know that it is somewhat ironic that what some continue to use as a basis for discrimination within the church Paul uses to establish the great unity which exists within the church. If you’ve moved around at all in Christian circles amongst different groups and denominations, you may well have come up against those who have asked you the question, “Have you asked for, sought, or experienced the baptism in, with, or by, or of the Holy Spirit?” And depending on your theological background, you will have answered in a number of ways. Those who ask that question teach that the baptism with the Holy Spirit is a post-conversion experience that is unique to some, that is available to all, but not universally experienced within the body of Christ.
Now, it is not my purpose this evening to launch into a discourse concerning that, but I want you to know that when you read the New Testament, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that the notion of the baptism of the Spirit is nothing other than an initial experience enjoyed by all who are truly placed in Christ. And you, again, as I say to you so often, are sensible people; you must search the Scriptures on your own to see if these things are so. But if you want my guidance, my instruction, my insight, then I want you to know that it is an abuse of Scripture and it is a misinterpretation of doctrine and theology to teach it as anything other than that. Now, we’ll come back to why some do in a moment or two, but we’ll leave it there.
Also, it is important for you to notice—and if you have an NIV, you will see that there is a footnote in this thirteenth verse—the preposition. I’m not sure why English translations continue to translate it with the word “by”: “For we were all baptized by one Spirit.” In actual fact, the preposition is a preposition for “in” or “with,” not “by.” So it should really read, “For we were all baptized with” or “in one Spirit.” Presumably, the translation is because Paul is stressing the oneness of the Spirit in whom we share, and so the translators are seeking to get that across. But I think they do us a disservice, for this reason: that the Spirit is not the baptizer. Okay? The Holy Spirit is not the one who does the baptizing. The Holy Spirit, the third member of the Trinity, is the element in which we are baptized. When people are baptized in this pool here beneath me, there is a baptizer, there is an element (namely, water), there is a purpose (namely, confession of their faith and so on). Indeed, when you take the whole picture of baptism in the New Testament, throughout Scripture, you discover that there are four parts when baptism takes place: there is the subject of baptism, there is the object of baptism, there is the element with or in which the baptism takes place, and there is the purpose for which baptism is administered.
Well, how does that fit with this? Well, it fits in this way: Jesus is the baptizer. Remember in the early verses of the Gospels—for example, Matthew 3:11—John the Baptist says, “I baptize you with water, but one who is coming after me will baptize you with,” or in, “the Holy Spirit.” It will be Jesus, he says, who is the baptizer. So, the baptized are, according to this, “we … all.” All right? The baptizer is Jesus; the baptized is “we … all.” The element, if you like, is the Holy Spirit: “for we were all baptized” with or in “one Spirit.” And the purpose of the baptism is incorporation into the body of Christ.
Now, if you understand that, you’re getting to grips with this fundamental truth, which is very, very important. Because if there is lack of clarity here, then there is manifold confusion by the time you get to chapter 14. And so it is very important that we think it out. It is not the Spirit’s baptism; it is Christ’s baptism with or in the Holy Spirit that gives us new life and places us into the body when we trust in Christ.
So, at the risk of belaboring the point ad nauseam, let me say again: it is not possible to be a Christian and not be baptized with the Spirit, neither is it possible to have more than one baptism with or in the Spirit. Because it is by means of this one baptism that we are placed into the sphere of the Spirit’s power, into a new environment, into a new atmosphere, into a new relationship with others, and all on account of the fact that we have been made members with Christ. We have been united with Christ.
When you think about the way in which the New Testament speaks about our initial experience of Jesus, it is so vast and wide. It is so multivarious. There are so many things simultaneously happening when in repentance and in faith we are placed into Christ. Our sins are forgiven. Our debt is cancelled. Our record is set clear. We are placed into Christ. We are baptized with the Holy Spirit. We are placed within the body. We are made members of one another. We are seated in the heavenly places. Heaven is now our home. We are no longer living among the dead. We are no longer in darkness; we are now in light. And so on and so on. And these two phrases here in 1 Corinthians 12:13—one, baptized with the Spirit, and two, made to drink of the same Spirit—are these expressions, and a Christian has experienced them both.
So, when we are baptized in water, it is a sign and a seal of our having been baptized with the Spirit. There is no point in being baptized with water unless we have been placed in Christ. And one of the descriptions of having been placed in Christ is having been immersed in the Spirit and having been made to drink of the same Spirit.
And, you see, this is the basis of our unity. This is how we can go throughout the whole world and meet people that we’ve never, ever known in our lives—be united with people that we don’t even understand their language, we have no knowledge of their culture, we’ve got no concept of a million things about them. (That is close to exaggeration.) We have no concept of hardly anything about them. And yet our hearts beat with one another! When we kneel down, we sense the unity of what? The Spirit! Why? Because we were all baptized with one Spirit, we were all made to drink of the one Spirit, irrespective of our color of our skin, or our background, or our place of origin, or our heritage, or whether we had a long lineage of Christian faith, or whether we are a first-generation Christian. All of those things are ultimately subservient to this amazing truth of the body of Christ: that having been brought to repentance and to faith, we have been placed into Christ, and we’ve been given a whole new family. It’s a wonderful truth.
Water baptism is an initiatory Christian expression because Spirit baptism is an initiatory Christian experience. It is not something that comes along the road. God’s norm for his people, when you read the New Testament, is this: that by grace, through faith, we enter into the benefits of forgiveness, we’re given the gift of the Spirit, we are then baptized in water as a sign of these blessings, and we continue then to be filled with the Spirit of God and to display his fullness by a holy life and a bold testimony. That’s normative Christianity. And anything other than that is not New Testament Christianity.
Acts 2:38—it just comes to mind as I pause. Peter preaches the gospel, the people say, “Brothers, what shall we do?” and he replies, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” People get all tied up in knots over that verse because they want to fit it all in chronologically: “Well, doesn’t it say that you do this and then that happens? And aren’t you saying that that happens and then this is supposed to happen?” Why is Peter able to compress it in this way? Because in the mind of the apostle, there was no great time lag between any of these things. He says, “You repent of your sins, and you will be placed into Christ. Indeed, your very ability to repent is an indication of God’s grace to you. And having been placed into Christ, let’s get you baptized. And when you give testimony in your baptism in the water, it will be a testimony to the fact that in repentance and in faith you’ve been baptized with and in the Holy Spirit, you’ve been given the Spirit of God to drink. And when you declare ‘Jesus is Lord,’ it is an evidence of the fact that you’ve been brought to that kind of fullness, for the natural man would never say ‘Jesus is Lord.’ The natural man is dead in his trespasses and his sins. The natural man has no interest in Jesus.” And in our endeavor to systematize all the little bits and pieces in our Western, Platonic mindset, we miss something of the freshness and the vitality and the reality that was part and parcel of those early New Testament days.
Now, if this that I’m teaching you is true and faithful to the text of Scripture, it begs the question: What are we then to say to those who teach this as a postconversion experience, or to those who testify to it in their lives? For many do. Many of my friends do, and some of you may. Well, I’m not gonna allow myself a major tangential run on this, but I want to say a couple of things.
In many cases, it may prove to be nothing more than a matter of semantics, a matter of terminology. Because the reality of our Christian experience is not ultimately deduced on the basis of our ability to theologize it accurately. That is not an invitation to theological inaccuracy; that is a recognition of the fact that oftentimes our experience precedes our cognitive awareness of what in the world is going on—à la the man who was blind, and the people were pressing him for an explanation, and all he was able to say was, “Listen, quit bugging me. All I know is this, and you know it too: I was blind; now I can see.” He hadn’t worked out just exactly how all it worked or how it all happened or what it was all going to mean, but he knew that.
And there are some folks who, in their experience of walking with Christ and seeking after Christ, use terminology in different ways. And what they may be referring to when they say that they experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit is nothing other than a very gracious kick in the seat of their pants moving them out of a time of deep lethargy and uselessness in their Christian lives. They’ve been living in a time of rebellion, a time of disinterest, a time of indifference, they have not been reading their Bible, they’ve had no boldness in their testimony, they have been diminished in their usefulness for Christ, and someone has come along and told them that there is a possibility for them to move beyond that level of experience if they will only encounter what they have on offer. What they have on offer is then explained as the baptism in or with or by the Holy Spirit. And so these people then enter into a discovery of God’s blessing, they then theologize it in terms of the phraseology that they’ve been given, and what they’re using is wrong terminology, which confuses them and other people, and what they ought to be thankful for is the fact that God in his mercy met them along the journey of their disobedience, gave them a major hug, put them back in the realm of usefulness.
Now, that’s for some. In other situations—for example, where there is a real theological divide… And I’m thinking now, for example, within the Roman Catholic Church and the whole question of Roman Catholic renewals. Over the years, I’ve met many people who will testify within the framework of Catholicism to having been “baptized in the Holy Spirit” or “with the Holy Spirit.” It goes along with the whole current charismatic renewal thing. And there is no question that some of them have come into a measure of spiritual life that they have never known before. Does that legitimize the phraseology? Absolutely not. It’s very dangerous and sinister, insofar as what it seeks to do is to trap people in a wrong theological understanding of truth and the need for regeneration and grace and faith while explaining to them that they have now had all of their previous theology authenticated by means of this postbaptism, postcommunion, post-whatever discovery of the Spirit’s fullness.
What has happened to those people? I believe what happened to them was that they got converted. They came to faith in Jesus Christ. ’Cause they couldn’t be converted before, ’cause you can’t get converted by being baptized, and you don’t get converted by doing religious things, and you don’t get converted as a result of somebody doing something to you. You only are converted when the Spirit of God shows you your sin, brings you to faith in him, fills you with his Spirit, and makes you a brand-new person. Now, I’m not too worried about that, because eventually, if somebody will only teach them the Bible, they’ll begin to understand it, and they will stop calling it the wrong thing. So we can rejoice in the fact that God in his vast mystery has brought them to a discovery of himself, and we’ll let time catch up with their expression of that.
You see, if you turn for a moment to Colossians chapter 2, this idea that the problem in our lives is that we’re missing something, or we’re missing the Holy Spirit, or we’re missing this or that is not in accord with the New Testament documents. Colossians 2: “For in Christ all the fullness of … Deity lives in bodily form.” Now, tell me how much deity that is. All of it, right? Father, Son, Holy Spirit—the whole deal, all that you can get of God, the whole business. “In Christ all … of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ.” All that is ours to experience, all that is ours that is necessary for usefulness, for participation within the body, for boldness in testimony, for purity of life, for exercise of spiritual gifts has been given to us in Christ, who, in our coming to Christ, baptized us with the Holy Spirit and made us to drink of that same Spirit.
We need, then, to live in the awareness that any lack in us is not a lack of the Spirit. I’m constantly confronted by people who teach that you got a little deposit of the Spirit when you were converted—that’s the way it works—and what you have to do is you have to wait around à la Pentecost, and then you get the rest of it. There’s a kind of 10-percent initial down payment, and you get the other 90 percent when you get baptized with the Spirit. That is just a failure to understand the Bible. That’s all it is. They’re very well-meaning people. Many of them, I’m not worthy to untie their shoelaces. But I think they’re wrong, and I think it’s unhelpful. What is descriptive in the birth of the church should not be regarded as prescriptive throughout every generation that follows. What is prescriptive is picked up and made perfectly plain as the Acts of the Apostles ends and as the apostles themselves begin to write their letters.
So what then of spiritual dearth in our lives? What then of the not firing on all four cylinders? It is not an absence of the Spirit. I’ll tell you what it is: it is an absence of obedience; it is an absence of trust; it is an absence of submission. The question is not “Do I have all of the Holy Spirit?” The question is “Does the Holy Spirit have all of me?” It is not an absence of full salvation. It’s not an absence of his indwelling. It’s not an absence of blessing.
So let us summarize it: in Christ, we are placed into the church as we are baptized with or in the Spirit, as we are all made to drink of this one Spirit. We are placed into the universal body—the great, invisible, mysterious body that is the church, that is numbered way beyond our ability to count.
“Well then,” says somebody, “if that is the case and I am actually placed in the body of Christ, why is it important for me to be a member of a local church? Surely the most important thing is that I am in the body of Christ, having been baptized into it, having been made to drink of the same Spirit.” And there are probably not a few of you who’re sitting out there tonight who, on the basis of this kind of rationale, have remained apart from a local body of believers.
Rather than go on from this foundational unity into the diversity in verse 14, I want to take the remaining moments to address with you this question of why a local church is important. The gentleman to whom I was assistant from ’75 to ’77, Derek Prime, did a five-minute workshop one time in our church evening service on this very subject, and it was so helpful that what I now share with you is the gist of what he shared in those five minutes. Let me see if I can’t just share it in five minutes as well.
The essential question is this: Why should I join a church? People ask me that all the time. “You know, they didn’t always make a fuss about being a member of this place, you know,” they say to me. “You know, your predecessor didn’t care about whether you were a member or not. The only thing that mattered was that you were in the body of Christ. So what’s the deal?” Well, the deal is this.
Number one, the New Testament takes it for granted that every Christian will join together with other Christians in the membership of local congregations. The New Testament letters were not written to the universal body of Christ. The New Testament letters were written to individual churches—to the Christians in Galatia, to the Christians in Thessalonica and Ephesus and so on. And indeed, most of the New Testament letters were written in such a way to encourage the believers to excel in building up the local church.
In fact, you get that in 1 Corinthians 14. We’ll come to it in a week or two. (Make that a few weeks.) First Corinthians 14:12: “So it is with you. Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church.” What church? Well, this church. What other church are you gonna build up as a result of the fact that God gave you the ability to sing? What’re you planning on doing, going down Euclid Avenue singing? And someone says, “What’re you doing?” You say, “I’m building up the universal church.” No, you’re not! You’re acting like a freak on the avenue! The only way that we can express spiritual gifts is within the context of a local body. And the New Testament takes that for granted.
Secondly, the pictures of the church only make sense, only become real, when we meet together in church fellowship. Take, for example, the pictures—we’ll go through a few of them—flock, household, building, body. Right? One sheep doesn’t make a flock, one brick doesn’t make a house, one individual doesn’t make a family, and one limb doesn’t make a body. The only way those pictures make sense is in togetherness. And the togetherness that God intends is within the framework of a local fellowship of God’s people—a vital, close relationship with one another. And God has so arranged things that we need one another.
Thirdly, the local church is the special provision made by the Lord Jesus for fellowship, discipline, worship, instruction, and service. Let me take just a minute on each one.
It is the local church that God has given to us for the discovery of fellowship. Acts 2:42: After they had repented, they had been baptized, they had been made to drink of the one Spirit, and what does it say? “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ doctrine, to the breaking of bread, to the fellowship.” To the fellowship. You see—and I don’t want you to misunderstand me on the basis of this, but it won’t be the first time I’ve been misunderstood. Every so often I meet a student. They’re nineteen years old. They tell me they’re not involved in a local church. They go to the InterVarsity group or the Campus Crusade group, and that’s their “church.” No, it isn’t! That’s a group, but that’s not the church. If you are substituting an all-ladies’ Bible study for church, you’re not in church; or an all-men’s Bible study for church. It’s not church!
Where is it possible to experience fellowship with young and old, black and white, rich and poor, bright and dumb, fat and thin—the whole variegated panoply of humanity? Where does that take place? Only in the local church! And God has intended that that should be the thing. So all of those other things may be supplemental, but they are not fundamental, and they dare not take its place, neither in instruction, nor in service, nor in fellowship—certainly not in worship!
So our fellowship is to be experienced in this context. Because when I’m in a student group, I don’t need to worry about old Granny So-and-So. “I don’t like old people! I like my student group. I don’t ever want to do that.” Or, “Man do I hate babies. I cannot stand those kids, with the noses and the whole thing. That’s why I like my student group. That’s my thing. That’s my church.” No, it’s not. That’s your student group, but it’s not your church.
What about the question of discipline? Where is discipline going to take place for the Christian that has been baptized with the Spirit and made to drink of the Spirit? Where are we gonna be disciplined? Where do your kids get disciplined? In your family. Why? ’Cause that’s the place for them to be disciplined. Where does Jesus expect his kids to get disciplined? In the family. In what family? The universal family? No! So therefore, church hoppers of America who buzz between one place and the next place live without the necessary spiritual discipline in their lives. ’Cause it is a discipline to sit next to some of these people around us. It is a discipline to respond to their exhortation. It is a discipline. And it is a discipline that takes place in togetherness. None of us is perfect. All of us make mistakes. We all need help, we all need correction, and mostly we need it from people who are older than us. And that’s another reason why these age-graded deals will never take the place of a local church, ’cause you need to be with those who are more mature than you.
What about worship? Where does worship take place? People say, “Well, I go up on the hills and worship.” Well, that’s fine. You can do that. But God desires the corporate worship of his people. And by means of the local church, he has made it possible for Christians to unite in prayer and to unite in praise. Just take Acts 2:42–47 and use it as a paradigm: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ [doctrine] … to the breaking of bread and to [the] prayer[s].” In what context? In the context of one another!
What about instruction? Where is a Christian supposed to be instructed? Not on the radio. You say, “Well, what’s wrong with the radio? Aren’t we on the radio?” Yes, we are. It’s a supplement. It’s not the issue. God never intended for people to sit in their rooms. The sadness of people that sit in their rooms alone and isolated can be responded to on multiple levels. God never intended for an electronic church to take the place of the kind of instruction that he has purposed in giving to the fellowship of God’s people pastors and teachers.
Where are God’s people supposed to serve? Not exclusively here, but certainly here—to serve in the local church. Because the local church is God’s place for mission and God’s place for service. And for too long we live with this notion that “Well, you know, the local church is not very good,” and so we justify our existence, for all our parachurch organizations, on the basis of the church being no good—“our local church.” Meanwhile, x number of people who could make the local church that good by exercising their same gifts within the framework of the church continue to diminish the potential of the church by the exercise of their giftedness elsewhere. Well, is that an indictment on everything that happens outside the local church? No! But it is saying this: let us start where the New Testament starts, and let us add to without deleting from. For we have a mandate in our Bible for this. We need to scramble for some of the rest.
Final question: “Which church should I join?” Well, don’t join a perfect one, right? If you find it, don’t join it, ’cause you’ll mess it up. You wanna know what kind of church to join? Join an Acts 2:42–47 church. Join a church that at least has this true of it: there is faithful preaching and teaching of the Word of God, there is genuine fellowship in the Lord Jesus, there is a rightful place given to baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and there is a recognition of the priority of prayer. I always tell a student when they go away, “If you’re looking for a church in the community, go around and look for the ones that have prayer time. And be wary of churches that call themselves churches that don’t pray.”
Okay? That’s why I should be in the church. That’s the kind of church I should join. What part should I play? Well, we’ll come to this next time in verse 14, but for now let me say this: before we can play a part in the church, we need to join the church. We need to commit ourselves to membership in that church. The externals that are involved in that are more than secondary to the actual issue of our heartbeat involvement. So we need to commit ourselves to a church in membership, and then we need to determine to discover and fulfill our God-given part. To discover and fulfill our God-given part. To throw our whole weight into things—anything that God gives us to do, throw our whole weight into it.
We need then to aim at being a healthy member of the body. Our individual spiritual wellness contributes to the health of the whole. For all that the body is, is the congregation of the health, or lack of health, of individual believers. That’s why we need to be on the lookout for one another, to look out for visitors and for strangers, to look out for the hurting, for the homeless, to look out for the discouraged and the disappointed, to genuinely care. Because, after all, we have the resources within the church to make the right kind of response, provided the gifts that have been given to the church are being exercised in and through the church.
We need to make sure that we get our priorities right and check them regularly. We all have commitments to our homes, to our families, to our chores, to our employment. Few of us are able to juggle that really perfectly. We need to check our priorities regularly in relationship to these things.
We need, in playing our part in the church, to give generously and regularly and systematically to it. It’s a privilege to contribute to the support of those “who labour in the word and [in] doctrine.” It is an immense privilege to contribute to the extension of the gospel throughout the world.
Penultimately, in playing our part within the church, we need to respect and support spiritual leadership and never neglect to pray for them.
And finally, all of us need to clothe ourselves with humility and expect to serve rather than to be served. And as we’ll see when we come to 1 Corinthians 14:1, we are to make love our constant aim in our discovery of living together.
For all our years, for all our numbers, for all our journey, there remains for us, as a church family, an immense need to pray that God will teach us and apply in our lives the truths of what we are about to discover in relationship to the remainder of 1 Corinthians 12. It’s exciting, it’s gonna be challenging, it’s going to demand change, it’s gonna make comfortable people uncomfortable, it’s gonna see isolated people involved, it’s gonna see overinvolved people less involved—if we prayerfully get it right. Please be praying for and with us as we continue to study these important truths together.
Let us pray:
Our gracious God and our Father, we thank you for the immensity of your grace, that we who were by very nature strangers to your love, we who were dead in our trespasses and in our sins, discover that in just the same way as you made light shine out of darkness when you created the universe, so you shone into our lives the light of the glory of your gospel, in the power of the Holy Spirit baptizing us into Christ and into relationships with one another, affirming the truth that the unifying factor in our lives is not that we all have an interest in religion, not that we all come from the same kind of homogenous background, not that we all have signed the same credo or embraced the same doctrine, but the ultimate truth is that we have been all given to drink of the same Spirit, and that this is the principle which unifies.
Help us, Lord, to lay hold of this so that we’ll then be able to understand the nature of what it means to deal with the diversity that is expressed in our giftedness, in our personalities, in our passions, in our drives, in our hopes, and in our dreams, so that the unifying factor of the Spirit’s abiding presence may give clarity and joy and distinctiveness to the uniqueness of each one.
Bless us this night as we make our journey home. Thank you for this day and for each other and for your Word. Thank you for each one—the people around us, our children and loved ones and those whom we represent—as we cast our minds, as it were, around the globe and commend to your care tonight those whom we treasure in our hearts and, in many cases, those with whom we are united by the same Spirit.
May the Lord bless us and keep us. May the Lord make his face to shine upon us and be gracious unto us. May the Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon us and give us his peace, tonight and forevermore. Amen.
 Arnold Bittlinger, Gifts and Graces: A Commentary on 1 Corinthians 12–14, trans. H. Klassen (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1967), 55, quoted in David Prior, The Message of 1 Corinthians: Life in the Local Church, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1985), 210.
 James S. Stewart, A Man in Christ: The Vital Elements of St. Paul’s Religion (Vancouver: Regent College, 1935).
 See Galatians 1:6–7.
 See Acts 17:11.
 Matthew 3:11 (paraphrased).
 See Ephesians 1:7.
 See Colossians 2:14.
 See Romans 12:5.
 See Ephesians 2:6.
 See Philippians 3:20.
 See Ephesians 2:1.
 See Ephesians 5:8.
 Acts 2:37 (NIV 1984).
 See 1 Corinthians 12:3.
 See Ephesians 2:1.
 See 1 Corinthians 2:14.
 John 9:25, 27 (paraphrased).
 Colossians 2:9–10 (NIV 1984).
 See 1 Peter 5:2–4.
 See Ephesians 2:19.
 See 1 Corinthians 3:9.
 Acts 2:42 (paraphrased).
 1 Timothy 5:17 (KJV).
 See Ephesians 2:1.
 See 2 Corinthians 4:6.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.