"May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit" (Romans 15:13).
From many different angles Paul has established the fact that there are two ways of living one's life. We can live by our own power or by the power of God (1:16), in Adam or in Christ (5:12-21), by focusing on the flesh or on the Spirit (8:6), by human will and exertion or by the mercy of God (9:16), by laws or by faith (9:31), by establishing our own rightness or by God righting us (10:3).
He now turns to explain how this works out in practice. In nature we can observe how God delights in a huge profusion of flowers, insects, fish, birds, mammals, and personality differences among humans. The creativity of the Holy Spirit in our life can be equally unexpected, and we cannot produce this by a set pattern of rules. This is why all the prescriptions of our world's tradition must be open to question. "Do not let your life be set by the world's way of doing things (and that includes our religious tradition, Mark 7:8, 9; Matthew 15:6), but be continually transformed by the Holy Spirit who renews your mind to discover the good and acceptable way of being perfected by God" (12:2 paraphrased).
We might note for example the huge model change that was needed for Paul, the rabbi with his patriarchal and Pharisee training, to change his attitude to women and marriage. By the time he wrote 1 Corinthians he had arrived at a model of total mutuality between husbands and wives which would previously have been unthinkable for him (1 Corinthians 7:1-16). The change must have been very unsettling, and every step into the new pattern would have needed the empowering of the Spirit.
12:1 To turn from one's own wisdom and strength to the power of God is described as a living sacrifice. In Galatians Paul had even spoken of turning from one's fleshly efforts as a crucifixion with Christ (Galatians 2:19). The point is that for Jesus, and for Paul and for us, there is the sacrifice of deeply ingrained traditional ways of doing things. But having made this sacrifice, Paul can then say "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Galatians 2:20). And it is only this kind of sacrifice which offers a reasonable worship of God.
12:2 The world we live in prefers conformity to its norms. It never encourages this way of living by the power of God. Which is why we need to have our mind continually transformed (this is a Greek present continuous tense) in every situation to see what is God's good and acceptable way of transforming and perfecting us by the Holy Spirit (see 2 Corinthians 3:17-18).
12:3-5 At the heart of Paul's vision of transformation by the Spirit is the receiving of gifts of the Spirit (charismata) to exercise in the local congregation and in the mission of the Church. In 1 Corinthians Paul had explained that all these functions are assigned and animated by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:4-31). Which reminds us that New Testament church members are not those who are put on a list, but those who exercise one or more gifts of the Spirit.
But we should beware of defining the fulness of the Spirit by one or two particular kinds of gift. Rather than a one person hierarchy of leadership, "members of one another" suggests a close organic interdependence (see Ephesians 4:16). The rich variety of functions that are needed in a local church is likely to be infinitely more complex than those that are needed in any human body. Which also suggests that Christian perfection is not by conforming to a standard pattern of spirituality, but by developing some of the rich differences which we will contribute to the life of our community and ultimately to the perfection of heaven.
12:6 Paul selects a few of the gifts of the Spirit by way of example from the longer explanation he has previously given (1 Corinthians 12:4-31). In this listing of gifts he omits his own apostolic gift (1:1, 5), which comes first in 1 Corinthians 12:28 and Ephesians 4:11. Perhaps his own gift was obvious for all to see (Romans 15:18-19).
The prophetic gift was exercised by both men and women in the Old Testament (Exodus 15:20; Judges 4:4; 2 Kings 22:14; Isaiah 8:3), and also in the New (Luke 2:36; Acts 21:9). Evidently the gifts of the Spirit cannot be divided into male and female functions. Which suggests that no congregation can be filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:31) if only a few men are allowed to exercise their gifts. Paul already knew before his conversion that Christian women were as subversive of his Pharisaic legalism as the men (Acts 8:3, 9:2).
An inevitable difficulty in every local congregation and mission team is that there are people who want to run things in their own strength. In the New Testament churches we are surprised to find false apostles (2 Corinthians 11:13), false prophets (Matthew 7:15, 22-23; 24:11; 1 John 4:1-4; Revelation 2:20) and false teachers (2 Timothy 2:16-18; 2 Peter 2:1,2), and Paul knew that such people would emerge in any church he planted (Acts 20:29-30; Romans 16:17-18; Titus 1:10-11).
If our model is right, false apostles, teachers and prophets will be recognized when they tell people to do something by their own strength, will power, and manipulation rather looking to the power of God. In the ancient world people thought God could be persuaded by religious rituals (e.g. 1 Samuel 15:22; Psalm 40:6; 51:16-17; 106:37-38; Proverbs 15:8; 21:3, 27; Isaiah 1:11-17; Jeremiah 6:19-20; Hosea 6:6; 8:13). In our day we are told we can put ourselves right by appropriate techniques of meditation and self-improvement.
12:7 All Christians are servants of each other, and Church leaders are also servants (diakonoi) of the New Covenant, "not of the letter but of the spirit " (2 Corinthians 3:6). But within the serving community we can recognize those who have a special function (diakonia or deaconing) of assisting of others in their ministry. Mark, for example, was an assistant to the apostles on the first missionary journey (Acts 13:5). And in his postscript Paul will mention Phoebe, the deacon, of the church in a town near Corinth (16:1; see 1 Timothy 3:8-13).
In the Old Testament we read of those with a gift of teaching (2 Chronicles 17:7-9; Ezra 7:10; Psalm 119:99), and in the Gospel of John Nicodemus was called the teacher of Israel (John 3:10). The problem in his case was that his teaching ministry had been of the flesh, and Jesus said he needed to be born of the Spirit (John 4:6) to teach effectively. Rabbi Paul had evidently learned this lesson. "We speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual" (1 Corinthians 2:13).
12:8 The exhorter (literally "the one who comes alongside") exercised a gift of encouragement in the community (Barnabas, Acts 4:36). All Christians are to encourage each other in their discouragement (2 Corinthians 1:4-6; 1 Thessalonians 3:2; 5:14; Hebrews 13:22). But some have a special gift of doing this.
The gift of giving does not appear in the list of 1 Corinthians 12:28. It may be referred to in Paul's later letter to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 9:7; see Philippians 4:16-18).
In the chaos of the Old Testament Book of Judges the needed gift of leadership was by the empowering of the Holy Spirit (Judges 6:34). Similarly in the New Testament the first elders of the Hellenist Christian congregation in Jerusalem needed to be "full of the Spirit and of wisdom" (Acts 6:3). In the early Church the function of being one of the bishops or overseers in a local church congregation (Acts 14:23; 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5) had not yet been institutionalized into our present system of denominational episcopacy.
All Christians are to do good in various ways (12:13; 13:3) but Tabitha had a very special gift of exercising mercy (Acts 9:36; see Romans 12:13). Evidently we should not attempt to divide these gifts of the Spirit too precisely, since there is obvious overlapping in all the gifts. The apostolic gift needed for church planting would include the exercise of several different gifts. Preaching can include elements of goodnewsing, teaching, and encouragement.
It is interesting that Paul does not refer to speaking in tongues as he had in his previous list (1 Corinthians 12:10, 30). To correct some excesses he had explained that tongues were rather like making one's first sound from a flute or trumpet, and prophets should normally go on to play the melody by expressing the message they receive in words that other can understand (1 Corinthians 14:5-14). As Paul had said that "Those who prophesy speak to other people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation" (1 Corinthians 14:3).
The important fact is that in every situation when we turn away from our unaided wisdom, and look to the Holy Spirit to empower us, we are given whatever gifts are needed to exercise in the community. It seems that Jesus had already taught his disciples to do this. "It is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you" (Matthew 10:20).
12:9-10 In 1 Corinthians 12:28-31 the list of gifts of the Spirit is immediately followed by the more excellent way of love (1 Corinthians 13). Similarly here Paul's list is followed by the need for genuine love for others, and special love for members of the community.
The beginning of this section could be paraphrased "Eager to serve the Lord by being alive (lit. "boiling") in the Spirit."
12:11-18 Some results of aliveness in the Spirit are hope, patience, prayer, generosity, hospitality, gentleness, humility, and peace making. With the addition of prayer in the Spirit (8:26), the list is obviously related to Paul's previous list of fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).
12:19-21 Looking in faith to the power of the Spirit will also enable Christians to "leave room" for God to assign his consequences, and so enable them to obey the Sermon on the Mount's command to love enemies (Matt. 5: 44) rather than insist on avenging themselves. Verse 20 about love for enemies is taken from the Book of Proverbs, where the "burning coals" are not to send enemies to eternal damnation, but to touch their conscience (Proverbs 25:21-22), which Paul explains as overcoming their "evil with good."