1 Corinthians 12:12-20

Welcome back to my study/review of 1 Corinthians. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.

1 Corinthians 12:12-20

12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.


Paul explains that despite the differing gifts, spread among the people of the Church, there should be unity among the people of the Church, as no gift is better than an other. He makes this argument by comparing believers, and their diverse gifts, with the human body with its diverse parts. Looking first at The Pulpit Commentaries:

1 Corinthians 12:12

As the body is one, and hath many members. To this favourite image St. Paul reverts several times (Romans 12:4Romans 12:5Ephesians 4:11-16Colossians 2:19). It is probable that he was familiar with the image from the fable of Menenius Agrippa, who had used it as a plea for civil unity (Liv., 2:32). So also is Christ. Christ and the Church form one body, of which Christ is the Head; one Vine, of which Christians are the branches (John 15:1-27.); one building, of which Christians are the living stones.

As the note says, this is an often-used analogy from Paul. We mentioned it previously when discussing the idea of headship. Two members can be equal in Christ, but serve different functions. The brain and the lungs are both vital, but the brain is the one making decisions. Paul’s message is that the Church should not let differences create disunity. Continuing in Ellicott’s Bible Commentary:

(13) For.—Here follows an illustrative proof of the former statement. The human body is composed of many members, and so also is the spiritual body of Christ, which is His Church.

To drink into one Spirit.—Better (in accordance with the best MSS.), to drink one Spirit. The act of baptism was not only a watering of the convert with the washing of regeneration, but a partaking of one Spirit on his part. It is the same word as is used in 1 Corinthians 3:6, Apollos “watered.”

(14) For the body is not one member, but many.—Here follows a series of suggestions as to the different parts of the body claiming independence of the body itself, which the nature of the case shows to be absurd.

These two verses set up his more detailed use of the analogy, pointing out in verse 13 that people from diverse backgrounds (Jews, Greeks, slaves, free) were all baptized in one Spirit, as part of one Body. He acknowledges differences though by describing them as different parts of one whole. Continuing on to verse 15 in The Pulpit Commetnaries:

1 Corinthians 12:15

If the foot shall say, etc. So Seneca says, “What if the hands should wish to injure the feet, or the eyes the hands? As all the members agree together because it is the interest of the whole that each should be kept safe, so men spare their fellow men because we are born for heaven, and society cannot be saved except by the love and protection of its elements” (‘De Ira,’ 2:31). And Marcus Aurelius: “We have been born for mutual help, like the feet, like the hands, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. To act in opposition to cue another is therefore contrary to nature” (‘Enchir.,’ 1 Corinthians 2:1). And Pope—

”What if the foot, ordained the dust to tread,
Or hand, to toil, aspired to be the head?
What if the head, the eye, or ear repined
To serve mere engines to the ruling mind?
Just as absurd for any part to claim
To be another, in this general frame,” etc.

The argument is that our bodies are purposefully different, and that nature dictates that those differences work together for the aid and betterment of all. It would be absurd to make every part of the body a foot, or to ask a foot to do the job of a hand or an ear. He argues that we should apply the same thinking to the Church body.

Paul makes that point, regarding forced equality, in verse 17. From Ellicott:

(17) If the whole body were an eye.—Here is shown how absurd it would be for the body to be merely one member, and in 1 Corinthians 12:19 is shown the converse absurdity of the members losing their individuality. There is a corporate body composed of divers members. That is the difference between a dead machine and a living organism.

Diversity of purpose and function is important. No part is better than another even though each is doing something different. However, we should also keep in mind that the head of the Church body is Christ. Continuing with The Pulpit Commentaries:

1 Corinthians 12:18

As it hath pleased him. Not arbitrarily, but in furtherance of one wise and beneficent design, so that each may be honoured and indispensable, and therefore contented in its own sphere.

1 Corinthians 12:19

And if they were all one member, where were the body? The interests of the individual must never overshadow those of the Church. In the Church, as in the body, the hypertrophy or the atrophy of any one member is injurious, not only to itself, but to the whole.

God designs the body of the Church, as well as the body of human beings. Each person – just like each part – has a purpose. An injury to any person or part is also an injury to the whole in both cases. Continuing to v. 20 with Ellicott:

(20) But now are they.—From the reductio ad absurdum of the previous verses the Apostle turns to the fact as it is, and proceeds (in 1 Corinthians 12:21) to state that there is a mutual interdependence in the members of the body. The eye is dependent on the hand, the head upon the feet. Here, no doubt, the illustration is drawn out in this particular direction to rebuke those who being themselves possessed of what were considered important spiritual gifts despised the gifts which the Spirit had bestowed on others.

The call here is to think of themselves as a collective, rather than an assembly of individuals. Just as he has since the start of this Letter, Paul places an enormous emphasis on unity.

He will continue on with the analogy in the verses that follow through much of hte rest of the chapter, and we’ll look at that next.