My two sons are this way. They race to get to the supper table first. The race to see who can get in the front seat of the car first. They one-up each other when tell stories about the day. Everything is a contest to prove one is better than the other. I have also watched with frustration the tears and lashing out that comes when one does not win or measure up or gets pushed down so the other can stand tall.
The Corinthian Christians were a whole lot like my sons. Everything in the church had become a contest for superiority. Who is the wisest, the most articulate, the most respected in society? Who has the best education? Who follows the best leader? Who is a part of the best group within this fragmented church? Who can show the most grace? Who has the best food for the Lord’s Supper (a true meal at that time)?
Now it was the Holy Spirit, this great gift of God, given to us to make us holy and pure. Yet the gifts of the Spirit were being used to create distinctions and airs of superiority. How spiritual a person was had even become something that puffed up the Corinthians.
Paul reminds them that the whole point of the outpouring of the Spirit and the gifts that come with the Spirit is so “that all may benefit” (12:7). They are meant to unify and draw people closer together in dependence, not split apart in competition. There may be many different parts or “members” but there is only one “body” (12:20). They together make up “the Messiah’s body” (12:27) and they need each other. As we often see in the Bible, this point is emphasized by the use of repetition. The word “all” is used 8 times. “Same” occurs 7 times. Ten times the word “one” is used to mean a complete entity. Last, the word “whole” is repeated 3 times. Let there be no mistake, Christians exist to be a part of something far bigger than what they can create themselves.
Then Paul ends this chapter in the most unexpected and seemingly contradictory way:
You should be eager for the better kinds of gifts. Now I’m going to show you a better way, a much better way. (12:31)
Three times Paul uses the word “better.” But if you say something is better to a bunch of hyper-competitive, pompous, attention-seekers of course they are going to want it. Maybe this is something else they can use to divide and puff up. What is this better thing? What could be better than the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit?