12The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. 13For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
14Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. 15If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. 16And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
Everyone has a body of some sort another. We all inherently understand the fact that a body is connected and that the various parts of a body must work in unison while at the same time, each part of the body serves very different functions. The best athletes are those that have trained the various parts of their body to work in unison and under a great deal of control. On the other side, some people contract diseases like Parkinson’s that leave them unable to completely control various parts of their body which can be a debilitating state.
Many people in both modern and ancient times have used the body as a metaphor for a group of people coming together as a unit. It’s a beautiful example really, because the human body is made of all kinds of different parts that work together for one common goal. Paul was not the first one to use this analogy, but his has become perhaps the most famous. Paul’s reasons for using this as an analogy are often misunderstood, though, or at least not fully understood. He is not just limiting himself to the idea that everyone who joins the Church has their own gifts and talents and should use them and be appreciated. Of course, Paul is saying that, but he is also saying much more than that.
Paul hasn’t just used the body as a random metaphor for the Church here. There are at least two important reasons that he chose this particular imagery of the body. One of the things that Paul has been trying to get the Corinthians to understand throughout this letter is that they are the embodiment of the new humanity. They have entered into the life of the Messiah so that what is true of Him is true of His people. That means that, as His people, they are to model the new humanity. In Genesis 1-2 God created humanity in paradise in order to have a perfect relationship with them and with each other. The sin of Genesis 3 ruined all of that and has kept humans from realizing their full humanity ever since. Jesus came and lived a human life of perfect communion with God and man and was killed for it. Because of that, though, we are able to choose to die and enter into His death, raising to His life. Christians thus, embody the Messiah and His life, so Paul using the metaphor of the Church being a body is a metaphor, but it is more than just that.
The second major reason that Paul used this particular image of a body was that it was a common image used in his day for various groups, especially social and political groups. In fact, it was not uncommon to talk about the political make-up of Rome as a body with Caesar as the head. This means that Paul is using a common symbol for communities and applying it to the Christian community as the only, true body. And that is exactly his point. The Christian community is the new and true humanity. The new way of humans living in concert with one another.
In verse 12, Paul stresses his belief that Christians have entered into the life of Christ and become synonymous with Him. He says that just as the human body is made up of many parts, “So it is with the Messiah” (Of course, “Christ” simply means “Messiah”). The amazing thing here is that when Paul says that, he is talking about the Church, not specifically Jesus. When Jesus confronted Paul on the road to Damascus for persecuting the church, Jesus asked “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Clearly Jesus felt that what was happening to his church, happned to him. Paul applies the same concept that the Messiah’s people can be so closely identified with the Messiah that he can call them Christ. The individual parts of the Church have entered into the life of Christ and now embody the Messiah.
At the same time that Paul celebrates this unity in the Messiah, he also celebrates the diversity of the many parts that make up the body. Many have supposed that Paul is saying “unity in diversity and diversity in unity,” but that is not really the case. Diversity is important to Paul, but unity is more so. If Paul really has a theme here it is “diversity in unity, but unity over diversity.” For Paul, in Christ unity overshadows diversity and makes it meaningful. The people in Corinth were using their diversity to create distinctions and cause divisions. This is not at all what it meant to be one body in Christ.
He reminds his readers that the way they all entered into this community of the body of Christ was through baptism (as he does elsewhere: Romans 6:2-11; Galatians 3:27). Many have argued that Paul is referring to a special experience with the Spirit apart from baptism, but that is little more than wishful thinking. He is talking about the common unifying experience of entry into the Messiah’s body, the waters of baptism where all are equal. It is the Holy Spirit who enters the individual, sealing them as one who has entered into the body of Christ.
Beginning in verse 15, Paul modifies a popular saying of his day that was written by the Roman historian Livy. In that fable, the parts of the body speak to one another. Paul uses that image to make the point that no part of the body is without value or importance, so the possession or lack of certain spiritual gifts does not give one more or less value in Christ. Just as differences are necessary in order for the human body to function properly, so are they in the body of Christ. It is God who has arranged the parts just as they are, just as He wants them to be. This is an important reminder because God is not a respecter of persons. It is humans, thinking in a worldly way, that think of some humans as more important than others based on their spiritual gifts. God does not think or work that way. There must be different abilities and gifts so that the body of Christ can do all the things that need to be done.
As it is, though, Paul says, there is much diversity but there is but one body. Here again, he stresses the unity that comes from being in Christ over diversity. Diversity is necessary and important but it all pales in comparison to the way all Christians are united in Christ.
Paul is clear here, as he is in Galatians 3, that entry into the new humanity of the body of Christ cuts across all social and cultural divisions. Do you do that in your life in Christ? Do you and your church stand out from the people in your community by challenging social and cultural norms? Many people find that their church might engage in this anti-cultural inclusion, but they don’t so much in their own personal lives. Make a commitment to be as radical in your inclusion in your personal life as Paul called the first Christians to be.