Summary: True spirituality, and our confession of Jesus.
“Now concerning spirituals,” begins this passage (1 Corinthians 12:1). This may be masculine, ‘spiritual people’. However, given the emphasis away from individualism to “Jesus is Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:3), it is more likely to be neuter, referring to ‘spiritual things’ in general. More specifically, it is a heading for the whole discussion of spiritual ‘gifts’ (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:4) in chapters 12 to 14.
“Now concerning spirituals, brethren, I would not have you ignorant,” the Apostle Paul continues (1 Corinthians 12:1). This is interesting because the Apostle had opened his letter with a celebration of the Corinthians’ giftedness in speech and knowledge (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:5-7), but now he must remind them that they have no excuse for ignorance. It is reassuring that he refers to them as “brethren”, because Paul would want the Corinthians to know that, even if he has had some stern words to speak to them, it is because his heart longs for them.
“You (all) know that you (all) were Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 12:2a). That is what we were outside of Christ: ‘aliens from the commonwealth of Israel’ (cf. Ephesians 2:12). But now, as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, we are grafted into the olive tree which is Israel (Romans 11:7; Romans 11:17-18). We are part of ‘the fellowship of’ God’s ‘Son Jesus Christ our Lord’ (1 Corinthians 1:9).
“You (all) were Gentiles,” says Paul, “carried away unto these dumb idols, even as you (all) were led” (1 Corinthians 12:2b). The Greek is emphatic: “to idols dumb as you (all) might be led away, led away.” When we talk about somebody being ‘carried away’ it infers an out-of-control enthusiasm which drives them to extremes. In cults this may involve frenzied dancing, or even ‘lancing’ oneself until the blood gushed out (cf. 1 Kings 18:28). Hallucinations may be caused by drugs, or perhaps fumes from a volcano (as in Delphi, Greece). There is a definite ‘spiritual’ power in these phenomena, but the idols are “dumb” (cf. 1 Kings 18:26; Psalm 115:4-7; Habakkuk 2:18). It is positively demonic!
Astonishingly, the Apostle Paul now felt constrained to negate the possibility that anybody should speak an anathema against Jesus and presume that they were thus speaking by the Spirit of God. “Understand this…!” he declares (1 Corinthians 12:3a). “And no-one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3b).
This is the basic confession of Christianity: ‘Jesus is Lord’ (cf. Romans 10:9). It is what Jesus taught concerning Himself (cf. John 13:13). The Holy Spirit bears witness of Jesus (cf. John 15:26). The Holy Spirit only ever glorifies Jesus (cf. John 16:14).
For the Corinthians, to say “Jesus is Lord” was to make a stand against all that they might hitherto have believed (cf. 1 Corinthians 8:5-6). It is significant that the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures translates the name of God with the same Greek word as the New Testament uses in reference to Jesus: which we translate in both instances as ‘Lord’. In other words, for us to say “Jesus is Lord” is to acknowledge that Jesus is God!
In the ancient world the Emperor might claim to be God: thus, we had ‘Caesar is Lord’. To deny this was treasonous, and many Christians would be martyred on account of it: many with the words “Jesus is Lord” still upon their lips. Such courage, such fortitude, such perseverance can only be accounted for because of the very real experience of being ‘born again of the Spirit of God’ (cf. John 3:5-7).