Up to this point in Paul’s analogy between the church and the human body, the Apostle has left the reader to draw the conclusion that God’s granting each Christian different gifts parallels the fact that the human body has different members, all with unique functions. The Apostle makes this parallel explicit in today’s passage as he concludes the church–human body analogy.
Paul states that the Corinthian believers are collectively the body of Christ and individually members of that same body (1 Cor. 12:27). By extension, this applies to the whole church, which is the one body of Christ made up of many different members, all of whom are necessary to the proper functioning and health of that body (see vv. 12–26). Yet, given that we can name the members of the human body, how can we denominate the members of Christ’s body the church?
In 1 Corinthians 12:4–11, the Apostle named many of these members by designating some of the gifts that the Holy Spirit has given to Christians. Paul does something similar in verses 28–29, although he also includes some of the offices given to the church—Apostles, prophets, and teachers. By listing things in this way, Paul highlights the fact that gifts are not the point in themselves but are for the purpose of establishing various ministries in the church. This is not surprising, for one of Paul’s emphases is that believers are to serve one another (see Gal. 5:13). One way we do this is by using our God-given gifts to minister to each other. Some minister by teaching, as evident in the offices of Apostle, prophet, and teacher. Others minister by attending to physical needs, which is likely what the gift of “helping” refers to (1 Cor. 12:28). The point, as Paul has said again and again, is that all the different gifts and offices are needed in the church of Christ for its health and welfare. Not everyone has the same gift, but every gift is necessary (vv. 29–30).
Interestingly, Paul then says in 1 Corinthians 12:31a that we should “earnestly desire the higher gifts.” This might seem to imply that some gifts are more necessary than others, but that is not really what Paul means. In light of the overemphasis on the gift of tongues in Corinth, Paul is getting ready to point out in chapter 14 that the gift of prophecy is more conducive to edifying the collective body in gathered worship than tongues, because prophecy is always intelligible. In the specific setting of worship, prophecy is “higher,” though the other gifts are no less necessary to the health of the church.