If we grasp Paul's intended lesson, we must understand his point. Remember a key understanding. These verses were part of a letter that Paul wrote to Christians in Rome. Therefore, the point of the "body" illustration is connected to Paul's primary concerns in the letter. These verses must not be studied as if they were unrelated to the rest of the letter.
Remember the likely reason for the letter. The Roman Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome (Acts 18:2). That expulsion made it necessary for Jewish Christians to leave Rome. Because their background was in Jewish scriptures and prophetic messages promising Christ, spiritually they were more knowledgeable than converts from idolatry. Prior to expulsion, they probably were leaders.
Claudius' death ended the expulsion. Jews returned to Rome. When Jewish Christians returned, they likely expected to resume leadership roles. In their absence, new leadership developed. The result: Christians who were Jews and Christians who were not Jews were in conflict. Roman 2:17-3:1 and 11:11-24 give evidence of this problem's intensity. In Jewish thinking, salvation issues must recognize the spiritual superiority and the spiritual advantages of the Jew. Such attitudes always create problems among Christians!
Remember a primary objective in this letter: salvation in Christ is a result of God's mercy--regardless of who you are, what your background is, or who your ancestors were. Salvation in Jesus Christ depends on God's mercy. Every Christian, converted Jew or converted idol worshipper, was saved by God's mercy in Jesus Christ. No one was saved because "God needed me." Everyone was saved because he or she needed God. Significance was determined by service to all, not by role in the congregation.
Carefully note Paul's emphasis in his illustration. (1) Watch your thinking. (2) Individual Christians have different functions. (3) You need each other. (4) God's grace gave you different abilities. Let faith guide the use of those gifts to everyone's benefit.
Consider each emphasis. Watch your thinking. "Do not exaggerate your importance." In every generation, from the first century until now, the church endured heartaches and problems because someone exaggerated his or her importance. Too many refuse to be servants! Too many refuse to believe the road to greatness is becoming servant to all! Too many refuse to understand the value God places on humility! Too many conclude, "If people do not notice me, God cannot see me." Jesus declared God sees and hears in secret (Matthew 6:6). The goal of service is divine approval, not human acceptance. Paul's point: "Forget your exaggerated opinion of your importance."
"In your thinking exercise sound judgment." When you consider yourself, do so with soberness. Measure yourself by faith's standards, not by the standards of exaggerated personal opinion. As you measure yourself by faith, realize the quality of your faith depends on God's grace.
Each of you has a different function. Jewish Christians believed Christians who were not Jews "need us." Some Jewish Christians regarded their role as critical for the salvation of people who were not Jews. To suggest to Jewish Christians they needed Christians who were not Jews was [to Jewish Christians] unthinkable. "We have a history with the God who sent Jesus. The prophets came to us. We know how God thinks and acts. We understand worship and godliness. We are essential in their salvation process. They need us."
Paul said Christians function just as a body functions. Unnecessary parts do not exist. Unnecessary functions do not occur. A healthy body "fulfills its potential" when each part functions to the benefit of the whole. A healthy congregation "fulfills its potential" when each Christian functions to the benefit of the whole.
Today the church pays horrible prices when we reduce Christian existence and "faithfulness" to attendance at weekly worship assemblies. Being "a spectator" at a weekly "worship event" is considered [by too many] as the essential expression of faith. Some even consider the congregation to be "a body" only in assemblies. Since only a few "perform the functions of worship," those few are the "needed ones." If someone does not perform an assembly function, he or she is not needed [so he or she thinks].
Each Christian has an ability, a gift from God. God is honored when he or she uses that ability daily in serving others. Through these functions, every Christian is blessed as godly service achieves God's purposes seven days a week.
Each of you needs the other. In some Christians' thinking, the "membership" can be divided into necessary and unnecessary members. Some, they feel, the congregation could not do without. Others, they feel, are essential to survival. Still others, they feel, the church would be better off without. It seems some among the Christians in Rome had similar thinking.
Paul rejected such thinking. Realizing Christians need each other is essential to God's purposes. We understand the weak need the strong. We are slow to grasp that the strong need the weak. Each believer is a blessing to every other believer. Faith blesses faith. As faith expresses itself, all believers are blessed.
God's grace gave you your gift. Use it well and often! God's grace gave you the gift. Use the gift to benefit everyone. Using the gift makes it grow. Service will not destroy gifts. Use it to the benefit of all. God intended it to benefit everyone. Do not use your gift selfishly to advance your ambitions. Use it to advance God's purposes.
The gifts cited emphasize acts of teaching, kindness, helpfulness, and mercy. The focus was on meeting others' needs. The more Christians focus on caring for each other, the more we realize we need each other. The more we meet each other's needs, the more we depend on each other.
The difference between being a "user" and a "servant" is the difference between abuse and encouragement. If a body part abuses the body by using the functions of other parts to achieve selfish purposes, the body becomes sick and weak. When all body parts function for the good of the whole, the body is healthy and strong.
Christians in Rome distorted the good of the whole. Paul's point was simple: the bond of mutual need motivates Christians to function for everyone's benefit. We are members of one another.
Link to Teacher's Guide Quarter 3, Lesson 2
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