Sunday January 5th
1st Corinthians 13
I think it’s really great that we can start out the New Year talking about love, don’t you?
I heard about this couple who were sitting across from each other at a table in this bar.
At one point the guy just blurted out, “I love you so much. I don’t think I could ever live without you.”
His girlfriend smiled sweetly and asked, “Is that you talking or just the beer talking?”
He looked up and said, “Oh, sorry, that was me talking to the beer…”
Well, I suppose there was no real love lost between those two, especially AFTER that conversation.
But in 1st Corinthians chapter 13 we’re going to find out what real love looks like.
It just so happens that chapter 13 has 13 verses in it. The first 3 verses have a theme, the next 4 verse bring out another theme and the last 6 verses carry a final theme.
So let’s tackle these themes one at a time, starting with verses 1-3:
If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.
Bible scholars call what Paul is doing here “intentional exaggeration.” Paul is doing this to emphasize the uselessness of spiritual gifts when people try to use without love. The “tongues of men” probably refers to speaking in foreign languages, while the tongues “of angels” may refer to speaking in tongues. But the point is that neither human language nor angelic language sounds pleasing when it’s not based in love. Phrases like “if I know all mysteries” and “have faith to remove mountains” are used to emphasize that no matter how great my abilities are, they are basically valueless if they aren’t coupled with love. The expression “deliver up my body to be burned” is kind of a dramatic overstatement, like, “I would go to any length to accomplish my goal”, but once again, apart from love… it’s not a big deal.
So these 3 verses are intended to drive home the pivotal nature of love in the practice of the spiritual gifts.
So then Paul turns his attention to an important question, “if love is the essential foundation of our spiritual lives, then how can we know what love looks like?”
In the next four verses, Paul gives one of the most beautiful and poetic descriptions of love that has ever been written:
4 Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, 5 does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, 6 does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Familiar wedding verses…right? One of the bible commentaries sums up those verses like this:
Paul personifies love as a person who acts in the ways Christians should imitate. The picture is a description of Christ Himself. Considering the kinds of problems this letter addresses, these verses are also a bit of a rebuke to the Corinthians, who were all excited about their spiritual gifts, but were failing to conduct themselves with love towards one another.
Let’s take some time to break down these components that make up this complete picture of love:
First of all, love is patient.
You’ve probably heard the ironic prayer, “Lord, give me patience, and I need it RIGHT NOW!”
Thank God that patience is one of the “fruits of the Spirit”!
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23)
That’s a promise that the presence of the Holy Spirit, in each of our lives, will “bear fruit” over time, increasing our capability to express each of those nine qualities. Why is that so important? Because, as we’ve noted, patience isn’t something that we come by easily. In most cases it has to be learned “the hard way”:
“My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” (James 1:2-4)
So patience is actually a byproduct of testing, the result of working our way through life’s trials and temptations. Who knew?
And what will patience look like when it finally arrives as a “perfect work” in my life?
Joyce Meyer reminds us that “Love listens to the other person and searches for clues on ways to serve, bless and lift up that person.”
So, patience involves listening. It means that we take the time to give the other person our full attention while they are speaking, rather than simply rehearsing our next response and waiting impatiently for them to stop talking.
We are also told that love is kind. I don’t know why, but when I hear the phrase “love is kind” I want to ask “kind of what?”
Maybe I could answer my own question by saying this - “Love is kind of...like God”.
Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? (Romans 2:4)
Paul connects God’s kindness with our salvation:For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:3-5)
Peter also reinforces the connection between the kindness of God and his desire to save us:like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord. (1 Peter 2:2-3)
Then we are told that love is not jealous. If we are going to learn to be truly loving, then we must root out any expression of jealousy from our lives. What does it mean to be jealous?
Definitions would include: feeling resentment against someone because of that person's rivalry, success, or advantages:
It’s easy to see the underlying negative connotations within these definitions. None of them seem even remotely descriptive of anything similar to love.
Love also doesn’t brag or show arrogance. The Greek word translated here as “boast” means “to point to oneself.”
The Christians in Corinth were boasting about many things. They boasted about their affiliation with different apostles, creating division within the church. They boasted of their tolerance for immorality within the church. They sued each other in court.
The reason that love does not boast is simple: love is focused on the loved one, not on oneself. A person who brags is full of himself, magnifying his own accomplishments and is too occupied with self-promotion to notice others.
The other significant thing that we are told about love is in verse 5:
“does not take into account a wrong suffered”
Some translations put it this way – “love doesn’t keep a record of wrongs”.
Many people have a set of internal filing cabinets filled with past offenses. They are ready to pull open a drawer at a moment’s notice and remind others of all the wrongs that have been committed by them.
But an individual who loves biblically does not count up, add up, recall and then throw up in the face of another person all the offenses that he or she has committed.
This point is especially well stated in this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”
After being reminded of all the things that love doesn’t do, it’s uplifting to see Paul wrapping up this picture of love with a very positive reminder about something that love will absolutely never do: “Love never fails”!
In verse 8, Paul compares several things that will come to an end with the one thing that is unending:
8 Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away.
This verse has unfortunately been incorrectly interpreted to mean that the spiritual gifts no longer exist in our world today, which I will explain.
What Paul is emphasizing here is that things like prophecy, speaking in tongues, and having supernatural knowledge are all temporary gifts, intended to help us find our way on a spiritual path through this earthly life. But in eternity they have no remaining value. When we are in heaven, these temporary gifts will cease to function - they will be done away with because we will no longer need them.
But that is not the case with love. Love is eternal and will never lose its value. It will be as precious in eternity as it is during our earthly lives. It will never cease. It will never fail. Isn’t that an awesome thing to know?
So let’s look at why this verse CAN’T be talking about the ending of the spiritual gifts while we are still here on the earth. Let’s look at verse 9-12:
9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part; 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. 11 When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.
The key phrase in all of this is “when the perfect comes”. What is this referring to? One commentary says:
“The context suggests strongly that Paul here is referring to the Second Coming of Christ as the final event in God’s plan of redemption and revelation. In comparison with what we will receive then, the present blessings are only partial and thus imperfect. It is therefore a sign of immaturity for the Corinthians to treat the temporary gifts as more important than the eternal ones.”
So only Jesus is the perfect one, and when we finally see Him face to face, we won’t need the temporary spiritual gifts anymore. But until that day, we can sure use them!
In verse 12 Paul says that when the perfect comes, “I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
Perhaps because the Corinthians liked to boast about their level of knowledge, Paul stresses the temporary and partial nature of all earthly knowledge.
At the present time, we don’t fully know God, but God certainly knows us fully.
In Galatians 4:9 Paul points this out:
“But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again?”
The 13th chapter of this letter ends with this 13th verse:
13 But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love
Now keep in mind that Paul didn’t divide his letters into chapters and verses. These were added later to help us more easily locate particular passages of scripture.
So when Paul wrote those words they were simply in the form of a letter, a continuous, complete thought. In order to fully appreciate the impact of the words “the greatest of these is love” we must connect that expression to the very next two words that Paul wrote, which we would call the beginning of Chapter 14: “Pursue love”
That’s simple enough, isn’t it? And it makes perfect sense that we should make it a priority to pursue the one thing that will remain valuable beyond this life into the next.
You’ve probably heard it said that “You can’t take it with you.”
This is a very accurate biblical principle.
For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. (1 Timothy 6:7)
King Solomon said this as well:
As he had come naked from his mother’s womb, so will he return as he came. He will take nothing from the fruit of his labor that he can carry in his hand. (Ecclesiastes 5:15)
But when it comes to the reality that “you can’t take it with you”, we might have to make an exception for one thing - love.
Do we bring any love into this world? Yes, these scriptures would seem to tell us that we are loved by God even while we are in our mother’s womb:
By You I have been sustained from my birth; You are He who took me from my mother’s womb; My praise is continually of You. (Psalm 71:6)
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, And before you were born I consecrated you; I have appointed you a prophet to the nations. (Jeremiah 1:5)
Can we say that love goes with us beyond the grave?
Yes, Jeremiah uses the word “everlasting: to describe God’s love:
The Lord appeared to him from afar, saying, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; Therefore I have drawn you with loving kindness. (Jeremiah 31:3)
Everlasting means eternal. Eternal means it never ends.
Which means we CAN take it with us!
So how do we go about “pursuing” love?
Those of you who read the devotional “Our Daily Bread” might remember seeing this quote from writer C. K. Barrett:
“Love is an activity, the essential activity of God himself, and when men love either Him or their fellow-men, they are doing (however imperfectly) what God does.”
Maybe we could say that we pursue love be practicing love, by doing the activity that God is doing, by making His priority our priority.