As we come to look at 1 Cor 13, we come to what one writer calls ‘a magnificent song of Christian love’. And it is. And if you’ve ever been to a wedding there’s a good chance this was used. I’ve used at many weddings I’ve taken. If you have ever seen anything of Princess Diana’s funeral, this chapter was read out. It is one of the classic Bible passages.
But there’s a danger in that – we may be so familiar with it, we lose the impact of it, and the challenge of it. And rather than read it again – let’s listen to a song Graham Kendrick sings about this chapter, to try to make it somewhat fresher in our minds and hearts.
Whenever we come to read parts of the Bible we need to read them in context, and this is certainly the case here. Remember the context of 1 Corinthians – Paul is addressing a church which is divided, split over personalities, arguing about spiritual gifts and true spirituality, acting in arrogance, condoning sin. Not good signs.
The basic problem – they are seeking their own good rather than the good of the other person, and the good of the whole church.
In chapter 12 you may recall Paul has talked about spiritual gifts – how they are a great blessing from the Lord, and are all important in their diversity for the good of the body.
But the question becomes – how will these gifts be used? The Corinthians are using them a very self-centred, unchristian, and ultimately destructive way for the church as a community, as the body of Christ. Paul writes in 12:31 – I will show you a better way to use them, in fact the most excellent way – and that is the way of love.
And so ch 13 becomes that chapter on the way of love. But Paul doesn’t just suddenly think – oh, a chapter on love would be a nice break. No, it’s specifically addressed to the Corinthian problems as we shall see, and is critical to Paul’s understanding of what true spirituality is all about.
Vv1-3 open the chapter and remind us of the necessity of love. READ 1-3.
a) Paul starts in v1 with tongues – one of the key issues confronting the church in Corinth. Even if I was the best speaker in Corinth, humanly speaking, and knew all the tricks of the trade, and could speak in angelic tongues as well, if I didn’t base it all on love then I’m a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. We might say he is just noise, interference, nothing melodic – just a lot of noise. Without love I offend other people, but with love I build them up.
b) But it’s not just tongues. In v2 he picks up other examples of the spiritual gifts he has just mentioned in ch 12 – prophecy, knowledge, faith – same principle – if I can fathom all mysteries – that is the deep, secret things of God now revealed, if I had all knowledge, those truths long known, if I have a powerful, miraculous faith that can move mountains – but don’t have love – then I am nothing. I am nothing. I am useless for God’s glory. As far as God is concerned if I don’t have love there is nothing of any real value in my ministry. The Corinthians thought those sorts of gifts were so impressive. Paul says without love the person with such gifts is nothing. Nothing wrong with the gifts – the problem is with the person. However greatly gifted you or I are, without love you and I are nothing.
c) And not just gifts; but self-sacrificial acts of religion in v3. Even if I give away all my possessions to feed the poor; or give my body to the flames in some form of martyrdom, if I do it without love I gain nothing. They may be good acts in themselves - we are commanded to care for the poor, and they will be helped - but without love it doesn’t do me any good. God rejects it, rejects me. Whatever personal sacrifices you or I make, without love they count for nothing.
Challenging isn’t it? In God’s eyes what counts as true spirituality is love. What really matters to God is not what gifts I have – after all he gives them to me – but how I exercise them, in love. Whatever gift I have is useless to me without love. Our calling as the body of Christ is to love one another as God in Christ has loved us. A Christian community without love, as one writer put it, is worse than nothing.
The Corinthians thought they were truly spiritual because they had wonderful gifts, Paul says they are unspiritual because they don’t have love. They are not exercising their gifts in the right way – the way of love. Love is the only context in which gifts and actions become significant.
We need to ask – what religious acts are we doing that we think are so great, are spiritually significant, but were done without love? It feels so empty – because it is so empty. Empty of love.
What then does such love look like? Paul tells them in vv4-7 – the character of love.
And it is a marvelous description of love. And no doubt you could find other ways of expressing love, or want to add to what Paul says. It’s certainly not a complete description of true love. But remember he uses this definition for a reason – to counter the actions and attitudes of the Corinthian Christians.
And I think it is worth spending a little time looking at each item in Paul’s description, because I think, if you are like me, there will be points at which our actions and attitudes are challenged, and which we need to repent and ask God’s forgiveness, and seek his changing power. For as you look at this list you see that love is not just a feeling, or a felling that comes and go, so that I can move in and out of love, as so many songs and movies suggest it is, but love is action, it is dynamic, it is effective. Each of the descriptive words in these verses is a verb, not an adjective – it is a doing word. Love is active, or it is not love.
a) V4 starts with the 2 positives.
i) Love is patient, or as a doing word - waits patiently. Love is prepared to wait. Love means I won’t rush in before the right time, I won’t blunder in just to be seen, I won’t blurt out just to be heard – that’s not serving the other person. I won’t have a short fuse, but I will wait until the other is ready (esp with warning or rebuke). Love means I will be slow to anger, and long-suffering. It is love modelled on God’s love - God is long-suffering, holding back his wrath and anger and just punishment for our sin.
ii) And also like God’s love, love is kind. As God shows his love in his kind mercy and compassion towards us in Christ. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son – God’s love shows in kindness and giving to us. And this is the model for how we should be towards all others. Love shows kindness - pure and unselfish concern for the well-being of the other. It’s what the last few chapters have been talking about isn’t it – in fact the whole book.
b) Then Paul lists a number of verbs showing what love is not, which are exactly what the Corinthians were doing.
i) so love – does not burn with envy. We know from chapter 3 about the divisions in the church at Corinth. They were full of jealousy, rivalry and strife. And maybe that’s us – perhaps we resent the success, blessings or gifts of others; we’re not happy with our own place or opportunities; we compete for honour or recognition. That’s not love. Love doesn’t seek competition or rivalry or getting more followers. Love asks instead - how best do I serve those for whom Christ died, whatever my own desires?
ii) and love does not brag. Love doesn’t boast – precisely what the Corinthians were doing – look at me I’m so great because I have this gift or that gift. They wanted the gift of tongues so they would look good. Look at how wonderfully God is using me. Love is never self-centred like that. Love never intentionally calls attention to oneself, but rather seeks the good of the whole community.
iii) and love is not proud. Love is not inflated with its own importance: not puffed up or arrogant or conceited. Love never feels superior, never looks down on others. But that’s what the Corinthians were – back in 8:1 the same word is used as Paul says knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Love never cultivates attention-seeking behaviour, love doesn’t parade my gifts or spirituality. But the Corinthians did – they were so arrogant and sure about themselves, even though so much of their life together was unholy and unloving and so unchristian.
iv) and v5, love is not rude. It’s that idea of lacking propriety, of having no good taste, no public good manners, no courtesy towards others (eg on train). Love on the other hand shows respect for all people. So love doesn’t elbow its way into conversations, or worship services, without observing proper courtesies. Love doesn’t behave in an unseemly, or shameless or disgraceful way. But the Corinthians were – so the women we met in 11:2-16 who bring shame on themselves by what they are wearing or not, or the people in the second half of ch 11 at the Lord’s Supper who have so much and are shaming those who have nothing. No - Christian love cares too much for the other and for the rest of the community to behave so rudely.
v) and love is not self-seeking. If you had to pick out a key phrase I think this would be it. True love is not pre-occupied with the interests of self. True love shows no self-interest nor self-centredness. But the Corinthians did – remember when we were looking at the question in ch 10:24 and 33 of eating food sacrificed to idols – Paul says we are free, but should restrain our freedom to seek the good of others. Corinthians failed in this – they insisted on their own way about idol food regardless of what other Christians thought, they rushed ahead with the Lord’s Supper or hosted it insensitively, they interrupted speakers at church with sudden revelations or spoke too long at the expense of others. They treated other people as objects there to serve themselves. But real Christian love seeks the good of the other. That is the love of Jesus isn’t it?
vi) and real love is not easily angered. Not easily irritated, or exasperated, or provoked by others. Real love doesn’t overreact to problems, it is not touchy, or affronted. What about those people who provoke us, who know how to push our buttons. Do we get defensive and blame them, or acknowledge or own touchiness. Do we see their strengths and potential rather than their annoying way?
vii) nor does love keep a reckoning of wrongs done to me. It’s an accounting term – love doesn’t keep adding up all the wrongs people do or say against me, so I can pay them back one day. Love forgives and forgets. Just as God does with our wrongs against him. In Christ God doesn’t reckon our sins against us. Remember as Jesus hangs on the cross what does he say - Father, forgive them. He doesn’t hold it against them.
viii) Or v6 – love doesn’t delight in evil. True love doesn’t take pleasure when other people do the wrong thing, or when they fall. You know how it is – secretly you’re glad when someone else fails or makes a mistake as it makes you look better. That’s not love. But that’s what the Corinthians were like – in ch 5 their arrogance in tolerating or even accepting the man committing incest. Love never gloats over someone’s failure, it never is excited at the thought of being able to lecture someone on their shortcomings (eg Carson email), it never relishes saying ‘I told you so’, or saying the hard thing, or criticising someone’s ministry. Love doesn’t delight in the evil it sees in the world around it. Do we enjoy evil in others, do we rejoice in what is murky and sordid (all those trash magazines)? Do we long to see others fail and fall, so that we have an excuse to indulge in sin ourselves. Love longs to see others stand and grow, love is saddened and hurt when others fall.
ix) so, v6, love rejoices with the truth. Love isn’t into self-promotion and rhetoric and spin, but objective, disinterested truth. Love celebrates truth; love rejoices in loving Christian behaviour.
x) and in v7 Paul wraps it all up with this 4-fold list each with the word always. Love is not limited – not limited in protecting and putting up with others; not limited in trusting others, not limited in hoping, not limited to give up. Love always perseveres.
I think this is what Paul’s love for the church at Corinth was like – despite all the negatives, he still loved them. He never gave up on them. He kept trusting them, kept hoping for them, praying for them, always persevering for them.
As you read through this list you cannot help but wonder – where is such love to be found? I know that I do not love like that. And I don’t think you do either. Only one person has ever loved like that – and that is the Lord Jesus. You know everywhere you see the word ‘love’ you could put Jesus’ name, and it would be true. V4 – Jesus is patient, Jesus is kind, etc, etc…
Jesus never indulged himself, even under pressure or provocation. He just got on with the work to which he had been called, he rejoiced in others’ success and growth, he gently and sensitively encouraged people, he never put others down or ignored people, he never over-played his own ministry or own importance and never blew his own trumpet. He never seemed interested in gaining recognition, never demanded his rights or insisted on his own way. Jesus is love. God is love. And this is God’s love. And we need that same love of God to see the needs and interests of others rather than of self. And God gives us that love through his Spirit.
This love Paul is talking about is not a human quality. It is divine. We can only have it as the gift of God himself. Only his love to us in Christ can enable us to love like that.
Paul has talked about the necessity of love, the character of love, and now finishes with the permanence of love. The challenge to the Corinthians – and us – is to have an eternal perspective.
So v8 – love never fails. It’s never out of date, never past it’s use-by date. READ v8. All the spiritual gifts, esp these gifts so greatly prized by the Corinthians – prophecy, tongues, knowledge – they will all pass away. One day – that day when Jesus returns as 1:7 tells us – on that day all these gifts will no longer be needed. Perfection will have come. We won’t need prophecy as it will all be fulfilled; we won’t need tongues for we will all be able to communicate directly and personally with God; we won’t need knowledge, there will be more secrets we need to know. They are good gifts of the Spirit for the church here and now, but they won’t be needed into eternity. But love will. Love will continue to characterize all our relationships, forever. And that makes love the most important thing.
These gifts are like v11 the ways of a child which are no longer needed in adulthood – children need to talk and think and reason like children, and that is good and appropriate for the time when they are children. But a time comes when they are no longer needed – they are not appropriate for the next age of adulthood. We need spiritual gifts now, they do help us see something more of God’s glory and will, his nature and purpose, but there will come a time when they are no longer needed.
Or it’s like seeing someone in a mirror v12 – we see just a poor reflection, but it’s nothing compared to what we see when we meet that person face to face. It’s like the difference between a photo and the real person. When we meet God face to face in the future, when we then know God in the way he knows us – face to face – we won’t need gifts of prophecy, or tongues or knowledge. But we will still need love. Faith, hope and love are to characterise Christian life now. And the greatest even of these is love. Faith will become sight, hope will be realized, but love will remain.
Love is so much greater than the gifts, because love is grounded in the very nature of God and lasts forever. It matters now, and it will matter then.
The Corinthians were fighting and boasting about gifts, thinking they made them truly spiritual – but not realizing their lifespan was limited, and what really made them spiritual was love – which they weren’t showing. The real sign of having God’s Spirit is love. Love was the solution to their problems, love was the answer to their divisions and self-interest; only love could change the destructive ways they were living and using their gifts; and only love is the answer to our problems too.
What truly makes a Christian, what defines a Christian, what the marks of a true Christian are – is love.
Do you show love? Esp in this church body? As we walked and talked through those items have you loved like this lately? Have you done the things love is not lately? Put your name in ch 13 – and what do you get? Time to repent and seek God’s forgiveness, and ask for his love. And then put it into practice. Maybe identify someone you can show God’s love to this week in a practical way.
Let me read to you an article from Max Lucado – READ – will you live love? Will you act love? PRAY.