The love affair with this love chapter means that this is one of the most read passages from the Bible. Yet it's a passage that is most often read apart from its context and therefore not fully understood or fully applied. For 1 Corinthians 13 is critical to Paul's teaching on tongues speaking and other spiritual gifts and their use in chapters 12-14.
The way the Corinthians were going on these matters was destructive to the body of Christ at Corinth. They were not using the gifts for the common good (12:7) but rather for themselves (14:2&4). There was pride, arrogance and selfishness but no love, no seeking the good of others before their own.
This week Ian Duncan-Smith, the leader of the Conservative Party, commenting on the divisions between his MP's said, "We don't love each other. We just get on with each other. We are a party." No wonder there are divisions in that party. But the body of Christ is not to just get on with each other. We are not to just get on with each other here at JPC. Jesus said that we must love one another in John 13:34. In fact he commanded it.
"A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."
We may not all like one another but we must love another and use the gifts God has given us to build one another up.
The way in which the Corinthians were exercising the gifts was not in a loving way and it was leading to divisions. The tongue party failed to acknowledge that there is unity in diversity, that God gives different gifts to different people. Some were saying that every Christian should speak in different kinds of tongues and those who did were looking down on those who did not and saying 'we don't need you' (12:21). But, as Paul states in v14&19 of chapter 12, 'the body is not made up of one part but of many…If they were all one part where would the body be?' The answer is that it would be a one eyed monster, not a body! 'But', v24-25, 'God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honour to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.'
The way the Corinthians are being called to go is the way of love - the way that does seek the good of others before ones own, the way that does seek to edify and build up the church. Eagerly desire the greater gifts in that way, so that others will be built up. Look at 14:1. Paul says:
'Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy' (which edifies the church).
So here it's not love versus gifts, but rather love as the only context for gifts. Without love the gifts have no usefulness at all. Indeed without love we are nothing (13:2).
"And now", Paul writes in v31 of chapter 12, "I will show you the most excellent way." The way of love. The way of agape or self-sacrificial love. The way of the love that comes from God.
As we are shown the most excellent way in this excellent chapter let's not just get caught up in its excellence as a piece of literature but let's hear it as God's Word for us today. It was a severe word of rebuke in love to the Corinthians. Now praise God for the unity we do have at JPC, for the love that is shown to one another and for the different gifts that are exercised in the way of love. But we too need to hear these stinging yet inspiring and affectionate words about the most excellent way - the way of love. So first
THE NECESSITY OF LOVE v1-3
Why is agape love so necessary? Look at v1-3:
"If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing."
Paul is saying that it's only where there is love that spiritual gifts have any worth at all. In fact he goes further. It is only where there is love that we have any worth at all. Possession of spiritual gifts is not necessarily the sign of the Spirit - Christian love is. And Christian love is not a spiritual gift. It's a fruit of the Spirit. So it's not that some Christians have love and others have another fruit as some Christians have one spiritual gift and others have another. No, love is indispensable to every Christian.
He begins in v1 with the gift highly valued by the Corinthians - speaking in tongues. What Paul says about the use of that gift without love applies to the use of any speaking gift without love. If I were to preach with the brilliance of Paul, but have not love, then I am just a loud noise, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I preach a sermon on 1 Corinthians 13, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong and a clanging cymbal and I should stop now! If you're going to CLASS 3 this afternoon and through that CLASS and beyond discover that you have a speaking gift and then use it, but have not love, then you will be only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. What you say will be worthless. One key question to ask yourself if you love speaking is do you love the people you're speaking to? You see this same test applies to all the speaking gifts: is the motivation for their use loving or is it self-centred? If it's the latter then you are no use to the Kingdom of God. To become useful you need to repent and start behaving in the way of v4-7, asking God to fill you with his Spirit daily.
You may, v2, have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all theological mysteries and knowledge. You may be able to answer every question on the Bible that's thrown at you in Home Group or at Focus or in the CU. But if you have not love you are nothing. And if we have a faith that can move mountains, that can move 3 Osborne Road and believe for much more, but have not love, we are nothing.
If you, v3, give all you possess to the poor, or to 3 Osborne Road, but have not love, is God impressed? No. Does it do you any good at all? No. Without love "I gain nothing", says Paul. You won't be blessed. Again what is our motivation for giving? Is it personal gain - to be thought well of or is it love of others? Even if you were to surrender your body to the flames, willing to die for your cause, but have not love, you gain nothing. If we do not have love then our life before God adds up to zero. We may have many gifts but without love they are useless and we are nothing. We may have many gifts as a church but without love at the heart of our life together we are nothing.
That's the necessity of love. We must have love, without it we are simply not behaving as Christians. But what is love? Well that brings us to the second heading…
THE CHARACTER OF LOVE v4-7
If love is such a necessity we need to know what it is and put it into practice. For to love is to act. Look at v4-7:
"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres."
Love then is like Jesus. These verses could be a description of him. And if you want to learn to love agape style then go to him both for the pattern and the power. Ephesians 5:2 exhorts us to:
'…live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us…'
Christ loved us when we were still sinners and his enemies by dying for us.
And 'Love is patient, love is kind' gets to the heart of what our attitude and action toward others should be. God, through Christ, has shown himself to be patient and kind toward those who deserve judgement and so we too are to be forbearing and kind toward others, even when they try our patience.
How does love react to the gifts and talents God has given to us and to others in the body of Christ? Well read on in v4&5. Remember the Corinthians were struggling in all these areas. May be we are too.
'Love does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self seeking…'
Love is not self-seeking. In fact self-seeking is the opposite of love. No, love gives and seeks the good of others. So that will mean earnestly desiring gifts of the Spirit that will build up the church. Love does not envy. Envy is jealously wanting what someone else has but love is not displeased at the gifts or the success of others. Love does not boast. Literally Paul writes love is not to be a windbag. Love does not go on about your gift or gifts and your successes but rather delights when others are gifted and succeed. Love is not proud. Love is not rude. It does not behave shamefully as the rich Corinthians did to the poor at the Lord's Table in chapter 11. Love cares too much for the whole of the body to behave in such unseemly ways.
'Love is not easily angered.'
The person who loves is not easily provoked to anger by those around him or her whether at church, home, work or school.
'Love keeps no record of wrongs.'
Did you know that Roy Keane, the Manchester United midfield dynamo, waited 3 years to exact hefty revenge on Alfie Inge Haaland, the former Manchester City player. As a result Alfie Haaland will probably never play professionally again. But just as God in Christ doesn't 'reckon our sins against us' so we shouldn't keep a record of the evil done against us.
'Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.'
Love takes no joy in evil of any kind. The way of love is not to delight in the sins of others. We are not to fall into the trap of rejoicing in the murky and the sordid rather than in what is good and true. Sometimes we find solace in seeing others fail and fall, because we imagine it gives us more leeway to trifle with sin ourselves. But that is the reverse of love, which longs to see others stand and grow. Love shares truth's joy; it can't rejoice when the truth is denied. Love, then, must not be thought of as indifferent to moral considerations. It must see truth victorious if it is to rejoice. Love rejoices in the truth of God, in the truth of the gospel.
Then in v7 there's the persistence of love:
'Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.'
The way of love is not easy. But love puts up with everything, never ceasing to have faith and never losing hope. Love takes the knocks and keeps going.
Are you going the way of love? Well try this to assess yourself. Put your name into v4-7 in place of the word 'love'. Do it now…and ask yourself is that true of you? Have you 'put on love', as Paul puts it in Colossians 3, and clothed yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, as we were learning in Home Groups this week? No doubt, we will all need to go to the cross, repent, ask the Lord for forgiveness and to fill us with his Spirit and his love. I know that's what I've had to do as I've been preparing this sermon.
Thirdly and finally…
THE PERMANENCE OF LOVE v8-13
"Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love."
Love is permanent; it never fails - it is eternal. That's the message of these verses, whereas spiritual gifts are temporary. They will cease. Look at v8 - prophecies will cease, speaking in tongues will be stilled and knowledge will pass away. From what is said in v10 it appears that they will cease when Christ returns and there is a new creation: '…when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears'.
Paul illustrates this truth in two ways in v11&12. In v11 he refers to growth from childhood into mature adulthood. In v12 he contrasts looking at someone reflected in a mirror with seeing the person face to face. In those days the very best mirror only gave a blurred and imperfect picture so it is as nothing compared to what the full encounter will be like. 1 John 3:2 tells us that when we see Jesus face to face, 'we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.' So (v12) full knowledge of ourselves will come only when we see Jesus and know him as fully and as perfectly as he now knows us. 'Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known' (v12b).
Are you ready to meet Jesus? Do you have faith in him as your Saviour and Lord? Do you know his love? Did you know that God loved you so much that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life? (John 3:16) And that this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1 John 4:10) Why not believe and trust in Jesus this morning and know that love comes from God and that we love because he first loved us. Then you will have confidence, says 1 John 4:17, on the day of judgement.
God sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live (1 John 4:9). Do you want to live in love forever? Then trust in Jesus.
'And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.'
The gifts of prophecy, tongues and knowledge, that the Corinthians put so much store by, will cease. But these three remain: faith, hope and love. These three are the ones which will abide. The really important things are not tongues and the like but faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. Yes faith and hope will continue into eternity but they will be transformed, because as we've just seen then we will see face to face. Love alone will transfer unchanged. Love is what we'll recognise in heaven from our experience of church now. Yes all the unloving behaviour will be removed but the love itself will continue.
Remember that you will be spending eternity with your brothers and sisters in Christ, even those you have struggled to get on with in this world. You will love them in heaven so you might as well start getting used to it now.
'The greatest of these is love.' God can't be said to exercise faith or hope but he certainly loves, and indeed is love (1 John 4:8). The way of love is the most excellent way that puts everything in these chapters in 1 Corinthians into perspective and is the indispensable thing every Christian must have. The Bible says Love comes from God. We cannot love as this chapter has been saying in our own strength. We need to keep on being filled with the Holy Spirit and to co-operate with the Spirit as the fruit of the Spirit grows in our lives.
Are we going to grow in love and go the way of love? Are we as a church going to continue to grow in love and continue to go the way of love?