Recently we’ve been looking at Faith and Hope and now we come to the third and greatest of this trilogy – Love. Not luv –l-u-v- that’s what we call each other back home in Yorkshire and which here in Newcastle is spelt p-e-t – pet. No those are colloquial friendly terms of endearment. Nor are we talking about love which is spelt r-o-m-a-n-t-i-c but rather love which in 1 Corinthians 13 is actually spelt a-g-a-p-e – agape and which literally means self sacrificial love. It’s the love that came down at the very first Christmas – God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son – and the love which took Christ to the cross. And if we’re trusting in Jesus Christ it’s the love which God has poured into our hearts by his Spirit – the love of God. Romans 5:5 says:
And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.
Now 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 spiritual gifts and their use in chapters 12-14 as well as to our understanding of love.
You may have heard the song in the charts that’s been dubbed the John Sergeant song “Let’s not fight this Christmas” by Chris Difford and the Decorations. Sadly Christmas can be a tense time in many households. Instead of love and peace there can be hatred and war. One report last week even suggested that the stress of being under the same roof for too long can cause far more serious problems than fights over who carves the turkey. Apparently living in a house with in laws can increase a woman’s risk of developing heart disease by up to three times!
But tensions and infighting are not just found outside the church. They can also be found inside a Christian home, marriage and fellowship, especially when there’s an absence of agape love, which was exactly the situation at the church in Corinth. The Corinthians weren’t going the most excellent way but rather the most destructive and divisive way. They weren’t using their spiritual gifts for the common good (12:7) but rather for themselves (14:2&4). 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 chapter 12, 'the body is not made up of one part but of many.’ There was pride, arrogance and selfishness but no love, no seeking the good of others before their own. But Jesus said that we must love one another. It’s a mark of being true disciples of Jesus. John 13:34:
"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."
And in 1 Cor.14:1 Paul says that the power of such love benefits all:
Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy [i.e. especially gifts that edify and grow the whole 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." 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 I praise God for the love that is shown among us at JPC. But we too need to hear these stinging yet inspiring and affectionate words. So first
Firstly, 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 in the sense of 1 Corinthians 12 & 14. 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 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 in the power of the Spirit.
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 Christianity Explored. But if you have not love you are nothing. And if we have a faith that can move mountains, that can move HTG and 450 people coming to the Christianity Explored Taster Sessions and believe God for much more, but have not love, we are nothing.
If you, v3, give all you possess to the poor, to TEAR Fund or 100 bikes to
Sudanese pastors through AID, 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. So we need to ask 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 don’t 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?
So secondly 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. In a recent movie The Jane Austen Book Club the Austen devotees always ask this question when it comes to matters of love – what would Jane do? In matters of agape love we should ask – what would Jesus do? 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 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. Love gives and seeks the good of others. So that will mean earnestly desiring gifts of the Spirit that will build up the church. In a wider way it means going the opposite way to Bernard Mahoff who allegedly has defrauded even many of his friends out of billions of dollars. Rather love gives sacrificially and supports those in need in these hard times.
“If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (1 John 3:17)
‘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 that love is not to be a windbag. Love does not go on about your gifts and your successes but rather delights when others are gifted and succeed. Love is not proud. ‘Love is not rude.’ 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 them whether at church, home, work or, in my case, even when driving!
Love keeps no record of wrongs.
When Roy Keane, the now ex manager of Sunderland, played for Manchester United, he waited 3 years to exact hefty revenge on Alfie Inge Haaland, a former Manchester City player. As a result Alfie Haaland never played 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. So let me ask you. Are you going the way of love? Well take a moment now to try this little exercise to assess yourself. Put your name into v4-7 in place of the word 'love' and ask yourself is that true of you? [7 second silence] I don’t know about you but I know I had to take time to repent as I prepared this sermon.
Thirdlyand finally… THE PERMANENCE OF LOVE v8-13
V8: 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.
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 totally 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. He writes:
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.
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? Are you full of hope or fear? Do you know his love? Did you know 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) So trust Christ and know his perfect love. Then you will have confidence on the Day of Judgment. For perfect love casts out all fear.
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, of which the greatest 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. And 'the greatest of these is love.' You see 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 and is the indispensable thing every Christian must have. But some of you say how? Well the Bible says love comes from God. We cannot love as this chapter has been saying in our own strength. After putting our faith in Christ we then 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. If you’re trusting in Christ God is making you more like Jesus and empowering you to love like Jesus – that’s something we can truly say Hallelujah for!