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Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (33)

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Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (33)

1 Corinthians 13:1-3

Broadcast: October 4, 1998; Message Number 1492

Love is the Greatest (1)

I Corinthians has been called the most beautiful chapter in the whole New Testament and for a good reason. It is justly famous because here we find the best and most complete description of that greatest of all human emotions called love. Most people have some idea of what love is, but their understanding of it is woefully inadequate and nowhere near what the Bible teaches on this subject.

Scripture tells us that love is first of all a quality or attribute of God. "God is love," the apostle John says. Love is one of the most basic, if not the most basic of all God's attributes. Consequently, all who are born of God manifest something of the same quality. Love, therefore, is also the most basic and essential mark of a Christian. The sad thing is that this love, which is so essential to being a Christian, is sadly lacking among many church members. It seems that Christians find it easier to be orthodox and active than loving. Yet, what God requires of His people more than anything else is love. As our Saviour said: "By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another" (John 13:35). How important it is, therefore, to listen carefully to what Paul writes here about this vital subject.

I Corinthians 13 is often read separately from the rest of Paul's letter, but it cannot really be understood apart from the context in which it occurs. It flows directly out of what the apostle has said in the previous section. In chapter 12 Paul introduced the subject of spiritual gifts and told us that every believer is equipped with one or more of these gifts whereby he is able to serve the Lord and His church. But now, in chapter 13, we come to the fruits of the Spirit. The Apostle has already given us a hint that the fruits of the Spirit are far more important than the gifts of the Spirit.

That we become loving people is far more important than whether we are active and busy people. Both are necessary, but one is greater than the other. Paul has said so: "I will show you a still more excellent way." That is the way of love.

Love is a fruit rather than a gift of the Spirit. In Galatians 5 Paul tells us that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Actually, all of those qualities are manifestations of the first one: love. What is joy but love enjoying itself? Similarly, peace is love resting; patience is love waiting; kindness is love caring; goodness is love sharing; faithfulness is love keeping its word; gentleness is love empathizing; and self-control is love resisting temptation.

Love is the key; love is the main thing. When we are born again God's love is shed abroad in our hearts. Out of this root grow all the other qualities that are part of the fruit of the Spirit. Endowed with these qualities we are able to live the Christian life. If we have the love of God in our hearts we can be patient; we can be peaceful; we can be good, loving, faithful, gentle, kind, and all these other things. But without love all we can do is imitate these qualities, and that is what produces a phoney love.

That's why Paul says, "Let love be genuine." In all your dealings with people, your love must be genuine or sincere. If it is not, it is hypocrisy. Many people put on a facade while in church. They act like they are kind, thoughtful, gracious, faithful, and so on, but it all disappears as soon as they drive off the parking lot and go home. No one has benefited from their pasted-on love. Genuine love, however, will produce all the wholesome qualities that build up the church.

The word "love" here is not the Greek word eros. That word is used to describe erotic love, sensual love, what you feel when you "fall in love," a passionate attraction to another person. That kind of love is not even mentioned in the Bible, strangely enough, although eros was obviously practised widely then as now. Neither is the word philia used here. Philia means affection, friendship, a feeling of warmth toward someone else. This kind of love is also universally practised, but it is not what Paul is referring to here. The apostle is talking about agape, which is a commitment of the will to cherish and uphold another person. This is the word that is always used in connection with God's love for sinners and that Paul here uses to describe the kind of love that should characterize Christians. It denotes the determination to treat others with concern, with care, with thoughtfulness, and to work for their best interests.

This kind of love, however, is possible only for those who first love God. Any attempt to try to exercise love like this without having first loved God is to present a phoney love, a fleshly kind of love.

Scripture tells us there are two great commandments. The first is, "Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength." The second one, Jesus said is, "Thou shall love thy neighbour as thyself." We often try to turn that around. We think we can love our neighbour, whoever he may be, in our family or anywhere else, without having loved God; but it can't be done. Only the love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, enables us to love as Paul says here.

Love for God is only possible if you feel confident that God loves you; not only as your Creator who has taken care of you from birth till now, but especially as your Redeemer who has demonstrated His love by giving His Son to die for you. If you truly believe that, it should not be difficult to love Him in return. Through the sacrifice of Christ your sins have been forgiven and your guilt has been taken away. By His Holy Spirit He has regenerated you, bringing you to repentance and faith, enabling you to rest in the finished work of Jesus. By these means God has called you to himself and adopted you into His family as His son or daughter. To realize all that is to be stirred with love for God. When you love God you will also love other people, including those who are not attractive to you, yes, even your enemies.

Don't say this is impossible. Don't think Paul is being too idealistic here. True, such love is not a fruit that grows on natural soil. It has a supernatural origin. God alone can give this kind of love. God alone can help you love somebody who does not appeal to you. Yet that is what God's love is. That is what is so desperately needed and so beautifully described in this passage. It can only come as we love God and love is awakened within us by the Holy Spirit.

But you say, this kind of love is possible only for the very few. Only exceptional Christians are capable of it. Not so, my friend. Remember that in chapter 12 Paul tells us that all believers are baptized with the Holy Spirit, and made members of the body of Christ--all of them, without exception. As Jesus put it, we are all "in him" by faith. All believers have been filled with the Spirit, and are indwelt by the Spirit--"made to drink of one Spirit." As a consequence all believers, small and great, have this capacity to act in love. What Paul is saying, however, is that since we have this capacity to love, we should use it and put it into practice.

To encourage the Corinthians and us in this he first explains some of the qualities of love. Number one, of course, is the incomparable value of love. What makes life worth living? Love does! Paul contrasts love with certain things that were highly regarded in Corinth. The first is the ability to communicate. The Corinthians valued communication. They enjoyed eloquence; they admired oratory. They were especially entranced by the gift of tongues, the ability to speak in languages that had never been learned, which had been given among them, and which by the power of the Spirit enabled a person to pray and praise God. They were making much of this gift, as many are today. Therefore Paul begins on that note. He says, "Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels, and have not charity or love, I am become a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal."

What does Paul mean by "tongues of angels?" Some think that he is equating tongue speaking with angelic speech. In other words, a person who can speak in tongues is actually speaking the language of heaven. The Corinthians probably thought so too. But this was pure speculation on their part. We know that angels communicate with each other, but we do not know how. They are spirits and spirits have no vocal chords. Only when they appear on earth in human form they are described as speaking or singing, or actually chanting. This is done only to accommodate us. Scripture gives us no indication that angels have a language of their own. What Paul is saying is this: even if you could speak such an angelic language it would not be of any benefit to you if you have no love. It is much more important to show love than to have the gift of tongues. Even if you were proficient in all the languages of earth or heaven and were lacking in love you would be nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

Next, he compares love to two other qualities that are admired both in Corinth and in our own age as well: power to know and to do. He says. "And though I have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing."

We think that people like that are really something. But Paul says they are nothing, really. He may be thinking here of theologians, doctors in divinity, men with great ability to detect and understand the mysteries of the Scriptures and to answer many questions, riddles and parables. People often ask preachers and Bible teachers questions like these: "Why doesn't God destroy Satan?" "Why does God allow injustice, accidents and tragedies in the world?" "If He is so good why doesn't He do something about all this evil?" These questions are often flung at so-called experts on the Bible. Paul says, "If I could answer all those questions, if I could explain all those mysteries, but I was not a loving person and I was difficult, cantankerous, hard to get along with, even though I could move mountains by faith, if I lacked a loving spirit, it is all nothing.

Finally, he takes up the matter of sacrificial zeal: "If I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity or love, it profits me nothing." I wouldn't gain a thing, he means.

There are many reasons why people give away things. Sometimes they give because they are deeply concerned about a certain cause or a need. They are willing to sacrifice their own possessions in order to meet that need. But sometimes people give for selfish reasons, even though it appears to be a generous gift. There are people who give large sums of money to a cause they actually have no interest in at all, but they still write their big cheques. Why? Because they have a selfish interest in it. You can give away everything, even your very life, to make an impression.

People have poured gasoline all over their bodies and set themselves on fire to call attention to a certain cause. Fanatics will do that. They are willing to make the supreme sacrifice to prove that they really believe in the cause they are espousing. But to do that without having learned to love, will gain you nothing. Paul says. At the judgment seat of Christ it is regarded as wasted effort. Love is the important thing. This is what life is all about. We are put on this earth so we may learn to love. Unless we do, we are wasting our time, no matter how impressive our achievements may be.

During the persecutions in the early church some Christians actually sought martyrdom as a way of becoming famous or of gaining special heavenly credit. But they were wrong. When sacrifice is motivated by self-interest and pride, it loses all spiritual value. Even accepting agonizing death for the true faith profits nothing, Paul says. If it is done without true love, it brings no spiritual gain. The loveless person produces nothing, is nothing, and gains nothing.

In the next section the apostle goes on to show us that love must be practical. Love is not an ethereal thing; it is not just an ideal you talk about. It is something that takes on shoe leather and touches the road where people walk and live their everyday lives. That is where love is to be manifest. Nothing is more important, when reading a chapter like this, than to ask yourself the question, "Am I growing in love? Looking back over a year, am I easier to live with now? Am I able to handle people more graciously, more courteously? Am I more compassionate, more patient?"

These are the measurements of life. We were given life that we might learn how to act in love. Nothing else can be substituted for it. There is no use holding up any other quality we possess, if we lack this one. It is the paramount goal of every human life, and it is well to measure yourself from time to time along that line. Do so with the prayer:

Gracious Spirit, Holy Ghost,

Taught by Thee we covet most

Of Thy gifts at Pentecost,

Holy, heavenly love.

Faith that mountains could remove,

Tongues of earth or heaven above,

Knowledge, all things, empty prove

Without heavenly love.

Additional Info

  • Audio: 1305224910
  • Speaker: Rev. C. Pronk
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