Saturday, 11 December 2004 17:29

Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (34)

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Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians (34)

1 Corinthians 13:4-7

Broadcast: October 11, 1998; Message Number 1493

Love is the Greatest (2)

In our last study we started our exposition of that most beautiful of all Bible chapters, I Corinthians 13. The apostle sings a hymn in praise of love, true Biblical, heavenly love. He points out that whatever else we may possess or perform, if we are destitute of that virtue, we are nothing but a sounding brass or tinkling cymbal. How necessary it is therefore that we examine ourselves on this point. Do I show this love in my life, to God first of all, but also to my neighbour, and especially my fellow Christians? To help us understand what such love consists of and how it manifests itself, the apostle goes on in the following verses to describe some of love's main characteristics.

"Love," he says, "is long-suffering [or patient], and is kind; love is not jealous and does not brag; it is not arrogant. Love does not act in unbecoming ways; it does not seek its own, is not easily provoked, and does not keep track of wrongdoing. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth and in what is right."

While in the first three verses the focus is on the emptiness that results from the absence of love, verses 4 and 5 emphasize the positive blessings the presence of love brings. The apostle, as it were, takes love and lets it filter through a prism. The resulting spectrum yields fifteen different colours and hues. Each ray shows us a different facet of agape love. Notice that love is described mostly in terms of what it does rather than what it is. Agape love is active, not abstract or passive. It does not simply feel patient; it practices patience. It does not simply produce kind feelings; it performs kind deeds. It does not simply recognize truth; it rejoices in the truth. In other words, love is fully love only when it acts.

Let us take a look at these qualities of love as outlined by Paul. First, love is long-suffering or patient. Actually, the Greek word here means long-tempered. In its New Testament usage it almost always refers to being patient with people rather than with circumstances or events. It is possible to be quite patient under adverse circumstances while having a short fuse when it comes to dealing with people. Love's patience is the ability to be inconvenienced or taken advantage of by a person over and over again and yet not be upset or angry. One of the early church fathers, Chrysostom, said that long-suffering is a word that describes a man who is wronged and who has it in his power to avenge himself, but refuses to do it.

Patience, biblically understood, does not retaliate. As such, it is an exclusively Christian virtue. In the Greek world self-sacrificing love and non-avenging patience were considered weaknesses, unworthy of the noble man or woman. The truly virtuous person, Aristotle taught, refuses to tolerate insult or injury and strikes back in retaliation at the slightest offence. But love, God's agape love, is the very opposite. Its primary concern is for the welfare of others, not itself. The Christian who imitates his Master does not seek revenge for being hurt, wronged or insulted. He refuses to pay back evil for evil. When struck on the right cheek he will turn the left.

The supreme example of patience, of course, is God Himself. If it were not for His long-suffering love this sinful world would have been destroyed long ago. Because of His infinite patience we are given time to repent and be saved.

The next thing Paul says about love is that it is kind. Just as patience will take anything from others, kindness will give anything to others, even to its enemies. Being kind is the counterpart of being patient. It is active goodwill. It is more than feeling kind or generous; it is showing kindness or generosity. It does not just desire the other person's welfare, but takes steps to actually help him or her. Feeling kind means looking at a picture of an emaciated child in a third world country. Acting kindly means taking out your cheque-book and sending a love-gift.

Again, the supreme model of this kind of kindness is God. As Paul wrote to Titus: "When the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, He saved us, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy and by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost which He shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour" (Titus 3:4-6). The same self-denying and self-sacrificing kindness should characterize our life. Does it?

The place to begin practising this and all other aspects of agape love is in the home. The Christian husband who acts like a Christian is kind to his wife and children. Christian brothers and sisters are kind to each other and to their parents. The same thing must be true of the Church, the extension of the Christian family. There too, kindness should prevail. Ministers, elders and deacons should be known for their kindness toward each other as well as toward the congregation they serve. Again, there should not only be kind feelings to each other--although that is a step in the right direction. For the Corinthians, kindness meant giving up their selfish, jealous, spiteful and proud attitudes and adopting the spirit of loving-kindness.

What would it mean for us? Could it be relaxing our often narrow-minded views and showing a willingness to listen to fellow believers who may have slightly different opinions on some issues?

Love is not jealous, Paul says next. Here is the first of eight negative descriptions of love. There are only three positive qualities mentioned in these verses. That means love is basically three simple things: it is patient, it is kind, and it is honest. It rejoices in the truth or what is true and right. The quality of love we are talking about is that which produces patience, kindness and honesty. The negatives that are given here are associated with love because they are the things we must set aside in order to let God's agape love manifest itself. In other words, true Christian love can only be practised by removing the things that stand in its way.

Many people admire this chapter on love, but they do not understand how to produce this kind of love. But Paul has been telling us all along that God 's love can flow through us only if we are prepared to renounce these negative things he mentions.

I do not have to argue with you about that. We all know the perverse pleasure we get out of some of these negative qualities. We do not want to give them up. It is too much fun to rip people apart, to give them a piece of our mind, to make them suffer for the injuries they have done to us and to let them stew in their own juice. You know how delightful that is, don't you? We want love, but first we want the flesh. That is why we do not experience the love of God.

What are the things that keep us from being patient with other people? Why is it so difficult for us to show kindness to those we don't like and with whom we disagree? First, on Paul's list of impediments is jealousy. We are often not patient or kind because we are jealous. We are spiteful and short with people because we see them enjoying something that we want. They have a relationship that we envy; they have a quality about themselves that we do not possess and we resent that. So we are short and spiteful. That is one reason why we are not patient and kind.

Next on Paul's list is being boastful. "Love is not jealous or boastful." Oftentimes we are not patient because we cannot wait to listen to others. We are anxious to brag about ourselves so they will admire us. But that too must be given up if true love is to appear.

Then, Paul says, love "is not puffed up" or arrogant. Arrogance is disdain, lack of respect for another person, ignoring how he will feel and asserting yourself regardless of what the result may be. Love is not like that; it is not haughty or cutting or sarcastic.

Love does not behave itself unseemly, the apostle continues. Love does not act unbecomingly. It is not rude. Rudeness ignores another's rights. The Corinthians were models of unbecoming behaviour. They were rude and insensitive. Even when they came together to celebrate the Lord's Supper they were discourteous, showing a "me-first" attitude. Also, each tried to outdo the other in speaking in tongues, drawing attention to themselves.

Love does not seek its own, the apostle reminds them. It does not insist on its own way. It is not stubborn, intractable, inflexible, insisting that everybody else is wrong. It is willing to find a way, to examine a matter, to look at it from a different angle. When we get stubborn and inflexible and refuse to even talk about a matter, we are exercising the self-centredness of the flesh. Where such a spirit prevails, the love and patience and kindness of God cannot express themselves.

Next, love is not easily provoked. It is not irritable or resentful. The Greek word paroxuno means to arouse to anger and it is the origin of the English paroxysm--a medical term for convulsion or sudden outburst of emotion or action. Agape love guards against such outbursts of anger.

Paul does not rule out righteous indignation. When Jesus cleansed the temple He was angered at the profaning of His Father's house. But when He was personally abused He did not become angry or defensive. Love does not get angry in such cases, the apostle says. We all know that this is a real temptation for us. How easily we can get provoked, sometimes over little things. Nothing destroys human relationships more than this tendency to get angry when things don't go our way or when someone crosses us.

Love thinks no evil. Literally, it does not take into account a wrong suffered. The term as used by Paul is actually a bookkeeping term which means to calculate or reckon, as when one makes an entry in a ledger. The purpose of such an entry, of course, is to keep a permanent record that can be consulted whenever needed. While this is necessary in business, when it comes to personal matters it is not only unnecessary but harmful. To keep track of personal insults is a sure way to unhappiness, not only our own, but also of those on whom we keep records.

Finally, love "does not rejoice in iniquity," Paul says, "but rejoices in the truth." Love does not gloat over another's misfortune, but rejoices in honesty and in the truth, when it is brought out. Love is willing to hear even the truth about itself, painful as that may be.

Paul gathers it all up with this beautiful expression, "love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." Bears all things literally means to "cover everything." Love covers. When it does learn something unpleasant about someone it does not blabber it all over the neighbourhood. It does not take delight in the misdeeds of others. Love covers it over, keeps it silent--not that it will not do something about it, but it does not broadcast it about for others to hear.

Love "believes all things." That does not mean love is gullible. When Jesus was kissed by Judas in the garden, He did not say to him, "Oh, Judas, what a beautiful kiss! I'm so glad you have apparently changed your mind." No, He understood that He was dealing with a traitor. He said to Judas, "Would you betray the Son of man with a kiss?" Christ was not gullible. He did not believe the action of Judas. Nevertheless, love is willing to put the best possible interpretation on what people say or do.

Finally, love "hopes all things." No cause, no situation, no person is ever regarded as totally hopeless. There is always a place to begin again. Love will find it; it never gives up hope. Thus Paul adds the final word in this section, love "endures all things." Love never quits; it never gives up on anyone, just as God in Christ does not give up on us sinners, but keeps on calling us to repentance and faith as long as we live in the day of grace.

To be a Christian therefore means to be Christ-like, especially in this respect. Love is the measure of our spiritual growth. There are Christians who do not seem to have changed in twenty years. They are just as argumentative and cantankerous twenty years after they became Christians than they were at the beginning. Clearly, there is something wrong here. The whole purpose and thrust of the work of the Spirit is to teach us to be loving, patient, kind, forgiving, understanding, giving others the benefit of the doubt, trying over again, being open to correction and instruction and easy to be entreated.

Have we made any progress in this area? Have we even begun to manifest these fruits of the Spirit? Examine yourselves whether you are in the faith that works and manifests itself through love.

Additional Info

  • Audio: 1305225051
  • Speaker: Rev. C. Pronk
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