THE MOST IMPORTANT THING OF ALL
1 CORINTHIANS 13:1-13
If ever there was a study in contrasts and comparisons, it was in seeing Jesus in the temple. A humble carpenter-turned-rabbi standing in the most beautiful structure in the ancient world. The One who was God incarnate coming to the place that God had established for meeting with mankind. The lamb of God standing by the place where lambs were daily sacrificed.
The people in the Temple knew that something special was afoot. The leaders and the laity had gathered to see Jesus. For a time, they listened to Him and then the questions began. One in particular was noteworthy.
34 But when the Pharisees heard that He had put the Sadducees to silence, they gathered themselves together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?"
37 And He said to him, “‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the great and foremost commandment. 39 The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-40).
Notice the question: Which is the great commandment of the law? Of all of the ten commandments and of all the other commandments that make up the Mosaic law, which is the most important one? The answer is very simple. It can be summed up in one word. LOVE. Love is the central core of the law. It is the center or the New Testament and it is also at the center of the gospel.
1 Corinthians 13 is known for being the chapter that deals with the subject of love. It is one of the best known chapters of the Bible. It has been called a hymn of love, a lyrical interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount and an example of New Testament poetry.
Yet the first question that arises as we approach this chapter is to ask what it is doing here in the middle of First Corinthians. After all, 1 Corinthians is full of rebukes and exhortations. It is a book that deals with the messiness of the Christian life. It is shirt-sleeve Christianity. It looks at the spiritual life from a nuts and bolts perspective. We have read through issues of division and divorce and decadence and disgraceful behavior in the church and suddenly we turn the page and find ourselves drinking from an oasis in the desert of problems that make up this book.
Why is this chapter here? Did Paul feel as though he needed a break? Was he getting depressed by all of the problems with which he was dealing? Or did he merely need some good filler between chapter 12 and chapter 14 and he had this great paper on hand that he could cut & paste here?
I do not think so. I believe this chapter is central to the message and theme of 1 Corinthians. Indeed, the powerful message of this chapter is lost to us if we neglect the context in which it is given.
Everything that Paul has said up to now in this epistle has been leading up to this point. Love was the missing ingredient in the church at Corinth. They had a growing church. They had spiritual gifts. They spoke in tongues. They demonstrated the gift of prophecy. They prided themselves on their knowledge. They even had faith. But there was no love. This led to an emptiness in their Christianity.
All of the problems that have been described up to this point in the first epistle to the Corinthians had this as their root cause. There was a lack of love.
There were divisions in the church because there was no love. There was an aura of pride because there was no love. There was immorality among believers because there was no true love. There were lawsuits among Christians because there was no love. There were problems in marriage and there were divorces because there was no love. There were misuses of Christian liberty and there was inequality at the Lord’s Supper because there was no love. Even the misuse of their spiritual gifts could be traced back to a problem in their lack of love.
Paul has examined each of these problems in detail. Now he finally comes to the root cause of all of these problems. It is a problem with their love.
THE NEED FOR LOVE
If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).
Paul begins by showing to the Corinthians the importance of having love. To do this, he will employ a literary technique known as hyperbole. This involves an exaggeration or overstatement that is used to make a point without the necessity of being taken literally.
If we wanted to put this into the language of when I was a boy, we might say, “Though I was faster than a speeding bullet and more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings with a single bound, yet if I do not have love, I am nothing.”
To present this hyperbole, Paul lists a number of feats.
· Speaking with the tongues of men and of angels.
· Having the gift of prophecy.
· Knowing all mysteries.
· Having all knowledge.
· Having all faith, so as to remove mountains.
· Giving all his possessions to feed the poor.
· Delivering his body to be burned.
All of these things sounded impressive to the Corinthians. They sound pretty impressive to me, too. They were meant to. You would impress me to no end if you had even one of these qualities. That is because I am too easily impressed.
God is harder to impress. The point that Paul wants to make is that these things are all absolutely worthless without love. God is not impressed by any of these things. He is only impressed by love.
1. Tongues in Context: If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels (13:1).
Before we go too far, we ought to ask a question. Is Paul trying to tell us that he speaks in tongues? Is he teaching us something about angelic languages?
No!!! He only brings this up to compare it to love and to show that love is more important. Yet I have had dear Christian brothers turn time and time again to this passage to try to prove a point about how to speak in tongues. “See, it says right here that Paul spoke in the tongues of angels and that is what I have to do if I want to be spiritual like Paul.”
Let me say something for the record. That isn’t what this passage is talking about. Paul isn’t telling people how to speak in tongues. He is telling people that love is more important than trying to speak in tongues.
2. Tongues are Useless without Love: If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal (13:1).
When we were a lot younger, Paula and I served as the youth directors for a small church. One of the things we did while we were there was to start a Christian music group. To this end, I wrote out the music for the trumpet and the flute and the two trombones that were to be playing. On the appointed day, we all got together in the church sanctuary to practice. I handed out the music to everyone and we began to rehearse the first song. It was complete and utter pandemonium. What I had not known was that each of those instruments plays in a different key. Instead of harmony, there was great disharmony.
That is what happens in the church where there is no love. You might have a group of really talented people and they might be completely equipped to do the job at hand, and they might even have a burning desire to accomplish their task, but if there is no love, then it will fall flat. It is no wonder that the world often looks at the church and hears the clamor and bickering and disharmony and then turns a deaf ear to our message.
3. Prophecy is Useless without Love: And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing (13:2).
With these words, Paul hits a little closer to home. He goes from preaching to meddling. He points his finger at Bible teachers and preachers and evangelists and every other man or woman who gets up and teaches the word of God. To be quite honest, he points to me.
I find this more than a little convicting. You see, I am often tempted to look at my ministry of teaching the Bible and say to myself, “John, you’re hot stuff. You have a good grasp of the Scriptures and you find it easy to communicate and to open and to expound the word of God.” I am tempted to view my worth in terms of my Bible teaching ability.
This is dangerous. It is dangerous because, if I do not have the love of God in my life, then all of my Bible teaching and discipling and preaching is completely worthless.
Don’t miss this! The most gifted preacher in the world is not exempt from needing love as his motivation. If he is not careful, then his motive in teaching can become self-gratification rather than love. It doesn’t matter if he has the gift of prophecy and knows all mysteries and has all knowledge, if he doesn’t have love, it is worthless.
4. Faith is Useless without Love: If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing (13:2).
Paul seems to be alluding to the saying of Jesus in Matthew 17:20. After His disciples had failed to heal a boy who was demon-possessed, they asked Jesus why they had failed. He answered with these words:
And He said to them, “Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it shall move; and nothing shall be impossible to you.” (Matthew 17:20).
Jesus was using the same kind of literary technique that Paul is using in this passage. It is the technique of hyperbole. It is the technique of exaggerating to make a point.
This doesn’t mean that I can go out and set up a company called Mountain Movers Associates. It does mean that faith is a necessary ingredient in prayer. But as important as faith is, it is nothing if it is not accompanied by love.
5. Even Works of Charity are Useless without Love: And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor... (13:3).
Giving all of your possessions to feed the poor is a good thing. But without love, it is an empty thing. Throughout the history of the church, there have been groups that tried to approach God on the basis of poverty and self-denial. These things are of no effect without love.
6. Martyrdom is Useless without Love: And if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing (13:3).
Paul says that even if he is taken and burned alive at the stake, it does not accomplish anything without love. Remember that this was not a purely hypothetical situation. There were Christians in Paul’s day who were being persecuted for their faith. But love is even required of a martyr.
Do you see what Paul has done? He has described the perfect Christian. He has described the bionic believer, the Christian with a double “S” on his t-shirt, standing for “super saint.” This hypothetical Christian does it all and he does it all perfectly.
He would make the perfect missionary because he knows all languages. He speaks the words of God because he has the gift of prophecy. He knows all mysteries and he has all knowledge. He has so much faith that traffic lights click in answer to his summons. He has placed all of his possessions into the offering plate. He ends his Christian career in martyrdom.
He only has one fault. He has a lack of love. Paul shows that all of these other things this man has going for him count for nothing. Such a man produces nothing of value for God.
THE CHARACTER OF LOVE
Love is patient, love is kind, and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, 5 does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, 6 does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; 7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).
The word “love” is possibly one of the most misunderstood words of all time. It has been used and abused by songwriters and poets alike. What is love? It is described in this passage.
The need for love
A description of what love is
The emptiness that comes when love is absent
The fullness that comes when love is present
There are fifteen parts to this description of love. Each part gives a different aspect of love. In the original Greek text, each of these aspects is given in the form of a verb. This is significant. A verb is an action word. This means that we are to understand love by looking at what it DOES.
True love is never passive. It is always active. It is never merely an emotion or a feeling. It always produces an outward action. This means that you cannot truly understand love until you begin to apply it to your life.
Paul has this purpose in mind as he writes to the believers at Corinth. He does not merely want them to come away with a good feeling. He wants them to change their lives.
The greatest picture of love is seen in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Look at the cross and you will see love in action. Therefore, we can say that this passage is a portrait of Jesus Christ. Try reading through it and substituting the name “Jesus” for the word “love.”
Jesus is patient, Jesus is kind, and is not jealous; Jesus does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; He does not seek His own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Jesus is love personified. He is love because He and the Father are one and God is love.
1. Love is Patient (13:4).
Patience is the ability to be inconvenienced by another over and over without becoming angry or upset. It is the capacity to be injured without wanting to injure in return.
When you love someone and he has a fault, you don’t reject him or judge him or push him to the side. You are patient with him in spite of his fault.
This is seen vividly when you watch a mother with a young infant. The infant cannot feed himself. The infant cannot clothe himself. The infant cannot clean up after himself. What is the mother’s reaction when the infant that she loves makes a little mess in his diapers? Does she toss him aside and hurl insults at him? No. She is patient with his helplessness. She continues to love him.
What is the opposite of patience? It is short temperedness. It is having a short fuse. We ought always to remember that we are beneficiaries of the wonderfully patient love of God, for this will help us to be lovingly patient with others.
2. Love is Kind (13:4).
Kindness is the counterpart of patience. Just as patience is the ability to take anything from others, so kindness is the ability to give anything to others. Do you remember the perfect standard of kindness that Jesus set for those who would be His disciples?
“And if anyone wants to sue you, and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. 41 And whoever shall force you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:40-42).
This is not a popular teaching in the church today. Our society does not see kindness as a quality to be desired. We make heros of those who fight back. We admire the man who points a gun at someone and says, “Go ahead, make my day.” We look with admiration to those who take revenge.
This is nothing new. Aristotle taught that the ideal Greek virtue was to strike back in retaliation for any offense. Vengeance was a virtue to the Greek way of thinking. If you do not believe that, just pick up some Greek mythology and read through it. Almost all of the stories pictured a hero who exacted vengeance upon his enemy.
That is not the quality of love. Love does not retaliate. Love does not fight back. Instead, love is kind.
3. Love... is not Jealous (13:4).
Love and jealousy are mutually exclusive. Love doesn’t become upset over the success of another. By contrast, the Christians at Corinth were characterized by petty jealousies. They were jealous of others who might have a better spiritual gift than them. They played games with spiritual one-upmanship.
4. Love does not brag (13:4).
Bragging is the counterpart of jealousy. Jealousy is wanting what someone else has. Bragging is trying to make others jealous of what you have.
Wanting what someone else has
Trying to make others jealous of what you have
Love does not act this way. Love does not parade its own accomplishments. Love does not seek to make others jealous.
The Corinthians presented themselves as spiritual show-offs. They paraded their gifts before each other, even the ones they didn’t really have. I think that much of their tongues speaking may have been phony, but their proud bragging was genuine.
Do you remember the example of Jesus? He had every reason to brag. After all, He was the Son of God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. But He did not glorify Himself. Instead, He humbled Himself.
5. Love... is not arrogant (13:4).
Paul had already dealt with the subject of arrogance in this epistle when he accused the Corinthian believers of being arrogant.
Now some have become arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. (1 Corinthians 4:18).
The Corinthians were proud. They were proud of their knowledge of philosophy and they were proud of their famous teachers and they were proud of their pseudo-spirituality.
6. Love... does not act unbecomingly (13:5).
Love is not rude. It seeks to make no offense. It is not tasteless or without tact. By contrast, the Corinthians had terrible manners. This was reflected when they came together for the Lord’s Supper. Each would begin eating without regard to his neighbor. During the worship service, each would try to outdo the other in speaking in tongues.
Christianity should not be like that. We ought to be winsome. We ought to attract people to us by our actions. It has become commonplace in Reformed circles to speak of the “Truly Reformed.” I love what Dr. Rick Cannada, president of Reformed Theological Seminary, had to say about this topic. He said that we in the Reformed faith ought to strive to be “Winsomely Reformed.”
7. It does not seek its own (13:5).
This is one of the keys to what love is. Love is not self-seeking. Love always seeks the best for another.
This stands in contrast to the situation in Corinth. The Corinthians seem to have been seeking what was best for them. They were dragging one another to court. They walked all over the conscience of the weaker brother. They did not share their food at the Lord’s Supper. They ignored sin in their midst and called it love, unconcerned for the spiritual welfare of the sinner in their midst.
This is a problem today. How many times do you hear people wanting to “stand up for their rights?” It is a good thing for use that Jesus did not stand up for His rights. He was not self-seeking. He sought our own salvation.
8. Is not provoked (13:5).
Love guards against being irritated. It does not become angry when something is done against it. It does not retaliate. It is not short-tempered.
Are you a short-tempered person? You might protest, “I only lose my temper for a little bit. It is all over in a few minutes. So is a bomb, but a tremendous amount of damage can be done in a short time. These explosions of “temper bombs” can cause great harm, especially if they go off on a regular basis.
9. Does not take into account a wrong suffered (13:5).
This is bookkeeping terminology. To take something into account describes the action of entering it into a ledger. The purpose of such an entry is to make a permanent record so that it will not be forgotten.
Love does not keep track of wrongs suffered. We could say that love has a good forgetter. God has treated us in exactly the same manner. He has forgotten our sins. He has not taken them into account.
Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account (Romans 4:8).
Our sins were put to Christ’s account. They were written into Hid ledger and He paid their penalty on the cross. When we come to Him in faith, His righteousness is put to our account and written into our ledger.
10. Does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth (13:6).
Our society today seems to revel in unrighteousness. Turn on your television on any given evening and you will see an entire generation that rejoices in unrighteousness.
There was a man who was living in Corinth who was living in open incest. He was engaged in an adulterous relationship. The church permitted this sinful condition to continue with no rebuke or removal from the church. They sympathized with evil.
Love cannot do that. Love may act in kindness, but it will not do so to the exclusion of God’s truth.
11. Bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (13:7).
Love is positive. It believes all things. It looks for the best in others. It is not cynical. It is not suspicious. It does not look for the worst in any given situation. If it does see the worst, then it continues to hope for the best. If even the hope is dashed, then it continues to endure.
THE ENDURING QUALITY OF LOVE
8 Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away.
9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. 11 When I was a child, I used to speak as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known.
13 But now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:8-13).
Paul now comes to the last characteristic of love. It is that love never fails. It is that love always endures. It is that love lasts. This is seen in contrast to those spectacular miracle-gifts with which the Corinthian believers were so impressed. Paul mentions three of them.
Gifts of prophecy
The supernatural ability to foretell the future
The supernatural ability to speak in languages that have not been learned
Possibly a reference to a supernatural gift of knowledge
All three of these gifts greatly impressed the Corinthians. And yet, these are all temporary. They will all eventually go away. Only love will endure.
There are a great many things in this life that we presently enjoy that are only temporary. You might have good looks. You might enjoy fair health. You might have material wealth. You might be deemed popular. These things are only temporary. One of these days, they will fail. Even the spiritual gifts will eventually fail.
Do you have a gift for evangelism? Your time to evangelize is limited. There is coming a day when that gift will no longer be needed.
Do you have a gift for teaching? That is a needed gift today, but it will not always be needed. There is coming a day when that gift will no longer be used.
Mothers and fathers, you have a special opportunity to minister in the lives of your children. You are their spiritual leaders. But this will not last. One of these days that ministry will be over.
Parental authority does not last forever. Spiritual gifts will one day pass away. But there is one spiritual quality that will never become outdated. It is love.
1. The Partial and the Perfect: For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away (13:9-10).
We have knowledge today. We have knowledge of who God is and of what He has done for us. But it is a limited knowledge. We do not know completely. Neither do we know perfectly. Some of what we “know” has to be thrown out periodically. There is coming a day when our knowledge will be replaced by that which is perfect and complete.
We have prophecy today. We read the prophecies in the Bible and we interpret them and we learn of things that the Bible says is going to happen. One day there will be no need to prophesy because we shall have the fulfillment of all of the prophecies in our midst.
My teaching to you is partial. I am painfully aware of my shortcomings. I pray that my words might be tender and seasoned with salt, for tomorrow I may have to eat them.
On the other hand, love is good for eternity. Love will never become antiquated. Love will never become outdated or go out of style. God may someday say to me, “John, your knowledge of that particular doctrine is wrong. We will have to tear it up and start over again in that area.” But He will never say that about my love if it is true love.
Do you see the point? It is that you ought to be more concerned with love than with these gifts.
2. The Childish and the Adult: When I was a child, I used to speak as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things (13:11).
Paul gives the first of two illustrations. These illustrations show how it is important to focus upon the eternal over the temporal; it is important to focus upon love rather than upon various sorts of temporary gifts.
Illustration of a child
Illustration of an image in a mirror
Children play with childish things
Mirrors produce a blurred reflection
Adults put away childish things
Face to face vision is better
Childish things = Gifts
Adult things = Love
Mirrored image = Our perspective on gifts
Face to face vision = Seeing Christ
The first illustration is of a child. A child has a childish point of view. He is impressed by childish things. He plays childish games. He has childish interests. He thinks childish thoughts. But one day he becomes a man. The child grows up. His point of view changes and his interests change and his thoughts change.
In the ancient world, this transition from boyhood to manhood took place very suddenly. Among the Jews, it took place at the Bar-mitzvah. This was where the boy was taken and declared to be a “son of the covenant.” The Greek and Roman would had similar customs where a boy was given his first toga and permitted to dress the part of a man.
If you have come to faith in Jesus Christ, then you are no longer a child. He has placed you into His family as an adult son. Now that you are an adult son, you need to act like an adult son (or daughter). Grow up! Take your eyes off the temporary and look to that which is permanent. Stop being so concerned with those things that will pass away and hold onto that which will never fail.
3. The Dim and the Clear: For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face (13:12).
Here is a second illustration. It is the illustration of an image in a mirror. Mirrors in the ancient world were not quite up to today’s standards. A number of years ago, I was able to visit the Pompeii exhibit and it included some hand mirrors from the first century. I was surprised at how high a quality they exhibited. Yet as good as they were, the reflection seen in these mirrors was still not quite as good as seeing face to face.
That describes the kind of knowledge that we have of God today. We see Him pictured in the Bible and the picture is an accurate one. But it is nothing to the clarity that we shall one day enjoy when we see Him face to face.
4. The Partial and the Full: Now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known (13:12).
I know God. But I only know Him in part. I can see Him only through the veil of the Scriptures. There is coming a day when I shall know Him fully. There is coming a day when I shall see Him face to face. On that day, I shall come to know Him in a greater sense than I can possibly imagine.
Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be. We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is. (1 John 3:2).
You are going to see Jesus. You are going to see Him in all of His glory. You will come to know Him on that day, for you will be like Him.
5. The Greatest thing of All: But now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love (13:13).
This is the conclusion. Paul closes his statement concerning love with these words. He has shown that love endures. He has pointed out the love will never fail. He has made it clear that love abides.
Now he expands upon that point. He points to three qualities that will endure. Just as we saw in verse 8 that there were three spiritual gifts that will be done away, so now we see that there are three qualities that will never fail.
· The first is FAITH.
You came to Jesus Christ in faith. You believed in Him, trusting in Him as your Lord and Savior. You received His free gift of eternal life. You continue to trust in Him for all of your needs. You believed His promises on a day to day basis. You will always trust in Him.
· The second quality is HOPE.
We have a hope in Christ. It is a certainty that we shall see Him and that He will fulfill all that He has promised.
· The third quality is LOVE.
This is the greatest quality of all. Faith and hope benefit ourselves, but love reaches out to others. It is for this reason that love makes you the most like Christ. God does not have faith or hope, but God is love (1 John 4:8).