If you would turn with me in your Bibles to 1 Corinthians chapter 13; that can be found on page 959 in the pew Bibles. First Corinthians 13. We started a short series last week on the passages in the New Testament that contain the words “faith, hope, and love.” And David Strain began last week looking at the love of God that is poured out into our hearts. Well tonight, we’ll look at our love for one another in the ministry of the Church.
And we hear about love a lot. “All you need is love.” “What the world needs now is love.” “In the name of love.” “What’s love got to do with it?” We think we know what love is. Love is so basic, it’s so elementary; it’s timeless and universal. The need for love is undeniable and so we think about love and we read about love and we write about it and we talk about it and we sing about it. But how often, and how well do we actually practice love? Well 1 Corinthians chapter 13 is the definitive chapter on love in the Bible. You may think, “I want to know what love is” – sorry, that’s the last song reference! If you want to know what love is, look to 1 Corinthians chapter 13.
On the inside of my wedding band is engraved our anniversary, May 25, 2002, and 1 Corinthians 13. It may be more helpful if those things were engraved on the outside of my band, but actually how much better of a husband would I be if those things were more deeply engraved on my heart; if 1 Corinthians 13 were engraved on my heart. Well how much better a church would we be, First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, or the Church, the worldwide Church, if 1 Corinthians 13 were more deeply written on our hearts and in all of our actions. Well that’s the point that Paul is trying to make in 1 Corinthians chapter 13 – that all we do as the body of Christ would be done in love to the glory of God. So we’ll see in this passage the excellence of love, the loveliness of love, and the fullness of love. Before we do, let’s pray.
Father, we give You thanks that You have, in Your grace and mercy, poured out Your love to us and You’ve poured out Your Spirit to us. You’ve revealed Your Word to us and instructed us in Your ways, and so we ask that You would, by Your Spirit, teach us today. Help us to understand Your Word, to apply it to our lives, that we might love You more and love one another more, to Your glory. We pray this in Jesus’ name, Amen.
1 Corinthians 13. Let’s actually go back and read the last sentence of chapter 12:
“And I will show you a still more excellent way.
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of our God endures forever.
The Excellence of Love
There are all sorts of things we could celebrate here at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson. There is the faithful gathering together of God’s people morning and evening on Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day. There are members who give generously to the work of mission and to the ministry of the church. Men and women give their time and their energy to volunteer, to teach Sunday school and to teach tables at children’s Sunday schools; to teach Bible school. To serve in the internationals class. To serve in the choir. Our youth work with the students at Mission First and our young children make crafts and deliver them to widows and shut-ins. There are women who provide meals for grieving families and deliver flowers to those who need encouragement. That’s not to mention all the ways that members of this congregation serve in their families and in the community and in quiet and behind the scenes ways. The ministry of the church is diverse and it’s broad and it’s remarkable.
But do you know what would make all of that ministry pointless? A lack of love. It’s that simple. There could be all sorts of talents and gifts and planning and programming, there could be time and energy and resources, but without love, it’s nothing because without love God is not honored and God is not obeyed. You think about what Jesus said is the great commandment – to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself. In these is contained all the law and the prophets.” Well without love, we do not obey God and we do not honor Him. Without love, there’s not a thought for the well-being or the good of others around us. Without love, our own service becomes a burden and giving seems like a waste. In other words, without love the whole body falls apart, God is not glorified, the ones who give and the ones who receive miss the blessing. We could say it this way. Without love, God is not glorified and there is no enjoyment of Him. Love, as Paul writes in chapter 12, “is a more excellent way.”
Now if you know anything about the church in Corinth, it had a lot of problems. It seems like it’s almost every presbytery meeting the candidates are questioned and examined and it seems like almost every time the question comes up, “What was the situation in Corinth? What was the context for Paul’s letter to the churches in Corinth?” It wasn’t good. There were all sorts of problems. There were personality cliques, there was sexual immorality, there was idolatry. There were worship wars – just to name a few things. But one of the things that seemed to be going on there was there was a debate, or really a fight, over which of the spiritual gifts were the best. Which of the spiritual gifts were most important? Which ones were more dispensable? What Paul is saying here is that all of the spiritual gifts are important and what is necessary for the use of every spiritual gift is love. Here’s what he says. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have and I deliver up my body to be burned but have not love, I gain nothing.” Now some of these things listed here were the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit that we see in the New Testament. At the beginning of the new covenant age, they were to confirm the revelation of God. And yet, we can apply what Paul is saying here to whatever spiritual gift, whatever role we play in the church whether it’s preaching or teaching or serving or giving or administration or whatever it is. Whatever the gift, love is essential.
We could even think about Paul’s teaching this way. We could form it like an equation. Talent + resume + hard work – love = nothing. That’s what Paul is saying here. Thomas Chalmers was a Scottish minister in the town of Kilmany from 1803-1815. And F. W. Boreham tells us that for the first seven or eight years of his ministry he would thunder at the people about stealing and murder and adultery. And Boreham says that “After a hard week’s work in field and stable, these dirty Scotsman drove to the Kirk at the sound of the Sabbath bell, only to find themselves raided by the minister as though they had spent the whole week in open shame.” And then something changed. And what changed was that Chalmers was actually converted during his own ministry in Kilmany. And after his conversion, after this change, the last four years of his ministry were spent every Sunday – he has something fresh to say about the love of God and about the cross of Christ and about the way of salvation. And when Chalmers left that church to go to a church in another town, he admitted, he confessed that he had seen no change in the lives of the people in those years, in his previous years there. But the change came when his preaching changed.
What was the difference? It was love. It’s no wonder that Chalmer’s most famous sermon is titled, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” Love is a more excellent way. Love is necessary for whatever gift we use, whatever role we fill in our call as a Christian. Jesus said to His disciples, John 13, “By this, all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” There’s an excellence of love.
The Loveliness of Love
But there’s also a loveliness of love. And it makes sense to us, doesn’t it, that love is attractive and love makes everything better. After all, love is beautiful. It’s happy. According to one dictionary, the definition for love is, “a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person,” or “a feeling of warm, personal attachment.” There’s something about being in love, isn’t there, that puts a smile on a person’s face, that puts a bounce in their step. A person in love loves to think about and to be with the other person. But what about when that other person snores or chews ice or tries to read while listening? Just to choose a few random examples! Well then love is going to have to be more than just tender affection and warm attachment. Love needs to be hearty; it needs to be tough. Of course love is warm and affectionate, but what’s surprising about Paul’s definition of love in 1 Corinthians 13 is just how strong and tough and resilient it is. It better be, because the Church, the Church is a collection of people, a gathering of people that come together from different backgrounds and different places and we bring with us our quirks and our sins. We’re called to walk together, year after year, through joys and sorrows, through disappoints and sufferings and grief and even hurt feelings. We’re called to live a counter-cultural lifestyle and to change. Change is not easy, is it? And it’s not easy in the context of the church when people are changing to different degrees and at different rates. Ministry to one another is not easy and it calls for a robust love.
Our family spent some time in the desert this summer, and as we hiked in the desert there were things that looked out of place. They were weathered and parched. It seemed like there was no way that they could survive – and that was just the five of us! But there were other things. There were plants and there was wildlife and they were surprising to see. They were surprising in that they were so beautiful and they were even delicately beautiful. And yet they could survive in such extreme conditions, in such a harsh environment. It’s beauty and it’s strength together – love is like that. You might not expect it, but love perseveres. Love overcomes great obstacles. That’s because the definition of love here in our passage, it undercuts our natural inclinations and it reorients how we view ourselves; it reorients how we view others. This passage is actually subversive in that way. It’s subversive in the sense that love is thoroughly unselfish or selfless.
Love is Self-controlled
I think we can see this in three different ways in this passage. Love is self-controlled, love is self-denying, and love is self-giving. Let’s think about love is self-controlled. Look again at what the passage says. “Love is patient. It is not irritable. Love bears all things.” In other words, love is able to “suffer long” as the New King James Version puts it. To suffer long through difficult situations and with difficult people. It means that a person knows how to hold their tongue, to refrain from those subtle jabs and snarky remarks. Love means knowing how to be quiet and to wait and to not be easily offended. Love is self-controlled.
Love is Self-denying
It’s also self-denying. “Love does not envy or boast. It is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way.” It’s self-denying; it’s humble. Humility may be the most important characteristic of love. It means not keeping score, not being in competition with one another or asking, “What’s in this for me?” or “How will I benefit from this?” And I don’t think we can think about humility without looking at what Paul says to the Philippians. Philippians chapter 2, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests but also to the interests of others.” There’s a humility and a self-denial in love.
Love is Self-giving
And love is self-giving. It’s kind. It rejoices with the truth. “Love believes and hopes all things.” That means that you give up your time. You give up efficiency. You give up comfort and safety, your prejudices. You give your heart to others in love. You know it’s possible for us to do a job, to complete a task and to finish it, technically speaking, and to fulfill every obligation, and yet to do it without kindness. Kindness, encouragement, relationship takes a little extra; it requires extra from us. It’s like lagniappe. That’s the word Mark Twain says it’s worth going to New Orleans to get. Lagniappe. It’s something extra. That’s what kindness is. Kindness takes something extra in our tone and in our patience, to deal with kindness with another person; to look for and notice and to rejoice in the good in someone else. You’ve heard it said before that love is an action and not a feeling or emotion. I think that comes out in this passage because in these verses, in verses 4 through 7, all of the descriptions of love in the Greek are actually verbs. There’s an action that comes with love in these passages. It’s self-controlled. It’s self-denying. It’s self-giving.
Do you see what these verses are doing to us? They’re almost lyrical and they’re almost mesmerizing. But by the time we get to the end of them, we find that they turn us inside out. And years ago, I read something by a commentator that comes to my mind almost every time I read this passage. And what he said to do is if you want to measure yourself by the standard of love that Paul is writing to us here in this passage, he says that every time you read the word “love” in this chapter, substitute your name in there. And so instead of saying, “Love is patient and kind. Love does not envy or boast.” I would say something like, “Wiley is patient and kind. Wiley does not envy or boast. He is not arrogant or rude.” And so on. Those are hard to even come out of my mouth because they’re so far from reality. And I imagine that would be the case for so many of us if we were to substitute our name in there for love. We come to these verses and we oftentimes think that we need a little reminder. Maybe we need some relationship advice or a little tweak here and there. Actually what we need is nothing left than a whole new life and to become a new creation. We associate this chapter with a wedding ceremony and flower arrangements and Canon in D Major; whatever comes to your mind with a wedding and 1 Corinthians 13. But actually, this kind of love, it actually belongs in the category of death and resurrection. Marriage needs that kind of love for sure. We could apply everything we see from love in this chapter to marriage. But what Paul’s point is, is that the church needs this kind of love. That the church needs a death and a resurrection kind of love – death to self, death to the world, and raised to new life in Christ Jesus.
The Fullness of Love
And that’s exactly what the last few verses are talking about, verses 8 to 13. They’re talking about the fullness of love. Everything that Paul writes here about love, everything that is to happen in ministry is conditioned upon what is to come, about what lasts forever. He says in verse 8, “Love never ends.” Prophecies and tongues and inspired knowledge – they stop. In other words, ministry in the church will become unnecessary. The work which builds up and strengthens the body of Christ, one day will be perfected and the former things will pass away. And Paul uses these illustrations of a child becoming a man and seeing in a mirror verses seeing face to face. And we know what he’s saying there. It would be strange if one of the grownups in the congregation had come down to the front and sat Indian-style at Ed’s feet to listen to the children’s devotion and then went out to hear a Bible story and do a coloring sheet. You become a grownup, an adult; you mature and you put away childish things. We come to feed off the Word of God in the worship service. Maybe you’ve had the experience of you’re washing your hands in the bathroom and you’re talking to someone. You realize you’re talking with them through the mirror. Have you done that? You’ve making eye contact through the mirror. But then, you turn and you talk to them face to face. Once you talk to someone face to face there’s on going back to talking through a mirror. Real relationship has occurred face to face.
That’s sort of what Paul is saying here. The former things pass away, but love remains. “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” You see, love belongs to a different age. It’s the characteristic of the age to come. It’s the characteristic of eternal life. And the only way for these realities to be enjoyed now, the only way to have the ability to love with this kind of love, the only way is to be raised to new life in Jesus, to trust in Jesus, to be in Christ and indwelt by the Holy Spirit to live like Christ. What Paul says in 2 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians chapter 5, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” You see, only a new creation can love like this and only a new creation in Christ can love like this because this is exactly how Christ loves. And that exercise that I mentioned a few minutes ago – you substitute your name for “love” in this passage – the rest of that exercise is to go through again and substitute Christ’s name, substitute Jesus’ name for “love” in these verses. “Jesus is patient and kind. Jesus does not envy or boast. He is not arrogant or rude. He does not insist on His own way. He is not irritable or resentful. He does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.”
You see, Jesus is the definition of love. What’s best is that Jesus is patient and kind to you and to me. Jesus is love to you and to me. That’s the good news of the Gospel. He shows us perfectly that love is self-controlled and self-denying and self-giving. Because Jesus was like a lamb that was led to slaughter and yet He opened not His mouth. And Jesus did not count equality with God something to be grasped, but He emptied Himself by taking the form of a servant. He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross. Jesus is the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me. 1 John 3:16, “By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” “Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou my God would die for me? Tis mercy all immense and free, for O my God it found out me!” You see, when God’s amazing love to us in Christ Jesus finds us out, when we are loved with a mercy that is so immense and so free, then we can and ought to love others as well. That’s what gives ministry its longevity. That’s what gives ministry to one another its significance – it’s love.
And that’s what gives ministry such a powerful testimony to the watching world, to the world around us. It’s what Frances Schaeffer says is the ultimate apologetic. It’s love. It’s the love of Jesus to us and in us and through us forever. Now so what? What do we do with that? How do we apply that sort of love in our lives and into one another? Let me just give you three brief points of application. I want to look at this personally, internally within the Church, and then outwardly to our neighbors.
First is personally and to ourselves and to the cultivation of humility. You know it’s one of the fascinating things about babies. It can be a funny thing about babies if it’s not your baby! But the way that infants and toddlers, they almost immediately want to take charge. And you’ve known that to be the case. They weren’t even alive that many months ago and they already want to do it “my way” and to do it “by myself.” They’re like cute little dictators in diapers! And we’re not any better because how often do we come to worship or we go to serve others and almost immediately it becomes about ourselves? But instead, the guiding principle of the Christian, of God’s people, is “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Your name give glory.” The guiding principle of the Christian is humility – a love that is humble.
What about within the Church? How do we apply this in the Church? We can apply it in the area of gossip. I heard a Christian leader comment recently on a damaging phrase that he’s heard over and over in his life in the church. It’s, “People are saying…” or “People are saying ___________.” And either people are saying things about one another behind their backs or someone is using that phrase people are saying in order to get their way about something. Whatever the case, it falls into the category of gossip. But gossip is not kind. Gossip rejoices in wrongdoing and not in the truth. And even when gossip is true, it’s not rejoicing in the truth but it’s using the truth as a weapon to put down someone else. Gossip builds a barrier to trust. It builds a barrier to relationships and to ministry. And so love means not participating in gossip and actually going so far as to put it to a stop. That can be a difficult thing to do, but it can be a huge factor in ministry to one another in the church.
How about outwardly, how we treat our neighbor; how we speak about our neighbor. Here’s what one old Puritan writer wrote back in the 1600s. He says, “This is the epidemical disease of the present time – loved cooled and passion heated.” “The epidemical disease of the present time – love cooled and passion heated.” That was 1600s. That could just as much have been written today because how often do we see in the tone, in the language of so much of social media and on the news, and from government leaders including our president, that we see love cooled and passion heated. And the Christian should not talk that way or act that way and the Christian should not condone or excuse that sort of speech and behavior towards those who are different from us or even towards those who are opposed to us. Because how will the Gospel break down walls, how will the Gospel bring about in the church Jew and Gentile, people from every tribe and every nation, if we do not love our neighbor and love even our enemy?
And you’ve seen on cars around town, you’ve seen the bumper stickers that say, “Coexist” or “Tolerance.” And it seems as if that is almost the chief aspiration of the secular ethic – to tolerate or coexist. But is that all that great? We tolerate a toothache. We coexist with a crick in our neck. What the Christian is called to do is something much better. The Christian is called to love, to love our neighbor, to love our neighbor as ourselves; to love even those who are hard to love. And that’s not easy to do. That takes a supernatural work of God’s grace in our lives.
And so I started with the Beatles; I’ll end there too. “All you need is love” – Love for God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Love for neighbor as yourself. A love that is robust and strong and beautiful and tender. A love that is self-controlled and self-denying and self-giving. A love that is Christlike. A love that sacrifices and perseveres for the long haul. A love that lasts forever. That’s all. We can’t love like that. We can’t love like that unless the love of God is first poured out into our hearts and we come to Jesus by faith. And then when we are loved with a love that is beyond anything that we can comprehend, then we can love others beyond what we thought possible. “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God. And whoever loves, has been born of God and knows God.” Let’s pray.
Our Father, we stop and we give You thanks for the gifts of ministry that we see in every pew in this sanctuary. And we thank You for the fruit that You have brought from those things. We pray that You would continue to bless by Your Spirit, to give us a heart of love for You, a heart of love for one another, and to use the gifts that You have given for Your glory and for the good of each other, that You would be glorified, that Your name would be praised, that Your name would spread, Your praise would spread. That those who do not know You and for whom this sort of love is foreign and distant, that they would come and see the need for Christ, to have His love and to enjoy it and to revel in it for all eternity. We pray this in Jesus’ name, Amen.
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