Rewire: Love is the Greatest Thing

Sermon by David Strain on January 14, 2018

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Now do please take your Bibles in hand and turn back with me to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 12. We resume our studies in 1 Corinthians. 1 Corinthians 12, at verse 27; we’ll go through chapter 13. You will remember that Paul has been dealing with the problem of divisions at Corinth and in the second half of chapter 12 he is particularly concerned about the kind of divisions that have developed over spiritual gifts. Some at Corinth, tongue-speakers and others, consider themselves, because of the gifts they had, to be super-spiritual and they were looking down on others. Which led to some at Corinth saying, “Because I don’t have the same gifts as you, I don’t belong in the body. Maybe I should go somewhere else,” and others at Corinth saying, “Because I have these gifts, I don’t need you. Maybe you should go somewhere else.” And Paul, you will remember, developed the metaphor of the human body to show how, in fact, regardless of the gifts God has given to you, every member, though different and diverse, belongs together in the body that the body may be one and function as it ought. Every member is indispensable, and so we are to celebrate and cherish both our unity and our diversity in fellowship with Christ. That was last time.


We didn’t deal with verses 27 through 31 largely because this is a passage that functions as a bit of a bridge. Paul is about to go on in chapter 14 to deal with those spiritual gifts in more detail. And in 27 through 31, he is setting up that discussion. You will notice as you scan over it in verse 28 that he lists a number of spiritual gifts and he ranks them; he places them in order. First, there are apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, then helping, administrating various kinds of tongues. Interestingly, the Corinthians seem to particularly value tongue-speaking and saw that as a sign of their unique, privileged status. Well, Paul puts it at the bottom of the list as a sort of preemptory poke in the eye that he's going to go on and deal with in much more detail in chapter 14. 


And he asks some rhetorical questions there in 29. “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Can all interpret?” The Greek form of those questions anticipates a negative answer. He’s asking something like, “We don’t all speak in tongues, do we? We’re not all apostles, are we? Of course not! And yet, these different gifts have their role, their place, their part to play in the unity of the body.” And still, however, he has an exhortation. Verse 31, “Earnestly desire the best gifts.” Some are more edifying and useful for the whole church than others. In chapter 14 he’s going to take up the que that he has put in place in verse 31 and answer the question, “Which are the best gifts? How do we know which ones to value and why?” That’s chapter 14. Before he can deal with that and answer those questions, there’s a preliminary matter that is vital to understand and to grasp that he has to put in place first; that’s what chapter 13 is about.

You know on your phone, on your laptop, on your tablet, you get these annoying popups all the time. You know what I’m talking about? Saying things like there’s a new operating system and asking you to download the new operating system. These things drive me crazy. I’m a little scarred by them, you can tell; trauma! But, if you don’t download the newest operating system, everything starts slowing down so you can’t keep avoiding it. And apps won’t work; you may spend a fortune on a program and it requires the latest operating system. Until you have it, it’s just not going to work. Love, Paul is going to teach us, is “the more excellent way.” That’s how he puts it in verse 31. It is like an operating system that we must have installed in our Christian lives, without which spiritual gifts will always, always malfunction. Love is the operating system that must be installed in your Christian life, without which spiritual gifts will always malfunction. And so chapter 13 seeks to answer the question, “Why does love matter so very much? Why does love matter so very much?”


Before we seek to answer that question or see how Paul answers that question and read the passage, we’re going to pause first of all to pray. Let’s pray together.


O Lord, before us now is Your holy Word. Please, will You take it up and apply it to our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit so that Jesus might be magnified, our sin crucified, and our likeness to our Savior furthered, for the glory of Your name. Amen.


1 Corinthians chapter 13 at verse 1. This is the Word of God:


“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.”


Amen, and we praise God for His holy Word.


Here is the more excellent way – chapter 13, the way of love. It’s the operating system we must have downloaded and installed and running on the desktop of our Christian lives if the program and the apps, if the spiritual gifts, if we are going to make any difference, if these spiritual gifts are not going to malfunction in our lives. And so Paul wants us to understand why love matters so very much, why it serves this critical function in our Christian lives. And he has three answers to that question. First of all, he will show us in verses 1 to 3 love matters because without it, nothing else will. Love matters because, without it, nothing else will. Secondly, love matters, verses 4 to 7, because love makes us like Christ. And thirdly, love matters, verses 8 to 13, because love lasts forever. Love lasts forever.


Nothing Matters Without Love

Look at verses 1 to 3 with me first of all. Love matters because, without it, nothing else will. Some of the Corinthians thought that their spiritual gift made them spiritual people, or special people, and they were looking down on others. And Paul is taking them to task in these verses. He's using exaggeration. I don't know if you noticed it as we read it together. There is some hyperbole here. It's a way to short of verbally smack them upside the head, I suppose; help them understand that they are way off base. So he starts by listing spiritual gifts that he does, in fact, possess and use in his own Christian life. He spoke in tongues. Chapter 14 verse 8 says, “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you;” chapter 14 verse 18 rather. He spoke in tongues. He had the gift of prophecy. He was given insight into mysteries. He was the recipient of inspired knowledge. It is an apostle, after all. He had extraordinary faith that he might be sustained in the midst of the costliest trials of his apostolic ministry. He had indeed left everything, counted it all rubbish and given it all up, for the sake of Christ.


And yet, he says, “suppose I had all of this to the fullest degree imaginable. Suppose I spoke not only the tongues of men” – which by the way which is what the gift of tongues is in the New Testament; it is human languages unlearned by the speaker. “Suppose I had the gift not only of human languages but suppose I spoke also in the tongues of angels.” He’s not saying anyone actually can speak the tongues of angels or that's what tongues is. He's saying, "Even if I were to go to that extreme and had a gift of such magnitude that I can speak angelic languages too, suppose, suppose I had the gift of prophecy to such an extent that I could fathom all mysteries and all knowledge. Suppose I did not only surrender everything in my life for the sake of the Gospel but went so far into such an extreme as to become a martyr for the cause and to give up my body to be burned. Suppose I did all of this if it were not animated and motivated and driven by love for others. What use would it really be?" The Spirit-given ability to speak in human languages, Paul says, even the hypothetical ability to speak angelic tongues, would be as worthless and as empty, verse 1, as a noisy gong; more literally, a noisy brass. 


The Corinthians were famous for the production of brass. They had proprietary, proprietary technique for making brass. This is what they did; this was their industry. So there's a noisy brass or a clanging cymbal, probably alluding to the cacophony that was produced in the temples with these instruments in the pagan temples at Corinth. He's saying to them, "No matter the power and the drama, no matter how spectacular your gifts, how impressive they may be, they are as worthless even as spiritually dangerous to you as that chaotic den, that racket that the pagans make when they worship, if it is not driven, if your gifts are not used, harnessed by love for one another. “If I have the gift of prophecy, if I have the gift of faith so as to move mountains, and have not love” – notice this; he says, “I am nothing.” The Corinthians thought they were really something because of their gifts. But even if you were to express and make use of these gifts in the most impressive manner conceivable, if it’s not love-driven, however much you think they make you look good, you are in fact nothing.


Suppose I give everything up. Jesus, remember, said to us we are “not to store up treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in and steal.” We are to “store up treasures in heaven.” It seems like some in Corinth may have misunderstood and thought that simply by becoming an aesthetic and living a life of poverty that their radical sacrifice in itself made them extra special and spiritually more advanced than others. Paul says it's possible to do all of that, it's possible even to die a martyr's death, and gain nothing; no treasure stored up in heaven, even though you've given all your treasures up on earth, if love is not the engine that drives your sacrifice. It is a constant battle that we all must fight, isn't it? Thinking that because of our status, our privileges, our reputation, our gifts, our ministry, because of something that we do, that we must, therefore, be important and "You must give place to me. I am superior, after all; a cut above." That attitude, Paul is teaching us here, really stinks. It really stinks. It is about as useful as a crashing symbol. The only thing it will ever do effectively is give people around you a terrible headache. Right? "You think you're a big shot," Paul says to the Corinthians, "if love does not shape your life and work you are nothing and you gain nothing."


Did you notice how Paul has alluded a few times to the words of Jesus in these opening verses? He speaks about having all faith so as to remove mountains. Jesus said something very similar in Mark 11:23. He speaks about giving away all that he has in Mark 10:21. Jesus' words to the rich young ruler were precisely to that effect. He was to give up all he had, sell it, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow Jesus. Even the language of giving your body up to be burned echoes language used of how Jesus gives Himself up to the cross. Paul's message, I think, is clear. He's saying it is even possible to conform your life externally to the pattern and to the commands of Jesus Christ and gain nothing, and be nothing, and it all be for nothing if love is not at the heart. Why does love matter? Because without it, nothing else does. "Oh sure, he's not very loving, but boy can he preach!" "Okay, she's not very loving, but you should see her gift of hospitality!" "Alright, I'll concede that he's not very loving, but man, he can pray!" But without love, however impressive our gifts, they will merely be, only ever be liabilities to us and to others. Love matters because, without it, nothing else will.


Love Makes Us Like Christ

Then secondly, love matters, Paul says, because love makes us like Christ. Love makes us like Christ. Look at verses 4 to 7. He describes love in terms of what it is and what it is not; what it does and does not do. And so he begins with two positive assertions. Verse 4, “Love is patient.” More than a sort of stoic, passive endurance, the word is literally, “long burning.” Love is long burning. Love, we might paraphrase, has a long fuse. Do you have a long fuse? Love is patient. Then he says, “Love is kind.” We’ll come back to the word he uses for kindness in a few moments. It’s important. Love is kind. Love is warm and tender-hearted towards one another.


Eight Negatives

And then there are eight negatives. Do you see them? Eight things love doesn’t do or isn’t. “Love is not envious or boastful, arrogant or rude; does not insist on its own way.” That stings a little, doesn’t it? “It is not irritable or resentful; does not rejoice at wrongdoing.” It doesn’t think sin is entertaining. Almost certainly, these are not a random list of vices. These are, rather, descriptors of problems Paul has already found in the Corinthians. HE’s actually addressed some of it so far in the letter. He deals with envy in chapter 3 verse 3, boasting in chapter 4 verse 7, arrogance in chapter 8 verse 1. The Corinthians are supposed to see in these negative, these sinful habits and behaviors, what love is not, they’re meant to see there themselves silhouetted. I wonder if you see some of yourself silhouetted in Paul’s description.


Five Positives

Then there are five more positives about love in verses 6 and 7. Look at verses 6 and 7. “Love rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, love believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” This whole passage is really, I think, worth memorizing and using and reciting. If that’s too much for you, you might just memorize verses 6 and 7. I’ve found them especially useful when you feel yourself to be the butt of gossip and malicious talk. What do you do when the rumormongers have wounded you? What do you do when other people rush to judgments and think the worst about you? You preach 1 Corinthians chapter 13 verses 6 and 7 to yourself and you say, in the face of self-pity and defensiveness and the instinct to strike back, you say to your wounded heart, “Love rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things. Love believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” It’s hard to return fire when “Love bears all things” is your guiding principle.


Love as a Person

And did you see how Paul speaks about love almost as though love were a person? A person. Love is the one who does this or does not do that. “Love is patient. Love is kind. Love does not envy, does not boast.” Love does these things. He speaks about love like it’s a person because it is! Paul has been working, we’ve seen already, with the words and the works of Jesus throughout this passage. One commentator even points out how in pagan society there was a confusion about the title for Jesus, which in Greek is “Christos” – C-h-r-i-s-t-o-s – and the word for “kindness” or “kind,” which is “chrestos,” – c-h-r-e-s-t-o-s. So that in Rome, AD 49, when the emperor Claudius expelled the Jews, he did so because, Suetonius says, because of “disturbances over chrestos.” Now, there are no disturbances over kindness; nobody has a riot because someone was kind to them. No, he’s talking about Christ.


Paul is deliberately playing with that pun, that play-on-words the Corinthians knew about, the confusion in society, as though to signal to them, "Who am I really talking about here as I describe what love is and is not like? I'm talking about Jesus Christ." If the Corinthians were to find in the negative vices that love refrains from falling into a mirror of themselves, when we step back and see this whole description of love, we are meant to see a wonderful pen portrait of the character of Jesus. Where do you get love like this from? How will you begin to love like this? You do it by realizing that you have first been loved like this by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.


You remember Watts’ marvelous hymn of celebration and praise to the Lord Jesus for the cross where he concludes, “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small! Love so amazing, so divine, demands my heart, my soul, my all!” When you see how much you’ve been loved and with what kind of love you have been loved, when you see what has been done for you in Jesus who loved you and gave Himself for you, you will find your heart beginning to melt and you will begin to love because you have first been loved. You get love like this by becoming the recipient of the love of the Lord Jesus Christ like this. Maybe that our lovelessness reveals how little we dwell on the lovingkindness of God for us in Jesus, how little we understand it; how far we’ve wandered from sight of the cross. If you want to love like this, that’s where you start. Go back to the cross, back to Christ crucified; see how much you are loved and you will begin to love in return.


Love Lasts Forever

Love matters because, without it, nothing else does. Love matters because it makes us like Jesus. We begin to love in a way that reflects the character of His love for us. And then finally, love matters because love lasts forever. That's what Paul says directly in verse 8, isn't it? Do you see it there in verse 8? "Love never ends." Love lasts forever. Love never ends. He uses a couple of illustrations to explain what he means. He wants the Corinthians to understand, these Corinthians who were boasting in their great and extraordinary giftedness, "Your gifts are temporary and partial. Stop putting so much store on your gifts. Stop trying to leverage your special gifts to make other people think you are a special person. Understand that gifts are all disappearing, but love never ends."


Full Maturity and a Clear Picture

Then he uses two illustrations to show us what he means. The first, in verses 10 and 11, is the illustration of a child growing up into maturity. Do you see that in verses 10 and 11 with maturity? We leave behind foolish and childish ways. A day is coming when at last we will have attained full maturity and partial, temporary gifts really won’t matter anymore. Then, verse 12, he says gifts work like looking in a mirror. Mirrors in those days were made from hammered out metal, polished to a fine shine, so they really did give a distorted reflection. They were not great at giving a clear picture. So you look in a mirror that the Corinthians would have seen, it would have been a pretty patchy and unclear reflection you would have seen. So he’s saying, “Here, our knowledge of God, ourselves, the world, is real, true, but incomplete and imperfect. But one day, we won’t deal with reflections anymore. It will be like being face to face at last because we will be, in fact, face to face with our glorious Savior.” Ultimate reality, not reflected, seen in the reflection of the Word, but seen face to face in the nearer presence of our Savior. Now, he says, we know in part. Then, we will know fully, even as we are now known. What we have here is rich and sweet. It’s a kind gift of God. But it is temporary and partial. We ought not to boast in it when the real thing is still to come. Love endures, lasts, forever.


Don’t make more of gifts than gifts deserve because you want to be made more of than you deserve. That’s what Paul is saying. The day is coming, Jesus is coming, heaven is coming when gifts will be redundant and so they will cease. But, verse 13, “faith, hope, and love, these three will abide. And the greatest of these is love.” Love is the master grace. Faith works by love. Love hopes all things. Love is the master grace. Love is the image of Jesus formed in us. Love makes us fit for heaven; the world of love. To be with Christ forever, the King of love. Love lasts forever.


Brothers and sisters, we are about to gather at the Lord’s Table, and here in the bread and the wine are the emblems of Christ’s love, His self-giving at the cross. And we come, we come to the table hungry and thirsty because we are expressing our need still of that love. But we are also called, as we come to the Lord’s Table, to turn from our lovelessness toward one another. Here we’re expressing more than our individual love for Jesus. Here at the family table, we are to express our love, our commitment to loving those Jesus loves. Maybe, maybe you need to take time to acknowledge the presence of lovelessness towards some brothers and sisters around you, to confess your sin, to embrace anew the love of Christ for you before you’re ready to come to this table. Maybe you’ve been battling mightily to love, when loving the unlovely is hard. Come, come and eat the bread and drink the wine. Remember the lovingkindness of Christ our Savior who loved you and gave Himself to the cross for you; who loves you still. Come, repenting and trusting, and crying out for fresh grace to love. Come, come and have your love renewed. Come to the table, believer in Jesus, and have your love renewed, because without love nothing else matters. It is love that makes us like Christ and love that lasts forever.


Let’s pray together.


O Lord, we do come to You to confess our lovelessness, our distortions of love – the way we love ourselves and wound others. We come to You asking You please to teach us anew how deeply, how profoundly we have been loved by the Lord Jesus who loved us and gave Himself for us. As we come to the table, would You bring us to the end of ourselves and bring us to Him? Melt our hearts with His love and kindle in our hearts love for one another that we might indeed be more like Him, and that by our love all the world may know that we are His disciples. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.

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